Parliament rejects Baroness Stowell for Charity Commission job. Govt ignores them.

Some of you sharper eyed readers (clue – that’s all of you) will remember I wrote about the background to the incoming Charity Commission chair, Baroness Tina Stowell a couple of weeks ago. 

Shortly after that article, it was revealed that the Government had rejected a candidate with a very strong background in the Charity Sector and no political affiliations. Former Charity Commission CEO Andrew Hind wrote this on Civil Society:




So, given what we already know about former charities minister Rob Wilson being lined up for the job, there have been two attempts by the Government to instal political appointees to lead the Charity Regulator, while one strong apolitical candidate has been rejected.

Preferred candidate Baroness Stowell was interviewed by the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee yesterday. If you want to, you can watch it here . I have watched it – and I would advise you not to. It’s a painful affair. You would imagine that the former leader of the House of Lords would be a good performer. Either she was having a very bad day, or she was totally unprepared for the interview, or knew nothing about the subject, or quite possibly all three.

Baroness Stowell came across as someone who knew very little, or perhaps just nothing at all, about the sector. Her answers were evasive in the extreme and she repeated herself with many hesitations. When the transcript is published it is likely to be pretty short, once all the “errs” “ahs” and “you knows” are removed.

But there were some useful nuggets to be gleaned from the dross. Stowell confirmed that Lord Ashcroft had asked her to join the board of Crimestoppers and his company Impellam. When questioned about a possible conflict of interest by Rebecca Pow, she claimed that being on the board of a company that makes its profits from charging the public sector exorbitantly for temporary staff, would somehow give her insights into the Charity Sector, because she was very interested in the relationship between people and jobs.” Having offered to resign from her very brief charity trustee-ships and to resign (again) from the Tory party, she refused to accept she might need to leave this presumably well remunerated role with her friend Lord Ashcroft.

The Select Committee questioned her closely on her total lack of experience in the sector, her political affiliations and the impression, at the very least, that she was a political appointee. They noted her voting record, which had included support for the Charity Gagging law. But she refused to accept that the gagging law had had any effect on charity work. This is despite all the evidence that it has had and continues to have a significant effect.

At one point the Baroness claimed that she had had no contact with ministers during the application process – and indeed in any normal job application, informal discussions with the people ultimately deciding  whether you get the job or not, are very much frowned upon. This is especially true of such a sensitive appointment.

Near the end of the interview however, she admitted that she had had an informal conversation with the Secretary of State at DCMS at the time, Karen Bradley. Stowell explained that she had been having an informal conversation with Bradley “about something else” when she casually asked what was happening with the Charity Commission chair appointment and Bradley said the decision had not been made. Stowell refused to divulge what the something else was. To say this undermines Stowell’s suggestion that she was a “political outsider” would be the understatement of the year.

The Select Committee agreed unanimously that they would write to the new CMS Secretary of State Matt Hancock recommending he rejected Baroness Stowell for the job. The letter is uncompromising and damning in its criticism of the process that led to Baroness Stowell appearing before them. The Secretary of State may well choose to ignore the Committee’s view (and there are already reports that he plans to do just that), but the reality is that the damage has already been done. Who in the Charity Sector is now going to support this appointment.

One other thing that Stowell mentioned was also enlightening. As well as her trustee role with Ashcroft’s Crimestoppers charity and his outsourcing business Impellam, Stowell took on a trustee role with a small charity called the Transformation Trust, as I mentioned in my previous post. The Committee asked how this had come about. Stowell explained that she had been approached about it by a mutual friend of hers and the Trust’s chief exec Amy Leonard. By strange coincidence, Amy Leonard was press officer for the New Schools Network charity, which promotes that most political of educational initiatives, the Free Schools project. Leonard had also worked for the Compass Education Trust – a free schools academy set up by Peter Wilkinson, the man who vowed to break the RMT during the Southern Rail crisis. While the Transformation Trust may be doing good work, delivering public benefit, its political links raise further questions for Stowell to answer, should she be given the job.

UPDATE: Secretary of State at CMS Matt Hancock has given Baroness Stowell his full backing this morning.





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Where now for UK Agriculture?

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union has created a huge set of risks and threats, but also some opportunities. One opportunity is to change the course of farming policy and practice. For 40 years the UK was subject to rules on how farmers were paid – rules decided in Brussels (though greatly influenced by UK farming industry lobbyists such as the National Farmers Union). These rules collectively became known as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP for short). The original intention of that policy was to pay secret war reparations, by siphoning money from German industry to French farmers. You can read more about the Common Agricultural Policy and how it helped wipe wildlife, history and communities from the British countryside, in the People Need Nature report “A Pebble in the Pond.”


Around £3 Billion a year of farm subsidies are currently paid out to UK farmers, with large landowners getting the lion’s share. Small farmers with less than 5ha of farmland are entirely excluded from this scheme.


As we leave the EU a new UK Agricultural Policy will be needed – but not yet. The transition period, which is set to run from April 2019 to December 2020 – or the “18 months of chaos”, as I predict it will become known, will likely see the UK remain inside the CAP. Environment Secretary Michael Gove has indicated that during this time he will introduce a cap on the total payment made to each farmer. This cap could be at around £100,000 a year, which sounds like a lot of money (and it is.) Over the following few years, the new UK Agricultural Policy – let’s call it a UKAP, will be introduced. This is where it gets interesting.


Secretary of State Gove has indicated time and again that he wants the new approach to be based on a principle that public money should only be used to pay for public benefits – or, more specifically public goods, in the technical language if economics. Growing food in and of itself is not a public good, because any food grown is sold on the market – that makes it a private good. Public goods include clean air, healthy soil, wildlife, flood prevention and any actions taken to limit the impact of climate change, access to the countryside, among many others. Some suggest that “rural vitality” is a public good, which means supporting deeply rural farming communities that would otherwise disappear, without public support – and upland hill farms are the most often cited example.


This is radical departure from the current system, which pays around £200 per hectare per annum to landowners, regardless of whether they grow food or not (within a set of loose rules designed to ensure that they do not do anything too damaging to the environment.) Needless to say the farmers, notably through their main representative the NFU, are not happy about this. But the winds of change are blowing and it seems likely that a change to “public goods for public money” is going to happen. If all £3 Billion a year of the current subsidy were paid to landowners to deliver public goods, in theory wildlife could be restored, flooding could be avoid, there would be much more access, struggling rural communities could thrive, and so on. But of course with the anticipated shock to the economy that even the softest Brexit will create, the Treasury is already looking to claw back that money.


While this looks like very good news for nature, a far larger risk threatens to pull in the opposite direction – that is the radical change to the way the UK trades with the rest of the world. Losing our place in the Single Market and Customs Union threatens UK farmers in multiple ways. A flood of cheap food imports (produced in some cases at much lower standards of hygiene, safety environmental impact or animal welfare) will undermine domestic food producers sending them out of business. Those who depend on exports to survive will also suffer especially those which export mainly into the EU (sheep and beef farmers.) Selling pork or innovative jam to China will in no way compensate for the loss of access to local markets.


A much more sensible approach might be to follow what our French neighbours are doing – requiring all publicly funded bodies (schools, hospitals, care homes etc) to procure half of their food from organic or local sources, by 2022.

The next 6 months is probably going to be the most exciting time to be involved in shaping agriculture and food policy in the past 70 years. I will be keeping you regularly updated on progress.

this post first appeared in my No Tern Unstoned column for Lush Times.


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The rise of ChariTina – and why she will be the perfect Charity Commission chair

In last week’s No Tern Unstoned Column (which you can find here) I explored the double standards operating in the murky world of philanthrocapitalism. To boil it down for you, the article explores how charitable giving (through misogny-fests like the President’s Club) buys political influence, but charities are gagged from speaking up (to Government or the public) on behalf of the err public interest for which they exist.

On the same day the article was published,  the Government announced its preferred candidate for the new chair of the charity regulator, the Charity Commission. You may recall the outgoing chair was the political appointment William Shawcross, who was widely known as a Neocon before he took up the post. He also brought in such luminaries as Professor Gwithian Prins (of the private University of Buckingham) who advises the GWPF (now renamed the Global Warming Propaganda Front).

The Government had wanted to install former Charities Minister Rob Wilson in the post (I guess they thought he knew something about charities), after he lost his seat in the 2017 General Election. This move was rumbled, so they abandoned that plan.  Shawcross was persuaded to stay on a bit longer while they looked for someone else. Who could it be? Someone with a deep knowledge and experience of the Charity Sector? Someone who understands what charities are for, why they are so important; and the pressure that is being applied to them by this Government?

Step forward Baroness Tina Stowell, former Leader of the House of Lords under David Cameron. ChariTina as I will call her, must be perfectly suited to the job. She had a civil service career – in the MoD, US Embassy, and a couple of years in TV after working in John Major’s Number 10 Press Office (that must have been fun – Back to Basics and all that). After Major’s defeat in 97 she joined William Hague’s team as deputy chief of staff. It was during her short time in Hague’s top team, that Michael Ashcroft was given his peerage – here’s the fascinating story of how Hague managed to persuade a very sceptical Tony Blair – and what role did Tina Stowell play? Ashcroft had wanted to be styled Lord Ashcroft of Belize. Sadly this was turned down (they thought it was a joke – they’re not laughing now.)

We’ll return to Lord Ashcroft of Belize later.

When Hague’s leadership sunk without trace, Stowell joined the BBC upper echelons for 10 years, eventually becoming Head of Corporate Affairs. She then set up a lobbying firm Tina Stowell Associates – almost no trace of which still exists on the web. Shortly after that ChariTina got her own peerage (as a Tory peer – she could just as easily have been a cross-bencher) when Cameron became PM and she made her way through the Lords to become its Leader, a post from which she retired after the Referendum.

So far, so not very charity-ee, for ChariTina.

What’s she been doing since then, I hear you ask. Has she thrown herself into the world of charities, taking on trustee-ships of large influential charities, as so many others in her position are liable to do. Err no. It’s unfortunate that the Charity Commission website does not enable searches by Trustee – as Companies House does for company directors. Perhaps this is something ChariTina can address. Still, looking at Companies House, I found she had taken up two charity Trustee posts. The first is with the Crimestoppers Trust. This is a medium size charity, income about £5M. Stowell joined the Trustee board in July 2017, according to Companies House. Strangely, the Charity Commission hasn’t got round to updating Crimestoppers details on its own website. Either that, or the Charity hasn’t got round to telling the Charity Commission that it has a new Trustee (who’s about to become its Chair). I don’t know if it’s a crime not to inform the Commission of a change in Trustees. Perhaps I should phone Crimestoppers.You may not be surprised to discover that the chair of the Crimestoppers Trust is that collector of other people’s Victoria Crosses and massive Tory Party donor, yes it’s Lord Ashcroft of Belize. Just a coincidence, I’m sure.

Even more recently, on 1st January this year (and presumably after she applied for the job with the Charity Commission) ChariTina joined the Trustee board of The Transformation Trust. This much smaller charity (turnover £800k) helps school children, often from deprived backgrounds, to improve the chances of them getting a job, by acting as a sort of broker, taking funding from large corporates (and others like the Royal Navy) and organising out of school activities, work placements and the like. The existing board is filled with the Great and the Good, although I did also notice Rachel Wolf is a Trustee. Wolf was funded by Cameron to set up the New Schools Network, of which the unsavoury eugenics enthusiast and social media misogynist Toby Young is still Chief Exec (at the time of writing.)  Wolf was a former advisor to Cameron and Gove, and more recently helped set up a new member of the right wing thinktank-ocracy – Parents and Teachers for Excellence.

On this cursory search ChariTina’s charitable credentials seem even thinner than her predecessor’s. One other clue also surfaced when I was looking for evidence as to why Stowell would be the best person for this vital job. She holds a couple of company directorships. One is with ABTA limited – the organisation that represents travel agents. No, not this one. The other one. The other Directorship is with a company called Impellam. Impellam is an outsourcing company, just like Carillion. Impellam provides casual staff to public sector organisations – Impellam calls itself the “second largest staffing business in the UK.” It earns £2Bn a year from providing temps – Supply Teachers, Agency Nurses, Locum Doctors etc. All these staff are filling spaces in the public sector – spaces that have been created by the er policies of the Government (more here). Who could possibly be behind this very successful business that seems to be so closely aligned to the Government?

YES! It’s our old friend, Lord Ashcroft of Belize. He owns Impellam. I expect ChariTina’s experience of the charity sector will be helpful in increasing Impellam’s profits.

There we have it.

Baroness Stowell’s position as preferred candidate for Charity Commission chair is obviously down to her having been a charity Trustee of two charities for a combined total 6 whole months. It can have absolutely nothing to do with the fact that she’s a Tory Peer or has close links with Tory party funder and Eminence Grise Lord Ashcroft.


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What they say….and what they do.

For the past 84 years, January, in the farming calendar, has seen the Great and the Good gather together for the Oxford Farming Conference. For the past 9 years, those Great and the Good have been challenged, heckled, and generally ribbed by the very different group of farmers, growers and rabble-rousers who meet down the road, at the Oxford Real Farming Conference. I was lucky enough to go along this year, on behalf of Lush Times.

Amongst the many fascinating talks and discussions – all (as far as I could tell) exploring what happens to the future of farming after Brexit – I was particularly taken by a session on land taxation. This pitted Country Landowners Association Policy chief Chris Price against Green MEP Molly Scott-Cato. This was also the only event at the Conference where singing was obligatory – led by the inspirational Robin Grey of Three Acres and Cow. Elsewhere, conference goers enjoyed hearing about how Beavers have been introduced to farmland in Cornwall, to reduce flooding in the nearby village of Ladock; and the importance of the Microbiome (all of the microbes living in one place) in the Soil, in farm animals and inside us.

Perhaps the most extraordinary event of this year’s conference was that Environment Secretary Michael Gove came along, for a Question and Answer Session with green Tory MP Zac Goldsmith (whose uncle founded The Ecologist magazine.) Mr Gove spoke eloquently, persuasively. The sometimes rapturous applause that met his pronouncements, was suggestive of a religious revivalist meeting. There was almost no heckling, which was in itself extraordinary. He was also very adept at deflecting awkward questions from the floor: I asked how the aspects of nature which cannot be given a monetary value by the Natural Capital Accounting approach would be valued and protected. He responded by quoting Monty Python, before imploring everyone to take responsibility for protecting nature. We can all do our bit.


This message was repeated in the 25 Year Plan for Nature launched last week (which I wrote about in last week’s Column.) We can all do our bit. Just yesterday the Prime Minister tweeted, asking

“what will you do to cut down avoidable plastic waste?”






While on the one hand Michael Gove accepts that the market cannot provide all the solutions to society’s needs or ills, the suggestion appears to be, that, where the market cannot provide, it our own responsibility to take action. And of course this is true, up to a point. One particularly effective organisation working to help reduce waste is WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme). This started out life in 2000 as a publicly funded campaign, working to reduce waste. In 2014 it became a Charity. Westminster Government funding has been cut (though Welsh Government funding has increased) and now 15% of its workforce is going to be axed. While the Government talks a good talk on reducing plastic waste, it cuts funding for the very organisation created, by Government, to lead that campaign.


The Hen Harrier may not be threatened by plastic waste, but it is on the very edge of extinction in England. This is due to its persecution at the hands of game-keepers on upland private estates managed for Driven Grouse-shooting. This is not something where we can all do our bit, as Driven Grouse-shooting takes places on private land, by individuals paying a great deal of money for the dubious pleasure.


Campaigners have repeatedly pointed out that the single most effective way of preventing these beautiful birds from being wiped out in England, is to enforce the wildlife crime laws. But no. Instead, the Government has decided to licence the removal, from Grouse Moors, of Hen Harrier chicks. They will then be reared in captivity, before being released somewhere else. Presumably that somewhere else will be a place where they are less likely to be shot, snared or poisoned – perhaps on an RSPB nature reserve? Except the RSPB has condemned the proposal. And it’s easy to see why.


Natural England, the Government’s wildlife experts, suggest that Brood Management (as it is known) is good because it will


“reduce hen harrier predation of grouse chicks on driven grouse moors, leading to an improvement in the conservation status of hen harrier.”


This is a euphemism for “if they don’t eat the grouse, they won’t be killed.”


The 25 Year Environment Plan fails to mention the fact that the Hen Harrier is on the brink of extinction, thanks to wildlife crime. Instead it suggests that Hen Harriers need more new habitat (when they have plenty already) and that re-introductions (returning the bird to areas where it has become extinct) are the answer. This is called displacement activity. Rather than tackle the difficult problem of wildlife crime on estates owned by the immensely wealthy, alternatives are put forward which are unnecessary and a distraction.


What do about plastic waste and the plight of the Hen Harrier might not seem like they have any similarities. But they both illustrate the inherent risks of talking a very good, while doing the precise opposite. This is exactly the sort of thing which made the Government’s announcement yesterday, that it was setting up a unit to counter fake news, so risible.

But if Michael Gove really wants to leave a political legacy from his time at Defra – that he shifted the debate about how important the environment is to everyone – that he took action – then he will need to resolve these dissonances, and fast.


first published on Lush Times, No Tern Unstoned. with a few updates


Posted in 25 year environment plan, Hen Harriers, Lush Times, Michael Gove, No Tern Unstoned | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Guest Blog: Soil Association response to 25 Year Environment Plan

A guest blog today from Laura MacKenzie, Head of Policy (farming and land-use) at the Soil Association.



Soil at heart of 25 year environment plan

Last week, the Prime Minister gave her first major speech on the environment, marking the publication of the long-awaited 25 Year Environment Plan. Soil Association chief executive Helen Browning was at the launch at the London Wetland Centre, alongside other environmental leaders.

Over recent months, the Soil Association has put forward proposals to government on what the 25 Year Environment Plan should contain when it comes to food and farming – to meet the objective of protecting and enhancing the natural environment for the next generation.

We’re pleased to see that the 151-page Plan tackles some important food and farming issues – including the vital need to restore soil health, reduce pesticide use, deliver the highest levels of animal welfare and restore farmland biodiversity. However, it lacks a sense of urgency, especially on climate change, and there’s still a lack of detail and too few practical or new measures that would turn green aspirations into on-the-ground action.

Overall, we’re not yet convinced that the Government has understood the need for fundamental shifts in the food and farming system if we’re to effectively protect and restore our precious natural environment. There’s no mention of agroecological farming systems, such as organic, even though they exemplify many of the agricultural practices and deliver many of the environmental outcomes described in the Plan. The Government urgently needs to rectify this in the forthcoming command paper on the Agriculture Bill.

Here, we take a look at four key issues that were covered to a greater or lesser extent:

  1. Soil health

Last year, Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, and Farming Minister, George Eustice, both promised to put soil health at the heart of the 25 Year Environment Plan. How does today’s publication measure up? Whilst we heard no mention of soil from the Prime Minister, the Plan itself contains 57 references to soil.

It sets out the Government’s ambition to improve the approach to soil management and restates the commitment to all of England’s soils being ‘managed sustainably’ by 2030. The actions intended to achieve this are: updating guidance for farmers, investing £200,000 in developing and testing soil health metrics, and research to better understand how soil health supports wider environmental goals.

This is a start, but ignores the fact that we know what action must be taken to save soils, and how effectively to monitor soil health. We want the Government to start that monitoring right away, and that was a key ask of the Save our Soils campaign. But there’s further to go, for example, including soil organic matter in the new mandatory soil testing rules, and fully recognising the contribution that more organic farming would make to the restoration of the UK’s precious agricultural soils.

Another focus of the Save our Soils campaign, which we were the first to draw political attention to, was the huge greenhouse gas emissions from lowland agricultural peat soils. This has been picked up in the 25 Year Environment Plan, which states:

“Although our drained lowland peatland makes up only a small proportion of the agricultural land in England, these are among our most fertile soils and play an important part in the nation’s food supply. Conventional agricultural production using current techniques on drained peatland is, however, inherently unsustainable. In view of this, we intend to create and deliver a new ambitious framework for peat restoration in England.”

This recognition that ‘conventional agricultural production’ is unsustainable in areas like the East Anglian Fens is really welcome, and we welcome this ground-breaking announcement and the determination to create a framework for future action.

  1. Trees

Tree planting is a key theme of the Plan – and we’re pleased that encouraging more trees on farms is part of the plan. Agroforestry is when trees are integrated into farming systems and is attracting major interest from farmers and foresters alike, because of the wide range of benefits that it can deliver in areas such as soil health, farm animal welfare, climate resilience, flood alleviation, and productivity.

The Plan states:

“Through new approaches to environmental land management we will support extra woodland creation, incentivising more landowners and farmers to plant trees on their land, including for agroforestry and bio-energy production purposes.

And there’s a commitment to:

“Designing a new woodland creation grant scheme, involving landowners, farmers and key forestry stakeholders in the process. We want landowners to plant trees on their marginal land, while encouraging agroforestry.”

Agroforestry is another area where the forthcoming command paper, which will set out detailed proposals for the Agriculture Bill, should provide more detail.

With forestry being a major part of the Soil Association’s wider work, we’re pleased to see the Plan go some way to recognising the positive role of trees in many areas, for example: wildlife habitat, adapting to and mitigating climate change, water management, landscape enhancement, alternatives to plastic packaging, and a sustainable raw material for everything from toilet paper to timber framed houses.

  1. Schools and farms

One of the welcome announcements in the Plan is a new scheme to help children engage with the environment though the Nature Friendly Schools programme and environmental school visits. Whilst this is welcome, it’ll be a huge missed opportunity if children are taught only to associate nature with nature reserves -rather than with our farmed countryside. Growing food, and visiting farms, are both proven ways to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables that children eat; in this way, combining nature with agriculture could achieve greater benefits, including for public health.

Food for Life farm visits have shown how valuable it is to let children experience a real working farm – to reconnect them with where food comes from, and will provide them with a valuable and enjoyable educational experience and lasting memories.

As the plan itself recognises:

“Farms in both rural and urban locations host groups of school children and share their knowledge about the environment and where food comes from. Some health professionals have adopted a practice known as ‘green prescribing’, a type of social prescribing where nature-based interventions are used to treat people with health conditions. Examples of interventions include gardening, conservation, care farms and green gyms.”

The forthcoming Agriculture Bill must do more to support farmers to farm for nature as well as food, including through more organic farming, and support the aims of the education sector, including by ensuring more children have an opportunity to stick their hands in the soil.

  1. Pesticides

The Plan restates the Government’s intention to ban bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides, stating that:

“the UK supports further restrictions on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides because of the growing weight of scientific evidence they are harmful to bees and other pollinators. Unless the scientific evidence changes, the Government will maintain these increased restrictions after we leave the EU.”

It also gives a nod to the need to reduce pesticide use. However, the measures set out do not adequately address the risks that pesticides and agrochemicals pose to wildlife and human health alike. Just last month, research found that common fungicides are the strongest factor linked to steep bumblebee declines – adding to the threats to vital pollinators. At a recent conference on public health and pesticides, scientists raised concerns about the human health impacts of very low doses of pesticides, and the dramatic increase in the number of active ingredients applied to three common UK crops.

Again, the Plan could be made stronger by recognising that organic farming is one important approach to producing food without synthetic pesticides and agrochemicals linked to the plight of bees, pollinators and other wildlife.

A new poll has revealed that an overwhelming majority of the British public want tough EU controls on pesticide to continue after Brexit – and many want even stronger regulation. Most people want an outright ban on chemical products sprayed on parks, playgrounds and other public spaces. Banning the use of controversial weed killer glyphosate in public areas, and on crops just before harvest, is what the Soil Association has been calling for through the Not In Our Bread campaign – yet the 25 Year Environment Plan is completely silent on glyphosate.  The “new Chemicals Strategy to tackle chemicals of national concern” announced in the Plan will be an opportunity to rectify this.

What next?

In response to concerns that Brexit will create huge gaps when it comes to environmental enforcement and a loss of key environmental principles, the Plan reiterates that the Government will consult on setting up a new independent body to hold government to account and a new set of environmental principles to underpin policy-making.

A new green business council will be established and the 25 Year Environment Plan will be refreshed regularly too.

On farming policy, the Plan confirms that proposals for an Agriculture Bill will follow. These will contain more detail on: a new environmental land management scheme that encourages broad participation and secures environmental improvements; improving targeted support for more complex environmental improvements, backed up by specialist advice; and new and innovative funding and delivery mechanisms. This will be a big test of whether Gove’s green revolution will be looked back on as fact or fantasy – not least when it comes to organic farming, climate change, and the links between food, farming and public health, which are far too often neglected.


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First day of #ORFC18

reblogged from Ben Eagle’s excellent Thinking Country blog. Ben interviewed a few of us at the Oxford Real Farming Conference.


Around 800 people descended on Oxford Town Hall yesterday morning to attend the 9th Oxford Real Farming Conference. This is my third time attending the event, but it feels just as exciting and in many ways just as groundbreaking as my first a few years ago. This year the ORFC is focusing on four distinct strands:

  1. Farm Practice
  2. Growing and Supporting
  3. Food Sovereignty
  4. The Big Ideas

Particular congratulations and thanks must go to the conference organisers who have yet again provided delegates with a packed programme of sessions, with topics ranging from growing heritage cereals to valuing sustainability, animal welfare to permaculture and biodiversity to micro-dairying. An entire room is dedicated to Brexit and this year is also the first time that a Secretary of State for Defra has been invited to attend the conference, yet another milestone achieved for the ORFC.

Michael Gove MP and Zac Goldsmith MP pre-session (1) credit: © Hugh Warwick

Yesterday, Michael Gove took…

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Will farm subsidies be slashed after Brexit? Guest Blog by Guy Shrubsole, campaigner at Friends of the Earth,


“After we Vote Leave”, said the official Leave campaign’s farming leaflet, “we can protect farmers’ subsidies – and even increase them”.


Eighteen months on from the Brexit referendum, that promise is looking decidedly shaky. The Government has pledged to keep farm subsidies at their current levels of around £3.5bn per year until the end of this parliament – that’s to say, 2022 at the latest. But what happens beyond then?


To date, no Minister has dared to be drawn on how much money farmers and landowners will get beyond this parliament. Public discussion has focused on how future monies should be spent, but not the overall budget.


Environment Secretary Michael Gove has pleased many environmentalists by criticising the existing Common Agricultural Policy on grounds that it “rewards [the] size of land-holding ahead of good environmental practice, and all too often puts resources in the hands of the already wealthy rather than into the common good of our shared natural environment.” It’s vital that farm payments are reformed so that public money is spent on public goods, from restoring habitats and protecting wildlife to improving natural flood measures.


But the overall size of the pot of money available to do this matters hugely too. And it matters not just to the direct recipients – farmers and landowners – but to environmentalists and the natural world.


My concern is that behind a welter of welcome green policy announcements, Michael Gove is gearing up to make a trade-off. He knows that Brexit may prove expensive and that the Treasury is itching to make savings wherever possible. After all, the Leave campaign – including Mr Gove – also promised a post-Brexit dividend for the NHS, albeit one based on false figures of how much we actually send to the EU.


Faced with demands from Ministers across Whitehall for more money, still pursuing deficit reduction, and forced to set aside contingency funds for the eventuality of a hard Brexit, the Chancellor is looking for things to cut. And investigations by Friends of the Earth show that behind the scenes, there are increasing fears that the farm payments budget could be for the chop:


  • At a recent conference organised by centre-right think-tank Bright Blue, Julie Girling MEP, who sits on the European Parliament’s environment committee, warned that the latest Treasury figures doing the rounds were to cut farm subsidies after Brexit to just £2bn per year, down from £3.5bn currently. Her office subsequently confirmed in correspondence with Friends of the Earth that this was “a figure that has been heard around”.
  • The Agricultural & Horticultural Development Board (ADHB), an industry-funded quango that is accountable to DEFRA, published in October a set of scenarios for post-Brexit agriculture that modelled dramatic falls in farm payments. One scenario, ‘Evolution’, saw payment levels remain the same, but the other two scenarios anticipated cuts of 50-75% in overall farm support.
  • Increasing numbers of land agents and chartered surveyors are advising their clients to prepare for a big drop in subsidies. An editorial in Savills’ spring-summer 2017 trade magazine warned: “Without subsidy, many farming businesses simply won’t survive. It is difficult to envisage current levels of farm support continuing post-2020 and we need to get match-fit, ready to compete and trade in a global marketplace”. At an event organised by Strutt & Parker in early 2017, one of the organisation’s farming experts advised that “some form of ongoing subsidy support would remain [after Brexit], but it would probably be channelled into environmental stewardship schemes… It would therefore be wise to assume that the Basic Payment would fall by 20% in 2020 and is likely to continue to decline after that”. And in this November 2017 publication, land agents Fisher German advise: “We are recommending to clients that they should plan for a reduction in net subsidy income of 50%.”


In other words, there are widespread fears that post-Brexit farm payments may end up greener, but a lot smaller.


That would be a mistake. Friends of the Earth doesn’t want to see small farmers go to the wall any more than farming organisations do. And a smaller pot of money for land management, even if it’s a greener one, would confine positive environmental measures to niche schemes and pockets of land, whilst failing to address agriculture’s role in the biodiversity, climate and soil crises afflicting our countryside.


While there are instances where removing subsidies for harmful practices would benefit ecosystems, nature’s recovery would often be speeded up by investing more on positive measures. For instance, cutting payments to huge grouse moor estates could discourage them continuing their damaging practices of intensive upland management and heather-burning. But better still would be to incentivise tree-planting, peatland restoration and Hen Harrier reintroduction in their stead.


In terms of national budgets, £3.5bn is actually peanuts – for context, it’s only 2.4% of the combined UK NHS annual budget of £147.5bn – a small price to pay, and in reality a sound investment to help secure and protect the very resources that are critical to food production, like pollinators, healthy soils and thriving wildlife.


The RSPB, the National Trust and the Wildlife Trusts will soon publish research modelling what it would cost to enable farmers to effectively deliver public goods and protect the environment.


Maintaining, or even increasing, the £3.5bn farm payments budget and directing it at the right outcomes would honour the promises made by Vote Leave to farmers – and it would start to rise to the challenge posed by our decimation of nature on these small islands.

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Free the Beaver: Michael Gove officially endorses legal #Beaver releases into the English Countryside

Is there any comedy value to be extracted from the fact that on the day the Brexiteers capitulated (or were outmanoeuvred) on membership of the Single Market, leading Brexist Michael Gove chose to announce that Beavers would be released in the Forest of Dean and into the wild? Read on to find out.

Sharp-eyed readers (yes that’s all of you) will recall that the Forestry Commission had been working on a project to use beavers to reduce downstream flooding of a village (Lydbrook) in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, but that this had been squashed by the unimaginative Minister Therese Coffey. Why would Coffey have taken against the aquatic rodent? Could it have anything to do with her enthusiasm for artificial drainage, as I outlined in a previous post. Could it be related to her enthusiasm for Grouse Shooting? We may never know.

Either way, Environment Secretary Michael Gove has over-ruled her (it’s difficult to imagine she will be pleased about that) and given the go-ahead for the Forestry Commission to release the beavers. When I say release the beavers, obviously they will not be released in the sense that the River Otter Beavers were released. They will be in a pen.

So far so good. What’s perhaps even more interesting is that Michael Gove has given a very strong signal today that other Beaver introduction schemes in England will be looked on favourably by the regulator Natural England. Natural England, as we know, does what Defra tells it to these days. Here’s the new guidance.

this one is for similar projects to the Forest of Dean one







And this one if for legal releases into the wild.





yes you read that correctly. Gove has just announced that the Government is approving the release of Beavers into the wild. These releases will need to be time-limited (though of course it doesn’t specify what the time limit is) and should include an exit strategy if problems arise. That would be recapturing the beavers.

This is a big step forward for rewilding and natural flood management in England.

I may still have grave doubts about Michael Gove on all sorts of other levels, but for this I applaud him.

Photo by Ray Scott  [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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Michael Gove: his battle with the Truth


We need to talk about Michael, especially those within the broad environmental sector, to which I belong, though mostly sitting on the sidelines observing these days.

Michael is our new Best Friend. Michael promises us all manner of goodies. A new British Agriculture Policy which promises to sweep away all the bad things of that nasty European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)  – and nasty things there certainly are a plenty. Michael promises to create a new progressive farm policy which rewards farmers for delivering “goods” like healthy soil, planting trees and so on. Michael has apparently taken personal control of producing the new 25 year Environment Plan, which we are promised will be much more intelligent and witty than Andrea Leadsom’s paper and crayons version which never saw the light of day. And, just last week, with a conspiratorial nod and a wink, Michael’s Friend Oliver told Parliament that Michael wanted to fill the “governance gap” created when the UK loses the European Court’s role as final arbiter of environmental law in the UK, and create a new Regulator, with teeth, which will hold the Government to account if it fails to meet the standards set.

Ever since Michael took over at Defra he has been marching to this tune – he was the “shy Green”, now fully revealed having come out of the… compost heap? He waves his environmental credentials in the face of vested interests like the National Farmers Union. He sticks it to the Fox-man, rejecting the idea that we will learn to love chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-induced Beef or GM crops. his most important speech so far was to a bunch of greenies at WWF.

Michael is worried about our soil – “if you drench the soil in chemicals… you are cutting away the ground beneath your feet.” Michael has pledged to reinstate the Ivory ban, ban neonicotinoids, release Beavers in the Forest of Dean; and introduce CCTV into slaughterhouses. In other words, he has cleared the in-tray of things that his predecessors and underlings were either lobbied into putting off, intrinsically opposed to, or just too useless to do anything about.

What’s going on? This is, after all, the same person who stabbed his best mate Boris Johnson in the front and back, then fell on his own stiletto during last year’s leadership campaign. This is Michael the Geek, who then played the populist card when he said  “the people of this country have had enough of experts”. This is Michael the neo-con/neo-liberal ideologue, the Michael who likened the Good Friday Agreement to condoning paedophilia.

Will the Real Michael Gove please stand up.

It’s a mystery, worthy of the handle-bar moustached Hercule Poirot.

For what it’s worth, these are my thoughts on Michael Gove and his battle with the Truth.

I do actually think Gove genuinely has some beliefs in the importance of the environment. OK I’ve got that off my chest. From now on it’s politics.

Gove has invented the notion of a Green Brexit. This is of course post-hoc rationalisation. Almost all people who care about the environment saw Brexit as likely to be damaging to the UK’s environment, with a few notable exceptions. Yes many (including myself) were reluctant remainers, but then weighing up the pros and cons of an action or a policy is bread and butter to anyone interested in the environment and human impacts on it. So why invent Green Brexit? In one word, Momentum.

Gove is aware that the Tory party has lost the votes of most people in this country under the age of about 40. Tory voters are getting older, and to be blunt, dying. Meanwhile,  the Environment continues to be at least in the top five issues that voters under 40 are most concerned about. How to get younger voters to think about voting Tory again? Start playing up your environmental credentials. For Gove personally, Green Brexit is akin to Ed Balls dancing on Strictly – it’s all about public rehabilitation – perhaps even a bit of penance.

It’s also a wise move for Gove to cosy up to the Environmental Movement, which, if you include the National Trust, covers roughly 10% of the population – and an influential 10%. Now of course there’s a big difference between Tory voting NT members who mainly like visiting gardens and getting free car-parking at beauty spots; and activist anti-frackers. But when it comes to neutralising their considerable abilities in, for example, the Houses of Parliament, then they are best seen as one movement.

Offering them a new strong watchdog for the Environment, a new National Policy Statement for the Environment, and powers to hold the Government to account should it stray from that NPS, have all been laid out by Sir Oliver Letwin last week (see the debate here).  These are apparently to be a replacement for the Precautionary Principle, the Polluter Pays Principle; and the powers of the European Court of Justice to impose massive fines on UK Government for failing to apply the EU’s environmental law. And while I personally think they are in no way a replacement, these might be just enough of an incentive to reduce the pressure on back-bench MPs from the environmental lobby. I have to say, the idea that this Government would create a strong environmental regulator, when they have been so busy emasculating or abolishing the environmental regulators that already exist, is absurd (bonfire of the quangos anyone?). But that’s just me.

And who doesnt like seeing an old vested interest group getting a proverbial kicking? Gove, after all, has form here. Remember the zeal in which he and his Grima-wormtongue advisor Dominic Cummings (self-proclaimed architect of the Brexit victory) took on “the blob”, the name he used to vilify the teaching profession, when at the Department for Education. Interestingly he didn’t invent “the blob”. That came from his friends at the neo-liberal Center for Education Reform, as did the Free School nonsense. And while former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson (blogs passim ad nauseam) took that language and applied it as the “green blob” to environmental groups, Gove understood who the real vested interests are in Defra – the NFU. “Fat cat farmers living it up on the EU-funded gravy train” as the Daily Express might put it – are such an easy target.

It has been entertaining to see the NFU suddenly unsighted, presented with a Defra Secretary of State with no farming connections, no country-landowning background; and no natural empathy for the plight of the landed and subsidised. Far from it. Gove’s background is places like Policy Exchange, who would merrily sweep away all public support for farmers. So Gove is happy to see the NFU fume that they are not getting the access to which they are entitled. NFU President Meurig Raymond has decided to step down early, to spend more time with his cows, no doubt. Is this a sign of the frustration building within the fabled Union? How they must wish they still had Peter Kendall with all his political guile, at this critical time.

Gove knows though that his plans for a leaner smarter (and cheaper) British agricultural polict could be scuppered by back woodsmen on the benches of the Commons and more importantly the Lords. Because plenty take the farm subsidies the EU has generously channelled to them, whether they be landed nobility with thousands of hectares, or Yeomen farmer stock. And they will not give it up without a fight.

So expect to see a few fish thrown to these seals. Gove is going big on soils; and his wingman George Eustice has already started dropping hints that the new “public goods for public money” approach will be through an Agri-Environment Scheme available to all. You could call it ELS-lite. Given Gove’s enthusiasm for zero-till, for example, ELS-lite might provide public goods payments for zero-till farming, by default. This would also explain why he has repeatedly supported the re-licensing of glyphosate, an essential tool in the zero-tillers box.

Finally, there is of course a bigger story, about Michael’s future. Is Gove auditioning for the Chancellor’s job? Has he shown, with all these good works at Defra, that he really has seen the error of his ways and is now on his best behaviour? If spreadshit Phil does get the sack after the budget on wednesday and Damian Green is finally forced to resign, a bigger reshuffle (never far away these days) looms. Gove must be hoping to catch the Prime Minister’s eye, or twist her wrist a bit further behind her back, depending on whether she’s in charge or a hostage to Gove and Johnson. In which case all of Gove’s good words will have turned out to be, just words.






Posted in Brexit, Defra, Michael Gove, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

LEGOs, Landscapes and Catchments – guest blog by @UKSustain farm campaigner @VickiHird


I am delighted to post another guest blog from Sustain’s Campaign Co-ordinator for Food and Farming Policy, Vicki Hird.


The rich debate about how we deliver new farming and land management support after we leave the CAP is getting stimulating. As we anticipate the White (Command) Paper on a new UK Agriculture Bill in 2018, choices are presenting themselves. How will new schemes work out on the farm? How will decisions actually get made? What unintended consequences should we consider in any change?

The following are ideas for the discussion ahead.

A three tier delivery mechanism

It has been constructive to see common ground between many of the stakeholders working on this – from the NFU and CLA to conservation and animal welfare groups. Recent reports by Sustain, the Wildlife and Countryside Link and Natural Capital Committee add more detail to the mix of ideas. Maintaining a significant level of support to deliver what we need and the ‘payment for public goods’ approach are pretty much accepted as desirable though we will see much debate over what the ‘goods’ actually are.

Equally complicated will be how can measure them – natural capital valuing and beyond. The public will need to see value delivered to feel their investment (tax revenue) is being well spent. That will need effective and useful on farm indicators and assessment.

Jumping ahead to dodge all that cluttered debate about ‘goods’ and measurement, it is interesting to contemplate how such schemes will actually be applied in practice. What does it look like on the eight floor at DEFRA and out in the farmyard? What are the governance methods?

At a meeting on farm indicators organised By Farmwel and the Farm Animal Initiative, I was interested to hear the ideas of Merrick Denton-Thompson, Chair of The Landscape Institute, someone who has worked through a number of decades of farm, land and planning policy. He proposes a new National Rural Land Management Policy articulated at a landscape scale that is easily interpreted and actioned by individual farms. Sustain’s principles for future support – based on health and wellbeing as well as economic and environment goals for farming – chime well with his. Publicly agreed outcomes could be delivered by collaboration between public, private and voluntary partners and finance.

There is a common call for pilots and trials for new approaches and learning from current and past agri-environment schemes. The Farm Cluster approach by Natural England and GWCT is one such pilot. As I have noted before it would be a mistake to call for simplicity as an outcome – we need context specific, well managed and adequately resourced schemes. Experienced agri-environment expert Steve Peel also made this point forcefully in his blog about the skills, timeliness and attention to detail needed if we want to actually achieve anything.

Looking ahead, what could the delivery structures look like to supply what’s needed? Some of what is laid out below is drawn from Merrick’s and others’ proposals. The ideas can be defined in three levels:

  • how national governments would be involved
  • the role of local communities, statutory bodies, the public
  • what does it mean in the farmyard

National – setting the overall objectives

At the national government level, each government could have a National Rural Land Management Policy integrating farming and the environment, forming the policy reference for public goods and natural capital and fitting with an overall vision for food and farming. An overarching UK framework would be needed setting an agenda and targets for the public money to be spent wisely and to ensure cross border priorities are achieved such as on climate, landscape and mobile species.

This would be signed off by the Secretary of State’s and Devolved ministers and would set the framework for landscape plans and objectives.

Local – Landscape approach to governance and allocating resources

Given that central government is not set up to handle local and live information about land use changes and opportunities some have proposed a local level of governance ie Local Environmental Governance Organisations (LEGOs), which would provide funding for locally valued ecosystem services and ‘fill in the gaps’ that arise from the operation of the national funds.

One approach could be that the LEGO could be grouped via National Character Areas (NCAs) which divide England into 159 distinct natural areas. Each NCA is defined by a unique combination of landscape, biodiversity, geodiversity, history, and cultural and economic activity. Their boundaries follow natural lines in the landscape rather than administrative boundaries. They would help form the framework for agenda setting, delivery, partnership working, integrating – public sector, private sector and voluntary sector collaboration. The maps describe what is there, appreciated and understood by communities and the different stakeholders.

They can be used to engage the public, crucial going forward and as blue print to build plan and vision for specific areas. For protected areas additional resources and information already exist to deliver additional protection, support and advice.

Whatever the acronym, the joint committee could be made up of local community reps, farmers and landowners, park authorities, conservation bodies, private sector and planners. They could use the National Character Area Maps and other objectives defined by the group in facilitated meetings to devise a Character management plan for the area which would be signed off by the Secretary of State but which would remain a live document subject to reviews and change. From this individual plans with appropriate indicators for progress for each farm in the area would be drawn up using the priorities.

Where needed, the plans would focus on specific issues for a specific area with general wildlife and environmental assets and characteristics – what did and does and could be protected, enhanced and restored and by whom.

Farm – Land Management Contract

At the farm/estate level, the scheme would ideally have a single point of contact representing the public sector with each farm/farmer, with the back office support from Government Agencies, Government Departments and Local Authorities. This point of contact could combine with a private accredited body maybe. But they would need a new set of skills, knowledge and would build a positive but impartial relationship with the farmer.

A farmer would develop with this contact, a multi-annual whole farm/estate Land Management Scheme agreement – one that farmers can work through with their advisor so it fits the farm and the catchment and the landscape as needed.

Farmers would do much of the on-going assessment themselves, and would have training if needed. and access to great business (and marketing) advice and mentoring so the business planning links with the agreed Land management plans. But there would need to be an initial agreement meeting, spot checks and an annual survey to discuss issues, look at new opportunities, compliance and so on.

The idea often mooted of ‘earned recognition’ – if you’ve had a visit by a Red Tractor standard  rep and got the all clear you are okay to go – is not really fit for purpose as this is not just about compliance. It needs to be better and built on mutual trust. As the blog of an ex Natural England staffer and the comments thread below it show – it all depends on the quality of the science, how it is shared and the scheme being resourced sufficiently to ensure a sustained ‘relationship of trust between adviser and land manager’. As he puts it “The story of agri-environment since 2005 has been one of tragically unfulfilled potential” and we should ensure we get the new system right by testing and pilots in the transition period.

One idea could be to equip each farmer with a new (waterproof) digital iPad ready loaded with key information, self-checking forms, coupled with training guides, access to wildlife identification tools, and even farm business data. Not as a gimmick but a way to ensure access to information and uniform, digitally accessible data is being recorded.

Data. There I have mentioned it and it will clearly be a key feature; one for another blog.

Finally some questions to challenge this delivery model:

  1. How would a joint committee at a landscape level be set up? Clearly it would have land managers and reps from statutory bodies (NE, EA, FC) but who else? The NFU, CLA but what about other land managers, the public in general and those interested in access, air pollution, good food (such as the Sustainable Food Cities network);
  2. Would the diversity of farms be protected and enhanced under this model? There is a need – well documented recently by CPRE – to protect that diversity and crucial to stop the loss of farms in England in particular.
  3. Can a national plan incorporate health objectives at a local level such as getting more fresh fruit and vegetables into schools so encourage more mixed horticulture for procurement, ensuring accessible countryside for all; and other similar measures that have wider public wellbeing benefit?
  4. Could local partnerships that emerge deliver on wider objectives such as providing a hub for marketing and coordination of delivery for local outlets, possibly working with the urban hinterlands?
  5. Is this really too complicated?

Vicki Hird is Campaign Co-ordinator for Food and Farming Policy at Sustain



Posted in agriculture, Brexit, farm subsidies, guest blogs, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments