Photo by Tony Eveling
Artillery Row

Loving the countryside

Its future must be rooted in affection

The banquet hall of the Old Palace at Hatfield House is a magnificent setting for firsts. It once saw Queen Elizabeth I convene her first Council of State, and last Tuesday, 6 June, it played host to the inaugural Future Countryside conference.

At the invitation of Lord Salisbury, rural leaders gathered to hear from Lord Mandelson, Lord Herbert and a range of speakers yet to be ennobled. During that first Council of State, the queen saw fit to elevate Lord Salisbury’s illustrious ancestor William Cecil to the role of Secretary of State. With a modern day Secretary of State billed to be turning up for lunch, the day began with a sense that something significant might be about to happen.

Many of the attendees, however, were a little unsure what that might be. The event was shrouded with mystery: it was invite-only, the agenda had only dropped 48 hours earlier and there was a secret special guest speaker (who turned out to be Peter Mandelson). “I’m waiting to find out why we’re here” was a common refrain. Yet here they were.

One of the debate moderators, attempting to guide the roving microphones, declared in frustration that “the gentleman in the tweed jacket” was not a helpful identifier. A fair comment, the tweed to non-tweed ratio was high, but not as high as I might have expected. This was neither the farming crowd nor the hunting shooting fishing brigade — at least, not uniformly, and that’s what made Future Countryside different and exciting.

The countryside has intrinsic value, a cultural thickness borne of generations

Holkham’s Jake Fiennes called the room “the most influential gathering the countryside is going to see for a while”. There were farmers and gamekeepers, but also access advocates, green NGOs, representatives of the NHS and local authorities, writers, professors, think tankers, environmentalists, journalists. There were more than a few “thought leaders”. Defra was out in force and so were the politicians. It was as if someone had smashed the Oxford Farming Conference into the Birdfair, the resulting fallout scattering adherents of divergent rural philosophies across the room and furnishing them with glasses of water and little moleskine notepads.

The instant proceedings were underway, Rory Stewart pointed to the tension. He gave the oratorical tour de force you might expect. With studied understatement and inch-perfect rhythm, he entranced the audience with an appeal to Aristotle that left us wondering how we had ever discussed countryside management without reference to logos, pathos and ethos. He encouraged the room to lean into the points of difference. He poured scorn on the idea that “happy talk” of building consensus or investing in education could provide meaningful solutions. Clearly, Stewart is a veteran of rural conferencing at which delegates race to declare education the silver bullet. That was my plan scuppered.

Stewart encouraged the room to express our pathos, accepting that whatever solutions the conference identified were likely to involve compromise, retreat, maybe even defeat for some. As a longtime advocate of rural bridge building, I was impressed — despite his speech including reference to the environmental conflict caused by literal bridges, which now I think about it may have been a subtle metaphor that I was too dim to catch in the moment.

His speech was a thinker; as the magic lifted and the audience returned to their faculties some wondered if he had actually said anything. I think he did. The entire day was an exercise in framing, in setting out the challenge and the context in which that challenge would be met. Stewart’s rhetorical grab for the high ground was a success.

He put culture front and centre. He took the objective statistical love of the countryside, expressed by rural and urban focus groups alike, and splashed them with colour. He spoke of soldiers in trenches fighting and dying for this collection of trees and fields, hedgerows and hills, barns and walls that make up our man made landscape. Far from saying nothing, he set out the ephemeral essential that is so often missed in the reductive discussions of what the countryside should offer society: that the countryside has intrinsic value, a cultural thickness borne of generations shaping the land that infuses our Britishness. In short, we love the countryside.

Love can be a liability and an asset.The remaining speakers, and many of the delegates, attempted to place their contributions in the framework that Rory Stewart provided them. We might have heard about Food Strategy and agro-ecology and programmes for government, but technocratic talk was averted with constant references to Wordsworth, Dickens and Beatrix Potter. There was a rare awareness that these landscapes can inspire both great efforts to conserve them and ferocious opposition to change.

For some, the discussion was too rarified. After all, hold forth on Wordsworth all you like, change is coming. Henry Dimbleby pointed out his Food Strategy suggested the least productive 20 per cent of agricultural land in the UK is where the most environmental gains must be achieved. I would suggest much of this 20 per cent is where countryside culture is at its thickest, but this tension was not interrogated. Towards the end of the day, environmental journalist James Murray rose to point out the startling lack of discussion of the green revolution and the change it would inevitably bring to the countryside. I have seen rewilders and environmentalists subsequently call the proceedings “myopic” in their fixation on the countryside as it is and on farmers as food producers.

Can we maintain those beloved cultural landscapes whilst redirecting their economies?

It is true that farmers were on a pedestal throughout. I was reminded of my own days at Harper Adams, the finest agricultural university in the land, where I studied Countryside and Environmental Management instead of a proper subject. A group of us once visited a friend’s farm, where his family reared red Sussex beef cattle and grew Fuggles hops. We sat around the dinner table, and his father asked each of us in turn what we were studying, grunting in approval at agriculture and agricultural engineering, before asking me what on earth was the point in “Countryside Management”? Did I not know “it’s all farming”?

That was very much the vibe of Future Countryside. The Secretary of State Therese Coffey conspiratorially referred to “those of us with mud on our boots”. Both Coffey and Labour Shadow Minister Daniel Zeichner agreed that farmers will always be food producers first and foremost. Even Lord Mandelson revealed he now farms in Wiltshire. Clearly, at Future Countryside, the cool kids farm food. These assumptions do not seem self-evident to me, however. We cannot achieve net zero without dietary change, which will require less meat. We cannot reverse biodiversity decline without landscape scale habitat restoration. The burgeoning markets for carbon sinking and for nature credits disrupt the consensus that farmers will always and everywhere be food producers first.

I am much more interested in the tension between the polarities of change and preservation. Can we maintain those beloved cultural landscapes, and the families and farms they support, whilst redirecting their economies towards climate mitigation and the environment? Can we find a model of landscape scale nature recovery that not only keeps people on the land but multiplies them? A model maintains continuity and beauty and place, but brings with it jobs, investment and opportunity. There was perhaps too little of this sort of horizon gazing.

I do however agree with Lord Mandelson, I’m sure he will be relieved to hear, that any party of government must resist tackling the future by pandering to single interest groups. He warned his party not to pick fights with the countryside, but instead to channel the example of his grandfather Herbert Morrison. This man spearheaded the creation of the greenbelt as deputy prime minister in the post-war Labour government. The rhetorical flourish caused Lord Salisbury to suggest with a smile that Mandelson was a fine exponent of the hereditary principle, but his point was well-taken. Attlee’s Labour would not have sought to pit town against country, city against countryside.

The remarks were widely interpreted to be about fox hunting, which Labour does like to talk about rather a lot despite having banned it nearly 20 years ago, but his intent was surely broader. A mischievous tweet from the Rare Breed Survival Trust’s Christopher Price raised a ripple of suppressed giggling from those of us glancing at our phones, as he pointed out Mandelson’s denunciation of single issue pressure groups was followed by a great many interventions from representatives of single issue pressure groups.

Like most witticisms, this was both unfair and apposite. The contributions were learned, impassioned and interesting, but it was hard not to feel sympathy with the sheep farmer who stood to point out he was being asked to produce food, open up access, boost biodiversity, capture carbon, prevent flooding and maintain beauty, in a regulatory framework that makes no sense and an economy that pays him no money.

The triumph of Future Countryside, and the reason accusations of myopia miss the mark, was that the sheep farmer got a round of applause from those who might have been expected to react otherwise. An extraordinary diversity of expertise, “single issue” and holistic, was assembled. Their energy and ideas were captured in a paradigm of love for the countryside and appreciation for those who live and work there. The detail remains to be thrashed out, and that may be for the next conference, but everyone left in no doubt of the significance of the rural in the British psyche, and the potency of its cultural appeal. As policy responses are prepared in the face of unstoppable change, love is a very good place to start.

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