The Corporate Countryside

It is emblematic that on the day after the EU referendum, Donald Trump (perhaps the next president of the United States) was in Scotland, inaugurating his controversial new golf resort.  Oblivious to the country around him which had just voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, Trump congratulated his audience on their new independence.

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Yet, he was not speaking to the common people of Britain (much less to Scotland, trapped, along with Wales, in the Brexit scenario), but those in his audience, the new placeholders of aristocracy – wealthy investors, media moguls, business leaders and others set free from EU barriers to land ownership, property development, tourism and speculation.

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been the greatest barrier to a collapse in the UK property market.  The CAP is concerned with market stability, tariff-free trade in the EU and farmer livelihoods.  It consists primarily in a subsidisation of farmer incomes through direct payments.  It is well-known that most farmers make a loss on their operations and would not otherwise be able to continue without the subsidy.  As the tendency toward losses is primarily due to the downward pressure on prices from supermarket competition and its monopoly on distribution, the farmer’s subsidy is in many ways a backdoor subsidy for the retail and food processing industries.

With the elimination of the CAP, these subsidies will disappear and it is possible that they will either not be replaced or will be phased out in the near term.  The CAP has tended to maintain the status quo, not only protecting member states within the single market and in international trade deals, but also preserving the operations of loss-making farms.  The IMF, which Angela Merkel brought in to manage the Eurozone, has been pushing its 188 international members to quickly reduce or eliminate farming subsidies, a policy shift at odds with the pace of EU policy. The UK could decide to weather the storm of a radical re-adjustment in the structure of land ownership, especially in agriculture where it would become a corporate affair.

To read the rest of the essay, please visit The Corporate Countryside.

After Brexit – Envisioning New British Landscapes

Among its myriad effects, Brexit threatens a radical shakeup of UK agriculture with the withdrawal of billions of pounds of EU subsidies. There is considerable anxiety in the agricultural community as most farmers rely on some form of income support from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Without a policy of smooth transition, the transformation of agriculture will lead to a radical shift in land values as many farmers lose their holdings to the international market.

The fall of the CAP opens up the ominous possibility of the corporate countryside, the brave new world of high intensity agribusiness, accelerated road building, suburban residential and retail commercial developments, airports and tourist facilities. In an era of cheap land and perhaps negative interest rates – not to mention the housing crisis – development will proceed apace as the integrity of the countryside is forever altered.

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Contrary to this nightmare scenario, the current CAP policy favoured stability, and in recent decades, environmental criteria and objectives, linked through cross-compliance to farming subsidies. Activities such as crop diversification, pesticide control, wildlife corridors have been central to the Pillar I requirements for EU subsidies. Such activities are still in place across the UK and indicate an alternative path for the British countryside, other than the corporate takeover of rural Britain.

It is ironic that British scholars and scientists have been central to the articulation of EU environmental law and policy, the most developed body of such law in the world. Indeed, given the high level of public education in the UK on environmental issues, especially of such issues as climate change, it would be difficult, and in fact, counter-productive, to walk away from such a longstanding commitment to the environment.

Confronted however by the forced choice between economic development and the environment, many may tolerate the incremental destruction of the rural landscape. But, we must be clear that this is a false choice and that a better approach to the countryside is possible than a passive drift toward the wasteland. To get a glimpse of the nightmare scenario, we need only consider the American (formerly rural) landscape of suburbs, retail malls, theme parks, landfills and industrial farms.

Nevertheless, Britain differs from the Americans since they have already created their wasteland. The UK still stands at the crossroads, not having taken the plunge toward overdevelopment and corporate agriculture.  Indeed, while the UK will leave the EU, there is no good reason to simply surrender the countryside to the vast corporate monolith. Yet, such surrender will occur in the absence of political clarity, imagination and investment.

To read the rest of the article, please visit “After Brexit – New British Landscapes”.