Professor Terry Marsden
Brexit represents a profound challenge and opportunity to redesign agri-food, regional and rural development policy in Wales.
While the UK public sector funding has been by far the largest area of funding (via the Barnett Formula) to affect these areas over what we might now see as the first (20-year) phase of devolved governance in Wales, these policy fields have also heavily relied upon ring-fenced European Union programmes associated with Regional Development and Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) funding.
These programmes were based upon a needs-based set of priorities built upon the EU mission to reduce regional economic disparities, build regional capacities and support farming families in delivering a combination of public and market goods.
Now that we are facing the spectre of Brexit and the reality of detaching ourselves from these complex policy frameworks, it is critical that Wales develops a new and collective vision of its own sustainable rural and regional development which is now fully aligned to the principles and values embodied in its own Future Generations and Environment Acts and its statutory obligations.
This means that – while fully recognising the highly integrated economic ties with the rest of the UK and the need in many regulatory areas (eg food standards and trade) to participate and to proactively shape UK-wide frameworks during and after the Brexit process – it is also critical that Wales develops its own distinctive vision and strategy for the agri-food, rural and regional economy based upon a strong ecological-economic (eco-economic) approach.
This proposes that a strategy and vision is designed to foster the already unfolding transition to a post-carbonised and more inclusive growth-oriented model of sustainable economic development, and in so doing to augment the distinctiveness and potentialities that Wales holds in developing a world-leading and innovative green economy.
This is an economy and vision which will need to place rural areas and their managed natures (ie varied combinations of stakeholders including landholders, foresters and designated landscapes) at the heart of delivering the Future Generations agenda over the rest of this century.
One implication of creating and developing this vision and strategy is the importance of examining ways in which we can create a more integrated process of policy-making and delivery which both ameliorates spatial and social inequalities across Wales, while also celebrating and recognising the diversity of the ecological economy in Wales; not least by developing more bespoke, place-based approaches.
This is an opportunity to integrate regional, rural and agricultural policy as sustainable rural development policy – what I call a “farming-plus” approach.
Farming becomes a central vehicle for delivering sustainable rural development, along with a wider range of multi-functional rural economic activities – renewable energy, sustainable tourism and rural enterprises.
This is part and parcel of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) vision of the “new rural development paradigm” which is now being progressed in many regions of Europe.
As a result, it is timely to place agriculture and farming firmly back into the rural economy and to develop support mechanisms which promote multi-functional local economies and businesses.
There is no reason why such a Wales-shared vision and strategy could not complement the wider evolving UK approach, but be both distinctive of it and “owned” by the Welsh polity, such that it retains control over Wales-based allocation mechanisms (see later in this article).
Funding sources and means
Clearly, the two major areas of potential support for the above approach are associated with the UK’s regional development objectives in its Shared Prosperity Fund (so far unspecified); and “transitional” and eventual post-Brexit UK agricultural support.
Proactive discussions with Whitehall are urgently needed about both these issues from the Welsh Government, such that we can articulate and promote our vision and strategy, and justify critical funding for Wales in both of these areas.
The argument will need to be won that whatever the volume of funding made available for Wales under these schemes, it needs to be: (a) based upon reducing GDP disparities across Wales; (b) based on a needs-based assessment; and (c) allow support to continue, at least on a tapering model, for farm production support based upon a wider multi-functional approach depicted above.
There is a distinct danger here that whatever funding is made available and eventually allocated under these schemes, it will be: (a) highly competitive, especially with other regions in England; (b) linked to a conventional concept of productivity and growth which discriminates against rural and sparsely populated areas, instead favouring urban agglomerated economies; and (c) focuses too much on non-marketised public goods instead of a combination of production and services.
This is why I think it is critical not just to get bogged down in “transition” processes following Brexit but to declare a Welsh vision beyond the transition. In addition, I would advocate serious attention be given to proposing that whatever Westminster funding replaces CAP and Regional Development (convergence) funding should be formula-driven on a supplemented “Barnett-plus” model.
This could be over five to seven-year planning periods so as to give some certainty and review of investments over time.
Systems of devolved allocation: taking control
The proposal above suggests the need for the establishment of a strategic Regional and Rural Development Agency or Board in Wales, which has under its remit regional development, agri-food and rural economic development for the whole of Wales and reports to cabinet and the National Assembly. It should be aligned to delivering on the Future Generations vision, address the restoration of biodiversity, family farming and the local rural economy in Wales, and negotiate with Whitehall on funding allocations and Barnett-plus processes.
The body thus takes control of devolved allocation across all of Wales, including support to delivery agents (rural stakeholders). I believe that this approach will reduce the potential rise in transaction costs associated with what could be politically driven “hand-me downs” and increasingly selective competitive funding from Whitehall. And it will give a stronger collective voice for Wales across the devolved nations, and will continue to forge positive and networked links with the European Union (not least regarding FP9 R&D budget), as well as the debates about food and rural policies currently developing.
Systems of targeting and delivery
Targeting and delivery of financial support within Wales during and after the period of transition should give emphasis to devolved systems of support for place-based partnerships on a variety of different spatial scales.
These could be aligned to the Natural Resources Wales’ area statement sub-regions, and to catchment planning and partnerships. Farmers could continue to be major recipients of these funds as long as they were working in partnership and collaboration with the wider range of place-based stakeholders, and were demonstrating how they were harmonising sustainable production of high-quality foods with other environmental goods and services (including woodlands, water management, renewables and sustainable amenity and tourism).
This is at the heart of the “farming-plus” approach. The Designated Landscapes of Wales (over 25% of its land surface), for instance, can become innovative beacons for fostering these partnership approaches. Wales holds many excellent and innovative experiments of place-based partnership working. And these now need to be made more mainstream if our visions are to be realised.
Farming for the future: Creating and producing for the public and market
From the Wales perspective, then, the current Defra consultation entitled Health and Harmony casts a far too narrow and binary definition of public and private goods. It fails to take into consideration the need to develop the transition to local and regional sustainable food production systems and local forms of rural economic development.
A Wales approach must be more integrated and targeted at creating the means by which we can sustain the rural economy and small landholders and farmers in ways which build their capacities to be major delivery agents for Future Generations.
We should not accept, therefore, that the continued concentration of farming and the removal of family farmers will be an inevitable outcome. Under the vision and strategy outlined here, they will instead become crucial businesses for delivering sustainable rural natures and economy.
Developing a reinvigorated and branded quality agri-food strategy, based on a more diverse set of farming practices, thus becomes a critical element of the post-Brexit approach in Wales.