Can home farms and commons be linked in ELMs?
One of the research objectives of the Dartmoor Test & Trial is to develop a Land Management Plan (LMP) for home farms and commons but also to specifically identify if home farms and commons can be more explicitly linked within ELMs, rather than be two entirely separate schemes. Now that we know the LMP will be based on farmer led mapping, with an accompanying scorecard and optional advice (although we're not fully there on the details of that yet,) it is time to move on and explore how this could work across home farms and commons.
The Dartmoor Test & Trial Advisory Team met virtually to start discussing this issue on the 3rd of September and their brief, for this first discussion, was to come up with all the reasons why stewardship schemes currently don't work on commons and all the reasons why linking home farms and commons is a bad idea.
Notes from the discussion:
Correct the heading: linking home farms and commons under one administrative agreement, recognizing link between home farms and commons but by necessity each was separate, just recognizing that home farm and common impact one another.
Common land and home farm are linked by having common rights but it doesn’t mean that you use them: could it be that if there’s a common agreement you make an offer of what you could deliver on the common because at the moment a lot of money is paid to people who don’t do anything, do we want to move away from that? It’s about recognizing how people can help deliver something on a common. Or is there a duty of care if people have common rights? I don’t believe so. Currently there’s an HLS and BPS link in that if a breach occurs on a common money can be taken from common rights holders under their BPS, that’s wrong and it puts everyone off having a link between common land and the home farm. You cannot be liable for someone else’s agreement, someone else’s money. We’re in an agreement on the common but not on the home farm because the common is imperative to our business and every business is separate and different, we’re not in an agreement on the home farm because we wouldn’t be viable if people restricted our stocking at home, we need that leeway at home in order to serve the common. The only way I can see working is that CSF approach of individuals volunteering to contribute at a landscape scale.
I just think it’s too complicated. They’re linked but your home farm you have total control over but if you join them together it’s too complicated. If you’re part of an agreement on a common that should tick your Tier 2/3 collaboration box. We’ve got rights on 6 commons, so it just becomes too unwieldy an animal. I don’t know how the hell you start to link them in agreement because if you ever fall out with a neighbor you’re at their mercy and it’s too complicated to unpick.
It’s not always the issue that it doesn’t work on the commons sometimes it's the issue that home farms get overlooked in favour of commons. The commons agreements function, the main reason they function is money.
Fundamentally I think to expect to get an agreement where you basically have Natural England (NE) allocate a whole pot of money to a group of people and you sort it out indicates a system that’s flawed to start with. In most of the internal agreements the amount of money is allocated on the basis of the amount of grazing, so each individual wants higher grazing in order to get higher payment so that encourages people thinking they’re neighbors getting a better deal than they are. With a completely hands off system I don’t think you can expect it to work, it’s really a credit to a lot of Commons that it actually works at all.
The most fundamental problem where agreement can’t be reached is effectively greed and the requirement of the scheme which expected complete consensus across all commoners for an agreement to happen. I believe if there was a majority decision that could prevent individuals holding the system to ransom that would work. Maybe operating over larger areas to form the principles of the agreement or go to majority decisions.
There are problems with owners. Agreements require sacrifices and compromises. You sign up and commit based on compromise and changes to the business structure but then as you go forward there are issues between delivering the agreement and permitted works on the common. We used to have a good project officer who could negotiate between what the agreement needed and what the owners wanted. Good project officers who can negotiate between parties and is strong enough to ensure work gets done, finding the balance between agreements, landowners, and graziers. There are always a small number who are difficult whether that’s graziers or land owners.
I think one of the issues is that working on the commons requires compromise on all sides and that’s where it’s very different from working on the home farm where you can do as you wish. If I tried to combine my common and my land HLS agreements it would be very difficult. Why would we want to combine them? If you were combining one home farm with a common in agreement surely you then end up having to do it by parish? With all home farms involved? So then are you not moving the agreements from a Dartmoor landscape to a parish based agreement system where the common is the leading community asset? I don’t see that it’s necessarily easy to have some home farms signing in and not others.
When we started off with the task and finish group Defra were specifically looking to try and find things that would work on the common so that was the main driver to include commons because it gave us a USP to get a T&T but there also was the belief that we could design something that could be workable for commoning. It was probably 18 months/2 years ago we decided that and since then a whole lot of stuff has changed with commons and commons agreements. When we went into ESA and HLS agreements we were all very naive, we thought it was a legally binding agreement which nobody would change and vary, but it did and what this did was then break that element of trust with NE and everyone else and that combined with human nature and Dartmoor politics put a big strain on agreements and have made it very hard to get agreements in whatever format we decide to do that going forward. I for one I would split the two because I don’t want my core business to rely on a common agreement.
If you give a pot of money to anybody and say sort it out there’s going to be fall out. I want to see money loaded to home farm businesses and then add on if they’re looking after their common. I’m much more inclined to lean towards a Dartmoor wide procedure as far as commons go, than local commons, because that’s where you get neighbours falling out. The Forest is a bigger area and seems more harmonious than some of the smaller commons which haven’t been able to reach agreement.
I think that solves it, load money on home farms and take it off the commons. When we started negotiation on agreements associations were really open and shared everything with all the members, dividing up the money and the grazing is shocking because everyone wants more stock out, rather than being about how their business ran, get stock out to get money. Negotiations need to be open, where they’re done behind closed doors it becomes a nightmare. The way money was distributed on another common a lot of money went to non-graziers which meant that non-graziers had more of a sway than graziers so when decisions were made about certain options non-graziers called the shots even though the agreement did not impact on their core businesses. Getting permission for works done from owners and Natural England or is it the RPA? I don’t know who it is anymore, they always tell you to contact the other and they’re all too busy to come out. Linking of home farm and common land agreements suggest that you would either have to be in both or none. One of the things that drives a wedge in common land agreements is that people cannot say no. If you have a significant number of common rights you have to have a number of people in the agreement, you couldn’t say no and just be fluid about when you grazed and not grazed because everyone else would have to work around you. Why we fell out at the beginning was because the grazing was cut so significantly, 70% was a common figure for reductions and it’s still set now.
It strikes me that within this test and trial we’re examining the opportunity to link this and we’re only doing that for the benefit of the administrator. There needs to be more money on the home farms and the agreements on the common need to be on a bigger scale, whole Dartmoor, quarters, it needs to be at scale where the arbitration is not your neighbor. Just the duplication of work on these small commons is just ridiculous. We need a body that’s set up to manage these agreements. It seems to me that if we have the right people around that table we can present solutions to problems on these commons and we take the bull by the horns rather than be dictated to. In terms of these people who create problems with agreements. If someone messes an agreement up or denies it happening then that should reflect on their home farm money, one individual should not be able to scupper an agreement.
I’m going to exercise a bit of artistic license and optimism. As I see it an agreement between a home farm and common theoretically has got to be possible because we’re talking about the same public goods. It also strikes me that this is the golden opportunity to get into Tier 3 because it’s our chance to have the landscape scale, blended finance, so I think we really need to let this sink in a bit. I can understand that collaboration is one of those c word nightmares but I think this could be a fantastic opportunity for a lot of people and I would like to think we could cobble something together.
I agree entirely that one individual shouldn’t be able to hold these agreements to ransom whilst also receiving payments on other commons or good agreements on their home farm. That’s why I started from the premise that we want one administrative body. I don’t see how you can possible link the agreements physically but you can administratively. I think it should be run by professional administrators, it is not NE, they’re ecologists, or our skillset. Some of the secretaries do a fantastic job but in any other industry you’d set up a body. You need to be very careful when you talk about more money on the home farms and taking it away from the commons. There is a very real risk that Defra/RPA could walk away from commons agreements if they don’t think they’re delivering and are we really going to throw away millions of pounds? I don’t see them transferring all that money to home farms, we might get some of it. We need a system which allows us to get more people grazing on the common, the management of common land is becoming nearly impossible in some areas because there’s not enough people on the ground. Council estimates 120 active commoners and I think that figure should be doubled, it’s not enough to manage the commons properly.
I think the key thing that’s problematic with the current agreements is the lack of flexibility at a number of levels. In terms of managing vegetation and grazing the agreement is what stops us from doing that properly, as an association we know how to do that better but we’re not allowed to because of the agreement terms. So if we’re moving to payment by outputs we’d have a more flexible scheme. The common managers should be able to agree the activities needed to get those results. Currently we’re tied by the agreement and its limitations on stock management but also the presence of NE/RPA. If an owner wanted to stop swaling they could lobby NE/RPA to see the owner’s point of view rather than the grazier view and that’s not community working that’s “parental intervention”. Part of the problem is that the results we’re being measured by are the wrong ones, e.g. heather in places where heather doesn’t belong. On our commons vegetation has come back but not in the right way, they criticize us for that but the scheme doesn’t have the flexibility for us to change it. It’s all about a scheme that gives us the right flexibility to achieve the right result.
If we had a whole Dartmoor agreement isn’t that tantamount to linking all of our home farms together, doesn’t that effectively give me control over what you’re doing on your home farm? That’s crazy. In terms of the Tier 3 change I’m very nervous about the word change. We can demonstrate we do a fantastic job, if that’s enough with a few tweaks then that’s ok but if it’s about whole scale change I’d be nervous about that. We need to stand up for what we’re doing already. It’s really important that home farms/commons/new takes aren’t managed generically, it’s really important for a bio-diverse landscape that we all do different things – some areas long grass, some short grass, some regenerating, a mosaic of habitats.
Although I’d like to see more loading towards home farms than commons I wouldn’t want to lose that commons money. I hadn’t considered that money could be lost, I don’t want to see any disappear. We’ve got to be very careful that if you look at those of us here, some of us can’t get into agreements at all on the common, some have got in but it’s caused lots of rifts in the community, in a lot of instances it gets worse over time. So then I’d say lets go for Dartmoor wide to remove local politics.
We have commons that have SSI unfavourable/recovering, if it’s not in an agreement it’s considered unfavourable, this reflects a fundamentally flawed system as to how we assess commons. SSSI is a mess. They move the goal posts. We’re so messed up with project officers coming in and saying it hasn’t achieved its status, where we’ve drawn together site assessments if the methodology used is not the same so it’s not counted. We need a fresh start and analysis because 25 years of agreements must have achieved something. We start with appreciating and recognizing and evaluating what we’ve got and then setting realistic improvement goals, if that means a new methodology then lets give it a try.
The people that are going to have the most influence about whether we’re going to get an agreement are the people on the Project Board [for the Dartmoor Test and Trial]. NE and the distrust of NE are doing nothing to enable getting an agreement. We are getting farmers to the point where they won’t cooperate because they won’t trust any administrative body. One of the things from the early days we really need to think about is getting people to sign agreements that don’t have a schedule or isn’t finalized. The issue of people staying out isn’t just about money it’s about making sure it’s all agreed and arranged before anyone signs up. So if we’re going to set something up we’ve either got to resource it properly, get enough people to do it on time and not be held to blackmail. That’s what we’ve got to get right. We have to remember that people have been bitten and bitten and bitten and no one wants to get bitten twice. I am in an agreement now and it’s right antagonistic. I’m having to fight a rear guard action and NE aren’t helping me do that. So NE/RPA have to fully understand their role in the test and trials and how they’re affecting it and it’s up to the Project Board that they get that message.
Two things we can improve on going forward is in making sure that we as individuals can take legal advice as to its accuracy so we don’t end up signing agreements under duress. We signed on the 14th of Jan for a 1st Jan start date and we were pressurized into it. There was a huge error in the paper work which cost us £40-60k, so going forward we want legal advice on any agreement. We want the delivery body to take responsibility that the agreement is sound and accurate. They cannot keep clawing back money. Going forward it needs to be an awful lot better.
Going on from the last point, you are exactly right. These agreements are far too complicated. We need to stop using NE as the dictatorship which tells us which hoops to jump through. We need to take ownership and take solutions to them which we’ve signed up to deliver. So we don’t have to do what they tell us, we take expert advice and we take solutions, not problems, to all these bloody meetings.
On signing these agreements at short notice I absolutely get that, we’re not in an agreement on one common because we were only given the document one week in advance and then 24 hours before the signing day an email came through fundamentally changing the agreement. The short notice cannot work for businesses. Then for Defra to walk away from what they’ve signed to – when is a contract not a contract? When NE is a signatory. I think we could call in some professional administrators to see what they’d do and asked for some resources to do that using an outside consultant that might help.
Simon Johnson from Foundation for Common Land might be able to help, he may be an acceptable person. We need to know what we want in order to instruct them.
I think we’re underestimating our own knowledge and understanding of this. It’s about how we present our knowledge. In terms of evidence of what’s gone wrong we’ve got 25 years of agreements that haven’t worked. The quicker we present solutions, empower ourselves to take this on. We all know what works for our farms and the commons. We need to resource and present our views, that’s the key, how we tell that story.
So we’ve been given the public goods and a free reign to deliver them so a lot of those fears that have been voiced, I think in a sense, should go away. The ELMs policy discussion document lists a lot of what’s been said worries wise and acknowledges them, that’s a good thing. We shouldn’t fear change. It’s not a golden goose I’m chasing, it’s a golden eagle.