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  • Harriet Bell

Making ELMs work for Commons discussion continued

While we wait for the Organic Research Centre to create a scorecard from everyone's input a subsection of the Advisory Team are continuing to discuss how ELM might work for the management of Commons. The group met virtually on the 5th of October and these are the notes from that discussion.

  • I asked the question to myself what’s the reason for linking home farm and common [a suggested research area of this Test & Trial]. One of two things, because someone somewhere wants a landscape scale to package everything into one bundle, which maybe delivers a better value project, cream everything off the top but it could still be done on an individual basis. The other reason to do it is because of the detrimental impact, do people believe that if one’s in an agreement and one’s out that it will be detrimental to the one that’s out? That’s not evidenced.

  • I’m not convinced it’s the latter. That people that are in a commons agreement and not in the home farm maybe they want to tie up both. I think they’re probably looking at tying up both, the RPA like nice round edges, they find some agreements difficult to manage. The enforcement and governance might be easier if the whole thing is tied together.

  • I think that’s right, I think it’s an opportunity that you could tie them together and it could be really advantageous to getting a landscape effect. It’s not just home farms, there are quite big new takes as well. Big areas of moorland with their own characters. At the moment our commons agreement has a great big chunk cut out of it and it’s a bit strange having these two agreements one for a place and one for a place within it. It’s an opportunity that could be used either with home farms or new takes.

  • But do you think - common rights, Piles doesn’t have common rights, so I can understand that it is a very similar landscape but different because its not got common rights but for us, yes the bigger picture might be good but then I would say the liability is still an issue.

  • Just on the point of liability, I don’t see why there’s any need to be any more risk for liability, there is now within commons agreements a degree of liability in any case. So I don’t see that as an issue providing the structure and the way it’s set up is right. There could be substantial advantages for an agreement which covers both home farms and commons but we need a lot of work to get started.

  • We’ve got a lot of issues with trust because we’ve had so many different systems no one’s really in charge of us, no goal posts so there’s ….. [note taker couldn’t keep up]

  • Trust, absolutely trust. I think to myself, if we had some trust with the RPA I could believe it could be different but I wouldn’t trust the RPA, not a smidge. The economy is not in a good enough place to have trust. If we could have what we currently have and dress it up to look different. No, I don’t want to link my home farm with the common, that’s the crux of it, because if the same stocking levels were put to the home farm because of the link, we’d be scuppered. That’s my real fear, when we drill down, that people will limit my stocking numbers so we’re no longer viable here.

  • Could we all start by agreeing that the existing system doesn’t work? We need to start by saying the RPA shouldn’t be the people administering it. You’ve got a split now between NE and the RPA, it’s even more chaotic and hopeless, we definitely need to get back to one organisation. I think right back when we started, I like the model we had going back to MAFF when you have regional administration and input into who was administering it. I think that sort of model needs to be administered.

  • Just to talk a bit more about this issue of trust. I mean clearly we’ve all had this experience with the RPA, NE and predecessors and we don’t trust them but they don’t trust us so they micromanage. We’ve got an agreement and we’ve got to do things but then they won’t let us do it unless they come and look and then they don’t come and look. I wonder if under payments by results it should be possible to have that bigger area of trust because it should be possible to define what those results should be and then if you don’t trust them you don’t get paid. One of the reasons we’re not trusted to swale is because a few years ago a farmer let one get out of control and an owner made a big deal of it, that’s really damaged the trust. Under payments by results we would have been penalised for that, under HLS there’s no penalty other than lack of trust so I think it should be possible to build trust in a different way. The current system isn’t working. The flexibility of businesses and need to have different stocking levels and of course the impact of higher stocking levels on the in bye land in the winter can be quite damaging in terms of water but I wonder if we’re not looking at a long enough time frame? Maybe one year you need 100 cattle wintering, maybe another 70 but if you’re limited to the minimum amount there’s just not enough flexibility there. I’m just wondering, in the interests of delivering public benefit, if there’s one year where you’ve caused the stocking density to be less good should we be penalised for that or not, should we be looking at how you do in 6 years out of 10 or not? Can we build in business flexibility?

  • You’ve got to remember where there’s a scheme there’s a schemer and people don’t always play nicely whatever system you’re using. Every farm is different. I do understand the fear of being told what to put on the home farm but they are two very different areas of land but if we are looking at outcome basis many farmers would carry large numbers of stock on their farm for short periods because that’s what it takes to common. We cannot afford to loose the link and we need to farm. I don’t know how tenants and owner occupiers are going to manage rents. Because there’s so much to look at, but because tenants are 50% on the uplands and we are disproportionately discriminated against when it comes to agreements on the common. We’ll end up with abandonment.

  • Rented land, land ownership, where we rent land and if the home farm and common land was all in one agreement I dare say we’d pay for the grass let and the owner would pick up for delivery on the common. If they were all in the same agreement the work would be done by somebody else. On the positives what would work is regular visits with a project officer or whoever is responsible for delivery, sign off when the project officer visits. Shared vision and agreements must stand true, we signed, we committed to significantly reduced stocking levels and yet here we are and an owner has us over a barrel, that’s not an agreement, an agreement works symbiotically. If we haven’t delivered we don’t get paid. I see what you’re saying. On some commons they have (NE/RPA) been severe, where swaling has got out of hand, 5 hectares out of 1600ha, penalties have been severe, going back to the beginning of the agreement and forward even though it was good for all the rest of the agreement, is that right to be so severe? Don’t think it builds relationships. We only graze 22% of our grazing rights, we all took a severe cut and if then that same cut was applied to the home farm it would be quite detrimental. We use the farm to manage the common. We need that resting place, that fall back. It also has to deliver enough to keep us viable.

  • I agree absolutely that you are affected when you’re in an environmental scheme. It affects your in-bye, farm, one's in a scheme and one isn’t and at that level that affects how you manage that common and it affects the home farm. I see linking the two together as being an advantage in that respect. If govt. is expecting everyone to be in an environmental scheme and your in one on the common, you cannot then deliver the same benefits on the in-bye because having to meet the different socking rates and calendars have a big effect. So I see a recognition at the level people design these schemes. We stayed out of a scheme on the home farm for 10 years because we couldn’t meet the needs of that and our schemes on the common. So I think the recognition of the link is necessary. Going back to the role of the RPA it horrifies me that we might be stuck with an institution like them going forward. They’ve been designed as an enforcement agency as a result of EU penalties because if they found anything wrong that money came from the Treasury so the RPA was given no flexibility whatsoever. Since we left Europe some of that has already started to go. Some of the bananas things on the arable side. It’s up to us to say to them if the RPA are going to continue to deliver this at the very least its structure and ethos needs to change. I agree with the previous points but again, it’s how we get the governance that delivers that. I still want a structure that delivers it across the whole of the area and that’s how I see the way forward, so that we have some lead, you don’t have something on one common and something entirely different on the next one, it’s illogical, you’ve got to treat them as a whole.

  • I think that the rule we need to keep to is keep it as simple as possible. In some cases I think it will be appropriate for farmers to join a common or new takes but if it doesn’t fit keep it simple and don’t try and link everybody in. I think the early issue of proportionality is an interesting one, penalties have been out of proportion sometimes but I think that’s because schemes have largely been about vegetation recovery and anything that sets it back is seen as a bad thing. We need to see things differently, move away from vegetation recovery to more sophisticated changes to deliver public goods. One thing I was wondering we should be looking at is the whole issue of common rights because they don’t have any real relationship to the way that farming is done. A small number is using their rights and only a small proportion but then there are lots of other people, retirees or manorial rights, that they’re never, ever going to graze so I think we’re always going to have problems with trust and some kind of policing system as long as we have a system of rights if which exercised would destroy everything. So I think there needs to be a reform of rights. It’ll take a long time and be really difficult but we’re never going to get anywhere without it. You can’t manage these schemes nationally you’ve got to manage them on a regional basis but what is the entity that would manage it? The farmers that do a lot of the work in terms of management but we all know that not all farmers are conservation minded so there needs to be some kind of controlling entity. So it seems to me we need to work out some kind of body, joint venture that needs to be there to manage the moor, given the trust, objectives, to manage the moor but if it doesn’t involve the farmers or the owners it’s not going to work. I don’t see it ever really working properly unless it’s managed locally. I think it’s the administrative entity, a body with a secretariat that signs the agreements with commons and farmers, gets a big chunk of money and distributes it. It monitors the agreements and sets the objective. It’s responsible for delivering whatever public good its agreed Dartmoor must deliver. It has enough autonomy that it can do it in a Dartmoor specific way, informed by Dartmoor land managers, not someone in an office in Reading. One group that decides what we do, what we spend and what the outcomes are, dominated by the people who understand the management of the land and have a long term interest in its sustainability, advised and have to listen to people about birds, insects, archaeology etc. which need to be maintained as part of public goods. So the question is how you develop that and how you ensure that it’s genuinely producing public goods, that it doesn’t just become a money laundering scheme for any one agenda. It has a governance structure which enforces a broad delivery but is dominated in practice by people who actually understand it. It’s got to be more flexible, more local but not so local that it’s down to quarters. I think it should be possible but of course sustaining that without one group dominating it is going to rely on a lot of trust and broad minded people but these discussion strike me that you’ve got really good people, who really care about it and could actually do that. Say you gave us lot the resources to do that we could do it, you could trust us, we’d have lots of arguments but it could be done.

  • Exactly as X says about a management board and I’ve said in the past it’s split in two, one that deals with vegetation and one finance. It would need to be empowered. Commons Associations have no power, it comes from the Commoners Council. When we as farmers go to a meeting there’ll be 8, 10, 12 NGOs sat around a table, maybe one farmer, but the rest is NGOs. If on this board there was some balance. Dartmoor as a whole which dealt with the finance side. Whatever went on in that management board would have to be agreed, approved and enforced so no one could come out and say “but I want to do it different”. Then bring it down to quarters or something more local for the vegetation side but once again it has to have teeth, if something is agreed in the room it has to happen outside. We always have the same problem, the Commons Act stipulates that if we want to do swaling we need to have the owner’s permission, I know that’s just swaling but it’s about the principle of empowerment. Reforming the common rights that’s never going to happen, please don’t go down that route. The consensus of opinion may well be that everyone with common rights wants to turn stock on the moor. If you took away the money you’d probably have the same people up there. I think if you took the money away you might have a few people putting stock out but then realising it’s not worth it. I don’t believe in the Tragedy of the Commons, you always get self-levelling on the common, whether it’s agreeable to everyone is another thing. I don’t think there would be enough money in an agreement to sustain the environmental benefits on a common, if they’re linked I don’t think there would be enough, would they sit together harmoniously or not. If our home farm was linked to the common land one of the problems we’d need to address to be environmentally friendly at home, to put up a £40,000 cattle shed might be of huge benefit to our system but then you’ve got a dirty water system and a blot on the landscape.

  • Property rights are one of the biggest issues to sort out within the commons. Then there’s the RPA and they have no standard settings, we do so why does the RPA not? It’s luck of the draw what walks through the door when you have an RPA inspection. There are certain cross compliance attached to BPS, I know it’s on available grazing….Lots of little commons not in agreements cause lots of problems on other commons so we have got serious issues about how we manage things. We’ve also got to look at peat protection, that’s going to trump most things, a fair amount of money, we can’t risk the peat to be burnt, we’ve got the stocking wrong, we’ve got too much combustible material on the common. The conditions on the ground means what animals will actually graze in that area. We’re creating, maintaining and enhancing things but how do you do that on profit foregone plus costs? It just doesn’t cover the cost of production. We used to chase 2,500 sheep across 5 commons, now we’ve got 700. We have to look at available resource, non-graziers should be farming and be a threat to the agreement. There’s a lot of talk in government about the de minimus payment of £1,200, it’s those little pony paddocks that aren’t active farmers that cause environmental damage. I do think home farm should be tied to common on low level cross compliance for some control and then big payments to control peat and probably paid by some management group.

  • I think X explained it more eloquently I agree with his analysis about a Dartmoor board. I’m not worried if it’s split into two sections but I think it has to have sufficient representation by agencies if it’s going to be accepted by Defra. I think you probably would end up having to have representatives from NE, Commoners Council, National Park, your statutory agencies. Then you’d need farmer representation on it. I’m a tiny bit torn because absolutely I’d like to see representation on it but I also know the NGO and wildlife trusts have so much power and are so professionally represented that it could end up being controlled by them. So carefully look at whether farmers sit on it or sit in an advisory capacity using professional administrators. I don’t believe there’s anyone in government at the minute that I can say are real administrators. As much as you have owners that can stop burning you have commoners that can prevent an agreement by not signing in. Could you use Commoners Council powers to force people to sign agreements by restricting an individuals stocking rate. I can see some interesting debates about that. I absolutely get the point about people being able to trash one common whilst taking agreement money on another but I can think of it happening between home farms and commons. Neither of them are right so something that looks at the whole picture holistically, board of trust or whatever, that’s the only way that I can see that you can overcome those problems. How that board would be structured I think you need a lot of discussion but I don’ think that’s us to decide.

  • Just talking about this management board I’ve come across areas where the UK government contracts out the management of things like development projects or research spending so what you would typically have is a whole load of entities, companies, public bodies or NGOs who can bid for the contract to manage the money and then it’s managed in a hands on, frequent overview by someone from a government agency. So the civil servant is seeing monthly reports, observing meetings, talking frequently to the managing contractor and signing off payments. One way that’s quite often done in these things is that you have a technical board but all of the finances go through a different entity so when the technical board says payment is due someone else makes the payment. For Dartmoor it wouldn’t be appropriate to go out for an open tender, it would have to be negotiated, created but that model of a board, some kind of joint venture with the Commoners Council was the technical side, something like the National Park could be the financial side. Just to tie up with what we’ve been discussing before and this issue about people holding each other to ransom. The problem we have in Britain is that we’re not very good in keeping to agreements, we think we have one with NE/RPA and then it changes. It’s not good and it’s not reliable. If you take something like the Chinese are actually extremely good at sticking to agreements, they will honour it whatever happens because to them an agreement is an agreement. So whatever we have going forward it needs to have the financial clout that we don’t have at the moment. So for example on our common is someone does some burning in the wrong place they don’t get penalised, if someone stops it they don’t get penalised and both of those things are wrong if that’s what’s in the agreement. We’re not serious about it. It’s too fuzzy and it’s too localized, it becomes a thing between families, and that’s why its got to be a higher level thing but that person has to be not too much of an outsider because they have to understand the locality, but not so local because it becomes personal. That’s why Dartmoor wide is the right scale.

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