Land is one of the most precious resources a country has. Although countries are defined by their people, culture, heritage and history, they are geographically defined – land is, figuratively and literally, the foundation of a country.
All nations have an emotional connection to their landscape, and Wales, with its historic relative lack of national institutions to gravitate around, has formed a particularly strong bond with its own.
Just as the Welsh rugby team acted as a lodestone for Welsh national identity at times when there were few alternatives, Wales’ landscape likewise found its way into the national narrative as emblematic of Wales – particularly mountainous and valleys heartland regions that have often taken precedence over Wales’ coastline in capturing the national imagination.
However, land has a wider importance than sentiment. ‘Buy land – they’re not making it any more’ said Mark Twain, in an era before the United Arab Emirates began creating artificial islands shaped like palm trees. Largely, however, the sentiment still rings true. And notwithstanding proposals to create a Dragon Island lagoon off the coast of Swansea, Wales’ land is a finite resource.
‘Despite Wales’ overwhelming distribution of land towards agriculture, it is not an area that Wales has a strategic advantage in.
In some ways, land in Wales has never been a hotter topic. Brexit has compelled the creation of a post-Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for Wales, with policy-makers across the United Kingdom also taking on the ambitious task of replacing a funding-per-hectare system to a more holistic, environmentally-based system based on a range of complex outcomes. The complexity of this task is becoming clear, with the Welsh Government announcing this week that the new system won’t begin until 2025, with the details of the new system set out next year ahead of a consultation in 2023.
But even this most seismic of reforms continues to be a limited debate. Of the 2.1 million hectares of land in Wales, 1.86 million are used for agriculture. That means that a huge 88% of Wales’ land is used for agriculture, which contributes to around 4% of employment in Wales and under 1% of Wales’ GVA.
Despite Wales’ overwhelming distribution of land towards agriculture, it is not an area that Wales has a strategic advantage in. In fact, it has the opposite.
Wales is a country of coasts and interior uplands. Agriculture therefore has to be conducted on mountainous terrain, with a large number of upland farms on slopes and in areas of high rainfall. As such, 80% of Wales’ land is designated as a Less Favourable Area (LFA) for agriculture. LFA designation is given to land where production conditions are more difficult, such as those where land, climatic and cultivation conditions are poor.
‘One of the most overlooked principles in mainstream economics is that there is more to life than money
Contrast this to England, where only 16% of land is designated as an LFA. It is unsurprising then that Wales has some of the lowest gross output from land in the UK, at £858 per hectare – a poor comparison to the table-topping East of England at £3190 per hectare.
In an economic sense, there is a need for a debate around what we want Wales’ land to achieve, and whether if we were starting from scratch, we would dedicate almost all of our land to a sector that, frankly, doesn’t give anything like a proportional direct return on this seismic national investment.
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And yet – there is a counter argument. One of the most overlooked principles in mainstream economics is that there is more to life than money. Industrial plants may make a far greater output-per-hectare contribution to the economy, but – even if it were feasible – would we really want to live in a country where our rural areas were dominated by industry?
There is the matter of culture too. We are not designing our society and our economy from scratch. Wales has a proud history of farming and agriculture, and to an extent its agricultural sector is more egalitarian than, say, the Scotland of old, with its comically vast feudal estates dragging a brutal and callous class system into modern life. It is of the utmost importance to remember that Wales has communities that are structurally underpinned by agriculture, with the rural life it guarantees a matter of culture and heritage as much as it is a means of employment. Many Welsh speaking communities that, despite progress in the devolved era, remain fighting for their lives also have huge links with agriculture.
‘A country that is presently experiencing mild food shortages should not flippantly dismiss the importance of national food and drink production.
Wales knows what it means to have employment as the basis of local history, culture, and community. The collapse of mining in south Wales meant the collapse of many communities. It is almost a cliché to say it now, but it remains true – the scars of that purposeful collapse of a huge part of Welsh life still remain. You can see marks everywhere from inequities in educational attainment, poverty levels, economic prosperity, life expectancy, and frankly most other means we have of measuring a society. Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it, and the crossroads that Wales’ agricultural sector – and the rural culture it underpins – find itself at should be a matter of utmost concern to everyone who cares about Wales’ future.
And although money isn’t everything, it is important to dig beneath the headline stats. There is no doubt that an investment of 88% of Wales’ land into a sector we are structurally poorly placed to benefit from and subsequently directly contributes less than 1% of our national GVA is a damning statistic worth of strong consideration. But food and drink are of course a core need of human beings. And if the Covid-19 crisis and Brexit have demonstrated anything, it is that our current way of life is never guaranteed and that crises can and will happen.
A country that is presently experiencing mild food shortages should not flippantly dismiss the importance of national food and drink production. And Wales’ food and drink industry is important in this debate for reasons beyond mere subsistence. This sector is one of Wales’ modern success stories. In 2014, the Welsh Government set one of its customary ambitious targets – to increase the Welsh food and drink industry’s sales value by 30% to £7 billion by 2020. An ambitious target missed in Wales is rarely even considered newsworthy these days. But in January 2020, Wales’ food and drink industry had the target well-beaten ahead of time, with a turnover of £7.47 billion. In a country starved of economic success stories, Wales’ food and drink industry provides a clear one. And Wales’ agricultural base is a clear first step on the supply chain to this industry.
There are two stories to tell. One of a country that counter-intuitively invests almost the entirety of its most fundamental, irreplaceable resource into a sector that it is strategically poorly placed to benefit from and contributes almost nothing in direct economic return. And all this whilst that sector contributes to emissions levels at a time when they urgently need to be reduced to zero.
And there is another story of a proud agricultural and rural heritage, that underpins entire communities, the Welsh language, a booming food and drink sector, and stands poised to make a bigger contribution to environmental outcomes when CAP is replaced.
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Land matters for far more than just the economy too.
The urgent need to decarbonise will require land for tree planting and renewable energy projects – we are all familiar with the debates surrounding wind farms and other projects that require placement in rural areas.
‘How do we ensure that this precious, irreplaceable resource is delivering for our economy, protecting our environment and providing clean energy, providing food and shelter for our population, protecting our rural and agricultural heritage, and allowing citizens of Wales to call our country truly ‘ours’ with all the access rights that implies?
The pandemic, temporary shuttering of society, and permitted daily exercise put all of us in touch with the land in our local areas and raised the importance of land access, bringing into view the topic of land ownership. Is Wales’ land a public good for Wales’ people, a commodity to be bought and sold, or somewhere between the two? A combination of rocketing house prices and a threadbare store of council housing have also formed a toxic cocktail that has locked an entire generation out of stable abode, forced instead to pay the mortgages of the wealthy in homes they cannot truly call their own. The fundamental issue is supply, and housing supply is inexorably connected to – you guessed it – land.
So where now for land in Wales? As we know, that is a question far, far broader than simply how we replace CAP. How do we ensure that this precious, irreplaceable resource is delivering for our economy, protecting our environment and providing clean energy, providing food and shelter for our population, protecting our rural and agricultural heritage, and allowing citizens of Wales to call our country truly ‘ours’ with all the access rights that implies?
The answer will not be simple, and it will not come from replacing a pounds-per-hectare agricultural funding system with a pounds-per-outcome system. CAP’s replacement is highly unlikely to address questions of ownership and access. And the slightly chaotic current public policy landscape of renewable energy projects, housing developers both public and private, government tree planting programmes, farmers and more all competing for land does not provide a strategic focus.
What do we want from Wales’ land? Not only do we not know the answer, but we are not yet even asking the question.
I recently attended a (virtual) public meeting organised by the Scottish Land Commission (SLC), a body established by the Scottish Government following the Land Reform (Scotland) Act. The SLC describes its own task as to make more of Scotland’s land by stimulating fresh thinking, supporting change on the ground and making recommendations to Scottish Ministers, where appropriate, for legislative and policy change. They hold regular localised public meetings such as the one I attended, where people from a range of backgrounds and ages spoke out about what they wanted from the land in their area. Scotland has a far different history with its land than Wales, and what works in Scotland will not necessarily work for Wales. But there is no doubt that Scotland is at least asking itself what it wants from its land. So too, is Liverpool – with CLES commissioned by the Liverpool City Region to create the wide-ranging Liverpool City Region Land Commission: Our Land report, which recommended developing a long-term vision, in which all land use is progressively directed towards achieving social well-being and environmental sustainability, as well as establishing a permanent Land Commission for the Liverpool City Region to lead this work.
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One potential way to sift through the competing interests in land and to view it in a strategic sense is for communities themselves to decide what their priorities are for land in their area. There are precedents for this – a Community Land Trust in Cornwall saw locals decide to use the land to develop housing, to be inhabited only by those with a connection to the local area in response to the issues being created by mass holiday home ownership.
We did start to have this conversation in Wales in the past. Scotland passed the original Land Reform Act in 2003, which effectively gave communities the right of first refusal over land of community value that had come up for sale in Scotland. England passed the Localism Act, which required local authorities to keep and maintain open, free lists of community assets (which communities could contribute to by nominating assets). This Act required a moratorium on all proposed sales of Assets of Community Value (ACV) to give communities a chance to apply to bid to take over the assets.
In 2012 the Welsh Co-operative and Mutuals Commission made a number of recommendations to the Welsh Government regarding Assets of Community Value, including that legislation be passed, that communities have first refusal as in Scotland, that the Welsh Government consider asset locking – which is formally preventing community assets being lost or taken away from communities, and that new financial bodies and ring-fenced funding mechanisms be developed to achieve these aims. However, the Welsh Government declined to do so.
‘In Wales, our national, strategic conversation around land has gone silent.
However, in 2015 the Welsh Government commissioned a consultation on protecting community assets, and responses showed a strong support for bespoke Welsh legislation – including the measures of the Westminster Localism Act and adopting the Scottish policy of providing communities with the option of first refusal. Natural Resources Wales was supportive in principle, stating that they agreed that transfer to communities of publicly or privately owned assets proposed for closure or sale could deliver powerful benefits.
In response to this consultation, the Minister Lesley Griffiths stated that ‘legislation in relation to this issue, including making a commencement Order to bring into force the relevant provisions of the Localism Act 2011 will take place after the National Assembly for Wales election next year . I am not in a position to commit a future Government to any specific action, however, I believe there is cross-party support for action on this issue.’
She also noted that the Localism Act does not provide for a community right to first refusal as for land in Scotland, and that this would need new primary legislation to be passed by the Senedd, with future, detailed proposals needing to be fully assessed to ensure they are within legislative competence.
Despite this, neither the implementation of the Localism Act, nor any specific proposals for legislation to allow communities the right to buy land or other assets have taken place. In Wales, our national, strategic conversation around land has gone silent. It’s time for Wales to start asking itself the question: what do we want from our land?