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Our Common Ground: some reflections on the RSA’s latest report

Kate Swade

The RSA’s Food Farming and Countryside Commission has published its interim report. Kate reflects on what stands out from it, and where we think they should focus next.

We have been following the progress of the RSA’s Food Farming and Countryside Commission with real interest. Established with a wide ranging remit to “find common purpose, create new possibilities for action, and achieve a mandate for change”, the Commission is a very timely intervention as the UK prepares to leave the EU.

The Commission published its progress report a couple of weeks ago, titled “Our Common Ground” (probably not a nod to the Land Justice Network’s Common Ground statement but nice to see some potential synergies nevertheless!). It begins with a bold statement, with which we would heartily agree: We cannot carry on treating our food, farming and countryside as we do currently. We are failing our citizens, our communities and our environment.

It’s a very thoroughly written and researched report, and as you would suspect, it touches on many issues close to our hearts here at Shared Assets. We’d encourage you to read the whole thing, and there’s lots that we like in there, but the key points that leap out from our point of view are:

A National Land Use Framework, and a Land Use Commission

These aren’t new ideas – people have been calling for a national land use strategy for some time, and the Social Economy Alliance called for a Royal Commission on Land Reform in 2015. What’s nice about the way the Commission have approached this is in calling for a framework rather than a strategy. This isn’t just semantics: a top down strategy for something as complex as land use may be just too multifaceted to ever be translated into action. (Indeed the Commission references the kicked-into-the-long-grass Government Office for Science Land Use Futures study which managed to prove just how complex and interdependent this area really is).

A framework, or a set of principles could be much more easily adapted to suit local contexts and may be less likely to get bogged down in bureaucratic weeds. We think that a good starting point could be similar to the Scottish Government’s starting point that Scotland’s land is a finite resource, and that the goal of land use should be the common good, or the wellbeing of all the people of Scotland). The key question, of course, and one for the Commission to address in the next stage, is how a framework might actually change behaviour, and incentivise landowners to make decisions in the interest of long term sustainability rather than short term profit. It’s really pleasing to see the Commission recognise the interdependencies and complexities of land use, and see them as a system rather than a set of separate issues. 

One potential answer is their proposal for a Land Use Commission as an independent body (like the National Infrastructure Commission) but with far stronger accountability to communities, and with an explicit role to represent the voice of nature and beauty. There will always be trade-offs in land use (it’s one of the reasons it’s so interesting), and the potential of an independent body that mediates different needs and pushes for the multiple benefits that can be achieved through considered land use is, we think, huge.

A roundhouse at Neroche Woodlanders: http://www.youngwood.org.uk/

Supporting social enterprise

We think social enterprise business models are one of the best ways of achieving common good land use – and supporting and working with land based social enterprises is a key part of what we do. We think there is huge potential for growth of this way of doing business, particularly in creating broad multiple benefits from land – whether that’s bringing undermanaged woodlands into better use, growing food to supply local schools and hospitals, or going the extra mile in terms of ecological land management to enrich the environment. Social enterprises and small businesses can definitely benefit from the rise of “disintermediation” and greater connections between producers and consumers, but aren’t defined by it. We’d like to see the next stage of the Commission’s work draw a clearer line between social enterprise business models and businesses like AirBnB which are platforms to increase personal profit.

Community and social enterprises have strong track records and we think there’s enough evidence for the “Supporting Social Enterprise” plank of the Commission’s reporting to be expanded, and to be looking at how best to support existing and new food, farming, woodland and rural development social enterprises.

Better information & data

Along these lines, better use of information and technology also offers opportunities for rural areas and food based businesses, and our answer to the Commission’s question on whether we should “open up information, with funds for innovation” is a resounding yes! Our LandExplorer platform is one attempt to put useful data into the hands of common good land users, and we are actively exploring partnerships to unleash the power that better maps can have.

Governance

Governance – who should make decisions, about what, and how – occupies our minds a lot here at Shared Assets. We welcome the Commission’s call for more decision making to be devolved to communities, as well as their nuanced discussion on the complexities of what that might actually mean! It’s very pleasing to see a recognition that governance is a key issue in moving forward with all of this.

There’s a lot more! But these are the key things that jumped out for us. We’ll be following the next stage of the Commission’s work with interest.

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