A policy for sustainable agriculture and local food in Greater Manchester

Background

The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) has been issued as a draft for consultation with a closing date of 16 January 2017 for responses. The hottest topic within the draft framework is the suggestion to allocate some Green Belt land for new housing, and there are already many campaigns and petitions against this proposal. The details are available at the website of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

However, there is little mention of agriculture within the framework, and this article suggests some ways to address this gap.

Context

It has been estimated by DEFRA that around 25% of the land in Greater Manchester is rural in character, including semi-rural communities and villages. And to be fair to the draft framework, there are policy proposals for high moorland, for low wetlands, for biodiversity, for water and flood management, for parks, and for green infrastructure. But there is very little discussion about agriculture, and the following extract from page 66 probably summarises the thinking:

The greatest potential for conflict with other functions is from food production, and it may be appropriate to reduce the amount of agricultural activity, or mitigate its impacts, in some locations in order to deliver improvements in priorities such as nature conservation, carbon storage and flood risk management.” (Green Infrastructure, Policy GM7, page 66)

From fearing the worst to encouraging the best

So, basically agriculture is the enemy of nature, where farming should be limited to areas where the damage will be minimised.

There is a germ of truth in this thinking: at its worst modern large-scale farming can be very monocultural, with minimal employment, using high inputs of fertiliser which too often runs off and pollutes watercourses, using heavy equipment which crush earthworms and erode the topsoil, as well as being an industry that is creating vast areas which are sterilised or toxic with pesticides and thus devoid of insects, mammals and birds, and increasingly devoid of pollinators such as bees. The token hedgerow is tolerated because it is paid for with a subsidy. At its worst.

But agriculture is also how we eat. Our source of food. It is too important to ignore or push to the margins.

Culture, strategy, and soft power

There is a saying taught in business schools that culture eats strategy for breakfast. And the culture of Greater Manchester is important here – it is a culture of partnership working as the default method for everything, of sustainability as the essential goal, of people and inclusive communities at the centre of decisions, and of having mature conversations when difficult decisions need to be faced.

The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework is valuably underpinned with this regional culture, and the framework would fail if the culture was less effective. Thus, the framework is not just a shopping list of statutory planning powers because people and organisations also understand how to make the best use of their soft power. This region uses its soft power to ensure an alignment of strategies, whether about skills, employment, research, regeneration, volunteering, education, health, and economic growth; aligned with land use planning.

So, let us imagine that within Greater Manchester we want to encourage agriculture at its best. This would connect people and communities back with nature as a source of food as well as a source of recreation. The alternative is to fall back on just a few city farms for school children to walk around in organised tours, some berry bushes lost in the bramble beside a footpath, and allotments where tolerated.

To be clear, the key rural areas – including high moorlands, low wetlands, flood plains, subsided mining flashes, green corridors, remote wilderness – all these need nurturing and protection, including from agricultural degradations such as peat extraction or heather cover reduction.

But for much of rural Greater Manchester, there could and should be sustainable agriculture – food – and at its best.

Small holdings

As much as anything this article is intended to encourage a conversation rather than laying down a blueprint. But one practical example that is often overlooked is the small holding.

By small holdings here we would expect to see: residential family housing set in an area of land no more than a few hectares, possibly with a selection of one or two outbuildings for small animals such as chickens, greenhouses, polytunnels, orchards or bedded crops. It could be in a rural or a semi-rural area, or within an infill urban site if the land is uncontaminated.

Increasingly we can see many urban gardens and allotments being a resource as part of a green infrastructure which supports biodiversity to a greater extent than some of large agriculture. This is because of the progressive choices being made by many gardeners. With an organised approach by a range public bodies, from skills to economic development, this positive development could also be applied to small holdings.

The likelihood is that such small holdings will not alone provide sufficient income for a family, nor necessarily will all the produce be marketed for sale. However, small holdings can work as part of a mixed economy of off-farm paid work or on-farm crafts and creative trades.

The objective here is to signal an alignment of strategies, soft and hard, which enable and support a rich mosaic of smaller farming units which embed within the local economy a sustainable source of local food. This will provide a large number of people with a richer interaction with nature from an early age, and would encourage and value ‘clean’ and traceable local food within a supply chain to homes, shops, cafes, pubs, quick service and full service restaurants.

So finally, some suggested additional text for the framework could cover the following:

  1. The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework recognises the environmental, economic, social and wellbeing benefits for rural and semi-rural areas – and appropriate urban sites – of sustainable agriculture which is aligned with and an enhancement to natural resources.
  2. The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework encourages all public bodies to review and further improve if necessary their enabling functions in order to promote sustainable agriculture on our land and in particular to encourage its human-scale manifestations, including but not limited to supporting high-quality small holdings and larger allotments.

Disclosure: for the avoidance of doubt, this is a personal view and does not necessarily reflect the views of any previous or current clients or employers.

 

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