“I have found it a very rare occurrence that somebody speaks straightforward, incontrovertible truth – states a fundamental that underpins what we do, why we do it and where. There are layers of truth – poetic, economic, emotional, mathematical – and there are, of course, the facts of life.
Back in the 1980s I once attended a compulsory “training” day, provided by the Government to assist young people to find their way into work. The speaker began the day by asking: “What are the three things you need for survival?” There was one of those slightly sulky, silences before he enlightened us. “Food, water and shelter!” This basic truth rarely gets stated but is constantly there.
It has been bandied around offices and bars for years now that MI5(6) takes as a primary maxim: “We are four meals away from anarchy!” The projections about the shrinkage of productive agricultural land on the planet as climate change advances should be focusing our minds on how we use this resource, and how we treat it in our making of policy.
Lloyd George declared that, having come through the Great War, Britain would build a “land fit for heroes” – which meant a land capable of ensuring that all citizens have access to food, water and shelter, no matter their economic or personal circumstances. His greatest legacy to Britain was the council house. When I was a child growing up in Stithians the big event was the construction of Stithians Dam – a beautiful, ancient valley, a place much-loved, of peace and tranquility, was sacrificed, families gave up their homes and livelihoods – some could not bear it and one man, Michael Martin, took his own life. The greater good prevailed.
In the Second World War British farmers subordinated their enterprise and skills to provide food. Much land was brought into production, skills, knowledge and outputs all developed quickly. Farmers were a community of very singular and often difficult people who were respected. As a Stithians boy I was shocked to meet farmers in the 1990s who described both their business life, where costs rarely allowed profit and often meant loss, and their feelings at being castigated as exploiters, and cruel profiteers. Carrick Council enabled the formation of Truro Farmers’ Market.
Recently I attended a meeting to discuss how, when the figures for future houses for Cornwall have been plucked from the air – considering continuing high levels of in-migration, family breakdown, single person households and loss of dwellings to second homes, holiday lets and offices – we will address the urgent and critical issue of infrastructure. We talked about water, sewerage, roads, “affordable” housing, schools – everything except food!
I asked why, if we are making a plan which must, amongst other things, significantly reduce our output of carbon (ie hundreds of trucks nightly bringing in food and supplies down the A30), we are not safeguarding farmland, considering if there is land that can be brought back into production, providing the policies necessary to expand the “County” Farms Estate, encouraging more young people into farming and including the agricultural industry around boardroom tables of our economic development institutions. “Surely,” I asked, “we must balance land taken for development against what we need to produce food? Why do we not regard farming land as a key element of social infrastructure and include it in our calculations on future land-use?”
The day before, Cornwall Council granted outline consent for a stadium, offices and a hotel which will take advantage of a park-and-ride car park next door, and will only go forward if 1,700 houses are also given permission in January (“No pressure there!” I heard muttered under exasperated breath!). Merely to do all this, and provide a supermarket (absolutely essential to human survival!), a new hotel (equally essential) we will be destroying the viability of up to eight working farms. The consumption of land – our key resource for basic survival – is galloping ahead.
Cornwall’s farming professionals are amongst the best in Europe. Our university has some of the best environmental research brains. Cornwall has the second largest area of quality pasture in the British Isles. We still perceive land as an inexhaustible resource – like we did tin, copper, china clay, fish. In the development debate we are not thinking about how we safeguard the most important infrastructure of all – the land we need to grow food, not simply for ourselves but also to contribute production, brains and energy to the massive project of feeding the world – and if we don’t face that challenge MI5(6)‘s maxim will be tested, and we will risk conflict driven by hunger.
As we struggle with Mr Pickles’ planning framework, nudge forward Cornwall’s Core Strategy and figure out how we do things locally – we must attend to priorities – Cornish farmland, in use or otherwise, must be in the forefront of our long-term thinking and short-term planning.”