Endings and beginnings: project-based work within wider transformations

group discussion

by Adrian Ely and Elise Wach

Since 2016 we have been involved in a small-scale project, as part of the broader ‘Pathways Network’, that has explored how to move towards more sustainable agri-food systems in Brighton and Hove.  The project’s focus has been evolving on the basis of changing circumstances, knowledge and ideas – a necessity for engaging with ongoing transformations. As our funded project work comes to an end, how does it articulate with ongoing activities at the local level, which will continue after we finish our current work?

The project was co-designed with a range of stakeholders, primarily through the first event that we held in 2015 – in the ‘seed funding’ phase of the network. A co-design workshop involving farmers, Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, Brighton Permaculture Trust and NGOs such as Land Workers’ Alliance highlighted some of the problems facing Brighton and Hove’s food system.

Supporting the ‘missing middle’

Building on earlier work, the group decided to focus on the ‘missing middle’ – farms that were too small to benefit greatly from subsidies, but too big to receive support from charitable donors (like community growers).  This led to interviews with local farmers in which we tried to understand the challenges they faced and the potential for them to be addressed.  In the interim, the referendum vote to leave the European Union (whose Common Agricultural Policy has determined Britain’s national legal frameworks around farm support since 1973) raised additional challenges and an uncertain future for UK farmers.

Another multi-stakeholder workshop was held in December 2016 where we shared our initial findings and reflected in this new context. This event identified two key issues facing local agro-ecological farmers: firstly market linkages (connecting local producers and local markets) and secondly, the availability of land.

On the basis of those discussions and the recognised need for new approaches in the city, the team produced two reports that explored initiatives in other places around the United Kingdom that had tried to overcome similar challenges.  One publication, produced by our colleague Rachael Taylor, explored how other local authorities and non-governmental organisations in the UK had tried to enhance market linkages within local food systems, proposing lessons for Brighton and Hove.  The hope was that some of these ideas from elsewhere could be adapted and built upon in the local context (an approach also used by other colleagues in the Pathways Network).

The second of those key issues – that of land availability – was researched further and presented in a paper by Elise Wach and Adrian Ely that focussed on the potential role of the Council-owned Downland Estate within a sustainable food system for Brighton and Hove. The Downland Estate is an area of 4,109 hectares of farmland around the city, within the South Downs National Park and the Brighton and Lewes Downs UNESCO World Biosphere Region. It’s owned by the City Council and managed with various aims around agriculture and land use, access, wildlife and landscape and education (as set out in 2005, and explored in a feasibility study the following year).

What can the Downland Estate do for Brighton & Hove’s food system?

The paper asked if food production on the estate – using agroecological approaches – could help to meet the multiple aims of the Estate, while also contributing to a more sustainable agri-food system for Brighton & Hove, which has both a high demand for local and ecologically produced food, and high levels of food poverty.

This paper was discussed at an event in July of this year (which aimed to create the space for diverse views and new ideas to be voiced on the topic: not only expert perspectives, but also the knowledge of the farmers (on the Downland Estate and in surrounding areas), conservation bodies such as the South Downs National Park, Natural England and Sussex Wildlife Trust, representatives of Brighton and Hove City Council and their land agents (Savills), NGOs and local food retailers.

The Downland Estate is greatly valued by many of the city’s residents and has been a subject of controversy in the past. In March last year the Council called off the sale of two sites on the Downland Estate, which had previously been seen as necessary to fund the restoration of Stanmer Park.  Commenting on the decision not to pass the land into private hands, one local councillor said at the time “at the root of public ownership lies democratic oversight. Sale, lease, change of use of land in public ownership is subject to scrutiny by members of the public and by elected representatives.”

Opening up choices about the Downland Estate

One of the key suggestions that arose in the July workshop was that a democratic/participatory process was needed to consider the role of the Downland Estate in a sustainable food system for the city, and that a clear vision and political leadership was required to take it forward to implement a new approach to managing the Estate.

Other suggestions included:

How does our work link to wider processes of change?

Conversations around how the Downland Estate should be managed are ongoing, and our workshop was a small addition to these wider, forward-looking processes:

  • Brighton and Hove Connected has been running ‘2030 Vision’ events, including one on the future of food in the city, which covered topics such as “better use of land assets” and “restoring the links between production and consumption of food.” Other discussions were on wildlife, housing and sustainability projects on the urban fringe in the 2030 Vision ‘Growing our Living City’ event.
  • The South Downs National Park Authority has been encouraging land-owners to undertake ‘whole estate plans’ that identify opportunities and threats, and describe their plans for the future. The Council Estates Team and Savills (the Council’s land agents) are currently working with National Park Authority on a Whole Estate Plan for the Downland Estate.
  • Brighton and Hove Food Partnership are refreshing the City’s Food Strategy, originally launched in 2006 and last updated in 2012, to include a greater focus on issues around local food production.

With Brexit fast approaching, the outlook for farmers across the UK (including on the Downland Estate) is unclear. Brighton and Hove has the opportunity to value and reward its tenant farmers for the environmental contributions they make, and to ensure these are not eroded in the face of growing uncertainties.

It also has the opportunity to support a new wave of agro-ecological farming, pioneering sustainable practices that feed the city in a way that accords with the ambitions of Defra, which aims to leave the environment, in a ‘better state than we found it’, including through its

The last three years of work on this project has provided a greater understanding of the challenges facing the local food system and the ways in which other cities have tried to overcome them.  As the funded work comes to an end, however, we find ourselves in a very different context to the one in which the project was designed.

However, this new context also presents new beginnings, and a chance for some of the more radical proposals put forward by us and the groups we have worked with to gain traction.  Alongside other activities and ongoing changes, these could form the basis for agri-food system transformations that overcome the sustainability problems that motivated the original research.

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