An economist’s blueprint for the countryside that ditches ‘flawed romanticism’, but still offers hope

Dieter Helm's latest book, Green and Prosperous Land, offers a radical blueprint for rescuing the British countryside. Clive Aslet takes a look.

Dieter Helm, an Oxford economist, has taken a good, hard look at the state of our natural environment and the result could be one of the most important books of the decade. Imagine, he writes, what the countryside could look like in 2050. A place of hay meadows and birdsong, of butterflies and clear, biodiverse rivers, with towns and cities that could also have been greened, the air purer, health better.

If we simply carry on as we’re doing, the consequences will be dire. We face a world devoid of many of the creatures and experiences we love. We can’t, perhaps, do much on a global scale, but we can ensure that these islands aren’t hopelessly impoverished. Salvation lies not in the trendy, flawed romanticism of the rewilding movement, nor in organic agriculture, but in better economics.

‘Beautiful landscapes, wildflowers and dragonflies are public goods. If their sum is diminished, we all lose’

We need to price natural capital, protect public goods and pursue the ‘polluter pays’ principle. Natural capital is everything in the great interconnected web of Nature, much of which (air and water quality, plant diversity, number of birds and the time spent watching them) is ‘every bit as measurable as the time saved by HS2 or Crossrail’. It needs to be priced into the cost of industrial activity and development.

Beautiful landscapes, wildflowers and dragonflies, being common for everybody to enjoy without detriment to others, are public goods. If their sum is diminished, we all lose.

So much is obvious and the idea that polluters should pay for the damage they cause is well-established. If the pollution caused by, in particular agriculture, were properly costed, the behaviour of polluters would be very different.

Overgrazing in the uplands exposes peat, which then washes into streams. Poorly maintained fields lose topsoil into rivers. The great Somerset Levels flood of 2014 was partly caused by the silting-up of the Rivers Parrett and Tone: ‘The farmers then demanded that the Environment Agency dredge the rivers to remove the silt that they had contributed.’

‘Many books on the environment are full of gloom. This one, on the contrary, gives hope’

Water companies have to spend a fortune removing nitrates from rivers, which, ultimately, the consumer – not the farmer – pays for. This ought to be reflected in the cost of fertilisers.

When such costs are added to the subsidies that have been paid through the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), agriculture looks, to Prof Helm, like an economically marginal activity. By contrast, the tourist industry, which relies on the pleasure people take in scenery and Nature, is huge.

The judgment against farming may be harsh and comes at a time when, having left the EU, Britain will be in a position to import cheap food freely from overseas. For Prof Helm, worries about food security are out of date; a modern enemy would have destroyed the internet on which we depend long before we ran out of food.

Trebah Garden, Cornwall

Perhaps. I’d suggest there’s still a risk that harvest failure, caused by climate change and exacerbated by population growth, could lead exporting countries to feed their own people first. It happened in 2008, when no country except the USA allowed the export of rice. We would then need at least the option to grow food – an argument for not building over potentially productive land.

Many books on the environment are full of gloom. This one, on the contrary, gives hope. We could improve green belts (by making them national parks), encourage wildlife (such as the peregrine and house sparrow) in cities, save the seabeds and generally pass down a less damaged natural world to future generations. And here we’re told how to go about it.

One proposal is to establish an independent Nature Fund, through which all money now paid in subsidies and collected from environmental taxes would flow, to be spent according to a properly constituted national plan. It’s just one of many ideas in this brilliant book, the appearance of which could hardly be better timed.

Brexit unshackles us from the controversial CAP. Mr Gove gets a mild rap over the knuckles for considering that food is a public good (it’s a private good), however, as Defra secretary, he’s one of the few British politicians thinking his brief through from first principles. He should take this book as his guide.

Green and Prosperous Land by Dieter Helm is published by Harper Collins, £20.