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Navigating solutions amidst polarised politics and a change-averse culture

A Statement from Middle Ground Growers regarding the politicisation of our farm and livelihoods

It has come to our attention that a small number of vocal residents and politicians are spreading false (and therefore illegal) claims about our farm, its stewards and our work at Weston Spring Farm. These intentionally provocative rumours have taken various forms: online harassment, verbal abuse and hysterical shouting at our delivery drivers and growers, sending legal letters incorrectly challenging our established access rights, opposition to our planning approval (3 judicial reviews), political campaign leaflets, twitter rumours and more than can be described here, all of which has taken significant tolls on our mental health, costing our non-profit community enterprise and threatening our livelihoods, whilst detracting a lot of attention from the work we need to be doing growing food and stewarding this beautiful land as best we can. It appears there has been an escalation of these exaggerated dramas since we gained planning approval for a solar barn and polytunnels for the farm – essential infrastructure to grow & store year-round food for local people, so we can move beyond being reliant on bought-in staples in the winter. This statement aims to clarify some false assumptions about our farm, which have been fuelled by a minority of several loud cynical voices amidst an ocean of local and regional support for this ecological farm for Bath. At this stage, none of the critics behind the screens have visited the farm or engaged us in real dialogue beyond social media harassment and letters from their solicitors with false threats to our livelihood and farm. To be clear, this small current of resistance to change comes amidst a sea of mass support and readiness for solutions in our communities which we are so grateful for. The intention here is to invite greater support beyond polarised politics, transform fear of change into an active hope for a healthier world, and to shed light on themes underneath objections.

Firstly, to address the unhealthy politicisation of our farm project for personal interest. Let’s clear up first of all that food security, the climate emergency, local economy and sustainable farming transitions are complex challenges our society and generation faces collectively, regardless of political orientation or ideologies. Our project gained a lot of traction and national publicity, from a successful Crowdfunder with hundreds of local supporters, grounded in the pragmatic sense of growing fresh food sustainably for our communities and delivering by bike. Many within B&NES council of all parties and camps, including the council leaders, supported this project for local food resilience, and rightly so. However, the vocal support from Lib Dem leaders appeared to aggravate some Conservative campaigners, and it was thus used as a self-interested campaign tactic by both parties, be it intentionally or unintentionally to further their political careers and aims. To be clear, we welcome any and all political inclinations to support local food, and think this can actually be a unifying force to bring people together around the solutions – it is unfortunate that others are using this as an opportunity to increase separation and polarisation. We have welcomed and warmly invite any local residents and councillors that care about local community resilience, Baths market garden heritage and the production of sustainable food locally, to get behind this project and openly champion these important issues – we don’t care what camp you’re in, just that you are a human committed to being part of solutions, dialogue and caring for each other. This is the opposite of what we have received through online and verbal harassment totally disproportionate to the situation.

The politicisation has been further fuelled by the ideologies and influence of several residents who chose to live in a farming environment – they did not want to see any change in the countryside for self-centred reasons, with their detached house views (on previously market garden/farm land) being affected by the ghastly eyesore of orchards and market garden, and concern that it will not only be their sports cars traversing the end of Broadmoor lane, but also veg delivery bikes and some one-off essential deliveries whilst the site gets established. To also respond to several access concerns raised from the twitter storms in teacups: a) we have established legal access rights contrary to false claims aimed at discrediting us and b) these access rights exist for agricultural use which includes but is not limited to: compost deliveries, veg deliveries, materials supply and infrastructural requirements for a working farm. This is commensurate with previous use and if anything a decrease from the previous heavy agricultural silage machinery and animal trailers to now instead the use of e-bikes and occasional deliveries whilst we get the site and no-dig market garden set up. Regardless, farmers should not have to justify the minimum operational requirements of their farm to people who eat food 3 times a day without serious question or thought as to where it’s from and what were the consequences of it.

To address the concerns raised by the Bath Conservative party, who cherrypicked quotes out of context and inserted them into a twitter post to give the false idea that there was uncertainty over the potential landscape or access impacts. Not only did we undertake years of surveying and expert consultation for this work, but the council also underwent a thorough process of landscape, visual, social and ecological assessments, to which the conclusion in the planning approval letter (available publicly on the planning portal) was thus: “it is concluded that the proposals will not have an unacceptable impact on the landscape character of the AONB nor give rise to harm to the setting of the World Heritage Site. The proposals do not represent inappropriate development in the Green Belt.” In terms of the planning process and other considerations, our approval was taken to the highest levels of planning (Secretary of State under the conservative government), and her majesty’s courts, to which it was also concluded that neither the planning process or the landscape impacts were at fault here, and that the project proposals and development were appropriate. Furthermore, the practices of organic agriculture, orchard, wildflower meadow and market garden are actually beneficial to both the landscape, ecology and local community. Indeed nothing new, but a return to Bath’s market garden heritage based upon agricultural land that would have been covered in diverse food production for local people not so long ago.

It is a great shame that several overbearing voices have attempted to dominate this space which should be about dissolving barriers and community-led solutions. It is also disappointing that local politicians from all sides have not taken a step back to realise that community food resilience and solutions to the climate emergency (that they all declared several years ago) are beyond schoolyard party politic games and self-interest. Of course it’s easier to be critical, to point out flaws, be it towards a political party, a planning system or a farm. It allows the critic to sit back safely behind a twitter screen or behind a solicitor, and neither communication forms are healthy in this context – unfortunately our attempts for face-to-face discussion and offers of conflict resolution with the several objectors have thus far been ignored. We’d like to healthily navigate beyond these dramatized twitter storms and political campaigns, so we can get on with the work at hand, without our livelihoods and farm being threatened, without getting caught up in political scraps, without false claims being made about our business and sent to customers.

Furthermore, we believe that moving beyond this could be constructive and healing for all parties involved. We welcome any opportunities for reflection and reconciliation, and the scope to work together across boundaries to explore how this sort of project might actually benefit all local residents as well as improving the health of the whole - e.g. community resilience an ecosystem health. An invitation for us all to move beyond cynicism and polarisation, an invitation for all residents to engage more in their local food production and the source of their sustenance each day, and the land around them. An invitation for politicians to address the need for a cross-party Sustainable Food Strategy which should be at the heart of any climate emergency declarations and manifestos. After so much talk and so little action at regional and national levels on these issues, the small number of projects trailblazing the way need more support than ever. And when the real, on-the-ground solutions come along, to see this as an opportunity for collaboration across boundaries rather than a divisive tool for personal or political gain.

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