As if people really mattered!

Crossing the summer Alpage
Crossing the summer Alpage

An alert, this is not a trail running post – it is affected by trail running and what it means to me, but it’ll take a little more explanation to describe the context.

So, I’ve been reading a book published in 1973, by E.F. Schumacher “Small Is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered”. In this there are some jarringly powerful statements and thoughts, some of which I am trying to pull into context as the things that matter to me, and to the outdoor sector more generally.

A basic understanding of accounting for this argument is useful. My aim is to keep it succinct, but it is necessarily a bit detailed.

For those not familiar with accounts I’m going to try and run a very quick explanation. Bear with me, it is important! In most business accounts there are two elements to an accounting report, the Profit and Loss (P&L) statement and the Balance Sheet.

The P&L describes the performance of the company over a given time and includes all income and costs – there is a little more about direct costs and overheads but this isn’t needed here.

The Balance Sheet gives a snapshot in time of the assets held by a company. Broadly, this is what it owns, minus what it owes.

So, together the two elements give the total value of a company. The P&L is what is spent to make the income, the balance sheet is the bit that is protected to increase value of ownership.

Right, accounting descriptions over for a bit. The outdoors, nature, natural resources and recreation.

When I started to work within countryside access, there was a very interesting statement in the conclusion of an Environment Agency (Government Agency) technical document, W266 “The Effect of Canoeing on Fish Stocks”. (2000)

The general conclusion from this study is that canoeing is not harmful to fish populations. Therefore, the main area of conflict between anglers and canoeist centres around the actual or perceived disturbance of angling. Disturbance is in turn allied to the concept of exclusivity with its attendant financial implications for riparian interests and anglers.

This amazed me whilst I was learning; whilst biosecurity and safety were the regular arguments – the financial situation is what repeatedly led to conflict over the use of natural resources. Take away the rights and wrongs of either recreation. It reduces to money and control. Then in 2007, another academic paper was published “Negotiating Recreational Access Under Asymmetrical Power Relations: The Case of Inland Waterways in England” by Andrew Church , Paul Gilchrist & Neil Ravenscroft. This again related to the way in which “ownership” of natural resources changed the way in which moral and social gain can be described and achieved.

From Fordd Ddu, and old drovers road.
From Fordd Ddu, and old drovers road.

I’ve been in many heated arguments, right up to Ministerial level, about the fact that some people pay for countryside access through “ownership” of sporting rights. This is where the accounting bit comes in. In his book, Schumacher argues convincingly that there needs to be a change in our perception of the value of natural resources. Remember this is 1973, and he was the chief economic adviser to the Coal Board. He argues that many government policies, corporations, and at the time, society as a whole put natural resources in the P&L part of the National accounts. Those in ownership, therefore can dictate where the value sits. As an example the Forestry Commission would say, “we can grow a coniferous forest, it’ll cost us this much in staff and this much in machinery and in  20 years it will yield us an income of £x”. That is a P&L calculation, not an assessment of the balance sheet value in doing so.

Schumacher argues that if, as society, we placed natural resources in the Balance Sheet part of accounting, then we’d be more concerned with maintaining the value of our assets. We wouldn’t be eroding the societal and moral value of those assets to prop up our failing P&L.  We now all accept that our natural assets are finite and irreplaceable, there is no business adviser that could promote this as a sustainable business practise.

Our actions, post industrialisation have removed the natural buffer. Where nature in the 1800’s could adapt and protect itself from man, we now dominate nature, and tell it what we want to do. We’d like to arrogantly think, at least.

So why is this so important for the outdoor sector? Well in Wales we have the North Wales Outdoor Charter Group, in Pembrokeshire there is the Pembrokeshire Outdoor Charter Group and in the Brecons there is Brecon Beacon Outdoor Charter Group. Fundamentally this group of people place the Natural Resources of Wales in the balance sheet. They see the environment as finite and in need of management to ensure that the asset is maintained, or enhanced for society generally. As a sweeping statement, most land managers are looking at the P&L – the value to them is in the produce of the land, not of the long term asset value. 

And there, perhaps the argument ends? Each group looks at the same natural resource in differing ways? Well that is a blinkered and oversimplified view. Many land managers recognise there is a compromise – stripping all the assets from their land leads to cycling and unpredictable cash flow, and so a realistic policy needs to be in place. We’ve ‘developed’ at a high rate through to being a society content with consumption – 100 years ago subsistence farming meant growing food for local communities. Now, we consume all commodities, land managers have to provide competitively and efficiently to maintain their personal way of life – but what is acceptable practise now, we may prove in a decade to be damaging to the value of the natural asset.

Young people, being healthy, climbing has more value than adventure.
Young people, being healthy, climbing has more value than adventure.

Likewise, historically there is also the sweeping statement that outdoor enthusiasts only use the natural resource, and whilst accepting the value of the asset perhaps didn’t enhance it. The formation of charter groups, and the development of responsible recreation is doing much, and discussions about pressure points are encouraging.

However, personally, I think there needs to be a greater realisation of the fact that all those outdoor enthusiasts, and those enabling others, are doing much to help the National profit and loss. The NHS is measured in the P&L area of accounts – money in from government, expenditure out. If we can reduce the expenditure then the profitability of the government, and the nation increases. Outdoor sports reduce expenditure. They create a healthier nation.  On Saturday morning parkruns around the UK help people with physical and mental health. They engage volunteers and bring together communities. By running outdoors. Walking, Cycling, Swimming, Canoeing, Climbing and pretty much every non-motorised activity recognises the asset value (balance sheet) whilst contributing massively to the economic viability of a nation (P&L). We don’t need cyclical stresses of funding created by political ambition in the NHS. We need a healthier nation.

However, in England and Wales, the “leisure centre” that creates this, the access system giving public rights to the countryside, is a long way behind Scotland, and other European nations. The feudal system in England and Wales has created a dynamic where personal rights, and wealth can control, through perceived ownership, the asset value of Natural Resources. That feudal system was delivered originally to support the creation of power and wealth, to help with the control of the poor. The emphasis being that if people really mattered, then everyone needed wealth to allow others (those beneath them) to exist. Relatively, it ha succeeded, now the majority has leisure time, rather than the minority wealthy. And yet, when Wales wanted coastal access in the early 2000’s, a few of that historical minority controlled the coastal path delivery to be not entirely coastal! Therefore, this “system” though well developed and embedded is ancient and out of date. The success of wealth creation for more than a few does not reflect the space that the country, society and people now require. Quite a big realisation, perhaps.

It’s worth noting that this “system” is the one that is mainly understood by the political system. The system that defines the policies that regulate and license the use of natural resources. So, when you see a scheme that is treating a natural resource as a short term (in environmental terms) profit stream (like the Conwy Hydroscheme) the public must recognise that Government policy in many places treats our natural assets, not as an asset, but as a part of their P&L. Ironically, and perhaps importantly for this argument, the Conwy scheme is in a National Park, and the very founding principles of a National Park place the natural asset in the National balance sheet. But, because the argument is being brought on a different part of the National accounts, money (P&L) is occasionally more persuasive than looking at the wider value of our National balance sheet and it’s long term contribution to the wealth of a nation beyond any single person or companies value of “ownership”.

So why is this about trail running? For me trail running is about the journey, it’s about valuing the asset through which we move. If we look after the quality of that asset as best we can, then we are all richer. This generation, and future generations.

Then we’d be able to make choices as if people, and not money, really mattered.