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Power-sharing in the English lowlands? The political economy of farmer participation and cooperation in water governance

Luke Whaley
Cranfield Water Science Institute, Cranfield University, Cranfield, Bedfordshire, UK; l.whaley@cranfield.ac.uk

Edward K. Weatherhead
Cranfield Water Science Institute, Cranfield University, Cranfield, Bedfordshire, UK; k.weatherhead@cranfield.ac.uk

ABSTRACT: Participatory and cooperative forms of water governance have become regular features of government discourse and stated policy objectives in England. We consider this aspiration from the perspective of farmers in the English lowlands, by analysing the current power dynamic that exists among these farmers, and between them and the key stakeholders involved in water management. To do this we undertake a political economy analysis that places lowland farming and water governance within the evolution of historical processes that, over time, have influenced the ability of farmers to participate in the governance of their water environment. These historical developments are interpreted through the lens of the Power Cube, an analytical tool for thinking about the interplay between different forms of power operating in different types of spaces and at different levels of governance. Our findings reveal that, despite there being a number of structural changes that provide lowland farmers with the opportunity to participate and cooperate in water governance, three distinct barriers stand in the way. These relate to the power 'within' these farmers, which continues to align with a productivist ideology founded on individualism and competition, often at the expense of the environment; the power that government water managers still exercise 'over' farmers instead of 'with' them; and the relationship between lowland farming and environmental interests, where historically the two sides’ power 'to' act has been diametrically opposed. The findings point to the importance of developing suitable programmes designed to support and incentivize farmer participation and cooperation.

KEYWORDS: Power Cube, participation and cooperation, water governance, farming, lowland England