In my second blog in a series about post-Brexit agriculture reform across the UK, I want to put a spotlight on England.

Signs had been good back in 2018 when Defra set out its plans including a commitment to redirect public money from area-based subsidies to public goods via a new environmental land management (ELM) scheme.

We had been campaigning hard to secure this change given that agriculture policy remains the biggest driver of declines in farmland wildlife.  Away from the EU Common Agriculture Policy, it was THE opportunity to do things differently and help to meet the UK Government’s commitment to restore nature (including on farmed land) within a generation.  The prize is great as there is more than £2 billion of tax payers’ money to be spent in the English countryside each year and while there are plenty of farmers already doing a great things for nature, there are plenty more prepared to step up to play their provided they get the right signals and support from government.

Nearly three years on, we have the legal basis for the new payment system established through the Agriculture Act and now detail is beginning to emerge about how the new schemes will work in practice.

Late last year, Defra published its Agricultural Transition Plan that set out how they would phase out area-based subsidies over the next 5 years. Yet, it was short on detail about how that money would be invested to drive environmental enhancement.  This created significant uncertainty for the farming sector.

Last week Defra published its plans for piloting and launching the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) (formerly referred to as tier 1 of the environmental land management scheme). This was the latest opportunity to show that the level of ambition for restoring the farmed environment remained high, and they had a clear road map for rolling out the ELM.

However, rather than the SFI being a step on the road to a more fully formed ELM, Defra has started to refer to it as a separate scheme. What’s more, it fails to offer the promise of fundamental reform to farm support, feeling more like a simple tweak to the existing system.

Defra’s ideas are outlined in eight standards within SFI pilot plan.  The standards are not wholly bad but they do include quite a lot of “deadweight” where taxpayers’ money is going to support farmers doing what any farm business needs to do, such as basic soil management. Or worse, the new SFI seems to be paying farmers to do things that are legal requirements, such as maintaining water quality. So, rather than moving to a system of public money for public goods, there is a risk that this scheme will pay land managers not to pollute.  This is all happening against the backdrop of significant uncertainty about the future of farm regulation and enforcement which was meant to be subject to a detailed public consultation in late 2020, but has yet to emerge.

So, is the new SFI scheme going to make a significant contribution to the delivery of the government commitments and help restore the farmed landscape?  From what we have seen, probably not particularly as we don’t yet have the details of other schemes (“Local Nature Recovery” and “Landscape Recovery”). 

Defra appears to have reached a fork in the road when it comes to agricultural policy.  Keep going on one path and we may end up with the poor cousin of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, in which significant public investment is made for limited public benefits. But, there is another path, where the future farming and countryside programme is rebooted so that farmers and land managers are given the tools and support to put nature at the heart of their business and receive rewards for the wealth of public goods they provide.  

If Defra is serious about tackling the nature and climate emergency and reversing the declines in farmland wildlife, it needs to be bolder and take the right path for reforming agriculture policy in England.

Anonymous