There are a lot of developments in environmental policy to digest at the moment, both Brexit-flavoured or of a more traditional taste. You will be forgiven if you are struggling to keep up.  To help make sense of it all I, with some help from my hardworking colleagues, have provided this short update with a more detailed spotlight on the future of farming.

Last week, we submitted our response to the consultation on a revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), and on the same day, Defra announced their plans for a new environmental watchdog, as part of proposals for a new Environmental Principles and Governance Bill.  As you’ll see from our initial response to the latter, and some further reflections earlier this week, Defra has a long way to go before it delivers the ‘world leading’ watchdog that the Prime Minister promised earlier this year.

In fact, on Wednesday night the House of Lords reacted to concerns about the inadequacy of the proposals in the consultation , voting for an amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal Bill) to ensure that our environmental protections are not weakened post-Brexit. This amendment aims to hold the UK Government to commitments it has already made, by ensuring that proposals they bring forward for a new watchdog are robust and that it is able to comply with environmental law. Needless to say, we are incredibly grateful to the Peers that have helped champion and ultimately secure this amendment.

And finally, you may have spotted that Defra has now closed its consultation on a future farming and land management policy in England, with 44,000 responses received. It is this that I want to focus on today.

Advocates of a ‘Green Brexit’ often focus on farming as the bright spot in the UK vote to leave the European Union. There is a huge opportunity to reform and refocus agriculture policy to drive forward environmental restoration across the country. And to its credit, Defra has nailed its colours to the environmental mast, identifying ‘public money for public goods’ as their guiding principle for future farming policy, and environmental protection and enhancement as the ‘principal public good’ that they want to support.

Andy Hay's image of stone curlew - a species that has recovered thanks farmers and the support of agri-environment schemes.  This pair is on a plot managed specially for them at Winterbourne Downs RSPB reserve in Wiltshire, where I shall be on Sunday as part of our annual Council Weekend trip.

As I reflected in February, the proposals are in the right ballpark, and done well, could lead to a game changing shift for wildlife. In our response to the consultation, we have tried to outline what needs to happen now in order to realise this shift, for both farming and nature.

So, to distil it down into a few points, we argue that Defra needs too…

 …be clear what it mean by ‘public goods’. To be useful as a guiding principle, this needs to be clearly limited to the things that the market does not and cannot provide, such as more wildlife, clean water and resilience to climate change.

…invest public money in clear environmental benefits through an expanded and ambitious environmental land management policy, with a significant increase in funding compared to existing agri-environment and woodland grant schemes.

…recognise that agriculture policy is about more than public money to farmers, and that there is a role for government in securing a more equitable supply chain, healthy food, and profitable farming. To do this, Defra should wrap up their policies in these areas into a Sustainable Food Strategy that brings coherence to the work of multiple government departments, helping to ensure that steps to improve productivity are coherent with the main focus of public money in protecting and restoring the natural environment.

…set out a predefined, timebound transition period, with a clear view from the outset about the shape of future policy. Funding released from reducing direct payments should be re-invested in a new environmental management policy, and Defra should develop a targeted Transition Fund to help farmers and land managers adjust to the change that Brexit will bring.

…bring much of this together into an ambitious Agriculture Bill, that sets a clear purpose for future policies to deliver public goods for society, with clear objectives and provisions to secure long-term funding.

To secure the long term change that Defra have promised in the 25-year environment plan, the last of these is critical. At present, the proposed scope and powers of the Agriculture Bill are too narrow and technical, and do not reflect Defra’s aim to provide “…us with the ability to set out a domestic policy that will stand the test of time.”

This in turn relates back to the weak proposals for a new Environmental Governance and Principles Bill. All of our experience with agri-environment schemes to date tells us that, when it comes to the crunch, Defra – and more importantly the Treasury – spend money where and when they have to. A non-binding 25-year plan and weak watchdog will not be enough to drive long-term investment in natures recovery.

We know paying farmers to protect nature is popular, and over 6,000 RSPB members and supporters took the time to respond to Defra’s consultation, pushing for long-term restoration of our natural environment.

Realising this goal requires secure, long-term investment in a new environmental land management policy. This will need binding targets for environmental restoration set out in the Environmental Governance and Principles Bill, read across to these in the Agriculture Bill, and a watchdog with the teeth to hold Government to account on whether environmental land management funding is sufficient to meet these targets, and realise the aim of being the first generation to improve the natural environment.

Defra’s plans for agriculture policy are welcome, and could lead to fundamental reform. The long-term credibility of these plans though will depend upon a legislative framework that can stand the test of time. As things stand at the moment, we’re some way short of passing this test.

  • I find the whole thing depressing. We finally, after decades of shackles and bureauocracy had the chance of release from an EC prison to be able to decide our own future and make our own laws. It seems we are betrayed by this Government which appears toothless.From the promise of an exit with a Bang we may well be leaving the EC (which IS Europe)with a whimper. Does no one in Government have a backbone. Politics! We need a jailbreak adn that FAST.