In the political tumult that followed the referendum, one of our most immediate concerns centered on what would happen to the EU funding that underpins so much of the nature conservation effort in the UK. This week saw the Governments first meaningful contribution to this debate, as the Treasury moved to guarantee a range of EU funding streams beyond Brexit.
Despite ongoing uncertainty, the announcement from the Treasury at the weekend to guarantee that all agri-environment agreements signed before the autumn this year will be honoured will provide some welcome relief in the short-term.
The commitment to ‘fully fund’ existing agreements, some of which run until 2026, “...even when these projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU” is also a clear signal to the farming community that agri-environment schemes are a safe bet in uncertain times. By committing to underwrite these schemes beyond 2020 – in contrast to their limited guarantee on Pillar I funding – it appears that the Westminster Government sees the environment as central to the future of farm support. This is welcome news, and provides farmers with the certainty they need this year to apply for these crucial schemes with confidence.
Looking ahead to next year and the years after though before any 'Brexit', the news is more ambiguous. The Treasury will put in place 'arrangements' to assess whether to proceed with agri-environment and other schemes vital for wildlife, including a range of EU-funded environmental projects. Clearly the Government needs to have a process to understand the financial liability the UK Exchequer is signing up to. However, carrying this early commitment to agri-environment schemes beyond the Autumn Statement so that farmers can continue to apply for these schemes will be an early litmus test of whether the UK position on the CAP (of a policy reformed to focus much more on environmental public goods) will carry over to a post-Brexit Britain, or whether this was always just hollow rhetoric.
Securing this Treasury commitment to agri-environment will be a major focus of our advocacy in the next few months, and we hope that the farming unions and landowner organisations across the UK will join us given the importance of this funding to many of their members. At the same time we need urgent clarity on how this commitment will be delivered by the devolved governments and administrations around the UK.
Thinking more broadly about what comes next, although we recognise the need for a transition period, the Treasury commitment to current levels of spending on Pillar I subsidies to 2020 must not lock us into the perversities of the CAP. The outcome of the referendum should be an opportunity to fundamentally reform agriculture policy, and payments up to 2020 need to start us on this journey, and set out a clear direction of travel toward more sustainable farming.
Finally, the commitment to honouring EU funded projects such as the LIFE programme is great news for the UK’s wildlife. Now that we have certainty on some of these short-term issues, the onus is on governments across the UK to set out how agriculture and environment policies are to be developed for the future.
The outcome of the referendum result has created a shift so massive that it is too early to comprehend what it will mean for farming and the environment in the UK in the long term. Given the seismic shift we face, and the importance of agriculture and land use to so many of the things the public value, it is essential that we develop policies in a clear and transparent way, which ensures all stakeholders and the wider public have a chance to have their voice heard. Farmers are clearly important stakeholders in this debate – but this issue is too important for for a narrow conversation between Government and the farming unions.
Martin, your final comment is hugely important: this is about land use, and that means flooding, water supply & quality, biodiversity and people and the countryside - it is not just about farming, and it is certainly not just about a cosy Government: NFU discussion - as NFU and Defra will soon discover when the Treasury starts asking questions about the justification for spending money in the countryside. It is hugely important not just for birds but for farming itself that RSPB presents a bigger vision of the future.
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