Following from last week’s blog, Alice Groom, Senior Policy Officer, working on environmental land management writes again.

Government’s handling of future farming reform has come under fire yet again. Public Accounts Committee latest’s report about the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes found that government is at risk of squandering the opportunity of farming policy reform.

This weekend, the Public Accounts Committee delivered a scathing assessment of government’s handling of future farming reform. This comes just months after similar findings made by the National Audit Office and Environment, Food and Rural Affair Committee. We have covered the findings and implications of these reports in recent blogs see here and here. But many of the recommendations made by these reports have gone unimplemented.

The Public Accounts Committee monitors the value for money of government project, programmes, and services. Whilst DEFRA  has published a little more detail on the new schemes (see here) since the ink would have dried on this report, the findings and recommendations of the Public Accounts Committee remain valid.

Surely, the findings of the Public Accounts Committee are too stark to ignore?

We, the RSPB, voiced our concerns that these vital reforms looked increasingly off track (see here). And last month, with concerns growing, we issued a joint press release (see here) with our vital partners The Wildlife Trust and National Trust, and followed up with a blog here, to set out our worries in more detail. We have also worked as a member of Wildlife and Countryside Link to publish a report setting out a positive vision to keep these reforms on track (see here).

Critical findings...

  1. Rhetoric over action…

 “The Environmental Land Management scheme is an opportunity to reset the approach to land management in England and deliver benefits for the environment whilst also promoting a sustainable and productive farming sector”. But Government is putting this at risk by because they have “given no detail about how either the necessary productivity increases, or environmental benefits will be brought about”.

The committee is very scathing about Defra apparent “blind optimism”, despite not being able to set out clearly how the schemes will work or what they will deliver. Behind the warm words there appears to be an absence of detail.

  1. The burden of undue anxiety

The committee finds that the lack of detail, it is impacting on farmers ability to plan and this is causing anxiety in the sector. Without the necessary detail farmers are unable to plan for policy reform and unlock the opportunities it presents. Last week Defra provided a little more detail on the Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery schemes, but again not in sufficient detail to enable a farmer to produce any firm plans.

However, growing evidence and experience, is demonstrating that nature friendly farming provides a route that is profitable and productive, whilst helping to nurture soils and enable species to thrive. But without clarity on the new environmental land management schemes, farmers just see the loss of their basic payments, which are a legacy of our membership of the European Union. Government needs to do better at providing the detail and communicating the benefits of the new approach.

  1. No investment in baselining or measuring outcomes

The report finds that Defra has not clearly established objectives for the schemes, invested in baselining or established how environmental goals will be assessed, leading them to question the value for money of the policy.

“The Department has not established robust baseline of metrics or clear objectives which would allow it to measure the success of the scheme and assess whether the £2.4 billion it plans to spend on agricultural schemes during each year of this Parliament is providing value for money and contributing to government’s wider environmental goals”

Defra did publish some outline environment outcomes for the schemes last week. But not the precise and measurable objectives demanded by the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee in October nor the metrics the Public Accounts Committee is referring to here. Whilst it is useful to see the high level objectives, what has been published so far is devoid of the sort of apportionment of sub-targets between the three ELM schemes that would be necessary to be able to hold the government properly to account as part of decision to stagger the roll out of each scheme.

  1. And what of food security and footprint?

Government has failed to convince the committee, due to the lack of detail and analysis, that the scheme will not impact on food security and the UKs oversees footprint.

“The Department has also not explained how the Scheme’s changes in land use will not simply result in more food being imported, with the environmental impacts of food production being “exported” to countries with lower environmental standards.”

We can produce food and deliver for nature, which is why it is so disappointing that the UK Government has not done the necessary work to satisfy the concerns of the committee and perhaps more importantly farmers. Farming and nature can and must go hand in hand, we cannot squander this opportunity.


How can government put this right?

The committee’s recommendations are in many ways quite simple and can be summarised as:

  • Develop and publish scheme details to enable farmers to plan and ensure the schemes are a success,
  • Be clear about what these schemes need to deliver for the environment and develop the necessary baselines and metrics to track progress.
  • Undertake robust assessments to provide confidence that government understands the implications of its policy aspirations on nature, food, and farming.

The RSPB supports the committee’s recommendations, and if implemented they could help get vital farming policy reforms back on track. However, we would also add that Defra does increasingly need to listen to its colleagues from Natural England and the Environment Agency who have years of experiences and considerable expertise in designing scheme. We are concerned that Defra is not fully utilising this valuable resource.

Leaving the European Union, gave us the opportunity to develop farming policies that sees farming and the environment as mutually beneficial and interdependent. But Government appears to be letting this opportunity slip through its fingers. Government cannot meet its commitments to halt the loss of wildlife or tackle climate change without getting these schemes right.

Government now has the recommendations of three authoritative reports sat on its desk, to ignore these would be a betrayal of its promise of a green Brexit.

  • For me the bellwether of the reforms is the in-field element for arable. Hope Farm has shown 5% in field measures could well stem the decline in key farmland birds like Corn Bunting - but in the past farmers have been very ready to sign up to edge and non-crop measures, but not in field. Compulsory - or grant led effective compulsion - for in field would be a major initiative on the road to biodiversity recovery - but personally I don't think it will happen - what we'll get is some wizard wheezes costing little and affecting little but looking good, and the rest business as usual.