Today’s blog is written by Alice Groom Senior Policy Officer leading the RSPB’s work on the new environmental land management schemes in England

A new report seriously throws into question the UK Government’s claim to be a global leader on the environment.

The National Audit Office has published a scathing report into Defra’s progress, planning and delivery of the new environmental land management (ELM) schemes. The report’s findings are deeply regrettable, given the critical importance of these schemes in providing a mechanism to reward farmers and land managers for the actions they undertake to help achieve the governments targets to tackle the nature and climate crises.

The UK Government hailed EU exit as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform agriculture”. They committed to replace ineffective direct payments in England with a new environmental land management scheme that rewards farmers for the delivery of public goods such as recovering wildlife, storing carbon, and protecting soils. 

These reforms are vital because they provide a means of turning agricultural policies from a driver of nature’s decline to a key solution. And the world is watching. These reforms are testing the water, as other nations look to end harmful agricultural subsidies. 

So what’s gone wrong?

However, the auditor’s report pulls no punches, finding that Defra is at risk of jeopardising the delivery of this vital policy reform and concludes that they are “creating risks to environmental outcomes and value for money”. The report proposes that this is because “ELM is not yet underpinned by a strong set of objectives and Defra’s planning is too short-term in its focus.” But also, that Defra has their work cut out to regain the trust of the farming sector after decades poor policy implementation and a failure to properly assess the impacts of the policy shift.

All in all, the report paints a picture of chaos – with a government department working with no clear objectives or indicators of success, a lack of clear planning, assessments of deliverability, lack of trust and a disjointed co-design process.

Is there hope?

Luckily, it’s not too late – the National Audit Office believes that Defra could turn this situation around, but only with significant effort, to set and publish SMART environmental objectives, develop a clear long-term plan, and communicate this and work with the farming community to rebuilt trust.

This policy is too important to fail – creating a resilient nature positive farming and land management sector underpins our ability to halt the loss of species and to tackle the climate crisis. The Government cannot truly call itself a world leader on nature and climate with ELM in disarray. Getting this policy right is a true test for Government as they prepare to host COP 26.

Read Alice's post on RSPB England's blog for further details on this report's findings. 

  • Unfortunately, DEFRA and, by extension, Natural England, are in the habit of rubber-stamping government statements, no matter how disingenuous and flawed, rather than producing the right policy for the situation based on science and common sense: hence the abominations of HS2 and the badger cull. 

  • I fear that this Government will take the environment seriously the day that Ian Botham publicly turns his back on driven grouse shooting and becomes an RSPB supporter.