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

A new report suggests that Defra is at risk of failing nature and farming due to its poor management of the most important green farming policy in a generation.

The National Audit Office has published a scathing report into Defra’s progress, planning and delivery of the new environmental land management (ELM) schemes.

In February 2018, Defra 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 - to ensure that farming with nature pays so the fields do not fall silent.

Defra is designing three ELM schemes:

  • Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) will pay them for actions to manage their land in an environmentally sustainable way
  • Local Nature recovery (LNR) will pay for more complex actions that deliver benefits at a local level and aims to encourage collaboration between farmers
  • Landscape Recovery (LR) will support large-scale projects to deliver landscape and ecosystem recovery through long-term land-use change projects such as large-scale tree planting and peatland restoration

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 of poor policy implementation.

The auditors are also concerned that Defra has arbitrarily committed to capping scheme administrative costs at 10%, without a clear assessment of whether this is either possible or desirable. Defra’s arm’s length bodies are sceptical, concerned that this cap could stop investment in advisory capacity, something evidence shows as with vital to ensure such schemes drive environmental delivery.

Yellowhammer foraging in Kent field

A yellowhammer foraging in a Kent field margin. Credit Jack Farrar.

Some progress, but not enough

The National Audit Office does recognise that Defra has made some progress since their first review in 2019 despite the impact of EU exit and the Covid 19 pandemic on staff resourcing. Nonetheless, the National Audit Office questions the ministerial decision to roll out the so-called Sustainable Farming Incentive early in 2022 and concludes that whilst Defra has taken steps to reduce risks, the successful delivery of this scheme hangs in the balance and could further undermine farmer confidence. This is because the SFI 2022 would be rolled out before Defra has had time to learn from the SFI pilot, and with new untested elements. We know next to nothing about the Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery schemes, which will need to do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of environmental delivery and to help iconic species such as curlew flourish. This is unsurprising given the National Audit Office’s finding that Defra has yet to outline detailed plans beyond March 2022, or nail down its critical path.

Government will be unable to meet their targets to halt the loss of species, cut carbon emissions and clean air and water unless these schemes are ambitious and attractive. This is our opportunity to enable species such as skylark and yellowhammers to bounce back.

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. But there is still hope – 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 rebuild trust.