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Are vital farming reforms in peril?

Alice Groom, Senior Policy Officer (Food and Farming) for RSPB and Barnaby Coupe, Land Use Policy Manager for The Wildlife Trusts reflect on the National Audit Office’s latest report on the new Environmental land Management Scheme

September 2021

Government cannot tackle the nature and climate crises without transformational reform of farming policy to help build a resilient nature positive farming sector. We have a once in a generation opportunity to achieve this, which is why TWT, RSPB are deeply concerned that Government seems to be putting these vital reforms in peril.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has published a scathing report into Defra’s progress, planning and delivery of the new environmental land management schemes (ELM) – its keystone farming policy. The report finds that Defra is at risk of jeopardising the delivery of this vital policy and concludes that this is “creating risks to environmental outcomes and value for money”. The report finds 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.” It is completely unacceptable that Government still cannot articulate how ELM will help deliver its own environmental commitments, such as halting the loss of species abundance or achieving net zero

The report also warns that Defra has their work cut out to regain the trust of the farming sector after decades of poor policy implementation and a failure to properly assess the distributional impacts of their new policies. The report notes that there is “still considerable uncertainty over how farm incomes will be affected.” This must seriously bring into question the government’s commitment to a "fair and equitable transition"?

The NAO also draw attention to the 10% cap Defra has committed themselves to for the administrative costs of running the scheme. The report highlights a lack of a clear assessment of the feasibility or impact of such a cap. Defra’s arm’s length bodies are sceptical, concerned that this cap could stop investment in advisory capacity, despite the strong evidence demonstrating the role advice plays in boosting environmental delivery. It could also undermine efforts to prevent fraud and fund critical elements such as proper monitoring and evaluation.

The National Audit Office does recognise that Defra has made some progress since their first review in 2019 (which we blogged about here) despite the impact of EU exit and the Covid 19 pandemic on staff resourcing. Defra has experienced periods of understaffing and huge turnover, which will not have helped matters. However, the auditors question the ministerial decision to roll out the 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. We are concerned that a focus on getting SFI 2022 out the door, might have kicked the Local Nature Recovery and Landscape recovery schemes into the long grass. Yet these schemes will be vital to support those farmers and land managers rearing to deliver more. And we will need to do a lot more to halt the loss of nature by 2030 and achieve net zero.

So, where does ELM stand?

The NAO do offer hope that Defra can still turn it around and have set out a series of strong recommendations to make this possible. The two we feel are most pressing and so critical to unlock progress are:

  • urgently agree and publish a clear, realistic and logical and prioritised set of strategic objectives for ELM, and;
  • develop detailed plans that go beyond its short-term delivery priorities based on robust delivery schedules and a long-term detailed critical path.

And to this we add one of our own – the need to communicate and work with the farming community and external stakeholders to rebuilt trust and ensure successful delivery.

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 COP26.

Alice Groom is Senior Policy Officer (Food and Farming) for RSPB and Barnaby Coupe is Land Use Policy Manager for The Wildlife Trusts.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.