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Will the Government's imminent farming announcements get the sector back on track?

The Government is expected to make another announcement on the future of Environmental Land Management imminently, but will it hit the mark? Alice Groom (RSPB), Barnaby Coupe (The Wildlife Trusts) and Marcus Gilleard (National Trust) discuss.

January 2023

Speaking at this year’s Oxford Farming Conference, Farming Minister Mark Spencer stressed the importance of shifting to a sustainable food and farming future for England, to improve livelihoods and help tackle the nature and climate crises. This is powerful and important rhetoric, yet 5 years since Health and Harmony and the 25 Year Environment Plan were published the Government has struggled to get details of its flagship agricultural policies out the door or make progress against its stated ambition “to leave the environment in a better state”.

This lack of clarity and delivery has left farmers in the dark as they grapple with input cost increases, labour shortages and the impacts of extreme weather, and risks undermining the UK Government’s credibility as a world leader on nature and climate action.

When will the Government fill in the blanks?

Minister Spencer has set high expectations, promising that Defra will publish more detail by the end of the month, to provide:

“the clarity and certainty you need to plan ahead for your businesses as we move ahead through our transition, towards a much better way of doing things so we help the environment by backing the frontrunners, helping everyone to bring up their baseline and improve it year on year; and tackling the polluters who stubbornly continue to refuse our help, and threaten to undermine everyone else’s hard work on the way so we can focus on helping all of you to take your businesses into the future.”

Will upcoming announcements live up to these promises?

In the coming week or so, we are expecting Defra to publish:

  • A ‘prospectus’ – or a list of the actions Defra will pay for under the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) and the dubbed Countryside Stewardship plus (CS+) scheme to 2024 alongside indicative payment rates,

  • The SFI 2023 offer - which may include actions to support integrated pest management and nutrient management, alongside hedgerows and grassland management, and

  • The Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP) – which is required under the Environment Act 2021 to set out the steps the government intends to take to improve the natural environment, including measures required to meet its targets

What detail is needed by the end of the month?

The prospectus and details on SFI 2023 are long overdue, but where is Defra’s detailed delivery plan, providing the clear roadmap that everyone desperately needs?

Whilst it is important to understand what each ELM scheme will pay for, it is equally essential to understand scheme design, as this will ultimately determine success. Yet, five years into the development of ELM, there are so many scheme design questions Defra has yet to answer.

If a new form of Countryside Stewardship is expected to do a lot of the ‘heavy-lifting’, how will Defra ensure the right actions are targeted in the right place, that farmers can access trusted advice and additional rewards can be unlocked for local and landscape scale collaboration? It should also improve the Higher Tier of Countryside Stewardship, essential to safeguarding the investment already made through Higher Level Stewardship, but where is Defra on this?

Equally, the new SFI scheme must be more than a vehicle to secure high uptake, it must deliver value for money to retain public support. 

To achieve this, the SFI needs packages or ‘set menus’ of actions, to avoid a complete free choice approach, which will deliver little for nature. There must also be mechanisms to encourage farmers to move up a ladder of ambition for higher reward. But Defra’s current focus appears to be on getting farmers to sign on the dotted line, not how to support them to ramp up delivery over time (e.g. its new ‘management fee’ pays for administrative costs and little else).

Finally, the ELM schemes will need to do much of the heavy lifting to meet Climate and Environment Act targets. They’ll need to drive progress against the Paris Agreement, Glasgow Climate Pact and the recently agreed Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, in which the UK Government played a positive and leading role. Will the EIP clearly set out the contribution that ELM needs to make to achieve these targets? and when will the Government come forward with a clear budgetary plan on how each action and scheme will secure this contribution?

Just last week, the Office for Environmental Protection flexed its muscles, giving the UK Government a ‘Red Card’ on meeting its own environmental targets, finding that the Government has not adequately aligned farming policies (including ELM) with its biodiversity, clean air, and water targets. Leaving the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy was universally considered to be a genuine Brexit Bonus, but there won’t be any bonus if we start repeating the same mistakes.

Ultimately, a failure to align environmental and farming policy will not only undermine the ability to meet environmental targets, but it will undermine the productive capacity of the land and the foundations of UK food security.

But will the Government learn this lesson before it is too late?

We hope our new ‘Consensus’ launched last week will provide further food for thought on why and how we need to get on the right path and get this right.

Alice Groom is Senior Policy Officer at RSPB, and is Vice Chair of the Link Agriculture Working group; Marcus Gilleard is lead public affairs and public policy adviser on post-Brexit farming and land management policy at the National Trust and is also a Link Trustee, and Barnaby Coupe is Land Use Manager at The Wildlife Trusts.

Not all views expressed in this blog represent the views of all Link members 

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