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Defra is looking in to spreadsheets rather than out to farmers when it comes to ELMs

The Defra family responsible for ELMs development is becoming too inward-focused, instead of looking out to farmers who will deliver their ambitions, says Julia Aglionby, executive director for the Foundation for Common Land.

For this Brexit hub column, I’m reflecting on the progress of the ELMS ultra-marathon.


My current obsession is how we as farmers can imagine vibrant and viable businesses without BPS and with ELMs.


How can we plan and tread the route to that future unless we have the map to follow?


And, as critical, businesses will be seeking to dovetail provision of environmental goods and services with producing high-quality food.


At this stage, clarifying the route map to ELMs is as important as what ELMs will be.


The Foundation for Common Land is pleased to be working with the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission and the Nature Friendly Farming Network and other farmer networks to create that route map.


Defra have agreed to engage with the process.




Will ELMs be a world-beating scheme that enables farmers to deliver the 25-Year Environment Plan ambitions?


Or is it more a blend of BPS and Countryside Stewardship that pays for a broader range of public goods?


Current information suggests while ELMs will be different, the epitaph world-beating would be premature.


For instance, rather than paying farmers the value of the environmental services they provide to society, payments will be based on income foregone plus costs, but as yet undefined.


Also, farmers will be primarily be paid for actions, rather than outcomes.


For the 65 per cent of farmers not in a stewardship scheme, it will require a change in approach even to enter Tier 1, but there is more than a passing resemblance to Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) or Uplands Entry Level Stewardship (UELS).




A big change will be for commons, where BPS is received by individual commoners, while Environmental Stewardship and Countryside Stewardship monies arrive in a lump sum and then are divvied out according to a locally agreed arrangement.


Under ELMs, all public monies will be received by the association, so non-graziers who previously were comfortable just having BPS may seek a slice of the action.


This will make negotiations more complicated, time consuming and costly.


Furthermore, over 50 per cent of common land is SSSI and so a tension arises.


ELMs will require Natural England consent, which looks at one public good, biodiversity, while ELMs has six public goods which may best be optimised by adjusting biodiversity ambitions but increasing, say, public engagement.


How will these tensions be resolved?


The owner and commoners may also have differing ambitions, as may be the case in a landlord – tenant relationship.




ELMs is due to come into being in 2024.


At that point we expect BPS to be half its current value.


I will repeat that. The expectation is that BPS will by 2024 have halved.


This means livestock farms on average will have a 46-48 per cent drop in Farm Business Income by 2024, unless they make serious changes to their farming enterprises.


Very careful business planning is required.


For the last five months, I feel I’ve been on a Zoom marathon with periods of sprinting required chasing the ELMs development process.


The process, we were repeatedly told, would be one of co-creation. What has now become clear is there are two parallel streams of development.




The Defra policy team and the arms-length bodies have been working up the detail of ELMs, while about 25 non-government organisations are managed by Stakeholder Engagement as a sounding board for elements Defra chooses to share.


Previously, I was worried ELMs would be late as we hadn’t seen any details.


Now I realise substantive work is being undertaken internally and shared when pretty well shaped, though Defra are now planning to improve their co-creation methods.


I am fortunate enough to sit on Defra’s ELMs engagement group, and at the Foundation for Common Land, I am overseeing a Defra-funded Test and Trial to ‘commons proof’ ELMs, so I get to see more than most, though Defra plan to share more widely in the autumn.


There have been many, many Defra meetings with multiple power points to speed read and long spreadsheets to pore over.


The latest had 1,261 rows of proposed actions that ELMs might pay for.




Now, I love a good spreadsheet, but no one can claim they offer vision or inspiration. So far ELMs lacks both.


Spreadsheet minutiae presented without overall scheme architecture or details on contract length, payments and impact on tenants and commoners makes the job of even being a sounding board hard.


The response is always ‘it depends.’


Of course, an inviting front end to the scheme may make the farmer experience engaging and inspire farmers and commoners to embrace ELMs.


With over 1,200 actions, ELMs will be a beast.


But we have already found significant gaps related to the management and governance of commons, to supporting native breeds and to conserving the intangible cultural heritage of farming systems in iconic landscapes, whether upland or lowland.




All these Defra committed to when the Agriculture Bill was passing through the House, but seem to have been forgotten.


So as we sit on the cusp of BPS phase out and trading uncertainty, I worry that the Defra ‘family’ risks becoming too inward-focused, looking into their spreadsheets rather than out to those who will deliver.


There appears to be little cross-checking of how ELMs will actually land with potential agreement holders, aka farmers, who are being asked to make the biggest business restructure for 70 years.


The good news is that a National Pilot is due to start in late 2021 and we will be able to test the scheme, but is there a risk that by the time the results arrive, the system design will be too far advanced to make substantive changes.


Flexibility in the system will be essential.



Julia Aglionby is Executive Director (England) for the Foundation for Common Land, chairs the Uplands Alliance and is a Professor in Practice at the University of Cumbria.

She lives in Cumbria on a beef and sheep farm, Susan’s Farm CIO, of which she is a Trustee.

This article is her personal view rather than that of the any of these organisations.

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