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Defra is ‘stuck on amber’ when it comes to progressing post-Brexit ag schemes

Industry is keen to push forward with the tests and trials for a new post-Brexit ag scheme, but Defra appears to be stuck at the amber light, says Julia Aglionby,  executive director (England) for the Foundation for Common Land and chair of the Uplands Alliance.

Last week the Prime Minister introduced legislation which legally binds the UK to be carbon neutral by 2050.

 

This follows on from the NFU’s target this January to make UK agriculture in England carbon neutral by 2040.

 

These are necessary targets to address the major risks to our planet and our livelihoods. The question now is how do we make them a reality?

 

Massive investment and change will be required both from Government and the private sector.

 

Key

 

ELMS, the proposed Environmental Land Management Scheme, will be a key mechanism to support farming systems which sequester more carbon.

 

At the Foundation for Common Land, we are keen to work with Defra to develop the ELMS. We are excited that instead of payments being linked to income foregone, commoners could be paid for the value of the actual benefits they provide to society.

 

These include carbon storage in peat and grassland soils as well as cultural landscapes, biodiversity and opportunities for health and well-being.

 

We were therefore delighted in January to be awarded an ELM Test and Trial to explore commons-proofing future schemes to deliver public benefits at scale in our most iconic landscapes.

 

Where

 

Six months on and where are we?

 

In some eternal limbo, as none of the 47 proposals has a contract. The traffic light is stuck on amber.

 

As an eternal optimist, I remain hopeful the light will turn to green very soon, but I know optimism alone is not enough.

 

Rather like Conservative leadership candidate Rory Stewart’s story about ‘believing in the bin’, a blind enthusiasm for ‘public payments for public benefits’ is not sufficient to make this biggest policy shift in 75 years a reality.

 

Believe

 

As Rory’s wife pointed out to him, if the full bin bag is bigger than the dustbin, it will not fit in however much you believe it will. Like Rory says, we all need to accept reality and address it.

 

The National Audit Office (NAO) on June 5 published their review of Defra’s Future Farming Programme.

 

If my children had brought home such a report I’d be deeply worried.

 

Criticisms of post-CAP planning included risk of low take-up of ELMs by farmers, over-reliance on productivity improvements, insufficient budget allocation from Treasury and - our favourite - computer systems being poorly designed.

 

Learn

 

The repeated advice in the NAO’s report was learn from the introduction of Universal Credit and don’t do what the Department of Work and Pensions did. In particular, consider lengthening the transition time.

 

Why is this so serious?

 

If Defra don’t get the development of ELMs right, and still insist on starting the phase out of BPS in 2021, then 20,0000 livestock farmers and their families may be relying on Universal Credit.

 

This is because Defra considers between 40 and 60 per cent of commercial farm holdings in England will be unviable without direct payments.

 

And the unintended consequences of this business ‘restructuring’ for our environment, communities and mental health could be horrendous.

 

Bright

 

The future should and could be really bright for England’s farmers.

 

The recipe for success requires three key components:

 

1) An adequate budget to support transition and pay for the supply of public benefits

2) Well-designed post-CAP schemes and

3) Protection of our markets from imports with lower environmental and welfare standards

 

The Foundation for Common Land and the other members of the Uplands Alliance are waiting at the traffic lights ready to assist Defra and play our part supporting this change for the better.

 

Julia Aglionby is executive director (England) for the Foundation for Common Land, chairs the Uplands Alliance, helps run Susan’s Farm CIO and is a Board Member of Natural England. This article is her personal view rather than that of any of these organisations.


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