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Defra must have ‘less haste’ in its plans for British agriculture amid Covid-19 crisis

Julia Aglionby, executive director (England) for the Foundation of Common Land and chair of the Uplands Alliance, calls on Defra to be responsible with its proposed BPS phase out and highlights the need for an extension to the transition period to protect business cash flow, avoid gaps in payments and secure EU markets.

Farmers in the UK require the nation’s support like never before. Suddenly the availability of food is a political issue. From our farm in the Eden Valley as well as selling our lamb and beef to customers we also sell flour from a local mill.

 

Today a friend from Cambridge rang asking us to send flour as well as meat from Cumbria to Cambridge as Cambridge had run out of flour.

 

It is truly bonkers.

 

And it is not just in Cambridge; this morning our village shop in the Eden Valley told me they too can’t source flour.

 

A fragile food supply system

 

Farmers work 365 days a year for slim returns to produce food for our tables. The last month has shown us how vulnerable, inter-connected and fragile our food supply system is.

 

We have awoken to the true reality of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; the foundation of the pyramid is food, water, warmth and rest followed by safety and security, all essential to well-being. To these we would all add a functioning resilient health and social care system.

 

What is bizarre is while Defra‘s Secretary of State, George Eustice, is on the one hand praising farmers, as “the hidden heroes,” noting, “the country is grateful for all that you have done,” we have yet to see action to reduce pressure on our over stretched farming businesses.

 

Defer BPS phase out

 

There are many measures required but two strategic steps would be first to extend the transition period to ensure the UK Government and the EU have the time to negotiate a deal in all our interests. The second critical step is to defer the phasing out of Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) for 12 months until 2022.

 

Farmers at this stage need to be freed up to produce food, and in many instances, find new supply routes to get that food to market. This is proving easier said than done in many instances.

 

At home we can no longer use the abattoir we’ve used for over ten years as they are not taking any private killings. We will now have to take our cattle and sheep over 60 miles to slaughter.

 

Good nutritious food should be a basic right as well as a necessity, and that food we expect to be produced with high levels of animal welfare alongside caring for the natural environment.

 

Be responsible

 

But this will not be possible if farmers go out of business.

 

And going out of business is rarely a fall off the cliff event. It happens over weeks and months as families suffer increasing stress and strain, mounting bills and alongside a ramping up of mental health and physical illnesses and the heart wrenching inability to farm in the way they wish to. If you have no cash you have to cease trading.

 

This column is meant to be about Brexit but for most of us that is an issue we do not have the bandwidth to think about.

 

I cannot believe the Treasury or Defra does either.

 

So, it is therefore the responsible thing to announce that BPS phase out will not start in 2021 and that the transition period for leaving the EU will be extended. These are essential steps to protect business cash flow, avoid the gap in payments and secure our markets in the EU.

 

Diversion of Defra staff

 

Many Defra staff working on the Future Farming and ELMs programme have understandably been diverted into Covid-19 work.

 

All public engagement by Defra, whether face to face or online, has quite rightly been cancelled so the essential communications process to enable farmers to transition to a new way of working is delayed for many months.

 

I completely support moving to an Environmental Land Management Scheme, but we must be honest about achievable timescales to avoid the horror of the roll out of Universal Credit as warned in 2018 by the NAO.

 

RPA ‘understaffed and underfunded’

 

Even before Covid-19 Defra’s partners’ Natural England and the Rural Payments Agency were underfunded and understaffed making successful on time delivery of ELMs debateable.

 

When I inquired about funding for the RPA and NE three weeks ago I was told their resources would simply have to be repurposed. Fast forward to early April we now must accept the reality of where we all are.

 

No organisation can undertake the necessary co-design, development of the necessary systems, advice and IT to create an ELMS when staff are all working from home desperately feeding their children a banana and marking maths homework while on a Zoom call.

Final remarks

 

Defra, I entreat you to have less haste; to be kind to all.

 

Look after our farmers and their businesses as well as the well-being of our public servants and the many organisations co-creating the future with you, whose staff have in many cases been furloughed.

 

You will undoubtedly reap the benefits for our economy, our environment and our communities.

 

This is a marathon not a sprint.

 

You can find Julia tweeting at @_EdenSwimmer

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