Farmers in Wales can expect to keep direct payments until at least 2022 under new plans outlined by the Welsh Government as it moves towards a Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS).
The commitment will be subject to continued funding from the UK Government, but Rural Affairs Minister Lesley Griffiths said she wants to provide certainty to farm businesses before the post-Brexit scheme, which is to be consulted on until March 25, is rolled out.
The SFS will underpin a 15-20-year vision to create a sustainable agriculture sector in Wales, with payments available under the scheme for improved soils, clean air, clean water, improved biodiversity, climate change mitigation and sustainable food production.
Welsh Government (WG) has commissioned an external team of environmental economists to come up with a methodology which will allow farmers to be paid a ‘social value’ for environmental outcomes, and is confident that by next spring, a first draft of this work will be ready for further refinement and testing.
Alongside the SFS, WG is proposing to consolidate all existing regulations into a set of national minimum standards, creating a baseline which is applicable to all farmers in Wales with more proportionate enforcement.
An impact assessment of all the changes, looking at different sectors and regions, will also be published.
Ms Griffiths said: “Our proposals will make a radical shift away from the Common Agricultural Policy to sustain a productive agriculture sector in Wales which supports the rural economy while improving the condition of soil, air, water and habitats.
“I want farmers to see our proposals as an opportunity rather than an approach which restricts their ‘freedom to farm’.
“We are ready to continue working with farmers to achieve our common goals of a sustainable and resilient sector while addressing the pressing challenges we face.”
NFU Cymru president John Davies said the union’s initial analysis of the plans was that very little had changed from the proposals set out in the 2018 consultation ‘Brexit and Our Land’.
“Government appears to continue to propose that all the economic, social and cultural benefits provided by Welsh farming can, in future, be secured through the Sustainable Farming Scheme, a scheme that is almost entirely focused on environmental outcomes,” he added.
“Covid–19 has brought into sharp focus the need for food security for all in society to be embedded as a key objective of Government policy, so it is disappointing to see this matter is not recognised in what Welsh Government propose as a vision for the next 15-20 years.”
Mr Davies also said WG needed to be open to the possibility of extending the consultation, given farmers were preoccupied with the pandemic and end of the Brexit transition period, while TFA Cymru chairman Denis Matheson warned WG had failed to provide adequate safeguards for farm tenants who could find themselves shut out of the SFS.
Mr Matheson said: “There is a considerable amount of detail in the White Paper issued by the Welsh Government and we welcome the long lead-in time provided to consider the proposals outlined.
“Legislation is not expected to be introduced to the Senedd until summer 2022 at the earliest. However, it is very disappointing that on farm tenancies, the Welsh Government is repeating the mistakes made in England by the UK Government in what is now the Agriculture Act 2020.
“Specifically, the White Paper fails to address our concerns that farm tenants renting under short-term farm business tenancies may be excluded from participation in the new SFS due to restrictive clauses in their agreements requiring landlords’ consent which may not be forthcoming.
“There is also a real danger that many farm tenants will find themselves facing Notices to Quit if their landlords decide to resume possession to take advantage of Welsh Government incentives to plant trees.”
FUW president Glyn Roberts, meanwhile, warned the proposals set out by Welsh Government could have a massive impact on families and communities.
He said: “We all agree with the objectives of protecting and enhancing the economic, environmental and sustainability of our rural communities, which are alluded to in this White Paper.
“However, we have grave concerns about whether the nuts and bolts of the proposals will actually do this, and feel there is a great risk that the aspirations outlined in the paper will actually be undermined, particularly from the point of view of family farms and rural economics.”
CLA Cymru director Nigel Hollett welcomed WG’s ambition, but said the potential reduction in funding for the sector, which is expected to lose over £200m by 2025 as part of the UK Government’s latest funding settlement, was ‘worrying’.
“All those managing land are eager to understand how a new scheme will work on the ground,” he added.
“At the core, whatever the structure of the scheme may be, consistent levels of funding support for the sector will be the life-blood for Welsh agriculture and the rural community.”