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EXCLUSIVE: FG reveals Defra's post-Brexit plans and industry concerns about them

Farming and wildlife groups are privately concerned about some elements of Defra’s proposed new environmental land management scheme, Farmers Guardian has learned.


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EXCLUSIVE: FG reveals Defra's post-Brexit plans and industry concerns about them

The department has been sharing its thoughts on policy with interested parties in recent weeks, and FG has seen a copy of a presentation from officials which gives a first glimpse of what England’s post Brexit agricultural policy might look like (see below for more details).

 

The new scheme is unlikely to be ready until 2021, or more likely 2022, a year after farmers will begin to lose their Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) cash.

 

This would leave industry in the dark about what exactly would be on offer from the Government until the last moment, heightening existing fears that farmers will drop out of old agri-environment schemes without re-joining new ones to focus on their core business in uncertain times.

 

The NFU, CLA and TFA have joined forces to demand Defra allow the old schemes to be rolled over to prevent environmental work being undone, but Sarah Church, the department’s head of food and farming, told a Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum event in London last week that this would not be ‘at all legal’.

 

“One of the things we are talking to the Commission about is whether or not we could do that”, she said.

 

The Agriculture Bill, which may not now be published until September or October, is not expected to contain any details of the new scheme, which is a ‘million miles away’ from being properly designed.


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Defra’s ‘all you can eat’ proposals, which are still in embryonic form and subject to change, have also been subjected to criticism because they are ‘naïve’ with regard to funding.

 

Current agri-environment schemes have either a threshold above which you cannot deliver or are competitive in nature, which allows the budget to be managed.

 

But because the new scheme will be open to all and have no threshold, Defra officials are discussing tapering off how much money farmers can earn for doing certain things at a certain rate, or capping the budget.

 

There are fears this could discourage larger land managers and smaller farmers who would deliver the most public goods from joining the scheme.

 

A Defra spokesman said: “Outside of the Common Agricultural Policy, we can do more to support farmers in their work to enhance the environment and invest in sustainable food production.

 

“The design of future environmental land management schemes is an important part of this and we will continue to work closely with farmers to embrace the opportunities of Brexit.”

Defra’s post-Brexit plans in detail

 

Originally, Defra planned to have three elements to the scheme, but two of those elements are now thought to have been ditched.

 

Those two elements were designed to allow farmers with limited experience of agri-environment schemes to take part.

 

They would have offered a ‘set menu’ of options to choose from which had been tried and tested.

 

But under the latest proposals, a farmer wanting to join the scheme would have to produce a ‘Whole Farm Plan’ for the next twelve months, which could include agroforestry and recreational pursuits as well as environmental measures.

 

The long-term ambition is to link the Whole Farm Plans with farm assurance in some way.

 

Separate productivity schemes to run alongside this one are also being considered by Government, particularly during the agricultural transition.

 

What to do to produce a Whole Farm Plan

  • Hire an expert adviser, accredited by Government, to help design the plan
  • Calculate available environmental payments from an online pricing tool or ‘ready reckoner’
  • Commit to further measures to prevent water and air pollution, among other things
  • Have the plan signed off by an independent assessor, separate to the adviser, who would conduct annual checks
  • Work with the adviser to improve the Whole Farm Plan on an annual basis for the next twelve months, with agreement in place for 5, 10, 20, 30 or an unlimited number of years

What would be on offer

  • Higher payments for farmers carrying out measures which are part of a wider catchment or other area plan – which would be produced in consultation with the local community
  • Different amounts of cash depending on whether important features/activities were being maintained, introduced or extended
  • Bonuses for successful completion of a contract, with the amount increasing depending on the number of years completed and re-committed to

 

Auditing the scheme

  • As well as the annual checks from an independent assessor, Government officials would also carry out ‘risk-based’ inspections
  • If a farmer was found to be failing in his duties on a first visit, advice on how to get back on track would be issued, with no docking of payments
  • Only flagrant abuses would warrant suspension from the scheme, at which point no payments would be made until compliance is demonstrated for three consecutive years
  • A suspended farmer could return to the scheme, but would be subjected to more Government inspections than others
  • Agreements terminated early would be subject to inspection and the Government would ‘claw back’ money if insufficient environmental benefits had been delivered

 

Tests, trials and pilots

  • Tests, which are ‘short, low risk and involve limited funding and few participants’, are to begin in ‘late 2018’
  • Trials, which ‘assess deliverability and value for money’, will begin in a similar timeframe
  • Both tests and trials will consider which measures are ‘most popular, simple to administer, provide value for money and deliver environmental benefits’
  • Other things to be tested and trialled include what type of advice to offer and how any new approach will affect ‘commons, uplands, tenant farmers and organics’
  • Pilots, which take place over a longer time period and assess ‘the full package’, will start during the agricultural transition
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