Defra risks having its agriculture budget cut by Treasury if it cannot guarantee high take-up of its new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), the National Audit Office (NAO) has warned.
In a new report on ELMS, the NAO pointed out the department had recently dropped its estimated take-up rate for the new scheme.
Originally, Defra planned to have 5,000 farmers signed up to ELMS by the end of the first year of the pilot in 2022, and 15,000 by the end of the pilot in 2024.
It has now reduced its ambition for the first year of the pilot to 1,250, while still expecting 15,000 by the end of the pilot.
The NAO report said: “Rural development programmes under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) have been consistently undersubscribed in England.
“Although ELMS is a new system and Defra is aiming to simplify it and allow applications at any time of the year to make it more attractive, Defra has not yet done enough to demonstrate that it can achieve the wide-scale participation that it envisages.
“If low participation leads to the ELMS budget being underspent, this could have knock-on effects for future years.
“Under CAP, EU budgets do not get reduced from one year to the next if they are not fully spent, but HM Treasury may not agree to maintain budgets in the event of low take-up and unspent allocations.”
By 2028, Defra aims to have enrolled up to 82,500 farmers, compared to the 20,000 who are taking part in Countryside Stewardship after four years in operation.
Industry bodies have consistently warned farmers are unlikely to take part in ELMS if they are not paid on time under current schemes, which are less experimental.
Writing exclusively for Farmers Guardian’s Brexit hub last week, Lynette Steel, adviser at the Tenant Farmers’ Association (TFA), said agreement holders were still experiencing ‘unacceptable administration problems’ eight months after the RPA took control of stewardship scheme payment delivery.
Farming Minister Robert Goodwill said: “After years of inefficient, unfair and outdated policy under the CAP, our ambitious plans for a new land management system will unlock the potential for farmers and land managers to deliver environmental benefits that go hand in hand with a profitable, productive business.
“We do not underestimate the scale of the task in implementing the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, which is why we are involving such a wide range of stakeholders in its development.
“We will be running a National Pilot over three years to test the policy and make sure we get it right, implementing the lessons learnt into the final scheme. We will also set out more specific detail on what the ELM scheme will pay for well in advance of the pilot being rolled out.”
To read Ms Steel’s article in full, click HERE.