With the scaling back of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), which determined how farmers got paid while we were in the EU, and the rollout of the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), which replaces it, support for farmers has never been more important. The old scheme was regularly criticised. We must ensure the new scheme is better. Talking to local farmers recently it is far from clear enough of the detail has been thought through never mind communicated. The principles are there but it has been challenging for farmers to get the benefits during transition. During this time, farmers will get a reducing amount of support year on year until 2027. However, they will be able to apply for new additional funding under a new Sustainable Farming Incentive (SPI). But reports from farmers tell me government keep moving the goal posts which means they have to change what they have to do to comply year on year. That’s not fair and won’t work.
The new government ELMS scheme will be made up of three main schemes, SFI, Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery. What worries me and our farmers is the lack of a scheme to incentivise food production. The war in Ukraine has focused minds on the need to minimise imports and maximise home grown food – and exports. So, there must be proper support for food production. But that needs to be supported by us all – by buying local. Food miles labelling might help. Food produced in Britain is some of the best in the world. But best is expensive. Cheap food has become crucial for households so we have to find a way of making good British food both identifiable and affordable. Current prices are largely set by reference to global production costs, not actual cost to the British farmer. That must change. We could adopt Henry Dimbleby’s recommendation to tax foods that are high in sugar and salt (which have to be added to cheap food to make it taste good), supporting local farmers with competitive subsidies to produce food, and then using the revenue raised from this taxation to offset the subsidy cost.
Farmers want to do the right thing and support the new focus on environmental stewardship. However, we have to make that easy to do. Every year, farms across England generate and use millions of tonnes of livestock slurry to fertilise their crops. Slurry contains lots of nutrients, which are positive for soil health and supporting crop growth – but they can also cause significant pollution to both air and water. As a result of the government’s commitment to protect the quality of water in the UK, farmers have to abide by certain ‘Farming Rules for Water’ in how they store and spread slurry. The government is providing grant funding to help farmers build safe slurry storage systems, but the grants are only available if you live near a very heavily polluted stream/river. Planning permission is required to build the slurry pit. The Dart is not a heavily polluted river so local farmers get no help. Worse, planning is a minefield and getting permission very expensive. All farms should be eligible for grants and planning applications need streamlining.
Re-wilding to enable local nature recovery is great in principle – but if implementation is poor the unintended adverse consequences can be significant. Ragwort as any horse rider know is lethal for horses. Yet the new rewilding scheme has allowed it to grow out of hand along roads and bridleways resulting in some roads and riding routes being effectively put out of bounds. Perhaps more perverse is the way tax incentives for rewilding have driven a patchwork of rewilding plots of land, there for financial gain. How we use our land matters. The House of Lords has been looking at this. Prime farm land should be used for farming.
When parliament returns I shall be asking ministers to do better!
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