Time is “running out” before confidence disappears in new environmental schemes designed to replace EU farm subsidies, the Government has been warned.
Mark Tufnell, president of the Country, Land and Business Association (CLA), told new Environment Secretary Therese Coffey, that she must fix the problems with the Environmental Land Management scheme (Elms) including clarity on what landowners will be paid.
His comments come after a review of the scheme launched during Liz Truss’s brief premiership, which prompted concerns among environmentalists that the programme to pay farmers for public goods such as healthy soils, clean water and wildlife habitat would be watered down or delayed.
Speaking at the CLA’s rural business conference in London on Thursday, Ms Coffey confirmed that the review was complete and further clarity on the scheme would be announced early in the new year.
The Environment Secretary confirmed the Elms scheme would go ahead on the same timetable and with three different programmes as originally intended.
The Elms payments, which cover England, will replace the EU regime for agriculture where subsidies were mostly on the basis of the amount of land farmed, with pay-outs under the old “basic payment scheme” (BPS) already being cut.
Alongside payments for sustainable farming practices such as managing soils, Elms was designed to pay for “local nature recovery” habitat creation on farms, and “landscape recovery” projects to restore nature at a large scale, including rewilding schemes.
In her speech at the CLA conference Ms Coffey said: “”All the funding that we are taking out of reductions in BPS over time will continue to be made available to farmers, through a combination of one-off grants and ongoing schemes and the advice you need to get your business on the right footing for the future.”
She said the existing Countryside Stewardship scheme, which currently has 30,000 farmers receiving payments for environmental measures, will be developed, rather than creating a new local nature recovery scheme.
She said she wanted to build on the success of the existing scheme “so we achieve the same ambitious outcomes that we had intended to do” through local nature recovery schemes.
By the end of 2024, farmers will have access to the full range of actions they can be paid to take on their land, she said.
“I am committed to giving you the clarity, certainty and support that I know you need, so early in the new year – I can’t make the announcements today – we will be saying more about what we’ll be offering to pay you to do in the next phase of all the schemes.”
The “Countryside Stewardship plus” scheme is intended to be as ambitious as the local nature recovery strand of Elms, with extra options added in for environmental actions farmers can take.
The aim is to improve delivery, so the application process is easy and quick, and financial penalties for things such as being a few centimetres off the required width of wildlife-friendly field margins are removed.
And investment will be targeted to maximise value, such as bonuses for tree planting that also protects water courses, or to encourage farmers in an area to work together, and to pay for achieving results in delivering public goods.
Some 22 schemes have been approved for the first wave of landscape recovery funding, compared to an expected 10-15 projects, most of which are groups of farmers working together alongside food production.
Before the Environment Secretary addressed the conference, Mr Tufnell said the CLA had long supported the idea of payments for environmental delivery alongside food production, but warned it was “getting very difficult to sell this proposition”.
In his speech, he said it was “unacceptable” that payment rates for the sustainable farming initiative and the “Countryside Stewardship plus” programme had not yet been published.
“You don’t buy something from the shop without knowing the price, you don’t invest in a new business without knowing the outcome, and you don’t as a farmer enter into a new environmental scheme without knowing whether it’d be worth it for your business.”
He told Ms Coffey, who has been in the post for only a few weeks, that the delays, slow progress and poor communication to farmers was “not your fault”.
“But I’m afraid these problems are now yours to fix, and time is running out before confidence in the likely success of these schemes disappears altogether.”
He also criticised Tory MPs who he said were blocking sensible economic development in rural areas, claiming they were “stifling rural communities with the very same cotton wool they are trying to wrap us up in”.
“There is nothing Conservative about holding rural business back, there’s nothing Conservative about letting rural communities fail,” he warned.
Speaking to journalists after Ms Coffey’s speech Mr Tufnell said he was optimistic the Elms scheme would work, but he wanted to make clear the issue was urgent and landowners need to know what was happening.