News
12th Feb

2021

TFA Blog #30 – DEFRA Plans Environmental Land Management Pilot without a Runway Ready Scheme

DEFRA Plans Environmental Land Management Pilot without a Runway Ready Scheme

This blog is the full (unedited) piece, written by George Dunn, TFA Chief Executive, for The East Anglia Daily Times, published on 30 January 2021.

Three years ago, DEFRA’s Health and Harmony consultation introduced us to the idea that a new environmental land management system (ELM) would form the basis of support for agriculture in the post Brexit era as we moved away from the provisions of the Common Agricultural Policy including the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS).  Since then, there has been a considerable amount of water which is passed under the bridge.  This included an extended period of political impasse as we sought to define the terms of our exit from the European Union culminating in the resignation of Theresa May from Number 10 and the subsequent emergence of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister who then sought his own Parliamentary mandate in December 2019.  Almost immediately thereafter, the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic caused an inevitable refocusing of Government resources and attention, not least for DEFRA which has been focusing on food supply issues.

Initially promised for July of last year and then September, DEFRA eventually kept to its third announced deadline of November to launch the Agricultural Transition Plan on the very last day of the month.  Reading through the 74-page document which seeks to elucidate planned changes for agricultural policy between 2021 and 2024, it is easy to understand what is to be taken away as part of the process – all BPS recipients will have seen at least half their payments disappear by 2024.  However, what the document fails to unveil is real detail around the replacement schemes including the much-vaunted ELM which still appears to be in the design phase.  This is despite the seemingly endless discussions, debates and stakeholder engagement sessions that have formed part of our daily lives within the TFA and other organisations since the publication of Health and Harmony.

Of course, DEFRA can be forgiven for not yet being ready for the future it thinks we need because of the delays imposed on it by the circumstances described earlier.  However, what is unforgivable is the determination to press ahead with a predetermined timetable when it is patently not ready to do so.  This extends to announcing that it is about to launch a pilot for at least the first component of ELM which it is calling the Sustainable Farming Incentive.  Expressions of interest for the pilot are to be invited in March and yet we lack a runway-ready scheme that can be tested by this pilot.

Ordinarily, a pilot is launched with as near final a set of criteria to test all scheme functionality including the IT system on which it will run.  As a result, this pilot will feel much more like some of the earlier “test and trial” arrangements which took place in various parts of the country over the past couple of years and from which DEFRA has been seemingly gathering data to feed into the pilot and the subsequent full scheme.  However, to date, there is little evidence of how that process has developed and no confidence from either farming organisations or environmental NGOs that we are anywhere near ready to take this very important step.

The TFA also continues to have worries about the extent to which farm tenants, particularly those on farm business tenancies (FBTs), will be able to access both the pilot and the main scheme and continues to press DEFRA to ensure that the scheme design recognises these concerns.  Short lengths of term and restrictive clauses are the main problems.  Whilst tenants under Agricultural Holdings Act 1986 tenancies will at least have some protection in being able to argue against their landlords’ unreasonable refusal to allow them to take part in ELM, the government determined that such statutory provisions were not needed by FBT tenants.  Consistently, the TFA has rejected this argument but as with the deficiencies around wider scheme design, these issues are going to have to be worked through in real time during the pilot phase and beyond.  That is far from ideal.

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