Latest on the agricultural transition

Country Land and Business Association (CLA) Acting Regional Director, Mark Riches
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Over the last few weeks, the CLA has been one of the partners helping to deliver the Farm Business Update events and Green Futures webinars across the region. The latest developments in the government's emerging agricultural policy were among the topics of most interest to those who attended.

The agricultural transition certainly is a priority for our members, who are a range of farmers, landowner and rural businesses. That’s not to say that housing, energy performance certificates, business, tax, forestry and the environment are not important, but following Defra Secretary Steve Barclay’s announcement of the 50 Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) actions, 2024 is the crescendo to the full roll-out of England’s new agricultural policy. It is also the year when the Sustainable Farming Scheme in Wales becomes a reality.

I am optimistic that in England, at least, we are getting there. The CLA has provided effective leadership in helping Defra to shape the new SFI for 2024. For me, ‘effective’ means focusing on practical, evidence-based solutions. In addition to the improved payment rates, we were one of the loudest voices lobbying for more and improved options for uplands and grassland farmers. Our evidence about the inequality of the Environmental Land Management offer was instrumental in Defra’s decision to match upland payment rates with lowland rates across five pairs of actions. Our campaign for baseline assessments to be funded has also been successful, with an advisory roll-out in 2024/2025.

No organisation has been more influential in this process, but we still have more work to do. The CLA has real concerns about the delivery of SFI 2024 and the new combined SFI and Countryside Stewardship programme – up to this point, the only timetable Whitehall has stuck to is the one for cuts to the Basic Payment Scheme. We are unhappy with vague promises of ‘this summer’, and it is still not clear whether the Rural Payments Agency’s IT system will be able to cope with these new actions.

So, the government has work to do, too. The CLA has been clear with ministers and Defra that we need transparency to inspire confidence. We need early publication of the handbook with full details of the combined offer, the roll-out timetable and the milestones necessary to meet their summer deadline. If we can see progress, farmers and land managers will have confidence that these schemes will work.

The elephant in the room is the general election. It is possible that, just as SFI24 is being rolled out and we are hoping for the first payments, ministers will be disappearing to knock on doors, leaving the government rudderless. It feels like the clock is ticking – all the more reason to deliver the new standards as soon as possible.

The CLA has argued for a contract with the government where public money pays for public goods, which we believe will create a long-term and resilient relationship between the farmer, consumer, environment and taxpayer. The ball is very much now Defra's court.