The latest column from CLA East Acting Director Mark Riches

Concerns over delay to SFI roll out
Mark Riches - Approved.jpg

Firstly, may I take this opportunity to wish you a happy new year and success with your rural business endeavours in 2024. In this, an election year, the CLA will be working hard to ensure the voice of rural businesses is heard loud and clear by politicians of all parties.

Already in 2024, the CLA has expressed its concern that delays to the opening of the Government's 2024 Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) scheme will be disastrous for farm businesses.

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this month, Defra secretary Steve Barclay announced funding uplifts, streamlined application processes, and enhanced environmental incentives as part of the 2024 SFI scheme.

But it will not open for applications until at least the summer. The delay, coupled with cuts to the Basic Payment Scheme, will leave many farm businesses facing a perfect storm of problems.

There is a lot to like about SFI 2024. The increased payment rates and the variety of new actions show that the voice of the CLA has been heard. However, we are very concerned that farmers will have to wait until this summer, at the earliest, before the application window opens. This means that, at best, farmers will receive no SFI 24 income until the end of the year whilst facing remorseless cuts to the Basic Payment.

We have significant concerns about the readiness of the Rural Payment Agency's IT systems to deal with the new options and the streamlining of ELMs and Countryside Stewardship. There is real danger that the delivery will be held-up as it was in 2023, and that the application window will be pushed back.

The CLA remains a supporter of Environmental Land Management schemes but time is running out. Government has been listening and learning on actions and payment rates, but without effective delivery the schemes will lose the confidence and trust of the farming community.

Mr Barclay's announcement included:

  • A 10% increase in the average value of agreements in the Sustainable Farming Incentive and Countryside Stewardship driven by increased payment rates.
  • A streamlined single application process for farmers to apply for the Sustainable Farming Incentive and Countryside Stewardship Mid-Tier.
  • Around 50 new actions that farmers can get paid for across all types of farm businesses, including actions for agroforestry and those driving forward agricultural technology such as robotic mechanical weeding.

The government has also been accused of breaking its promise to English farmers, with hundreds of millions of pounds unspent from its budget. Ministers had promised that by the end of this parliament, they would spend £2.4bn a year on agriculture.

But they spent less than £2.3bn in each of the last two years. Defra’s repeated underspend of the farming budget, amounting to more than £200million in the last two years, has knocked farmers’ confidence at a crucial time in the agricultural transition process.

We fully support the government’s Environmental Land Management schemes and the model of public payment for public goods, but it must now urgently deliver on its promises and funding pledges.