Cath Crowther, Regional Director of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA)
The result of the election late last year has sparked a flurry of political activity in recent weeks that brings to fore the level of change, challenges and opportunities the agricultural industry faces in the not too distant future.
At the CLA we were pleased to see the re-emergence of the Agriculture Bill. It sets out a new system of payments for farmers and land managers for delivering public goods such as improving air, water and soil quality, increased biodiversity and climate change mitigation, and provisions to help farmers to improve productivity.
What is urgently needed now is clarity from Government on how the transition to a new system will work in practice. The transition period will see the removal of direct payments, which have been the mainstay of support for many years, and a move to the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) that will only be fully available from late 2024 under current plans.
The transition period is set to begin from 2021, but the delay in the Bill and the lack of clarity of how direct payments will be removed during the transition period means there is still much uncertainty among farmers and land managers.
The Government must allow proper time for rural businesses to adjust and adapt, ideally by delaying the start of the transition by 12 months. This would allow farmers and landowners to make long-term plans, once the details become clearer of both crucial trade deals and future schemes.
ELMS is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape farming policy, and further prove the environmental credentials of the farming community. We have a tremendous opportunity here, but removing direct payments before the new schemes are ready will put otherwise viable businesses at risk unnecessarily.
In hot pursuit of the Agriculture Bill from Government came the re-introduction of the Environment Bill – another crucial piece of new legislation for farmers and land managers.
Its reintroduction allowed the Government to reiterate its ambition to leave the environment in a better state for future generations. This is a statement of intent when it comes to protecting the environment and meeting its legal commitment to net-zero emissions.
As managers of important environmental assets, farmers and landowners have a crucial role to play in helping to meet the Government’s environmental and climate change ambitions. CLA members are uniquely placed to deliver positive environmental benefits on the land that they manage, protecting and improving the natural capital for which they are responsible.
We believe this Bill should go hand-in-hand with the Agriculture Bill. While the Environment Bill sets out the ultimate goal of improving the natural environment, the Agriculture Bill introduces a key mechanism by which farmers and land managers can play their part by rewarding the provision of environmental public goods through ELMS.
One concern is that the Environment Bill fails to put the historic environment on the same footing as the natural environment, which is very dangerous for future funding for endangered rural heritage. However, we are pleased to see issues such as biodiversity net gain confirmed, which will encourage wildlife management on privately owned land and could provide a new source of income.
Landowners have tremendous potential to halt the climate crisis and the continued decline in biodiversity – alongside productive and profitable food production. It can only be done though through a successful and thriving rural business community.