The Agriculture Act: how your voice was heard

The CLA has worked hard to influence the development of new agriculture policies in England and Wales
East Sussex landscape

It has been over a decade since the CLA first laid out its vision for how payment for public goods could form the basis of a more forward-looking and sustainable agriculture policy.

The idea was radical then, but our vision is now considered mainstream. The catalyst was Brexit and the changing politics meant that radical rethink of policy was needed. The CLA has been diligently working on members’ behalf throughout this time. We have conducted meetings with government ministers in London and Cardiff, MPs and Members of the Senedd.

Alongside this, we have also carried out detailed work with the civil servant policy teams through working groups, thematic groups, bilateral meetings and responses to public consultations in both England and Wales. This gained us significant influence at every stage. As the Agriculture Bill gets Royal Assent and Defra publishes further details of the transition away from BPS, we reflect on how the CLA has influenced the developing agriculture policies in England and Wales.

The Agriculture Act (2020)

This is the first primary legislation since 1947 and sets out the framework for the seven-year transition from the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) in England.

It also sets out the provisions for financial assistance for the delivery of a wide range of public goods including, climate change, biodiversity, resource protection, heritage, public access and genetic diversity, as well as improving productivity growth in agriculture and forestry. The Agriculture Act is primarily related to England, but there is a specific schedule for Wales as an interim arrangement before the Welsh government bring forward their own legislation in 2021.

CLA success

The CLA was the first to set out clear thinking on how payments for public goods could work for farming and the environment in our Land Management Contract back in May 2018. Many of these principles are reflected in the design of the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme. The CLA’s support for the ‘public goods’ model bolstered government’s confidence to set out the radical changes in the Agriculture Bill. This paves the way for a more resilient and sustainable sector in the years to come.

However, the Agriculture Bill had some dangers, and the CLA focussed on the three Ts - transition, trade and tenancies – and we were successful in all three. The transition away from BPS to the new policy is necessary but must be designed carefully.

BPS payment cuts start in 2021, with cuts of 50% planned by 2024 when the new ELM scheme will be available to everyone. We called out this misalignment and the damage steep cuts would have on farm businesses in Parliament and in the press. We gathered support from MPs and peers to table amendments to the Agriculture Bill to keep cuts in BPS shallow and avoid the ‘valley of death’.

The secretary of state heard our concerns and government has responded with the Sustainable Farming Incentive; a funding mechanism that is designed to help farmers bridge the funding gap. In addition, our vocal demands – alongside other like-minded organisations – for appropriate parliamentary scrutiny of future free trade agreements in defence of our high food production standards were adopted in the final stages of the process.

Meanwhile, our considerable efforts in writing and promoting amendments in both the Commons and the Lords helped to lead the debate on public access and minimised damage to our members' interests through proposed tenancy reforms.

Policy development

While the Agriculture Bill was moving through Parliament over the last two years, there has been progress in developing the new policies.

In Wales, despite two major consultations, and a commitment to a Sustainable Land Management programme, there will be no details until the Welsh Government brings forward its own Agriculture Bill in 2021. CLA Cymru is working on a programme of engagement with Welsh Government and members to ensure any decisions work in favour of our members and long-term security of the rural economy.

In England, the CLA responded to the main agriculture policy consultations, Health and Harmony in May 2018, and the ELM discussion document this year, and continues to be actively engaged in policy development. The new programme for England is ambitious, with the flagship ELM scheme at its centre.

The CLA policy team sit on a range of ELM stakeholder groups to reflect members’ interests. These included thematic groups related to the ELM tests and trials and specialist groups providing a platform for us to influence on issues such as eligibility, forestry and woodland, advice provision and payment rates. The CLA has also conducted two ELM tests and trials, working with members to investigate how sustainable farming and forestry practices could be included in ELM and how the Wildlife Estate accreditation can contribute.

Many CLA members have contributed to some of the 67 other projects. Clearly, while ELM is the flagship of the new agriculture policy, there are many other programmes that will be equally important for the industry, particularly those related to increasing farming and forestry productivity, competitiveness and business resilience. The emerging trade agreements present opportunities and threats, and it is clear that productivity growth in the sector is overdue.

The CLA has regular meetings with Defra, and the current plans reflect our proposals for a Business Adaptation Programme that include grants for investment in machinery, buildings and infrastructure to boost productivity growth, alongside access to funding for business advice and training to help individual businesses and the industry restructure. Similarly, the CLA is engaged with the development of the new tree health schemes and the animal welfare programmes.

Conclusion

There is a lot to like in the direction of the new policy in England and the early thinking in Wales is good. But make no mistake, challenges remain.

Our national and branch committees continue to help inform our policy development, and we continue to be engaged with many members through the ELM test and trial projects. The policy in England and Wales is far from fully formed, so there is still work to do. The CLA has developed strong relationships with government, Parliament and the Senedd and is respected for a balanced and forward-thinking approach and this provides many avenues to fight for our members’ interests.