Developing the Environmental Land Management scheme - a view from Defra

Lynne Phillips, Defra’s Programme Delivery Director for the Future Farming and Countryside Programme addresses what Defra is trying to achieve and outlines some of the work her team are undertaking.

Q: Can you explain what the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme is aiming to achieve and how it will differ from current schemes under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)?

A: As we move away from the CAP, sustainable farming and nature recovery will be at the heart of what we want to achieve through our domestic agricultural policy. Our ELM scheme is really exciting because it’s the cornerstone of our new agricultural policy and an important means for us to work with more farmers and land managers in delivering the goals of the 25 Year Environment Plan and our net zero targets, while supporting our rural economy.

The scheme is based on the principle of “public money for public goods”, so will pay farmers and land managers for activities that provide benefits such as clean air and thriving plants and wildlife. By funding the provision of these public goods, we hope that this will further incentivise sustainable practices that deliver for businesses and the environment.

Within the CAP context, policies were set with limited opportunity to improve and have been complex to operate and for users to engage with. We are committed to changing this from the outset by co-designing our new policies with farmers, land managers and experts as well as allowing time to test, learn and adapt as we move forward.

Q: Farmers and land managers are facing a tumultuous time in the coming years, with policy changes only part of the picture – does this make it harder to design and implement a brand-new agricultural policy?

A: It certainly is a time of great change, and I see brilliant examples every day of how farmers and land managers are responding to the challenges that this year has thrown at us, as well as thinking ahead to future years. Covid-19 restrictions have placed some practical constraints on us all, but I’ve been really impressed how farmers and land managers are finding ways (and time) to stay engaged and involved with us as we develop, test and learn from our new policies.     

Designing, developing and introducing new policies and schemes in the context of wider change will be demanding for all of us, but I am convinced that we can be successful together if we continue to build and maintain strong relationships and listen to those who know what works for the environment, for their businesses and for their communities.

Q: How has Defra approached the design of the new scheme – what lessons have you learned from previous schemes and how are you involving land managers in the process?

A: We are committed to co-designing a scheme that works for farmers and land managers.

We have been testing and trialling our ELM scheme since 2018, and almost 3,000 farmers and land managers have been involved across different sectors, regions and land types. They provide evidence through progress reports, regular meetings with test and trial officers and thematic working group discussions to exchange findings and evidence. We will continue to refine the design over the coming months (and years) to reflect the valuable feedback and insight that we are receiving. You can hear more about Defra’s Test & Trial Programme in the CLA’s Rural Powerhouse Week podcast.

In February 2020, we published our policy discussion document, which set out our thinking on the ELM scheme at that time. The wide-ranging and high-quality feedback we received will be used to help us refine our scheme design proposal ahead of the national pilot, which is due to launch in late 2021. This will provide the opportunity to test and refine the scheme design and see how it might work in practice.

We have learnt valuable lessons from previous Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Stewardship schemes and aim to make our ELM scheme less complicated and bureaucratic. The new system will be much more flexible. It will put the land manager in control of deciding how they want to deliver environmental outcomes on their land, and how they integrate this into their food, timber or other commercial activities. This flexibility will mean it is suitable for the wide diversity of landscapes and businesses that exist across all areas of the country.

Q: What message would you give to those farmers and land managers who are anxious about the loss of BPS or sceptical about whether ELM will allow their business to thrive in the future?

A: We know farmers need stability, certainty and a smooth transition to a new system. I’d like to reassure them that direct payments are not going to be switched off overnight, but will be reduced gradually over a seven-year period.

The money that is made available from direct payment reductions will be reinvested directly into the farming and land management sector. Farmers may need to adapt and restructure their businesses to thrive, but the funding will be there. Whether it’s through the new ELM scheme, grants to improve productivity, or payments for improved animal welfare.

Our new payment schemes will reward farmers and land managers who protect our environment, improve animal welfare and produce high quality food in a more sustainable way. Farm businesses will need to assess the situation based on their individual circumstances and evidence from business planning.

Our aim here is to have a highly collaborative approach and our schemes really are being designed with farmers and land managers to ensure that they are fit for purpose.