The direction of agricultural policy in England

CLA Director of External Affairs Jonathan Roberts reflects on the journey of the agricultural transition in England to date and outlines six key actions that the CLA is calling for

From the moment the UK voted to leave the EU, it was clear that major change was afoot. But leaving behind the old system of farming subsidies was always going to be difficult – for our members and for government alike. Thankfully, the CLA was ready.

For many years CLA has highlighted how a system of ‘public money for public goods’ could not only benefit the environment and nature, but could also become a core income stream for our members in an increasingly uncertain world where public expenditure is coming under more and more scrutiny.

Since the 2016 referendum, CLA members have been integral to the process of developing Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes. From local branches to national committees to our governing council – we have debated and discussed the merits and concerns of this new model in great detail. We have toured the country with roadshows, conferences and seminars, and produced a long line of articles in our monthly magazine Land & Business – all with the aim of both preparing our members for the change, but also to help us learn from our members to put us on the best lobbying footing possible.

As any Defra minister or official, past or present, will tell you, we have been robust in defending our members. At seemingly endless meetings and working groups we have been clear that, whilst we support the ELM schemes, the schemes still have to work. In practice, this means putting profitable farming at the heart of agricultural policy.

With a change in the ministerial team under the new Truss-led Government, it was always likely that the new Secretary of State would want to take some time to get his head around the policies he has inherited. But the way in which this ‘learning time’ was communicated was a master class in how not to do it. Rumours abounded of major changes to ELM, perhaps even scrapping it entirely. It took four whole days before Defra made clear that this wasn’t the case.

In that time though, the damage was done. Farmers who have had legitimate concerns about the future direction of agricultural policy in England were relieved by the rumours, those who looked forward to the new schemes were furious. Those who were generally supportive of the direction of travel, but wanted more clarity and better communications from government, were absolutely baffled.

There can be little doubt that this has damaged confidence among many of our members, something we have made clear to Defra.

While this was happening, at the CLA we were working hard behind the scenes, both with Defra and Downing Street, to understand what was going on and to explore how we could influence ministers next steps. In a very noisy environment, we were able to cut through and achieve our overriding objective – an understanding among Defra ministers that ELM needs to be improved.

In doing so, we are pushing six key actions:

  • Fast-track the launch of new Sustainable Farming Incentive standards in early 2023 – we know from a recent survey that many farmers are waiting see how the scheme develops with more standards before applying.
  • Simplify the SFI standards to make the decision-making and applications easier.
  • Focus on Countryside Stewardship (CS) as the main agri-environment scheme until full details of the Local Nature Recovery scheme are available, and reiterate the guarantee that nobody will lose out from going into CS now.
  • Develop a programme to support natural capital baseline assessment and training to build knowledge, skills and motivation to get involved in environmental land management.
  • Publish plans for timing and themes for new rounds of productivity grants so that businesses can build into their business plans at the right time, and ensure that planning approvals and other licences are aligned.
  • Design new schemes to allow a more diverse range of businesses to innovate, adapt and invest, for example to allow smaller businesses with restricted access to finance capital to take part.

This work continues. As always we will champion our members interests both on agricultural policy, and the success of the wider rural economy through our Rural Powerhouse campaign.

Key contact:

Jonathan Roberts
Jonathan Roberts Director of External Affairs, London