Our Sustainable Farming Scheme must be a scheme that sustains farming

CLA President and CLA Cymru Senior Policy Advisor, Fraser McAuley met the Welsh Government Rural Affairs Minister last week and discussed how things are shaping up – and where they need to go. Fraser writes:
Lesley Griffiths 2018 BAOL Cnewr
Welsh Government Minister for Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths MS has been in office throughout the development of the post-Brexit solution for farm support, here photographed at the launch of the Brexit & Our Land consultation in 2018.

Welsh Government Rural Affairs Minister Lesley Griffiths MS told us she is concerned that many farmers are ruling themselves out of the Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS). It raises questions about likely participation levels and viability as doubt has been expressed about England’s nascent ELMs scheme. The mission should be to develop a scheme which provides the right level of support for farms of all sizes.

These are doubts we could do without as we look for answers and progress in the development of this vital scheme to sustain farming and contribute to societal challenges: tackling climate change and nurturing our biodiversity. In our meeting with the Welsh Government Minister Lesley Griffiths, we called for clear funding commitments to allay some of those fears - in order that businesses can plan ahead - and we also challenged the requirement that 10 per cent of land should be planted with trees to meet climate change and biodiversity commitments.

From the outset one of the Government’s founding principles for the new scheme for farm support has been “not a penny less.” It’s been a brave commitment to make in that we know the Government wants to sustain our farming industry but don’t know what the budget settlements from Westminster will be. We’ve already made contact with the new DEFRA Minister and written to new Secretary of State for Wales, David T.C. Davies - who hails from a highly agricultural constituency - stressing the importance of his role on this matter.

The phrase “ten per cent” has occupied over 90 per cent of the farming sector’s thoughts recently.

The Minister explained that this is in - and quite prescriptive - because Wales has consistently failed to meet its tree-planting targets and meet the commitment made to the UK Committee on Climate Change. This, she said, is the best way forward ensuring fair regional distribution without large-scale land use change. This clearly raises the right solution in the right place issue, and to this we added points about sources of high volumes of quality saplings, tree-health, the skills-deficit in managing this and above all, the impact on critical food production at a time when the UK lacks trade deals and is weathering a cost-of-living crisis.

We’ve raised similar questions about the same target for biodiversity. Commitment to this in our farming community is intense and widespread. Substantial acreages are already dedicated to wildlife through Glastir and the Basic Payments Scheme (BPS). We called on the Minister to introduce flexibility in managing the tree-planting and biodiversity target and we received an encouraging signal that this would be the case, but illustrating by case-studies we will need to sustain pressure on this issue which generates difficulties for many land owners.

Tenancies need to work for both landlords and tenants and the Minister was grateful for the joint guidance work we’ve carried out working with the Tenant Farmers’ Association on delivering agri-environment schemes. The Welsh Government hasn’t yet concluded how the Baroness Rock recommendations will be taken on board. Clearly the work we’ve done and delivered to government places us in a good position to continue to influence a favourable outcome for tenants and landowners alike.

In supporting farmers the Welsh Government needs to understand the impact of its other policies on the sector – notably those which generate badly needed additional income to support the core farm business. Many Welsh farmers have diversified into provision of tourist accommodation – usually small: B and B, self-catering holiday lets in converted obsolete farm buildings, pods, glamps and camping sites. These are all already subject to various taxes. However we raised questions about implementation of the proposed Visitor Levy and about its impact - coupled with other regulations which might undermine viability – on the rural economy. While so much scepticism and criticism has been expressed the Minister declared that as Rural Affairs Minister and Minister for North Wales, she has received no letters opposing the proposal. As we work with the Welsh Government to ensure the SFS delivers for members, we’re also lobbying the Government to ensure rural tourism business are not disadvantaged by a tax which delivers little for rural communities or for the visitors who pay them.