Will there be fireworks?

It’s been over 4 years in the making: as we enter the year in which the Agriculture (Wales) Bill is introduced in the Senedd, CLA Cymru Senior Policy Advisor, Fraser McAuley asks what sort of a watershed this might be.

“This year’s pivotal in the development of a new agricultural policy in Wales and the laying of the Agriculture (Wales) Bill before the Senedd signifies the beginning of the transition to the new Sustainable Farming Scheme. Assuming the Bill’s passed, the process of Royal Assent and setting about its provisions - will take a year. We’ll yet still see more activity about the imposition of the Agricultural Pollution Regulations and the eradication plan for bovine tuberculosis, as we start to see activity around the Agriculture Bill.

Despite UK and Welsh Governments having opposing political philosophies, they’re both tackling the same challenge. Their solutions need to dovetail and work in the single market. Whether they were Brexiteers or not, farmers on both sides of the border want to see smooth transformation into new schemes. Downstream, the food and drink supply chain in all its complexity, wants to see minimal disruption. We have a consensus to maintain continuity and competitiveness.

The Government’s response to the Agriculture Bill consultation gave us the timeline. The concept of Sustainable Land Management will be established as the “overarching principle” including for future support. The Welsh Government will adopt the powers it needs to run the scheme, and powers vested from Westminster, which enabled the Government to manage the sector since 2020 will be sunsetted.

We start to see some impacts at ground level. I’m pleased to see work’s been done to simplify and reduce regulation and introduce a “chance to put-right” principle in the Bill. In the first Brexit and Our Land consultation process, I recall some prominent members’ feedback on this point. They wanted the existing apparent “ease of criminalising farmers” to be replaced by a system which delivers better results for all. A revised set of National Minimum Standards and Civil Sanctions sends a vital message about creating a better place for sustainable farming in every sense of the word. A good start.

In forestry – which enjoys renewed attention both as a tool for combating climate change and as a sustainable industry to generate valuable materials – the Bill will include powers to review and amend environmental impact thresholds. It will include provisions in the Bill amending the Forestry Act 1967 to allow Welsh Ministers to add conditions to felling-licenses and to allow these to be amended, suspended or revoked after licenses have been granted. The CLA (and others) opposed this to retain existing flexibility for land managers. It remains to be seen how this might affect tree-planting notably in the context that woodland and forestry must be a viable commercial option for farmers and land managers who need to make ends meet while trees are in the ground.

These offer us some hints about direction of travel: an appetite for continuity, logical improvement, and sustainability. Key questions remain unanswered. We know that 2022 will be dominated by more co-design and further attention to economic modelling. We will see more work on tree-planting schemes. Increasingly, though, we’ll see interventions to include infrastructure support grants and advice and guidance for what is to come. After the Agriculture Bill receives Royal Assent, in 2023 we’ll see final consultation on the Sustainable Farming Scheme and transitional plans to move away from the Basic Payments Scheme (BPS).

An interesting process will be the farm sustainability reviews and the outreach programme for farmers in 2024. These must get down to the nitty-gritty of understanding how a successful Welsh national food and drink strategy requires support for food production. Equally, the Welsh Government Climate Change Minister’s words, when she addressed our Green Growth conference in November said, “Only you (farmers and land managers) have the technical capacity to manage carbon in Wales.” We’re still to understand how government will embrace this process and how it will work for farming and land management businesses. This is the big question: answering it will be a revolution for Welsh farming.

Aside from all this, we know that we are in the throes of change. Diets are changing – they always are, of course. Taste and health are driving this. Today we’re seeing polarisation in our market place – more ideologically driven purchases and more interest in ever-higher quality and wider choice. The next two months as “Veganuary” and “Februdairy” say it all. The second revolution - and they’re not mutually exclusive - is society’s commitment to tackle climate change. We’ve already seen many government initiatives affecting farming here, but we know that a Welsh Government who’s department has the largest and most complex remit is the Climate Change team. The new Programme for Government declared that the subject runs through everything it’s planning to do. Next to fighting the pandemic it’s the priority. These two issues will influence the development of the Sustainable Farming Scheme for years to come.

Looking more widely, I think there is a potential development, which future generations might look back on as significant: it’s about the structure of farming. We’re yet to see how today’s patchwork of 25,000 or so farm units might change. Already concerns are being expressed about corporates buying Welsh farms for tree-planting to offset carbon emissions in their other, unrelated industries. Some have speculated about the shape and make-up of our farms, the prospect of commercial consolidation. How we react to this will be driven by our interpretation of the fundamental purpose of the countryside: as a producer of food, fuel, fibre and materials, as the place where we manage air and fresh water quality, or as a place for recreation, health and wellbeing. These, taken together, demonstrate the critically important role land management will play in 2022 and the future and the CLA and our members much to contribute.”