Reports: Defra set to scrap plans to pay farmers for nature restoration and creation

The Wildlife Trusts is accusing the Government of an "all-out attack on the environment"

December 2021 saw Defra announcing the first part of its Environmental Land Management (ELM) package – the framework replacing the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidy schemes post-Brexit. The announcement concerned a basic payment scheme called the Sustainable Farming Incentive, under which farmers would be paid for “common goods” such as better water, air and soil quality. The idea was to incentivise farmers to play their part in delivering the Conservative Party’s commitment to leave nature in a better state for the next generation.

Then, in early 2022 Defra launched the Local Nature Recovery scheme and Landscape Recovery scheme, both designed to help farmers and landowners collaborate on larger-scale projects to create and restore habitats. The three-tier system, Defra stated, should improve environmental outcomes on individual farms and also contribute to nature restoration at scale.

The handling of all three schemes was criticised. Scathing reports were published by the Public Accounts Committee and the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee. But the general consensus was that the handling was the issue and that the UK does need to depart from the EU system, which incentivised increased production even at the expense of nature, to meet its climate and nature goals.

Now, national news outlets including the Observer have been told by Defra sources that proposals are being drawn up to scrap these schemes before their proposed launches during 2023 and 2024.

It is being reported that the schemes, in their current form, have been “put on pause” as the Department considers an area-based payout system instead. This would be closer to the EU’s CAP, once again encouraging farmers to use a lot of land and maximise production.

Individual farmers and land-owners and green groups alike have stated that the Government should not change track. As well as the necessity of the ELMs package to climate and nature goals, it has been pointed out that many people have already changed their business plans to account for the proposals.

The Wildlife Trusts’ chief executive Craig Bennett said: “If now, this government is going back to area-based payments, then it will have dumped the one silver lining around Brexit that perhaps might have been good for the environment. It seems there is an all-out attack on the environment under Liz Truss’s government.”

Earlier this month, the Government introduced a new Retained EU Law Bill with the intention of “sunsetting” most of the EU laws which were transcribed into UK law during the Brexit process by the end of 2023. Others would then be phased out by 2026. Environmental groups including the Wildlife Trusts, RSPB, WWF and Green Alliance have expressed concerns about the UK imposing weaker environmental regulations than the EU.

Nonetheless, some factions are pleased with the reported proposals, including the National Farmers Union (NFU). The Union represents more than 80,000 members and has been pushing back on ELMS, recommending a two-year delay to enable Defra to flesh out more details.

edie contacted Defra for comment and additional information. The Department was unable to confirm nor deny the reports, stating that new plans will be published by the end of the year.

A spokesperson said:“Farmers make a brilliant contribution, producing high-quality food for consumption at home and for export and now we need them to go further, as productivity gains have been flat for many years.

“To boost the rural economy, food production and our food security, we will continue to support farmers and land managers by reviewing farm regulation, boosting investment and innovation in the sector.

“This autumn we will set out our plans for working with industry to maximise the long-term productivity, resilience, competitiveness, and environmental stewardship of the British countryside.”

A sector off track

The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) latest annual progress report to Parliament, published in June, stated that “major failures in delivery programmes” relating agriculture are jeopardising progress towards the UK’s long-term environmental vision.

Agriculture and land use was the sector found to have the weakest climate mitigation policy support by the CCC. The report calls progress in reducing farming emissions since 2019 “glacial” and warns of further slow progress without major changes to the Food Strategy and to plans to compensate farmers post-Brexit,  At present, agriculture and land-use account for 12% of national annual emissions, and emissions have been “relatively flat” since 2008.

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