Norfolk farmers debate the five key elements of Defra’s post-Brexit policy plans
PUBLISHED: 17:55 11 April 2018 | UPDATED: 18:24 11 April 2018
Archant Norfolk 2018
The five “key elements” underpinning the government’s plans for post-Brexit agricultural policy were debated by Norfolk farmers at an opinion-gathering workshop.
The event at Easton and Otley College’s campus outside Norwich was hosted by the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association (RNAA) and Defra – part of the department’s ongoing 10-week consultation on its proposals for a new domestic policy after the UK leaves the EU at the end of next March.
Gordon Woods, deputy director of food, farming and biosecurity at Defra, outlined the framework for the consultation, and said notes from the ensuing group discussions with more than 100 delegates would be fed back to ministers.
He said the new policy would focus on five main elements:
• A new “environmental land management” (ELM) scheme, to replace the EU’s current system of direct subsidy payments based on land ownership.
• Reducing direct payments during an “agricultural transition” period, which could include a cap on the largest payments.
• Supporting “farming excellence, profitability and resilience”.
• Animal health and welfare standards.
• Supporting rural and upland communities.
Mr Woods told farmers: “As we leave the EU we are on the brink of having the freedom to create a new policy that works for this country. People have often talked about life outside the CAP (the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy), and now it is actually happening.
“For the first time in a long time we can have a national conversation about food, farming and the environment, and events like this one are the start of that conversation, and the opportunity to discuss some critical elements for change.
“We know from bitter experience that developing policy without the people it affects is a recipe for disaster, and we don’t want to develop this policy without you.”
Mr Woods said a major focus of the discussions was to explore “what it is that we value, and therefore what we can justify spending taxpayers’ money on” – with the new ELM scheme based on the principle of paying public money to reward the provision of “public goods”.
“If you speak to an economist they will say the strict definition of ‘public goods’ is those things that markets themselves do not reward,” he said. “But I don’t want us to get too hung up on the economic definitions. I want us to focus on what we value as a society and as individuals, and what we have the potential to benefit from, and therefore what deserves public money to be spent on it.”
The agricultural transition period, he said, would be longer than the wider implementation period for Brexit, giving the opportunity to move away from the existing style of CAP support to “a whole new settlement for agriculture and the environment”.
“During that transition you will see three key things,” he said. “The direct payments will start to reduce, we will fund new productivity measures, and we will start piloting environmental land management schemes and new animal welfare schemes.”
Meanwhile, he said the “farming excellence, profitability and resilience” element would include investing in agri-tech research and making better use of data, as well as encouraging more farmers to take risk management measures, as fewer than one in five currently buy agricultural insurance.
Among the agricultural representatives involved in the discussions was NFU East Anglia regional director Robert Sheasby, who urged all the region’s farmers to make their voices heard in the consultation.
“It is certainly welcome that Defra should come to Norfolk to listen to farmers – the most important industry in the county,” he said. “We need every farmer in the county to put a response in to Defra’s consultation and say what they think.
“The framework set out by Defra, on the face of it, looks workable. However, not knowing what a new scheme looks like and the detail around the transition means there is no certainty, so we are no further towards knowing how to prepare our businesses at this stage, and that is the certainty we have been seeking since the referendum.”
Michael Gurney of AR and PK Gurney Farm Partnership, based in Northrepps, said the new ELM scheme should account for regional variations in landscape.
“There is no point having a national policies which cannot work on the ground,” he said. “You need to have a scheme specifically for the light land of north Norfolk, and a different one for South Norfolk and Broadland to make a real environmental difference at a local level.
“In terms of payments, this is the only game in town. The only way farmers are going to see direct benefit is through environmental payments – because you won’t get any more area payments (such as under the CAP).”
Julian Taylor, who farms at Starston, near Diss, said: “One of the biggest concerns we discussed this morning is the length of time it will take to sort out any trade deals. It is slowing investment down on a farm scale as people don’t want to put large amounts of capital into projects when they don’t know what the outcome will be.
“The other question is how do we encourage new entrants to come into the industry, and incentivise things like share farming arrangements?”
To respond to the consultation, go to the Defra consultation website before the deadline of May 8.