Farmers will be expected to earn subsidies through wildlife work after 2024, says Michael Gove

Environment Secretary Michael Gove . Picture: ANDREW HENDRY

Environment Secretary Michael Gove . Picture: ANDREW HENDRY - Credit: Andrew Hendry Photographer

Subsidies worth £3bn a year to UK farmers will continue until 2024 – and then be replaced by a system of payments rewarding farming practices which improve the countryside for wildlife.

That was the message from environment secretary Michael Gove in a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference today, where he set out plans for farming after Britain leaves the EU, and its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

His plans include a switch from the CAP's current system of direct payments based on land ownership, to one using public money to pay for 'public goods', such as planting woodland, boosting wildlife, helping improve water quality and recreating wildflower meadows.

Along with spending on environmental protection, Mr Gove outlined how he wants to see taxpayers' money go towards boosting public access to the countryside, and on technology, skills, infrastructure, and supporting rural communities.

In his speech, which comes ahead of publication of the government's agriculture plans in the spring, Mr Gove told farmers that the EU's policies are 'fundamentally flawed' and Brexit will give the UK the opportunity to create its own policies on food and agriculture.


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The CAP, which pays landowners mostly on the basis of the amount of land they have, is 'unjust, inefficient and drives perverse outcomes', and efforts to 'green' the payments have brought very little environmental benefits, he said.

Mr Gove claimed the current system sees the most public money paid to those who have the most private wealth, rewards farmers for sticking to resource-inefficient methods, and pays for an approach to looking after the countryside which is all about 'mathematically precise field margins' rather than healthy landscapes.

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The minister confirmed the current payment system, which sees £3bn a year paid to UK farmers and landowners, will continue until 2024, longer than the government had previously pledged.

After that, he said, it will be replaced with spending on public goods, with the main area of investment focused on enhancing the environment.

'Building on previous countryside stewardship and agri-environment schemes, we will design a scheme accessible to almost any landowner or manager who wishes to enhance the natural environment by planting woodland, providing new habitats for wildlife, increasing biodiversity, contributing to improved water quality and returning cultivated land to wildflower meadows or other more natural states.

'We will also make additional money available for those who wish to collaborate to secure environmental improvements collectively at landscape scale.

'Enhancing our natural environment is a vital mission for this government,' he said.

During the five-year transition to the new system after Brexit in 2019, Mr Gove proposed to reduce the largest BPS (Basic Payment Scheme) subsidy payments in England, either 'through a straight cap at a maximum level or through a sliding scale of reductions, to the largest payments first'.

When asked what level of payments for public goods there would be after 2024, the minister said he hoped it would be 'broadly' the same as the £3bn subsidies are now.

INDUSTRY REACTION

Robert Sheasby, the National Farmers' Union's regional director for East Anglia, said: 'I'm encouraged by what I've heard. Because we have not seen a draft Agriculture Act I'm not surprised it's short on detail. There are question marks on it that will need clarity.

'What we will welcome is there's a little bit more certainly than there was when we woke up this morning. But we have got a long way to go until we are in a position of knowledge and confidence.'

The Country Land and Business Association's (CLA's) director of policy Christopher Price said: 'We have been clear that significant change is necessary but it is right to take the necessary time to design and implement a policy without causing immediate and dramatic disruption to thousands of farming businesses across the countryside. We are pleased the secretary of state has listened to our concerns on this issue and extended the period of operation of the existing Basic Payment Scheme to ensure a full and smooth transition.

'We will consider the forthcoming consultation on capping of payments closely. The Secretary of State has been clear that businesses must be rewarded for what they do, not the amount of land they own. That will not be the case if a poorly thought through and rushed capping policy excludes and alienates businesses simply because of their size.'

CONSERVATION VIEW

Chris Dady, Norfolk branch chairman of CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England), said: 'We have long campaigned for subsidies that make a real difference to our countryside, and are encouraged by Michael Gove's announcement which clearly links environmental improvements to subsidy payments. Of special interest is the mention of boosting public access alongside such things as habitats and biodiversity, and this being coupled with improvements to technology, skills and infrastructure alongside support to rural communities.

'Moving from the subsidy system we have today, to this new system, is quite a step. It will need to be properly resourced to ensure the benefits sought are realised, and it will be interesting to see the proposals as they emerge.

'From what I have seen it would appear the announcement has support from the agricultural community. This is clearly vital, and implementation must include those representative bodies alongside environmental groups.'

TRADE DEAL CONCERNS

Mr Gove's speech came on the same day as the publication of a report by a cross-party group of MPs and peers, which warns that trade deals after Brexit could pose the 'biggest peacetime threat' to the UK's food security if standards and farmers are not protected,

All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology said the government must ensure future trade deals protect British farmers, and do not undermine them by allowing imports of food produced with lower welfare or environmental standards.

In response to the minister's speech, National Farmers' Union vice president Guy Smith, who will chair the Norfolk Farming Conference next month, tweeted: 'A question for Mr Gove – As lovely as woodland and wild flower meadows are, they don't feed people. So does your vision see high standard UK produced food as a public good or are we increasingly to be fed from abroad post Brexit?'

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