'Vital questions unanswered' ahead of farming's biggest policy shake-up for 50 years

A farmer ploughing his fields at Ridlington. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Farmers have demanded more detail on the government's plans to phase out EU subsidies in favour of a new environmental land management scheme (ELMS) - Credit: Archant

East Anglian farmers facing the loss of "lifeline" EU subsidies from next year say vital questions remain unanswered about the government's replacement environmental payments scheme.

The government has published its long-awaited "roadmap" for post-Brexit farming, outlining the most significant changes to agricultural policy in this country for more than 50 years.

Over the next seven years, Defra is phasing out the current system of "direct payment" subsidies based on the amount of land farmed, and replacing it with a new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) which will instead reward farmers for work to improve landscapes and ecosystems.

The document outlines the "progressive reductions" in direct farm payments, starting at 5pc for most farmers in 2021, followed by 15pc in both 2022 and 2023. By the end of 2024, the direct payment budget will be halved, and by 2028 these "legacy" payments will end completely. The money will be redirected into ELMS, a three-tiered system offering payments for sustainable farming, local nature recovery and landscape recovery.

But while farmers will begin to lose their subsidies from next year, the replacement scheme is not due to be fully implemented until 2024 - although "some core elements" are expected to be introduced from 2022.

And with the start of the transition looming, the lack of detail is a major concern for East Anglia's agricultural industry.

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Environment secretary George Eustice announced the new policy document at an online webinar which also featured a panel of industry guests including Jake Fiennes, head of conservation at the Holkham Estate in north Norfolk and also East Anglia's representative on the National Farmers' Union's Environment Forum.

Jake Fiennes, head of conservation at the Holkham Estate, is urging MPs to support East Anglia's far

Jake Fiennes, head of conservation at the Holkham Estate - Credit: Carl Ellis

He said the ideas were "bold and ambitious", but lacked the detail urgently needed by farm businesses to plan for the impending loss of subsidies.

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"It is quite a broad brush approach to a seven-year transition," said Mr Fiennes.

"The secretary of state will have heard numerous times that this paper fails to give any significant detail required for farm businesses to make changes, whether they are looking for solutions to meet 'net zero' or be sustainable in the production of food, but also those farmers wishing to embrace the proposed changes. 

"All of this requires planning. I urge the secretary of state to give greater detail to allow farm businesses to invest in this."

Other farming leaders said the transition was fraught with risk as subsidy payments which offered a financial "lifeline" to many farms were being removed before the replacement system is implemented.

NFU East Anglia regional director Gary Ford. Picture: Pagepix

Gary Ford, East Anglia regional director for the National Farmers' Union - Credit: Pagepix

Gary Ford, East Anglia regional director for the National Farmers' Union (NFU), said: "This announcement still leaves some vital questions unanswered, especially around the timeline of the phasing out of farm support payments and the overall economic impact these changes will have.

"Expecting farmers to operate profitable businesses that produce food and increase their environmental delivery, while phasing out existing support and without a complete replacement scheme for almost three years, is high risk and a very big ask.”

In response, Mr Eustice said there are "actually quite a lot of detailed schemes" described in the annexes of the policy document.

"Those schemes are not open yet, but they will be open for 2022 when we roll out the sustainable farming incentive - but for now I think farmers can see the emerging government policy that enables them to inform their business decisions," he said.

Mr Eustice said the introduction of ELMS was not to be seen as "an event in 2024", but "a process that starts next year".

Farming minister George Eustice. Picture: Denise Bradley

Environment secretary George Eustice - Credit: copyright: Archant 2014

"In 2022 and 2023, the government will start to roll out some of the core elements of environmental land management," he said. "The sustainable farming incentive will support approaches to farm husbandry that help the environment, and it might include promoting integrated pest management, actions to improve soil health or catchment sensitive farming.

"We will make more funding available within the legacy Countryside Stewardship scheme, and there will be standalone projects to support tree planting, peatland restoration, and nature recovery. And we will be launching a new industry-led R&D scheme to invest in innovation and to benefit farmers."

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