Warnings over 'blind optimism' of new farm payments scheme

NFU East Anglia regional director Gary Ford pictured with a combine harvester in a wheat field

NFU East Anglia regional director Gary Ford has echoed the Public Accounts Committee's concerns over the government's new farm payments schemes - Credit: Pagepix / Ieuan Williams

East Anglian farmers have echoed MPs' concerns over the government's "blind optimism" on its plans for post-Brexit farming payments.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) says anxious farmers have been "left in the dark" by a lack of detail on the environmental land management scheme (ELMS) which will replace the EU's system of land-based subsidies, being phased out by 2027.

The new regime includes programmes to reward sustainable farming practices, as well as funding for environmental actions which support local nature and "landscape recovery".

However, the PAC says Defra has not set out how increases to productivity or environmental benefits will be delivered - or how the scheme will offset the financial impact of cutting current subsidies by more than half by 2024/25.

Its report says Defra "concedes its confidence in the scheme looks like blind optimism without the details of what it has planned".

It raises concerns that the department had not explained how changes in land use would not lead to more food being imported, with the environmental impacts of production being "exported" to countries with lower standards.

And it warns Defra needs to identify what further support is needed to help farm businesses cope with the loss of direct subsidies - which would make more than a third of farms "unsustainable" without changes such as rent reductions, increased productivity or income from new schemes.

But Defra said the criticism "fails to take account of recent developments", including last week's announcements to launch two of the three ELMS tiers.

PAC deputy chairman Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown said: "We have known we were replacing the CAP (the EU's Common Agricultural Policy) since 2016 and still we see no clear plans, objectives or communications with those at the sharp end - farmers - in this multi-billion pound, radical overhaul of the way land is used and, more crucially, food is produced in this country.

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"Farmers, especially the next generation of farmers who we will depend on to achieve our combined food production and environmental goals, have been left in the dark and it is simply wrong that Defra's own failures of business planning should knock on to undermine the certainty crucial to a critical national sector."

Gary Ford, regional director for the National Farmers' Union (NFU) in East Anglia, added: "This report must serve as a wake-up call to government.

“Despite recent announcements from Defra on the new schemes, there remains little detail available for farmers, meaning they are unable to make informed business decisions.

"This lack of information, at the exact time direct payments from current support schemes are being phased out, leaves farmers across East Anglia in an untenable position.

“The NFU has always maintained that enhanced environmental delivery must go hand-in-hand with sustainable food production.

"The government has still not made clear how food production fits in with its proposed new schemes. This must be addressed now, if they expect farmers to join. Otherwise, as the PAC highlights, we could simply end up increasing imports of food produced to lower environmental standards."

Environment secretary George Eustice

Environment secretary George Eustice - Credit: Denise Bradley

Environment secretary George Eustice said: "We disagree with many of the points made by the committee which fail to take account of recent developments.

"Farm incomes have improved significantly since the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016 and there will never be a better time to improve the way we reward farmers

"In December, I set out comprehensive details of the Sustainable Farming Incentive including full payment rates and we published an in-depth analysis of UK food security and agricultural output.

"In the past week we've shared further details of the Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery schemes and announced a major increase in payment rates for those farmers involved in existing agri-environment schemes."

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