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Report highlighting concerns over ELMs should act as a ‘wake-up call’

A new report has questioned the government’s readiness to deliver the ELM scheme, and raised concerns about its potential impacts for the farming sector.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has made a series of recommendations to Defra in a new report, which says the department is ‘overly optimistic’ about what it can achieve and by when – and raises a number of other concerns about the scheme.

PAC, which is a select committee of the House of Commons, say the scheme is an opportunity to deliver environmental benefits whilst promoting a sustainable and productive farming sector – but questioned the government’s readiness to deliver it.

The report criticises the lack of detail on how increases in farm productivity or environmental benefits will be achieved, and how these will offset the scheme’s dramatic impact on English farmers.

English farmers will see direct payments reduce by more than half by 2024-25, before being removed entirely by 2027.

Lack of detail causing anxiety in the sector

The release of information that would allow farmers to plan their businesses and take advantage of new opportunities has been slow, causing anxiety in the sector. And there is still a way to go in improving engagement with farmers, the authors noted.

The report also echoes farmers’ concerns that changes in land use could simply result in more food being imported from countries with potentially lower environmental standards, thereby ‘exporting’ environmental impacts.

In addition, it says Defra has not done enough to gain farmers’ trust in its ability to successfully deliver the programme. Confidence has been damaged by a poor history of delivery under previous subsidy schemes and the slow release of information on new schemes, authors argue.

Furthermore, the percentage of farmers who feel they have all or most of the information they need to inform business planning remains ‘alarmingly low’. The report advises a review of the department’s entire communications strategy, reporting to PAC by the end of March 2022 on its improvements.

Authors add that Defra is not doing enough to support farmers through the transition to the new schemes and alleviate any anxiety its plans are causing. It advised identifying what further support is needed to help farmers during the transition, and particularly set out what it will do to support farmers’ well-being.

There is also concern that ELMs will be too complex and bureaucratic, and will not cater for the full range of farm types and circumstances. Smaller farms, which may find excessive bureaucracy particularly challenging, are also underrepresented in the pilot with only 30% of participants having under 50ha compared to 61% of English farm businesses as a whole.

Furthermore, there is a lack of clear metrics and robust baseline measures for determining whether ELMs is effective – this must be established and published before the start of the roll out and should be reported on annually, PAC says.

Enhanced environmental delivery must go hand in hand with sustainable food production, otherwise we could simply end up increasing imports of food produced to lower environmental standards.

“Untenable position”

Commenting on the report, NFU said the findings should be a ‘wake-up call’ for the government.

NFU vice president Tom Bradshaw reiterated the authors’ concerns that very little detail is available for farmers, preventing them from making informed decisions that will impact their businesses for years to come. This lack of information, at a time when direct payments from current support schemes are being phased out, is putting farmers in an “untenable position”.

Mr Bradshaw added there is considerable concern that not all farmers will be able to get involved in the ELMs schemes as they stand – with very limited options for upland farmers who “stand to lose far more support than they will gain from new measures announced so far”. It’s also unclear how accessible it will be for tenant farmers, who are responsible for managing over a third of the land.

“The NFU has always maintained that enhanced environmental delivery must go hand-in-hand with sustainable food production. 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. The irony is otherwise, as the PAC highlights, we could simply end up increasing imports of food produced to lower environmental standards.

“It’s crucial Defra carries out and publishes the results of impact assessments to understand the true impact of the proposed changes, something we have repeatedly asked for but has not been forthcoming.”

Further recommendations

The committee is asking Defra to urgently show forecasts for changes in land use, subsequent changes in payments to farmers, and how this will affect food production – and to report annually to parliament on food price inflation.

Defra was also urged to write to PAC by the end of February 2022 to confirm how it is assuring its own and farmers’ readiness at each stage of the programme, and specify what would trigger a delay to Sustainable Farming Incentive rollout and when, allowing sufficient lead time to allow farmers to plan for a delayed launch.

In addition, authors called on the department to urgently write by the end of January 2022 to explain how it is using the current pilot of SFI to get feedback on the complexity of ELM, especially for smaller farm businesses and tenant farmers, and what changes it will make to alleviate any perceived complexity.

Other recommendations included setting out how it will incentivise young farmers both to enter, and to remain, in the industry.

 

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