Thanks to the impending General Election, Defra has allowed us another peep behind the curtain to show their thinking about the Environment and Agriculture after Brexit.
A hastily thrown together response to the House of Lords EU Environment and Energy sub-committee’s inquiry into the Environment post-Brexit was published yesterday on the HoL website. To be fair to the author, who appears to be Defra Heeran Buhecha Head of Nature Planning and Biodiversity, the response must have been cobbled together during a time of chaos at Defra. The 25 year plan for nature, which had been promised nearly 2 years ago, was going to be published, then it wasn’t, then it was again. By March it seemed the plan was dead (or languishing forever at the back of a filing cabinet).
The House of Lords published their inquiry on 14th Feb. What should Defra do? It couldn’t reference the Plan, because it hadn’t been published. But it couldn’t ignore it either, in case Defra Ministers decided that there was an opportune moment to publish it (perhaps during a nuclear war when no-one would notice). So they decided to copy and paste lumps from the unpublished plan and promise to publish it. According to the HoL sub-committee, they received the response on the 16th April. That is Easter Sunday. Either the HoL cttee tweeter got it wrong, or Defra had sent their response in the middle the Easter Holiday (when no-one would be there to receive it.) There is another oddity about that – the document (a pdf) indicates that Ms Buhecha last saved it on the 26th April at 1733pm. The Govt response appeared on the HoL website on the morning of the 27th.
The Govt response claims that the 25 Year Plan will be published “in this Parliament.” This Parliament was pro-rogued yesterday afternoon. As a former senior Defra civil servant commented yesterday
What of the response itself? It has been hurriedly put together. If the time stamp is correct the election announcement caught everyone off balance, and Defra may have decided to throw together something in the way of a response to the HoL to save them having to do it after the election. Evidently Purdah was not seen as an excuse for inaction in this case, as was tried (unsuccessfully) elsewhere in Defra.
I don’t have time to show all the examples of repetition in the response, but this stock phrase is from page 2
and here it is again on Page 3. If you think I’ve just used the same screenshot twice, note the double space at the end of the first sentence.
One particular vexing issue is how, when the EU derived environmental laws are transferred into domestic law, they will be enforced. Currently, UK failure to implement EU law means the Government ends up in the European Court of Justice. But the Govt has signalled its intention to remove the ECJ as the last step on the road of legal accountability.
Defra explain that there will be no new mechanism – an Environmental Court for example. Instead it will be left to Civil Society to challenge failures in law through Judicial Review. This is the same JR procedure that the Government has made more and more difficult for Civil Society to use. Defra finish with a flourish, suggesting that Parliament hold the Government accountable. I can only assume the Defra author wrote this with a wry smile, given that it was the Courts (The Enemy of the People) who forced Parliament to take up this role, not 6 months ago.
On Agriculture, Defra has indicated that it is going to take its time in developing a new Agriculture Act.
We shall see to what extent the last sentence turns out to be accurate, or whether the policy is shaped by the National Farmers Union alone. But I think its safe to say that Defra is signalling there will be less money available for agriculture and rural development than the £3Bn a year currently forked out.
With that funding in mind, the Government has given an indication that new Countryside Stewardship agreements signed after November 2016 will only be honoured beyond 2020 if they provide “strong value for money and are in line with domestic strategic priorities.”
On monday I wrote about a case of a Dorset farmer who in 2016 left a 10 year agri-environment scheme covering an area of nationally important wildlife habitat supporting threatened species. Within a year that habitat was damaged by agricultural intensification. The Government are signalling to farmers that there is no guarantee of funding for Stewardship Agreements being signed off from now on.
This means that every piece of nationally important wildlife habitat and their species, which is currently unprotected (not SSSI) and coming out of an AE scheme such as Entry Level (yes that would be a lot of sites) will have no guaranteed support beyond 2 years. Farmers plan in the long term. Who would choose to do all the hard work of applying for a scheme which might be cancelled two years later?
I haven’t written about the 25 year plan for nature, but I have read it. I can tell it’s pretty dire. Hopefully it will be consigned to the back of that filing cabinet, and we have a new Defra Secretary of State after the Election, who does care about the Environment.