“After we Vote Leave”, said the official Leave campaign’s farming leaflet, “we can protect farmers’ subsidies – and even increase them”.
Eighteen months on from the Brexit referendum, that promise is looking decidedly shaky. The Government has pledged to keep farm subsidies at their current levels of around £3.5bn per year until the end of this parliament – that’s to say, 2022 at the latest. But what happens beyond then?
To date, no Minister has dared to be drawn on how much money farmers and landowners will get beyond this parliament. Public discussion has focused on how future monies should be spent, but not the overall budget.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove has pleased many environmentalists by criticising the existing Common Agricultural Policy on grounds that it “rewards [the] size of land-holding ahead of good environmental practice, and all too often puts resources in the hands of the already wealthy rather than into the common good of our shared natural environment.” It’s vital that farm payments are reformed so that public money is spent on public goods, from restoring habitats and protecting wildlife to improving natural flood measures.
But the overall size of the pot of money available to do this matters hugely too. And it matters not just to the direct recipients – farmers and landowners – but to environmentalists and the natural world.
My concern is that behind a welter of welcome green policy announcements, Michael Gove is gearing up to make a trade-off. He knows that Brexit may prove expensive and that the Treasury is itching to make savings wherever possible. After all, the Leave campaign – including Mr Gove – also promised a post-Brexit dividend for the NHS, albeit one based on false figures of how much we actually send to the EU.
Faced with demands from Ministers across Whitehall for more money, still pursuing deficit reduction, and forced to set aside contingency funds for the eventuality of a hard Brexit, the Chancellor is looking for things to cut. And investigations by Friends of the Earth show that behind the scenes, there are increasing fears that the farm payments budget could be for the chop:
- At a recent conference organised by centre-right think-tank Bright Blue, Julie Girling MEP, who sits on the European Parliament’s environment committee, warned that the latest Treasury figures doing the rounds were to cut farm subsidies after Brexit to just £2bn per year, down from £3.5bn currently. Her office subsequently confirmed in correspondence with Friends of the Earth that this was “a figure that has been heard around”.
- The Agricultural & Horticultural Development Board (ADHB), an industry-funded quango that is accountable to DEFRA, published in October a set of scenarios for post-Brexit agriculture that modelled dramatic falls in farm payments. One scenario, ‘Evolution’, saw payment levels remain the same, but the other two scenarios anticipated cuts of 50-75% in overall farm support.
- Increasing numbers of land agents and chartered surveyors are advising their clients to prepare for a big drop in subsidies. An editorial in Savills’ spring-summer 2017 trade magazine warned: “Without subsidy, many farming businesses simply won’t survive. It is difficult to envisage current levels of farm support continuing post-2020 and we need to get match-fit, ready to compete and trade in a global marketplace”. At an event organised by Strutt & Parker in early 2017, one of the organisation’s farming experts advised that “some form of ongoing subsidy support would remain [after Brexit], but it would probably be channelled into environmental stewardship schemes… It would therefore be wise to assume that the Basic Payment would fall by 20% in 2020 and is likely to continue to decline after that”. And in this November 2017 publication, land agents Fisher German advise: “We are recommending to clients that they should plan for a reduction in net subsidy income of 50%.”
In other words, there are widespread fears that post-Brexit farm payments may end up greener, but a lot smaller.
That would be a mistake. Friends of the Earth doesn’t want to see small farmers go to the wall any more than farming organisations do. And a smaller pot of money for land management, even if it’s a greener one, would confine positive environmental measures to niche schemes and pockets of land, whilst failing to address agriculture’s role in the biodiversity, climate and soil crises afflicting our countryside.
While there are instances where removing subsidies for harmful practices would benefit ecosystems, nature’s recovery would often be speeded up by investing more on positive measures. For instance, cutting payments to huge grouse moor estates could discourage them continuing their damaging practices of intensive upland management and heather-burning. But better still would be to incentivise tree-planting, peatland restoration and Hen Harrier reintroduction in their stead.
In terms of national budgets, £3.5bn is actually peanuts – for context, it’s only 2.4% of the combined UK NHS annual budget of £147.5bn – a small price to pay, and in reality a sound investment to help secure and protect the very resources that are critical to food production, like pollinators, healthy soils and thriving wildlife.
The RSPB, the National Trust and the Wildlife Trusts will soon publish research modelling what it would cost to enable farmers to effectively deliver public goods and protect the environment.
Maintaining, or even increasing, the £3.5bn farm payments budget and directing it at the right outcomes would honour the promises made by Vote Leave to farmers – and it would start to rise to the challenge posed by our decimation of nature on these small islands.