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Uplands Entry Level Stewardship Scheme

Volume 485: debated on Thursday 18 December 2008

The Government are committed to continued support for upland farmers, to reward them for the landscape and other environmental benefits their efforts achieve. This directly reflects the crucial role that hill farmers play in shaping the upland landscape and its environment.

In 2006 the Government announced that uplands support in England would be integrated into Environmental Stewardship from 2010, replacing the Hill Farm Allowance (HFA). More recently I confirmed that we would do this through a specific uplands strand to Entry Level Stewardship (ELS), and that further details would be announced before the end of the year. Following discussion of our proposals with the hill farming community, and testing on 66 hill farms, I am pleased now to outline the full details of ‘Uplands ELS’.

We have made a number of changes to the technical detail of uplands ELS to make it more practical and attractive for farmers, while still making a significant contribution towards our environmental objectives. These changes respond directly to views expressed by stakeholders and the hill farming community. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who have contributed to this process.

Our aim is to achieve an uptake of at least 80 per cent. of the uplands. At this rate we would expect to spend over £25 million per year compared with £23.7 million under the HFA. We are prepared to make available up to £31 million within the existing Rural Development Programme budget to fund a higher uptake should more farmers choose to enter Uplands ELS.

Unlike the HFA, all farms in England’s severely disadvantaged areas—including those in the dairy sector—will be eligible to receive Uplands ELS, in return for the environmental benefits they sign up to deliver. And we are also including a commons supplement within Uplands ELS, to recognise the additional costs involved for commoners to reach agreement. This will be supplemented by clear guidance from Government stressing the critical role played by the active commoner in delivering the environmental and landscape benefits we are seeking. We will also continue to support the uplands through other mechanisms: for instance, 80 per cent. of the uplands have been identified by Natural England as target areas for enhanced support under Higher Level Stewardship.

The change from the HFA to Uplands ELS will require a period of adjustment for hill farmers. To help this transition, we are putting in place the following arrangements:

We will extend the HFA for one further year, so that farmers receive their last HFA payment in 2010—rather than 2009, as previously announced;

The start date for Uplands ELS agreements will be from 1 July 2010;

We will provide transitional payments for farmers with land still in the pre-Environmental Stewardship schemes—Countryside Stewardship or ESA agreements—from 2011, providing they received the HFA in 2010 on that land.

These arrangements will significantly smooth the impact on farmers’ cash flow, reducing the payment gap that they would otherwise face between the annual HFA and their first Uplands ELS payment from a minimum of 16 months down to only 10 months.

The July start date for Uplands ELS agreements will also provide farmers with time to understand how it will fit on their farm. Further to this, we are significantly boosting the level of advice that will be available to upland farmers to help them enter Uplands ELS. Further details on this enhanced advice programme will be available from Natural England next year.

Providing transitional payments for farmers with land still in Countryside Stewardship or ESA agreements will ensure we do not penalise these early adopters of agri-environment schemes who will generally be ineligible for Uplands ELS—due to double funding rules—until the end of their existing agreements.

Farmers with tenancy arrangements of less than five years will be able to enter Uplands ELS, providing their landlord countersigns the application. This is necessary under EU rules to ensure we achieve the environmental benefits for the full length of the agri-environment commitment.

Uplands ELS explicitly recognises the importance of the active grazier, and we therefore see the involvement of tenant farmers as essential to delivering the benefits that we are seeking—for example, by keeping a minimum level of stock on moorland. It is the Government’s firm view that the role of the grazier should be fully recognised when landowners and tenants reach agreement on entering Uplands ELS. Officials will continue to work with the National Farmers Union, Tenant Farmers Association and Country Land and Business Association to maximise uptake of Uplands ELS, including by farmers with tenancy arrangements of less than five years. I have asked the Tenancy Reform Industry Group to take this forward.

We will keep the scheme under review and will monitor the longer term benefits of all agri-environment schemes in the uplands. We will review the uptake and administration of Uplands ELS before the end of the current rural development programme in 2013, looking particularly at the impact on groups such as tenant farmers and commoners.

As the HFA and Uplands ELS are funded under the Rural Development Programme for England, we shall now seek Commission approval for a modification to the programme to give effect to these proposals, once we have formally consulted the RDPE Programme Monitoring Committee.

I believe the final design of Uplands ELS achieves the right balance between being practical for farmers and beneficial to the uplands environment, and will help achieve our objective of landscape scale coverage.

Further detail about the design of Uplands ELS can be found on the DEFRA website at www.defra.gov.uk/rural/uplands