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Environmental Land Management Schemes

Volume 812: debated on Monday 24 May 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made towards developing environmental land management schemes.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. Our approach to environmental land management is the cornerstone of our new agricultural policy. Work to deliver the schemes continues at pace. In March 2021, Defra published plans for piloting the sustainable farming initiative, which opened for expressions of interest. All successful agreements will come into force from October 2021. Preparations to pilot the new local nature recovery scheme and to launch early landscape recovery projects continue. They are expected to start from next year.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box at such an important time for British farming. I declare my interests as a Devon farmer. Does the Minister agree with His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales that farmers face a unique triple threat from decreased basic payments, increased trade and an uncertain transition to sustainable farming under ELMS? Do the Government accept that the uncertainty over the details of that transition is bad for farmers and, more particularly, worse for the environment?

Like the noble Earl, I certainly recognise the need to provide further certainty. That is why in November we published the agricultural transition plan, which set out in detail how we will phase out direct payments and will support the sector to contribute to environmental goals and to be profitable and economically sustainable without subsidy. Since then, we have launched the initial farm resilience fund, opened the Countryside Stewardship scheme to further applications and published a consultation on delinking and the lump-sum exit scheme. More than 2,000 farmers have applied to pilot the sustainable farming incentive. Across the summer, we will provide further information on early rollout of the sustainable farming incentive, the farming in protected landscapes programme and our tree health pilot, and we will announce the successful applicants for the farming resilience fund.

I welcome the Minister to his new role. Will he confirm that the results of the ELMS trials will be available to all and, in particular, that it will be possible to compare like-for-like soil types and typographies? Will he also confirm the possibility of carbon credits being applied more broadly across existing woodland and coppice, as opposed to the present eligibility for new woodland planting only?

I am grateful for the kind comments of welcome. I am living proof that you can boil cabbage twice: it is very nice to be back at the department. We are introducing three schemes that reward the delivery of environmental benefits: the sustainable farming incentive, the local nature recovery scheme and the landscape recovery scheme. The noble Lord is entirely right to talk about the importance of soils. They are fundamental to the first two schemes. As far as carbon credits are concerned, this is a huge opportunity for the farming community, particularly in getting some private sector investment to supplement farm incomes. I hope that we can have a clear system that will operate very soon for farmers to access.

My Lords, I, too, welcome the noble Lord, Lord Benyon. I do not know about his cabbage, but he certainly knows his oats, and he is particularly welcome for that reason. I remind the House of my farming interests. A recurring theme in the feedback from the ELMS trials so far is the need for free advice about eligibility, especially for smaller farms. Will the Government make that a priority and also ensure that the requirements of the scheme are written in plain English rather than in environmental jargon, which has contributed to low take-up in some of the earlier schemes?

My Lords, we recognise that our changes will be challenging for some farmers. I know that Exmoor farmers, in particular, are close to the noble Baroness’s heart. The scheme that we have introduced will provide funding so that farmers can access support provided by organisations with relevant experience which are already known and trusted in the farming community. The scheme will focus on assisting farmers to make the right decisions for themselves, their families and their business through effective discussion and planning. I hope that we can keep that in clear English.

My Lords, I, too, welcome the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, to his first outing at Oral Questions and look forward to working with him. There has been publicity around payments to elderly farmers to encourage them to retire but little about the encouragement being offered to younger people to enter farming. Can the Minister say how many farmers have applied for the grant to retire and how many new entrants have come forward?

My Lords, it is early days on the lump sum payment for farmers to retire. It is proposed that the scheme will come in next year and will involve two years’ basic payment scheme amounts on a reference year budget. It is intended to encourage to farmers to have a dignified exit where it suits them and their business. This will also encourage new entrants who, I hope, will see a future in farming and will be assisted by the Government in trying to enter a business which has been all too difficult for young people to enter in the past. I promise to keep the noble Baroness informed on this because I know it is of great importance to her and the House.

My Lords, I, too, welcome the noble Lord to his position. Does the Minister agree with the assessment that granting tariff- free terms to Australia, and potentially New Zealand, undermining, in particular, small family farms, means that we have to make the same concession to the United States and Brazil? How are the Government ensuring that the design of ELMS considers external factors rather than being purely domestic in focus?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question and her welcome. The Government are committed to trying to assist farming through this transition period. She will be aware of the manifesto commitment that all our trade negotiations will not compromise our high standards of environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards; that is still the position. We need to make sure in ELMS that we are not just looking at the minutiae of a different support scheme and trying to migrate from area payments to a new form of support, but recognising the wider implications to the farming community and the international effects of commodity prices and the like. I am absolutely with her on this; I want to work with ministerial colleagues and others to try to make sure that this works.

I, too, welcome my noble friend to the Front Bench. Can my noble friend the Minister tell me what financial incentives, if any, will be offered to farmers to encourage them to practise minimum-till disciplines for crop-growing—a method that the GWCT has proven is most beneficial in the improvement of soil structure, earthworm populations and moisture retention?

I entirely agree with my noble friend that our soil is a vital resource. I hope he will agree that our sustainable farming incentive scheme provides a range of opportunities for farmers to be paid for protecting and enhancing the quality of their soil, including the management of tillage. Two of the eight standards that will be piloted are focused specifically on soil management: the arable and horticultural soils standard and the improved grassland soils standard, which both include actions to reduce tillage on at-risk soils at the intermediate and advanced levels of ambition.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. Please can the Minister—whom I congratulate on his appointment—tell us what steps will be taken to protect good agricultural land from being taken out of food production to accommodate environmental impact measures such as biodiversity, net gain, offsetting and other schemes that might affect food production? What are the Minister’s views on the establishment of a land use register to ensure national food security?

I am grateful to the noble Lord. I think he will be reassured that, in moving from area payments to a more nuanced system of supporting environmental activities, farmers will be encouraged to farm their best land as best they can and look at those corners of fields and other parts of their farm that are less productive and are economic only because of the basic payment scheme. I hope he will see that kind of, if you like, market-led push by the Government as moving in the right direction. As far as a register is concerned, that will have to happen as part of further schemes, which will require local authorities, or local government at some level, to be involved in their rollout.

My Lords, I join in the words of welcome to the Minister. Some 30% of farmland in England is let to tenant farmers. Published survey evidence reveals a lack of confidence and willingness among them to participate in the SFI pilot. Their association spokesperson said that

“tenant farmers are concerned that DEFRA does not fully understand or appreciate the diversity of land management models that exist within British agriculture”

and that

“the pilot may not be able to fully test out the implications of the scheme for the tenanted sector.”

How do the Government plan to ensure that this is not the case?

We have had about 2,000 requests to enter the sustainable farming initiative pilot; we will probably go with around 1,000 of those, starting from October this year. We intend to have a wide geographical base as well as a wide group of different farm sizes; this will certainly include tenant farms, and we are working with the Tenant Farmers Association to achieve that.