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Environmental Land Management Schemes

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 16 December 2021


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the answer by Lord Benyon on 27 May (HL Deb, col. 1097), when they will publish details of how new Environmental Land Management schemes will deliver the “very clear access commitment, backed by funding”, to which the Minister referred.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in the name of my noble friend, and at her request.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. The Government remain committed to investing in access. On 2 December the Secretary of State confirmed that we will

“continue to pay for heritage, access and engagement through our existing schemes and we will consider how to maintain investment in these areas as part of future schemes”.—[Official Report, Commons, 2/12/21; col. 40WS.]

This includes environmental land management schemes. Our ongoing commitment is visible through other funds, including the nature for climate fund and the farming and protected landscapes programme, among others.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that unless you have effective co-ordination between making more footpaths and greater access to the countryside available within the existing structure, and things like public transport, you are going to underutilise any possible benefit? Would the Minister cast his eye over one of the recommendations made in the report entitled A national plan for sport, health and wellbeing? I was a member of the committee that produced it, and in it we suggest that the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities—not a very snappy title—should undertake this work to make sure there is a cross-government approach.

The noble Lord is absolutely right: we can provide all the footpaths and access we want, but it is about getting people out there to use them and demystifying the natural environment for some people. I was interested in that report, as it produced the rather worrying finding that physical activity levels in the UK have significantly declined, in part as a result of Covid. Much more can be done to join this up and it is absolutely a job across government, not just for one department.

My Lords, may I raise access of a different kind, in connection with the ELMS: access for tenants and how we can encourage and incentivise longer tenancy agreements? Will the Minister use his good offices to interact with the Treasury to ensure that the tax changes needed for this purpose can be made in time, before the ELMS come into effect?

I thank my noble friend. There are ongoing discussions with the Treasury on a variety of different aspects of agricultural transition and reform, not least our exit scheme. But we also want to encourage a length of tenure which encourages people to invest in a wide variety of different activities in the countryside, including access.

My Lords, I declare my interest as president of the Rural Coalition. Can the Minister confirm that the funds allocated for the implementation of the Glover review are totally separate from the funds allocated for ELMS?

The right reverend Prelate raises a very good point. For example, we have put some money into the farming in protected landscapes scheme, which many different access groups are using to work with farmers and organisations like national parks and AONBs to get greater access. We absolutely intend that these are part of the environmental land management schemes, but that other funding streams can be accessed as well.

My Lords, on 2 December the Minister wrote to your Lordships giving an update on the transition from CAP. The annexe indicated that 70 applications have been received for trials on landscape recovery. Could the Minister give an update on how these are going and whether any include access to the countryside?

A wide variety of different activities are being looked at as part of the tests and trials. Our announcement on local nature recovery and landscape recovery will be made next year. We are working with the test-and-trials farmers and land managers to ensure that access is part of this, as well as the very important work we need to do to reverse the declines in species.

In reply to an earlier question, the Minister used the phrase “ongoing discussions with the Treasury”, a phrase beloved by civil servants and Ministers. Can the Minister tell us when he expects these ongoing discussions to be concluded, and how they are going to be reported to Parliament?

I shall certainly keep the House informed about this. My discussions with the Treasury are very fruitful in this area. The noble Lord seems sceptical of that, perhaps, but I assure him that there is a cross-government intention to provide better security for farmers in future and that schemes such as our exit scheme have the right tax framework to make them a good incentive—but also that the other aspects that we are talking about here, such as access and getting more people out in the countryside, are understood. The work that I have been doing with my noble friend Lord Agnew has been really important in trying to make sure that we get more people into the countryside.

My Lords, I refer the House to my minimal interests in agriculture. Does my noble friend not think that there is an inevitable conflict between rewilding and public access, because nobody actually wants to walk through countryside that is covered in stinging nettles and brambles?

I am not sure that I agree with my noble friend. What people want in our countryside is variety. Rewilding Britain, the charity promoting rewilding, has an ambition of 5% of the UK to be rewilded by the end of this century, which seems a perfectly achievable figure. The work that we have to do in the farmed environment, as well, is really important —so I do not think that he can make a sweeping statement like that.

My Lords, as the Minister knows, financial support for improving public access to the countryside is a key commitment of the new regime in the Agriculture Act. I would be interested to hear his response to the many rambling and walking groups that are expressing anger and frustration at the moment that the department is not prioritising access to the countryside.

I was disappointed by the response of the Ramblers Association, an organisation for which I have a great regard. As set out in a Written Ministerial Statement of 2 December:

“We will also continue to pay for heritage, access and engagement through our existing schemes and we will consider how to maintain investment in these areas as part of future schemes.”—[Official Report, Commons, 2/12/21; col. 437WS.]

What we were talking about was the sustainable farming incentive, which is only one of three schemes. Of course, there are many other examples, such as the £500 million nature for climate fund and the £124 million announced for the net-zero community forests. I could go on, but I would incur the wrath of the House if I did.

My Lords, the Minister has just raised a number of schemes available to the public. I welcome the Government’s general direction but will my noble friend be careful to ensure that they do not overcomplicate those schemes and make them too complicated for people to have access to them?

My noble friend is absolutely right. One reason why we have done this iterative process, with tests and trials and piloting these different schemes, is because we want to make sure that they are brought in in as effective a way as possible. We have already reduced, with the sustainable farming incentive, the amount of guidance to make it as simple and clear as possible. Farmers should not be paying land agents huge amounts of money to do those schemes; they can do it themselves.

My Lords, in this season of good will, should we not congratulate my noble friend the Minister on his wonderful passion for the countryside and express the hope that he is able in the new year to extend that passion ever more widely?

I do not know what I can say in answer to such a generous question, expect to say a very happy Christmas to my noble friend and everybody else.