A brighter future for farming? Michael Gove proposes, we respond

Barn owl ©Danny Green/2020VISION

The Wildlife Trusts broadly welcome Michael Gove’s speech at the National Farmers Union conference today, in which he emphasised the need to properly reward farmers and land managers for the things that they produce but can’t sell, namely wildlife habitats, great walks and healthier soils.

Michael Gove has restated his commitment to scrapping the current area-based payments under the Common Agricultural Policy, and to making payments for public goods instead.

Environmental enhancement, Mr Gove said, is the primary public good that taxpayers should pay farmers and land managers for – payments to enhance our soils, waterways, hedgerows, woods and other habitats which provide a home for our wildlife, and which help sustain our health and wealth.

We very much welcome the Government’s commitment that future funding should be allocated in a way which “delivers environmental benefits at landscape scale, makes soils healthier and rivers cleaner, encourages the development of new habitats for wildlife and incentivises healthy food production”. Making sure we take the right approach to new schemes will be crucial, and with decades of experience we know what appraoches will deliver the most benefits. Whilst in principle The Wildlife Trusts welcome the Government’s commitment to piloting new ways of investing in environmental enhancement, there is urgency to set up successor schemes. We risk losing key habitats to the plough as the uncertainty is prolonged.

We are concerned that there was no mention of the environmental risks of removing the current area-based payments, which currently come hand-in-hand with rules about management of field margins, hedges and riverbanks. Reference to paying for environmental protection is a worry. We believe public money should only go into making a positive difference – helping nature’s recovery – not for “not polluting” or “not destroying habitat”. Such risks and protections should mitigated or provided for through regulation.

Gove also announced a review of the inspections regime led by Dame Glenys Stacey, which is designed to investigate how “inspections can be removed, reduced or improved to reduce the burden on farmers”. The current regime is flawed, but we would urge Mr Gove to consider the double risk of the loss of environmental conditions on basic area payments and the loss of scrutiny. We would press for the inclusion of environmental leaders in this review process, otherwise there is a risk that we will not meet his ambition for the UK to be world-leaders in environmental standards.

We now need to see the consultation paper on the Government’s direction of travel. In January, we suggested the public goods we think should be funded, and what a future payments system could look like in our publication, What next for Farming? A future policy for land in England: investing in our natural assets which you can read here.