8 September 2000
Brown defends hill support strategy

By FWi staff

FARM minister Nick Brown has defended the governments strategy for hill support claiming only it can offer viable upland agriculture in the long term.

Although resisted by farmers the move from production-based to area based payments is the right thing to do, Mr Brown told Farmers Weekly.

He said he believed Farmers Weeklyhad been wrong to raise concerns over aspects of the Hill Farming Allowance which would replace the Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowance scheme.

Support payments that are linked to the number of animals kept have tended to encourage over-production and, therefore, depress prices, he said.

Headage payments have been criticised on two additional fronts — that increasing stock levels risk damaging the environment, and that market prices and not subsidy payments should determine levels of production, Mr Brown insisted.

Moving to an area payment would remove the incentive to increase stock levels, and decouple support from production, ensuring that hill farm support was non-trade distorting, and so not an issue in the forthcoming round of WTO trade negotiations, he added.

The new scheme should not be viewed as simply a continuation of the old HLCA scheme on an area basis, stressed the minister.

The HFA has new objectives with both social and environmental aspects and fits into the framework for rural development which is part of the new direction of agriculture.

The minister admitted there would be losers, but he defended the safety net mechanism claiming it would help producers.

I have acted to smooth the transition and to cushion the impact on the losers. The safety net is worth over 6m in 2001 and almost as much in 2002, he said.

Criticism of the lower rate of subsidy for moorland than for other land was also unjustified, said Mr Brown.

There were two reasons for the lower rate, he claimed.

First, the costs associated with practising sustainable agriculture on a hectare of moorland were lower than on a hectare of in-bye.

Secondly, the payment rates would minimise the redistribution of aid between farmers and so minimise the disruptive effect of making this change, said the minister.

But, with West Country farmers staging sit-ins at MAFF offices and threatening to block moorland roads, Mr Browns explanation is unlikely to appease the 44% of farmers who the ministry estimates will lose out.