Defra advised to focus farm support on public goods only

Future support for farming should be targeted at the provision of public goods and higher animal welfare, rather than direct payments, according to the influential Natural Capital Committee.

Set up to advise government on the delivery of its 25-year environment plan, and chaired by environmental economist Professor Dieter Helm, the committee has now submitted its recommendations to Defra.

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Describing Brexit as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide a coherent approach to farming, fisheries and environmental policy”, the report is highly critical of the current system of farm support, which it says disproportionately favours larger farms.

“Indeed, 25% of farms capture nearly three-quarters of public subsidy,” it says. “This in turn means that a large proportion of public funding goes to some of the richest farms in the country, while many smaller farms, including many that are vital elements of our environmental, landscape and rural community heritage, receive relatively little.”

The committee has called for an overhaul of funding to agriculture, “so government procures only the provision of public goods and high animal welfare standards”.

In particular, it lists environmental improvement, biosecurity, poverty reduction and knowledge transfer as areas for support.

“At present such schemes account for a small proportion of agricultural subsidies, yet these are important benefits to society which farms currently provide for relatively modest (and arguably inadequate) reward.”

Value for money

The committee also points to the “excellent value for money to the taxpayer” that can come from environmental improvements, as opposed to direct farm payments.

As a result, even though government has already committed to maintaining the overall level of funding to agriculture through to 2022, switching towards public funding of public goods could justify an increase rather than a reduction in overall funding.

Commenting on the NCC recommendations, Charles Cowap, principal land management lecturer at Harper Adams University, described the report as a first step towards the environment plan, but said it was a pity it was being developed separately from a long-term plan for farming.

“This report puts a toe into farming territory, but only to reaffirm a strong current of opinion – that farmers should only be paid for public goods.

“This may well turn out to be the appropriate way forward, but with new international trade arrangements and all their logistical implications coming sometime soon, my own view is that we have to retain more of an open mind on these questions at this stage.”

Defra secretary Michael Gove revealed at this week’s Conservative Party conference in Manchester that the actual 25-year environment plan would be published before Christmas. The NCC’s recommendations are likely to feature strongly.

NCC advice to government for a 25-year environment plan

Main goals:

  • Cleaner air and cleaner waters
  • Better flood risk management
  • Reduced greenhouse gas emissions
  • Better public access to open spaces
  • Thriving wild species and habitats
  • Healthier soils

How to achieve this:

  • Increase woodland by at least 250,000ha by 2040
  • Restore peatlands in upland areas
  • Restore natural hydrological systems, including natural flood management
  • More national parks and nature reserves
  • Taxpayer support for farmers to be for public goods and animal welfare only
  • Funding for local nature partnerships and water catchment partnerships