Set-aside News Special: The case for compulsion

Based on what we see in the consultation we think only the compulsory approach to set-aside offers the degree of certainty that is needed.

Join the lively debate on set-aside on our forums 

Now more than ever, we all need to demonstrate that farm payments are justified. A glance over the channel, where payments to French arable farmers are about to be slashed, demonstrates what happens when farm subsidies fail to show wider public benefits. Voluntary approaches can work – but when the dust settles on the set-aside debate, will a voluntary approach really deliver the public goods?

When the abolition of production set-aside was first mooted, we played a full part in the voluntary five-point plan proposed to tackle the environmental impacts. Sadly that plan failed to do what was needed. To succeed, voluntary approaches need wholehearted buy-in from industry leaders, and with set-aside this didn’t happen.

Instead, we have spent two years discussing whether set-aside would be brought into cultivation (much of it was) and whether uncropped land has environmental benefits (nearly three-quarters of farmers think it does). The debate over how the environmental impacts of its loss could be mitigated has now taken us worryingly close to the end of the window of opportunity to include the renewals of Entry Level Stewardship in the process.


We welcome the suggestions from FWAG and LEAF that well-managed habitats could secure the benefits of set-aside on a much smaller area. We welcome the (rather belated) recognition from NFU and CLA leaders that this important environmental issue needs to be addressed.

Two years down the line what we have on the table are two options. One of these clearly links future arable subsidies to replacing the environmental benefits of set-aside. The other so far contains little to demonstrate that it will deliver anything like the same overall benefit – though we know that many individual farmers will rise to the challenge.

We remain open to the possibility that a voluntary scheme could work based on the many positive examples of good practice we see every day from committed and enthusiastic farmers. The RSPB is a passionate believer in the power of voluntary action.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the RSPB’s Volunteer and Farmer Alliance, a scheme that underlines the benefits of working together. More than 4000 farmers have taken advantage of the scheme and we estimate the volunteers have walked the equivalent of 4.5 times around the world in the process. The information generated has proved invaluable to farmers wanting to get the most out of their agri-environment schemes.

But our belief is that a voluntary approach to set-aside needs to move hand-in-hand with government action.

We helped to initiate the pesticides Voluntary Initiative, which was given focus through an understanding that if voluntary action failed to tackle the important issue of reducing pesticide impacts on the wider environment, a pesticides tax would be introduced.