Opinion: ELM delay and BPS cuts leave a hole in finances

Most English farmers have now received their Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) money for 2022. Bah humbug, mine has now been cut by about 35% – and by more than 50% if inflation is taken into account.

But, while no one likes having a subsidy that they’ve been paid for nearly two decades withdrawn, it would ease my Scrooge-like grumpiness considerably if I knew how the money was being redirected.

See also: ‘No help coming’ for farmers facing hugely squeezed margins

About the author

Stephen Carr
Farmers Weekly Opinion writer
Stephen Carr runs an 800ha beef, sheep and arable farm on the South Downs near Eastbourne in Sussex in partnership with his wife and four of his daughters. He also runs a nearby pub with his nephew, The Sussex Ox, which serves the farm’s beef, lamb, (and fruit and vegetables from the farmhouse kitchen-garden in season) through its restaurant.
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The money cut from BPS payments is supposed to be going to the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, of course.

But, incredibly, six years after the result of the EU referendum, we still don’t really know what ELM is, nor will we find out until next year.

Compare this foot-dragging process to how periodic reforms to farm subsidy schemes in the EU are undertaken.

Can you really imagine EU politicians cutting payments to farmers by 50% in real terms before they knew the details of what subsidy system would replace it?

Can it really be that this government is so incompetent that it has made me nostalgic for the CAP?

Let’s start with the bit we do know about ELM.

It has three tiers: the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), Countryside Stewardship Plus (previously labelled Local Nature Recovery), and Landscape Recovery.

We do have some detailed information about the SFI. We know it will pay farmers to engage in “best farming practice” and we know the payments are incredibly stingy.

But the two other tiers remain largely a mystery.

Those details that have emerged, particularly about the Landscape Recovery tier, set alarm bells ringing in farming circles, especially when government ministers hinted that the policy (effectively “rewilding” by another name) might absorb a third of the ELM budget, despite covering only 3% of English farmland.

This high concentration of payments could see some schemes yielding up to £2,500/ha a year.

On blocks of land as large as 5,000ha (the maximum size allowed), an agreement could therefore yield more than £12.5m a year in payments, for a minimum of 20 years.

The farming organisations, and the NFU in particular, pushed back on the policy as soon as they became aware of the scale of proposed funding for the scheme.

Indeed, such was the controversy that at one point this autumn the whole future of ELM was briefly thrown into doubt, with a flat rate £200/ha area payment to all farmers mooted instead.

After six years of planning, the policy nearly reverted back to the BPS…

But then the conservation lobby got to work, led by the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the Wildlife Trusts. Now we are told that ELM is back on track.

Only time will tell just how successful the NFU has been in reducing the funding for Landscape Recovery and getting more money directed, say, towards improvements in farm productivity.

Improving biodiversity on farms and reducing farm pollution is extremely important, but it is surely significant that there is no mention of “food” within the ELM acronym.

Less than two years after Brexit, have we already arrived at the position where the farming interest in England has been almost totally eclipsed by the conservation lobby?

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