Opinion: New ELM scheme will favour larger farms more than BPS

Farmers can’t go green if they’re in the red”, is an observation coined by the NFU to describe the intractable link between food production and the farmed environment, as English farmers transition from the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) to a system based on “public money for public goods”.

Quite what English farmers will be transitioning to by 2028 remains the question.

Farmers are now wearily familiar of living in a state of constant uncertainty; 68 months after the Brexit referendum, the industry still tenses at each long-overdue ministerial announcement on future policy, only to collectively exhale at what are invariably announcements on future announcements.

Yet, with BPS now declining across England, the future is already here.

About the author

Joe Stanley
Farmers Weekly Opinion writer
Joe Stanley is head of training and partnerships at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Allerton Project, researching the effects of farming on wildlife and the environment, He is also vice-chairman of Leicestershire, Northants and Rutland NFU, and a winner of the Meurig Raymond award for agricultural advocacy.
Read more articles by Joe Stanley

Mercifully, some details have finally emerged around the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), the “entry tier” of Environmental Land Management (ELM).

Official expectation is that 70% of farmers will engage with SFI in the coming years. Successively fewer will then access the higher tiers of ELM – Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery.

See also: Sustainable Farming Incentive 2022 – what farmers need to know

So the question must be asked as to why Defra plans to divide its budget equally between these three tiers, rather than helping the most farmers achieve the most good.

One of the most misleading political claims about BPS is that it unfairly favours large landowners.

Nonsense; it’s a flat-rate payment whereby everyone receives the same amount a hectare in as egalitarian a system as can be fashioned without means testing recipients.

Under ELM, roughly 70% of farmers are to share roughly 33% of the money (and produce food), with a very small handful of very large landowners being paid the same third of the budget to effectively “rewild” under Landscape Recovery and enact permanent land-use change.

This will see “introductory” level SFI payments of £20-£30/ha, and wilding payments of perhaps £600-£1,000/ha.

In the absence of BPS (roughly £220/ha), the small tenant may be forgiven for wondering what happened to “levelling up” or the post-CAP levels of support promised by government ministers – including Defra secretary George Eustice – in 2016.

ELM is not a replacement for BPS. Everyone should understand this by now. Through this decade, farm incomes will drop – some very significantly.

In the absence of BPS (roughly £220/ha), the small tenant may be forgiven for wondering what happened to “levelling up”

The hypothesis advanced by Defra that looming BPS loss would equate to rapid decreases in land rents, input costs and even land values as the wider industry “shared the pain” has proven to be mistaken.

Rents, land values and input costs are indeed spiralling – but upwards.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are standing back with wide eyes at the gamble Westminster is taking with the future of its food and farming sector, and the largesse soon to be showered upon some of the richest landowners in the country in the name of “public goods”.

They all intend to learn from our mistakes, take their time, and get it right.

There are good elements to ELM, and this isn’t to criticise the tireless civil servants working with the hand they’ve been dealt.

But we have one chance to get this transition period right, and policymakers shouldn’t be afraid to take stock and ask themselves the question: is this sound evolution or damaging revolution about to be inflicted upon the English countryside?

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