Tories plan revised environmental payments

The Conservatives have set their sights on reforming farm environment schemes should they form the next government.

Revised payments would help to make agri-environment schemes more effective, said Tory shadow farm minister Jim Paice.

“What we do need to do is make sure the schemes that are available are sufficiently robust and indeed sufficiently financed,” he said.

“We need to revisit the whole issue of income foregone as a means of payment and we need to introduce an element of outcome related funding.”

Food production had to be at the top of the political agenda, said Mr Paice. But farm output had to rise in the context of looking after the environment.

Climate change, a growing world population and the need for food security meant agricultural production had to increase rather than fall.

“We want to see British food production go back up again rather than continue to decline as it has done for the past 13 years.”

That meant a shift in attitudes towards farming. But it did not mean a return to environmentally damaging agricultural practices.

Mr Paice was keen to rule out a return to compulsory set-aside.

Countless farms were already providing superb environmental benefits while remaining highly commercial, he said.

The government’s failed attempt to maintain compulsory set-aside was a “ludicrous idea” when it was rightly being abolished across Europe.

“It was designed for days of [food] surplus when we are, as most people think, heading for days of shortage,” Mr Paice said.

“You don’t need to have set-aside in order to look after the environment. It is a very blunt instrument with which to do so.”

The Campaign for the Farmed Environment, which encouraged farmers to adopt voluntary environmental measures, was a better way forward.

“If it can persuade loads more farmers to take environmentally helpful measures, that must be right.”

But Mr Paice said he had some concerns over the government-backed campaign.

“I am not persuaded that some of the criteria are right.

“I have always used the rather simplistic statement that you don’t measure wildlife in acres yet that seems to be the targets that are being set.”

Instead, it would be better to measure the campaign’s success in terms of higher populations of farmland birds and beneficial insects.

“We need to look at targets that relate to that,” Mr Paice said.