Richard North, 18/01/2020  
 


Slipped by with rather less attention than it deserved last week was the first of the government's major, post-Brexit policy initiatives – the replacement of the EU's Common Agriculture Policy with what passes for our own domestic farming policy.

This is to be achieved – in theory at least – by the 94-page Agriculture Bill which, with its own explanatory notes running to 68 pages, was introduced to the House of Commons on 16 January, under the aegis of environment secretary Theresa Villiers.

Needless to say, the noble representatives of the fourth estate could not be asked (or even arsed) to read material of such length (or complexity). Thus, Defra has obligingly produced a 700-word press release, complete with conveniently packaged quotes from Villiers.

As one might expect, it is this which became the basis of most of the press coverage on the day, spun according to the particular obsessions of the authors, the likes of the BBC, for instance, stressing that "soil" was at the heart of what it called a "UK farm grant revolution".

Sky News, however, decided that the key feature was that farmers were "to be paid to protect the environment and improve animal welfare". But this was not for the Guardian. It thought that the "Food security plan after Brexit" was the main element of the "biggest shake-up to farming in 40 years".

From a time when every major newspaper had its own farming correspondent, so far down the media agenda has the issue slipped that neither the mighty Times nor the Telegraph seems to have bothered reporting this "revolution", leaving much of the second-tier media to rely on a general purpose agency headline which told us that [the] "New UK Agriculture Bill to move away from ‘inefficient and overly bureaucratic’ CAP system".

Straight out of the Defra press release, we are thus told that the Agriculture Bill is part of a radical shift to move subsidies away from the EU Common Agricultural Policy system of direct payments, which correlates payments with the total amount of land farmed.

Instead, the legislation sets out how farmers and land managers in England will receive "public money for public goods", such as better air and water quality, higher animal welfare standards, improved access to the countryside or measures to reduce flooding.

In doing so, says Defra, it aims to move the UK one step closer towards "a future where farmers are properly supported to farm more innovatively and protect the environment".

If one was to attempt to be fair to our lacklustre media, which usually fails to step up to the plate when the analysis of anything complex is needed, one might argue that a full analysis of a highly technical 94-page Bill was always going to be a bit of a challenge.

Thus, even when we see the official NFU response, we see a fairly cautious and limited appraisal from President Minette Batters, with the promise that, in the coming days, the union "will scrutinise this Bill in great detail to ensure that it provides the policy for a thriving farming sector post-Brexit".

Despite all that, to gain an insight into where this Bill is going, though, does not actually require any lengthy study of what, in fact, is a deeply unhelpful instrument.

The main issue, in my view, is that it replicates precisely the flaws of the CAP that it seeks to replace. With the EU's policy, the problem was that there was a single "one-size fits all", top-down policy, covering a geographical area stretching from the near-Arctic tundra of Sweden and Finland, through the temperate regions of Northern Europe, to the semi-arid fields of Malta, Greece and Portugal.

And, although the climatic variations in the England are not as great (to which the policy applies), it is still the case that the hill farms of Cumbria and the Pennines, the lush dairy country of Cheshire, the fertile Vale of York and the "barley baron" territory of Lincolnshire and East Anglia, alongside the chalk downs of Southern England and the Exmoor hills, present such a vast contrast that a single policy for them all is just as inappropriate.

Yet, if ever there was to be a revolution in agricultural policy, it would have encompassed devolution, down to regional or even County Council level, setting up truly autonomous units with their own budgets, to manage their own policies. Instead, we have more of the same, with the top-down control from Brussels being replaced by top-down control from Whitehall.

And from there, if at all possible, it gets worse. While there was a great deal wrong with the CAP, over the decades is has undergone several transformations to emerge as a relatively stable system which delivers subsidies of about £3.4 billion a year to UK farmers.

The bulk of this comes in the form of direct payments, related mainly to the acreage farmed, a system which gives a high level of certainty to farmers, enabling them manage their finances in an otherwise unpredictable and risky business.

But, over a transition period of seven years, the proposal is to delink payments from the land, abolishing direct payments. The main flow of cash will then be directed to this concept of paying for "public goods", which may encompass (but are not limited to) environmental protection, public access to the countryside and measures to safeguard livestock and plants.

While this sounds fine in theory, though, the scope of such payments is vast, covering ten major headings, which includes supporting activities which mitigate or adapt farming to climate change, as well as supporting "ancillary activities", which range from "selling, marketing, preparing, packaging, processing or distributing products deriving from an agricultural, horticultural or forestry activity".

The point here is that, while the £3.4 billion or so annual subsidy is a lot of money - to which the government is still committed for the next parliament - there are about 200,000 agricultural holdings in the UK and, within the scope of this new Agriculture Bill, as many more non-farming enterprises which might qualify for financial assistance.

For instance, financial assistance may be directed at managing land or water in a way that "maintains, restores or enhances cultural or natural heritage. This may include a building, monument, site, place, area or landscape identified as having a degree of significance due to its archaeological, architectural, artistic, historic or traditional interest".

While such spending might be seen as highly desirable, traditionally it does not belong to the agricultural budget. Currently, it might be covered by funds directed at English Heritage, the National Trust and Natural England – all of which organisations will doubtless be pitching for grants under the new system.

On this basis, the new scheme not only represents an effective reduction in agricultural support, because its scope is so wide and so many more enterprises are covered, there is a risk that the funds will be spread very thinly – so thinly that the amount directed at any one sector might be insufficient to have any material impact.

Then, given that the distribution of this finance is within the gift of the secretary of state, and thus open to the ebb and flow of political whims, there is a very real danger that spending will be devoted to populist causes, which may not only change with different administrations but also become prey to volatile and changing public fashions and obsessions.

Whatever might be the outcome of that, the system seems certain to lose major elements of stability and predictability, depriving working farms of the certainty they need for financial planning and investment – quite possibly to the detriment of food production in the UK.

Now that agricultural policy is reverting to the UK, though, one might like to think that public debate might once again embrace this issue, having been rendered useless as long as the power resided with Brussels. But that would include the major media players reappointing knowledgeable farming correspondents to their teams.

Sadly, there is no sign of that happening, any more than we are likely to see the break-up of Defra, and the reinstatement of a dedicated ministry of agriculture, now that we have a domestic agricultural policy to manage. And, faced with this Agriculture Bill, we need a far more vibrant debate than we have seen to date.

As we know from experience, a derelict policy can very quickly lead to derelict farms.






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