Flicker of hope for farmers? Replacement for EU payments in sight as Coffey teases ELMS announcement

James Fisher reports from the CLA conference where there is some news — though almost no detail — on the replacement for the EU's payments.

The Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMS) is set to stay, but farmers and landowners will have to wait a little longer for the details, it was announced last week. Speaking to the CLA conference, Thérèse Coffey was expected finally to provide the numbers behind the Government’s scheme to replace the EU’s Basic Payments System (BPS), yet, to the dismay of many in attendance, instead teased an announcement for early 2023. In her speech, she said that ELMS will consist of three separate schemes, but questions remain as to what specifically those schemes are and what the funding split will be.

Her remarks came after a rousing opening address by CLA president Mark Tufnell, who implored the Government to ‘unlock the potential of the rural community’. In a wide-ranging speech, he spoke about issues with housing, digital investment and the continuing wait for further detail on post-Brexit subsidy. He spoke of the ‘tenacity’ of the countryside to succeed, but added that ‘tenacity alone cannot grow the rural economy’. With Dr Coffey in the audience, he lambasted MPs rebelling against proposed housing plans as an example of poor policy making around the countryside, saying that the ‘policy environment is no better than 12 years ago and, in some cases, is worse’.

He also pointed out that, when it comes to unlocking the potential of the rural economy, the countryside needs to see ‘deeds rather than words’ and that ‘there is no time to lose’. Appearing to extend an olive branch, Mr Tufnell said that, although Dr Coffey may not be to blame for these issues, ‘they are now yours to face’.

Farmers and landowners have been waiting to hear more about ELMS since its announcement in 2019. Dr Coffey echoed the comments made by the then Defra Secretary George Eustice, saying that ‘one of the biggest bonuses of leaving the EU was the opportunity to free farmers from the bureaucratic Common Agricultural Policy and move to a system… that was based on spending public money in a way that helps to secure public goods’. She added: ‘We want to support you to farm in a way that safeguards high standards of animal welfare and protects and enhances our natural environment.’

Rumours have swirled over the past few months that ELMS was set to be scrapped, and, although Dr Coffey admitted that the plans had been reviewed, ‘in good faith’, she confirmed the Government’s commitment to the scheme and pledged to move ahead with the transition away from BPS on the same timescale that was originally promoted. ‘As we reduce the amount we spend on BPS,’ she said, ‘we will be adding options to our current offer. So that, by 2024, farmers will have access to the full range of actions they can be paid for to take on their land.’

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Closing her speech, she emphasised the role that farmers will play in reaching the nation’s Nature and climate goals, saying that ‘farmers are the original friends of the earth’ and ‘the stewards, the custodians, of our countryside…

‘My hope is that you will find it relatively quick and easy to identify a set of actions that works for your business, sign up for payments and crack on with your plan, to make your business more resilient, more sustainable, more profitable and more productive in the months and years ahead.’

Comment: ‘The can is being kicked down the road — but at least we have a rough idea of how long that road is’

Many farmers, landowners and rural-business owners in attendance would have been hoping to finally hear some news on ELMS. They were disappointed. Although Dr Coffey admitted they ‘need the certainty to plan ahead for future investments’, there is still no update on the big question: ‘What can I do for the environment and how much will it pay me?’

Mr Tufnell said that CLA members are still lacking clarity around the BPS replacement: ‘You don’t buy something without knowing the price.’ We’ve seen how quickly food security can rise to the top of the news agenda and the fact is that many farmers rely on subsidy to keep their businesses afloat; further uncertainty might be enough to push them out of the industry altogether.

Questions about funding and governance of ELMS have yet to be answered. Although the start of next year may not seem that far off, to farmers and business owners, it is another example of the can being kicked down the road. There is some comfort that at least we have a rough idea of how long that road is.