Will Agriculture Bill deliver a Green Brexit?

Posted by Sarah Stirling on 12/09/2018
Will the Agriculture Bill create a Green Brexit? Photo: Shutterstock / Cristian Teichner

Government will today set out how farmers and land managers will in future be paid for “public goods” including public access as the Agriculture Bill is introduced into Parliament.

The Agriculture Bill will set out how farmers and land managers will be paid for “public goods”, such as better air and water quality, improved soil health, public access to the countryside and measures to reduce flooding once we have left the European Union (EU).  This will replace the current subsidy system of Direct Payments under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which has been in place for over 40 years.

A new Environmental Land Management system will start from next year. Under the new system, farmers and land managers who provide the greatest environmental benefits will secure the largest rewards, laying the foundations for a ‘Green Brexit’.

This is important to all of us. Over 70% of land use in the UK is agricultural, so farmers have a major influence on our environment. The reforms that have recently been proposed by Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs were set out in the Government’s public consultation ‘Health & Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit’. This laid out a range of ideas to create ‘a brighter future for farming’ when Britain leaves the EU.

The BMC submitted a comprehensive response highlighting that among the other options proposed in the consultation, public access to the countryside is an important public good that Government must support.  The BMC believes that famers and landowners should be rewarded for improving existing access and for providing new access to areas where it is clearly needed. 

A new system underpinned by the ‘public payment for public benefit’ concept must incorporate the vision of people being able to safely access and enjoy the countryside.  Investment in the existing rights of way and open access network is a clear way to provide public benefit.  Statutory access is already shown on maps and cuts to local (access) authority budgets means that there is a real need to support the access infrastructure that already exists. Future maintenance of the existing path network should not mean a greater burden on already under-funded local authorities.  A new agricultural policy therefore presents the opportunity to explore how farmers and landowners could take on more responsibility for ensuring the upkeep of our path network and access furniture.

The consultation back in February essentially opened with the argument that CAP has resulted in the deterioration of Britain’s environment, held back our farming productivity, compromised public health and led to the deterioration of our soil, bird numbers and animal habitats.  The proposal, put simply, is that the public money that goes to farms should be used for public benefit and farmers should be paid primarily for eco-systems services (enhancing our environment, fulfilling our responsibility to animals, supporting rural communities and remote farming, changing regulatory culture, risk management and resilience, protecting crop, tree, plant and bee health and ensuring fairness in the supply chain etc.)  Helping to provide open air recreational opportunities is also suggested as a legitimate purpose of funding for farmers.

Now we are waiting for the publication of the Agriculture Bill, which will be published this afternoon (12 September 2018). The devil will be in the detail and the BMC will be suggesting amendments and producing Parliamentary Briefing papers as the Bill is debated in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. This presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to place a duty on Governement to help protect and restore our environment and allow responsible access to it.   

Agriculture is one of those areas currently both devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and subject to European policy-making. Devolved Governments have recently had increasing scope to make their own choices as CAP rules have become more flexible. However, the EU Withdrawal Bill currently before Parliament would take back devolved agricultural competences to Westminster, and later be ‘released’ according to the needs of the Brexit settlement.

Michael Keating, Professor of Politics at the universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh and Director of the Centre on Constitutional Change, commented that, “The flexibility has allowed the devolved governments to tailor agricultural policy to local needs, balancing economic with social, environmental and cultural conditions. We still do not know how much flexibility they will have after Brexit.”

In the remoter parts of Scotland and Wales, agriculture has important social and cultural roles, while in most of England the emphasis is on intensive production. If the UK policy frameworks are too constraining and reflect English conditions and priorities, the devolved territories could suffer. The BMC is currently pulling together its response on the public consultation ‘Support for Welsh farming after Brexit’ which ends 30 October 2018.

This news article is by BMC Access & Conservation Officer Cath Flitcroft, based on an original background article by Sarah Stirling.


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