Ministers are reviewing plans to roll out the post-Brexit farm subsidy scheme in England as the Liz Truss administration looks for ways to boost economic growth and retain the rural vote, people briefed on the situation have said.
The overhaul of scheduled payments for environmental works, a major part of the post-Brexit agenda of previous Conservative administrations, follows concerns that the slow development of the scheme could jeopardize the financial viability of some farms.
It also follows the Conservatives’ by-election defeats in the seats of Tiverton and Honiton, Devon, in June and in North Shropshire in 2021, two rural seats that swung from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats – a trend the party wants to stem ahead of a general election scheduled for January 2025.
Two people briefed on the matter said the government was looking at plans to cut European-style ‘basic payments’ until 2027, distributed according to the area of land under cultivation, with a view to offering additional financial aid to farmers.
It also examines plans to introduce payments for environmental work such as tree planting and peatland restoration, originally set out by then Environment Secretary Michael Gove in 2018, which remain in the pipeline. pilot stage.
“They’re looking at farm policy and they’re clearly very interested in how they can do things differently,” one person said. Another person said there was “all to play for” and no final decision had been made, although a return to payments based on land area was possible.
Farmers had been pushing for a slower transition, although a report in the Observer newspaper that the environmental program could be scrapped angered farmers advising or participating in the pilot. Others said they fear payments based solely on land area rather than “public goods” could be vulnerable to cuts under future governments.
The National Trust said scrapping environmental payments would “squander one of Brexit’s greatest opportunities for nature, fatally undermining the improvements in nature, soil and water on which sustainable food production depends”.
A government source called the reports “speculation” while the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs did not immediately respond with comment.
Minette Batters, chair of the National Farmers’ Union, said: “We welcome the government’s plans to review agricultural regulatory, innovation and investment frameworks, to ensure that agricultural businesses are not only supported in the face of current economic challenges, but are empowered to make progressive decisions to drive agriculture’s growth and contribution to the nation.
“For these frameworks to be successful, both for food production and the environment, they must be developed in partnership with farmers.”
The House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee warned in January that a lack of information about the new scheme posed a risk to agricultural businesses and said Defra had admitted that “his confidence in the program resembles blind optimism”.
“The department has given no details of how the necessary productivity increases or environmental benefits will be achieved, or how these will outweigh the dramatic effect of the scheme on English farmers, who will see their incomes direct payments more than halve by 2024. -25,” the committee said.
The review comes after Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s Friday mini-budget outlined plans to ease planning rules in weakly regulated “investment zones”, although he insisted on Friday that ” we’re not going to relax the environmental rules” after an outcry from conservation groups. .
Additional reporting by Jim Pickard