The Government has released its long-anticipated vision for the Agriculture Sector in a post-Brexit age.
Entitled Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit, the consultation is the most comprehensive statement so far as to what should happen in the Agriculture Sector once the commitment to continuing farming subsidies in their current form expires in 2022.
Central aims of the new environmental land management system
The overall approach is summarised in the single soundbite:
"a new agricultural policy … underpinned by payment of public money for the provision of public goods".
The reference to "public goods" is significant: it is far wider than a reference to environmental outcomes and is a determined move away from a system of subsidy where payment is directly related to the size of the landholding.
Whilst the Government has suggested five overarching "public goods":
- environmental enhancement and protection
- better animal and plant health and animal welfare
- improved productivity and competitiveness
- preserving rural resilience in the uplands
- public access to the countryside,
a key part of the consultation discusses what should be considered a "public good".
Moreover, the Government recognises that there are competing interests between these public goods, and is asking for input on which aspects should be prioritised.
The Government acknowledges that subsidies will not create a sustainable and competitive Agriculture Sector alone. The consultation document sets out a commitment to:
- implementing changes to regulatory culture
- ensuring fairness in the supply chain
- improving risk management and resilience in the face of sector-wide crises.
The consultation seeks views on how these elements could be best implemented.
The consultation contains many hints as to future government policy, including a possible focus on the use of "big data" in farming and encouraging the uptake of agri-tech.
Implementation of the new environmental land management system
A significant portion of the consultation is dedicated to dealing with the process of transition.
- status quo until 2022: the Government has re-iterated its commitment to maintain the same cash funding for the sector until the end of the current parliament (although the Government is consulting on the extent to which the government should use the flexibility it has under CAP to simplify processes)
- transition from 2022: there will be a transition period (lasting a number of years) during which there will be a gradual reduction in the direct payments, and
- transition to the new land management system: once the transition has been completed, all government support will be made in accordance with the new system.
In terms of the "transition", the Government proposes that direct payments will be phased out in a tiered fashion, so that those with large landholdings are affected first. Only later will the smaller (and therefore presumably more vulnerable) farms be affected. In the first year alone, the Government predicts that around £150 million will be "freed up" to be recycled into achieving the ambitions of the new environmental land management system.
Ascertaining the exact impact of the transition rules will likely be an area where landowners will seek professional advice from their land agents. Indeed, the transition period will be a challenging time for land agents who will find that the same client's entitlements will likely change year-on-year as the transition progresses.
It should be noted that the devolved administrations have the power to decide on their own priorities, whist the Government has committed to maintaining a "well-functioning internal market across the United Kingdom". Knitting together differing priorities across all the UK is surely going to be a challenge and - initially at least - create some competitive tension between the devolved administrations and the areas which they serve.
Responding to the consultation