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Country Smallholding - - Inside This -

THE LONG-AWAITED Agri­cul­ture Bill has been her­alded as ‘a land­mark Bill to de­liver a green Brexit’ by the gov­ern­ment in what it be­lieves will bring about ‘a cleaner and health­ier en­vi­ron­ment for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, tak­ing back con­trol, in­vest­ing in the en­vi­ron­ment… af­ter nearly half a cen­tury un­der EU leg­is­la­tion’, writes Kim Stod­dart.

Feted as the big­gest re­form to the sub­sidy sys­tem for a gen­er­a­tion, it has elicited a mixed re­sponse from landown­ers and in­dus­try bod­ies.

Di­rect pay­ments cur­rently favour larger landown­ers and are not linked to any spe­cific pub­lic ben­e­fits. While the top 10% of re­cip­i­ents re­ceive al­most 50% of pay­ments, the bot­tom 20% re­ceive 2%. In­stead, with the new pub­lic goods sys­tem, landown­ers will be paid for what they con­trib­ute in terms of bet­ter air and wa­ter qual­ity, im­proved soil health, higher an­i­mal wel­fare, pub­lic ac­cess to the coun­try­side and mea­sures to re­duce flood­ing.

But while many of the Bill’s pro­pos­als, in­clud­ing the seven-year tran­si­tion pe­riod for im­ple­men­ta­tion (from 2021 un­til 2027), have been warmly re­ceived, there is dis­cord over the per­ceived lack of de­tail and lin­ger­ing con­cerns post Brexit.

The Land­work­ers’ Al­liance (LWA), a grass­roots union of farmers, grow­ers and land-based work­ers, en­dorsed the first read­ing of the Bill in gen­eral, with Jy­oti Fer­nan­des, LWA di­rec­tor of pol­icy, com­ment­ing: “As a union rep­re­sent­ing many in­no­va­tive agroe­co­log­i­cal small­hold­ers, we are pleased to see healthy soils, an­i­mal wel­fare, bio­di­ver­sity and cli­mate change at the front line in an Agri­cul­ture Bill. We are also de­lighted that De­fra is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly sup­port­ive of gen­uine small-scale farmers more than ever be­fore.

“How­ever, it is es­sen­tial that the en­vi­ron­men­tal land man­age­ment sys­tem is tied to eco­log­i­cal food pro­duc­tion with clear tar­gets for in­creas­ing lo­cal pro­duc­tion, in­creas­ing ac­cess to food and re­duc­ing the UK’s re­liance on im­ports while de­liv­er­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal pub­lic goods.”

Roger Kerr, CEO of Or­ganic Farmers and Grow­ers, com­mented: “As im­prov­ing air and wa­ter qual­ity, pro­vid­ing habi­tats for wildlife, re­duc­ing flood risks and im­prov­ing an­i­mal wel­fare are al­ready key cri­te­ria for or­ganic pro­duc­ers, this puts them in good stead mov­ing for­ward.”

While the RSPCA has noted that the Bill recog­nises an­i­mal wel­fare as a pub­lic good and “fi­nan­cial sup­port for higher an­i­mal wel­fare stan­dards are in there”, Dr Molly Scott Cato, Green MEP for the South West praised the move to­wards a new sys­tem of ‘pub­lic money for pub­lic goods’, but added: “This has to mean mov­ing farm­ing away from the in­ten­sive, chem­i­cal-de­pen­dent meth­ods that have dec­i­mated our wildlife over the past 70 years.”

Graeme Wil­lis, the se­nior ru­ral pol­icy cam­paigner at the Cam­paign to Pro­tect Ru­ral Eng­land (CPRE), ex­pressed reser­va­tions about the Bill’s im­pacts on smaller landown­ers. “With­out de­tail on the amount of fu­ture in­vest­ment in sus­tain­able farm­ing, it re­mains to be seen whether there will be suf­fi­cient money to sup­port a di­verse farm­ing sec­tor and fund the restora­tion of a healthy coun­try­side and land­scapes. Com­mit­ments to sup­port new en­trants are wel­come, but there must also be mea­sures to re­verse the de­cline in smaller farms,” he said.

So what does this mean for di­rect pay­ments? For 2019, they will be made on the same ba­sis as now, sub­ject to sim­pli­fi­ca­tions where pos­si­ble. It ap­pears that the same is true for 2020. Then, from 2021, there will be an agri­cul­tural tran­si­tion pe­riod, un­til 2027 as pay­ments are grad­u­ally phased out in line with the new sys­tem.

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