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Auditing Defra’s future farming programme:
a crucial moment for farming and nature

Alice Groom reflects on yesterday’s National Audit Office report on Defra’s future farming and land management programme.

June 2019

Yesterday the NAO published an early review of Defra’s future farming programme, which is responsible for developing a new domestic agriculture policy. The report focuses on a key element of the programmes work, the development of an environmental land management (ELM) scheme , which will replace the current system of area-based subsidies, by rewarding farmers and land managers for the delivery of environmental public goods. We welcome the report, as it has brought out into the open many of the challenges the programme is grappling with, whilst there is still time to get it back on track.

What does the report say?

The NAO review has identified a number of genuine risks to the successful delivery of a transformative environmental land management policy. For example:

…. Defra has yet to make a robust business case to the Treasury that a future ELM scheme could secure the uptake needed to justify the current annual CAP budget of c£3 billion. The consequence of which would be that Treasury repurpose the current budget and “Defra will need to find alternative ways to achieve the scale of environmental outcomes it intends”.

…they haven’t taken some fairly fundamental decisions such as which environmental outcomes they are seeking to achieve or prioritise, how these will be targeted and identified, how payments will be calculated, or who will be responsible for delivering future policies.

…they have launched ahead in developing a new IT system before they have even agreed the basic parameters of scheme design. This could lead to the design of ELM being dictated by the IT system in place. This clearly demonstrates that Defra hasn’t learned lessons from Countryside Stewardship, a scheme with has been hamstrung by a rigid and inappropriately commissioned and designed IT system.

…Defra is not providing farmers with the information they need to start planning for the scale of change envisaged by the future farming and ELM programmes. Defra need to better understand farmers willingness to engage in ELMS, but also the support they need to “act with a potentially greater level of environmental focus than in their existing farming activity”.

…Defra needs to put in place a series of checks and balances to ensure public money spent through ELM is used to deliver public goods. Defra is not currently able to demonstrate that their push to reduce bureaucracy and introduce self-regulation won’t increase the risk of fraud.

Why does this matter?

ELM is a crucial mechanism to deliver the Government’s commitment to recover England’s natural environment in a generation. We know that the way we use and manage land is crucial to tackle the climate crisis and declines in wildlife. It also forms the ‘cornerstone’ of a future farming policy, and the basis of the commitment to move toward a system of ‘public money for public goods’ in England.

What’s needs to happen now?

The good news is that there is still time to get back on track. There are many things that need to happen, but in the interests of brevity, here are five that Defra could start with.

1. Defra need to make some big choices, so they can set the parameters of ELM and make progress with the detail of scheme design. These choices are known and common to previous land management schemes, the key thing is to make a decision so that we can move on.

2. They need to adopt a more transparent approach and enable stakeholders and practitioners to genuinely engage and inform scheme design and delivery.

3. They mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Defra need to learn from what has and hasn’t worked in the past. The first year of the ELM programme was marked by a ‘year zero’ mentality, where all that came before was irrelevant, which has wasted time and effort rediscovering things we already know. There are signs that this is changing, which is needed to help avoid known pitfalls, and design a land management scheme that builds on past experience.

4. They need to put in place a robust plan, with clear objectives and timescales

5. And finally, the ELM scheme needs to be seen in the wider context of interacting mechanisms identified within the 25 Year Environment Plan, including the Nature Recovery Network, Net Gain and a regulatory system based on the polluter pays principle. ELM alone cannot tackle the climate and biodiversity crises. We need a comprehensive legislative and policy framework, and clarity on the role that ELM will play within this.

The NAO report has provided Defra with the opportunity to take stock of the future farming programme, whilst they still have time to act. If Defra seizes the opportunity to move forward in a more structured and transparent way, there is no reason why, together, we cannot set the ELM and future farming programme up for success. Using this moment to address the now known issues is crucial for the future of both farming and nature – the stakes could hardly be higher.

Alice Groom, Senior Policy Officer, RSPB

Follow @AliceGroom2 and @Natures_Voice

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.