As the Environment Bill completes its parliamentary stages, the Government’s plans for the countryside are becoming clearer. There have been numerous amendments debated; it is a large and critical piece of legislation as we are now free to set our own policies. Ministers have resisted any legally binding targets for biodiversity but have agreed to ‘halt’ the decline in the abundance of species rather ‘further the objective of halting’.
The flagship policy to replace the Common Agricultural Policy is the Environmental Land Management Scheme. There are three elements to this: the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery. The SFI is the lowest tier, open to all farmers, and is being rolled out in pilot areas this autumn. Significant detail of the options and rates of grant are known, and were covered in this column earlier this year, but they may change in the light of experience as the scheme is extended across the country in 2024.
Less is known about the other two schemes, but some details have come to light during the passage of the Environment Bill through Parliament. There have been some trials of the Local Nature Recovery programme and Defra is now consulting on the experience gained. There will be a Local Nature Recovery Network covering the whole of England, fifty areas with no gaps or overlaps. Defra will establish the boundaries, which may be based on counties, and appoint a ‘responsible authority’ to lead the production of the Local Nature Recovery Strategy. This will take account of the landscape and biodiversity specific to the area and propose actions to enhance habitats and increase wildlife.
There is a clear connection to the planning process. Under the Environment Bill, any development in future must ensure a biodiversity net gain. How the loss caused by the development and the gain achieved elsewhere as an offset can be measured is not entirely clear but an uplift of 10% is mandatory. Where that coincides with a priority in the Local Nature Recovery Strategy, it will count as 15% rather than 10%. It is welcome that private sector money will help to fund nature conservation and that need not be confined to developers, other businesses could be included. Carbon offsetting is in its infancy in this country but there is huge potential there.
What is concerning is the prospect of planners and other officials being in charge of the strategies. All the evidence shows that farmers respond most effectively when they decide how best to enhance biodiversity rather than when told what to do by bureaucrats. The setting of targets and the monitoring of outcomes is necessary but farmers and land managers must be involved at all stages. It is also not at all clear at this point how the strategies will be delivered, how the transition from the Countryside Stewardship will be achieved in practice.
The third tier is Landscape Recovery. It is a more ambitious longer term scheme to bring improvement to specific landscapes at very large scale. Defra is currently setting up at least ten pilot projects to deliver over 20,000 hectares of wildlife rich habitat. The pilots are for 500 to 5,000 ‘connected’ hectares and applications are invited for a start next year.
In the first phase the targets are the recovery and restoration of England’s threatened native species: birds and insects and the restoration of England’s streams and rivers: improving water quality, biodiversity and adapting to climate change. Other major priorities include the restoration of peat and wetlands and the mass planting of trees. Again, details of options and grant rates have yet to be published.
Whilst ELMS is the principal grant scheme for farmers and landowners, there are numerous others. Farming in Protected Landscapes was launched in July to provide extra support for nature conservation, climate change mitigation and public access in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks. The England Woodland Creation Offer and the Tree health Scheme are run by the Forestry Commission; a pilot for the latter was launched last month. Applications for grants under the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway will open next year, as will those for the Slurry Investment Scheme. Under the heading of Prosperity and Productivity Funding, the Farming Resilience Fund opened last month to help farmers plan for the future whilst the Farming Investment Fund will be launched this autumn.
More details on the incentives for innovation, research and development will be published next month. To help transition in land tenure, a consultation on the Lump Sum Exit Scheme is currently underway and a New Entrant Support Scheme will be developed next year.
With the Basic Payment Scheme already being phased out and due to be abolished in 2027, farming and the countryside need support to manage the transition. Even if all the funding is maintained, it is doubtful if there will be enough resources for all these schemes. It is reported that there has been a battle behind the scenes between those who wish to see all the money spent on nature conservation and those who think some should help to improve farming’s productivity, particularly soil health and fertility. It is certainly helpful to bring in private sector funding for water quality, carbon sequestration and biodiversity net gain and there is potential to develop that further. However, there is a danger that the sheer plethora of schemes and priorities get bogged down in inadequate funding and petty bureaucracy. That must be avoided at all costs.