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An equitable ‘Agricultural Transition’

Zoe Davies explains Environment Secretary George Eustice’s ‘Agriculture Transition Plan’, its implications for English land managers, and how it relates to the Royal Society’s Living Landscapes Programme.

“As we contemplate the biggest change in agricultural policy in half a century, we must design one that is not only right for the farmers of today but is also right for the farmers of tomorrow.” – George Eustice, Environment Secretary, November 2020

We rely on land to meet our most basic needs: nutritious food, clean air and water, places to live and explore, protection from environmental hazards, and thriving ecosystems of plants and animals that also store carbon. Managed smartly and sensitively, land can deliver these multiple benefits to society in perpetuity.

This concept of multifunctional land use is the focus of the Royal Society’s Living Landscapes Programme, which aims to inform a long-term vision for how the UK manages its land.

Each country of the UK has its own approach to land use policy, tailored to their unique environmental, cultural and political contexts.

The focus of this blog is the approach being taken in England, which was elaborated on by Environment Secretary George Eustice in his recent announcement, the ‘Agricultural Transition Plan’.

It is the Westminster Government’s roadmap for the farming and land management sector from now until 2028, by which time they want to see:

  • “a renewed agricultural sector, producing healthy food for consumption at home and abroad, where farms can be profitable and economically sustainable without subsidy... 
  • “farming and the countryside contributing significantly to environmental goals including addressing climate change”

In stating these goals, the Government has implicitly recognised the multiple benefits we derive from land. Enabled by the Agriculture Act 2020, they have renewed their commitment to leaving behind the much-maligned  EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and reorienting domestic policy towards the delivery of public goods like nature, clean water and carbon storage, whilst preparing the farming and land management sector for an unsubsidised, more market-facing world. 

So, what does the Agricultural Transition Plan mean for multifunctional land use in England? The short answer is: a lot. 

But rather than dissect every part of the policy paper in detail, I will focus on one of the key themes – an equitable transition – that the Society will explore in its forthcoming policy report. Put simply, that means taking the farming sector and the public on a steady, managed journey from where we are now, to where we need to be.

The language of the Agricultural Transition Plan suggests a fair and smooth transition, with its soundbite of ‘evolution not revolution’. It states a clear intention to fundamentally change the relationship between farmers and the state, but it also lays out a number of interim policies designed to help land managers make that transition in an orderly way:

As Direct Payments are phased out from 2021-28, the freed-up funds will be incrementally disbursed into new environmental schemes

Environmental Land Management (ELM) will go live in 2024. It is the Government’s flagship domestic agriculture policy flowing from the Agriculture Act, which will reward land managers for delivery of environmental public goods. It will comprise three ‘components’: Sustainable Farming Incentive, Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery.

Before that, the Government plans to make the Sustainable Farming Incentive (supporting sustainable approaches to farm husbandry and environmental management) available to all those in receipt of Direct Payments from 2022. Up to 5,500 land managers will have the opportunity to participate in the ELM National Pilot. Funds will also be invested back into the legacy Countryside Stewardship scheme and its administration will be simplified in order to encourage greater participation. Discrete programmes supporting tree-planting, peatland restoration and nature recovery – precursors to the ELM Landscape Recovery component – will be rolled out before 2024.

There is also a targeted transitional scheme that will support farmers in protected landscapes (National Parks and AONBs), who are often heavily reliant on Direct Payments, to work with their relevant Authority to contribute towards the delivery of recommendations in the Glover Review of National Landscapes.

From an equitable transition perspective, these policies will give land managers with little experience of environmental delivery a chance to ‘try before they buy’ – hopefully building the confidence and skills they will need to make use of the full ELM offer when it becomes available, and ultimately manage their land to deliver more benefits to society.

Grants will be made available to improve farming and forestry productivity

From 2021, grants – co-funded by the land manager – will go towards the cost of equipment, technology, and infrastructure to improve efficiency, productivity and environmental sustainability.

This equipment and infrastructure will undoubtedly enable farmers to manage their land in a more multifunctional way, but George Eustice also acknowledges that we need to “rediscover some of the agronomic techniques that my Great Grandfather might have deployed”. That is why concurrent investment in natural capital, and restoration of the ecosystems that underpin food production, is paramount.

Business advice and training will be improved, and those most reliant on Direct Payments will receive targeted support

Farmers and land managers are expected to undergo a seismic shift in the way they operate and, for some, it will mean an entire restructuring of their business and reimagining of what they are trying to achieve with their land. For example, the switch from farming to forestry means operating to entirely different timescales and business models. Farmers cannot do this on a whim, whether it is launching an agroforestry operation, allowing natural regeneration of woodland or planting new trees – they will need support and advice to do so in a way that brings lasting benefits and business viability. In this regard, the Agricultural Transition Plan has a number of measures aimed at fulfilling this need for advice and support.  

The Farm Resilience Scheme will provide targeted support to those most affected by the withdrawal of Direct Payments. It will link farmers and land managers up with advisory rural organisations to help with business planning and access to wellbeing services.

More widely, the Government is looking to ‘professionalise’ training and skills provision. It will establish a new ‘Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture’ that will be tasked with devising a more recognisable pathway of training and development for people wishing to pursue careers in the sector.

These are commendable commitments. However, the much greater prominence given to environmental delivery in the Government’s vision for the future will necessitate ongoing, easily accessible environmental advice for all land managers – not just those most at-risk of going out of business. The Plan does not indicate whether and how Government plans to address this. In the longer term, it may be that the syllabi of agricultural colleges are adapted to offer in-depth training in environmental management as standard, rather than as optional modules.

New Entrants and Exit Schemes to give people a dignified way in, and out, of the sector

Land prices and competition are often barriers to new entrants joining the sector. The Agricultural Transition Plan states that Government will work with councils who own country farms, and other stakeholders, to design a scheme that breaks down these barriers.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Agricultural Transition Plan signals an intention to offer ‘lump sum’ exit payments from 2022 to assist those who wish to leave the sector. Payments will also be ‘de-linked’ from land in 2024, meaning that those who no longer wish to farm aren’t required to. There is very little detail on these schemes in the Plan – a consultation will follow next year to inform their design.

Providing routes in and out of farming will certainly assist with an equitable transition. However, it is unclear at present what the demand will be for either  scheme and there is little in the way of analysis of what their impact might be. Some commentators worry that mass exodus could lead to environmentally damaging land abandonment or further consolidation of land ownership.

Overall, the Agricultural Transition Plan is the most decisive step yet towards reconciling the many demands on the English landscape, and enabling a just transition to that point.

However there are elements of the plan not discussed here – such as farmer-led research and development, and reform of regulation and enforcement – that have big implications for the sector’s ability to pivot towards a more multifunctional approach to land use. On regulation in particular, detail is lacking. The Government would do well to make its intentions clear soon because a strong, well-enforced regulatory baseline is essential to underpin the myriad incentive schemes it has in development.

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