DEFRA Consultation Meeting April 10th 2018

This may be a little late, but sunny weather among other things have put this write-up on the back burner: seriously DEFRA, a consultation with farmers which takes place over spring?!? For those who haven’t heard of it yet, DEFRA has been consulting with myriad interested groups as well as individuals over what should happen post-Brexit: it published the Health & Harmony paper at the end of February, and has invited feedback on its ideas by 8th May.

As part of the consultation process, DEFRA has also been taking part in events and workshops around the country, and mostly on behalf of the OGA I was invited to an event run by Sustain and DEFRA at the Mary Ward House London on Tuesday the 10th April 2018. The aim was to “discuss some of the key Government proposals for building a thriving agricultural sector outside of the EU”.

Vicki Hird from Sustain kicked us off in the morning by welcoming everyone (it was a good turnout, approx 70+ people from all kinds of organisations) and pointing out how many organisations Sustain represents, as the voice for food and farming. She also welcomed the opportunity for discussion and chance to be really bold with a new food and farming system, concentrating on sustainability in all its guises, and celebrated the paper’s concentration on public goods and the environment. She also pointed out how linked health was with all the points covered in the paper, although it is not always explicity referred to in the document itself (despite being in the title). She also warmly thanked Michael Gove for taking the time to come to the meeting.

The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food & Rural Affair, then gave an unscripted speech in which he encouraged as many people as possible to get involved with the consultation: he explained that in the case of banning the tusk/ivory trade, that came about because of the engagement and passion exhibited by so many participants, which made it easier for DEFRA to engage other government departments, to connect the threads and get something momentous done. He urged us all to “take this opportunity to make it clear what you want,” and (somewhat ironically given his infamous Brexit quote about experts) explained that “expertise and authority counts” but that all views were welcome. He also covered and seemed to support all the ‘right’ things in terms of sustainability, reducing reliance on inputs and chemicals, looking holistically at health and food choices, supporting high quality food production… but as a speech rather than bill and as it’s just a consultation paper nothing is concrete yet…

Finally DEFRA’s deputy director for the RDPE Andrew Robinson gave an overview of the Health & Harmony paper, DEFRA’s current thinking about the issues and explained how the following sessions would work. His presentation emphasised the top priorities: broad purpose, integrated policy, adequate budget for the job, baseline regulation and public engagement. Following March 2019 when the UK formally leaves the EU, there will be an implementation period, expected to last around two years, then “at some point” (!) the new agriculture policy begins and CAP is ended.

After the introductory speeches the participants headed to a breakout session to discuss one of the following areas, with time for another session in the afternoon:

1.     Reducing Direct Payments To discuss the best approach for reducing direct payments to farmers: considering progressive reductions; applying a cap to the largest payments; and applying a different cap/reduction to higher/lower number of payments.
2.     Environmental Land Management scheme To discuss what a new environmental land management scheme should look like and how to make it a success. Including multi-annual agreements, user-friendly focus, innovative mechanisms, capital grants & funding for collaborative projects.
3.     Farming Excellence, Profitability and Resilience To discuss how to ensure farmers have access the right tools to improve productivity and manage risk and volatility; covering skills & knowledge; investing in new technologies with a focus on resource efficiency & sustainable growth; skilled workforce – investing in talent & an attractive & exciting career path; and agri-tech research
4.     Animal Health/ welfare This workshop aims to explore the ways we can encourage farmers and land managers as animal keepers throughout the industry to further improve animal health and tackle endemic disease.
5.     Uplands/Rural To discuss how the Government can support the uplands and other remote areas to improve growth and prosperity across rural communities

I chose to go the Farming Excellence session first: DEFRA officials were facillitating the discussions, but many partipants seemed to have very similar views and addressed their points to the DEFRA employees passionately as if to convince them there and then of the need to overhaul the system and get departments working together – for example the planning department to make ot easier for landworkers to build on their land, in order to encourage and maintain new entrants, as well as help with family farms and attracting workers. There were plenty of interesting discussions about problems with the supply chain and how the competition commission and supermarket ombudsman should also have more powers; and how tinkering with plans such as trying to get farmers to share resources and skills isn’t really addressing fundamental problems with the food system.

After an interesting networking lunch, I took part in the reducing cap payments session, and again it was felt by most in the room that these kinds of questions aren’t really the right ones we should be asking. Small scale growers were well represented in the room, and we all pointed out that horticulture is often not even included in stat gathering or discussions at DEFRA about agriculture and food production; and that holdings under 5ha are currently ineligible for cap payments anyway. It was revealed by the DEFRA facilitators that there isn’t any modelling looking at the affects of progressive reductions; applying a cap to the largest payments; and applying a different cap/reduction to higher/lower number of payments – this lack of modelling was a bit of a shock (a David Davis Brexit moment). It was felt that DEFRA should be looking at how models of the ideas posited would affect recipients, especially those marginal farms who are currently so dependent on cap payment and quick withdrawal with no other support or alternative system already in place could lead to the farms going out of business as well as bankruptcy, depression and suicide of farmers. Without the modelling information, it was felt to be difficult to arbitrarily pick an type of withdrawal curve profile, other than gradual withdrawal would probably be more sensible. Although it was also pointed out that with a limited budget, it might be difficult to put the new system in place before a reduction on cap payments has freed up some money to spend on it (although again, modelling and projection should be able to ameliorate this as in a finacial year, if you know you will be saving £xx, you can plan to spend £xx on another system).

Overall many participants were left with the desperate urge to fill in the online consultation asap and encourage everyone they knew to do the same, in case these very important issues raised are overlooked or drop down the priority list.



Farming Today

For those eagle-eared (perhaps owl-eared?!) listeners to Radio 4 at the crack of dawn, you may have heard yours truly on Farming Today last Thursday morning, chatting to producer Lucy Taylor about small-scale farming and growing during their week-long focus on small farms. If you missed it, catch it for the next few weeks here!

Meeting with CRAG: Westminster 6th February

The Conservative Rural Affairs Group (CRAG), which advises the Conservative party on policy affecting rural issues, invited a range of new entrants to farming to come to their bimonthly meeting in Westminster on 6th February, in order to take part in a discussion on making it easier for farmers, foresters and smallholders to get planning permission to live on their land. This was coordinated by the LWA, and there were so many new entrants keen to come and share their experiences in this area that the group had to meet in a bigger room in the RICS building up the road from the Houses of Parliament, to accommodate the 10-15 CRAG committee members alongside these 50+ guests.

The main speaker was Simon Fairlie, editor of The Land, who gave a comprehensive picture of the problems faced by many when it comes to gaining planning permission: he argued that the current system is not fit for purpose, and many planning officers are almost automatically refusing planning simply to try and weed out applicants that are not really committed to making a living from the land. This leads to a huge amount of stress, expense and delay for those involved, especially as many do go on to succesfully gain permission on appeal.

The meeting then heard a presentation from Zoe Wangler from the Ecological Land Co-Operative. Zoe outlined the work achieved by the ELC since it was founded in 2009 as a not-for-profit social enterprise with the objective of providing opportunities for new entrants into farming. The ELC currently has 300 members and a coregroup of Directors who are elected by the membership. The primary model pursued by the ELC is creating a share issue to purchase agricultural land on which it then obtains planning permission for a small number of residential smallholdings. These are then offered to committed and experienced new entrants on an affordable 150-year agricultural business tenancy. The ELC also provides grants to support new tenants. The first ELC site was established at Greenham Reach in Mid Devon in 2012. The three holdings on the site were sold for £76,000 each with a £15,600 deposit and monthly repayments of £288 over 25-years. These three holdings averaged a gross profit of £3,800 per hectare in 2016/17. All three households have an ecological footprint 46% of the UK average.

One of the biggest challenges to the ELC model is that the planning system views them as counter-cultural: the small size of the holdings are not perceived as ‘serious’ or ‘proper’ farms. The first site at Greenham Reach took 67 weeks to secure planning permission – following a public inquiry that cost the LPA £18,000 in legal fees. The second site at Wealden in Sussex has already taken 45 weeks and is not likely to be decided until September 2018.

After this talk the chair opened up the discussion to questions or comments from the room; as well as several personal stories illustrating the problems, the general feeling in the room was that there is a desperate need to enable landworkers to live on the land, covering essential need (such as looking after livestock, delicate plants, security of equipment and charcoal burning), as well as pragmatic economic need since these livelihoods are usually marginal at best so paying rent or a mortgage on a property off site is often prohibitively expensive, especially when travel costs are factored in. The point was also made that planning officers often taken an ‘average’ agricultural salary of around £18,000-£20,000 pa directly from land produce as the benchmark of whether plannig permisson should be granted – ie whether the business plan is good enough – despite the fact that most current farmers earning that much or above will only be getting a fraction of that from the land itself, and the rest from diversified activites and subsidies – so new entrants looking to gain permission are at a disadvantage straight away and held to much higher standards than those currently enjoying living on their land.

Most in the room work on relatively small pieces of land and the discussion was especially focussed on the smaller scale; but as one CRAG member pointed out, the discussion should include all agricultural and forestry workers and business owners, and while agreeing with many of the points raised, advised against an ‘us-and-them’ mentality when it comes to large and small scale – which was generally accepted.

The farming minister the Rt. Hon George Eustice MP arrived after the main discussion due to an overruning late vote at the House of Commons, and spoke mainly about the direction of travel for agricultural policy post-Brexit, due to be published this spring. Central to this is a movement from direct area-based payments to payments being made in return for delivery of tangible public goods, such as wildlife conservation, water quality and soil care. Pillar I will be abolished and all agricultural payments will be focussed on encouraging agri-environmental benefits through Pillar 2.

He suggested that subsidies per se will end, with support being available for those converting to more environmentally friendly farming methods. ‘Support’ will take the form of help with investment in expenditure such as equipment; research and development; looking at the supply chain of food; and generally ‘coming together in an integrated way’. He also mentioned financial help for farmers’ risks via the introduction of an insurance scheme. Mr Eustice said that there would be a transition period of five years; and meanwhile DEFRA would be looking at transitioning by putting a cap on larger single farm payments.

Following his talk, questions and comments were again invited from the floor and a constructive discussion ensued. One speaker asked whether those farmers who were organic and/or farming in an ecological manner already would benefit from such a new scheme; Mr Eustice indicated that he had had discussions with people in the organic industry about this issue, to find out whether automatic qualification for support, or a bespoke scheme would be better; and said that the feeling was generally that a bespoke system would be best – probably following the current model for higher stewardship payments for organic land.

He was asked whether it will be possible for holdings of less than 5ha to claim payments in the future, and the idea of providing a flat rate payment for each holding of less than 5ha was proposed to overcome the concerns about bureaucratic expense. His response was that with the current system due to change radically in the next few years, there is no point in tinkering with it before then. He did not consider the flat rate payment idea politically expedient, as following Brexit it will be necessary to justify thoroughly all money spent on agriculture, hence the necessity to tie payments to the delivery of public benefit.

Another discussion revolved around the streamlining of regulation, which Mr Eustice viewed as a positive thing. It was suggested that in a planning context, the streamlining of policy for agricultural workers’ dwellings has led to a policy vacuum which is being unhelpfully filled by officials reverting to old policy. Far from smoothing the way for farmers and growers to develop their businesses unencumbered by bureaucracy, the lack of adequate targetted policy is leading to confusion, refusal of permissions and lengthy and stressful appeals. Unfortunately this comment missed the mark, and he responded with a long story about how one regulation leads to another and then another when it comes to tree planting, concluding that regulation should be minimised wherever possible.

Many of the questions relating to planning were responded to with answers more related to agricultural policy, and members of the CRAG Committee were helpful in drawing Mr Eustice’s attention to the planning focus of the meeting. He did appear to take on board by the end of the meeting that here were a group of energetic, committed young people, eager to pursue land-based occupations, who are feeling frustrated and inhibited by the planning system.

Many of the CRAG committee appeared impressed by the passion and dedication of those in the room, and hopefully some preconceptions were dispelled on all sides. One CRAG members suggested that there must be a surplus of agricuturally tied dwellings available on the market now as agricultural worker numbers have fallen so drastically over the last few decades; but I pointed out that in my personal experience of approaching agents in the Wiltshire area, asking about any agriculturally tied dwellings available, most agents didn’t even know what that meant; and the ones that did said they very rarely get any properties on their books (and none to date a year later…) – any inquries they do get relating to a tie is to get advice on how they can break it and get the full market value on the property. I put forward the idea that had come up in a previous research meeting (via planning consultant DanThePlan) of requiring county councils to keep a register of all those interested in agriculturally tied properties, to show the high demand and need (such a register is already required by law to be kept by councils for all those interested in self-building). This register could then also be used as a tool to ensure that any new agricultural ties given by planning officers on new dwellings would be harder to break than currently is the case, giving planning departments more confidence in issuing new permissions – and so hopefully making obtaining permission more likely.

The CRAG policy writer, Andrew Davis, committed in the meeting to refer to the issue of residential planning permission for farm smallholders in his policy advice paper, which goes to Cabinet at the end of this month. He also said he thinks the issue needs a policy paper of its own. There were plenty of positive noises, and the indication that the group will come back to this issue later in the year and consult more widely; we can but hope that they (and indeed all the political parties) take on this issue and some progress is made.

With thanks to Rebecca Laughton & Ed Hamer