Farmers may miss out on thousands of pounds after government chaos over the post-Brexit nature-friendly farming schemes caused them not to apply.
These schemes were developed to replace the EU’s old subsidy system for farmers, which paid according how much land they managed. The new English system would instead pay for public goods such as improving the environment and enriching biodiversity.
But long delay over implementing the schemes – first proposed by Michael Gove when he was environment secretary in 2018, but delayed many times since then – has fuelled anxiety that they might be diluted or dropped altogether.
In September, when Liz Truss became prime minister, the Observer revealed that the government was now looking at weakening or scrapping the schemes. The new environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, has since reassured farming groups that the schemes are to remain almost entirely unscathed, with a full update due in coming weeks.
Pilot schemes, known as the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), are now in place and will serve as tasters for how the environmental land management scheme (Elms) will ideally operate before it is fully phased in. The schemes pay farmers for improving soil quality, and Countryside Stewardship (CS), which covers things like trees, air quality and water quality.
But new figures, given in response to a written parliamentary question, show that fewer than 2,000 applications have been submitted to SFI out of a farming community of about 83,000 businesses, a rate that Labour calls “pitifully low”.
The payments are designed to protect food security and business stability in rural and agricultural communities. Farmers are facing issues such as soaring fuel, feed and fertiliser costs.
The Labour party is calling for the government to immediately confirm long-term funding for SFI, and says in power it would put core environmental and welfare standards in law to protect British farmers in trade deals.
Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner, the shadow minister for farming, said: “The recent chaos and confusion around environmental land management schemes has spooked farmers and environmentalists alike, and done nothing to help British farmers. It is no wonder that take-up of the Sustainable Farming Incentive has been pitifully low, when farmers have no guarantee that the goalposts won’t be moved again and support undermined. The new secretary of state needs to move quickly to reassure our farmers so that they can get on with producing great British food for the country.”
Martin Lines, the chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, agreed that the government’s flip-flopping on the matter had disincentivised farmers from signing up.
He told the Guardian: “The confusion around the politics of it over the summer and the language of a pause or a change in what Elms will be has stopped farmers wanting to engage.
“Those farmers who can access it really need to log on to the website and see how easy it is to get access to money for actions they could already be doing, or should already be doing, to make their business more profitable and create a soil that is sufficient for food security in the future.”
Lines farms winter cereals in south Cambridgeshire, and had been putting off signing up until this weekend, but found that those with sufficient land can get many thousands of pounds for applying.
“I did mine over the weekend, I’d been putting it off and didn’t think it would be a lot of money, but when you go through the system and add it up you get quite a lot of money,” he said.
Defra has been contacted for comment.