Nature can’t wait for the Brexit timetable

7983327433_0f7fcd7beb_h.jpgThis post is by Tom Lancaster, senior policy officer at the RSPB, and Marcus Gilleard, senior policy programme manager at the National Trust.

For a couple of policy wonks on the Brexit front line, perspective can be hard to come by at times. So we’ve taken a few days to digest Michael Gove’s speech at last week’s Oxford Farming Conference and assess where it leaves us in our quest for a more sustainable farming and land management system.

What is clear is that this speech was like no other at Oxford in recent history. It was wide ranging, rightly recognising the environmental crisis we face, the possibility of – and need for – symbiosis between farming and the environment, and the importance of shaping, rather than resisting the inevitable change that Brexit will bring.

What we’ve been waiting to hear
We want to focus here though on the specific points that he made about a future policy to replace the much derided Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). On the face of it, this speech was the one every conservationist has been waiting for a Defra minister to give.

To hear a Defra secretary of state say the words “…we will replace BPS [Basic Payment Scheme] with a system of public money for public goods. The principal public good we will invest in is, of course, environmental enhancement”, is something that many thought we may never hear. Which is odd in itself, as it is the logical conclusion of not just everything Gove has been saying for six months, but everything Defra has been saying for years, and the contents of the HM Treasury Green Book. As Gove said in his speech, this starts “…from the presumption that we should only support clear public goods the market will not, left to itself, provide.”

But it’s not just the technicalities that are to be welcomed. He also set out a compelling vision for why the task at hand is so urgent, and how policy can support productive and profitable agriculture, whilst enhancing the natural environment.

Five years is too long for nature
After a period of reflection, though, we haven’t managed to reconcile the ambitious vision the secretary of state set out with his timeframe. In the question and answer session after his speech, he suggested that “…we will also continue to provide people with BPS payments for a further UK specific, agriculture specific transitional period beyond 2022. And I envisage that should be about five years from the end of the existing BPS in 2019.”

We are the first to recognise that we need to manage the change that Brexit will bring and that a transition period is essential. Indeed, we set out some detailed thinking on this in a Wildlife and Countryside Link discussion paper last September. 2024 though is an awfully long time to wait, given the urgency of the challenge that Michael Gove outlined. In his Q&A with Zac Goldsmith at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, it was observed that farmland birds alone had declined by nine per cent between 2010 and 2015. Five years may not be long to wait in politics or business, but it’s too long for nature when it’s under such pressure.

In the upcoming Agriculture Bill and associated Command Paper, we will, therefore, be looking for Defra to set out concrete steps from 2020 onward to start the transition toward a new policy, and we will continue to push for an earlier start date. For example, we would like to see clarity on the way in which direct payments will be capped, and confirmation that this funding will be repurposed for environmental payments. Equally, a commitment to retaining the overall funding envelope will be key. A report and briefing published by RSPB, the National Trust and The Wildlife Trusts before Christmas estimated environmental land management costs alone at £2.3 billion pounds per year in the UK, suggesting that the current CAP budget at least will be needed to meet Gove’s vision of a thriving farming sector alongside a restored natural environment.

We will also need clarity on the geography of future policy, given the continued ambiguity on what is England, what is the UK, and how the UK government and devolved administrations will work together.

Brexit will bring change now
We applaud the overall direction Michael Gove has set for future policy and his clear ambition for restoring our environment. This was the speech we’ve waited for many years. But we’re also mindful of the environmental challenge we face, and the need to shape the change that Brexit will bring now, not later.

Nature can’t subsist off jam tomorrow. If we’re not to start the efforts to improve the environment for the next generation from an even lower base than now, action to reform agriculture policy will be needed long before 2024.

[Image: Yellow Wagtail by Andy Morffew from Flickr Creative Commons]

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