HomePolitical leadershipAn early win that will get the new environment secretary off to a flying start

An early win that will get the new environment secretary off to a flying start

It’s been very quiet about it, but Defra recently did something brilliant which deserves attention and celebration.

Many of us in the environment sector had been feeling disappointed at the scale and delayed timing of the pilots for the innovative new Landscape Recovery scheme. This is one of three Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes that are replacing the EU’s agricultural funding.

But it’s clear now, following the recent announcement of the first tranche of pilot projects, that the scheme has all the elements in place to be a roaring success.

Let’s hope Defra’s new secretary of state, the Rt Hon Ranil Jayawardena MP, jumps on this opportunity to build something genuinely world leading. And here’s why he should:

Farmers want these schemes
The Landscape Recovery scheme is designed to support the most ambitious and impactful environmental actions across large areas of land, between 500 and 5,000 hectares, often requiring multiple farms to work together as the average farm size in England is 87 hectares. If you go by what you see in some parts of the media you might conclude that most farmers wouldn’t be interested in being part of such a scheme; perhaps taking issue with the idea that it is ‘rewilding’ or damaging to food security, or seeing the scheme as targeted at large estate owners.

But Defra’s initial pilot shows this is far from being the case. Originally, it said it would fund a maximum of 15 Landscape Recovery projects in the first round of the pilot phase. But, after receiving over 50 applications to take part in the first round, almost all of high enough quality to take forward, the department has found the money to support 22 projects at this stage. Clearly, there is an appetite amongst farmers for this type of scheme.

What’s more, all but one of these projects involve at least some continuing agriculture, showing that nature restoration can be effectively embedded with farming, and farmers see that. And nearly all involve multiple farms, with half having tenants take part, showing that nature restoration is something that every farmer could get involved with, not just the biggest landowners.

This will deliver more for the environment (and people)
This first round of pilot projects focuses on river restoration and boosting biodiversity. In total, they are expected to restore 665 kilometres of rivers and streams and help at least 263 target species. And that’s just the first few projects. Imagine the environmental benefits this scheme will lead to when it’s fully up and running.

We don’t yet have all the details of the pilot projects but, based on river restoration projects that have been done before, they should make a noticeable difference to the look and feel of the countryside, in a good way. People who are lucky enough to live near one can look forward to enhanced and more beautiful green and blue environments, with more wildlife to enjoy.

One of the conditions expected to be applied to Landscape Recovery projects is the incorporation of some private finance, alongside government money, in return for environmental benefits. This is good news for a budget conscious government, as this new source of money will boost what projects can do and speed up action to halt and reverse nature decline by 2030 and reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Money will be targeted where it’s needed most
More than this, recent Green Alliance research showed that more ambitious environmental schemes are likely to target money at the places where it’s needed the most to support farmers and other rural livelihoods. The least productive ten per cent of land in England yields just one per cent of the food we produce, so making a decent living off it from food production is very hard. Our analysis suggests farm incomes could grow by around 20 per cent on this less productive land, if nature restoration is the main focus, with food production as a by-product.

As well as benefiting farmers’ pockets, committing around a third of the ELM budget to this sort of scheme would give us half of the emissions reductions we need from agriculture and land use by 2035. Another advantage is that it will be great for nature, for example increasing bird numbers by 50 per cent. From only ten per cent of land, that’s a good deal all round.

The Landscape Recovery scheme is already proving popular with farmers and should be able to do the heavy lifting to meet environmental targets, without negatively affecting food production, while increasing farmers’ incomes.

Defra has been quiet about this so far, but it’s a great opportunity for the new secretary of state to score an early win with both farmers and the public, by building on the popularity of the first Landscape Recovery pilots and quickly turning it into a full blown scheme.