21/12/2021

A closer look at the Sustainable Farming Incentive

By Dr Alastair Leake, Director of Policy (England)

2 minute read

Environment Secretary, George Eustice MP, has announced the payment rates farmers will receive for the environmental measures they carry out on their land in a new scheme called the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI). The SFI is the basic level scheme, complimented by the Local Nature Recovery (LNR) and Landscape Recovery (LR) schemes, the details of which will emerge in due course. All are part of the overall Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS). Eustice’s announcement has generated criticism from farming and conservationists alike.

Accepting that Defra does not have a monopoly on wisdom when it comes to environmental land management, the Government Department have in engaged from the outset in a process known as “co-design”, where stakeholders are involved throughout the process and the end result is something which is built through consensus rather than decree.

The design itself is under-pinned by a number of principles which includes public money for public goods; greater flexibility and a focus on outcomes, rather than observation of prescriptions; greater trust, advice and encouragement, rather than fines and penalties; and an aspiration that the vast majority of farmers and land-owners will find the offer appealing and join the scheme.

So it’s both surprising and disappointing when some of the stakeholders then criticise the very scheme they themselves have helped design. Of course farmers would like to have seen more money for delivering these basic public goods but the inevitable consequence of leaving the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was that being given money just for owning or farming land was going to end. Indeed, CAP reform was the one single policy which united all political parties at every General Election I can recall in recent times.

Government have said that the overall CAP pot of money will be maintained, just repurposed. We need the scheme to be easy at the basic level to encourage up-take – if it’s too complicated the money will simply not be attractive and uptake will be poor, something nobody wants.

Some say that SFI is unambitious and does not deliver enough for the environment. They too were co-design collaborators. Given the modest payment announced one has to hope that a large slug of money will be available to reward Local Nature Recovery and that the high environmental ambition will sit here.

That farmers are disappointed with the payment rate and environmentalists are disappointed with the public goods being delivered for this money suggests to me that Defra have got the balance right.

What we can all perhaps agree on is the that the mis-alignment of decreasing BPS with the phasing in of the new scheme is unfortunate and will bring hardship to an industry hit with two years of challenging weather, depressed yields and spiralling input costs. If we want public goods delivering then we need to have viable farming businesses and farmers on the ground to carry out the work; conservation does not manage itself.

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