I beg to move,
That this House has considered environmental land management scheme funding for upland areas.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and great to see the Minister in his place to respond to what I am going to say.
Our uplands are precious beyond measure. They are on the frontline in the fight to restore nature and to tackle climate change. They provide us with water for drinking and with the opportunity to protect population centres from devastating flooding. They underpin our tourism economy and are home to our most stunning historic landscapes. They provide food and they enable the flourishing of communities that are as much a part of our heritage as the landscapes that they care for.
I support the transition to the environmental land management scheme. The principle of public money for public goods makes sense and is, in theory, a great improvement on the area-based payments of the common agricultural policy. I also welcome a move to a more sustainable payments scheme that supports environmental benefits alongside ensuring food security. In practice, however, the Government are sadly putting our uplands in peril, and they are doing so needlessly.
Farmers across the country are being put at risk by a failure to listen, but in the uplands that failure is worst of all and threatens to be catastrophic. In this debate, I aim to speak for upland communities in Westmorland, but also for communities elsewhere. While preparing for the debate, I visited many farms and listened to dozens of farmers, and my hope is that the Minister will acknowledge the Government’s failings and commit himself to putting them right.
The transition from the old farm payments scheme leaves upland farmers especially exposed as they typically rely on the basic payment for more than 50% of their income. As the basic payment scheme is phased out—every farm will have lost at least 35% of its BPS this year—upland farms will need alternative sources of funding to fill the gap. Those sources of alternative funding are, however, not forthcoming, and the consequences will be devastating.
It is my honour to represent more than 1,000 farms in Westmorland and Lonsdale, but the last time I checked fewer than 30 had registered for the new sustainable farming incentive. Those farms have lost a huge chunk of their BPS, and most of them so far have nothing to replace it. That is the Government’s fault. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs rules dictate that farmers who are not already in the countryside stewardship or higher level stewardship schemes cannot maximise SFI benefits because the schemes do not fit together seamlessly. This means there is a guarantee that almost all upland farms will not be able to replace their lost income and that their financial viability will decline steeply.
If farmers are in a stewardship scheme and also received the basic payment, they can expect to get no more from their stewardship scheme. Meanwhile, they lose their basic payment. Therefore, in the transition, farmers can only lose income. That is the case for many farmers, including lowland farmers, but especially those who farm in the uplands. Why can we not permit those in stewardship schemes to provide additional environmental value by applying for an SFI that fits with stewardship?
The new schemes seem to have been written deliberately to disadvantage upland areas, in particular because Ministers chose to stick with income foregone plus costs as the principle underlying payments for SFI and stewardship schemes. That caps, or limits, income for delivering for nature, climate and water at the amount a farmer could have earned from beef and sheep in the uplands, which is an awful lot less than the famer could earn elsewhere. The lowland rate is £151 per hectare, but the upland rate is only £98 per hectare.
The former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), is on the record saying that DEFRA must depart from
“the outdated income foregone methodology”
for payment rates. I wonder why DEFRA has chosen to ignore its former Secretary of State. Why, instead, do the Government not pay farmers a fair rate for the immense value of the environmental work they do, rather than giving them the equivalent of the poorly paid work they have given up? If we valued nature and valued farmers, that is what we would do. Why is there not equality of opportunity? Why are we not allowing all farmers who want to deliver for nature to do so? Why are upland farmers effectively being locked out?
The failure to pay upland farmers a fair rate is a major reason why most have been put off even applying. Another reason is the Government’s choice to reveal the SFI options in a drip, drip, drip fashion over time. Many farmers I have spoken to in the past few weeks, including two in the Eden valley, tell me that they have not applied for two reasons: first, the payment rates are pathetic and it is just not worth their while applying; and secondly, they are waiting to see whether something better comes along from future options that the Government may or may not reveal. All the while, those famers and others are seeing their incomes eroded by the phasing out of BPS and have no alternative sources of funding to replace it.
In particular, we desperately need more detail on the new moorland option. I am glad there is one, but can the Minister tell us when it will start, what it will be worth and when farmers will have the full details of what it will entail? Take-up of the option is slow, yet as the chair of the Uplands Alliance, Professor Julia Aglionby of the University of Cumbria, points out, DEFRA has refused to fund a digital app that would have enabled effective and efficient moorland surveys. Relatively small decisions such as that make a big negative difference, and reveal the Government’s apparent disinterest in the plight of our uplands. It will be a disincentive for our farmers to deliver more for nature and the climate.
The lack of clarity and the limited nature of the options available are particularly damaging for tenant farmers. How are they to make long-term decisions about their businesses when the Government are dribbling out incomplete information now and again and leaving them effectively in limbo? Meanwhile, as Baroness Rock revealed in her very welcome review of tenant farming, many tenants are being forced out so that their landlords can access ELM schemes for themselves.
I sincerely hope that it was not the Government’s intention to advantage wealthy absentee landlords at the expense of hard-working farmers, but whatever their motives, that is nevertheless happening. DEFRA has repeatedly said that the transition aims to stop big payments going to large landowners, yet we see asset-rich landowners embarking on 21st-century clearances, and scooping up big payments in the process. We are already seeing new money pouring into the uplands and being invested in land for its hope value—for carbon credits or offsetting. It is transparent greenwashing in exchange for wads of taxpayers’ money, while farming families are turfed out and cleared from the land for which they have cared for generations.
Many upland farms have the potential to get into the countryside stewardship higher tier, yet reports from throughout the country show that few of those who might qualify even begin the application journey, mostly because Natural England has had its staffing so badly cut that there is no one to help those farms or groups of farms to get through the process. Just the other week, farmers near Ullswater put it to me that the Government are missing out on a vast amount of nature restoration, water quality improvement, and carbon reduction and sequestration, all because of penny pinching in relation to Natural England and farms being locked out of the schemes that were supposedly designed for them.
Many farms have benefited from the Government’s shift towards more grant funding, and that is a good thing, but even then there is a failure to understand how farms really operate. Capital grants work on the basis of reclaiming outlay that farms have already made, but upland farmers’ cash flow is disappearing with BPS. The grants are often welcome, but they ignore the reality that farms need regular, reliable revenue funding for the good work that they do, not one-off chunks that they have already had to spend up front. The very fact that DEFRA is paying BPS in instalments—which is also welcome, by the way—is a clear admission that it realises that cash flow is vital and that the loss of BPS without replacement will cause huge damage to businesses in the uplands and elsewhere.
This litany of mistakes, incompetence, unfairness, penny pinching and broken promises is putting our vital uplands in a treacherous position. It is surely obvious that the Government will not spend the promised £2.4 billion on farm support. With so few farms entering the new schemes, while every farm is losing BPS, it is surely impossible for the Government to have kept that promise.
In the uplands, where BPS makes up such a large proportion of farm incomes, the betrayal is felt even more sharply. Will Cockbain, who farms near Keswick and is the chair of the Swaledale Sheep Breeders Association, tells me that he has written to the Prime Minister four times setting out very clearly that the BPS cuts for upland farms, even if they are in countryside stewardship schemes, means a loss in farm incomes of more than 50% in direct support. He pointed out that tinkering with countryside stewardship does not come close to compensating for the loss of BPS. Will the Minister clarify whether his Department has done an economic assessment of the impact of the transition from CAP to ELMS on upland farms? If such an assessment has been done, will he please commit today to publishing it? If one has not been done, why not? Will the Minister now commit to doing one?
The forecasts of the farm business income survey show that, in the most recent financial year, upland farms will have seen a 51% drop compared with average farm incomes over the previous three years. The average income for an upland farm is now £16,300. Farm business incomes for upland farms for 2028-29—the end of this process—are not predicted to improve beyond £16,500, even with the full introduction of ELMS. That equates to an average hourly rate for farmers of £4.20, which is much less than half the minimum wage. This catastrophic fall in incomes is a direct result of Government policy and choices, or at least of the incompetent application of those policies.
The consequences are stark. We will see farms fail. People whose families have farmed in our uplands for generations will find themselves in the crushing position of being the one who lost the family farm. We do not think enough about the mental health impact on farmers and their families of the uncertainty caused by this botching of the transition. What does it mean for our upland communities when families that have formed the backbone of village life for centuries get uprooted because the farm has failed because of the Government’s failures? What does it mean in children lost from our schools, jobs lost, lost demand in the economy and the loss of homes and human dignity?
We do not think enough about the damage to our environment caused as farms cease to farm and farmers decide that they cannot afford to farm with care for the environment. Without farmers, we will lose the essential partners we need to put environmental policies into action. Even the best environmental plans in the world are useless pieces of paper in a drawer without the expert hands of farmers to put them into practice.
Many upland farmers will go broke and many more will go backwards. Having spent time on farms in the lakes, dales and elsewhere in the last few weeks, I am struck by how many have looked at their falling incomes and the fact that the new ELM schemes are either impossible for them to enter or too unattractive or restrictive, and made the reluctant choice that the only thing they can do to make ends meet is to farm more intensively and get more livestock, and in doing so undo the good environmental work that they and their families have done for decades. It breaks their hearts, but it seems to them to be the only alternative to losing the farm. How stupid and irresponsible to design a scheme meant to protect and enhance our environment, but to deliver it so badly that it does the exact opposite.
Might I suggest that the Government could make one of two choices? First, they could pause the phase-out of BPS to give farmers breathing space to get into the new ELM schemes—and, indeed, to give the Government the breathing space to fix their mistakes and put them right. Or they could choose to turbocharge the introduction of ELMS and demonstrate a commitment to supporting upland farmers to address the nature and climate crises. Throughout covid, we learned that with political will Departments can, at great pace, introduce new schemes to address crises. I suggest that this is a crisis on multiple levels.
There are only 6,500 upland farms. It cannot be beyond the wit of DEFRA to bring in an effective scheme for early next year, 2024, that enables upland businesses to thrive, delivering for nature and climate and underpinning a tourism economy that in Cumbria alone is worth £3.5 billion every year. Surely now is the time to admit that if we want to ensure that we do not devastate our environment and our capacity for food production, £2.4 billion is a wholly inadequate sum of money. If we care about biodiversity, reducing greenhouse emissions, the production of good-quality British food, protecting water quality and maintaining our landscapes, we must surely add at least another £1 billion to the pot. Central to the Government’s failure is that they are trying to do a range of incredibly important things on the cheap.
It is our farmers in Longsleddale, Kentmere and other upland valleys who protect thousands of homes in Kendal, Staveley and Burneside from flooding. It is our upland farmers in the lakes who maintain water quality for the whole of the north-west of England. It is our upland farmers who produce food, and maintain, shape and protect our historic landscape—so much so that UNESCO awarded world heritage site status to the Lake district largely on the basis of how the national park is farmed. We remember that Liverpool recently lost its world heritage site status. That is a warning that if we fail to protect this awesome natural environment in the lakes, we could lose that status, too, causing damage to a tourism economy that employs 60,000 people across Cumbria.
Our upland farmers are at the forefront of the fight against climate change, as they restore peatland and woodland, including imaginatively managed woodland pasture. They are crucial to nature recovery and biodiversity: 53% of England’s sites of special scientific interest are in the uplands. All that is at risk because the Government are not listening to farmers, are failing to understand the impact of their actions, and lack the humility to accept where they have made grave mistakes.
We will not stand by while this Government, by accident or design, cause avoidable harm to our uplands and the people who are their faithful stewards. I am proud to represent and fight for such a breathtakingly beautiful and important part of our country. But I am prouder still to represent the people—the families at the heart of those communities—who take care of that landscape. I hope that I have done them justice today, and that the Minister will acknowledge the peril facing our uplands and act before it is too late.