So it seems that having successfully killed off the valiant attempts to get the Common Agricultural Policy reformed so it provides Public Goods for Public Money, The National Farmers Union is now campaigning to to ensure that the UK government modulates as little as possible of the CAP pot back into Rural Development, part of which is for the Agri-Environment Schemes.
This is how it works. The UK gets a pot of money from Europe (paid for by Europe’s taxpayers and no-one else) to pay farmers – the biggest surviving public subsidy of industry left in Britain. Though I suppose Shale Gas might be a competitor for this dubious crown before too long. The pot is over £3 Billion pounds a year. That would pay for a lot of nurses or teachers.
The pot of money is basically divided into two – the main bit (say 75%) is just given to farmers as Single Payment, with effectively no strings attached – indeed some of the strings actively work against provision of Public Goods (see GAEC 12 below).
The other bit is for “Rural development” which includes Agri-Environment Schemes. Most of the AE money went into the Entry Level Scheme in the last CAP. This was generally agreed to have been money for old rope and provided remarkably little public goods return.
The Single Payment money is handed to landowners who have farmland. Mind you only some farmland is eligible. Farmland that is really valuable for nature for example may well find itself excluded from being eligible for CAP money – because it’s not productive enough. Yes the CAP pot pays out preferentially for intensive farmland management. Land with scrub for example is not eligible – the scrub areas have to be individually mapped and excluded. If your hedges are too wide – you get a cut in your single payment – even a fine. GAEC 12 requires farmers to cut scrub and top vegetation – the aim is actually to prevent flowers from flowering. It really is true.
New rules will make it more difficult for landowners farming with nature in mind to claim it – these rules are still being sorted out, but include a definition of Active Farmer, which may exclude part-time farmers, and even charities like Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and the National Trust. Another rule will place a minimum area threshold for CAP payments, so small parcels of land will not be eligible. This will remove a vital funding source to help support the costs of managing small fields that will otherwise be abandoned.
Then there is Greening – this was going to be the way that Single Payment was going to deliver some environmental benefits. The idea was that a proportion of the single payment Sadly, thanks to organisations like the NFU, the greening element has been watered down to such an extent that it is literally greenwash, only there’s no green at all, so it’s just whitewash. Thanks to the threat of greening though, hundreds of hectares of permanent grassland, some of it with wildlife value, all of it containing around 100 tonnes of carbon per hectare, has been ploughed.
Which brings me back to Modulation. This allows EU member states to recycle up to 20% of the Single Payment pot back into Rural Development, and actially provide some Public goods back to the public who is paying for the Farmers subsidy. Uncontroversial you might think – not a bit of it.
The National Farmers Union is waging another of its highly effective campaigns touring the country whipping up a frenzy amongst the farming community, getting its members to lobby their MPs (they are very good at doing that) to reduce the amount of Single Payment to be modulated back into Rural Development, including Agri-Environment Schemes. Their argument is that CAP money should only be spent on things which are good for the rural economy. The NFU mantra is that only farmers know best how to spend CAP money. It’s almost as though they have a divine right to the money (even though we pay out to them). Entitlement is the watchword.
The NFU complain that Rural Development payments don’t flow directly into the Rural Economy in the way that Single Payment does. As if cashflow was a public good in itself.
Defra is launching a consultation in the Autumn to garner views about how much of the CAP pot should be modulated to provide Public Goods. I have no doubt that there will be many submissions from farmers, decrying the waste of their money. It behoves on the rest of us to do the same – and ask why taxpayers money is being spent to support private profit.