Last week the Government launched its long awaited “what on earth are we going to do about paying farmers, after Brexit” consultation, called Health and Harmony. At the heart of the new policy lies the principle of “public goods for public money”. No longer will bagless vacuum cleaner billionaires and Saudi princes be able to hoover up subsidies “just for owning land.” There will be a transaction – taxpayers will pay landowners and get something in return – some public goods in the economics jargon.
This is not a new idea. Schemes which paid farmers to look after wildlife or archaeology on their land, or create new areas for wildlife, have been around in Britain since the 1980s, starting with Environmentally Sensitive Areas and Countryside Stewardship. These evolved from modest beginnings, into the Entry Level and Higher Level Schemes (in England) from 2003. These in turn evolved into Countryside Stewardship Mid-Tier and Higher Tier schemes in 2013.
Each scheme in turn had its pros and cons. Entry Level spent a great deal of money across a large area of land delivering very little benefit for nature. Countryside Stewardship has been overly bureaucratic, complex to administer and put a lot of landowners off joining. Former Natural England agri-environment expert Steve Peel recently wrote eloquently on here about what makes a good agri-environment scheme and what makes a bad one. Let’s hope the Government takes note of this advice before designing the new “One Agri-Environment Scheme to rule them all” system, which will replace CAP payments once we leave the EU (or some time afterwards.)
Yesterday’s news does not bode well that the advice Steve (or anyone else) offered is being read. Farmers Guardian’s Abi Kay reported that Countryside Stewardship is going to be taken away from Natural England and given to The Rural Payments Agency.
“Natural England staff who worked on Environmental Stewardship and CS delivery will move to the RPA so their knowledge and expertise is maintained.”
According to some people commenting today, staff working on Higher Tier Stewardship schemes (eg on SSSIs) will stay at NE. So the idea that this move is about simplification doesn’t wash. It also begs the question of whether the staff working on Stewardship at NE will have any authority to over-ride decisions made by RPA staff.
But isn’t it a good idea to have all of the admin for Stewardship under one roof? Yes, in theory, but it depends on which roof.
The Rural Payments Agency is notorious among farmers as the organisation which comprehensively screwed up the payment of the as then new Basic Payment Scheme back in 2014. A highly complex new IT system was commissioned to enable farm payments to be moved online. 7 years later the system is still not working properly.
Parliament was scathing in its criticism of the RPA’s failure to effectively distribute basic farm subsidies – criticizing its culture and revealing internal in-fighting. Given the RPA’s central role in making Countryside Stewardship work (they provided the scheme maps) it is perhaps not that surprising that Stewardship also fell over. But this time the blame has been laid at Natural England’s door. It doesn’t seem inconceivable that, after the beating the RPA received over Basic Payment Scheme, they were going to make sure NE took the punishment for Countryside Stewardship.
This is what seems to have happened now. But this is part of a bigger turf war between Defra agencies. Once Brexit had happened it became very clear to everyone that there was going to be some fundamental reorganisation of Defra agencies – getting nearly £4Bn a year of farm subsidies out of the door is a massive bureaucratic exercise. Once we leave the EU – and the CAP – that job disappears. Since the end of June 2016 the race has been on, to see which Defra agencies come out on top. This news is a strong indicator of who has won.
This hasn’t been helped by the fact that Natural England bosses weren’t prepared to fight the fight – especially after they took a verbal beating for Countryside Stewardship in front of the EFRA committee (Guy Thompson subsequently left Natural England and now works for Wessex Water). And let’s not forget that the RPA is a much larger organisation than Natural England, and is much more closely aligned with Defra – it could be seen as an arm of Defra. The RPA never had that independence of spirit that characterised Natural England when it was first created – though that spirit has been comprehensively crushed since 2010. So perhaps it’s not surprising that, in having to choose between the two, Defra has chosen to go with RPA.
As far as getting Agri-Environment schemes to create better farmed landscapes for wildlife, or anything else, it’s a huge error. RPA’s culture is administrative, bureaucratic. It’s all about process and compliance. Farmers complain about the excessive administrative burden of receiving farm payments or applying for Countryside Stewardship – they have the RPA to thank. The idea that RPA culturally (regardless of whether their staff are interested, or indeed qualified) will be able to work closely and flexibly with farmers to achieve improvements for nature on farmland is a fantasy. Their motto may as well be “computer says no.”
Meanwhile once Natural England has had its Countryside Stewardship function (and staff) surgically removed, what remains will be on life-support, because that has been a large part of the organisation’s role. Further, the fabled one-stop shop, single point of access approach that Natural England had been required to develop, has just been abandoned. Natural England staff tasked with ensuring Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) are protected, are now potentially lined up against RPA staff delivering agri-environment schemes on those SSSIs. You can imagine who will win those tussles.
Does all this matter? Isn’t it time to abandon Natural England as a failed quango? Commenting this morning, George Monbiot suggested as much.
Perhaps George is right.
If so, then what is also vital is that the Rural Payments Agency is also abolished before the introduction of the new England Agriculture Policy. We need a publicly-funded independent champion for nature (as Natural England was intended to be when it was set up); and we need a new body which will deliver the public goods for public money approach being advocated by Michael Gove.