The environment secretary has confirmed that DEFRA’s timetable to roll out a new subsidy scheme will go ahead as planned. Photograph: Oxford Farming Conference The environment secretary has confirmed that DEFRA’s timetable to roll out a new subsidy scheme will go ahead as planned. Photograph: Oxford Farming Conference

Villiers’ speech: 10 things you need to know

Theresa Villiers made her first big speech of the new parliament yesterday signalling that major environmental legislation would be arriving soon. Here’s what you need to know.

1 A revised Agriculture Bill will be resurrected imminently

Villiers told the 2020 Oxford Farming Conference yesterday that  a revised Agriculture Bill would be laid in parliament within the next two weeks. 

She confirmed that the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), which includes DEFRA’s “public money for public goods principle”, would be rolled out according to DEFRA’s previous timetable – a major pilot project to run from 2021 with full implementation from 2025. 

Villiers said the “world leading” Agriculture bill would contain revisions since its last iteration, including policies such as an extra duty on government to carry out a “regular review” of food security in the UK.

2 Brexit trade talks will not ‘dilute’ high standards

On Brexit, Villiers told delegates that “she had their backs” during UK trade talks with other nations and that the government was prepared to walk away from trade negotiations if it was not in the “national interest”. 

She said: “We will not dilute our strong environmental protection, we will not dilute our high standards of food safety and animal welfare… we will not imperil our domestic and international reputation built on quality, and grounded in our shared national values.”

3 Villiers would not be drawn on the precautionary principle

When pressed on whether the government would adopt a “precautionary principle” or adopt an American style approach to risk during trade talks, Villiers was vague, saying the government would  “always be guided by the scientific evidence”. 

When asked how standards would be treated under WTO rules, she said she had “confidence” in the “armoury of tariffs” that could be imposed on food imports where weaker standards might threaten UK farm products.

4 A new trade commission is yet to be decided

To help guide trade negotiations and protect UK food standards, the National Farmers Union (NFU) wants to see the creation of a new government trade commission with farmers on its board, but Villiers said this was still being discussed in Downing Street.

5 Agriculture can help the UK fulfil its net zero pledge 

The Agriculture Bill will enable farmers and landowners to play “a hugely valuable role” in meeting the country’s commitment to become a net zero carbon economy by 2050, Villiers said. 

The UK agriculture sector currently contributes around 10% of all UK greenhouse gas emissions. Villiers welcomed the NFU’s 12-page strategy on reaching net zero in England and Wales by 2040, but did not comment on the amount of financial support that would be made available through ELMs.

6 Dozens of ELM pilot schemes are ongoing with more planned

The environment secretary confirmed that 38 ELMs tests and trials were “up and running”, with over 30 more to follow.

Last year, a consortium of 46 landowners, farmers, charities and NGOs had been selected to pilot the government’s new environmental land management scheme (ELMS).

Speaking at the conference, Villiers said the new ELM schemes could potentially help farmers deliver public goods including “vitally important peatland restoration… planting and maintaining woodland and hedgerows… creating and restoring ponds and lakes … providing flower-rich habitats for pollinators … and restoring wetlands”.

7  Villiers was challenged over her decision to block a badger cull permit

One delegate attacked Villiers’ decision late last year to axe a badger cull permit in Derbyshire where a national vaccine pilot to halt TB is taking place. 

Villiers admitted she had “engaged” with No10 over the decision and that it was regrettable that the decision was taken so late to block the permit. She said the decision was made to allow for more time “to evaluate the mechanics of badger cull and vaccine mechanics”. 

The NFU has applied for a judicial review over this decision – something not mentioned by either the environment secretary or NFU president Minette Batters who sat on the panel alongside Villiers.

8 The Environment Bill will be brought back to parliament this month

The environment secretary confirmed that the Environment Bill would be laid in parliament “very soon”.

Villiers’ counterpart on biosecurity in DEFRA, Lord Kimble, told House of Lords peers yesterday that the bill would be read before the end of January.

9 A consultation on an English tree strategy will be launched soon  

A consultation on an “English Tree Strategy” would be launched in “in the spring”, Villiers said. 

Last year, the Tories promised to plant 30 million trees every year by 2025 with a new £640m pot of money ring-fenced as part of their election commitments

Villiers told farmers that her government was going to “overhaul” its approach to tree-planting but did not comment on whether or not grants would be made available for natural regeneration processes. 

10 The union lacks a common framework

There has been little to no progress in developing common frameworks with Scotland and its agricultural sector, according to Villiers.

The environment secretary was unable to allay audience members’ concerns over how diverging of farm and environmental policy would be tackled, saying only that there were “difficult issues to grapple with”. 

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