Transition to new environmental schemes a challenge, says DEFRA minister

Switching farmers on to a new scheme of subsidy that awards them for environmental improvements and public goods is proving a challenge but is the right thing to do, new environment minister Victoria Prentis told delegates at the Conservative Party Conference yesterday.

Speaking at a Conservative Environment Network fringe event, Prentis said the new environmental land management scheme (ELMS), currently being piloted by around 5,000 farmers, had come under fire for being too detailed and not detailed enough and for moving too fast as well as for not moving fast enough. 

“It is a very challenging transition,” she said, adding that she would work with farmers to get it right and that the range of tiers available as part of the scheme should allow them to go at a speed which suits them. 

The middle tier of the scheme, involving farmers working together across a river valley or a geographical area to enhance the environment, would be very powerful, she said. 

“It’s the right thing to do for biodiversity, the right thing to do for the planet and it’s the right thing to do for British farming,” said Prentis.

Vicki Hird from food and farming alliance Sustain welcomed ELMS, but said progress had been slow and that its ambition was unclear. “ELMS should be linked to targets on nature, pesticides and climate change,” she said. “It should be linked to the 25-Year Environment Plan.”

In response to a question on public access to rivers on private land, Prentis said the recent Agriculture Act contains a clause allowing government to pay farmers for enabling the public to access their estates. A keen wild swimmer herself, Prentis said people needed access to nature and that she would attempt to find ways of allowing the public temporary access at times that suited the landowners.