‘Utter disgrace’: Funding slashed for ELMs ‘rewilding’ projects, say reports

Reports say that funding for the most ambitious of DEFRA’s environmental land management schemes (ELMs), is to be slashed in a move campaigners have called “an utter disgrace”, but a senior civil servant has said no changes have been made to the schemes' roll-out.

Farmland. Image: Pixabay Farmland. Image: Pixabay

When the ELMs schemes were originally announced, the government said that funding would be split equally between its three ‘tiers’, from those targeting smaller scale change to its large scale Landscape Recovery scheme, intended by DEFRA to bring about “radical changes” to land-use change and habitat restoration.

However, last week the department published a blog post, stating that there would not be "fixed allocations... of money ring fenced to different schemes. Instead, we will learn as we go and find the best ways to manage the overall budget to respond to demand in a way that helps us achieve our intended outcomes".

The blog stated that just £50m of the £2.4bn annual farming budget would now go towards developing these bigger land reform schemes over the next three years.

The change comes as reports have emerged suggesting that there is pressure on DEFRA from within other parts of the government and from lobby groups such as the National Farmers Union (NFU) for ELMs to be delayed or even scrapped. 

The Sunday Times has reported yesterday that changes to the team advising prime minister Boris Johnson have led to the change in thinking, with Steve Barclay, Johnson’s chief of staff, and David Canzini, his deputy, said to consider environmental issues a “second-order priority”.

ENDS also understands that the upcoming by-election in Tiverton and Honiton in rural Devon, prompted by the resignation of Neil Parish after he was found to have watched porn in Parliament, is sparking concern in green groups that diminishing ELMs could become a Tory campaigning tactic to secure support. 

Commenting to the Sunday Times, Craig Bennett, chief executive the Wildlife Trusts said: “It would be a complete and utter disgrace if the government broke the promise that it has made time and time again to restore nature across large areas as part of the post-Brexit agricultural transition. There is no such thing as food security if nature is in decline.”

Sam Hall, director of the Conservative Environment Network, said that the Landscape Recovery scheme presented an opportunity to leverage “significant private funding” and that DEFRA should “continue to prioritise this scheme as part of the ELMs rollout”. 

However, Jonathan Baker, a senior civil servant in DEFRA, has commented on Twitter to push back against the Sunday Times story. He said: "We've made no change to landscape recovery roll out or implementation."

The reduction of funding for this tier of ELMs comes alongside the publication of the government’s National Food Strategy, in which it says that ELMs “will remain responsive to farmer demand through co-design whilst ensuring we remain on track to achieve our objectives for net zero, biodiversity, and animal health and welfare”. 

“In 2023, we will publish a land use framework that will reflect all our objectives for English Agriculture, the environment and net zero,” it adds.