Significant ELMs scale-back still planned, say reports

DEFRA is “fine-tuning” rather than tearing up its environmental land management schemes, according to the farming minister, who has committed to seeing the schemes rolled out by 2024, but new reports have emerged suggesting plans to scale the schemes back are still in place with payments for nutrient management at risk.

Yesterday, farming minister Mark Spencer appeared before the Environment, Farming, and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee to give an update on the progress of DEFRA’s environmental land management schemes (ELMs), where he appeared to distance himself from the notion of there being an all out review underway, and instead a tweaking at the edges. 

“The word ‘review’ implies we were tearing the whole thing up and starting again,” he said to MPs, adding that he would describe it as “fine-tuning to make sure the outcomes we want to deliver are the outcomes we will deliver”. 

He continued: “That is a process that is ongoing but I think it’s fair to say that we are at the conclusion of that process and ready to get on with the job.” 

He went on to confirm that the government was still set to see the ELMs rolled out by 2024, and that the basic payment system - which has seen farmers subsidised by the state based on the size of land they farm - would be coming to an end, despite some rumours to the contrary

Spencer also spoke about not wanting to see a pause on ELMs, as has been campaigned for by groups like the National Farmers Union (NFU). “We need to get on with this,” he said, suggesting that the schemes could help farmers spread the financial risk created by external pressures such as the Ukraine war and subsequent hike in the price of inputs like fertiliser. 

However, just hours after Spencer’s appearance before the committee, a report emerged in the Farmers Guardian claiming that DEFRA has already briefed farming groups on the outcomes of the ELMs review, and that a significant scale back of the schemes was still planned.

The farming magazine, which reports to have heard from multiple sources who attended the briefing, said that the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), the lowest tier of the new schemes, is set to remain in place but in a reduced format, with planned standards on nutrient management, hedgerows, and integrated pest management now either due to be binned or delivered through another mechanism.

It is also reported that the middle tier of ELMs, Local Nature Recovery - which is set to involve environmental improvements on larger parcels of land, is out and will be replaced with ‘Countryside Stewardship+’. 

The future of the largest-scale ELMs tier, Landscape Recovery, is still unclear. During the EFRA committee hearing, Janet Hughes, programme director for DEFRA’s Future Farming and Countryside Programme told MPs that pilots for this third tier were continuing. 

One anonymous source who attended the meeting is reported to have told Farmers Guardian that they were “really concerned we have spent six years working with DEFRA on the design of a new package of farm schemes, but it seems like a lot of that is now going to be shelved and they are going to fine tune stewardship, which has got a reputation of being prescriptive and restrictive and dogmatic.” 

Commenting, a DEFRA spokesperson said: “No decisions have been made - we are pressing ahead with our ELMs and fine-tuning them to make sure they help to deliver our ambitious outcomes on the environment and support a thriving farming sector. We will be providing more details in due course. 

“This includes looking to build on the lessons learned from the 849 farmers in our SFI pilots, our test and trials, the first 22 Landscape Recovery projects and the success of the Countryside Stewardship scheme, which over 30,000 farmers are now involved with - a 94% increase on three years ago.”

ENDS asked how the claim that no decisions had been made tallied with Spencer’s evidence to the EFRA committee that the review process was at its conclusion. A spokesperson emphasised that being at the conclusion of the decision making process, and the decision making process having concluded, “are not the same thing”. 

DEFRA would not confirm by what date the conclusions of the ELMs review would be announced.