Farming subsidies will be replaced by payments for “public goods”, from boosting access to the countryside to recreating wildflower meadows, Michael Gove has said.
In a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference, the Environment Secretary set out plans for food and farming after Brexit, including a switch away from what he called the “unjust and inefficient” subsidies paid through the European Union.
Mr Gove outlined how he wants to see taxpayers’ money going in future years to environmental protection, increasing public access to the countryside, and on technology, skills, infrastructure, and supporting rural communities.
The Government has agreed to maintain current farming subsidies, which are worth about £3 billion to UK landowners each year and most of which are linked to the amount of land that is farmed, until 2022.
Speaking ahead of the Government’s agriculture plans being published in the spring, which will be put out for consultation, the Environment Secretary said he envisaged farm payments continuing for five years from 2019.
But during that time, he aims to curb the largest subsidies, with a maximum cap or a sliding scale of reductions.
And in the future, taxpayers’ money would only go on paying for public goods that the market does not provide.
The move towards spending money on delivering public goods is part of a four-point plan, which also includes developing a coherent policy on food and giving farmers time and tools to adapt to the future to avoid a “precipitate cliff edge”.
The plans also include building “natural capital” - the value nature provides to society - into the approach to land management to establish a sustainable future for the countryside.
Mr Gove told the conference: “Building on previous countryside stewardship and agri-environment schemes, we will design a scheme accessible to almost any land owner or manager who wishes to enhance the natural environment by planting woodland, providing new habitats for wildlife, increasing biodiversity, contributing to improved water quality and returning cultivated land to wildflower meadows or other more natural states.
“We will also make additional money available for those who wish to collaborate to secure environmental improvements collectively at landscape scale.”
He also said that ensuring public access to the countryside was a public good, though he acknowledged it was a “contentious issue”.
But he added: “The more the public, and especially schoolchildren, get to visit, understand and appreciate our countryside, the more I believe they will appreciate, support and champion our farmers.”
Mr Gove said the way that financial support had been provided to farmers had been far too bureaucratic, with “near-pointless” box-ticking exercises and multiple inspections, and promised simplified systems in the future.
He also said that, with food exports from the UK, from West Country Cheddar to Melton Mowbray pies, guaranteed to be high-quality and more sustainable, it would be “foolish” to lower environmental or animal welfare standards in future trade deals.
And he insisted that European producers had as much interest in securing continued tariff-free access between the UK and the EU as British farmers.