Our Response to the Welsh Affairs Committee Inquiry: Agriculture in Wales Post-Brexit

We recently submitted evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee’s inquiry into agriculture in Wales post-Brexit.  In this blog, Emily Keenan, our External Affairs Adviser in Wales, outlines the National Trust’s view on the future of agricultural policy in Wales.

The future of farming in Wales is of central importance to the National Trust;

We have the single largest interest in, and responsibility for, looking after the farmed landscape of Wales – owning over 50,000 hectares of land which we manage for the benefit of the nation. The majority of this land is farmed, either by the Trust, by one of over 240 tenants, or in agreement with common land graziers. The single largest National Trust agricultural estate is in Wales too, the stunning Ysbyty Ifan.

Village of Ysbyty Ifan on River Conwy in the Wybrnant Valley, North Wales ©National Trust Images/Ian Shaw

For this reason our Welsh team were pleased to submit a response this inquiry, by the Welsh Affairs Committee, on the future of agricultural policy in Wales after Brexit.  You can read our response in full here but here’s a quick summary of the main points:

As the UK leaves the European Union, where should the responsibility for agricultural policy in Wales lie?

We consider that responsibility for agriculture and land management policy should remain with Welsh Government post-Brexit. The needs of Welsh farmers differ from those of the wider UK, and benefit from distinctly Welsh agricultural policy approaches which can respond to their unique issues and challenges. In addition agricultural policy needs to link seamlessly with wider land use policy, which is devolved to Welsh Government and has diverged significantly from elsewhere in the UK. We do see value, however, in taking a coordinated approach across the UK. Maintaining a set of common principles and ambitions, or an agreed framework across all four nations is highly desirable, to avoid a ‘race to the bottom’ and to address cross-border issues. However, given that agriculture is a devolved issue, such common principles should not be set by Westminster and ‘imposed’ on devolved nations but agreed jointly by all four countries.

How should agricultural funding be allocated in Wales post-Brexit?

We believe that agricultural funding of the future should be allocated to deliver the following two principles;

  1. Public funding should deliver public goods – with farmers delivering the most, receiving the most.

Our starting point for the future allocation of agricultural funding in Wales is that, like all tax payers money, there should be an expectation that public funding needs to deliver public goods.

We consider a system is needed which optimises the use of public money in delivering public benefits, aligning the needs of farmers and need for food security with good social and environmental outcomes: the more a farmer delivers for society, the more support they get. And a new policy framework should help with the introduction of new market-based mechanisms to complement and enhance the impact of such public funding. However, this won’t happen overnight; it will take time to establish and scale up these complementary approaches to deliver more ‘functional’ public goods like flood risk mitigation and carbon sequestration.

  1. All funding should drive better outcomes for nature

The State of Nature Report 2016 has shown that UK species are in crisis. This is a crisis for the ecosystems on which we all depend. Currently, only 30% of the direct payment is conditional on meeting ‘green’ farming standards, with penalties for non-compliance only going as far as losing that sum. Nature and natural systems should be at the heart of any system of support for farming, with farmers seen as partners in creating and delivering the solution to the crisis in the state of nature. Regulations should be clearly related to and underpin outcomes, with 100% of any public payment being conditional on meeting higher, but more manageable, baseline standards for wildlife, soil and water and so on. In future, we should start at the landscape level, with farmers and landowners working collaboratively to help set plans based on clear, long-term outcomes.

Gathering the Welsh Mountain sheep on Watkin Path on the Hafod Y Llan farm, Snowdonia ©National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

Our priorities for a future funding model are clear. However, we understand that we cannot move from one funding system to another overnight. A realistic transition period will be vital and particularly important for the most economically vulnerable, such as those in our extensive livestock sector, who are often farming in marginal areas, but which are of high environmental, landscape and nature value.

How should European legislation relating to agriculture be transposed into UK law under the Great Repeal Bill? Which elements should be repealed, amended, or devolved?

Once the UK level transposition of the ‘acquis’ into UK law has taken place, the assumption should be that any powers repatriated from Europe relating to matters which are currently devolved should be passed to devolved administrations, to avoid unintentional roll back of devolution. And we should begin the process of replacing EU institutions and governance arrangements with Welsh equivalents.

Natural environment concerns are cross-border by nature, so there are clear advantages to seeking to maintain agreed minimum common environmental standards and approaches across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, ideally with the freedom for any of the nations to take a more ambitious approach if they choose.

Cattle on Pennard Cliffs, Gower, Swansea, Wales. ©National Trust Images/John Millar.

What are the challenges facing agricultural trade in Wales when the UK leaves the European Union? How should the level of trade and export of Welsh food and drink be protected and maintained?

Challenges facing the agricultural trade include;

  1. Loss of the single market for agricultural exports
  2. Loss of Common Agricultural Policy funding
  3. A period of uncertainty pertaining to the above.

While the challenges are clear to us, the possible scenarios and the risks which they present are still yet to be fully modelled and understood. We could see extremes of abandonment of land in uplands, to intensification in the undesignated parts of the lowlands, with subsequent impacts for our natural environment, landscapes, cultural heritage and critically, rural communities.

The current level of trade and export of Welsh food and drink can best be protected and maintained by bolstering the status quo. However, we are aware that the status quo is an unlikely outcome, if not in trade, then in the flow of public money into agricultural subsidies beyond 2020. A better economic future will undoubtedly depend on developing more diverse revenue streams and skills within upland farming, alongside producing high quality food. For this reason, as well as looking at maintaining trade, we should be taking steps increase resilience. Measures could include;

  1. Investment in Research and Development and knowledge transfer to support sustainable agricultural use and regeneration of natural resources
  2. Upskilling in core business skills required to adapt to changing market conditions and maximise margins by controlling costs and minimising waste
  3. Diversification of ‘products’ of farms, support developments including Welsh beef and tourism and recreation products
  4. Creating Markets for Public Goods.

You can read our full response to the Welsh Affairs Committee Inquiry: Agriculture in Wales Post-Brexit here.

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