Can the UK meet its ambitions to heal and restore our natural environment?

A new report from the National Trust, RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts reveals that 5 times the level of current investment in the farmed environment is needed if the UK is to meet existing commitments to protect our natural heritage after Brexit.

Cattle on the Shugborough Estate, Staffordshire ©Andrew Butler

We know our wildlife is in trouble, and the natural resources vital to our future growth are diminishing every year.  For the prosperity and security of our economy and our farming communities, our food production and our nature, significant investment is needed to enable us to reverse this drastic decline. As Brexit fast approaches, we’re now at a critical moment where the UK Government will decide how to redeploy the £3bn currently spent through the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) each year as we leave the EU.

The National Trust, RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts have all been working in partnership with thousands of farmers for the last few decades to manage land in a way that works for nature, and enables farmers to build an agricultural sector that’s fit for the future. With farmers, Government, academics and others, we’ve worked together to try and understand the environmental challenge we face, and to develop practical solutions to address these.

To support that work we’ve been working on a model to show the financial scale of the challenge facing our farmed environment post-Brexit. Today we’ve released a report outlining that research and revealing, for the first time, that if the UK is to meet existing goals the Government has signed up to, then spending on future environmental land management schemes needs to be five times higher than now.

It’s crucial that farmers, conservationists and other land managers have the certainty to start planning ahead for a greener UK.

©National Trust Images/Richard Bradshaw

The referendum vote to leave the EU means the UK now has to make its own choice about how it looks after the land and the wildlife in it. The country could go down the US route, with intensification of agriculture (chlorinated chicken included) in most places, offset by reserving some places as wilderness. Instead, since the 2017 election, the UK government has embraced the chance to improve the environment in more everyday countryside too.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, Michael Gove, is clearly indicating a significant change in farming policy to put environmental outcomes at the heart of a replacement for the CAP.  And Theresa May’s Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell has placed the environment centre stage, as one of the three pillars guiding the Conservative Party.

But while we might end up with a good policy, there’s no guarantee that there will be any meaningful money to deliver the changes in land management needed to restore our troubled natural environment.

Indeed, the working assumption from many in the think tank world is that there might just be a few million pounds left over for the environment after subsidies make way for markets, or that market-based payments for ecosystems services pilots can be quickly scaled up to take over Government support.

Harvesting wheat on the estate at Wimpole, Cambridgeshire ©Catherine Hayburn

In fact, our new research shows that the UK needs to increase five-fold what it currently spends on agri-environment schemes, just to deliver today’s goals, let alone the UK’s bigger, welcome, and more ambitious goals. Given other legitimate objectives from a post-CAP system like advice, science, rural development projects and investment to help farmers adapt their business models, the overall amount of spending still needs to be at least £3bn, if not more.

This isn’t about farmers versus conservationists, but about how to ensure government funding can support a long-term sustainable future for farming that also delivers on the ambition that the Government and all of us share to leave our environment in a better state than we found it.

Farmers need funding to deliver benefits that the market doesn’t, like looking after soils, cleaning water and providing habitats for pollinators and other wildlife.

Farmers increasingly recognise that public funding should be linked to delivering wider public benefits and not based on the size of land holdings. We’re working with our farm tenants to look at how we can support them over the coming years to produce high quality food while continuing to act as expert custodians for our beautiful countryside.

Today’s report marks the start of the debate about how willing politicians – and indeed, all of us – are to fund a greener UK after Brexit.

Richard Hebditch, Government Affairs Director, National Trust; Marcus Gilleard, Senior Policy Programme Manager, National Trust

You can read the full report and the accompanying briefing here:

Assessing the costs of environmental land management in the UK, full report, Dec 2017

Assessing the costs of environmental land management in the UK Policy Briefing, Dec 2017

 

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