It’s been 21 days since we launched a petition against Defra’s decision to put a 2 year freeze in new government-funded grants for tree planting and new woods. Just under 30,000 people have signed in this short time, clearly agreeing with us that Defra’s decision is a bad idea.
Today is the final day of Defra’s ridiculously short four week consultation on implementation of the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) rules. Our petition has been running alongside this. The consultation is very ‘top line’ and includes the big issues of basic support payment to farmers and options for introduction of the new greening measures, but very little of the detail.
For example, the suggestion is that under the new agri-environment scheme – a targeted payment option to support positive environmental management – woodland measures will be combined with farming measures into one scheme for the first time. This is great and something that we have pushed for in previous consultations.
But this consultation is about the strategic architecture of the scheme, site specific targeting versus landscape scale, rather than the detail of what an individual land manager will be able to do on the ground. Will there be support for restoration of planted ancient woodland sites (PAWS) and if so what form will it take? Well, we are pretty sure that there will be – but this consultation is not dealing with that.
What is in the consultation are questions about ‘modulation’; moving money from Pillar 1 – general farming support payments – to Pillar 2 – targeted rural development programme (RDP) schemes including agri-environment. We support moving the maximum 15%, without this money there will be no new agri-environment schemes within the next 7 years (the lifetime of this CAP reform).
There are also questions about how much of the Pillar 2 funds should go to agri-environment. Defra’s own figures suggest that the best economic returns are delivered by putting approximately 80% of this money into agri-environment funding. The other options include supporting processing and marketing amongst other issues but have shown poor returns on investment. This is taxpayer’s money so it would be nice to think we could use the evidence to support best use!
‘Greening’ of Pillar 1 payments remains a contentious issue. We did not support the proposal originally because we did not believe that it would have any significant environmental impact. We suggested that the 30% of Pillar 1 identified for greening should be put into Pillar 2 where there was evidence to show that real environmental benefits could be achieved. The current proposals support my cynicism; crop diversification and maintenance of permanent grassland are not going to reverse the biodiversity declines of the 20th century nor are they going to halt the ongoing environmental issues of water quality, soil degradation, ammonia deposition or loss of pollinators. There remains the potential to use some broader measures, called Ecological Focus Areas, within arable areas and we have supported these.
Overhanging all of this is the fact that the delays in Europe, and then the insistence that there is a single start date for agri-environment schemes, means that there will be no new agri-environment money until January 2016 (actually the first payments will be in August 2016 at the earliest). The consultation does not tackle the issue at all!
Luckily, Ministers are listening to us. Our petition calling for interim grants to deal with this situation is making a real impact.
Within 10 days of launch, we had received an invitation from Defra to a meeting with the new Farming Minister, George Eustice MP. Mr Eustice also made a bee-line for us at a Westminster reception on Monday. Ministerial responsibilities seem to overlap on
the forestry aspects of the RDP. Both Mr Eustice and the target of the petition, Forestry Minister, Dan Rogerson MP, are new to their roles; they will want to make an impact. Plugging the grants gap so England can avoid deforestation will show they are serious about their new responsibilities, and is something they should be able to work on together. One to one time with a Minister is rare, we are chasing a confirmed date.
In addition, senior officials at Defra have told us that they are hearing our call “110%“. And when we mentioned our fears about deforestation due to the grants gap to Mr Rogerson at an event on Tuesday he said “Yes, I am well aware of that thanks to the Woodland Trust”. Now we just need Defra to change its mind about not supporting tree planting for two years and put funds in place so that folks who want to plant trees, can.
Frances Winder, Conservation Policy Adviser