Introducing the long-awaited Agriculture Bill, Michael Gove set out plans for a “Green Brexit” by rewarding farmers who improve water, air or soil quality, animal welfare standards, public access to the countryside, and take measures to reduce flooding.
The scheme will replace direct payments, which the Government regards as ineffective because it rewards farmers based on how much land they farm, skewing the system towards the largest landowners, with the top 10 per cent of recipients getting nearly half of all payments, while the bottom fifth receive just 2 per cent.
The new environmental land management system will begin next year after Britain’s departure from the EU on March 29, with the Government promising to work with farmers to design, develop and trial the new approach.
But farmers will be given time to adapt to leaving the EU’s orbit after half a century, with direct payments continuing in much the same way as now until 2021.
There will then be a post-Brexit agricultural transition period lasting until 2027, as the old subsidies are “delinked” from the requirement to farm the land and are gradually phased out.
Mr Gove said: “The introduction of the Agriculture Bill is an historic moment as we leave the EU and move towards a brighter future for farming.
“After nearly 50 years of being tied to burdensome and outdated EU rules, we have an opportunity to deliver a Green Brexit.
“This Bill will allow us to reward farmers who protect our environment, leaving the countryside in a cleaner, greener and healthier state for future generations.
“Critically, we will also provide the smooth and gradual transition that farmers and land managers need to plan ahead.”
Direct payments will be reduced more widely than previously mooted, and so most farmers will see their subsidies cut during the transition although the biggest recipients will see bigger reductions initially, with the money being freed up to invest in public goods.
It is hoped the transition will help new entrants into the sector and give farmers flexibility.
The payments, which may be calculated according to money received in previous years, can be used by farmers to invest in their business, diversify their activities or else retire from farming and give way for new people to enter.
The Bill will also include measures to provide funding for farmers to come together to develop and get research projects they desire, for example on sustainable livestock farming, helping them to becoming more profitable while reducing their environmental footprint.
The CLA, which represents farmers, said it “fully supports” the public goods model and stressed it must provide “clear objectives and obligations.
Its president Tim Breitmeyer praised the Government for providing certainty with a “sufficient” seven-year transition, and welcomed moves to reduce direct pyments for larger farm businesses in manageable increments rather than using a cap which would have been “catastrophic”.
“The development of a new post-Brexit UK agriculture policy is a seminal moment for the future of our countryside,” Mr Breitmeyer added.