Lord Heseltine delivers warning to agriculture: Farmers' payments '˜could be hit after EU exit'

Farmers should be 'very worried' about losing financial support after Brexit because the Government is likely to see agriculture as an area of 'significant' potential cost savings, Conservative grandee Lord Heseltine has said.

The former deputy prime minister forged his reputation as an architect of devolution during the 1980s.

In an interview with The Yorkshire Post, the peer said farmers could face “bureaucrats” and “part-funding” after Britain’s exit from the European Union as Environment Secretary Michael Gove is suggesting conditional schemes could replace “under threat” full-scale subsidies.

Lord Heseltine, himself a former Environment Secretary, said the Government could be forced into providing upland farmers in Yorkshire an “underpinning support system” as “schemes just won’t do it on their own”.

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Mr Gove has described the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy “fundamentally flawed” and argued that its system of paying farmers based on how much land they have is “unjust, inefficient and drives perverse outcomes”.

But Lord Heseltine warned: “We will go back to what we had before we joined the Common Agricultural Policy, before that we had an annual price support system for farmers and we’ll go back to that.

“I think the Treasury will be seeing this as an area with significant potential economies and all the language that I see that the support system is going to be replaced by schemes.

“And schemes mean bureaucrats, conditions, part-funding, but we don’t know, all we know is that there’s a cliff edge.”

He went on: “I think they (farmers) wil take a hit and the subsidy system will be under threat, that would be my guess, and schemes will come in.

“I would tell them to be very worried.”

Lord Heseltine, who is himself a farmer, said that instead of the Government “underpinning the agricultural support system”, farms could be paid a proportion of the cost of ploughing up land, planting more seeds, protecting wildlife or opening up areas for public access.

“I don’t know what Michael Gove’s views are but he at the moment is making a lot of conversation about schemes so it’s very possible that he himself is not keen on the underpinning support system,” he said.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is seeking pilot schemes to test in 2021 as UK farming prepares for new kinds of financial support after Britain’s exit from the EU in March 2019.

The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority is keen for a three year extension to a current pilot scheme that shows upland farmers can be given better incentives and rewards for improving the environment, rather than following precisely prescribed management options under EU rules.

The Wensleydale scheme - which has seen 19 farmers paid by results to produce ‘public goods’ - could be replicated nationwide.

A Defra spokeswoman said: “As the Environment Secretary Michael Gove has made clear, the current Common Agricultural Policy system is fundamentally flawed, paying land owners for the amount of land they have and driving perverse outcomes.

“When we leave the EU we will match the £3 billion that farmers current receive in support from the CAP until 2022 and we intent to go on generously supporting farmers for many years to come where the public goods benefits of that spending are clear.”

The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Tories afraid to oust May’

Conservative peer Lord Heseltine has said Tory leadership contenders looking to usurp Prime Minister Theresa May are afraid of suffering the same fate as he did when he unsuccessfully challenged Margaret Thatcher for the top job in 1990.

He said: “There was a phrase that was in wide usage at the time of Mrs Thatcher’s downfall, that he who wields the knife never wears the crown, so I’m sure all the potential leaders know this and none of them feel confident enough to believe that they could win, so none of them are prepared to put their hat officially in the ring.”