New farming payments scheme is 'charter for city slickers, for carpetbaggers, and for spivs', says Yorkshire MP

The Environment Secretary has been accused by a Yorkshire MP of introducing “a charter for city slickers, for carpet baggers, and for spivs” as he launched new plans to support farmers after Brexit.

Mr Eustice outlined the Government’s reforms of farming subsidies in the Commons today, which he said would be “an evolution not an overnight revolution”.

As part of the plans, “direct payments”, paid out under the basic payment scheme for the amount of land farmed, will start to be reduced from 2021 on the way to being phased out by 2028.

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The Government has committed to maintaining the £2.4bn per year for farming over this parliament, but plans to halve the £1.8bn paid in direct payments by 2024, with the biggest reductions in the highest payment bands.

Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman. Photo: JPI Media

The £900m saved will go towards introducing an “environmental land management” (ELM) scheme which will reward farmers for sustainable farming practices, creating new habitats and even rewilding land.

There will also be funding for a farming investment fund, which will offer grants for equipment and technology such as robots and new infrastructure such as water storage on farms, and which will open from next year.

And a resilience programme will help those most affected by the phasing out of direct payments to help farmers plan and manage their businesses, and there will be a consultation on lump sums for those who want to exit the sector altogether.

Speaking in the Commons Mr Eustice said: “We know that this policy marks a significant change.

“I’m also very conscious of the fact that many farm enterprises are dependent on the area-based subsidy payments to generate a profit and that without it some might judge they would not be profitable.

“So, we have created a seven-year transition period. We want this to be an evolution, not an overnight revolution.

“That means making year-on-year reductions to the legacy direct payments scheme and simultaneously making year-on-year increases to the money available to support the replacement schemes.”

But Huddersfield Labour MP Barry Sheerman urged him to “please think again before you eradicate the good English farmer”, as he said although Mr Eustice was an “honourable man” he was introducing plans which would favour “city slickers, carpetbaggers, and spivs” and would act to “take over our farming sector and drive out the traditional smaller English farmers who have been feeding our nation for so many years”.

Mr Eustice said it was the current system under the EU which has a “habit of giving the largest payments to the wealthiest” and sometimes to “people who are not really actively farming, sometimes it is people who made their wealth in the City and who were trying to shelter it in land”.

He said: “That can't be right. The system we're developing is going to reward people for what they do with their land and what they do to help nature recover.”

Shadow Environment Secretary Luke Pollard also said the plans were a “full throttle attack” on English family farms.

Mr Pollard told the Commons: “Labour supports public money for public good, of course we do, but that’s not what this is about.

“Strip away the green coating and these proposals are a full throttle attack on English family farms – English because Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland farmers are going in a different direction by maintaining support for small farms for longer.

“Under these proposals, many small farms will lose up to half their current support payments within just three years, leaving many financially unviable.”

But speaking to The Yorkshire Post Mr Eustice said: “The cash spending will be the same year on year. It's just that as each year goes on, there will be a progressive reduction in legacy payment, and an increase in money going to other schemes.”

Mr Eustice also told The Yorkshire Post that every three years the Government would bring forward a report on food security, following concerns there was too much of a focus on environmental factors over food production.

He said: “We're also clear that when designing any of the schemes under clause one, those environmental schemes, the Government is going to have regard for the importance of food production.”

He said rather than changing the use of the land, the idea was about “changing the way we farm so that it’s more sustainable, more emphasis on soil health and water quality and so on”.

He also said tenant farmers could be reassured that the new system would not simply be lining the pockets of landlords.

“We're very clear that you can only deliver in the farm landscape if you've got the farmers farming the land on board, and if you're rewarding them for doing things differently.”

He said there was a potential issue with those with short-term holdings, such as those of one or two years.

But he added: “We are exploring ways where groups of farmers who may be quite specialised and share land in a kind of rotation but between different businesses, whether we could, or joint ventures, where they could share the land on a land swap agreement, but also be able to access the schemes as well.”

He said this would be “quite important in parts of the country, particularly where you've got cropping and arable cropping and particularly some of the vegetable cropping that we have very specialised enterprises that maybe just specialise in brassica vegetables, but nevertheless need a rotation, and will tend to go around, almost nomadically renting land at the moment”.

He said: “It's quite difficult for them to be able to access these new schemes because you actually want to incentivise proper stewardship of the land over the longer term. So we're looking at whether some of those group businesses could come together in a joint venture, and we don't want to be prescriptive, we want to have the flexibility for different models.”

He said there was a clear ambition for farmers to be rewarded for endeavours such as providing flood prevention methods, such as creating natural flood plains.

And he added: “Together if we can get this right, then in a decade’s time we hope that the rest of the world is going to want to come and see how we did it.”