First and foremost, please be assured that I recognise the importance of this particular subject, given that I am involved with the Church of England’s farming tenants and recently visited Groundswell to learn more about regenerative agriculture.
Furthermore, my ministerial colleagues and I recognise the valuable work of our farmers across the country and the Government is committed to supporting the farming industry and our rural communities. The Government’s manifesto guaranteed the current average levels of investment in farming of £2.4 billion a year in England over this parliament.
Ministers are undertaking the most significant reform of agricultural policy and spending in England in decades. The Government is phasing out unfair and environmentally damaging farm subsidies, significantly improving services to farmers, providing one-off grants to support farm productivity, innovation, research and development, and developing and expanding schemes to pay farmers to provide environmental goods and services alongside food production.
The Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMS) will pay for sustainable farming practices, improving animal health and welfare, reducing carbon emissions, creating and preserving habitat, and making landscape-scale environmental changes. This is an important step towards achieving our 25 Year Environment Plan ambitions and our carbon net zero goals.
These incentives will make food production more resilient and efficient over the longer term while contributing towards the UK’s environmental goals on carbon, biodiversity, water quality and net zero. Together this will safeguard the long-term prosperity of the farming industry and protect the environment for future generations.
The Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) opened in June 2022 and is paying farmers to improve soil and moorlands. I am aware that the rollout of the SFI has been accelerated and will provide farmers with a diverse range of paid actions. Six additional standards will be added to the Sustainable Farming Incentive this year, meaning farmers can receive payment for actions on hedgerows, grassland, arable and horticultural land, pest management and nutrient management. They build on the existing standards to improve soil health and moorlands introduced in 2022, which nearly 1,900 farmers already have in agreements.
I understand that the new SFI Management Payment will be made for the first 50 hectares of farm (£20 per hectare) in a SFI agreement, to cover administrative costs of participation and to attract smaller businesses, many of whom are tenant farmers who are currently under-represented in the scheme. For a 50-hectare farm, this could represent a potential increase of as much as 50 per cent.
The Government has also detailed what farmers will be paid to deliver through an enhanced version of the Countryside Stewardship scheme, which will see around 30 additional actions available to farmers by the end of 2024. The expansion builds on the more than 250 actions farmers can take at present with the scheme, which has seen a 94 per cent increase in uptake since 2020 and is now part of thousands of farm businesses.
Countryside Stewardship Plus will reward farmers for taking coordinated action, working with neighbouring farms and landowners to support climate and nature aims. It will deliver the same high environmental ambition previously planned for Local Nature Recovery, including managing floodplain meadows to reduce flood risk and improve biodiversity, restoring and maintaining peatland for carbon capture and storage, and enhancing and managing woodland to mitigate against drought and enhance its resilience to climate change. The scheme will also be improved so farmers benefit from greater flexibility over when they can apply and how they manage their agreements, with improved access for tenant farmers and increased access to Higher Tier options and agreements.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been updating payment rates for both Countryside Stewardship revenue options and capital items to better reflect the latest costs. As of 1 January 2023, updated revenue rates will be introduced for all new and existing mid-tier and higher tier CS agreements. On average, there will be a 10 per cent increase in revenue rates. CS capital rates, which cover one-off projects such as hedgerow creation, have also been updated and I understand that applications for these grants are now open.
Finally, I am aware that the Landscape Recovery Scheme will support ambitious large-scale nature recovery projects, focusing on net zero, protected sites and habitat creation. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will take on up to 25 projects which could include projects creating and enhancing woodlands, peatland, nature reserves and protected sites such as ancient woodlands, wetlands and salt marshes.