Gove backs payments to farmers for water quality protection

Environment secretary Michael Gove confirmed in a speech to the Oxford Farming Conference last Thursday that farmers in the future would receive financial support for the provision of ecosystem services including water quality protection.

This was one of four areas of specific change Gove earmarked in his wide ranging and controversial speech on the future of farming. “I want to develop a new method of providing financial support for farmers which moves away from subsidies for inefficiency to public money for public goods,” he said.

This would include ecosystem services (with details to be consulted on): “We will design a scheme accessible to almost any land owner or manager who wishes to enhance the natural environment by planting woodland, providing new habitats for wildlife, increasing biodiversity, contributing to improved water quality and returning cultivated land to wildflower meadows or other more natural states.” There will be additional money available “for those who wish to collaborate to secure environmental improvements collectively at landscape scale”.

Transitionary arrangements will be put in place to support land managers as the Common Agricultural Policy subsidies are unwound, extending beyond the formal Brexit transition timetable. Gove (pictured) was scathing on the CAP itself, arguing: “Paying land owners for the amount of agricultural land they have is unjust, inefficient and drives perverse outcomes. It gives the most from the public purse to those who have the most private wealth. It bids up the price of land, distorting the market, creating a barrier to entry for innovative new farmers and entrenching lower productivity.

"Indeed, perversely, it rewards farmers for sticking to methods of production that are resource-inefficient and also incentivises an approach to environmental stewardship which is all about mathematically precise field margins and not truly ecologically healthy landscapes. As recent scholarship has shown, the so-called greening payments in Pillar One have scarcely brought any environmental benefits at all. We can, and must, do better.”

Another of the four specific areas of change Gove identified was “to ensure that we build natural capital thinking into our approach towards all land use and management so we develop a truly sustainable future for the countryside”. He explained: “The natural capital approach can be so valuable. It allows us to bed into policy-making a direct appreciation of the importance of field and forest, river and wetland, healthy soil and air free from pollution. It is just one tool among many in the formation of policy but a very powerful one in ensuring that we think of our responsibility to future generations to hand on a country, and a planet, in a better state than we found it.”

Aside from leaving the EU, other forces driving change and piling the pressure on natural environments Gove identified were technological development, global population growth, urbanisation and the swelling of the middle class. “Without action we face the progressive loss of the natural capital on which all growth - natural, human and economic - ultimately depends. So the imperative to husband, indeed wherever possible, enhance our natural capital - safeguarding our oceans, cleaning our rivers, keeping our soils fertile, protecting biodiversity - has to be at the heart of any plan for our country and our world.”

He urged stakeholders to embrace change rather than resist it.