Responding to Michael Gove’s speech at the Oxford Farming Conference today, Professor Ian Bateman, Director of the Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute (LEEP), at the University of Exeter, welcomed the overall direction of the policy outlined by Mr Gove but warned that a firm timetable needs to be agreed for change. Until then wealthy landowners will still continue to benefit from the majority of agricultural subsidies being paid through the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS). This pays a flat rate per acre, an approach that funnels the majority of public funding towards the largest (and often richest) farms in the country instead of targeting public goods such as environmental improvements.
Professor Bateman said: “Michael Gove’s reaffirmation that the public money supporting farm subsidies should be spent on delivering public goods is to be welcomed; if this is carried through then he will deserve to be congratulated on breaking more than four decades of failure in agricultural policy. But it is disappointing to see that the system of paying most subsidies on a per acre basis is going to carry on for several years. At present 75 per cent of public subsidies go to just 25 per cent of farms; the largest farms in the country. This rewards multi-millionaire estate owners while other farmers remain in poverty. I have no problem with large farms getting payments if they produce high levels of public goods; but to get these payments just because they are large is perverse. It’s good to hear that this scheme may be capped, but it needs to end.
“Farming controls the large majority of UK land and could provide a host of valuable social benefits such as habitat for our most endangered wild species, recreational greenspace around towns and cities, reducing our impact on the climate, stopping soil erosion and tackling issues like water pollution which increase water bills for every household in the country. Subsidies for these benefits are well justified as are investments in high quality decision systems and low environmental impact farm technology to promote high levels of food production without degrading the land. But these benefits won’t be delivered through payment of a flat rate per acre subsidy. Instead we should redesign the subsidy budget to provide a basic income safety net to help the poorest farmers and target the remainder to pay for the public goods that taxpayers want to see. A firm and rapid timetable for delivering this change would be welcomed. “