Lets hope Mr Gove remains in post long enough to do what he intends. Just as health takes time to deliver change, so does the environment. The rejection of a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone recently in Wales does not bode well..
A revolution is coming to the British countryside and its flag carrier is Michael Gove. Under reforms announced by the environment secretary at the Oxford Farming Conference, the “unjust” and “inefficient” subsidies of the EU common agricultural policy (CAP) will be abandoned. In their place, farmers will receive incentives to become stewards of the rural environment.
The broad thrust of these plans for the post-Brexit countryside is positive. When Mr Gove was appointed environment secretary, Caroline Lucas, the Green Party leader, said that he was “entirely unfit for the job”. He has consistently demonstrated otherwise, so far earning the approval of farmers and environmentalists alike. His latest proposals should keep him on that path.
At the core of the reforms will be the abolition of European subsidies awarded according to the size of a farmer’s landholdings. Under this perverse system, a Saudi racehorse breeder on a Newmarket farm receives £400,000 a year. Sir James Dyson, the billionaire inventor, gets substantial sums towards the maintenance of land he owns in Lincolnshire and elsewhere. After 2024 this will change. Farmers who undertake to “enhance the natural environment” will receive payments before wealthy landowners. Planting woodland or cultivating wildflower meadows will form the new basis for subsidies, funding a reversal of one of the more depressing ecological trends of recent decades. Since 1945 more than 97 per cent of Britain’s wildflower meadows have been lost, and with them much of the country’s wildlife.
As well as rewarding farmers who help to conserve “public goods”, Mr Gove’s reforms aim to address British farming’s unsustainable dependence on subsidies. At present, 55 per cent of farming income comes from European subsidies. Critics of the switch to stewardship as the main criterion for public funds say that it will unfairly favour richer farmers who can afford to adapt their business accordingly. Mr Gove must prove them wrong.
Eighteen months ago the countryside voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. Since then many farmers have grown alarmed at talk of a future without CAP-style subsidies in which their produce must compete with cheap imports thanks to new trade deals with nations outside the EU. Mr Gove’s proposals offer stability in the transition to another sort of farming. For farmers hitherto dependent on EU subsidies, his commitment to matching them until 2024 (an earlier promise extended only until 2022) will come as a relief.
The Treasury, however, will be wary. Reassuring hard-pressed farmers about their future is important. But ministers are forming an expensive habit of making generous financial commitments to constituencies likely to suffer short-term pain from Brexit without much obvious thought about the long-term ramifications. Details of the government’s 2016 deal to keep Nissan in Sunderland have not been disclosed, but it will surely have to be replicated across the automotive industry. From fisheries to universities, deals to shield sectors from the economic realities of leaving the EU will ultimately have to be funded by taxpayers.
Brexit’s most prominent advocates have argued that it should leave our industries more, not less, competitive. Mr Gove is one of those advocates. His next task is to refashion Britain’s farming industry for a future in which it can trade with the world, but also compete with it.