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Support for Hill Farmers — [Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:00 pm on 12th February 2020.

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Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (North of England) (Northern Powerhouse), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Food and Rural Affairs) 4:00 pm, 12th February 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered support for hill farmers.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship and to be guided by you today, Mr Bone. It is also a real honour to be asked to speak on a subject that is of massive importance to my constituents and to people across the country.

South Cumbria’s landscape is spectacular. Much of it is within the Lake district and the Yorkshire dales, and pretty much all of it has been maintained over generations by our hill farmers. The UK’s uplands are vital to us all, yet they are generally exposed and remote. Furthermore, upland farms are disadvantaged compared with lowland ones due to a shorter grass growing season. Hill farming is therefore often a marginal occupation. My fear is that the unintended consequences of transition to new payment methods and new export arrangements could push hundreds of marginal upland farms out of business. In this debate, I want to help the Government to get this transition right, so that our hill farmers do not pay an unbearable cost and so that Britain does not lose a priceless asset.

I speak regularly to hill farmers in our communities in Cumbria. Many of them are terrified of what is to come and do not have confidence in the Government plans revealed thus far. Right now, their No. 1 concern is the plan to phase out the basic payment scheme from next January, before the environmental land management system is ready to be delivered. The figures from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs tell us that an average of 85% of livestock farm incomes come from the basic payment.

Despite regular calls from the National Farmers Union, the Tenant Farmers Association and others to think again, the Government have not listened so far. A ham-fisted phasing out of the basic payment may see farm failures across the country, especially in the uplands. The stark reality is that the phase-out of the basic payment begins in 10.5 months’ time, but environmental land management schemes will not be available for everyone until 2028. Rolling out schemes before they are ready can have a catastrophic impact. The lesson of universal credit should have taught the Government that.

We have already had the first predictable evidence of slippage in the timetable. The plan to test a national pilot scheme for ELMS this year has already been pushed back to the autumn, yet the Government insists on ploughing ahead with the phase-out before anyone is ready, least of all the Government themselves. Removing the existing support before the new system is properly tested and ready to implement seems reckless and will surely cost many hill farmers their businesses, and many farming families their future.

Projections prepared by the Uplands Alliance using DEFRA’s farm business survey data from the Andersons Centre consultancy suggest significant reductions in farm business incomes by 2024, and further show a net loss of income to the average farm in 2028, even assuming that ELMS is fully rolled out by that stage. Put simply, the Government are asking hill farmers to endure seven years of lost income, seven years of uncertainty, and seven years when we may lose the backbone and future of our industry, with devastating long-term consequences for our food supply and our environment. I simply urge the Minister to delay the phasing out of the basic payment until the environmental land management system is fully operational for everyone. It would be a tragedy if the Government messed up what might well be a positive new scheme by botching the implementation period.

For all that uncertainty, the outline of the new environmental land management system is cause for some optimism. It is right that we should reward farmers for public goods. The industry is behind that and so am I, but let us get the details and the implementation right. The greatest public good that comes from our uplands is of course the production of food: 45% of UK lamb is produced in the uplands, as is 55% of the UK suckler herd and 35% of UK milk. Given that straw and feed grown in the lowlands go to feed animals in the uplands, if hill farming recedes, clearly lowland farming would soon sadly follow. A country that loses capacity to feed itself is a country in big trouble.

An alarming 50% of the food we consume is imported. Twenty years ago, that figure was more like 35%. Our food security looks more and more tenuous as every year goes by, although it is not just the Government’s stubborn insistence on the premature phase-out of basic payments that threatens our food security but the worry that ELMS itself may inadvertently or deliberately see the draining of funds from upland farms.

One mistake would be to fail to use the skills of hill farmers to fight against climate change. For example, commendably, the National Trust wants to increase the amount of its land used for trees from 7% to 17%, but one means of delivering that would be completely to bypass farmers. Indeed, any other landowner might do the same. However, if we bypass hill farmers, we will lose hill farmers, and if we lose hill farmers, we will lose the very people whom we most need in order to deliver the whole range of vital environmental goods to tackle and to mitigate climate change. I therefore ask the Minister to ensure that ELMS is delivered only to active farmers. After all, it would be a disgrace if the replacement of the common agricultural policy was a policy that removed agriculture from the commons.

Recently, our rural and farming network took the DEFRA policy team to a hill farm near Slaidburn. The farm is already in a higher-level stewardship scheme and doing all it possibly can, but it is still more reliant on the basic payment than on environmental payments. They asked the DEFRA team what else the farm could do environmentally to make up for the imminent loss of the basic payment. The Department offered no ideas. Perhaps the Minister will be able to reassure hill farmers that ELMS will not be biased against certain categories of farm simply because of the nature of their landscapes.

In addition, a concern among farmers in my community is that the new ELMS will be much easier for some farms than others by virtue of location and, to some extent, sheer good luck. For example, a grassland farm, with mostly fences for boundaries and not so many walls or hedges may struggle to tick sufficient environmental boxes, compared with a farm with some existing woodland, perhaps a bit of wetland, or hedges.

Hill farmers are essential to the promotion and protection of biodiversity. They maintain rare natural habitats and ensure the upkeep of our rich heritage landscapes. They protect iconic British breeds such as Herdwick, Swaledale and rough fell sheep. We have to be prepared, through ELMS, to count the rearing of such breeds as a clear public good worthy of attracting public money. Indeed, many of the public goods provided by farmers are by-products of the fact that we have viable farms producing food. That is why a major focus must be to ensure that hill farmers get a fair price for their produce.

That is why, to be honest, I am disappointed that the Government are not more forthcoming about plans to expand the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator, a piece of machinery that the Liberal Democrats were proud to help deliver in government—but we were sad that the Conservatives chose to water it down before it reached the statute book. Will the Minister commit to ensuring that the Groceries Code Adjudicator has its remit widened so that it can look at the whole supply chain and act on referrals from advocates such as the NFU, the Tenant Farmers Association and indeed Members of Parliament, and so that it is given the power to levy sanctions that will truly hurt those retailers and processors who abuse their market power to pay our farmers a pittance?

Water management work in the uplands is utterly vital—the impact of Storm Ciara over the weekend was a reminder of just how important that is. Farmers protect our towns and villages from flooding. In December, we marked the fourth anniversary of Storm Desmond; the memories and the financial and emotional impact of the devastation it caused are still fresh for many of our communities in Cumbria and elsewhere. Amidst the pain there is much to be celebrated, and we can be proud about how our communities responded and coped. Farmers were a key part of that; they did essential work in places such as Kentmere and Longsleddale. For our farmers to do vital work to mitigate flood damage and, indeed, be part of natural flood management schemes, they need to be equipped. The scope of public goods must be broad enough to reward them for it.

Central to environmental land management schemes must be farm succession. Attracting young people to hill farming, incentivising them to enter the industry and supporting them as they grow their business means allowing older farmers to retire with dignity and to an affordable home. Given the astonishing price of housing in rural communities such as mine, that will take serious Government intervention.

Contrary to popular myth, many hill farmers voted remain—the majority in my patch did—but those who voted leave often tell me that they were motivated by a desire to do away with the red tape and bureaucracy of the CAP—or rather, the British application of the CAP. I trust that the Minister will not replicate or even add to the burdens of bureaucracy, badly run payment agencies, excessive farm visits and insecurity that have been the hallmarks of a hill farmer’s lot in recent times.

To achieve a fair deal for hill farmers, it is essential that the Bill defines public goods to recognise the incredible work that they are doing. The public good that I fear may be in most danger is perhaps the hardest one to quantify, measure or reward: the work that farmers do to maintain the aesthetics of our landscape. I can look down Langdale from the Pikes. I do not know how to quantify and codify a financial reward for the farmers who carefully maintain the view below me, but I know that it takes my breath away.

Those farmers underpin the £3-billion-a-year Lake district tourism economy that employs 60,000 people throughout our county. Our farmers’ work was acknowledged in 2017 when UNESCO granted world heritage site status to the Lake district. It will not be easy to quantify and codify that, which is why the Government should not fool themselves that they will be able to do so competently and without teething trouble in just a few years. The Government need to give themselves time and not rush the phasing out of basic payments.

Britain’s uplands feed us. They give us biodiversity, protection from flooding, carbon sinks, heritage and rare breeds. They underpin a multi-billion-pound visitor economy. They give us space to breathe, to soak up awesome creation in its rawest form; they stir us and they settle us.