Just 224 farmers in England were paid under the government’s flagship post-Brexit nature-friendly agriculture scheme last year, the Guardian can reveal.
Leaked figures show that a tiny fraction of farms received payment under the sustainable farming incentive (SFI), part of the Conservative government’s plan to replace EU farming subsidies.
The revelation comes as the government faces further anger from farmers over its farm payment changes, with the farming minister, Mark Spencer, due to speak on Thursday at the Oxford Farming Conference in an attempt to reassure the industry about the future of the payment schemes.
The SFI payment is supposed to reward farmers for looking after the health of their soil. Replacing EU subsidies – which are awarded based on the amount of land farmed and thus heavily weighted towards the biggest landlords, who least need subsidy – with payments for protecting nature was the government’s flagship Brexit farming policy, unveiled in 2018.
Under the incoming system of environmental land management (Elms), farmers were supposed to be rewarded with “public money for public goods”, by taking measures such as digging ponds, laying hedges and improving habitat for wildlife. But critics say the tiny number of payments made shows the lack of confidence in the schemes.
Last year, about 102,000 farmers were given basic payments – the equivalent of the EU subsidy – meaning only 0.2% of those who received basic payments were awarded money from the new SFI scheme.
Basic payments have also been cut by 20%, a loss of thousands of pounds a year to many small farmers, which can make the difference between profitability and falling further into debt.
Figures from Defra show that there have been 1,829 applications for SFI, with 1,662 offers accepted. Only 224 people had received their first quarterly payment as of the end of December, with 318 due to be paid in the new year.
The government refused to release the exact amount paid under the scheme when asked to do so under the Freedom of Information Act, arguing that as it did not have the full data for the year’s payments yet, doing so would be “misleading”.
Farming groups said the small number of payments showed a lack of confidence in the scheme, and urged the government to act fast.
Mark Tufnell, the president of the Country Land and Business Association, said: “Elms has the potential to be a world-leading policy, and many farmers are very supportive of the direction of travel. Most, however, won’t decide on which schemes they will enter until they know what the payment rates are and have absolute clarity on what standards are expected.
“Government is beginning to make progress on providing these details, but they need to sharpen up their communications to win over the sceptics. These schemes can be a real success, but only if farmers are confident they will deliver for the environment, for food production, and for their business.”
The shadow agriculture minister, Daniel Zeichner, said this could be “disastrous” for the environment as cash-strapped farmers would be forced to intensify their methods in order to make ends meet, in the absence of workable schemes.
He told the Guardian: “This is disappointingly slow and we want to make these schemes work but the government seems to be incapable of making them work at the moment. Farmers are losing money and need to find new ways of making that income through environmental schemes.
“There is a real fear that if there is no money for these schemes and we stand by and let the market run as usual, which is what the government seems to be doing, farmers will have no choice but to intensify their agricultural methods, which would be disastrous for the environment.”
Long delays to the implementation of the schemes, first proposed by Michael Gove when he was environment secretary in 2018 but delayed many times since then, have caused many farmers not to sign up.
Minette Batters, the president of the National Farmers’ Union, said: “The NFU has continually called for delivery of Elms to be piloted – while farmers in Scotland and Wales are continuing with uncapped BPS, farmers in England have lost nearly half their payments with no idea on what the future holds. It is unacceptable that there is no transparency over the Defra budget at this time of unprecedented change.”
In September, when Liz Truss became prime minister, the Observer revealed that the government was looking at weakening or scrapping the schemes. The new environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, has since reassured farming groups that the schemes are to remain almost entirely unscathed, with a full update expected in coming weeks.
Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat’s environment spokesperson, said: “This once again shows that the Conservative government is letting down farmers. While they’re slashing existing payments, farmers simply aren’t getting what they deserve under the new system. Without these payments thousands of family farmers will go out of business.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “The nature-friendly actions that farmers undertake, known as standards, are being rolled out incrementally and we are confident as more actions are made available more farmers will join. We are pressing ahead with our environmental land management schemes, phasing them in by 2027, while the farming budget for England will remain the same at £2.4bn per year throughout this parliament.”