Farmers could be paid for post-Brexit ‘rewilding’ land changes

According to Thursday’s Western Morning News: “The initial focus will be on restoring England’s water courses and helping native species to recover.”

By Claire Marshall 

Farmers and landowners in England could be paid to turn large areas of land into nature reserves, or to restore floodplains, under new government agriculture subsidies.

When the UK was part of the EU, farmers were given grants based on how much land they farmed.

Following Brexit, the government has pledged to pay based on how farmers care for the environment.

But environmental groups say the new plans lack detail and may not deliver.

In what the government describes as “radical plans”, landowners and farmers will be allowed to bid for funding to turn vast areas of land – between 500 and 5,000 hectares – over to wildlife restoration, carbon sequestration, or flood prevention projects.

“What we’re moving to is a more generous set of incentives for farmers doing the right thing,” Environment Secretary George Eustice told the BBC.

“We can have both sustainable, profitable food production, and see a recovery for nature as well.”

Agriculture is a devolved issue meaning that each UK nation has its own plans. Wales, for example, has said its new funding scheme will promote environmental benefits and be in place from 2025.

Improving the environment

Under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, farmers were given taxpayers’ money largely based on the amount of land they farmed: the more land they held, the more cash support they got. In 2020 about £3.5bn was handed out.

Now the government says that instead of rewarding farmers for how much land they work, it wants to encourage farmers to introduce practices that improve the environment.

Farming creates 10% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, and large-scale agriculture has long been accused of degrading the environment.

Applications will shortly open for the first wave of “Landscape Recovery” projects. Mr Eustice said the scheme would lead to “fundamental land use change” creating new woodlands, restoring peatlands, and other “intensive interventions”.

The aim of these pilot projects is to create 10,000 hectares of restored wildlife habitat, which could help sequester carbon and restore England’s rivers and streams. Mr Eustice said he hoped it would lead to more large-scale rewilding projects like the Knepp estate in West Sussex.

But Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, said the “golden opportunity” of the agricultural transition was in danger of being “wasted” .

“While we’re hearing the right noises from the government, the devil will be in the detail, and the detail is still not published nearly six years after the EU referendum,” he said.

James Robinson, a farmer in Cumbria with 300 acres of land, said it was difficult to judge the proposals because they still lacked detail.

“It will make a difference but we need action now. The way farming has been run for the last 40-50 years has been for field production at the expense of environment. We can’t keep going as we are, we need to make a change now, and as farmers we need to step up and make a change. But we also need government support to do that and it’s still not quite there yet,” he said.

There were also concerns among tenant farmers about how they could take part. George Dunn of the Tenant Farmers Association said: “Payments are being removed from tenant farmers in real time while we have a vague commitment for further work to be undertaken on how tenants can access schemes”.

Dr Alexander Lees, from Manchester Metropolitan University, said the schemes fitted well with the challenges of reversing declines in Britain’s most endangered species – those on the Red List. But the aspirations of the pilot seemed “simultaneously low and over-ambitious”, he said.

“It would seem very hard to reverse biodiversity loss for the ‘most threatened species’ in just 10,000 hectares,” he added.

“If we are serious, then we need to be racing towards the 300,000 hectare target as fast as possible.”

An additional plan, called the Local Nature Recovery scheme, will pay farmers to deliver on small-scale environmental priorities, such as “creating wildlife habitat, planting trees, or restoring peat and wetland areas”.

Mr Eustice said it was “about individual farms or groups making space for nature on part of their holding, perhaps creating water features on some of the less productive land, or hedgerows for breeding sites for birds.”

The government says, by 2030, the policy aims to:

  • halt the decline in species
  • put up to 60% of England’s agricultural soil under sustainable management
  • and by 2042, restore up to 300,000 hectares of wildlife habitat

Details of the broader Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), which aims to support sustainable farming practices, were revealed in December.

The Wildlife Trusts, National Trust and RSPB were highly critical of the SFI plans, saying they were “deeply concerned” that they did not go far enough.

According to the Wildlife Trusts, the SFI allows 30% of arable soils to be left bare over winter, which is damaging to soil health. The standards also do not address the damaging impact of pesticides and artificial fertilisers on soil, it said.

It also claimed that farmers would be left to measure and assess their own management plans.

Mr Eustice said judging how successful the plan is would be a “complex” thing to do in the years ahead.

He said: “We’ve been running agri-environment schemes in one form or another for well over 20 years, and each of those have been evaluated. It may not be perfect, but we think it’s reasonably accurate. And you have to work on something.”

Update on “Gatherings” investigation

No 10 party inquiry to name ‘people in charge’

The official investigation into Downing Street Christmas parties will not blame the junior officials who organised them but will instead identify their bosses, Whitehall insiders believe.

Henry Zeffman, Oliver Wright

Sue Gray, a former Whitehall ethics chief, took charge of the inquiry into alleged rule-breaking last month, shortly after The Times revealed that Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, who had been leading it, had been aware of a Christmas event in his own office.

The inquiry was primarily asked to look into claims that staff at No 10 held a party on December 18, 2020, when London was subject to severe restrictions, but will examine other alleged lockdown breaches too.

It has been widely reported that the December 18 event was organised by civil servants in a WhatsApp group. But Gray is much likelier to find fault higher up the chain of command, senior figures say.

“I don’t think she would reasonably expect an office junior to carry the can for senior people who ended up attending any events,” a source said. “I don’t think she is looking for scapegoats in that sense. If somebody junior was asked to do something that will be reflected, but it will be reflected who asked them to do it.”

Whereas Case’s inquiry was thought to be fairly close to publication before he recused himself, Gray is conducting extensive new interviews. One ally said she was surprised by the limited nature of the work she inherited from Case.

Gray has emailed more than a dozen people, including Downing Street officials, special advisers and departed staff. Some in government expect Gray’s report to be tougher than Case’s would have been. “I think she has to now deliberately go harder than Case because she’s so publicly associated with it,” a source said.

Gray was expected to interview Case in his role as cabinet secretary when the alleged Downing Street parties took place, although he is not accused of having attended them. It is not clear whether Gray has yet done so.

Several people present at the December 18 event have said there was cheese and wine, music and that it went on until 2am. No 10 has denied that it was a Christmas party.

There are suggestions that up to seven lockdown-breaking gatherings took place in November and December 2020. Gray’s investigation will also examine a reported leaving event for a No 10 aide on November 27, which was said to have been attended by Boris Johnson, and a party at the Department for Education. Sajid Javid, the health secretary, has said that Gray will be free to investigate other events.

Downing Street staff were also photographed drinking in the No 10 garden during the first lockdown in May 2020. The government has insisted that it was a work meeting. The Cabinet Office declined to comment.

Wallpaper for Access?

Boris Johnson is facing fresh sleaze allegations after appearing to back a plan for a new “Great Exhibition” put forward by the Tory donor who funded his luxury flat redecorations. 

The prime minister told Lord Brownlow he was “on the great exhibition plan” in a WhatsApp message in which he described his Downing Street rooms as “a bit of a tip” – and pleaded for more money.

Two months later, the donor joined a meeting with the culture secretary “to discuss plans for Great Exhibition 2.0” – a showcase of British innovation later renamed “Festival UK” – a government document revealed.

The link was exposed after Mr Johnson’s ethics adviser demanded to know why WhatsApp exchanges were kept secret in his probe into the controversial £142,000 refurbishment.

In a new letter to the prime minister, Christopher Geidt attacked the failure to pass on the messages – blamed on a change of mobile phone – as “extraordinary”, warning public faith in government had been dented.

He continued to conclude there was no breach of the ministerial code, but did not fully exonerate Mr Johnson, ahead of a further possible inquiry by the parliamentary commissioner for standards.

Lord Geidt expressed “doubt” on whether he would have found that the prime minister “took steps to make the relevant declaration”, had he known the full story.

Opposition parties demanded to know what Mr Johnson promised about an exhibition – after Lord Brownlow’s WhatsApp reply pledged to get the flat funding “sorted ASAP” and added: “Thanks for thinking about GE2.”

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, alleged: “It appears that Lord Brownlow had access to the prime minister and culture secretary to discuss Great Exhibition 2 because he was paying for his luxury flat renovations.”

And Wendy Chamberlain, the Liberal Democrat chief whip, said: “It stinks of the worst kind of Conservative cronyism, with Boris Johnson seemingly happy to scratch his donor’s back to get his flat spruced up in return.”

Downing Street insisted the idea for “Great Exhibition 2” was “not taken forward” – arguing “Festival UK” was a different project entirely – but was unable to explain the differences between them.

Asked if the prime minister’s support was sought in exchange for “giving him some cash for the flat refurb”, the spokesperson replied: “No. This isn’t something that we’ve taken forward.”

It then emerged that, on 18 January last year, then culture secretary Oliver Dowden met with Lord Brownlow and Royal Albert Hall bosses “to discuss plans for Great Exhibition 2.0”.

Ms Rayner added: “No one should be able to buy access or exchange wallpaper for festivals. Boris Johnson has serious questions to answer.”

The new controversy comes on top of a stinging rebuke delivered by Lord Geidt for the failure to hand over the messages for his inquiry, which concluded in May last year.

No 10 admitted officials failed to take up Lord Brownlow’s offer to provide “all the material”, arguing it feared compromising a parallel probe by the Electoral Commission.

In his letter to his adviser, Mr Johnson agreed it was not “acceptable” that the Cabinet Office “at the very least did not inform you of the position they had taken”.

He offered a “humble and sincere apology” for what happened – but insisted he did not recall asking Lord Brownlow for the funds for the lavish refit of the No 11 flat.

Interviewed at a vaccination centre, the prime minister was asked if he expected people to believe he had forgotten to disclose key evidence simply because it was no longer stored on his phone.

“I followed the ministerial guidance at all times – and yes,” he replied, declining to expand on what happened.

The released messages revealed he told the donor: “Parts of our flat are still a bit of a tip and am keen to allow Lulu Lytle to get on with it,” referring to the designer whose wallpaper sells at more than £800 a roll.

Lord Brownlow funded the redecorations, as attempts to set up a blind trust faltered, before Mr Johnson finally settled the bill – standing at £112,000, with £30,000 met by the taxpayer.

The controversy was reignited when last month’s Electoral Commission report revealed the prime minister personally asked the peer for more funds, in November 2020.

Yet he told Lord Geidt that he knew nothing about the way the work was being funded until three months later, triggering accusations that the adviser was misled.

In his letter to his watchdog, sent on 21 December, Mr Johnson blamed replacing his phone number due to “security issues” – which meant he “did not have access to my previous device and did not recall the message exchange”.

Strange times – JRM could even be right for once

I, For One, Welcome Our New Rees-Mogg Overlords

By Stephen Bush, political editor New Statesman 

Good morning. How should the government respond to the cost of living? The FT  reveals that Jacob Rees-Mogg has told Boris Johnson that Rishi Sunak’s planned increase in national insurance should be shelved due to the inflationary pressures facing households – while yesterday in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson faced not-so-subtle calls from his own side to scrap green levies on energy bills and to prioritise the United Kingdom’s energy security.

Johnson’s preferred approach is to invest in renewable energy and in more nuclear power stations – rather than accede to the demand of some of his backbenches and in his Cabinet that the UK end its moratorium on fracking. Sunak is widely believed to have doubts about the government’s net zero strategy: but his aversion to further borrowing puts him at odds with the low-tax Conservatives who ought to be his closest natural allies. (It’s also true to say that most in the Cabinet think that the government should be willing to borrow more in order to avoid immediate tax rises.)

One thing that Rees-Mogg is surely right about: the combination of price increases and tax rises in April look like a perfect storm to make the 2022 local elections a very painful time for the country, and therefore a very painful set of contests for the Tory party, and of course, a painful time for Boris Johnson personally.

One advantage that Liz Truss has over Sunak in the leadership election we’re all pretending isn’t underway is that as Foreign Secretary she has an opt-out from all that. She can use her Women and Equalities brief to wade in or out of domestic policy when it suits her (and it’s a sign of which of the possible successors to him that Johnson favours that she still retains the Equalities brief) but she doesn’t have to get bogged down.

But her and Sunak both share a weakness which is that they are, broadly, from the same bit of the Conservative party and they are fighting for the same set of votes. Truss is using the Equalities brief to signal to the right of the party that she is not just an economic liberal like them, but she is aligned with them on (some) social issues too. Given Priti Patel’s well-advertised difficulties at the Home Office, there isn’t really an alternative candidate on the right of the party at the moment.

Except, of course, if Rees-Mogg’s willingness to intervene on difficult issues like tax-and-spend means that he emerges as the most authentic hope for the party’s right flank. And that’s another looming problem for Boris Johnson: his political weakness means that everyone in the Cabinet will, increasingly, be thinking not of how best to advance under him, but after him.

Jupp, stand to attention while you’re counted!

[Just dream of “fizz with Liz” – Owl]

Boris Johnson forced MPs to show up in parliament to make it look like his support is more solid than it is, sources claim.

Catherine Neilan

  • Conservative MPs were ordered to attend parliament to vote on an unremarkable piece of UK legislation.
  • But after attending prime minister’s questions, the order was dropped — leading some to suspect it was a ruse.
  • Some MPs told Insider it left them feeling used.

Some of Boris Johnson’s own MPs told Insider they were “dragged” into parliament today in a ruse to make it look like the UK prime minister is in full command of his party when in fact his grip over them is slipping.

Conservative backbenchers were strongly encouraged to attend the first session of prime minister’s questions (PMQs) of the year. MPs were also told that party whips had ordered a three-line whip on a vote at 10 p.m. on January 5. Such a measure is usually reserved for controversial votes, meaning they must vote unless there are exceptional circumstances. 

It was the first time lawmakers have gathered since Johnson’s Conservatives lost the safe seat of North Shropshire, following a slew of headlines about senior Tories failing to follow pandemic rules they required the rest of the country to obey.

The constituency, previously represented by Owen Paterson and other Conservative MPs dating back to the 1830s, was lost to the Liberal Democrats in one of the biggest political upsets of living memory. Paterson was forced to resign after it was reported he breached parliamentary rules while acting as a paid lobbyist for the healthcare company Randox, which won roughly £490 million in no-bid contracts from the government in 2020.

Over the Christmas break, successive polls suggested Johnson’s popularity continued to decline amid further allegations that he and members of his government held parties in Downing Street in 2020 after asking the rest of the country to cancel their Christmas gatherings to stop the spread of coronavirus.

A three-line whip is suddenly dropped

While it is not unusual for a sitting government to order an en masse demonstration of solidarity, the fact that some Conservatives complained about it afterwards demonstrated the fragility of Johnson’s support among some members of his own party.

This afternoon saw standing-room-only at PMQs in the House of Commons as Johnson was challenged by Labour party deputy leader Angela Rayner on the rising cost of living. This was followed immediately afterwards by the prime minister giving an update on Covid-19 to a packed Commons chamber.

Shortly afterwards, the three-line whip on the otherwise unremarkable public sector pensions and judicial offices bill was dropped. 

Angry MPs told Insider there was no reason for the original order. One suggested it was because “they [Number 10] wanted us all here for PMQs and the statement”.

‘A sure sign of a PM in trouble’

But the Tory politician claimed the move had provoked suspicions among colleagues that they had been used. “Not a good one for morale at the start of the year,” he said. 

One former minister also told Insider the plan had backfired, saying: “They dragged us in just to sit behind him at PMQs … it has upset a number of the 2019 intake [new MPs who won seats in the last election]. The mood in the tea room is not good.”

Asked if they thought it was a ruse, one MP replied: “exactly that.”

Another added: “We were all strongly encouraged to be in for PMQs — a sure sign of a PM in trouble.”

Number 10 was contacted for a comment but did not immediately respond.