This is a good week to start a revolution. With Brexit now on the brink of deal or no deal, Britain could yet retreat behind a wall of tariffs and protectionism. But if a free-trade deal is done and borders stay open, the way is clear for British agriculture to be transformed utterly. Today a seven-year transition plan has been announced by the environment secretary, George Eustice. It switches the money, currently GBP2.4bn a year, pumped into farm support from merely subsidising an industry to safeguarding the countryside and supporting good food and animal welfare. As the plan goes out to consultation, it will face a hundred reservations, but freed from the EU’s longstanding, anti-conservation agricultural policy it is emphatically in the right direction.
Within a decade, taxpayers will stop paying farmers on the size of their farms, now roughly GBP233 per hectare and comprising a third of farm incomes. This has been a massive distortion in favour of rich landowners. By 2028 farms are expected, says Eustice, to be “sustainable businesses that do not need to rely on public subsidy”. But lest that leads to arable degradation and the erosion of nature, and further exacerbates the climate crisis, the present subsidy is to be redirected to what the plan rightly called “public goods”.
What these are and how to assess their value will not be easy. Money is to go on disease eradication, nature protection, air and water quality, tree planting, robotics and biodiversity. Subsidies will help farm startups and business diversification. How they will also be spent on “enhanced beauty and heritage” is a mystery, but a welcome one. The transition will be painful and doubtless bitterly argued, but by 2025 two-thirds of all subsidies are intended to have gone from acreage payments to public goods, and by 2028 all of them.
To encounter such sensible and public-spirited ambitions from a modern Whitehall is impressive. The green and farming lobbies have given the plan a cautious welcome. Its proposals tally with those of the progressive Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, which reported in July 2019. Equally impressive is the acknowledgment that the 72% of the UK’s land area currently being farmed is a source of pleasure and concern to the generality of British people, and should be safeguarded as such. This perception is wholly absent from last summer’s development white paper from the planning minister, Robert Jenrick, which seemed aimed at concreting over the 72% as soon as possible.
We must pray that Eustice stays in place to carry his plan into implementation. Its real proof will be in the eating. Britain’s oldest industry is about to face upheaval. Farmers are going to lose, or at least have redirected, much of their income in just a few years. Many will find it hard to adjust and will suffer the same fate as local publicans in the current government devastation of small businesses. Unlike publicans, farmers are at least being paid to change. So change they must.
Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist