Written evidence submitted by The Federation of Cumbria Commoners (ELM0019)

The Federation of Cumbria Commoners established in 2003, is a hill farmer owned and managed membership organisation and represents around 500 hill farmers who graze common land (commoners) as part of their overall farm business. We are dedicated to campaigning for hill farming and commoning on order to safeguard commoning now and for future generations.

We are submitting this evidence as we are concerned that ELM may not be fit-for-purpose for common land. Furthermore the souring of relationships between commoners and Natural England staff as described below, means that Defra must regain commoners confidence if ELM is to be a success on commons.

Is the Government’s timeframe for the national pilot, full roll-out of ELM and phasing out direct payments by 2027 feasible?

We are not confident that ELM on common land will be fully rolled out by 2027. Commons agreements are multi-party agreement between commoners and owners, who’s interests in the management of the common may not align, and it takes on average 2 years to find a workable compromise that all parties can buy into.

ELM based on public good delivery is new and unfamiliar to all parties, so negotiations on what to deliver, how to deliver, who will be paid for delivery and how much etc., are very likely to take longer.

As a minimum we will need a commons-ready ELM going live by 2025. This seems a tall order.  We worry that like previous schemes (HLS, CS) commons will be retrofitted into ELM designed for sole occupancy, enclosed land.

Will the Sustainable Farming Incentive be a viable support measure for farmers before the full roll-out of ELM? Is further support required during the transition period?

This is difficult to answer as we don’t have the detail yet in terms of what is expected of farmers and payment rates. We know that hill farmers’ incomes are modest and support payment make up a significant proportion of overall Farm Business Income. We are concerned that SFI and other support measure will not replace BPS payment reductions in a timely manner, increasing the likelihood of financial hardship, poor mental health and other difficulties for hill farming families.

On commons there is a further challenge to SFI as a support measure. Currently farmers individually claim BPS using their common land entitlements. We have heard that Defra are considering paying SFI through Commoners’ Associations. These are usually voluntary, unincorporated organisations. They, and their agents (if they employ one) will need support and training to gear up to make a collective SFI claim and distribute the money back to commoners. This may not be possible in this short timescale. Equally will the Payment Agency need to be ready to deal with collective claims.

How effectively has Defra engaged with land managers and other stakeholders on the design of ELM, including on the transitional arrangements?

While Defra talks about co-design, we don’t see much at the grass roots level. Maybe co-design is not easy to achieve in a pandemic and lockdown. If so, Defra should be more honest and careful about their use of language. Currently what we are getting is managed and controlled design and managed and controlled consultation. Our views are sought on the near final design, but we have no idea whether they are taken on board as there is no feedback. It feels neither inclusive nor participative.

How can ELM be made an attractive business choice for farmers and land managers while effectively delivering its policy goals?

Defra Ministers and senior staff at Defra and Natural England need to be aware that trust is breaking down between commoners and NE staff over negotiating HLS extensions and new Higher Tier Countryside Stewardship schemes.  In a lot of cases, nine years into a HLS scheme commoners are being told for the first time their scheme is not delivering. Some will be offered a 1-year extension if they make substantial reductions in stocking rates, others are refused an extension and offered CS as an alternative. Neither are attractive business options. When challenged NE can rarely provide robust evidence for their decisions as the funding to adequately monitor schemes on common has not been forthcoming. NE staff have significant power over commoners without proper control or accountability. As a result, many commoners are increasingly frustrated and wary of working with Natural England.

Unless this is resolved the uptake of ELM on commons may be low. One way to resolve this, is to allow commoners to continue delivering their HLS scheme (however imperfect) until ELM is ready. Experience to date show that once commons drop out of schemes it is difficult to get them back into schemes.

How can the Government ensure that ELM agreements achieve their intended environmental outcomes, reduce bureaucratic burdens on farmers and deliver value for money?

Allow genuine co-design of local schemes based on a blending local practical knowledge and scientific knowledge. Make payments for actions and results, so environmental outcomes become a product for the farmer along with the livestock produced. Give farmers the freedom to deliver the required outputs using their own skills, experiences, and resources, as best fits their own farms. the common and their and circumstances. Keep the paperwork simple.

What lessons should be learned from the successes and failures of previous schemes paying for environmental outcomes?

Need great deal of patience, commitment and mutual respect on the part of all those involved. Sufficient resources for monitoring and evaluation. Pay attention to agricultural performance as well as environmental performance.

January 2021