Written evidence submitted by the Foundation for Common Land (ELM0031)


Environmental Land Management and the Agricultural Transition


Response to the Efra Committee’s Call for Evidence: Jan 2021


Thank you for allowing us to submit evidence to your Inquiry on Environmental Land Management and the Agricultural Transition. We would also be delighted to give oral evidence if that would be helpful.



The Foundation for Common Land is a Registered Charity, which works for the public benefit:  

       To conserve the cultural landscapes delivered by commoning and the management of common land

       To promote the conservation of the physical and natural environment by supporting the responsible and sustainable pastoral use of common land

       To conduct research into commoning and common land issues

       To educate the public about commoning and common land

For more information see www.foundationforcommonland.org.uk


Our response focuses on the impact of the proposed transition on common land, the 3900 active commoners who have rights on this land and the owners of commons. It is the farming and land management that they undertake that determine the future flows of public goods from commons.

Common Land (including the New Forest) extends to approximately 400,000 ha in England and is critical to the delivery of public goods. For instance, 21% of England’s SSSI area is registered common land and 12% of all Scheduled Ancient Monuments are on common land. When we consider Beauty and Engagement commons are critical as 39% of all Open Access land is common land and 82% of common land is in our National Landscapes.  

Crucial to enhancing both the cultural and natural heritage common land is to recognise that our natural scenery and flow of public goods is a product of a farming system - commoning. Without investing in the underpinning collaborative pastoral grazing system and its biocultural processes the future flow of multiple public benefits from common land risks further decline.


Julia Aglionby: Executive Director (England)

On behalf of the Foundation for Common Land

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

The phase out of Direct Payments is straightforward and will easily be achievable by 2027 being an arithmetical process that the Rural Payments Agency are capable of delivering on.

What is worrying is the high level of ambition for introducing ELM on common land compared with the low level of preparedness. Defra has been warned repeatedly of the need to give early and explicit consideration to planning ELM and SFI on common land but what we have found is the opposite; commons have been put into the too difficult box.

We engage continuously via ELM Engagement Group but whenever we raise issues around commons and tenants (many commoners are tenants) we are told that is detail to be addressed later. We have been informed this week that Defra have now appointed one person to focus on policy for commons which while welcome this is insufficient given the complexity of commons and they are coming without any prior knowledge of commons. We have offered training to Defra staff. 

The net result is that Direct Payments will be phased out on time but the full roll out of ELM to Common Land is likely to be delayed or risks being rolled out in a haphazard manner that will fail to deliver public goods or to keep farms viable. The hazards highlighted by the National Audit Officer in June 2019 seem as present now as then.

Any delay in ELM rollout will only increase the ‘planned’ gap in cash flow posing a real risk to hill farming businesses viability. There is a substantial risk of business failure among the 14,500 upland and commoning BPS claimants. See graph below of projected cash flow shortfall. Farmers will be left resorting to environmentally damaging behaviour to make ends meet.

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Aglionby, J (2020) Inaugural Professorial Lecture, Ambleside3


  1. 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?

We don’t know if SFI will be a viable support measure as the detail to make such an assessment is missing. Defra’s forward look for 2021 suggests some details will be released in March and more in the summer yet SFI 2022 is due to start just six months after that. This leaves insufficient time for iterative improvements in the scheme and none for farmers to plan forward stocking.

Outstanding Questions regarding SFI on commons are:

  1. Will common land be eligible for SFI?
  2. Will the SFI contract on commons be with individuals as with BPS or to the Association / Group as with CS / ES. What will the standards / prescriptions be for unenclosed grassland and commons?
  3. What will the payment rates be?
  4. How will SFI integrate with existing CS and ES schemes?
  5. How will minority interests be prevented from obstructing schemes on commons?
  6. How will SSSI consent be granted, and what if SSSI objects clash with other objectives?

We consider sufficient financial support is required to ensure all farms have the opportunity to make the changes needed to their businesses during transition. The Foundation for Common land considers that the natural and cultural heritage of common land will be at risk if SFI 2022 is not claimable on common land. 

We have repeatedly requested Defra model the impact of the ATP transition proposals on farm business types that are especially vulnerable to the withdrawal of BPS e.g. lowland and upland livestock farms which comprise 43,000 of our 85,000 BPS claimants. If such modelling has been undertaken then it is not being shared. We have no confidence that Defra have forecasted the impact of what their proposals on businesses or the environmental assets of our countryside. The risk of unintended consequences is high for nature, livelihoods and communities.

We would like to present two case studies to illustrate the challenges of transition:

Will is a National Trust tenant in the central Lake District, he sells his lamb direct to restaurants in Grasmere. His farm is in Stewardship but his Common isn’t in a Stewardship Scheme as the owner and one commoner objected to the terms. Will has told us the withdrawal of BPS will therefore have a disproportionate impact on his finances. His tenancy only has 7 years to run and so there is no sense in borrowing money to maintain his current income before ELM is introduced as he has no assurance that he will have increased future income to pay back a loan or that his tenancy agreement will be extended. The only way forward for him, his wife and two young children to tighten their belts. His wife already has her own bookkeeping business and they don’t have any holiday cottages / assets on the farm to diversify further.

Lyndsey is a commoner in the New Forest working with her husband and primary age twins - commoners in training. In addition to farming she works as a Forest Schools teacher and her husband works for the Forestry Commission. They are committed to delivery of public goods through their extensive grazing of cattle, ponies and pigs in the New Forest.  BPS is a significant income stream for them and the New Forest is already in Stewardship. The difficulty is there are only 24 hours in the day so further diversification requires stopping something they are already doing and that will mean a loss of income from that source. They currently do not know how they will fill the drop in income and more off farm work means less time looking after their stock in the New Forest. In addition to the financial stresses Lyndsey is also concerned about how ELM on their home farm will dovetail with the common and that set Standards will not cater for the intricate mosaic and small fields of their home farm.         

The Foundation for Common Land advocates that Defra designs transition funding to actively enable businesses to be viable in this period of change until ELM is fully rolled out. We suggest this means setting payments to maintain a floor in profits for the transition period of at least £12,000 for a livestock farm unit requiring 1 full time unit of labour. This is approximately ⅔ of the National Minimum Wage recognising most farmers have a house provided as part of their business. This transition funding could be conditional on participation in skills development such as mapping environmental assets on your holding, nutrient management, bookkeeping and an annual self-assessment of your business. This way we can both secure and enhance skills and capacity of commoning systems for the delivery of public goods and sustainable food supplies.


Without adequate financial support that we predict more damaging practices as individual businesses seek to fill the shortfall in funding given direct payments will be at least halved by 2024. If SFI 2022 is available on enclosed land but not on common land the problem will be exacerbated as commons are treated as room out of doors for livestock that cannot be held on enclosed land under new schemes.  


With regard SFI 2022 it is completely impractical to deliver collective schemes on commons by January 2022 when the transition scheme starts given Defra’s forward look timetable. We therefore recommend that SFI 2022 is paid through a declaration on the BPS for the years 2022, 2023 and 2024 in much the same way as the Hill Farm Allowance (HFA) was paid; i.e. a request for SFI 2022 is made via the BPS form with the option to confirm compliance with the scheme requirements.



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

Defra engages regularly with the Foundation for Common Land through our membership of the Defra ELM Engagement Group (EEG) whereby about 30 organisations are briefed on ELM design. We are delighted to be on this group. While there is a genuine desire for co-design by Defra unfortunately staff have not been able to fulfil their good intentions. ELM schemes have been designed behind closed doors then are presented (in part) to the EEG. For instance, critical information such as proposed payment rates is withheld so it is difficult to advise if a standard / prescription will be attractive or workable. Furthermore there is a lack of transparency so that it is difficult to gather feedback on proposals with limited information being released for wider circulation. 

With regard common land Defra has hosted one meeting with common land stakeholders regarding ELM design but no relevant information was presented as nothing has yet been drafted for commons. It was rather an information gathering exercise. At Defra’s suggestion and as part of our Defra funded T&T in January we drafted a ‘starter for ten’ set of SFI standards for Common Land but were told there was no capacity in Defra to discuss this until March though we hope new staff may bring this forward.


Much of the focus in Defra’s engagement has been the promise to keep things simple and reduce the amount of paperwork.  Complexity should not always be seen as a negative. Common land is legally complex and in the nature of the land management, this needs to be recognised and embraced along with the robust administrative governance this requires. ELM scheme outcomes should deliver substantial societal benefits, and this will include a degree of complexity. The problems of complexity can be overcome by timely advice and planning in most cases.


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

By recognising;

       People and in particular land managers and farmers as part of the landscape. ELM will be more attractive if there is a vision of a whole system approach rather than ELM merely being the sum of a range of interventions / actions. Land managers need to see a vision of how they fit in and what “good’ looks like, recognising there will be multiple “goods” as we seek diversity in management across our landscapes.

       70% of England is managed by farmers who will be seeking to integrate ELM with the production of food, another essential good for societal well-being though paid for at “the till” rather than by the public purse. Farmers engagement will be greater if they can envisage how ELM dovetails with sustainable food production.

       The ELM scheme will have higher take up and deliver better public goods if it reflects nature and culture as two sides of the same coin; encouraging both nature and culture to thrive will engage the farming community on this journey. For example, encouraging High Nature Value Farming systems on the home farm and on the common will secure many priority habitats e.g. hay meadows, semi-natural grassland, and moorland which are the product of intangible cultural heritage systems of commoning and are as much a heritage asset as a traditional farm building, a field boundary or an archaeological site.

       The stunning scenery and landscape of our National Landscapes, of which commons are at the core, is a product of man’s intervention / management of natural landscapes. These are biocultural processes and many public goods that ELM seeks to deliver are generated through biocultural heritage.

And more specifically on common land;

       The future of commoning depends on ELM schemes for the home farm and the common being compatible and making a workable whole. The whole will be greater than the sum of the parts if there is expressed clarity on what the overall vision is.

       Many commoners hold land on a patchwork of different tenure arrangements; from owner occupied and long term tenancies to short term tenancies and annual arrangements as well as their rights of common. If ELM is to be attractive and taken up at scale it must avoid prescriptive rules on length of management control will be major barriers to participation. Instead the ability to change the area in an agreement on an annual basis should be included.

       Commons agreements are by definition multi-partite so the ELM application and management process requires a formal and binding dispute resolution process to avoid minority interests unreasonably obstructing agreements and the delivery of public goods. 

       Income foregone plus costs is built upon a reductionist model that assumes a viable business exists in the first place and that ELM actions can be added to a suite of ongoing management. This assumption is not valid in the post Direct Payments world. Payments need to be sufficient to reflect the cost of securing not only the specific actions for a specific service but to secure management of the whole farm unit and farming and commoning systems that secure future delivery.  For instance the Defra funded T&T from the North York Moors concluded ELM payments need to be between 2 to 10 times current CS payments to secure the land management that underpins the ELM actions and public goods delivery. While the Secretary of State has committed to move away from income foregone plus costs so far there has been no information released to indicate the alternative approach. This is urgently required to build confidence and engagement.  

       Securing environmental agreements on common land has proved difficult and challenging in England as well as Wales.  A positive example of how new governance and positive sustainable change can occur on commons can be found in Wales in the Glastir scheme through the employment of Commons Development Officers (CCRI and Commons Vision CDO evaluation report 2012)

       More clarity is required about the options for and mechanisms to stack delivery of multiple public goods and blend different financial mechanisms particularly over a landscape scale and on land with multiple property interests such as commons.


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

Addressing the points raised in our responses to the other questions would go a long way to answering this question. In summary the following are prerequisites for success:


       Actively support land managers with appropriate financial measures and skills development to adapt and change during transition

       Use the transition period to support farmers, commoners and the owners of commons to understand and map their environmental and cultural assets and plan opportunities to enhance them and share knowledge.

       Acknowledge the funding gap of transition, model its impact and mitigate it where required.

       Develop a network of advisory bodies from vets, accountants and land agents to NGOs, farmer networks and discussion groups for knowledge transfer and support.

       Provide high quality tailored and paid for advice for each holding and every common before and during the agreement. With commons these must be independent facilitators with appropriate skills (Ingram et al 2020). Agreements usually take 12-18 months to conclude.

       Payment rates that reward the full cost of delivering a thriving natural and cultural heritage. Income foregone plus costs is not adequate.

       Design Schemes that allow for adaptive management during the course of the agreement

       The linking of commons and home farm agreements to ensure workability for land managers and to maximise public goods outcomes at a landscape scale

       Binding dispute resolution mechanisms for multi-partite agreements.

       Introduce compulsory self-assessment / monitoring to ELM to build and develop ownership and to monitor outcomes as on Forest of Dartmoor. Where farmers are involved in designing the monitoring results are improved.








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

       Previous schemes did not give any significant weight to cultural heritage, particularly the intangible farming systems, including commoning, that underpin the beauty and landscape of our countryside. Without considering the whole system we risk losing the mechanism that delivers the stream of each individual public good. We should also be celebrating the good that is and has been delivered and giving public recognition to schemes showing good practice and positive change.

       The framework set out in the Agriculture Act allows this to be remedied but this opportunity has not been acted on. Defra has shared the 1200 actions they propose paying for with the Foundation for Common Land but there are none that pay for the maintenance of farming systems or the beauty of our landscape.

       Advice and the role of advisors is critical. A range of advisors are involved in negotiating, documenting and managing agreements on commons. These include independent facilitators - maybe a consultant or land agent, Natural England advisors, local NGOs on specific aspects as well as a solicitor who is required to draft the Deed binding all parties to the Agreement with the RPA. It is also hugely beneficial to have continuity of personnel as this builds trust and improves outcomes. See our report Better Outcomes on Upland Commons and our word cloud of Attributes of Successful Management below.

       Agreements on Commons are different from those where there is a single person with management control of the land. This difference was not fully accounted for in scheme design previously and yet again we see commons being put into the too difficult box and schemes not commons proofed to account for multiple legal interests.

       Previous schemes had no effective binding system for dispute resolution between multiple parties on common land. The lack of this led to problems of imbalance of power and misuse of rights of veto by minority interests, both by owners and commoners and between landlords and tenants.


       On commons large sums of public money are handed over to non constituted Associations and Administrators many of whom have conflicts of interest. Previous and current schemes have little accountability to link delivery with action or eligibility. On principle this should not continue as it is poor use of public money. On practical grounds it can make for a wild west environment, an intolerable pressure on Association Officers and too often breeds toxic relations locally. This could be addressed by much tighter governance over use of scheme monies and accountability and a system for resolving disputes and breaches.


       We know that in many cases previous schemes did not deliver the environmental outcomes sought by the agreement. The lack of monitoring and regular engagement between Natural England and the agreement holder during the scheme was in part at fault but also the lack of a shared understanding and ownership of the outcomes was a barrier. These schemes need to be of sufficient duration to allow change in slow growing upland habitats but also subject to sufficiently regular reviews and co-learning of what is working and what isn’t. We recommend the principles of adaptive management are adopted and this extends to the need for flexible prescriptions that are place based.  


Fig: Attributes of Successful Management on Upland Commons



Some background reading

Aglionby, J (2020) Inaugural Lecture at University of Cumbria’s Centre for National Parks and Protected Areas on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvMt3a__F_4&t=402s

Aglionby J, and Morris, R (2015) Better Outcomes on Upland Commons. Foundation for Common Land

Brackenbury S, Short C and Lewis N (2012) ‘Doing things differently: Glastir Commons Land Element and the local action groups. An evaluation of the Commons Development Officer Role using the LEADER methodology’ Report to the Welsh Government, CCRI: Cheltenham http://www.ccri.ac.uk/glastir/

Dwyer et al (2007) Understanding and influencing positive behaviour change in farmers and land managers. Report to Defra

Ingram et al. (2020) Collaborative and incentives: what works for achieving social, environmental and economic outcomes at large spatial scales: Rapid Evidence Assessment. Report for Defra by CCRI and Exeter university

Mills et al. (2020) CSFF Phase 3 Evaluation. Report for Natural England by CCRI with Environment Systems and Land Use Consultants

Mills et al (2013) Farmer attitudes and evaluation of outcomes to on-farm environmental management. Report to Defra

Mills et al (2008) Evaluation of key factors that lead to successful agri-environmental co-operative schemes. Report to Welsh Assembly Government



              Foundation for Common Land