A rural legal expert has criticised ’seriously flawed’ EU proposals to dramatically alter farm subsidies which she says could significantly change the UK’s farming landscape.
The comments come from agricultural lawyer Sarah Baugh following recent speeches from the Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman and the country’s leading rural policy advisors. Ms Baugh has questioned the new Brussels-led scheme which she calls ’vastly bureaucratic’ and one that could complicate agricultural payments.
The new Direct Payments Scheme, proposed by the EU to begin in May 2014, seeks to make farmers work harder to qualify for European subsidies. Under the proposals, farmers will be forced to be far more environmentally friendly, qualify under strict new rules and agree to a number of other provisions.
Ms Baugh, a partner at Midland legal firm MFG Solicitors, commented: "The debate surrounding the new farming subsidy proposals is gathering pace but the details are making the farming community extremely nervous.
"The new system allows subsidy applications from only ’active farmers’ to whom the direct payments must represent at least five per cent of their receipts from non-agricultural income. However, that policy oddly risks excluding many farmers whom, although actively farming in any usual sense, have diversified into other businesses just to keep their heads above water.
"The vastly bureaucratic proposals also attempt to change the agricultural landscape through a compulsory ’greening’ provision. In short, this will mean to qualify for subsidy payments, any farmer with over three hectares of land not entirely used for grass, will be forced to a plant a minimum of three types of crop.
"Whilst that provision might tick the political box in terms of increased food production, it seems to give no thought to livestock farmers who naturally require an arable area to produce feed for their cattle but will certainly not wish for three unwanted crops to be imposed on them."
Ms Baugh continued: "Farmers are equally baffled to learn that only farm businesses who applied for subsidies in spring 2011 will be eligible under the new scheme.
"That leaves new entrants and young, future farmers exposed, partnerships which break up with potentially explosive decisions on who takes the single ’golden ticket’ and restricts the market for farmers wanting to retire and sell their land with the benefit of subsidies. That oversight seems to be down to a lack of understanding of basic farming practice and how farming transactions work." said Ms Baugh.
Earlier this month, Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said future farming subsidies should be focussed on ’public good’ and the ’landscape’, in addition to a basic rate of support.
Ms Baugh, a nationally respected commentator on legal farming matters, added: "I back Mrs Spelman’s calls to encourage more sustainable farming practices and accept that there have to be some rules imposed as to how applicants qualify. But as they stand the proposals are seriously flawed, unworkable and have complicated an already complex process whilst claiming to be a ’simplification’.
"The Brussels law makers have left too many stones unturned. That lack of detail has left thousands of this country’s farmers anxious about a framework which promised so much but looks like delivering something very different."
Every year in the UK over £2 billion in subsidies is distributed to farmers.