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Farming & land use

June 2016 - June 2017

Summary

The government has guaranteed continued funding for farmers at current levels until the end of 2019, and continued funding for agri-environment agreements signed before Brexit. However, the government has failed to outline plans for future policy, and has not opened up public debate on the matter. The lack of clarity around devolution arrangements for agriculture policy also continues to hamper progress. On land use planning, the broad commitment to transpose EU law into domestic law via the Repeal Bill is positive, as this will include the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Directives, but future governance arrangements are unclear.

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Principles & strategies

The Great Repeal Bill White Paper fails to give a clear commitment to carrying across the general principles in the EU treaties that underpin land use policy, such as the goals of sustainable development and a high level of environmental protection, the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle.

The UK government is working on a 25 year plan for the environment, which is expected to sit alongside a 25 year food and farming plan. Together, these are expected to set out the direction for future land use policy after the UK leaves the EU. However, the publication of both plans has been beset with delays for more than a year and there is still no confirmed date. It remains unclear whether the plans would apply to England only, or across the whole of the UK.

The government has stated its intention to reshape agricultural support to deliver multiple benefits, including sustainable land management. However, it has not yet committed to core principles for delivery, such as a principle of payments for public goods, rather than historical or area-based payments.

Legislation

The government’s stated goal in the Great Repeal Bill White Paper is to “ensure that the whole body of existing EU environmental law continues to have effect in domestic law”. This broad commitment is reassuring, yet it is stated elsewhere that the bill will only convert EU law into domestic law “wherever practical and sensible”, and it is not yet clear whether this could create gaps in environmental protections. There is currently little clarity on how the government plans to address the challenge of devolution of agricultural policy during the process of transposition under the Repeal Bill.

The EIA and SEA Directives are transposed into UK law through secondary legislation. New statutory instruments were laid in May 2017 to transpose the requirements of the 2014 Amending EIA Directive.  This is encouraging, however, it is not clear who will check effective transposition nor how the changes will be effectively implemented after the UK leaves the EU.  

Capacity & funding

The government has confirmed that it will honour agri-environment agreements that are signed before the UK leaves the EU for the duration of the agreement, and that it will continue to support farmers at the current levels until the end of 2022. This short-term security is welcome as it allows time to plan the transition to a future policy. However, looking further forward, there is still no clarity around the scale or direction of future funding for agriculture or the environment. Furthermore, Defra is due to see a 15% reduction in its resource spending between 2015 and 2020. It is unclear whether it will be able to cope with any additional workload associated with the transposition of all EU rules to the UK, and then the monitoring of existing policy and creation of new policy. Most of this effort has happened at EU level thus far.

Funding cuts have also impacted on resources within statutory agencies and planning authorities. Measures to address this, for example, as set out in the Housing White Paper in England in May 2017, may help somewhat. However, resourcing is expected to remain an issue for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), in terms of transposition of all EU rules to UK and effectively implementing changes arising from the 2014 Amending EIA Directive.  

Governance

To date, the government has offered no real clarity in their thinking on whether future policy should be wholly devolved or not, and nor have they opened the debate for wider engagement. However, Defra minister George Eustice has said that “no powers currently in the hands of devolved governments will be taken away”. In the absence of clarity on the UK/devolved framework for future policy, and on the related issue of funding, more detailed policy development will be challenging.

The Great Repeal Bill White Paper does not make clear what, if any, domestic governance arrangements will be put in place to replace the European Court of Justice and the role it jointly plays with other EU institutions in providing the monitoring, oversight, accountability, and enforcement functions required to support the effective implementation of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) legislation.

Co-operation

There is little clarity about the shape of the UK’s future relationship with the EU on many issues that are pertinent to farming, land use and the environment. The most significant of these is the future trading relationship, and its implications for UK regulation and minimum standards. The UK’s future ability to contribute to and benefit from collaborations with EU partners focused on research, innovation or knowledge exchange is still uncertain. Co-operation on transboundary environmental impacts is expected to continue, as the UK has ratified the Espoo Convention.