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4 January 2017

What Andrea Leadsom hates about the countryside

Existential debates about hedges... and something else?

By Julia Rampen

Andrea Leadsom has pledged to get rid of “EU billboards littering the landscape” and other such “red tape” in a speech to farmers.

“No more 6 foot EU billboards littering the landscape. No more existential debates to determine what counts as a bush, a hedge, or a tree. And no more, ridiculous, bureaucratic three-crop rule,” she declared. “By cutting the red tape that comes out of Brussels, we will free our farmers to grow more, sell more and export more great British food.”

So now we’ve all established Leadsom doesn’t like debates about trees, what has she actually said? Or, more importantly, what hasn’t she said?

The short answer? Anything past 2020. 

While a promise to allow farmers to do whatever they want may go down well, the fact is they still need money to do it with. 

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Under the Common Agricultural Policy, between 2014 and 2020 the UK is to receive €25.1bn in Pillar 1 funding, and €2.6bn in Pillar 2 funding. As of 2014, roughly 69 per cent of that funding was in direct payments to farmers. 

Leadsom repeated the reassurance that farmers will receive “the same level of financial support” as they did under the EU until 2020, and Pillar 2 payments signed before leaving the EU will be “guaranteed for their lifetime”. 

But since the bulk of direct payments come under Pillar 1, this isn’t very reassuring. 

Oh, and there’s another thing. Critics of the Cap have argued for years it is wasteful and doesn’t actually encourage productivity. And some of the leading critics are based in – that’s right, you guessed it – the UK. 

According to Jeremy Franks in a June 2016 paper for the Centre for Rural Economy: “The UK has for a long time been in the forefront of the campaign to totally phase out direct payments.”

Defra, Leadsom’s department, concluded in the last round of reform negotiations that Cap payments “provide little value for money for the taxpayer”. 

So what did Leadsom promise? She said there will be a “domestic successor” to Cap and a system “fit for the 21st century”. And like the Cap critics of the past, she is extremely interested in productivity.

Leadsom was also one of the founders of Fresh Start, a group of Conservatives demanding EU reforms. In 2013, its manifesto included a demand to “phase out” Pillar 1 direct payments to farmers.

What solution did Fresh Start suggest to help farmers struggling with less financial subsidies? Well, that would be a “parallel reduction in red tape and regulation” – just like the one Leadsom has announced.