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4 January 2018updated 07 Aug 2021 9:17pm

Will Brexit carpet Britain with wildflowers – or just make landowners richer?

Michael Gove pledged to make Brexit environmentally friendly in a speech to farmers. 

Michael Gove’s speech to today’s Oxford Farming Conference is an annual pilgrimage for all Defra Secretaries. But today, for the first time, the environment secretary is also addressing the Oxford Real Farming Conference – the green one, set up originally as an alternative to the one dominated by agribusiness and large landowners, but which has grown in both size and status to rival its conventional counterpart.

Gove’s break with tradition is yet another example of his transformation over the past six months from “shy green” to seemingly full-throated environmentalist. For months he has hinted at a greener system of farm subsidies post-Brexit, attacking the current Common Agricultural Policy on grounds that it “rewards [the] size of land-holding ahead of good environmental practice, and all too often puts resources in the hands of the already wealthy rather than into the common good of our shared natural environment.”

In Oxford today, Gove outlined his commitment to uphold high environmental and animal welfare standards in any new trade deals. Refreshingly, he recognises that a flourishing environment is the bedrock of a thriving and sustainable food and farming system, not a barrier to food production, and that improving public health is an important public good.

But the policies Gove has announced suggest the big landowners and the National Farmers Union still have his ear.

Britain will indeed set up a greener system of farm payments after Brexit, Gove states, moving “away from subsidies for inefficiency to public money for public goods.” This, as the Guardian has reported, could see more funding for species-rich flower meadows and habitat restoration – vital if we’re to reverse decades of decline: the number of farmland birds has halved since 1970. The environment secretary’s speech also recognises that public access to nature is a common good deserving of funding. So that could mean more money for rural cycle paths and upkeep of footpaths, which should please anyone who enjoys walking, cycling or riding in our beautiful countryside.

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Yet Gove’s announcements also confirm that wealthy landowners will continue to be subsidised for some years yet, with few strings attached – helping to prop up environmentally-damaging land management practices. The Basic Payments Scheme (BPS), which essentially rewards landowners for the amount of land they own, will keep going for longer than expected – for five years after Brexit until 2024, as the Times reports (and as confirmed in a Q&A session after Gove’s speech).

That means the taxpayer will keep on subsidising land-owning dukes (recipients of £8m in farm subsidies in 2016), billionaire Brexiteer James Dyson (who hoovered up £1.8m in 2016), and horseracing studs owned by Saudi princes (such as this one uncovered by Greenpeace). Worse still, Gove’s concession could see money keep flowing to grouse moor estates, which, as a Friends of the Earth investigation has shown, cover an area of England the size of greater London and are being supported by millions in subsidies annually. Intensive grouse moor management lies behind the precipitate decline in Hen Harriers, and by burning heather, desiccating peatland and denuding the uplands, may be worsening flooding downstream.

It would seem that overtures from the likes of Dyson – who has been lobbying hard to protect his farm subsidies – has convinced Gove to delay a little longer in reforming the current broken system. But the environment secretary has at least proposed to cap or reduce the largest BPS payments during the transition to a new system – something that is already done in other EU countries.

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Instead of continuing to line the pockets of wealthy landowners for longer, we need Gove to secure the money but divert it into new schemes that require all farmers to deliver public benefits like restoring and enhancing biodiversity, building healthy soils, mitigating climate change and supporting sustainable, healthy diets. Green farming practices should be the norm, not confined to niche pockets of the countryside.

Michael Gove’s enthusiasm for nature and apparent commitment to green policy is a refreshing change from a string of environment secretaries who did little to reform matters (or who, like Owen Paterson, were completely antithetical to environmentalism). But special interests die hard. Let’s hope Gove doesn’t listen too long to the pleadings of Dyson, dukes and grouse moor owners, and instead presses ahead with directing public money to repairing and restoring our battered environment.

Guy Shrubsole is a campaigner at Friends of the Earth. Follow him @guyshrubsole.