The BBC’s Countryfile program broadcast on 16th April, was filmed in Lincolnshire, one of the few areas of the UK with commercially sized farms with large, flat, rectangular fields. I was ecstatic to see them budding with green nascent food. Lincolnshire is one of the few areas in the UK that can compete with the Netherlands and Belgium in suppling food to British supermarkets. If George Eustace MP still believes that the UK can become self-sufficient in food production, then we are going to need a bigger Lincolnshire.
Unfortunately, the BBC doesn’t see it like that. They think Lincolnshire needs more wildlife habitats and so they were building one to attract hedgehogs right between a large field and a road! (Hopefully next week Countryfile will build a hedgehog tunnel under the road.) But it is not just Lincolnshire, Countryfile believes that the whole UK needs more wildlife habitats and opened the program by claiming that the UK’s wildlife is in ‘crisis’, that the UK is in the bottom 10% of countries across the world at protecting nature and that it is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world, all while showing pictures of Lincolnshire’s commercial farms that provide food for human habitation.
Countryfile hopes its viewers don’t know is that most of Southern England, and Wales, and Scotland, and Northern Ireland look more like Clarkson’s Farm than Lincolnshire – full of hills and hollows, hedgerows and copse, woodlands and wildlife habitats.
UK environment regulations and payments
And most of Britain is likely to remain so, as the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) actually pays UK farmers to protect the environment rather than expecting them to earn a living from merely producing food. DEFRA has several schemes in place, the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), the Countryside Stewardship program (CS), the England Woodland Creation Offer (EWCO) and Tree Health Pilot (THP). DEFRA justifies these payments to farmers as necessary for the UK to meet its legally binding environment targets and contribute to halting biodiversity loss by 2030. Countryfile doesn’t seem to know about the UK’s legally binding environment targets.
The government (actually UK taxpayers) pays British farmers:
- one-off grants of £22.97 per metre to create hedge rows and additional funds for hedge row management.
- £658 per hectare for in-field grass strips for pollinators who can’t make it across a large field. The government claim’s this also increases yields.
- £732 per hectare for sowing seed mix that provides food for birds in winter, apparently this also reduces the need for artificial fertiliser.
- £98 per hectare to low input upland grassland farmers for retaining grasses and wildflowers to provide shelter for invertebrates (slugs and snails) which will in turn attract ground nesting birds.
- £33.64 per square metre for improving drainage in an uncovered yard,
- £19.06 for each grip block in a drainage channel in order to rewet moorland and peatland habitats.
- £149 per hectare for creating ‘scrub’. Apparently, this not only provides habitats for birds it also restricts soil erosion and reduces downstream flooding. What worries me most about this program is that to be eligible the land must presently be arable or next to existing scrub or woodlands or be inhabited by a ‘target species’
- And up to £13,000 per hectare to create new woodland.
In case you are wondering, according to Defra’s Agriculture in the UK 2021, the average revenue from milling wheat in 2021 was £1,647 per hectare, while revenue from oats for animal feed was only £761, (38% and 35% higher, respectively, than in 2020). But that is revenue, not profit. After considering the cost of production, the financial incentive for farmers to plant trees or wildflowers or bird seed instead of wheat or oats is considerable. And there are many other UK environment payments besides the ones I have mentioned.
It is impossible to read the UK’s environment payment schedules and believe that the UK needs the EU to make its environment regulations. Yet, that is precisely what the BBC’s Countryfile program would like its viewers to believe.
Retained EU Laws
During their program on the 16th April, Countryfile stated that 80% of UK’s environment laws came from the EU, but now ‘hang in the balance’ and implied that these laws could ‘disappear’ because of the Retained EU Law Bill (REUL) presently going through parliament. That isn’t true. Any EU law that is important to the UK has been transposed into UK law. There is even a helpful government website where you can download a spreadsheet with the retained EU laws in question and see for yourself why our public service had completely forgotten about 2000 of them.
Many of these regulations have been repealed or amended, some simply so that the authority is now the relevant UK Secretary of State rather than an EU bureaucrat or department. In many cases only certain sections of a regulation will be disapplied. The spreadsheet explains that some regulations were only retained to ensure smooth functioning after Brexit and have since been replaced by a UK regulation.
Many of these EU regulations on the REUL list didn’t even apply to the whole of the United Kingdom in the first place, so it is hard for the BBC to claim that they are vital for preserving the environment if they were only ever applicable to England and Wales, or England and Scotland, or simply England, or only to Great Britain rather than being UK wide regulations.
Sorting on Environment regulations in the spreadsheet, I found:
- Some of the laws to be disapplied seem to be ludicrously bureaucratic, for example: EU No 363/2012; legislation description: ‘Sets out procedural rules for the recognition and withdrawal of recognition of monitoring organisations as provided for in Regulation (EU) No 995/2010 of the European Parliament and of the Council laying down the obligations of operators who place timber and timber products on the market.’
- Others have been replaced, such as (EU) 377/2014; legislation description: ‘Old regulation of the Copernicus Space Programme that has now been replaced as part of a new Space Regulation for the new MFF period (2021-2027).’
- While others are completely redundant now that the UK is outside the EU, such as regulation No 268/2010; that sets conditions for access by EC institutions and bodies to data sets and data services covered by the INSPIRE themes. If the UK wants to give the EU access to UK data, fine, but we don’t need a law requiring us to do so.
But the point is not whether we need to have a law on the UK statue books entitled: The Potatoes Originating in the Netherlands Regulations 1997, but why the BBC considers our own government and civil servants incapable of putting in place regulations protecting the habitats of Britain’s hedgehogs, otters, moles, rabbits, hares and badgers etc. Or even why a program called ‘Countryfile’ is unaware of the multiple UK regulations, schemes and payments, presently available to UK farmers specifically for protecting wildlife habitats.
Who is trying to block the bill?
Instead Countryfile interviewed the CEO of the Marine Conservation Society who claimed that REUL will allow UK laws to be changed behind closed doors, without parliamentary scrutiny nor the consultation of experts or the public and that our environment laws will never be able to be strengthened.
That isn’t my experience of the UK government. I find the process of changing regulation aggravatingly slow but extremely visible. The procedure can be easily viewed from the public gallery or on parliamentlive.tv. The progress of a bill can be followed on the parliamentary website. You can read the whole bill, the explanatory notes and all of the debates in Hansard. Very little happens in Westminster ‘behind closed doors’ or ‘without scrutiny’.
It is also a well-known governing principle that the current UK government cannot bind its successors so I do not understand why the CEO of the Marine Conservation Society believes that the UK’s environment laws could never be strengthened. The Countryfile interviewer didn’t question her about this nor how she believes removing unused EU regulations could weaken UK food safety and chemical standards.
Ironically, the CEO of Marine Conservation Society did claim that the Government is good at making media announcements but has failed to act on its promises. But getting rid of unnecessary EU regulations was one of the Government’s manifesto promises. The REUL bill is one manifesto promise that the government is trying to keep. It is vested interests and EU Rejoiners that are trying to stop it.
Some members of the House of Lords have written a letter to the Times complaining that these EU regulations will be removed by ministers without any scrutiny, although ironically many of the regulations would have been added to the UK statue book without any scrutiny, simply because they were EU regulations.
According to their Times letter, the unelected Lords plan to ‘speak up for democracy’ in the coming weeks by obstructing the 80 seat majority government’s manifesto pledge that: ‘Britain will take back control of its laws… end the supremacy of European law,… craft legislation and regulations that maintain high standards but which work best for the UK.’ The Prime Minister reiterated this commitment to the REUL Bill in his leadership campaign last year when he promised to shred the unnecessary EU legislation in his first hundred days in office.
Instead, his Secretary of State for Business and Trade, Kemi Badenoch, has had to reduce the number of regulations to be removed from the UK statue books from 3,700 to a mere 800 in an attempt to get the unelected Lords to pass the bill. The country appears to have taken back control from the EU only to hand control to the House of Lords.
Clearing out redundant regulation is somewhat like clearing out a wardrobe: every now and then it makes sense to clear out the clothes that no longer fit you or no longer suit your lifestyle. Giving space for new clothes that do. The REUL Bill is doing just that to our regulatory wardrobe. If our old regulations no longer fit us, then we should be replacing them with one that do. If our MP’s, civil servants or members of the House of Lords are incapable to doing this – then maybe they need to be replaced as well. But holding on to unsuitable regulations helps no one.
If you are in any doubt about the REUL bill, I urge you to review the spreadsheet of regulations to be abandoned. If you see one that hasn’t been replaced or amended but that you really believe the country should keep, then let your MP know, but I very much doubt that you will.