Background to the report

While the UK remains a member of the EU, it takes part in the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the agricultural subsidies and rural development programmes agreed between the European Commission and member states of the EU.

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Following exit from the EU, the UK will no longer be part of CAP and the government is designing and implementing a new domestic agricultural policy and regulatory arrangements. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) is developing the Future Farming and Countryside Programme (the Programme) to carry out the government’s proposals in England.

Content and scope of the report

This report is a review of Defra’s early progress in implementing the Programme, based on our experience of reviewing programmes across government. The Programme represents a major policy initiative and a significant and wide-ranging change programme, with a shift away from a traditional farming industry towards a framework for environmental management. The purpose of this report is to outline the key aspects of that change process and the risks that need to be managed at this early stage. We focus on the feasibility of the Programme given the scale of the transformation proposed and the timescales set out in Defra’s critical path and, because Defra has a mixed track record of planning and implementing digital programmes, on its proposed approach to digital systems development.

Therefore, we are looking at:

  • the approach taken to the Programme to date, the objectives it is intended to meet, and the timetable against which Defra plans to deliver it (Part One); and
  • aspects of the Programme that we believe need early consideration and where we have identified risks to its successful delivery (Part Two).


Farming businesses operate on multi-year planning cycles, and so farmers have an understandable desire for predictability. The farming industry has been affected by Defra’s previous difficulties in introducing change successfully and the scale of the change Defra is now taking on is much greater.

Given a challenge of this scale, it is particularly important that Defra approaches the implementation of its new policy in a careful and considered way, and based on a realistic assessment of its capacity and resilience in the light of how absorbed it has been in planning for a no-deal exit from the EU. This assessment should be based on an understanding of past programmes, both within Defra and elsewhere. These suggest that even the 10-year timeline proposed for the Programme may be insufficient. It has not yet carried out adequate scenario planning to demonstrate the overall impact of its proposals on agriculture or the overall economy. It needs to take decisions at the right time so that activities can be carried out in the right sequence and with adequate preparation. If it does not, we have serious concerns that the Programme will move too quickly and that sensible precautions, information systems and planning will not be in place and farmers will be unable to prepare in the way they need.

“Defra is moving forward with a policy which is a radical departure from the CAP farm payment regime we have known for forty years. Because it is such a big change, from acreage-based direct payments to an environmental stewardship scheme, we have looked at Defra’s approach to implementing its policy at an early stage.

“We urge Defra to give itself time and space to fully test and evaluate the policy, and for comprehensive planning, to avoid any unintended consequences for the farming community, our environment or ability to feed ourselves.”

Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO


Publication details

Press release

View press release (5 Jun 2019)

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