The whole system of agri-environment schemes is under “tremendous strain” due to “shambolic” administration by government agencies and it is leaving farmers out of pocket, the Tenant Farmers Association (TFA) said.
Despite assurances from Environment Secretary Michael Gove that clear targets had been set to pay farmers for work they have already carried out, the TFA said many of its members had reported being given no indication of when their payments will be made.
George Dunn, the TFA’s chief executive, said farmers welcome working with the Government to deliver landscape and biodiversity gains but warned: “That partnership is now been placed under tremendous strain due to the shambolic way that Natural England and the RPA are administering schemes currently.”
Some 14,000 historic Environmental Stewardship payments remain outstanding and around 8,000 Countryside Stewardship payments for 2018 await processing, and many farmers are losing patience, Mr Dunn said.
“People are trying to run businesses and are working to tight budgets and cash flows,” he said.
“It is particularly galling when Defra talks about the need for farmers to enhance their productivity when its own agencies are unable to fulfil contractual requirements for payments.
“It is especially important for tenant farmers to be paid on time given the absolute requirement upon them to make regular rent payments to their landlords.”
The TFA said tenants had received emails from the RPA apologising for the delays but offering no guidance as to when payments will be made.
“It is alarming that farmers who have kept their side of the bargain to deliver the management requirements of these schemes are now out of pocket,” Mr Dunn said.
“The Government will have to conduct a major exercise to restore confidence in agri-environment schemes, particularly as we move to a more public payments for public goods basis for future policy.”
Tenant farmer and Yorkshire Post columnist, Jill Thorp, who farms at Stott Hall Farm on land rented from Yorkshire Water alongside the M62 in West Yorkshire, is among those affected.
She said: “As part of an Environmental Stewardship scheme we are paid to remove sheep off the moor and we have. We are meant to get paid for this every six months but the last time we were paid was in March last year. Now we’ve been told we may not get paid until next year.
“It’s absolutely crippling hill farms. As part of entering into the scheme we’ve invested a lot of money in fencing and walling as well as reducing stock numbers, and we are having to ask for delays in paying rent. We’ve removed our stock so we don’t have the numbers to sell either.”
Farm help charity, The Farming Community Network, is working with the Rural Payments Agency to intervene in delayed farm support payment cases involving “extreme financial hardship”.
Sam Conway, the charity’s communications manager, said: “When a farmer seeks our help and calls our helpline, they will be greeted by volunteers who can apply great understanding to their situation, and they will try to help get the money they are owed out to them as soon as possible.”
A spokesman for the Rural Payments Agency said it understands how important agri-environment payments are to farmers and land managers, and so it was “focused on getting money into back accounts as soon as possible”.
The spokesman added: “We acknowledge that performance on stewardship schemes hasn’t been good enough but we are working hard to simplify the administration of the scheme as far as possible under the current EU system, by streamlining processes, making changes to IT systems and boosting workforce to speed up processing.”
And at the annual National Farmers’ Union conference last month, Mr Gove said the Government had to “do better” in the delivery of countryside and environmental stewardship payments, saying: “They are still in a mess, the consequence partly of historic IT procurement decisions and the split responsibility for scheme administration between Natural England and the RPA.”
Mr Gove added that the “rigidities” of EU rule-making made delivering payments more difficult but that Defra does take responsibility for its share of the errors, why it had moved the administration of agri-environment schemes from Natural England to the RPA last October.
He said the Government was committed to making payments to 95 per cent of 2018 Countryside Stewardship customers by March 31.
Bridging payments worth a total of up to £28m will be paid out in early April and Mr Gove expects 95 per cent of Countryside Stewardship final payments to have been made by the end of July.
He admitted “there is still more to do” on Environmental Stewardship and that the focus “is firmly on making operational improvements” but that the Government expects to complete 95 per cent of final 2017 scheme payments by the end of July.
The remaining 18,000 Environmental Stewardship agreements are being handled by the RPA.
The Government has confirmed that all eligible farm payment schemes will be funded this year, regardless of the outcome of Brexit.
The claims window for farmers’ next Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Stewardship payments – and the window for the next round of Basic Payment Scheme applications – opened this week and runs until May 15.