Bridging payments worth more than £117m have been paid out to more than 3,200 farms in England but for many farmers they come too late to avoid the financial strain caused by prolonged wet weather that has only just abated.
According to Richard Wordsworth, the senior Basic Payment Scheme advisor at the National Farmers’ Union, it has been a “long hard winter” for many on farms and the timing of the part-payments in lieu of their full BPS payment which is still be processed is a cause of frustration.
The NFU had been calling for bridging payments since last year for those that the Rural Payments Agency were not going to be able to promptly pay their direct EU support payments to.
This week, the RPA announced that more than 96 per cent of farmers who signed up to receive the 2017 direct payments have now received their payments in full, meaning just four per cent of eligible farmers and landowners needed bridging payments.
Paul Caldwell, the RPA’s chief executive, said: “We have made solid progress in delivering payments to farmers this year, with more than 96 per cent now paid, and I am pleased so many of this final four per cent have now received their bridging payments.
“As always, there is more to do, and the RPA will continue working to make the final remaining payments. But now is also the time to get online to make sure your application for 2018 is in before the deadline closes in May.”
Reacting to the latest progress by the much-maligned government agency, the NFU’s Mr Wordsworth, said: “The NFU has been asking for bridging payments from last autumn onwards and our frustration is the timing of them, having to wait until this point in time when clearly farmers have been suffering very much this past month with the poor weather and impact this had had on ground conditions.
“The sun might be shining now but it has been a long hard winter in many respects for reasons out of farmers’ control.
“Obviously these payments put cash in cashflows and that’s quite critical. It gives a bit more financial certainty to people to plan their businesses.”
Asked how confident he was that those who had been paid bridging payments - worth 75 per cent of their full entitlement - would receive their full payments promptly, Mr Wordsworth told The Yorkshire Post: “The RPA has a regulatory requirement to pay 96 per cent of full payments before the end of June anyway.
“Farmers are waiting for that remaining element and their claimant statements as this is critical to ensure they understand what basis they have been paid on to ensure that their claim was suitably submitted and their payment is based on the correct basis.”
After years of inaccurate payments being processed under the current Common Agricultural Policy system, farmers need the confirmation that their 2017 payment was calculated correctly so that they can have confidence in their 2018 applications being correct so that these are not going to lead to more payment delays at the start of next year, he said.
“The RPA has given reassurances that there shouldn’t be many problems with the remaining BPS payments that they have to pay but as far as farmers are concerned, until they see the payments, they are going to think there is a problem.”
BPS payments are paid to farmers annually from the start of December and while the RPA has until the end of June to make the payments, every year there are farms that are made to wait for months into the new year before receiving theirs.
Farming groups insist that prompt payments are essential for cash flow and the longer into the winter months that farm businesses have to wait, the more likely they are to encounter cash flow problems due to the extra funds often needed to cover the likes of extra feed costs for livestock during periods of wintry weather.
After months of lobbying by agricultural industry groups, Farming Minister George Eustice announced in January that farmers without payments by the end of March will be offered a bridging payment in April worth 75 per cent of the value of their claim.
The remaining four per cent of farmers who have yet to receive their full entitlements require “more complex processing and therefore take longer to complete”, the RPA said.
Meanwhile, the Agency has received more than 18,000 BPS applications for the 2018 round.
The application window opened in March and a record 90 per cent of the applications made so far have been online, as farmers continue to make the switch from paper forms.
The application deadline for 2018 payments is May 15.
MORE FARMING NEWS NFU president Minette Batters urges police chiefs to act on rural crime