Landowners set out plan for improving ‘shambolic’ countryside stewardship scheme

Tim Breitmeyer, president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA).
Tim Breitmeyer, president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA).
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The “shambolic” administration of payments to farmers for carrying out environmental work puts the Government’s hopes of a ‘Green Brexit’ at risk, landowners have warned.

Unless immediate improvements are made to the current Countryside Stewardship scheme, devised by Whitehall in accordance with EU rules, farmers and land managers will lose confidence in agri-environment schemes altogether, the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) warned.

The Government has insisted it is “working hard” to improve the existing scheme, but the CLA wants greater urgency and has published a plan to make both existing and future schemes more attractive to applicants.

CLA president Tim Breitmeyer said he would be discussing the plan in detail with Whitehall policy officials.

“Farmers and land managers are rightly proud of their environmental delivery achieved with the support of agri-environment schemes,” Mr Breitmeyer said. “The basics of Countryside Stewardship are good and when it works it can benefit rural businesses and the environment.

“However, too many CLA members are telling us that the shambolic administration of the existing Countryside Stewardship is putting them off wanting to engage in any new scheme.”

He added: “Without improvements, there is a real risk that farmers and land managers will lose confidence in agri-environment schemes altogether, putting at risk the Government’s hopes of a Green Brexit.”

At present, it is the responsibility of Natural England to administer applications and payments under a countryside stewardship scheme designed by UK government to strict European Union rules.

Post-Brexit, the Government can design its own policies and Environment Secretary Michael Gove has stated his intention to increasingly link farming support payments to environmental gains.

Revisions to countryside stewardship cannot wait until then however, the CLA argued, as its improvement plan set out key asks between now and 2022 when a new countryside stewardship scheme is likely to begin.

Starting now, and until the UK leaves the EU, the CLA wants the backlog of delayed payments to land owners for environmental work to be cleared, and greater flexibility in measures designed to encourage tree planting.

After Brexit and until December 2020, the CLA wants land managers to be free to continue within existing Higher-Level Stewardship agreements, and for the UK to negotiate oversight of the scheme away from the EU post-2020 to ensure the UK does not face restrictions in what improvements it can make.

Before a new scheme follows, after 2020, the CLA calls for rolling start dates so that farmers and agencies cope with the administrative burden.

A spokesperson for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), said: “We’re working hard to simplify Countryside Stewardship as far as possible within the current EU framework to improve the experience for customers.

“As part of this, Defra will be moving the administration of Countryside Stewardship and Environmental Stewardship to the Rural Payments Agency. Administration of these schemes in one organisation will provide a better service for customers.”

Defra sought views to inform the design of a new agri-environment scheme earlier this year and said it will respond to the consultation in the coming months.