Natural England – sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – is responsible for ensuring that England’s natural environment, including its land, freshwater and marine environments, geology and soils, are protected and improved.
The Farmers Guardian reported that in 2016 Natural England’s payment record was rated even worse than that of the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) as it also failed to deliver the required Countryside Stewardship payments for work already done.
Its performance did not improve in 2016; farmers were kept waiting for their first Countryside Stewardship payment. Though Natural England had pledged to make advance payments to 2016 mid-tier and higher-tier scheme holders between November 2016 and January 2017, with final payments due between January and June 2017, the NFU said exasperated members were calling the union demanding to know why their payments had not arrived. Farmers Weekly understood that ongoing delays in processing payments were because of problems with IT systems and processes at Defra.
A spokeswoman for Natural England declined to comment on the number of 2016 scheme payments already made.
FW added that farmers are yet to receive the first tranche of their 2017 payments for work done. Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee was scathing in its criticism of the RPA’s failure to distribute basic farm subsidies whilst requiring prompt applications from farmers (below left).
The extent of the Rural Payments Agency’s failure to pay farmers in England on time and in full is now clear. The RPA paid only 38% of farmers under the Basic Payment Scheme on 1 December 2015—first day of the payment window—compared with over 90% in previous years.
By the end of January this had risen to 76%, but at the end of March 2016 there were still 14,300 farmers (16%) who had not received any payment.
Government agencies should honour their own injunction: don’t leave it too late.
Over 10,000 farmers who had received a payment had not been paid in full. Two thirds of the additional payments made to these farmers were in excess of €1,000 and were first paid in September 2016, over 9 months after the first payment should have been received.
Farmers Weekly reported in February this year that the RPA boss was ‘blasted’ over farm payment delays and mapping.
At a NFU council meeting on 30th January at Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire, farmers took RPA’s chief executive Paul Caldwell to task over BPS payment delays. More than one in 10 farmers are still waiting, according to an NFU survey (see “Survey uncovers extent of delays” right) – although the RPA’s own statistics suggests that figure is nearer to one in five. NFU vice-president Guy Smith said: “When you look at current payment performance and the levels of outstanding issues from previous years you could describe the RPA as ‘just about managing’.
In March 2017, having received what Miles King described as a ‘verbal beating’ (Countryside Stewardship in front of the EFRA committee) Guy Thompson, Chief Operating Officer, left Natural England and now works for Wessex Water.
Natural England announced in the autumn that it would increase first tranche payments, traditionally paid in the autumn, from 50% to 75%, with the remaining 25% following later, reflecting payment reductions or penalties.
Missing payments have reduced cashflow, leading some to take out bank loans
According to farm leaders, many claimants are still waiting for that first payment, with some now being forced to take out bank loans because of their resulting cashflow difficulties. Max Sealy, NFU county delegate for Wiltshire and a consultant with the Farm Consultancy Group, said some farms were waiting for substantial sums of money for work which they had already completed.
“What we need is clarity on the situation and better communication,” he said. But a Natural England spokesperson declined to clarify how many payments were still outstanding and when farmers could expect to see them.
Farmers who have signed up to Countryside Stewardship, or still have an old Higher-Level or Entry-Level Stewardship agreement, have yet to receive the first tranche of their 2017 payments. Farmers Weekly reports that farmers want to know when they can expect to receive their agri-environment scheme payments, with ongoing delays leading to budgeting problems and growing resentment about the way the schemes are being managed.
The Farmers Guardian then reported that Defra is to transfer delivery of the Countryside (agri-environment) Stewardship scheme from Natural England to the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) – more confusion?
NFU Deputy President Guy Smith (right) said:
“The Countryside Stewardship scheme has been plagued by poor delivery from its launch in 2015 and the NFU has been raising these concerns from day one. It seems almost every day we have complaints from members about the muddled application process, wrong maps, moving goalposts, late start dates and delayed payments. All this has undermined farmer confidence in the schemes leading to very poor uptake. Plans to improve delivery have to be welcomed but until we see improved delivery we will withhold judgement.
“I know many farmers will not be reassured that delivery is moving from NE to the RPA, which is notorious among farmers as the organisation which comprehensively screwed up the payment of the as then new Basic Payment Scheme back in 2014. A highly complex new IT system was commissioned to enable farm payments to be moved online. 7 years later the system is still not working properly.
Conservationist Miles King went further, calling for the abolition of the Rural Payments Agency before the introduction of the government’s England Agriculture Policy which is expected to be published this spring: “We need a publicly-funded independent champion for nature (as Natural England was intended to be when it was set up) and a new body which will deliver the public goods for public money”.