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”.
- The FT reports George Osborne’s pressure for the relaxation of visa regulations for Chinese tourists,
- a corporate delegation embarks on the `largest ever` British tourism mission to `seduce` Chinese big spenders,
- an £8m government campaign to treble the number of Chinese visitors to the UK over the next three years is announced by Jeremy Hunt, culture secretary
- and a Cumbrian hill farmer comments on a Countryfile programme which began by referring to Snowdonia as a ‘playground’, noting perhaps the only subject omitted from ‘Fantasy Island’ (Elliott & Atkinson):
“This is a gratuitous insult to the many generations who have managed to wrest a living from these hills and whose toil created and maintain the landscape, and who provide the nursery for the livestock that feed Britain . . . We are being led by a group of influential people pursuing an impossible ecological utopia . . . I have little patience with politicians, TV propagandists and ecological fantasies at the moment”.
A Cumbrian example
The ten year old ‘Wild Ennerdale’ scheme is described as a partnership between local people and organisations which – significantly – are now the primary landowners in the Ennerdale Valley:
- The National Trust (NT),
- The Forestry Commission (FC)
- United Utilities
- Natural England
Its website reports that farm tenants, local businesses, the YHA, local people and volunteers “have caught onto the excitement and vision” of this attempt to turn a landscape back into a wilderness.
There is however, a more solid dimension to this apparently idealistic preoccupation with play and fantasy: hard cash – with Chinese visitors making an average double ‘spend’.
In August, Business Report informed its readers: “The Travel & Tourism industry is expected to directly contribute £35.6 billion and almost 950,000 jobs to the British economy during 2012. When the wider economic impacts of the industry are taken into account, Travel & Tourism is forecast to contribute over £100 billion to the UK economy and generate 2.3 million jobs – or 1 in 13 of all jobs in the UK. World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC): figures from VisitBritain show that the average spend per visit of Chinese visitors to UK is £1677, compared to the average spend per visit from all countries of £563”.
The writer first focussed on this strategy and the political-corporate drive behind it in 2000-2001
Dismissive of agriculture and manufacturing, the New Scientist reported that farmers in Britain were given a new mission in 2002 by the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food: to switch from growing food to caring for the countryside – making tourism this country’s second best earner.
Agricultural heritage centres were built in rural areas and former industrial and mining areas were encouraged to turn to tourism for regional revitalisation and put manufacturing machinery in museums. Renewable energy proposals were often blocked, fearing adverse impacts on tourism.
An Act of Parliament set up Natural England to implement recommendations by Lord Haskins of Northern Foods – a large food corporation which produces pizza, biscuits, ready meals, sandwiches, salads and puddings and requires cheap imported food to keep costs down. In 2001 Christopher Haskins pinned his hopes for the Lake District on tourism and the trade generated by servicing this sector [his ready meals?], praising the scenic caravan and holiday park sector which “has ‘shown the way’ to the rest of the tourism and hospitality industry in terms of the sustainable development of the tourism product”.
Profit before people
Natural England’s decision to allow 14 houses to slip into the sea was declared illegal by a High Court judge. This quango had urged that when the cliffs had eroded its fossils would be exposed – no doubt to the lucrative gaze of tourists.
This organisation is now encouraging the reintroduction of predators such as the sea-eagle and lynx, because sea eagles, the lynx and beavers can generate interest and income from tourism – but at what cost to local people and agriculture?
Some Scots are resisting the reintroduction of beavers. In Estonia a single pair of beavers were released in the 1920s and there are now about 100,000 whose activities have caused roads and farms to be flooded. Ministers are warned that they would be liable for any damage done by beavers in Scotland.
Robin Page, chairman of the Countryside Restoration Trust, says that the proposal to reintroduce sea eagles in Norfolk is about tourism, public relations and money. Fifteen sea eagles were released in Scotland in August and sheep farmers claim that they have attacked their flocks. Crofters report that the sea-eagles have taken up to 200 lambs.
Natural England also regards wild boar as generators of interest and income from tourism but they are degrading pasture, upturning gardens, breaking fences, charging cattle and scaring dog-walkers and children. One repeatedly entered a primary school and was only shot by rangers after it became too aggressive. Advice is being sought from Germany where the problem is even more serious. See also the Scotsman.
Next – an update on the tourist-attracting policy of ‘rewilding’.
A few days ago a reader sent a link about miscanthus production for biofuel in this country on the website of the alarmingly misguided Natural England – a ‘public body’ largely funded by DEFRA.
Today the FT reports that the UN has called for an immediate suspension of the production of government-mandated US ethanol – most of which is made from corn.
José Graziano da Silva, director-general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, warns that a US Congress-enacted mandate will divert around 40% of its corn into ethanol despite “huge damage” to the crop because of the worst drought in at least half a century. He foresees that, “With world prices of cereals rising, the competition between the food, feed and fuel sectors for crops … is likely to intensify”.
State governors, lawmakers, and a coalition of beef, pork, chicken and dairy producers have expressed alarm at surging prices for corn and members of the G20 have also voiced concern about the US ethanol policy. Corn, soyabean and wheat prices have surged between 50 and 30% since June after the US endured the hottest July since temperature records began 117 years ago. The US Midwest farmbelt has seen little rain for months.
Tom Vilsack, US agriculture secretary, argues that the US biofuel industry has reduced petrol prices and created jobs. As a former governor of Iowa, he warned that a reversal of the mandate would cause serious economic harm to the region. Un-named analysts add:
- such a suspension could have a lower impact on food prices than expected;
- US refiners need billions of gallons of ethanol to meet environmental specifications for their gasoline;
- ethanol is now a huge component of global energy supplies and the suspension of the mandate could push up oil prices.