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'A farmer': Margaret Beckett's contribution to the countryside

A hill farmer reflects on the farcical Rural Payments Agency

Hill_sheep_1 The stress of living under the new single farm payment regime has been akin to the onset of foot and mouth.  The latter was described as an act of God which would imply that the former was an act of Margaret Beckett.  Common sense seemed to prevail over insanity in the outer regions of the United Kingdom but the English region became a concoction from every interested stakeholder other than farmers themselves. 

The 'hybrid' system adopted by the English region could be described as nothing other than a total fiasco.  According to Defra there have been numerous unforeseen difficulties.  Most rural practitioners with an ounce of wisdom could have foreseen the majority of these difficulties.  Defra have constantly been warned of problems by the many interested parties but has refused to listen and ploughed on regardless with their gold-plated policy.

The greatest mistake made by Defra was to try and do too much in a short time to establish the 'hybrid' single farm payment regime.  This scheme which only applies to the English region is made up from an historical value of each farm (i.e. the combination of sheep premium, suckler cow premium, beef special premium, slaughter premium and arable area payments which was allocated to each holding in the financial year 2001/2002) plus a value for each hectare farmed by each farmer.  On top of this the farms were then split into three categories, English moorland, English Severely Disadvantaged Area, and English non-Severely disadvantaged.  To make matters worse they then embarked on a mapping scheme to measure the size of every single field in England, from the smallest pony paddocks to the largest open fell in the uplands.

The human resources department of Defra were advised to reduce staff by 1000 at a time of change unprecedented within the agricultural and environmental departments.  While this upheaval was going on, two new schemes were introduced to try and encourage a more environmental approach to farming.  The entry-level environmental scheme and high-level stewardship scheme were introduced by the Rural Development Service.  In the midst of this turmoil the management at Defra decided to scrap the Rural Development Service, English Nature and Countryside Agency and form a new agency called Natural England.  I hope you're still with me... I'm a farmer and still get lost trying to get my head round these changes.

Now for the practical implementation.  Every field on my farm has changed size during the mapping exercise.  Some of my fields disappeared and I gained some of my neighbour’s fields, I also gained fields around North Yorkshire which would have been very nice if it were true, but I suspect some farmer somewhere will be disappointed that half of his fields were missing from his mapping process.  One of my fields appeared to be six small paddocks from the mapping satellite so I received six 10 digit field numbers for one small parcel of land.  One field was split down the middle and it took me 18 months of haggling with RPA officials to prove the other half of the field was mine.

Because my farm lies between two different categories of English Moorland and English Severely Disadvantaged Area I had a further problem.  Someone with a red pen in Reading decided he could tell the difference between Moorland and SDA from an ordnance survey map.  I had to then employ an ecologist to do a thorough survey to convince our man in Reading that indeed some of my land was SDA and not Moorland.  It is important to have your land categorised correctly as the payments per hectare vary wildly from £22 per hectare for moorland and £160 per hectare for SDA.  If I had land that was non-SDA I then could have claimed up to £190 per hectare.

I decided to apply to put the whole farm into the countryside stewardship scheme; it is the type of farm that the RDS were looking for as it has been relatively untouched by fertilisers and chemicals for generations.  Unfortunately because the application was a pre-populated form I had to have all my maps in place and correct before an application could be made.  This took 18 months of constant communication with RPA staff in various offices.  The map chase took me from Northallerton to Newcastle, back down to Leeds, and eventually to our friends in Reading.  Reading then told me that the mapping process had been contracted out to a private firm and I was not allowed to contact them but to wait patiently for the mapping process to take its course.  After the mapping process had 'taken its course' we were then informed that the high-level stewardship scheme was short funded and a successful application would be at best a long shot. 

As it stands my 2005 single farm payment has still not been totally completed.  We have been told that our 2006 application will not be validated until June 2007 with a possible part payment in March 2007 (I'm not holding my breath on that one).  My HFA payment (I've not even explained this scheme to you) for 2005 which was meant to be paid in March 2006 but has still not arrived.  The entry-level scheme which was promoted widely at great expense is now run out of money and new applications will be filed pending further funding.

I've got to say that RPA staff have usually been as helpful as they can but when two thousand new recruits have been taken on - on a temporary basis with very little knowledge of past or present schemes - it is incredibly difficult for them to understand what’s going on.  Unfortunately a placement at Defra is seen by many university graduates as a stopgap job until a real one comes along.  This only compounds the difficulties that farmers face trying to find someone that has any idea at all about what is going on with his case.

Apparently at one side of the fence if you screw-up really badly you get promoted to the third highest job in government or get an unpaid holiday of £120,000 plus £20,000 in bonuses.  If you were on the other side of the fence and you make one small mistake you get fined a percentage of your single farm payment.  Oh yes - there is the little matter of the farm having to be cross-compliant before I can even claim my single farm payment.  This little wheeze was introduced by Defra to catch hard-working farmers out by sending lots of little booklets, with lots of little print to try and confuse them even further as to which way is up.

I am only just still sane, and you have had only a short abbreviation of the last eighteen months on the trials and tribulations of a hill farmer.

Related link: Adam Rickitt on 'The farce that is the Rural Payments Agency'.


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