The 2021 Countryside Stewardship Scheme application window is expected to open very soon. But SWFC’s Anna Heaton is frustrated by the length of time it takes to receive agreement paperwork
SWFC assisted many farmers for Countryside Stewardship (CS) Mid-Tier applications last year. All those agreements started on 1 January 2020. Yet none of these Mid Tiers actually have a finalised written agreement—just an automated email saying that it is hoped that one will be issued by the end of March 2020.
Not good enough
This is, of course, no great surprise. The same thing has happened over the last couple of years. But it simply isn’t good enough.
For starters, the process is competitive. Aside from certain options (like organic payments), farmers must meet the requirements of an agreement that will be chosen from many others. There is no guarantee that what they apply for will be granted—or even that an agreement will result from the application.
How many of you that applied last year for CS have actually got a signed, sealed written agreement in place for 1 January? We’d love to know.
We also know that the end of March may well not be the date by which agreements get issued. We’ve become used to having to accept and claim on agreements in a rush before 15 May each year. Our worst experience from two years ago was an agreement that wasn’t finalised until 11 months after it technically began. Can anyone top that?!
The “B” word
There’s also a twist that goes back to the “B” word. HM Treasury had stated that funding was guaranteed for the full life of CS agreements signed by 31 December 2020—even with a “no deal” Brexit.
But as no-one (as far as we are aware) has yet received a signed agreement, does that pledge still stand? Even in our previous worst-case scenarios, those who have an agreement that started 1 January 2020 will have a signed agreement by the end of this year. Sadly, the RPA’s track record does little to inspire confidence among those who are set to apply this year. If there are signed agreements in place by the end of this year for agreements that start 1 January 2021, it would be the first time this has been achieved since the Mid Tier scheme began.
We know that if farmers are late with information for RPA, the consequences can be very costly. Yet there seems to be little consequence if the RPA is unable to meet its own deadlines.
Still the best option
Of course, we don’t want to discourage anyone from applying for a Mid Tier agreement. It is still the best (and only) option for most; and the organic conversion payment delivered through Mid Tier is a valuable support to help offset the costs of transitioning to organic production. We’ve also assisted multiple farms over the years to get decent capital grants through Mid Tier, supporting valuable work that might otherwise have been unaffordable.
As we come to what could be the final year of applications for Mid Tier, some may say it’s too late to be complaining about scheme management. But for us, it’s the principle of the thing. We know that if farmers are late with information for RPA the consequences can be very costly. Yet there seems to be little consequence if the RPA is unable to meet its own deadlines.
When the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) is launched it will be an entirely new programme, but it is very likely the same organisation will be responsible for managing it. And they need to pull their socks up.
Get in touch if you’d like to find out more about our services for your farm.
Perhaps we should write blogs like this more often! Remarkably, we received the first Mid Tier agreement offer back from the RPA the day after writing this post. This meant that, within a month of the agreement starting, the paperwork had been issued. This would have been the best performance for Mid Tier agreements that we have ever seen. However …
The agreement in question was the simplest of all that we submitted on behalf of our clients. While the agreement includes both revenue and capital options, it is only for six fields. The agreement the RPA sent through had errors on three out of the six fields. They have completely removed one field from the agreement for no given reason; one field where an RPA Annex provides a reason for removing an option–but the option is still shown on the maps that are part of the agreement; and one field where an option that was not applied for (and which the field in question is not eligible for) has been put into the agreement.
A slight improvement but clearly still much to do…