If the RPA doesn’t start paying farmers on time, they won’t have confidence in the post-Brexit ELMS scheme – leaving it doomed to failure, says Lynette Steel, adviser at the Tenant Farmers Association (TFA).
The need for the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) to deliver seamless and timely payments for direct support schemes has never been more important.
However, eight months since the RPA took over control of stewardship schemes from Natural England, agreement holders are still experiencing unacceptable administration problems.
The certainty of timely payments during the transition into a post-Brexit world are crucial to ensure farm businesses are in a position to prepare themselves, both financially and strategically.
But the apparent lack of control over Countryside and Environmental Stewardship Schemes is currently doing nothing to bolster farmers’ and agreement holders’ faith in the RPA’s ability to deliver on its side of these agreements.
Participants in Environmental Stewardship schemes are currently suffering the worst maladministration, with payment processing being potluck, inspection reports taking over 18 months and communications with the delivery body almost impossible.
It is no wonder the industry has reservations about Defra’s ability to deliver the Environment Land Management Scheme (ELMS) planned to be rolled out in 2027.
ELMS is expected to deliver the Government’s ambitious 25-year Environment Plan, in which we as an industry have an absolute need to engage.
Cleaner air and water, sustainable use of natural resources, climate change mitigation and enhancing plants and wildlife are all areas the industry must tackle head on.
But Defra and wider Government must ensure agricultural businesses are still able to operate while they deliver these benefits.
This means ensuring seamless administration of what looks to be a broad-ranging, complex scheme.
Eighteen months into the design and planning of ELMS, the blueprint framework is still needing to be signed off and the start of trials and tests has been delayed.
However, taking time to get the schemes right is a good thing as the industry will need to have confidence in the final policy.
Prospective agreement holders will be watching the scheme’s development carefully as farms start making business planning decisions and looking at alternative income sources after BPS is phased out.
For businesses looking for tenancy opportunities, the need for further clarity around how ELMS will be delivered by agreement holders and the payment structure is more pressing, as they put together business plans for tenancy applications.
The need for the RPA to rapidly make vast improvements in the administration of current Countryside and Environmental Stewardship schemes is key to the uptake and success of ELMS.
They should start by opening communication with agreement holders to allow them to plan for continued short-falls in payment processing and using the knowledge and experience of in-house colleagues to expedite these delayed payments.
Lynette can be found tweeting at @LynetteSmale