Defra is to transfer delivery of the Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme from Natural England to the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), Farmers Guardian has learnt.
The change has been made in order to simplify CS as far as possible within the current EU framework.
Natural England staff who worked on Environmental Stewardship and CS delivery will move to the RPA so their knowledge and expertise is maintained.
Here’s more on the news that Defra is shifting responsibility for delivering Countryside Stewardship from Natural England to the RPA. Let us know what you think! t.co/9QxNsIzVvT— Abi Kay (@FGAbiKay)
A Defra spokesman said: “Administration of CAP schemes in one organisation will provide a more joined-up service for staff and customers.”
Jonathan Baker, senior policy adviser at the CLA, welcomed the move.
He said: “Defra is listening to our calls for a change. The agri-environment system has become characterised by hideous complexity and unacceptable delays.
“The effect has been a dramatic drop-off in take-up of schemes and it is vital this is turned around.
“Our hope is these changes will lead to simplification and more user-friendly administration for the farmers and landowners in existing or future schemes.
In the past, Natural England has been heavily criticised for its poor delivery of agri-environment schemes, with some farmers vowing never to re-enter CS after having bad experiences.
But NFU deputy president Guy Smith warned many farmers will not be reassured to see delivery transferred to the RPA, which also has a dubious record when it comes to the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS).
Just before Christmas, a huge blunder on the part of the RPA forced farmers to pay for professional help in correcting the agency’s mapping errors.
“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”, said Mr Smith.
“It seems almost every day we have complaints from members of 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 judgment.
“In the future, we would like to see a basic level of service to include: getting agreement offers before agreement starts; having maps and field areas determined for the duration of the agreement; a return to payments to an autumn/spring cycle and clear and appropriate advice to help applicants and agreement holders.”