Delays to the Farming Recovery Fund have added to the misery caused by last year’s winter floods. Marie-Claire Kidd asks what went wrong.
Did the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) create a rod for its own back by including river bank repairs in the Farming Recovery Fund (FRF)? Could the scheme have been managed better? Could the next round make more provision for improving land to build resilience against flooding?
These questions are under discussion as the farming community and the RPA reflect on the scheme, which was designed to help farmers who were affected by flooding at the end of last year.
Last week the RPA announced it paid out £1 million in claims, though the NFU pointed out there was still £8m outstanding to farmers.
Sandy Brown, farm and environment consultant at Mitchells Land Agency, Cockermouth, has been flooded twice and worked for the RPA and Natural England.
She was at the post-flood Cumbrian Farm Flood Action Group meeting, alongside representatives from the Addington Fund, Cumbria Agricultural Chaplaincy, Farming Community Network, The Farmer Network, Federation of Cumbria Commoners, Forage Aid, Foundation for Common Land, NFU, Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution and Westmorland Agricultural Society. Also present was David Hunter, head of development for the RPA’s rural development directorate, who was helping to write the FRF rules.
Mrs Brown said: “The RPA did listen to farmers.
“However I was surprised when they agreed to cover river bank damage. This brought a new level of complexity to the scheme. The inclusion of river bank restoration has meant government agency consultations on a grand scale.
“Some grant agreement approvals had up to 10 special conditions. I did not expect this. River banks were not included in the debris removal scheme after the floods of 2009. But it has allowed farmers to repair their receding river banks.”
CLA North rural adviser Libby Bateman said river bank reinstatement was often major work, with costs exceeding the £20,000 claim capacity.
She said: “The FRF is an important scheme.
“At a time when farmers affected desperately needed support, the fund has provided the offer of financial help for crucial repair and prevention work.
“River bank work has been challenged by conflicting advice from the Environment Agency’s (EA) officers and a wider lack of resources to advise landowners. I understand there is only one geomorphologist in the north of England.
“Landowners simply want to put their stretch of river back to how it was before last winter’s flooding and be permitted to take measures to prevent it from happening again. However, the EA is bound by licence conditions which have been unworkable in these extreme circumstances, so this has created some challenges.
“The priority is to create greater flexibility in the timings for carrying out work so this can be better coordinated with claim submissions.”
Mrs Brown said: “All things considered, I believe it is an excellent scheme. Agreements are being issued later than expected, but farmers will make it work. Obviously people wanted to be moving the gravel sooner, but the RPA had too much to deal with.
“The main problem was the delay in applications being processed.”
David Hall, regional director at NFU north west, believes the excellent relationship built up between the Cumbrian Farm Flood Action Group (CFFAG) and the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) bodes well.
“What provisions are needed to ensure the RPA have suitable resources during a future emergency event?
“Members of the group had the chance to feed in practical issues which needed to be addressed in the north of England and ensure the fund made available in Somerset was not applied without looking at areas to improve,” he said.
“The use of standard cost, river bank restoration and extending the application window are examples of the changes made to the scheme.
“Members were frustrated by the time it took to get Natural England and the Environment Agency (EA) on site to ensure there were consistent views.
“We also felt EA were not helpful in producing timely guidance on how to submit a form for a consent, now EPR permit, which would be accepted and approved. This also led to delays in getting quotes for the work which needed to be undertaken. In the immediate period after the floods, the EA showed pragmatism in allowing emergency repairs without needing consent.
“Lessons can be learned to ensure it is used it is better next time than last. I hope there will not be the need for a FRF in the north of England for a number of years.”
Sandy Brown said: “There could have been more provision for betterment when repairing, for example relocation and replacement of bridges as well as resilience of tracks. Unfortunately work had to be like-for-like.
“However, the RPA did agree to allow post and wire fencing instead of netting. When it comes to betterment, we should be more forward-thinking.
“How can we improve the farmers’ land? How can we put it back so we do not have to do the same thing again in five years? The provision to repair rather than replace may have helped those who were able to restore fences and gates.
“I also believe other options should be made available to the worst affected farmers which adequately rewards them to leave the gravel where it lies. If floods are to occur more frequently, this has to be seriously looked at.”
The NFU agreed there could have been better provision for increasing resilience, but warned not to confuse betterment with resilience.
It said the RPA’s David Hunter agreed at the CFFAG meeting gates or fences could be moved to reduce risk of recurrence, if needed.
NFU environment policy officer Martin Rogers said: “Would this be the role of the RPA to pay for this, or the EA, akin to designated flood storage areas? No farmers we worked with ever mentioned this as a solution. They all wanted the gravel removed so they could carry on and farm.”
Sandy Brown, of Mitchells Land Agency, shares lessons learned.
Remember names. If you have a Government agency contact, value it. It is your ticket to success
Government agency staff. Get them on your side. They are only human and want to get back to their normal day job
Environment Agency. Contact them before undertaking emergency works and get them on-site where necessary. Consider getting professional advice before submitting a river works permit application
Red tape. Never underestimate the amount of it you will need to unravel
Stewardship schemes. Contact your land management adviser at Natural England immediately
Paperwork. Submit both derogation and force majeure forms within two weeks of the flood episode. You may need these if you are inspected or have to make a grant claim on damaged infrastructure previously funded by Natural England
Rural Payments Agency. Inform them of any land size or use changes using an RLE1 form
Photographs. Take plenty before, during and after the event
Resilience. Before you repair flood damaged land, think what if it happens again. Make fencing more resilient by using plain wire and 50 metre section breaks. When it comes to gravel deposition, consider whether to move it, as future grant funding may be in doubt
Be organised. Make a list of phone numbers before it happens again