Natural England has announced a number changes to the Countryside Stewardship Scheme intended as it was branded an ‘unmitigated disaster’ by NFU council members.
The agency’s chief operating officer Guy Thompson and Defra deputy director Mike Rowe were honest about the scheme’s failings when they addressed the council on Tuesday (January 19).
Mr Rowe said CSS, which has been vigorously defended by farming Minister George Eustice, had been a ‘casualty’ of Defra’s focus on the Basic Payment Scheme, which had been the Department’s ‘political priority’ in 2015.
Mr Thompson admitted the £3.1 billion scheme had endured a ‘wobbly start’.
He maintained the overall scheme design was ‘fit-for-purpose’, given the demands of the EU regulatory framework it had to fit within - he stressed many of the scheme requirements that farmers have found so unpalatable were imposed at EU level.
The scheme was designed to provide better-value-for-money for the taxpayer and it was always going to be ’more targeted’ on agreements that delivered maximum environmental benefit. Take-up was always going to lower than Environmental Stewardship.
But he acknowledged the way it had been implemented had not been fit-for purpose and had been, at times, ‘downright poor’. As a result the scheme had not attracted the numbers initially hoped for, he admitted.
Environmental Stewardship payments
With this in mind, Defra and Natural England have been working with industry representatives on improvements for 2016 and Mr Thompson outlined changes agreed so far.
These include a longer application period, clearer and earlier guidance, an online options tool and new hedgerow and boundary grants.
He said: “I am not expecting 2016 to be perfect but I can promise improvements year on year.”
'Enhanced' guidance will be issued earlier and is being reviewed to ensure it is 'as clear and as farmer friendly as possible'.
Overly-complex guidance extending to 800 pages was one of the biggest criticisms of the scheme in 2015.
Online options tool
In 2016 there will be an options selection tool for the Mid-Tier scheme available through the Rural Payments service.
It will allow farmers to look at what options score most highly on their holding to help prepare their application.
The intention is to open the 'whole scheme for business' on March 1.
This was a response that the summer application window, clashing with harvest, did not give farmers enough to prepare proper applications.
Hedgerow and Boundaries grants
Opening for applications from early February until April 30, these new grants, worth up to £5,000 - and £5 million a year in total - will be available for works on boundaries and hedgerows for wildlife or landscape.
The work can be completed flexibly over two years and must be maintained for five.
The grants will be available only for people who are not in multi-annual CSS, Environmental Stewardship and Woodland Grant schemes. But applicants can apply for CSS agreements starting in 2017.
The work addresses another big complaint about CSS - the lack of field boundary options that were the cornerstone of many Environmental Stewardship agreements.
But farmers demanded further fundamental change in order to restore fragile confidence in CSS and avert a mass exodus from agri-environment schemes.
NFU council members heaped criticism on various aspects of the scheme, including its overall complexity manifested in the 800 pages of guidance, the timing and administration of the application process, burdensome requirements, including excessive record-keeping and the lack of relevant options, particularly for grassland farmers.
Farmers also complained about delay ES payments, while NFU vice president Guy Smith asked for clear figures on the number of agreements offered and accepted so far.
One of the few council members who had applied for CSS, Ian Waller, from Buckinghamshire described the situation as ‘diabolical’.
“To say it has been a traumatic roller coaster has been a major understatement in my case.”
Even his own Natural England adviser of five years could not grasp the scheme rules, while farming colleagues who previously had ‘good ELS options’ were ‘running a mile’ from CSS.
Cornwall farmer Martin Howlett said ‘27 years of success will be thrown out of the window unless we stop penalising the environmental champions’, something former EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos had pledged would not happen.
Lancashire farmer Thomas Binns said the scheme was an ‘absolute disgrace’ and highlighted farmer ‘mistrust’ in it, particularly regarding the burdensome record-keeping requirements.
NFU uplands chairman Robin Milton described it as an ‘unmitigated disaster’, with grassland ‘largely abandoned’ and hill farmers ‘actively excluded from the available options’.
Many feared it would actually cost them money to join the scheme, he said.
He warned, unless the 800 pages of online guidance, which was ‘bloody impossible’ for farmers to access, was simplified, the scheme would effectively be ‘handed over to the agents’.
“You are going to have to address the lack of confidence you have now caused in agri-environment,” he told the Government officials.
After the meeting, Mr Smith said: “It’s no surprise that the uptake of Countryside Stewardship has dropped off so significantly with the poor launch that it’s had.
"What they need to focus on now is improving the scheme. And we, as the NFU, are committed to keeping the pressure on them to make sure this happens."
Mr Smith outlined the NFU’s priorities: