Natural England (NE) and the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) are facing renewed criticism for leaving farmers who have carried out environmental work thousands of pounds out of pocket.
Some of those who contacted Farmers Guardian were owed in excess of £20,000.
Earlier this year, delivery of agri-environment schemes was transferred from NE to the RPA, but farmers are struggling to get answers from either agency about where their cash is.
These late payments are now causing major cashflow problems for applicants who were already struggling because of the dry weather in summer, and are blowing a big hole in future budgets.
Shadow Defra Secretary Sue Hayman, who has a large RPA office in her Workington constituency, told FG she was regularly contacted by agency employees who tell her they are understaffed.
She said: “They get a constant kicking, particularly over their helpline, but they say they do not have anyone to answer the phone.
“NE has had a lot of resources taken away, and many of the most senior people have moved over to Defra, which has left them not just short of resources but people who have got a lot of experience.”
The NFU has also hit out at the RPA’s ‘ineffective communication’.
Deputy president of the union, Guy Smith, said: “Claimants want to have the ability to speak to someone who can give them clear advice on their claim or when they are likely to be paid, and that has not been forthcoming.”
Another concern of Mr Smith’s centres on the ‘twin role’ of NE and the RPA, where the RPA delivers payments but NE continues to offer advice to applicants.
“If a claimant feels he acted on NE advice and then that got him into hot water with the RPA, is the claimant entitled to say ‘I was acting on advice from NE?’” he asked.
The situation on payments is now seen to be so dire that Holly Story, from land and property specialists GSC Grays, has warned farmers not to make any investment before their scheme start date, particularly for capital works.
If an applicant feels any work must begin early, Ms Story advised them to consult with NE or their agent first.
A Defra spokesman said additional staff had been taken on to improve stewardship delivery, but there was more work to do to make ‘the customer experience’ better.
“We are aligning a number of services for BPS, ES and CS customers and there will be further improvements in 2019 such as a single rural helpline number,” the spokesman added.