The NFU has described a move of staff from Natural England to the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) as ‘rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic’.
As of October 1, 2018, 331 Natural England employees had been transferred to the RPA as part of the Countryside Stewardship (CS) Improvement Programme and the CS and Environmental Stewardship (ES) Transition.
In March, Farmers Guardian reported Defra would shift responsibility for delivering CS from Natural England to the RPA, with the aim of providing a ‘more joined-up service’ to farmers.
But NFU deputy president Guy Smith said: “For the thousands of CS and ES scheme holders still waiting for the full payment of their 2017 schemes, the news of this redistribution of staff will bring to mind the phrase ‘rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic’.
“We understand how this emigration of staff from NE to the RPA is all part of a plan to improve stewardship scheme delivery, but for claimants suffering cash flow problems now who have already shelled out money to meet scheme requirements, this improved delivery really cannot come soon enough.”
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 concerns have also been raised about the RPA’s ability to administer CS, given its own dubious record when it comes to the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS).
As well as its responsibility for delivering CS, a beefed-up RPA will be expected to enforce new rules to tackle supply chain unfairness which were set out in the Agriculture Bill.
Ministers have not yet decided how much extra cash or staff the RPA will need as a result of this role.