Field margin on a farm© Tim Scrivener

Top civil servants have been warned their handling of the government’s flagship Countryside Stewardship (CS) scheme simply isn’t good enough.

Two senior civil servants – Natural England chief operating officer Guy Thompson and Rural Payments Agency CAP delivery director Jo Broomfield – were summoned to appear before a committee of MPs on Tuesday (22 March).

Delays in stewardship agreements and payments made by the two government agencies are being investigated by the House of Commons environment food and rural affairs committee.

Farmers have complained the delays have left them unable to take advantage of the scheme.

See also: Stewardship delays prove headache for farmers

Natural England is believed to have received over 4,700 CS applications during 2016 for agreements due to start on 1 January 2017. 

But more than two months later, some farmers are still waiting to hear whether their applications have been successful.

‘Fast as we can’

Mr Thompson said Natural England was working “as fast as we can” to deliver agreements and payments to farmers.

“As of now, 86% of farmers have been paid and we are working with the residual 14% to get those payment claims processed as quickly as possible,” he said.

Committee chairman Neil Parish told Mr Thompson: “It is not good enough. If you were in the private sector and you were doing business with somebody and a year later you were still working out the rules, they would go somewhere else.

“I know you’re not in business. But why does it take so long when you change a system to get it right? We have been through this with the Basic Farm Payment and now we are in just such a mess with this stewardship scheme.”

Mr Thompson blamed delays on increasingly complex “control requirements” imposed by Brussels and tight resource constraints.

IT challenges

This meant there had been challenges recalibrating and setting up the IT system to deliver agreements and payments to farmers, he said.

“Countryside Stewardship without a doubt got off to an imperfect start,” admitted Mr Thompson. “Volumes [of applications] are still relatively low but we’ve done what we can within the constraints I have described to make it easier to put agreements in place.”

The NFU said it was pleased MPs were up to speed with the problems experienced by Natural England in terms of CS delivery.

NFU vice-president Guy Smith said: “Too often we are hearing Natural England using euphemistic terms such as ‘real-time management’ and ‘agile build’ when it comes to their approach. As farmers, we call that ‘suck it and see’ or ‘doing it by the seat of the pants’.

“This is not satisfactory and we want to see Natural England more on top of this very soon.”