17 May 2002

BRACE YOURSELF FOR

A LOT OF PAPERWORK

What does it take to net a rural development grant?

Peter Grimshaw asks a farmer who has just completed

one of the first schemes under DEFRA management

VISION, tenacity, excellent organisational ability, meticulous paperwork and a scheme that has been thought through in every detail are essential weapons in the gruelling bureaucratic campaign to persuade an army of officials that public money should be invested in your business. And quite right, too, says Robert Lawton, of North Farm, Aldbourne, Wilts.

He might add, however, that a thick skin and having someone else around to run the main farm business while youre otherwise occupied are also indispensable.

In pursuit of diversification, Mr Lawton left no stone unturned. A detailed review of his farms assets had even considered the flints that litter the chalk downland. But whichever way they looked at the 120-year-old workshop and junk store that formed one boundary of the farmyard, it seemed useless in farming terms.

The farm is remote, though only eight miles from busy Swindon and within earshot of the M4 artery. A conversion to business use, therefore, appealed and the idea of high quality office units took shape.

The first approach was made to Kennet District Council planning department, where he met Damien Tolford-Wilson, the districts business manager and a key contact. "He was brilliant. He was on my side from the start because he wants to revitalise the largely rural district of Kennets economy," says Mr Lawton. "With their help we did a market survey that convinced us of the demand for high quality office space."

Business plan

Preparing the application was the next task. The application form itself took a matter of minutes, all but for the last requirement – a business plan.

Mr Lawton toiled for more than 40 hours to produce a 2in thick document. This had to be prepared within the context of what the project would do for the farm, its economic impact on the business and its effects on the locality.

Most importantly, the scheme had to chime with local, regional and national economic and environmental objectives.

One of the biggest surprises to Mr Lawton was the importance attached to social outcomes, notably the retention of people and jobs in the countryside. Now that Carters Court has been let, it is providing a place of work for up to 20 people who would otherwise add to the morning traffic queues in Swindon or have moved away from the area altogether.

There were times when extra office staff at North Farm seemed essential to keep the grant application on its feet. With the help of part-time farm secretary Judy Smith, Mr Lawton runs a dauntingly neat and tidy office, but neither of them could have anticipated the deluge of documentation that fell upon them in 2001, following approval of a 30% grant for the total £150,000 scheme.

Mistakes

"One of our mistakes was not fully to appreciate the importance of managing provisional cost sums in the contract. All schemes vary in cost once you get into them and the variation is always upwards," says Mr Lawton. This makes it all the more important to have one person responsible for managing the project from first to last. It also helps to keep contractors up to the mark.

Grant payments are made against actual costs in strict quartiles, although DEFRA holds back 15% of the final payment until the scheme has been finally written off. But payments did not appear when expected and the actual timing will depend on how much government money remains in the funding organisations coffers. DEFRAs cheques arrived as much as three months after they had been promised.

Perhaps the earliest professional opinion should be that of your accountant. Only he will know how the project fits in with your particular fiscal and personal circumstances.

Tax implications breathe life into an idea or kill it dead. On his accountants advice, Mr Lawton waived VAT exemption on the building costs, so he would be able to recover VAT from the non-exempt business that would be paying the rent.

Wilts farmer Robert Lawton with his converted barns. Its important to have one person managing the project from first to last, he says.

Robert Lawton and secretary Judy Smith were deluged with documentation following approval of the grant.

&#8226 The essential ingredients of an initial application are:

&#8226 Planning consent.

&#8226 Reference to any local, district or regional plans.

&#8226 Two years farm accounts.

&#8226 Photographs of site and area.

&#8226 Environmental appreciation.

&#8226 Financial feasibility plan.

&#8226 Architectural plans.

&#8226 Details of work tenders.

&#8226 Cashflow plan.

&#8226 Own funding guarantees.

&#8226 Health and safety appreciation.