Field margin warning sign© Tim Scrivener

A decision about the future of agri-environment and rural development scheme funding is needed within days, or the current freeze on spending will cause long-term damage to the countryside and rural economy, farm leaders have warned.

The Treasury is in the process of reviewing rural development spending in the wake of the EU referendum result.

Although applications for Countryside Stewardship (CS) and Leader projects are still being accepted, no new contracts or letters of acceptance are being issued to farmers.

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The review stems from the fact many of the schemes involve a five-year agreement, so there is concern about how schemes will be funded once the UK leaves the EU.

Farm leaders have stepped up pressure on the Treasury for answers, pointing out farmers will be reluctant to invest time and money into pulling together a CS application without assurances that there is funding there to pay for it.

The application window for mid-tier CS closes on 30 September and the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) has said it is concerned uncertainty over future funding will put the environmental management of more than 1m hectares of land at risk.

Ross Murray, CLA president, has written to chancellor Philip Hammond asking for the suspension of funding to be lifted urgently.

There is no justification for holding up money that is budgeted for and every day the freeze continues it threatens to do long-term damage to the rural economy and the delivery of vital environmental outcomes across the countryside Ross Murray, Country Land and Business Association

“There is no justification for holding up money that is budgeted for and every day the freeze continues it threatens to do long-term damage to the rural economy and the delivery of vital environmental outcomes across the countryside.”

Assurances

Claire Robinson, NFU countryside advisor, said the situation was “not good” and a decision on Countryside Stewardship, in particular, was needed within seven to 10 days.

“If people are to apply for mid-tier stewardship, they want some assurances about what is going to be funded and how long it is going to be funded for,” she said. “An application is not something that can be done overnight – it takes time and money.”

There were also nearly 1,000 farmers who were still waiting to hear if their applications to the hedgerow and boundary grant scheme have been successful, she added.

‘Application limbo’

Andy Thorpe, local action group manager for Norfolk, said while new Leader applications were being accepted, they were unable to process them beyond the stage where local action groups voted on them.

“We are not allowed to advise applicants on whether their application has been successful and send out a contract. We are in limbo.”

A government spokesman said the government recognised the need for certainty when it came to EU-managed projects and would make an announcement in due course.

“We will do what is needed to support our farmers as we leave the EU and make a success of Brexit.”