6 December 1996

Lower take-up prompts agri-budget claw-backs

By Tony McDougal

MAFF is to take £10m away from its agri-environment budget for England next year because of the poor take-up by farmers within various schemes.

Latest financial estimates show MAFF proposes to spend just £59.3m in England in 1997/98 compared to £69.2m announced by MAFF in its paper to the first agri-environment forum meeting in March.

Spending forecasts for 1998/99 and also considerably lower, with MAFFs proposed budget standing at £68.9m compared with £80.3m predicted in March.

While MAFF stressed overall spending continued to increase, it said the revised estimates were due to a lower than anticipated take-up by farmers.

Every programme except the countryside stewardship scheme is scheduled to have its budget estimate revised downwards, though MAFF said provisional figures would not be available until the end of December.

Some schemes have already seen reductions in the current financial year. Junior farm minister Tim Boswell said low take-up within the organic aid scheme had led MAFF to cut its budget allocation from £1.1m to £455,000.

The cuts were attacked by farm unions and conservation groups. Andrew Clark, NFU environment spokesman, said he was deeply disappointed by the move, adding he was concerned farmers would be unfairly blamed. "In reality, it has been the lack of economic incentive which has led to the low take-up," he said.

Schemes such as the moorland, nitrate, habitat and countryside access schemes have proved particularly unpopular with farmers, and Dr Clark said it was vital the new Farm and Rural Conservation Agency revitalized them.

Patrick Holden, Soil Association director, said that by not spending all of its allocated agri-environment budget, of which 50% comes from the EU, the Treasury was able to obtain additional cash through the Fontainbleau Compromise.

Mr Holden said the low take-up within the organic aid scheme was due to the poor finance conversion package – the lowest in Europe.

Labours shadow farm spokesman Gavin Strang said the claw-back was absolutely deplorable. "It made a nonsense of ministers claims regarding the governments commitment to the agri-environment package," he said.n