23 April 1999

Minister keen

on scheme for

early retirement

By Jonathan Riley

EARLY retirement is back on the agenda after MAFF launched one of its biggest ever consultation exercises this week.

Speaking to FARMERS WEEKLY, farm minister Nick Brown said the exercise covered both rural development and hill farming payment reforms. A further consultation is also due which will set out ideas for implementing CAP reforms where national discretion applies.

Mr Brown said: "I am very keen on seeing an early retirement scheme introduced. And, although there is no money earmarked for such a scheme, I want to consult on the idea before advancing it within government."

Despite his enthusiasm for an early retirement scheme, however, the government consultation documents released yesterday (Thur) warn that there may not be enough time to implement any major changes to existing policies.

As part of its consultation on the new EU rural development package, agreed as part of Agenda 2000, the government says: "The timescale for drawing up the plans is extremely tight – they must be submitted to the EU Commission by November.

"This will limit severely the extent to which existing arrangements could be modified or new ones put in place. For example, new schemes (eg, early retirement) will require national legislation. It will also place some practical constraints on the degree of consultation and level of local involvement in decision making."

The rural development package leaves considerable discretion to member states, who would have to split the funding with the EU. According to the government, national discretion will enable it to reflect the diversity of rural conditions in the range of things that are funded.

Although the commission has yet to provide details, the government anticipates there will be some extra money for agri-environment schemes.

"We must look at all the tools we have available such as extending the Countryside Stewardship schemes, which were massively oversubscribed, and look to external schemes which could address the need for improved rural housing, transport and rural jobs," said Mr Brown.

In addition, there could be another £8m or so of EU funding to implement other policies, such as aid to young farmers, marketing and processing grants, land improvement, diversification, environmental protection and improved animal welfare.

Member states have to devise seven-year rural development plans to begin on Jan 1, 2000, describing which measures will be used, the geographical areas covered, the proposed expenditure and the economic, social or environmental justification.

"The trend in the UK is towards a larger average farm size and I think that will continue. But I want to see smaller family farms secure in the long term and I believe that can be achieved," Mr Brown said.

"I cannot tell any one how to run their business but I can encourage producers to look at collaborative marketing ventures, co-operation and diversification as options which may provide greater security in the future."