GOVERNMENT PLANS for a new environmental stewardship programme for England have been held up in Brussels as the Commission tries to force DEFRA to tighten up on its nitrate controls.

Junior DEFRA minister Elliot Morley submitted the proposals to the Commission for approval last April.

These were based on an entry level scheme paying English farmers £30/ha for basic environmental management, with top-ups for “organic” and “higher level” stewardship.

The £150m package – half of it EU money – is due to start next spring.

But this has now become embroiled in a long-running battle between the UK and Brussels over the Nitrates Directive.

Even though the UK was one of the first to set up nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZs), the European court ruled in 2000 that they did not go far enough.

DEFRA, therefore, set about extending the NVZs in 2002 and raising action plan standards.

But this has not progressed fast enough and, in April this year, the Commission sent a final written warning, with the threat of fines.

In a new twist, Brussels has also now put a block on the Entry Level Scheme (ELS) application.

“EU payments are linked to the observation of strict environmental measures,” said a spokeswoman.

“We want a concrete commitment to the Nitrates Directive and a clear timetable.”

It is understood that the Commission is questioning why DEFRA allows higher levels of organic nitrogen in the new NVZs than the 170kg/ha stipulated in the directive.

It is also claiming that the new ELS does not go beyond what farmers should be doing anyway to comply with EU nitrates rules.

To approve the scheme would amount to paying farmers for meeting a minimum legal requirement.

The NFU has expressed its concern that the ELS has got caught up in the battle between government and the Commission over compliance with the Nitrates Directive.

“The ELS is being used as a political lever,” said environment team leader Andrew Clark.

“We hope this won‘t cause a delay, though if the problem is not sorted out soon, there is a danger this could happen.”

But UK sources suggest this is little more than a bit of muscle flexing by the commission.

“Brussels has flagged up some issues with respect to the Nitrates Directive, and we are in discussion with them,” said a DEFRA spokesman.

“We are confident the scheme will be approved later this year ready for implementation in 2005.”