14 March 1996

Six-month delay in set-aside field case

By Liz Mason

A WORCS arable farmer has been waiting since October for a decision from MAFF on a field he wants counted towards his set-aside area.

Stephen Watkins, is now hoping a letter to his local MP will prod MAFF legal officials into making a decision in time for spring cultivations.

The entire 5.05ha (12-acre) field in question, which is owned by a local horse hospital, was in MAFFs five-year set-aside scheme. The land was eligible because Mr Watkins, who manages 202ha (500 acres) at Sheepcote Farm, Severn Stoke, had farmed it for two years.

"When it was in five-year set-aside I was responsible for making hay from it, and being an equine hospital they were allowed to use it for the horses," he added.

MAFF officials at the Worcs regional centre were happy with the arrangement. But they wanted to consult with colleagues in Cambridge before deciding whether to agree to Mr Watkinss request, first made in person in October, to include the field within his set-aside area.

At first Cambridge officials did not think Mr Watkins was eligible because he was only looking after the field. But after further consultation they decided to refer the case to MAFFs legal department in Whitehall. And Mr Watkins was told he would have a decision within 3-4 days – that was more than a month ago.

Delay frustration

Fed up with the continued delay, Mr Watkins phoned the Worcs office last Friday saying "it was about time somebody, somewhere made a decision". And he has since learnt that they have. Two other farmers have been allowed to count parcels of land they have farmed in the past two years towards their set-aside area.

A spokeswoman for MAFFs Worcs office said officials could certainly understand Mr Watkins frustration. They were trying to discuss the matter with legal advisers in London. All the Worcs office could so was pursue the issue with them and get back to Mr Watkins as soon as possible, she added.