Lack of broadband puts SFP claims at risk

Slow rural internet connections mean many farmers will be unable to complete Single Payment applications online, the government has admitted.

Applications for 2010 can now be completed online through the government’s Whole Farm Approach website. The system aims to make it easier for farmers to apply by reducing paperwork and lightening the regulatory burden.

But farmers who happen to live in areas without broadband are finding themselves unable to use the system. Lancashire farmer Chris Conder described her attempt to complete an online application as an “epic failure”.

Asked by Farmers Weekly whether farmers without broadband would be able to use the system, food and farming minister Jim Fitzpatrick said: “Obviously if you haven’t got broadband, then you won’t be able to.”

Getting better broadband to rural communities remained very much part of the government’s game plan, insisted Mr Fitzpatrick. But he added: “Roll-out is going to take some time, which means some people will get it earlier than others.”

In the meantime, farmers without broadband access would still benefit because online applications had eased the burden on Rural Payments Agency staff, who were now able to spend more time resolving paper-based queries.

Early indications suggest those farmers with access to the online application system have found it easy to use, although having to submit supporting documentation by post remains frustrating.

“We filled in the form by hand first just to make sure we had got it right and then went online and submitted it,” said Sarah from Taunton on the FWi forum. “It was easy and we got confirmation of its receipt almost immediately.”

The admission that many farmers cannot complete online forms comes just weeks after rural leaders launched a campaign calling for adequate broadband access for the “final third” of the UK that lacks decent internet connections.

Rural speeds remain disastrously slow, said Charles Trotman, head of business development at the Country Land and Business Association. Without proper access to broadband, many farmers were at a severe disadvantage.

“If you have inadequate broadband, you can’t access the system,” Dr Trotman told Farmers Weekly. “It worries me when the government thinks everything can be put online because these things don’t work if you don’t have broadband.”