Defra has confirmed that farmers and landowners who have yet to be paid any Countryside Stewardship (CS) money, will benefit from a 75% bridging payment, with the money hitting bank accounts by the end of June.
Specifically, Defra says mid-tier and higher-tier agreement holders, who claimed payments in 2017, will receive a bridging payment if they have not been paid by 21 June.
The move follows a concerted lobbying effort by the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), the NFU and the Tenant Farmers Association (TFA), which wrote to Defra secretary Michael Gove earlier this week, describing the payment situation as a “shambles”.
“The backlog of farmers awaiting payments for environmental work, some up to nine months, is unacceptable and must be sorted quickly,” said the letter.
A day later, Defra put out a statement explaining affected customers will soon receive 75% of the estimated value of their CS 2017 claims in the form of an interest-free loan.
“When the full payment is processed and made, the amount paid through the bridging payment will be held back,” it added.
It is understood there are about 8,300 CS agreements in place.
Defra says some 82% of 2017 CS claimants have already received some kind of payment for environmental work on their farms, (be it in the form of an advance payment, a final payment or even a hardship payment) so 18% will now get bridging payments.
But, while acknowledging the move as a “welcome first step”, NFU deputy president Guy Smith said it was “inadequate” as it failed to cover people in Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) and Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) schemes.
“Agreement holders of any sort that are left waiting for payment should be eligible for a bridging payment,” said Mr Smith.
“The principle is rather simple: if Defra accept the case that it’s not acceptable to expect agreement holders to wait any longer for money owed, then that clearly applies to all those waiting, not just a minority.”
Mr Smith said the issue should have been sorted out far sooner as the problems had been apparent since the start of the year.
He also described the measure as a “sticking plaster” which could not mask the deeper problems with CS, including its complexity and problems with getting applications accepted.
The NFU, together with the CLA and TFA, is asking Defra to consider simply rolling over existing ELS and HLS schemes on an annual basis, until a new environmental land management scheme is up and running post Brexit, so by-passing CS.
Failure to do so would put at risk the many years of valuable conservation work farmers have already delivered.
When will final BPS money go out?
The Tenant Farmers Association (TFA) is calling for urgent clarity from the Rural Payments Agency as to when farmers will receive their final balancing payments under the 2017 BPS scheme.
The association says it has been told many farmers will not receive these payments by 30 June – the deadline set by Brussels.
Bridging payments worth 75% of the expected full amount went out to 3,200 farms in April, but the TFA says many are still feeling the financial pressure.