A bleak winter is faced by more than 1,000 hill farmers in north-east England still waiting to receive full support payments from last year, say industry leaders.
The livelihoods of some of the region’s most vulnerable farm businesses are at risk due to the ongoing failure of the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) to get money to them, says the NFU.
NFU’s north-east chairman Will Terry said farmers with common land – which makes up more than 12% of the region’s farmland – faced a particularly difficult situation.
Mr Terry has written to local MPs emphasising the importance of prompt payments for livestock producers, many of whom manage environmentally sensitive uplands.
Some 83% of commons were in nationally designated landscapes, with 53% designated as sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs), he said.
“As most are marginal hill farmers, Common Agricultural Policy basic payment scheme [payments] and agri-environment payments are vital to help maintain their viability,” he said.
“Lengthy payment delays have already caused real hardship for a lot of commons graziers and any further delays as we move into winter will see many put under intense financial pressure.”
In the North York Moors alone, some 80% of farmers out of 200 BPS applications submitted by one agent were still awaiting payment of some form, said Mr Terry.
In many cases, the shortfall was significant.
A sample of commons in the North Pennines showed there were at least six commons where graziers have received no payment all.
In the South Pennines and the Yorkshire Dales there was confusion among farmers over how much money remains outstanding, with no way of checking payments with any level of certainty.
Confirmation of the ongoing delays to 2015 payments comes just days before the window for 2016 payments is due to open on 1 December.
The RPA has pledged that farmers with commons grazing rights will be among those paid their 2016 payments on 1 December.
But Mr Terry said he feared money would still be owned from 2015 because payments could be delayed further as the agency started to concentrate on getting 2016 payments out.
“We are asking for urgent clarification on what the RPA intends to do to bring this debacle to a close by providing clear information to applicants on when their payments will be made.”
“We are also seeking reassurance that unresolved problems from 2015 will not spill over into 2016, prolonging the financial stress for so many farming families.”
Bridging payments to those not paid in December could be one way the RPA could help farmers in the short term, said Mr Terry.
Local farmers were inviting Defra secretary Andrea Leadsom to visit the region as soon as possible to see for herself the real financial hardship facing upland producers.
Have you been paid?
Earlier this month, Defra minister George Eustice insisted part payments had already been made to everyone with common land who had faced delays.
“If there are any payments outstanding, then write to me,” Mr Eustice told the Northern Farming Conference at Hexham Auction Mart, Northumberland.
“I am told that everyone has now had their second payment – [although] I know there are still some who have had their second instalment and don’t believe they have had enough.
“If that is the case, they should continue their dialogue with the RPA on this point.
“But as far as I am aware, everyone on common land has received their 2015 payment.
“If anyone thinks they haven’t, they should get in touch.”
BPS Watch – keeping tabs on payments
Ongoing delays in 2015 support payments caused huge cashflow problems, stress and anxiety for thousands of farmers.
That is why Farmers Weekly has launched “BPS Watch”, designed to hold Defra and the Rural Payments Agency to account for their promises.
Our initiative – which will also cover Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – will focus on farmers and feature regular stories and payment updates, as we strive to keep government departments and agencies on track.