Opinion: Natural England ‘worse than RPA’

Last month the parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) committee reported that the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) was “failing on multiple levels” and “failing in its core duties”.

It queried whether the agency is able to handle the extra burden of delivering the Countryside Stewardship (CS) and older environmental stewardship schemes, which are being transferred over from Natural England.

See also: Government told to sort out Countryside Stewardship mess

However, to me – while they have both been vying for the title of most inefficient public sector payment agency in the country – Natural England has been winning hands down.

We have just received, in June, the first instalment of our 2017-18 Countryside Stewardship revenue payment, which we expected last autumn.

In fact, we did get something from Natural England in November, but it was a payment relating to the previous year and scheduled for January 2017.  

Natural England seemed to operate CS reasonably efficiently when we first entered the scheme. Claims for capital works were paid promptly and in 2011, the mid-year revenue payment was made only two weeks after the scheduled date.

But since then, payment periods have deteriorated and sometimes swung wildly, for no apparent reason.

This pattern is quite reminiscent of an organisation I once audited, where the accounts department consisted of a periodically functioning alcoholic, who would sometimes have a few hours of clarity in which he would send out some invoices and pay a few bills. At most other times, nothing happened.

I have no idea if this was the scenario at Natural England, partly because they have never explained what is going on.

We do know that we are not alone in having had to wait – with widespread delays in payments under existing stewardship agreements.

Our farm adviser tells us that Natural England has said it is “working towards” paying the majority of 2017 payments by the end of June, “with teams working seven days a week to make payments as quickly as possible”. 

While I’m glad that the organisation is finally putting some resource into sorting the situation, it seems ludicrous that these problems were not addressed earlier.

Similar payment delays would be completely unacceptable in any commercial organisation, or most other government agencies. 

Imagine trying to pay utility companies more than six months after the due date – they would cut you off. On second thoughts, maybe that has happened at Natural England.

For us, CS is not some lovely optional extra, a cherry on the prosperous cake of hill farming. Rather, it is a core part of our income.

So it has been challenging managing the cashflow, waiting for a big lump of income to be received at some unknown future date.

Rather than take out loans to cover it, we sold some cattle earlier than we would have liked, which has undoubtedly cost us. It has been disappointing and should not have been necessary.

I have heard that some people have been discouraged from applying for new CS schemes by the delays and the general aggravation. We can’t afford to be discouraged and are in the process of making a new higher-tier application. 

Putting together the application has been surprisingly absorbing and rather uplifting, with my husband rekindling an interest in botany and discovering his inner lepidopterist.

This week he proudly announced he had seen a “small pearl-bordered fritillary”. (No, me neither – it’s a butterfly.) 

But, whichever agency is in charge in future, please communicate and pay us on time.

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