Opinion: RPA needs to ‘show more love’ for farmers

When I was employed by my local authority, we often worked with third parties towards a common goal.

If relations seemed a bit cool, or things weren’t progressing as well as they might, a senior colleague would say “we’ve got to show them the love” – demonstrating that we were a reliable partner, as keen to achieve the goal as they were, and would get on efficiently with our part of the task.

My farming experience is limited, but despite the government looking to farmers to help achieve its environmental targets, I haven’t noticed any “love” emanating from its agencies at this farm.

About the author

Joy Bowes
Farmers Weekly Opinion writer
Joy Bowes, a former solicitor, divides her time between Suffolk and her partner’s  223ha Lake District hill farm. It is home to a herd of Galloway cattle. Higher Level Stewardship conservation work has been carried out, with plans for more trees under Countryside Stewardship.
Read more articles by Joy Bowes

Clearly, because I’ve read of similar things happening elsewhere, it’s not the only farm that has had payments for environmental schemes delayed, and Basic Payments Scheme money reduced alarmingly by baffling mapping errors.

Perhaps there are farmers for whom mention of the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) elicits a warm glow, and the press focuses only on tales of woe. So, is this farm in an unlucky minority or is it the same for everyone?

The final Higher Level Stewardship payment, due “from” 1 December 2021, is still awaited. Technically it’s not late as the RPA has until the end of June to stump up.

However, at one point in the past 10 years they unilaterally decided to defer a payment and tack it on at the end, so the money has been outstanding for a long time.

Payment dates have chopped and changed so much it has been hard to keep track.

See also: Doubts cast over RPA’s ability to deliver farm support payments

If the RPA’s “payer-outers” are being less than efficient, their “claimer-backers” are making up for it. 

The RPA discovered a whopping 0.15ha of the farm had been wrongly included in the Entry Level Scheme, and demanded the money back. 

A detailed calculation set out how the overpayment had accrued for each year since 2010, and warned of penalties – up to recovery of the entire payment – if certain thresholds were exceeded.

If it was worth the RPA’s time and expense to do this, it wasn’t worth the farm’s to query it, so a cheque was sent, for £97.54 – less than £10/year.

The new Countryside Stewardship agreement (commencement date 1 January) is currently on version 4 and still isn’t right, but the RPA insisted it had to be signed and returned by mid-January, since when…. nothing, bar one apologetic email last week. 

Emails from the land agent go unanswered; try phoning, and after waiting 20 minutes someone in a call centre will tell you the agreement is “not finalised”.

Meanwhile, one of the two prescribed planting seasons has almost elapsed with no work started.

Worryingly, in its 147 pages, the agreement does not say what will happen if, for example, planting is hampered in the next season by bad weather. 

Whether these failings are down to mismanagement, lack of resources or incompetence, the RPA seems to be accountable to no one and the effect is to undermine confidence.

This matters enormously when farmers are being asked to put their faith and their money into schemes which, in many cases, take large areas of their land out of production in aid of the government’s net-zero ambitions.

Who wants the uneasy feeling that payments due after significant sums have been spent on a planting scheme, for example, will come in the RPA’s own sweet time – or not at all if a minor departure from the agreement trips you up?

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