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Sting in tail of farm grant changes

[Wednesday 17 November 2010]

A major increase in funding for Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) agreements for farmers was announced yesterday (Nov 16) – but changes in the way that payments are made will mean delays in cheques being sent out.

The environment agency Defra said that annual funding for HLS schemes will rise from £84 million in the current financial year by stages to £156 million in 2013/14, which is good news for farmers working in harsh conditions in areas like the Yorkshire Dales.

But payments will be switched to an annual basis after June next year as the Government tries to sort out the mess created by bureaucracy at the reviled Rural Payments Agency (RPA), which meant that payments were sometimes two or even three years late.

As these funds come from the notorious EU Common Agricultural Policy the Labour Government was forced to pay out millions of pounds in fines for the delays.

Announcing the new figures, Agricultural Minister Jim Paice commented: “I deeply regret the impact that the unavoidable change in Environmental Stewardship payments will have on our farmers, but this is the only way to avoid large EU fines.

“We have pushed the start date back by an extra six months to give as much notice as possible so that farmers have time to plan for the changes”

For Yorkshire Dales farmers and landowners, there were some interesting details in the small print. Less money will be awarded for improving public access to farm land – an obsession with the last Government – and more to protect wildlife and reduce river pollution.

There has been a temporary freeze on the setting up of new HLS agreements whilst the new arrangements were sorted out but Mr. Paice has set Natural England a target of just four weeks to inform applicants of the progress of their claims – a process which could take months or even years during the RPA debacle.

Whether or not those targets will be met will be watched with interest but the mere fact that Defra have won an 80% increase in HLS funding over four years is a triumph in the present financial conditions.

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