Many farmers who applied for the mid-tier Countryside Stewardship Scheme are still waiting to hear from Natural England if they have been successful, despite it being eight weeks after they expected agreements to have started on 1 January 2017.
Paul Dennison, a farm business consultant and partner with Strutt & Parker, said only a handful of the 26 applications submitted by the team in the Northallerton office ahead of the closing date last September had so far been confirmed as successful.
This situation seemed to be mirroring the experiences of agents and farmers up and down the country.
“Farmers and their advisors are getting increasingly concerned by the fact that they are still in the dark about the status of their applications, particularly if it includes any spring cropping options. For example, anyone who needs to establish a nectar flower mix must get this drilled between 15 March and 15 April, so farmers need to know quickly if they have been accepted to enable them to plan.
“The difficulty is that farmers are seemingly being expected to incur costs by buying seed and drilling it, based on the assumption they will be given an agreement, but their applications may yet be rejected.”
Mr Dennison is calling on Natural England to offer a detailed explanation as to what is holding up agreements and clear guidance on when farmers will be told if they have been successful or not.
“If we know that agreements are going to be offered in the next two or three weeks then people still have time to get their plans in place. However, if it is going to take another six weeks then that is going to make life very difficult.”
Mr Dennison said over the past few weeks Natural England had been contacting applicants and their agents requesting extra information to support their claims.
“In some instances we’ve had repeated requests for the same information, or for photographs, even though we’ve already submitted them,” he said. “What is even more confusing is that some requests are coming by letter, others by email and some are going to clients, while others are coming to us. There seems to be no logic to it.
“A particular frustration is also where farmers who have applied for a capital grant to concrete a yard are being asked for letters from the planning authority confirming whether or not planning permission is needed. We know that permission is not required, but some authorities won’t even answer the question without the farmer having to pay around £80 to get that confirmation from the authority.
“The number and nature of some of the queries raised by Natural England suggest there is still work to be done on making the application process more straightforward and easier to manage – for farmers and for Natural England.”