I was delighted to speak with farmers across Lancaster and the Wyre area, who joined me for a roundtable discussion with the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) and Forestry Commission to talk about grant schemes, woodland management, successes and ongoing challenges farmers face.
There was some really good feedback, including:
- The RPA being able to narrow the time taken to make decisions on grant applications
- An “up to you” approach for farmers to reach out to the RPA
- Rolling windows for applications
- Discretion that can be taken for grant awards when sustainability outcomes are difficult to meet
- Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) handbook updates and changes were well explained
- There was also promising news about new webchat features, and a potential single point of contact system on the horizon for farmers to get easier support rather than through separate RPA departments.
This was great to hear, though farmers are still facing huge challenges. These include:
- Farmers are still getting timed out of the system when making applications which can take several hours
- Despite being made simpler, the systems are still incredibly complex
- Upland farmers are being affected by double funding eligibility
- Joint working between Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the Environment Agency (EA) and National England can be difficult to get, when one body turns down an application which is approved in principle by others
- New entrants are struggling to get on the farming ladder, and Sustainable Farming Incentive grants pose a difficulty for tenant farmers
- Innovative solutions, such as low emission fertiliser is difficult to build into the schemes and is much easier for landowners rather than tenant farmers to access
- Clough planting is good for water management, but some good food growing land is being allocated for tree growth, when upland areas could be better utilised for woodland
- Some DEFRA consultations are still awaiting publication, such as on hedgerows
- Government-scrapped traceability funding and schemes, particularly for pork
- Some of the application processes remain frustrating, as some of the Expressions of Interest applications now moving to Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) applications can’t have Natural England consultation prior to the application being put in, yet the application still needs input and green-light by Natural England
- In particular, high tier applications require the PA1 feasibility studies, then Natural England feasibility studies, which then need submitting within a strict time limit
- Natural England appear to have a lack of resources to survey and process their part in farmers’ applications
It’s clear that the sheer complexity of the schemes is a source of frustration, and some of the joined-up working with other bodies is creating a barrier to farmers getting grants.
As a start, I will be writing to the Secretary of State to request more resourcing capacity for Natural England, and to ensure that the Government’s digital platforms are updated so farmers do not get timed out on the complex application forms.
Everyone recognised the need for a balance of land allocation for food production and sustainability outcomes through woodland management. I do not see these as being in competition, as local food production itself is also part of the UK’s sustainability mission by reducing reliance on imported produce, lowering farm to fork miles, and backing British farmers.
If we’re going to put British farming back on the map farmers need certainty, stability and a long-term strategy, and fewer short term schemes with anxiety year-to-year about what will replace them, and and end to the barriers to exports and cheaper imports from the other side of the world.
Environmental stewardship and sustainable food production – you can have both. I will be taking these points forwards with colleagues, and highlighting what change is needed both now and in the longer term.
This was an incredibly informative and proactive discussion, and I’m really pleased to have been able to host this. If you’re having any difficulty with applications, please do reach out to the following sources of support: