Monday, 9 November 2015

A costly margin of error or silence. Both are damaging goodwill.

The outcome of an inspections can depend on a small margin of error.
Following my Blog about all the red tape surrounding the new Countryside Stewardship Scheme (November 5th) and how it appears to be dampening people’s enthusiasm somewhat, (which is such a shame), I received this note from a farmer.

“I agree, just too complicated. I have applied for 7 schemes since the first Environmentally Sensitive Area Scheme. But this was the most difficult to plan. Sadly I have not applied but left the grass margins and corners (10 years old) in place, in case the scheme becomes more attractive next year.  
I was inspected last April/May. What has annoyed me most is the fact that I know the inspector wrote and delivered the report in May, but I cannot see it. I have received NO communication since. Nothing”.

Another farmer told me last Friday that when he was inspected, it was found that some of his 6 metre grass margins had a few short lengths where they dropped down to only 5 metres in width, probably due to an overzealous ploughman!

The farmer was not particularly bothered by this news, because he had sensibly followed advice to always have more of an option than you are actually signed up to produce, in case this very scenario occurs. So he pointed out his other grass margins that were “outside” the scheme. The inspector was not interested in these as he was only inspecting the margins marked on the agreement map. A fine duly followed.  

Both of these examples shout to me “what a massively missed opportunity”!

I have been saying for literally years and years in meeting rooms around the country, that it would make so much sense to train Rural Payments Agency (RPA) staff, who carry out these inspections, in the fundamentals of farmland conservation and to get them to work more closely alongside their government colleagues, Natural England (NE), who implement the schemes. 

NE staff are generally extremely helpful, working with farmers and encouraging them to produce top quality schemes. But this relationship and good will, which is often built up over many years, can be completely dashed by an RPA inspector with a tape measure.  

These inspectors can quite easily spend a fortnight inspecting a medium sized farm (I kid you not. Remember that this too is paid for from taxpayers coffers!), measuring, counting, noting down observations in minute detail, which will all then go into a final report. But the farmer only gets to hear anything if they have been a miscreant.

What is to be done? Well, how about this.

New RPA inspection scenario:

Cut unnecessary red-tape and keep rules straightforward.

Send all RPA staff on a recognised farmland conservation course (the BASIS conservation course would be a good start) so that they have knowledge about the “outcomes” that Countryside Stewardship options are trying to achieve.

Inspect a farm where obvious options are missing and rules blatantly broken – a field corner does not exist or a wild bird seed mixture has obviously not been planted even though the plot exists. No sympathy. Throw the book at them. This is public money that is being used after all.

Inspect a farm where it is obvious that the farmer has done everything that the agreement demands, however there are small discrepancies such as the grass margin story above or that the wild bird seed mix is in place, but is not very good. Point out the grass margin mistake and state that you will be back next year to pop in to re-measure it, and if it has not been re-instated by then, fines will be incurred. Advice could then be written into the report suggesting the addition of more fertiliser to grow a better wild bird seed mix. This positive, helpful approach will not leave the farmer with a sour taste in the mouth and may well encourage them to try a little harder to not make these small mistakes any longer, while also growing a better, high quality crop for birds going forward.

Inspect a farm and everything is exactly how it should be and the various options are all looking very good. How about some praise within the report, stating how excellent the conservation options are and that the farmer should be congratulated on how well the scheme has been delivered onto his or her farm. A pat on the back goes a very long way in helping to achieve excellence.  

Following the inspection, write a report and GIVE THE FARMER A COPY!!! How are we meant to improve the delivery of conservation on farms when long reports are written about a farm, only for it to sit in some dusty Government filing cabinet?  


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