Recipients of EU funding agreements should have breathed a sigh of relief when a Treasury statement confirmed that all such agreements would continue to be fulfilled after the UK leaves the EU, having previously said that only those agreements signed before the 2016 Autumn Statement would be honoured.
Of course what happens when those agreements finally expire can only be a matter of conjecture while the government works on the terms of our exit but, in the meantime, there is still time for farming businesses to apply for various grants for both diversification and agri-environment schemes.
Rural Development Programme
The RDPE programme is funded by the EU and the RPA holds the purse strings. There are three distribution routes for funding: the Growth Programme, delivered via the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), the LEADER programme via Local Action Groups (LAGs), and Countryside Productivity.
Growth Programme: The LEPs decide on the priorities for their particular areas and, working with the RPA, assess grant applications (which must be for a minimum of £35,000 and no more than 40% of the total cost of the project) specifically for rural business development, food processing, and rural tourism infrastructure. Farm diversification projects could fall into any one of these categories but the application criteria and process are the same for each. Coventry & Warwickshire LEP offers grants for business development (including enabling farming businesses to diversify into non-agricultural activities) and rural tourism infrastructure (including enhancing food and drink-related tourism), but not food processing. The application process is a two stage one and the deadline for completing stage one is 31 January 2018. If the application is successful any grant agreed will be honoured regardless of whether we have left the EU.
LEADER funding: The LEADER programme has £138m of funds to distribute between 2015 and 2019 via Local Action Groups (LAGs) which are partnerships between local communities and the private and public sectors. Any application for a LEADER grant must support one of six priorities which include supporting micro and small businesses and farm diversification; boosting rural tourism; increasing farm, and forestry productivity; providing rural services, and cultural and heritage activities. Again, in the event of a successful application, grant payments will be honoured.
Countryside Productivity: The grant scheme is temporarily closed while the RPA assess the last round of applications. However, when it reopens, applications can be made for small capital grants (up to £35,000) to increase farm productivity (examples include animal husbandry, crop robotics, and improved water management); and large capital grants (from £35,000 to £1m) for buying equipment or machinery.
Countryside Stewardship: The largest tranche of EU funding to support rural business goes to agri-environmental schemes and is distributed via the Countryside Stewardship Higher-Tier, Mid-Tier (both of which last five years) and Capital Grant schemes (which last two years). The window for applying for 2018 Higher-Tier options closed in May but applications for Mid-Tier options remain open until 30 September providing the pack is requested by 31 July. Successful applications depend on meeting local priorities, supporting pollinators, and improving water quality.Given the government’s commitment to maintaining agreed EU funding until the end of the agreement, farmers who decide not to apply this year can still do so in 2018 for a starting date of 1 January 2019, two months before we are due to leave the EU.
A viable environmental management scheme for the future?
Two, EU-funded ‘pay by results’ environmental pilot projects currently underway in England might provide a more viable long term solution to land management. This is not a new idea: a number of other PBR environmental schemes have been successfully trialled elsewhere in the EU, including Ireland (where management of the Burren is probably the best known example). The real advantage for the farmers involved is the non-prescriptive approach to managing their land in order to deliver specific environmental results. It is these results against which they will be assessed and the payments calculated. It is uncertain what level of public funding farmers will receive for managing the environment after Britain leaves the EU but the relative simplicity of managing these PBR schemes, and their popularity at government level, makes them an attractive, future option.
Bridging the gap
The government’s softened stance in supporting EU funding agreements beyond 29 March 2019 gives farming businesses some breathing space which might be very valuable if we have a bumpy transition out of the EU. Nonetheless, the opacity of the application process (starting with knowing which body to approach for funding) is the first hurdle to overcome. The government website, GOV.UK, is a useful starting point and most professional advisers and other information sources (such as the Warwickshire Rural Hub) can also help. Now that Article 50 has been triggered and we know we are definitely leaving the EU, we have the opportunity to shape our rural and agricultural policies to suit the distinctive nature of UK farming. However while the detail of our future is being fine-tuned, extending these funding agreements beyond 2019 might help to bridge the gap.