Fine balance between complexity and practicality

Scott Walker 'frustrated' over agricultural tenancy review. Picture Michael Gillen
Scott Walker 'frustrated' over agricultural tenancy review. Picture Michael Gillen
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Getting the balance right between complexity and deliverability will be critical for the successful implementation of the new common agricultural policy (CAP) package – but two sharply diverging views were yesterday aired on just where this balance should lie.

Philip Bicknell, chief economist with the English NFU, warned the NFU Scotland council meeting that going down an overly complicated implementation route could see Scotland fall foul of the same problems which had dogged payment schemes during the transition from a historical to an area based system south of the Border.

“A lot of the difficulties experienced in England weren’t due to any shortfalls in the schemes themselves but were caused instead by the system simply being unable to deliver what had been agreed,” he said.

Giving some “been there, done that, got the t-shirt” advice, he indicated that the more complicated the schemes were – and the greater the need for remapping and new IT systems – the more chance there seemed to be of trouble creeping in.

He said that, during the transition period, there had been huge delays for some farmers before they had received payments while some had been massively underpaid and some similarly overpaid – only to have it clawed back later:

“And these difficulties caused horrendous problems for cash-flow and threatened the economic viability of many farms during that period,” he said.

However, Fintan Conway, of the Irish Farmers’ Association, took the opposite line, stressing that it was critical to get the schemes set up to do what farmers wanted them to from the start, regardless of complexity: “Anyway, you’ll usually find that simplification for the bureaucrats doesn’t equate to simplification for the farmer on the ground – and they’re the ones that matter,” he said.

“In Ireland, as in Scotland, there are a wide range of farm types and farming systems. This means that things can be very complicated at farm level and there is absolutely no chance of a one-size CAP fitting all.”

One particular area being looked at was the effect of the three-crop-rule on the common practice of block-cropping which could result, he said, in a large reduction in the area of malting barley being grown in Ireland.

Stating that, since the recession had hit in 2008, the Irish government had been much keener to listen to the farming voice as it was now one of the few remaining generators of export income, Conway said: “And when we asked them what would happen when there was no malting barley out there to make our Guinness or our Jamesons whiskey they certainly sat up and listened.”

On the home front, NFUS chief policy adviser Jonnie Hall said that Scottish farmers had a lot to discuss on CAP implementation front in coming months: “The crucial issue of the area-based payments has to be decided shortly – and we desperately need a lead from the Scottish Government in the form of an opening bid on where these payment levels might be set to drive the debate forward.”