End of the road for access payments

A CHAMPION of conservation-minded farming in Suffolk has attacked a decision by the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to end payments for permissive access on farms as part of Government spending cuts.

Westhorpe farmer David Barker, who is chairman of the Creating the Greenest County campaign, vice chairman of the Local Access Forum and chairman of the Suffolk committee for the Campaign for the Farmed Environment, said he was “stunned” to learn that all new Higher Level Stewardship schemes will no longer include payments for permissive access, under which farmers allow access where there is no legal right of way.

Central Suffolk MP Daniel Poulter raised the issue in the House of Commons on Thursday with Richard Benyon, the Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who agreed to meet with Suffolk farmers to discuss their concerns and see whether there is a way of continuing the scheme in a different form.

Mr Barker, whose family last year won the prestigious national Silver Lapwing award for their environmental efforts and have introduced a number of permissive paths, has written to the county’s MPs to express his concerns about the change.

He believes the permissive pathway network is “a great benefit to the public” and predicts that among the greatest losers will be horse riders, as the networks provide a safe alternative to roads.

“This in simple terms means no more payments for permissive access other than grants for capital works, although existing schemes will not be affected,” he said.

“In the past many permissive routes have been created that include routes for walkers, cyclists and horse riders. These routes were made possible under the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) which was replaced by HLS. These were all 10 year agreements so many of the CSS will be ending in the next three years, while the HLS agreements will run until 2020 at the latest.

Most Read

“The major reason the Government have made this decision is that these payments all come from the Treasury when many other areas of HLS are jointly funded by the EU.”

He said the networks had won the admiration of all and were “a super way” for farmers to engage with the wider community.

“In Suffolk we have, under our community strategy, the aim of becoming the greenest and healthiest county and getting the community to exercise is vital to that end,” he said. “It is a major step backward to remove access under HLS.”

He added that other environmental schemes such as those for field margins stipulated that they should not be used by the public, meaning that routes across farms into other farms could end up coming to a dead halt.

There are 128 permissive access agreements in Suffolk, 229 in Norfolk, 98 in Cambridgeshire and 50 in Essex.

Mr Barker wants to see if there is a chance EU money can be attracted in order to strengthen their case with the UK government.

“I think farmers would be prepared to accept lower payments, although these should at least cover maintenance and loss of crop. However, we are talking about field edges where the crops yield much less,” he added.

DEFRA said the change was designed to get the best out of the available funding and focus resources on key environmental issues such as protecting wildlife and reducing water pollution.

“There is no EU funding available for annual payments for permissive access, and these payments have to-date been fully funded by the UK taxpayer,” a spokesperson said.

“If we were to continue to use UK taxpayer’s money to make annual access payments, then we would not be able to use either that money or the matching funding which is available from the EU, for anything else – such as biodiversity or water quality.”