Government Policy on Commons Descends into Chaos

“With just 5 weeks to go to the deadline for submitting Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) claims, DEFRA has finally published guidance on how to claim common land, but it could leave many hill farmers more confused than ever about what they can claim.” says David Morley Environmental Specialist with H&H Land and Property.

This latest announcement includes a significant change in policy. While all commons rights holders could claim under the old Single Payment Scheme, whether they exercised their rights or not, only farmers that “use the common” can claim BPS. While many might consider this to be a laudable aim, the definition of “use” set out in the guidance is vague and may lead to unintended consequences as non-graziers look for ways to perpetuate their payments.

Ashmoor Common

Ashmoor Common, Worcestershire
© Copyright Philip Halling
and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

A. Claiming BPS on Common Land

Now only farmers that “use the common” can claim BPS, with only 3 ways for farmers to show they are “using the common”:

1. Exercise their rights by turning out stock. DEFRA have not elaborated on what this means in practice, such as how much stock would need to be turned out or for how long. More critically, by encouraging current non-graziers to turn out stock, the policy could lead to a breach in a common’s Environmental Stewardship scheme, where that agreement limits stock numbers.

2. Participate in an Environmental Stewardship agreement.

3. Contribute to appropriate management of the common. It is unclear what “appropriate management” really means, although the guidance gives a few examples such as scrub and bracken management. Again, there is the danger that such activities could potentially breach Environmental Stewardship agreements or even SSSI legislation, if they were carried out without consent.

DEFRA have not said how they will verify whether a claimant has “used the common” and is eligible to be paid. For this year, claimants will not be required to submit proof of use when they claim, but may need to produce evidence if they inspected by the RPA. Non-graziers certainly run the risk of having their claims disallowed and facing penalties for over claiming.

To compound the difficulties, it appears the RPA have been unable to pre-print forms with common land information from last year’s Single Payment claim. Commoners will need to add this manually. It is very important to note that common land parcels may be pre-printed in with the rest of the fields. To avoid accidentally over claiming it must be deleted.

This week’s publication is the latest in a series of announcements during 2015, as Government policy on commons has come together in piecemeal fashion. Here David gives some background and advice further changes.

B. Re-mapping of Common Land

To enable the RPA to more accurately calculate commoners’ share of the total area, they are re-mapping all common land. Unfortunately, the new maps were sent out during lambing and, unsurprisingly, it has been impossible for many farmers to provide a co-ordinated response within the 28 days consultation period.

As a result of the mapping changes, the claimable area of many commons will be reduced. Farmers will not know the area they have been allocated until later in the year. However, this could leave them with excess entitlements, which they risk losing if they are not claimed on this year.

C. Changes to a Commoner’s Share of the Common

Historically there have been a number of rights that have not been used to claim SPS. Now, however, the full area of the common will be allocated to claiming farmers. This could lead to a significant increase in the area that each commoner can claim. However, to benefit from the increased area, the claimant must have additional entitlements with which to claim. DEFRA have agreed to allocate additional entitlements to those affected but, to qualify, claimants must have “used the common” in each claim year since 2005. Again, it has not clear how commoners will prove they did so. DEFRA have advised that anyone who thinks they may have suffered a direct loss should claim and the RPA will consider each case on its merits

Commoners who think they may be eligible for additional entitlements will need to submit a form to claim their allocation. These forms, however, are unlikely to be available before 15th June. If successful, additional payments on the SPS scheme will be backdated to 2009.

In summary, government policy on common land appears to have descended into chaos and hill farmers do not really know where they stand on their 2015 BPS claims. Commoners are responsible for managing some of our most cherished landscapes, especially in Cumbria; they deserve better.

HH Land

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