Where are we with grants for farmers, and why do we need to know?
Firstly, grants for farmers have been a very significant help to farm businesses as they develop and modernise. While the government agonises over how to get growth and many people urge them to develop national infrastructure, farms have been helped to build their infrastructure by a series of grant schemes that go back to WW2. In that time, they have of course changed, as governments and increasingly the European Union have used them to encourage businesses to adopt new practices (remember silos?) or take up new opportunities such as diversification. Along with changes in direction have come ever more complex rules, which have demanded understanding and interpretation – even negotiation. They have become more restrictive – no longer grants for ‘mainstream practices’ for instance, so nothing for crop storage equipment but wait a minute: there has been for adding value to crops, so a little imagination has seen some large-scale plants get at least some grant contribution. And they have remained quite generous – the most recent Defra RDPE Rural Economy Grant had a maximum rate of 40%. Other industries would love to have nearly half their capital costs met from outside with no repayments. But the present round of the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) came to an end in December last year. It is over. The new Leader groups that empowered local people to decide which projects to support and who to award grants to have spent their funds (up to £4 million each) and national schemes have probably finished (though there is still the possibility of another round of the small grant scheme – FISS). The next round of RDPE is now scheduled to start in January 2015. We don’t yet know what will be in it, but we can make some educated guesses:
- There will continue to be capital grant schemes. The whole pot for them may be more restricted and grant rates may be reduced, or the types of development may be changed, but we can still expect to see assistance for water management, for diversification and for adding value to production. Collaboration will continue to be encouraged where appropriate.
- The Leader process will be encouraged and more local groups will be set up. We had four in Norfolk, with a large area in the centre of the county excluded. The County Council will be keen to see the whole county involved – and not just with Defra programmes but other European funds allocated more locally.
- There may be some new measures to encourage young people and new entrants into farming.
- There will be stricter checking that the benefits expected of a project (like jobs created or improved efficiencies) actually happen. There may even be claw-backs if they don’t. While this sounds like jobs for the boys, the EU will argue that it is public money and should be scrutinised thoroughly – will that make any difference to some of our continental compatriots?
One thing that Defra will probably want is a brisker start to the next round. In 2007, when the current RDPE got under way, nearly a year had passed before any applications for grant were made to the Leader groups, and the first two years were very slow. EEDA, who were managing the scheme at that time, also had few early applications. How to make it quicker? Defra could help by indicating what will be supported and how schemes will be operated. Norfolk County Council is helping by doing some initial design work on where to have Leader groups – join in the debates and help to make sure that they meet local needs. Businesses can help by planning, planning and planning – by doing the initial work on capital projects now so that early applications can be made in 2015. Think about the regulations that will have to be met; the licences and approvals (family as well as authorities) that will be necessary; the order in which things will have to be done; the training that will be needed to make the thing work; make sure there’s a good understanding of the market; get local support lined up; and begin to ensure the match funding that will be needed. Work on the design and the budgets to make sure the case is robust – less money in total for grants will make each application much more competitive. Get professional help if you need it and be open to challenges and suggestions for improvement. Get ready for the 2015 grants’ starting gun!