Farmers in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset penalised due to lack of internet
Farmers in remote areas should not be "penalised" for the Government's failure to roll-out broadband if they struggle to draw down subsidies under the new online-only system, industry leaders have said.
Ministers are ditching paper-based applications, and installing a new computer system, when the Brussels money is handed-out from 2015.
But the move to "digital by default" has raised concern among MPs – as previously reported in the Western Morning News – given that many have to cope with slow or limited internet connections in the countryside.
Now farmers' representatives have warned that for many landowners even being able to access the new system online is unrealistic.
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Speaking to MPs, George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers' Association, said: "A big concern for us is the Government's drive to digital communications.
"We are quite happy to encourage our members to go for the digital solution.
"(But) frankly, there are a large number of individuals who will not be able to make the transition, and they should not be penalised because of that," he said. Mr Dunn said the option for farmers to apply on paper must be left open, "particularly in situations where broadband connections are pretty poor, or they do not have the skills to do that".
The Government has committed to rolling out "superfast" broadband to most of the country over the next few years. It is poised to miss its original target of providing 90% coverage across the UK by 2015, however, and has replaced it with a new target of 95% by 2017.
The Connecting Devon and Somerset scheme – one of 26 regional projects given public subsidy to expand broadband coverage, including £30 million from the Treasury and £20 million from local authorities – has a 90% "super-fast" broadband target for the end of 2016.
The £132 million Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Superfast Broadband scheme – which is funded by EU subsidies, rather than the UK government – is aiming for a higher percentage of premises – 95% – to be hooked up next year.
It is the final and hardest to connect to premises – the remaining 10% nationally and in Devon and Somerset or 5% in Cornwall and Scillies – that causes the most concern, and where farmers live.
The farming representatives were speaking to MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) select committee.
Westcountry farmers will be wary of a repeat of the late payment of grants, which pushed many into hardship, that was the hallmark of the last shake-up of subsidies in 2005, masterminded by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA).
During the hearing, Harry Cotterell, president of the Country Land and Business Association, said the RPA's performance has been transformed over recent years, and that it was vital the mistakes of the past are not repeated. "The priority initially must be to get the IT system absolutely right," he said.
Defra officials have insisted the new system is already being tested with farmers and that – this time – the Whitehall department had bought a tried-and-tested system off-the-shelf rather than building a new one from scratch, and suggested farmers are more technology savvy than often credited.