Acres and acres of madness – and they call this reform
At the bottom of the garden we have a paddock, and on evenings like this I can think of no lovelier place on earth.
The buds have budded. The trees are in leaf. The lambs are making a racket. The rabbits show a boldness that verges on insolence.
Everywhere I look I see nature transpiring at every pore with the green joy of photosynthesis. I see the hawthorn blossom, rolling for miles in great gunsmoke clouds.
I see the shade starting to lengthen from the old oak, and the lovely rickety fence, on which I sometimes balance champagne bottles and shoot them off with an airgun, and I lie down on the springy grass and look up at the pale moon in the blue sky and I breathe a sigh of deep and unchallengeable contentment.
Sometimes, you know, I just can’t believe my luck. Because it turns out that I am not only the possessor of a magnificent paddock. I am a farmer. Yes, folks, I am a Tibullan agricola.
I am Marie-Antoinette. I have managed to hitch my wagon to the gravy train of the CAP and clamp my jaws about the hind teat of Defra.
By virtue of possessing 0.3 hectares of grass, excluding the dilapidated outside privy, I am apparently eligible for subsidy!
You think I am mad; but read the 98-page booklet provided by the Rural Payments Agency and you will find your lungs tightening and your lips blibbering into a pant-hoot of pure amazement at the insanity of our masters.
The government – Brussels – the taxpayer – whoever – is seriously going to pay me 10 euros a year merely for being the owner of this blissful patch of grass and rabbits. I don’t have to farm it, in any meaningful sense.
I don’t even have to graze a pony, though I could. I can use it for clay pigeons. I can use it for hot-air ballooning, it says here in the pamphlet.
I can organise motocross events or nature trails across the paddock. Provided I don’t do it for more than 28 days a year, I can even have car-boot sales.
I can invite Billy Smart’s circus to pitch their big top in the paddock, or I can let it out as a location for television.
Year after year, the cheque will come in from Brussels via Defra, 10 princely euros, as a thank you to me and my family for doing – well, for doing absolutely nothing except luxuriating in the existence of this paddock.
Weeping with laughter, I decide to ring the Rural Payments Agency to find out if I can possibly have read this right.
Yes, they say, it sounds like you qualify. Yes, they say, there are plenty of people who have been given subsidy entitlements for having pony paddocks, just like the one you describe. Yes, it is OK to mow it. Yes, it is acceptable to use the land for having barbecues, playing rounders or nude sunbathing. Yes, says the Rural Payments Agency, you can have a pony paddock and attract the subsidy, without going to the trouble of having a pony. Yes, says the agency (now with a tremor of exhaustion in its voice), you are right in thinking that you are getting the money for nothing at all except keeping the land in “good environmental condition”.
Fantastic! I say. Where do I send the form? And it is only then, of course, that I discover the catch.
My paddock qualifies in every respect. This beautiful, if tiny, corner of Oxfordshire is entitled to all the dignity that goes with being a CAP-funded estate – except that, like a complete fool, I missed the deadline, in May 2005, for registering my claim.
Through sheer stupidity, I failed to grasp that last year the government changed the basis on which agricultural subsidy is to be paid.
Under the reforms of the CAP, farmers are no longer rewarded for growing barley or rearing suckler cows. It is the end of paying Greeks for growing acres of fictitious olives.
Under the brilliant new single farm payment, the Greeks and the rest of us are to be rewarded simply for having grown acres of fictitious olives in the past.
You no longer need even to pretend to grow the olives; you simply have to show that you have title to the land and that you are keeping it in good nick, olives or no olives; and that is why the pony paddocks of England are now accompanied by EU subsidy.
If I missed the deadline, there were thousands of paddock-owners who were quicker off the mark, who whanged those forms into the Rural Payments Agency – and who caused the monumental chaos with which you will be familiar.
Across Britain there are farming families who have been driven deep into debt, and farmers who have contemplated suicide, because of the government’s disastrous failure to send out the single farm payments.
They were told they could expect the payment in December; then it was February; then March; and when, by mid-March, Margaret Beckett was forced to come to the Commons and apologise, it was obvious that the system was in meltdown.
And the reason it was in meltdown was at least partly because no one had predicted that the number of subsidy claimants would rise – from 80,000 to 120,000 – as the paddock-owners, the raspberry-growers, the filbert-growers and the possessors of 0.3-hectare marrow patches piled in to register their land.
And, of course, there will be some optimists who point out that the expense can’t be overwhelming, not at 10 euros a paddock.
But if you look at the Rural Payments Agency booklet, you will see how ever more of our countryside is now being sucked into a bureaucratic vortex of madness.
If you claim a subsidy for your orchard (as you may), you have to prove that your trees are 10 metres apart and that the trunks are one metre in circumference; and if you have more than 50 trees a hectare, you’ve got to prove to the inspector that the bases of the trees have previously been nibbled by sheep.
You can grow cucumbers, cabbages and cauliflowers, but not strawberries or mint!
Think of the new legions of bureaucrats being created, who will have to check whether or not you are running your subsidised nudist colony for more than 28 days.
Forty thousand new dependants have been created! Untold acres are now under new and pointless subsidy! And they call this reform? No wonder Margaret Beckett was promoted.