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BLAIR'S RURAL RECORD RAPPED

09:00 - 12 November 2003

Tony Blair's rural troubleshooter yesterday delivered a stinging indictment of the Government's rural record - warning that radical reform would be needed to improve services to people in the countryside. In a devastating critique, the Labour peer Chris Haskins said the Government's "confused and over-centralised" system for dealing with rural issues frequently resulted in "unsatisfactory, wasteful outcomes".

And he warned that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs needed a major overhaul to improve its service to rural communities. In his long-awaited report on the future delivery of rural policy, Lord Haskins outlined sweeping changes that could affect the work of more than 3,000 staff at Defra and other agencies. And he warned that the problems were too serious to be addressed in a "piecemeal" way.

Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett welcomed Lord Haskins' report and said she accepted his analysis of the problems facing the department. She added: "The report is compelling in its analysis of the rural delivery landscape as confusing for our customers and too bureaucratic and centralised to meet our future challenges."

But Mrs Beckett said the report should not be seen as a criticism of staff. And although some recommendations will be acted on quickly she hinted that other parts of the report may not be implemented for years - if ever.

Lib-Dem Rural Affairs spokesman Andrew George welcomed the report, but warned that change must not be used to mask cuts in Government support for the countryside. Mr George, MP for St Ives, said: "Defra suffers from the perennial problem of this culture of having more visions than Mother Theresa and more pilots than British Airways, resulting in a confusing alphabet soup of agencies, initiatives and funding streams. "The department has been a rather sorry catastrophe and I am glad Lord Haskins is shaking it up. But I shall be watching this process very carefully because I fear it will be used as a smokescreen for reducing its commitment to the countryside."

Under the proposals, unveiled yesterday, Defra would lose direct responsibility for delivering farming, environment and rural schemes worth hundreds of millions of pounds a year.

Lord Haskins said the changes would free up the department to concentrate on drawing up better policies.

Responsibility for delivering rural policy would largely be divided up in three ways:

A new "land management agency" would deliver the new breed of "agri-environment" schemes that are replacing direct farming subsidies with payments to protect the landscape.

Lord Haskins said the agency should incorporate the independent nature watchdog English Nature, the rural advisory body the Countryside Agency, the Forestry Comission and Defra's Rural Development Service.

As such the agency would have responsibility for balancing the needs of wildlife with the demands for access to the countryside.

But conservationists have warned that it could lead to wildlife losing an important independent advocate in Government;

Regional Development Agencies would take over responsibility for delivering farm diversification schemes and for giving rural business advice. They would also co-ordinate programmes for breathing new life into market towns and villages.

Juliet Williams, chairman of the South West Regional Development Agency, said there would be "overwhelming benefits" for rural communities in devolving service delivery to a local and regional level;

Local councils would also pick up new responsibilities for delivering rural policy in areas such as regulatory inspections on farms and for local initiatives, such as revitalising village halls.

Lord Haskins said merging different inspection regimes could cut the number of on-farm inspections by three-quarters.

Oliver Baines, of the Cornwall Rural Community Council, described the existing system for accessing grants for rural charities and volunteer groups as "terribly tortuous".

But he added: "The secret is how local and accessible you make the grant schemes. "We want to see them near the communities they serve in Devon and Cornwall."

Mrs Beckett said she accepted the principle of the new land management agency, but it will require future legislation. And she said "much work" was needed to develop the proposals into a workable plan.

Other recommendations, such as the abolition of the Countryside Agency, were rejected outright.

Somerset farmer Sir Ewen Cameron, chair of The Countryside Agency, said: "The Secretary of State acknowledges us an effective champion for rural issues.

The cost of implementing the recommendations is estimated at £107 million over three years, although it would eventually lead to savings of around £29 million a year, according to the report. They would also result in a shake-up within Defra, which was created just two years ago following the foot and mouth crisis and currently has an annual budget of more than £4.5 billion and employs over 10,700 people.