26 January 2004 Western Morning News

Government policy was 'flawed', rural rail improvements on hold, no guarentee for post offices

Ministers have admitted they still do not fully understand the problems facing the countryside - or the best way to tackle them.

In a frank assessment of the three-year-old Rural White Paper the Government has acknowledged it still has difficulty in grasping the challenges facing rural areas like the Westcountry.

The document also concludes the White Paper - billed at the time as the answer to the problems of the countryside - contained a number of serious flaws. The review found that the White Paper's "aspirational vision" had "proved difficult to quantify" and warned that there was a "lack of prioritisation", making it hard to target the communities in most need. The report also said that in many areas it had proved impossible to tell whether the new policies had made a real difference to the lives of rural people. And it acknowledged that rural policy had "lost momentum" as a result of the 2001 foot and mouth disaster.

In an introduction to the document, which was presented to Parliament last week, the Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett insisted that "much has been achieved" on the rural agenda - with almost half of the White Paper commitments met and others on target. But she acknowledged that ministers were still struggling to get to grips with rural problems, adding: "We now need to establish a shared understanding of these challenges and the necessary evidence in support so that we can focus Government intervention on those areas and people who need the help most."

Mrs Beckett said that a "refreshed" rural strategy would be published in the spring.

But Anthony Steen, Conservative MP for Totnes, said he had little confidence that the new strategy would be more effective than the existing one. He said: "There is a pattern with this Government when they don't know what to do. They set up an inquiry, which costs money and takes forever; then they take more time responding to its recommendations; then they announce that they have the solutions; and then a little while later it gets reviewed and the whole process starts again.

"In the meantime nothing happens - there are thousands of people needing affordable homes and none being built."

Tim Jones, chairman of the Devon and Cornwall Business Council, also voiced doubts about the Government's ability to get a grip on the rural agenda. Mr Jones, a member of the South West Rural Task Force, said: "Among the people I meet and talk to in the rural economy there is very little confidence that the key problems are going to be resolved. I'm afraid we have seen an awful lot of strategies and reviews, without an awful lot of progress being made and a certain amount of cynicism has started to set in."

Paul Tyler, Lib-Dem MP for North Cornwall said it was inexcusable that ministers and officials were still struggling to understand problems that had blighted rural areas for years, such as poor public transport, a lack of affordable housing and the decline of farming. Mr Tyler said that rural communities had been let down by successive Governments which concentrated their efforts on the heavily populated towns and cities. "It seems extraordinary that ministers are still grappling to understand problems that have been known about in the countryside for years," he said.

"I am glad they are beginning to realise that we have pockets of real deprivation - they exist as a direct result of a lack of joined-up government.

"The vicious triangle between the high cost of housing, inadequate public transport and a lack of jobs is absolutely critical, but it is not new.

The penny should have dropped years ago - to come along in 2004 and start talking about it is not good enough."

The review's findings suggest that Defra is preparing to throw in the towel on the White Paper's aim of stemming the closure of village shops and services.

"The vision for public services is too broad and needs to be re-cast," the review concludes. "It is not realistic or sustainable for public services always to be retained in villages."

The review also concludes that the role of farming in the rural economy was given "undue" prominence in the White Paper - suggesting that agriculture will be just one strand in a far wider economic programme in the new strategy.

"In fact agriculture is but one, albeit an important one, component of that economic activity," the report concludes.

Ian Johnson, spokesman for the National Farmers Union in the South West, welcomed the review's broad findings, but warned against downgrading the role of agriculture.

Mr Johnson said: "If you add together all the jobs in farming and the support industries, and you look at its huge profile in tourism and maintaining the landscape, then I think it is obvious that farming is not just important to the rural economy, but vital. I welcome the acknowledgment that very little has happened - that is probably putting it mildly - and I hope we will see a change of attitude. The trouble is we don't need more strategies - we need profit. Everything else will flow from that, but the only way to achieve it is to make sure that everyone in the food chain plays their part.