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Western Morning News July 22 2004

Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett yesterday announced "radical" changes to the way in which the Government's rural policy is delivered - amid warnings that this would do little to help the region's struggling farmers.

In a statement to MPs Mrs Beckett announced she was going to start implementing the package of reforms put forward by controversial Labour peer Chris Haskins last year, to improve the Government's performance in the countryside.

Mrs Beckett said the changes would mean responsibility for delivering rural policy would be devolved to regional development agencies and, eventually, local councils in an effort to make it more responsive. She said that the number of Government funding schemes for rural initiatives would be streamlined from more than 100 to just three, to make assistance easier to access.

Last night the South West Regional Development Agency appeared to question whether it would be given enough extra cash to make a significant difference. And opposition MPs said the institutional changes would do little to tackle the rural Westcountry's acute problems, like affordable housing and the dairy crisis.

Angela Browning, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, said ministers still did not understand that farmers were responsible for the landscapes and environment which the Government wanted to protect.

Mrs Browning said that Mrs Beckett's "rather twee" picture of the countryside would be swept away unless the Government acted to prevent the destruction of the farming industry.

She added: "When the animals leave Devon over the next ten years - which they will - it will not look like the chocolate box Mrs Beckett imagines; it will look like a wilderness."

The Lib-Dem rural affairs spokesman, Andrew George, welcomed the "general thrust" of the reforms, although he warned it was "pointless having a strategy cloaked in conceptual language and talking of a vision if it actually achieves nothing".

He too said ministers were paying too little attention to the plight of agriculture. Mr George said that farmers were already being forced out of business at the rate of 12 each day. He said the new strategy gave little clue as to how the Government would tackle the lack of affordable housing in rural areas.

Tim Yeo, the Shadow rural affairs secretary, said there was still no sign that ministers understood the countryside. He described the Government's new strategy as "vague and riddled with jargon" and said he was "appalled" by the lack of focus on the problems of farming.

"Why won't the Government stand up for rural communities in a practical way?" he asked. Mr Yeo also said it was "absurd" to expect "unaccountable, bureaucratic" RDAs to understand the needs of the countryside.

But Mrs Beckett said devolving the delivery of grant schemes to RDAs would help make them more responsive. She said the organisations would be given an extra 27 million a year to help meet the new challenges, although the amount received in the South West could be as little as 1.5 million.

Colin Molton, director of operations and development at the South West RDA, last night gave the reforms a cautious welcome.

"While the modernisation of rural delivery is to be welcomed," he said, "we are anxious to make sure we will have the necessary resources to tackle this important new area of work."

Mrs Beckett said legislation would be brought forward next year to create a new super-agency to tackle land management, countryside access and wildlife protection issues. The Countryside Agency will survive in a slimmed-down advisory role.