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Telegraph Feb 18 2006
 
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/02/18/ndefra18.xml&sSheet=/news/2006/02/18/ixhome.html

Rural policy 'is more of a mess than before foot and mouth'


By George Jones, Political Editor
(Filed: 18/02/2006)

The government department responsible for tackling a possible outbreak of bird flu in Britain is slammed today for its handling of the foot and mouth crisis that devastated the rural economy five years ago.

A scathing academic report recommends that Tony Blair should consider stripping the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, headed by Margaret Beckett, of its responsibility for the rural economy.

The report said rural affairs had slipped down the agenda as Defra focused on other issues, such as tackling global warming.

Rural incomes continue to lag well behind the national average and economic growth in the counties worst hit by foot and mouth - Devon and Cumbria - is falling further behind the rest of Britain, according to the report Foot and Mouth: Five Years On by Newcastle University's Centre for Rural Economy.

Foot and mouth was first detected in Essex on Feb 19, 2001, but quickly spread across Britain. Around 2,000 cases of infection were confirmed but millions of sheep and cattle were culled to bring the disease under control.

The outbreak, which led to a postponement of the 2001 general election, cost an estimated #8 billion. Almost 6.5 million animals were slaughtered.

After the outbreak, Defra was set up as a super ministry, taking over from the old Ministry of Agriculture - which was widely perceived to be too closely identified with farmers' interests - in addition to responsibility for environmental protection and climate change.

Prof Neil Ward, the centre's director, said the result of setting up the "sprawling ministry" had been the reverse of what was planned, and a marginalisation of rural affairs in Whitehall. "The mishandling of the foot and mouth outbreak meant an animal disease wrought havoc on non-farming businesses in rural areas.

"Sadly, the bungling of the lesson-learning process has meant that policies for rural areas are in more of a mess than before foot and mouth struck, and those who suffered worst from the crisis have been let down," he said.

The report is a serious embarrassment for Mrs Beckett at a time when her ministry's preparations for any outbreak of avian flu are coming under increasing scrutiny.

Her junior minister, Ben Bradshaw, said on Thursday that Britain was increasingly likely to be hit by the disease, which had spread to mainland European Union countries.

The Government has drawn up plans to set up one-mile exclusion zones if any wild bird is found to be infected with H5N1. Inside the zone all poultry movements would be halted. If any poultry was found to be infected the entire flock would face being culled.

But Mr Bradshaw said an outbreak was not inevitable, and the Government was not "closing" the countryside in the face of the threat.

The Newcastle University report said it was now recognised that closing the countryside during the foot and mouth outbreak was a huge and expensive mistake.

Mr Blair's appeal for people to stay out of the countryside to avoid spreading the disease was blamed for worsening its impact on sectors such as tourism, which contribute more to the rural economy than farming.

The report acknowledged that contingency planning now referred to the need to have regard to the impact on the rural economy.

"However, there has been insufficient lesson-learning around how an animal disease became a rural economy crisis."