Civil servants may be sent down to the farm

HUNDREDS of civil servants could be sent from London to the regions to improve rural services and put them more in touch with the people whose lives they rule.

Lord Haskins, a government adviser and former chairman of Northern Foods, was asked by Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to carry out a review of her department (Defra) because many officials were felt to be out of touch with the needs of the countryside.

His views will be set out in an interim report next month to Mrs Beckett. He believes that the departments #3 billion annual budget could be spent more effectively. A final report is to be ready by the autumn.

The department has 3,000 senior civil servants out of a workforce of 14,000. One of Lord Haskinss main findings is that officials spend too much time devising ways to implement policy when they have no understanding and little knowledge of local mechanics such as the reality of life as a farmer or rural businessman.

He believes that core London staff should stick to policy formulation and leave implementation to experts in the regions. Officials based in the regions should instead seek out the views of farmers or businessmen before agreeing to an implementation plan.

Lord Haskins thinks that solutions to countryside problems could vary in different parts of the country. Such a system operates in France, where local boards of farmers and rural experts work out implementation of policy and rulings from Brussels.

Mrs Beckett asked Lord Haskins to carry out the internal review but it is understood that the impetus came from No 10 and the Treasury. Tony Blair is unhappy about the public perception that the Government does not care for the countryside, even though he created the department, with a specific remit for rural affairs, two years ago. The Treasury also has a keen interest because it wants to know if taxpayers money is being properly used and if there is duplication of policy work.

Reports of Lord Haskinss views are circulating in Whitehall and have alarmed many officials in the department and its agencies, the Countryside Agency, the Environment Agency and English Nature. They fear that Defra is being used as the guinea pig to speed up decentralisation of government departments.

One government source said: There are a lot of worried people in Defra. Its sinking in that the Haskins review is much bigger than previously thought. A lot of people are trying to second-guess and some might decide to quit altogether.

Lord Haskins is particularly scathing about the departments interpretation of European directives and cannot understand why implementation is not discussed with relevant experts. For example, on waste or pollution he believes that Defra officials should actively seek advice from the Environment Agency instead of autocratically handing them a flawed strategy.

He is also expected to recommend sweeping changes to Defras agency structure. He thinks that the Countryside Agency, the Governments lead adviser on rural issues, should become a real champion for the countryside throughout Whitehall. He believes that it should have more powers to keep check on each government department and its policies for rural areas in relation to transport, health, education, policing and the courts.

He also believes that there is need for a new agency to take on the role of English Nature, which advises on wildlife and plant life and habitats, and to combine this with a new remit keeping check on farmers receiving cash through various agri-environment schemes.

With the reform of the Common Agriculture Policy shifting payments from food production to stewardship of the landscape, Lord Haskins believes that there must be rigid controls to ensure that farmers are delivering a public good.