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RADICAL AGENDA MAY FACE POLITICAL TEST


09:00 - 12 November 2003

Lord Haskins unveiled a radical agenda for rural change yesterday, but as London Editor Jason Groves reports, it faces many hurdles

Chris Haskins has a reputation for speaking his mind - and he did not disappoint yesterday. His description of the Government's rural policy as confused, unaccountable, over-centralised and wasteful will chime with the many farmers, businessmen and local authorities in the Westcountry who have been forced to grapple with the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs or its predecessors over the years. So far, so good. The difficult thing is what to do about it. The proposals from Lord Haskins are certainly radical enough - stripping Defra of most of its delivery role and creating a new agency to deal with the changing face of the countryside. If it all comes to pass, Defra itself will be left to draw up policy in the light of national and international priorities, and fight for funds in Whitehall. Local and regional bodies would be left to implement the plans, using local knowledge to ensure money is well directed at genuine problems.

It all sounds an attractive idea - after all, the Westcountry has long complained that policy makers in Whitehall simply do not understand the problems the region faces. But there are many hurdles to be cleared before anything resembling the Haskins plan comes to pass. To start with there are legitimate concerns about whether the fledgling regional development agencies and cash-strapped local councils are up to the job. Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett yesterday suggested that "much work" was needed on this issue.

Then there are the institutional barriers. Yesterday's report prompted some very hard swallowing within Whitehall - so much so that its publication was delayed for a month.

Civil servants in Whitehall departments have waged innumerable, largely successful, battles against devolution in the past and they have been gearing up for a fight for months, not least because they see it as the thin end of the wedge that could result in large parts of Government being despatched from London.

There are some legitimate points here too. Years of institutional change involving more than 3,000 people and hundreds of job losses will inevitably create disruption and could further damage staff morale - neither of which will help the farmers and country dwellers who rely on Defra's services, however imperfect.

Mrs Beckett yesterday insisted that the reforms would not be "kicked into the long grass".

But there will be plenty of voices whispering in her ear that that is exactly what she would do with them.

The final decision, however, may not rest with her. Lord Haskins has the ear of Tony Blair and his findings are being viewed with great interest by the Chancellor Gordon Brown.

If Defra wants to argue that Haskins has come up with the wrong system, it will have to work sharply to come up with an alternative that could produce similar savings - or risk having it imposed on it by a Chancellor who may well see further opportunities for cost cutting in the countryside during the confusion of a major shake-up.