10:42 - 21 November 2003 "This Government has poured resources into rural areas"
A WAR of words erupted in the Commons yesterday after Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett claimed the Government was "pouring" money into rural areas like the Westcountry.

She was "astonished" by Tory claims about "how terrible things are in the countryside" and said the Government was making "considerable progress" in meeting the commitments made in the Rural White Paper three years ago.

"Whether it's housing, transport, post offices or schools, this Government has poured resources into rural areas," she said.

Her comments provoked an angry response on the opposition benches, where MPs pointed out that rural district councils had been given a real terms funding cut in the local government settlement the previous day, while most urban areas had been given significant increases.

They also pointed out that the tight funding settlement could hit plans to provide more affordable housing in rural areas.

Shadow Countryside Minister James Gray said many of the targets met in the Rural White Paper were relatively minor ones that would do little to boost the lot of rural communities.

"The Secretary of State claims considerable progress, and certainly things like achieving EU sugar beet standards are perfectly laudable," he said.

"But frankly that sort of thing butters few parsnips in the countryside.

"The reality is that rural transport, rural policing, affordable housing, health services, services like shops and post offices - all those things are acknowledged to be getting worse, not better.

"Central government spending is lower in the countryside than in towns and cities, and rural council tax is higher for worse services. "If the Rural White Paper and annual updates are to have any value at all they should be demanding an analysis of how the Government is achieving what it set out to achieve.

If all they are is spin-doctors' self-congratulatory platitudes there is little point in having them."

Mrs Beckett said a review of the White Paper review, due out before the end of the year, was being carried out by impartial civil servants.

Michael Jack, chairman of the Commons rural affairs committee, said the recent review of the Government's rural services by Labour peer Lord Haskins had shown that fundamental reforms were needed.

Several other MPs raised concerns about the Haskins review, which has proposed merging independent wildlife watchdog English Nature with parts of Defra and the Countryside Agency.

Ian Liddell-Grainger, Tory MP for Bridgwater, said there was a real danger that the proposed new agency would create "a muddle of interference and bureaucrats" that would do little for either rural communities or wildlife.

Mrs Beckett said a full response to the Haskins report would be published next spring.