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Christopher Booker's notebook
(Filed: 07/03/2004)

Defra will devastate our rolling hills
A good idea wasted
John couldn't care less
Blessed be the Eurocrats

Defra will devastate our rolling hills

Farmers and conservationists are in uproar over an extraordinary decision by Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which seems designed to force thousands of farmers out of business, in blatant defiance of EU farming policy, and to make a mockery of her Government's wish to protect the environment in some of the most beautiful tracts of England's countryside.

On February 12 Mrs Beckett announced that, under a reform of the EU's farming subsidy system, English farmers will be divided into two categories. Across most of the country, in line with the new Brussels policy of replacing "production subsidies" with payments based on land area, farmers will get a flat-rate payment of 230 per hectare. But upland farmers in what are known as the Severely Disadvantaged Areas (SDAs) - including Exmoor, Dartmoor, the Lake District, the Pennines and North Yorkshire - will be even more severely disadvantaged: with a hectare rate as low as 65, they will end up losing about three quarters of their present subsidies.

This means that farmers in these SDAs will have to compete with the majority of English farmers receiving three times as much in subsidies. Furthermore the Scottish and Welsh regional governments have chosen a different system, based on existing subsidy levels, giving their farmers subsidies up to six times those received by their English SDA counterparts.

The biggest losers from Mrs Beckett's proposal, to be phased in over eight years, will be 5,000 cattle farmers, most of whom, the National Beef Association predicts, will find it impossible to survive. What makes this even more astonishing is that one of the chief aims of both the EU and our Government in introducing the new system is to preserve the countryside and the environment. Cattle husbandry provides the ideal form of management to preserve both.

Among those who are most alarmed by Mrs Beckett's proposal are conservation bodies such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and National Parks Authorities such as that responsible for 268 square-miles around Exmoor. They recognise that, without cattle, the present carefully maintained patchwork of small fields, hedges and walls typical of upland Britain will soon revert to bracken and scrub. Many wildlife species that rely on current farming practice, including birds, wild flowers and butterflies, will disappear.

Farmers themselves are, naturally, equally alarmed. Oliver Edwards, whose family has farmed around Exford in Somerset for generations, explains how he and his father have tried to do everything the Government has asked to improve their farm and diversify their business, from planting trees to providing accommodation for tourists. But their finances are so precarious that the loss of the 10,000 a year they get in subsidies for providing Waitrose with top-quality Aberdeen Angus beef would make the farm no longer viable.

The Exmoor park authority confirms that the loss, under Mrs Beckett's proposal, of a mere 4 million in subsidy to the area will put the future of 607 farms seriously at risk. (For comparison, arable farmers in Lincolnshire alone currently receive EU subsidies worth more than 100 million a year.)

The most puzzling question is whether Mrs Beckett is aware of the catastrophic consequences of what she proposes. Has she simply made an ignorant blunder, in imagining that all of the Severely Disadvantaged Areas consist of rough moorland which only justifies marginal subsidies - without realising that the surrounding countryside also includes a huge acreage of good land, invaluable not only to farming but to wildlife and tourism? Or is she, as some farmers fear, deliberately setting out to destroy a quarter of our livestock industry?

When Mrs Beckett recently claimed to the NFU conference that her reforms would "benefit all farmers" she met with cries of "rubbish". But she must still explain to her masters in Brussels, led by the EU agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler, just why her two-tier system appears so flagrantly to disregard Fischler's pledge that the new "area payment system" will not be operated so as to affect existing "production patterns".

If Mrs Beckett wants to be remembered for destroying some of the most celebrated stretches of England's countryside, she is going the right way about it. At least Mr Fischler should ask why she is disobeying his wishes in doing so.

A good idea wasted

Last month I reported the plight of Ross Donovan, the engineer who has developed a heating system fuelled by the used cardboard packaging that businesses generate in such quantities. More than 300,000 was put into proving its effectiveness, and at every step Mr Donovan consulted the Environment Agency to ensure that it complied fully with EC rules on waste and incineration.

Then at the last minute the agency took another look at the legislation and ruled that Mr Donovan's cardboard was not an "energy source" after all, but "waste", and he would have to fit his furnaces with costly monitoring equipment which would make them unviable. Yet the same fuel obtained directly from a packaging manufacturer would not be "waste", and the rules would not apply.

When Mr Donovan was taken by his MP, Alistair Burt, to see Elliott Morley, the environment minister, he was told that the officials would reconsider their disastrous ruling. He told the minister that he only had until the end of February, when his backers would pull out. Mr Morley did not respond by the deadline, and the investors last week pulled the plug on a project which would be warmly welcomed in almost any other EU country.

John couldn't care less

It is good to see how John Prescott's care for his fellow citizens extends to those on a council estate in the village of Barton, outside Cambridge. Reg and Edna Rayner are in their eighties and have lived for many years at 5 Allen Close. Some years ago they were asked by South Cambridgeshire council whether they wanted the support of a warden in their council bungalow; they said they could manage without.

Now, however, Reg is registered as blind and Edna has suffered a stroke. Following the death of their neighbour at No 8 across the road, who had warden support, Mr and Mrs Rayner asked the council whether they could replace him on the scheme. Their daughter Valerie sees them every day, but she goes out to work, and would have been grateful to know that a warden was on call if needed.

The council's reply was that Mr and Mrs Rayner could only get the services of a warden if they moved to No 8. It would not be possible for the warden to walk a few yards across the road, because a new directive issued by Mr Prescott under his "Supporting People" initiative had ruled out adding any new homes to the scheme. Despite the robust intervention of their local councillor, Robin Page, the well-known journalist and farmer, it seems the council is no longer allowed by Mr Prescott's policy to give people the support they actually need.

Blessed be the Eurocrats

The Pope, it was reported by The Times, is putting Robert Schuman, as "founder of the European Union", on "the path to sainthood". Although a shrine in Strasbourg honours the late French foreign minister as "the Father of Europe", for his 1950 "Declaration" proposing the European Coal and Steel Community, His Holiness may have been misadvised.

As was fully reported in The Great Deception, the history of the EU that I recently published with Richard North, Schuman was merely the front-man for Jean Monnet, who had been hatching the proposal since the 1920s. The Declaration was written by Monnet. It was Monnet who chaired the negotiations to set up the project, wrote the agenda and then became president of what he described as "the first government of Europe".

Whether Schuman deserves to be made a saint simply for reading out a piece of paper handed to him on a train as he left for a weekend in Metz is something between the Pope and his conscience.