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11:00 - 31 January 2006

Tony Blair was accused of abandoning the Government's commitments to farming and the environment last night - after it emerged he had agreed a deal that slashes funding for so-called "green" farming schemes.

Farming experts last night warned that December's EU budget deal, which was hailed by Mr Blair as being in "the national interest", could see funding for agri-environment and rural development schemes cut by up to 35 per cent in the next few years.

The revelation could have serious consequences for the many Westcountry farmers who have heeded Government advice to take part in farm diversification, environmental stewardship and rural communities in recent years.

The deal has also been condemned by environmentalists, with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds describing it as "one of the greatest cock-ups of our time".

The Government has proposed plugging part of the gap by top slicing up to 20 per cent from the budget for traditional farm payments.

But this idea drew a withering response from farming leaders yesterday. Anthony Gibson, director of the National Farmers' Union in the South West, said Westcountry farmers faced a "double whammy" as a result of Mr Blair's deal.

Mr Gibson said: "This deal is totally inconsistent with what the Government has said about rewarding farmers for environmental goods. The result is that there is going to be a very severe shortfall on the rural development side - schemes will either be scrapped or crippled by a lack of funds.

"It all stems from Tony Blair seeking to secure his legacy by grandstanding over CAP reform without understanding the impact of what he was doing.

"The Government's proposed solution is to cut conventional farm support by up to 20 per cent, which would put farmers in this country at a serious competitive disadvantage.

"It is a double whammy."

"Devon farmer Andrew Baker, who has been involved in schemes to promote the environment, habitats and woodlands for many years, last night said that any cut in funding for rural development would be disappointing.

"Mr Baker, whose 500-acre farm at Silverton, near Exeter, is largely turned to arable and grass, said: "It sounds as if they had to take a cut from somewhere and farming was the softest target.

"If we do see a reduction on the rural development side then it will probably hurt me financially.

"But the broader question for society is what price are we prepared to pay for the environment?"

The rural development budget in the UK was worth around 1.6 billion over the last seven years.

A 35 per cent cut would see it reduced by 560 million over the next seven-year period, which begins next year.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last night insisted that the overall EU budget for rural development had not changed.

A spokesman conceded that this standstill budget would lead to a "real terms cut" over the next seven years, but he said the reduction would have a "tiny impact" and insisted that ministers remained fully committed to the green farming agenda.

But South West Euro-MP Neil Parish said the UK's share of the rural development funding could be cut by as much as 35 per cent, as the EU had agreed to give a much greater slice of the cake to the new member states in Easter Europe.

Mr Parish, a Conservative member of the European Parliament's agriculture committee, said: "The December deal means the older member states like the UK will have 65 per cent of what was available for rural development in the previous seven years - that is going to hurt.

"It also flies in the face of the Government's stated intention of encouraging farmers to look at diversification into agri-environment schemes.

"The Government's proposed solution of taking up to 20 per cent of direct farm payments to plug part of the gap is not on. It raises real competition concerns which I think the European Commission shares."

Lib-Dem rural affairs spokesman Colin Breed said that both farming and the environment would suffer unless the Treasury stepped in to make good the shortfall.

Mr Breed, MP for South East Cornwall, said: "The more detail we get about this deal the more it seems it is extremely bad news for farming and the environment.

"It flies against all the policies we have been trying to promote.

"The Government has been encouraging farmers to take up these environmental schemes.

"Many have done so and are now quite reliant on them. Unless the Treasury now steps in to fund the shortfall then farmers are going to feel the pain, because Defra simply doesn't have spare resources on this scale elsewhere in its budget."