Countryside policy shakeup threatens cull of agencies

Lord Haskins wants to break up the agriculture department to give better value for money and help reduce bureaucracy

Peter Hetherington, regional affairs editor
Sunday July 13 2003
The Observer

Farming and country stewardship in England is facing its biggest shakeup for more than 50 years. Pressure is mounting for a new land management agency and the breakup of the two-year-old Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Senior ministers will be told shortly in a report they commissioned from the Labour peer Lord Haskins that a radical overhaul of agriculture and countryside policy is needed to give the taxpayer better value for money and to reduce bureaucracy.

Lord Haskins' concern has been underlined by another report from three leading rural academics, to be published shortly, which accuses the government of failing to learn the lessons of the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak by continuing to support farming at the expense of the rural economy.

It says neglect of this wider dimension in the continuing debate about farming is a "worrying indication" that the government has yet to come to grips with the state of the countryside.

The reports come amid concern that the livestock population is rising much faster than anticipated, with little sign of the anticipated shake-out in the industry after the foot and mouth epidemic.

Many farmers have taken advantage of generous government compensation to restock, raising fears that supply could eventually exceed demand again. This has led to some farming experts accusing ministers of storing up problems by writing farmers a blank cheque.

Under Lord Haskins' proposals, a string of quangos, from the countryside agency to English Nature and the forestry commission, would be merged into one organisation. It would also have overall responsibility for 10 national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Lord Haskins' review, which began last September, has set alarm bells ringing in parts of Whitehall because he is likely to recommend that many centralised services should be devolved to the regions.

His key recommendation will involve slimming down Defra to purely a policy department, with its delivery functions going to regional development agencies.

Lord Haskins, the former boss of Northern Foods, has been feeding his proposals into a review of civil service dispersal currently being undertaken for the government by Sir Michael Lyons, who has been asked by ministers to identify which Whitehall departments, and government agencies, can be moved out of London.

Lord Haskins said yesterday that unless radical changes were made in the delivery of rural support, the present system would be unable to cope with changes in the EU's common agricultural policy.

He said he would be offering "strong, clear opportunities for the regions" by taking delivery functions away from Defra. "That is a message not just for Defra, but right across Whitehall ... nobody quite knows when things go wrong whether it's a policy or a delivery failure."

On the wider rural front, he envisages that a new land management agency will take over statutory responsibility for a string of agencies. He has identified 77 different funding streams in Defra alone. "The complaints I get _ are that people are completely confused about what they are getting."

The report by rural academics complains of a policy drift in Whitehall after the 32-week foot and mouth outbreak, which cost the country £8bn, according to the national audit office.

With direct compensation payments to farmers for more than 6 million slaughtered livestock put at £1.4bn, the NAO has pointed to both farmers and the wider agricultural industry ripping off the taxpayer with inflated livestock valuations.

With farming swallowing up so much cash, the report from a team led by Neil Ward, professor of human geography at Leeds University, bluntly warns: "The neglect of the rural economy dimension in the formal learning process is a worrying indication that wider rural policy lessons from foot and mouth may not be learned."

Lord Haskins' report comes as the government tries to move faster than other EU partners, particularly France and Germany, in reforming Europe's £30bn annual support regime, which has led to overproduction and "dumping" subsidised food in developing countries. Two weeks ago EU farm ministers agreed only a diluted version of proposals for slashing production subsidies. Consumer groups accused them of missing a golden opportunity.

Their concerns gained new momentum at the weekend after the resignation of the Home Office minister Michael Wills, who described the CAP as a "grotesque protectionist racket".