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HASKINS ADMITS RURAL FAILURE

 
09:00 - 06 June 2003
 
 Tony Blair's chief adviser on the future of the countryside yesterday
called for a "radical" shake-up in Whitehall in a tacit admission that
the Government is failing rural areas.

In a report which will send shivers through Whitehall, the controversial
Labour peer Lord Haskins proposed sweeping changes that could transform
the way in which the Government deals with rural issues.

In a thinly veiled criticism of the existing system, Lord Haskins said
future rural policy had to be more accountable, better co-ordinated and
better focused on the needs of the countryside. He also said it must
provide better value for money and adapt better to the changing needs of
rural areas.

Lord Haskins said policy makers at the Department for Environment Food
and Rural Affairs were "a long way" from farmers and other country
dwellers, and large elements of Defra's work should devolve to regions
like the Westcountry.

"Defra's agenda is complex and changing rapidly," he said. "A radical
rethink of delivery processes and structures will therefore be
necessary."

Lord Haskins was asked to conduct an inquiry into the Government's
delivery in rural areas last year, amid fears that it was failing the
countryside. He is due to produce a final report before the end of the
year. He acknowledged that his report would face fierce opposition from
"vested interests" within Whitehall, but said he was determined to push
ahead with change.

Exmoor farmer Les Winslade, whose animals were slaughtered as a result
of a bungled cull on a neighbouring farm during the foot and mouth
crisis, welcomed the thrust of the proposals. He said: "We all have to
deal with too much officialdom and there are too many jobs for the boys,
so if they can sort that out it would be a good thing."
 


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HASKINS REVEALS HIS FORMULA FOR CHANGE

 MARK CLOUGH

09:00 - 06 June 2003
 
  
 
What could be some of the most wide-ranging changes to the way the
Government's rural policies are implemented yesterday received a broad
welcome in the Westcountry. Leaders in the fields of farming, business
and regional government said that Lord Haskins' proposed shake-up of the
roles of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Defra) and many of the agencies it backs including the Countryside
Agency, Environment Agency and English Nature showed promising signs of
bringing about much-needed change.

Holsworthy farmer Des Shadrick, who is also a county and district
councillor for the area, said the proposals acknowledged the desperate
need for help in rural areas.

He said: "I personally have great respect for Lord Haskins. He has
recognised that there is a need for radical reform at a time of great
change in the rural economy.

"I don't think that currently we have a strategic overview across the
whole raft of delivery. We are so starved of resources, particularly for
rural development."

John Dawe, the chairman of the Devon National Farmers' Union, said the
message that seemed to be coming from Lord Haskins was similar in tone
to what farming leaders had told Food and Farming Minister Lord Whitty
in a recent visit to the Westcountry.

Mr Dawe said: "It is all very well for the Government to send out money
to the regional development agency and then they spread it around down
here, but a huge proportion of it seems to go to consultants and the
suits before a little bit dribbles down to the farmers.

"I would go along with the idea of things being more co-ordinated.
Sometimes we are told to do things that contradict what someone else has
told us to do. Perhaps there could be a bit of co-ordination between
what they want farmers to do in specific places and the tourism and
environmental side of things."

Farmer James Morrish, who also works for the Rural Stress Information
Network, said the idea of making things simpler was welcome.

He said: "If that is to be believed it will take away some of the
confusion for rural people hoping to get support and advice and reduce
their stress levels, which would help farmers and rural communities. I
see Lord Haskins has talked about improving value for money and I would
like to know how that will happen. It would be nice to think it might
mean a reduction in people walking round farms with clipboards."

>From the business perspective, Tim Jones, the chairman of the Devon and
Cornwall Business Council, said Lord Haskins' preliminary report
recognised the need for "radical surgery".

He said: "Defra is a multi-headed beast that needs to be trimmed down
radically. There can be no doubt that even after an enormous review
following on from the Maff fiasco, we are still looking at a highly
bureaucratic machine. There are areas which we must acknowledge that are
much better than under the old Maff, but we are still faced with an
organisation that produces a plethora of initiatives.

"What Lord Haskins has done is really a big wake-up call, in fact
probably the last wake-up call, that we have got because the rural
economy is going to have to fight its own corner with CAP reform which
will lead to a much more competitive market and much more uncertainty."

Mr Jones supported Lord Haskins' call for rural policies to be
controlled at a more regional level and said that the regional
development agencies were probably the only bodies that could do that.

He said: "They are the only people who have an overview of the regional
economy. I am not saying they are perfect at the moment, they will need
to be beefed up a bit.

"The problem is there has been this debate about agriculture being the
only thing that happens in rural areas and then the realisation that the
rural economy has got a lot more to it than just agriculture. For that
reason it has got to be the (rural development agency) that does this
work, they have got the best understanding of the region."

Coun Brian Greenslade, the leader of Devon County Council, welcomed the
principles proposed by Lord Haskins. He said: "They seem a sensible way
forward, reflecting concerns we have expressed through the consultation
process. The better co-ordination and delivery of services at national
and regional levels needs to cascade down to the local level, if rural
recovery is going to be realised on the ground."

But St Ives MP Andrew George, who is the Liberal Democrat Shadow Food
and Rural Affairs Secretary, said that although better accountability
and devolution were among the suggestions, they had come from someone
who was not democratically accountable.

He said: "There is no doubt Defra needs to improve delivery on rural
policies. But there is no point in recommending devolution of economic
and social policy if devolution means bringing it back into the arms of
central government through the guise of regional development agencies."

mclough@westernmorningnews.co.uk
 

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RADICAL PLAN FACES TOUGH OPPOSITION

 
09:00 - 06 June 2003
 
 Tony Blair's rural troubleshooter Lord Haskins yesterday admitted that
his plans for radical reform of the Government's countryside agenda
would face stiff opposition within Whitehall. Although the former
chairman of food giants Northern Foods was only publishing the "guiding
principles" of his review, the radical nature of his thinking was clear.

If accepted, his review would break up the Government's centralised
structure - which was so heavily criticised during the 2001 foot and
mouth crisis - and involved the delivery of rural policy to the regional
development agencies. The review would also lead to a major thinning out
of the plethora of Government quangos and agencies.

In an interview with the WMN yesterday, he admitted that change would
not be easy, but said he believed the political will was there.

"Vested interest will shout and holler, but we will have to overcome
that," he said.

Lord Haskins was reluctant to criticise Defra directly, saying only that
the department faced a "very complicated" task, with a broad agenda
where performance was "difficult to measure".

The scope of his agenda for change leaves little doubt that he believes
all is not well with the way the Government handles rural issues. He
said that he hoped the review would make rural policy "more efficient
and more responsive to local needs".

He added: "This is a very complicated area involving large sums of
public money and it has to be very carefully audited. Everyone hates
regulation and this happens to be one of the most regulated parts of our
society. The general view is that there has to be a change because it is
all too complicated."

Lord Haskins said that the Government was "scratching its head in worry"
about how best to adapt to the changing needs of the countryside,
particularly the changing face of farming. Perhaps the most fundamental
change proposed by Lord Haskins is the idea of splitting policy-making
from delivery. Under his plans Defra will be left in charge of making
headline policy, with the implementation left to the regions.

He said: "In my experience skilled policy-makers do not make skilled
operators. The skilled operators are often in the regions and that is
where they should be."

Lord Haskins is no stranger to controversy. In the past he has angered
large sections of the farming community by suggesting that thousands of
small farmers should quit the business and that those wanting to survive
should take jobs in local factories to supplement their income. He has
also been a keen advocate of GM food and is sceptical of the value of
organic farming.

By turning his fire on Whitehall he may find he makes new friends in
rural communities.