Cumberland News 19th Oct

FURY erupted yesterday as the Government slashed a £20 million Cumbria foot and mouth aid package proposed by its own rural recovery tsar. Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett waited just two hours after Lord Haskins unveiled his eagerly-awaited report before slapping down one of its key recommendations. She said a proposed £40 million national fund to keep crisis-hit business afloat over the winter - half of which was earmarked for Cumbria - would be cut back to £24 million. Disappointment turned to anger as it emerged that only £14 million of that sum would be new Government money, with regional development agencies expected to provide the rest from existing budgets. Last night it emerged that the whole of the North West will get just £7 million Treasury cash. The North West Development Agency (NWDA) will top that up with £3million currently earmarked for other projects in the region. NWDA chief executive Mike Shields said that would leave Cumbria with £8.5 million to replenish a £5million recovery fund for rural businesses which was exhausted two months ago with£15 million worth of claims still outstanding. It is less than one-fifteenth of the £130 million the county's rural task force claims is needed to head off an economic crisis this winter.

Cumbria Tourist Board chief executive Chris Collier said Mrs Beckett's announcement guaranteed a stream of businesses would go bust over the winter. "I am sure that will happen," she said. "We felt even Lord Haskins's £40 million was understating the case.

"Our research shows the majority of businesses have already used up their reserves in getting through the summer. Usually they build up money during those months in order to survive the winter. "We felt Lord Haskins's report lacked a sense of urgency and we were looking for Government to show that."

Mrs Beckett told the Commons yesterday she was "not able" to give the sum identified in the Haskins report but claimed the payout was a "step in the right direction". She said: "Lord Haskins's main recommendation was that affected small businesses need help to see them through the winter. "I'm pleased to announce an extension of the business recovery fund in the worst affected regions. We will consider later in the year whether it is possible to provide more."

The move sparked cross-party anger from Cumbrian politicians.

Mike Ash, Liberal Democrat deputy leader of Cumbria County Council, said: "This is shambolic at a time when what is needed is clear, simple and decisive action. "We are not talking about an enormous amount of money. It is a few cruise missiles and a sad indication of how seriously the Government is taking Cumbria's concerns."

Penrith and the Border Conservative MP David Maclean said: "Cumbria has lost £1 billion as a result of foot and mouth and now we are going to get just over £8 million while businesses in the county die."

Carlisle Labour MP Eric Martlew said: "Without extra money soon, good businesses in Cumbria will go under." Lord Haskins had published his long-awaited report on rebuilding the rural economy just hours ahead of Mrs Beckett's announcement.

The peer, appointed by Prime Minister Tony Blair to come up with firm recommendations, urged the Government to make Cumbria a pioneering "rural action zone". He gave 12 short-term recommendations to ease the burden on farming and tourism, and 10 medium-term priorities including reform of subsidies and a more co-ordinated approach to rural development. But he said he had struggled to find any real evidence that the Cumbrian rural economy was on the brink of collapse.

Lord Haskins told The Cumberland News yesterday he had always known the Government was not duty-bound to accept his findings. He added: "It is very difficult to identify those rural businesses that are really suffering when others are doing rather well. "What you have to do is support those businesses who through no fault of their own are in trouble."

County council leader and Cumbria foot and mouth task force chairman Rex Toft said Mrs Beckett's announcement would cast a shadow over the launch today in Penrith of an ambitious county action plan. The task force idea for a rural action zone would require at least £25 million new Government cash for the next five years to usher in a new age of "greener" farming.

It includes a £100 million "Fresh Start" programme to encourage environmentally-friendly agriculture and boost tourism and other rural businesses.

Lord Haskins has stressed that bids for money for the scheme should be "realistic" and "cost effective".

Lord Haskins has stressed that bids for money for the scheme should be "realistic" and "cost effective".

Mr Toft said: "We have had a catastrophe in Cumbria and this is totally inadequate. It is appalling."