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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 November, 2003, 00:38 GMT
Rural agencies set to merge
Farmer generic
Bureaucracy and confusion in rural services has been criticised
Services to rural England face a shake-up after an official report said they were bureaucratic and confusing.

Government adviser Lord Haskins proposed merging some of the many different agencies for the countryside into a new "integrated" rural agency or super-quango.

He also said there should be less centralised control from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Defra should concentrate on developing policies, but leave the delivery of them to regional and local bodies, he suggested.

Farmers can face up to 16 different inspections from various people turning up with clipboards to monitor their activities
The BBC's Tim Hirsch

Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett indicated that most of his suggestions were likely to be accepted.

"The report is compelling in its analysis of the rural delivery landscape as confusing for customers and too bureaucratic and centralised to meet our future challenges," she said.

Farmers also welcomed the report in principle, but said they were keen to look at the recommendations in detail.

Management principles

The new super-quango suggested by Lord Haskins would be created by a merger of wildlife watchdog English Nature, the Rural Development Service and parts of the Countryside Agency.

This new land management agency would have a wide range of functions, from nature protection to the handing out of grants to farmers.

Lord Haskins insisted his plans would strengthen English Nature, rather than axe it, as green groups had feared.

The system... is over-centralised and simply does not take account of local and regional needs
Lord Haskins
However, his suggestion that the Countryside Agency should be abolished was immediately rejected by Mrs Beckett, who said it should continue on a smaller scale.

Lord Haskins told a press conference: "The system, like all systems in government, is over-centralised and simply does not take account of local and regional needs.

"My recommendations are based on two principles of good management.

"The first is clarity about the different roles of policy making and policy delivery, and the second is devolution of delivery away from central government."

Lord Haskins said merging some of the agencies' functions would actually make them stronger.

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that by separating them from Defra and the policy-making role, they would be able to concentrate on giving independent advice to Whitehall.

"Under my arrangement, they will be heard much more clearly than they are at the present time."


Sir Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers' Union, said: "We have always said that there should be a clearer separation of responsibility for policy and delivery functions and that delivery should be brought closer to the customer by devolving greater power to regional and local organisations."

Sir Martin Doughty, who chairs English Nature, said he was "reassured" that under the new arrangements it could still give independent advice to the government.

Sir Ewen Cameron, chair of The Countryside Agency, said: "Changing circumstances demand some change in structure.

"But within these, we will continue to be an independent voice on behalf of those people, advising the government and monitoring the effectiveness of its rural policies."

The report is compelling in its analysis of the rural delivery landscape as confusing for customers and too bureaucratic and centralised
Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett

The cost of implementing the recommendations is estimated at 107m over three years, although it would eventually lead to savings of around 29m a year, according to the report.

Detailed proposals for change are expected next year.

Defra currently has an annual budget of more than 4.5bn and employs more than 10,700 people.

Lord Haskins' long-awaited review was announced more than a year ago by Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Previously Lord Haskins, a Labour peer, headed up the government's Rural Task Force, which was set up following the foot-and-mouth crisis.

The BBC's Peter Lane
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