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Monday, 11 June, 2001, 18:11 GMT 19:11 UK
New green ministry faces tests
Cows culled in the foot-and-mouth crisis
Maff was attacked over its handling of foot-and-mouth
By BBC News Online's environment correspondent Alex Kirby

A traditional British approach to a problem is to set up a committee to deal with it.

The word already from within Maff is that the ministry is not being broken up

Ian Willmore
The political equivalent is often to create a new ministry, hoping it can avoid its predecessors' mistakes.

Farming and the countryside in the UK are in deep trouble, and the environment is not as healthy as it could be.

Enter Defra, the new super-green ministry.

It must have seemed to the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the logical way to solve two interlocking sets of problems.

At one stroke he has got rid of the little-trusted Maff (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food), and of the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR).

Friend of business?

Maff was widely seen as the friend of agri-business, and of failing to act as the champion of consumers and the environment.

To be fair, it was never easy to combine the two roles.

But Maff was also blamed for failing to act decisively against the horror of BSE ("mad cow disease").

Margaret Beckett
Mrs Beckett is briefed over foot-and-mouth
Now it is accused of underestimating the devastation of the foot-and-mouth crisis, and at the same time of grotesquely over-reacting to it, slaughtering millions of animals which should have been spared.

Maff may not have been guilty as charged.

But public perceptions count, and too many people saw it as the architect of the countryside's woes.

The DETR was different.

It was an unwieldy ministry, with some achievements to its credit, notably on international climate change diplomacy and on wildlife protection.

But it failed to make any noticeable impact on the UK's arthritic transport system and it also drew criticism for its handling of the trials of genetically-modified crops.

So Defra, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, appears to make good sense.

The government says it "will spearhead a major new drive on green issues and the countryside".

It will also take on "the environment, rural development, countryside, wildlife and sustainable development responsibilities" of DETR.

So far, so good.

But one question is whether Defra will be a marriage of equals, or a case of one ministry swallowing another.

No break up?

Ian Willmore, of Friends of the Earth, told BBC News Online: "The word already from within Maff is that the ministry is not being broken up.

"Officials there say it's expanding, and they clearly see it as assuming some of DETR's responsibilities, not the other way round.

"Another drawback is that Defra has lost responsibility for both transport and planning.

"They'll go to the new Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions.

"The Labour election manifesto spoke of building a hundred new bypasses, and there's the whole question of the national waste strategy.

"What environmental input will there be into the siting of incinerators and the building of roads?

"Separating planning from the environment is very problematic indeed."

There is no perfect model for reforming Whitehall and many attempts to do so will look to the sceptics like attempts to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic.

Nick Brown
Maff's last boss
But nor is there any reason to assume that Defra will fail.

Margaret Beckett, appointed to head it, needs to combine competence with forcefulness.

There is an appetite for a different sort of farming, a new deal for the countryside, and tighter environmental regulation.

The sceptics should hold their fire and see what she can deliver.

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