Concern at rural government shake-up

By Rebecca SheppardCONCERNS have been voiced after a report recommended a major overhaul of the way government services are delivered in rural communities.

By Rebecca Sheppard

CONCERNS have been voiced after a report recommended a major overhaul of the way government services are delivered in rural communities.

Lord Haskins, the Government's adviser on food and farming, presented the report to the House of Commons yesterday and recommended English Nature should be abolished.

A new “integrated agency” would be set up in its place, which would merge the organisation with the Government's Rural Development Service and some functions of the Countryside Agency.

The shake-up of the agencies would allow Government rural policy to operate at a regional and local level with the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs dictating policy.

But Graham Game, development manager for Essex Wildlife Trust, said: “We would be concerned if another body was set up in lieu of English Nature if it lost the power and teeth that it has.

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“The thing with English Nature is that it worked. It is the Government's statutory body and it does feed back to the Government on nature conservation issues. It has on-the-ground input and we would want that to continue and to strengthen.”

Audrey Boyle, spokeswoman for Suffolk Wildlife Trust, said it was “cautiously optimistic” about the report's recommendations as long as the “conservation element was not lost”.

She added: “Our main issue of concern, if there is one, is that bio-diversity and conservation should be furthered and funding for that should not be lost.

“On the plus side, hopefully there will be a better efficiency and lack of duplication in the agency. The fact that policy and delivery would be on the ground could mean it would be far more effective.”

Wil Gibson, chief executive of rural charity Suffolk ACRE, said: “Any attempt to integrate services can be a good thing. The danger is that people like us that work with rural communities could lose out.”

Sir Ben Gill, president of the National Farmers Union, said it liked the idea of an integration of agencies so a more unified view was taken of delivery.

But he added: “As always, it cannot be overstated that the devil will be in the detail. For example, farmers will wish to ensure that there is a co-ordinated and consistent delivery across administrative boundaries.”

The Ramblers' Association said it feared public access to the countryside would be low on any new agency's list of priorities.

But the East of England Development Agency welcomed the report's recommendations and said the new agency would allow local problems to be addressed through local solutions.

Richard Ellis, its chairman designate, said: “There are overwhelming benefits for rural communities and business in seeking to achieve a regional focus, improved efficiency and giving communities a clearer understanding of the support available to address the needs and priorities of rural areas.”

The Government will publish its revised rural strategy next year.

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