Wildlife threatened by sweeping reforms of countryside watchdogs

Ministers are preparing to weaken protection for wildlife and the countryside in an unprecedented shake-up of England's official watchdogs.

The move, which is certain to cause a public outcry, is being seen as revenge for a successful obstruction of the Government's push for GM crops, and as a pre-emptive strike to undermine opposition to building new roads, reservoirs and airport runways across the country.

Ministers vigorously deny having ulterior motives, but are planning to push the changes through without holding the public consultation traditionally undertaken before changes of this kind.

The shake-up is to be part of a major revival of the Government's rural policies, to be foreshadowed in a speech by Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for the Environment, on Tuesday. Driven mainly by Downing Street and the Treasury, it will follow a report - to be published later this month - by Lord Haskins, Tony Blair's personal advisor on the countryside. Senior official sources say that it will largely paralyse the watchdogs for years while the reorganisation takes place. At worst, some say, it could cause them to be "abolished by stealth".

Details have yet to be finalised - and are not expected to be announced until the new year - but ministers are planning to subsume English Nature, the wildlife watchdog, and much of the Countryside Agency, its counterpart for the landscape, into a new body, provisionally entitled the Land Management Agency.

English Nature has infuriated Downing Street by stopping the Prime Minister's drive to introduce GM farming. It was its opposition that led to the setting up of the official trials, the results of which caused the Government to rethink its strategy.

Both it and the Countryside Agency have opposed major Government construction schemes, and are expected to be in the forefront of resistance to plans for seven new reservoirs, a massive roadbuilding programme, and for the expansion of airports.

The reorganisation is also likely to disrupt the Countryside Agency's introduction of the right to roam, a measure strongly resisted by Mr Blair in his first term, and weaken its role as the official "rural advocate", given to it in response to the countryside marches.

Under the plans, the Countryside Agency's responsibilities for access, National Parks and landscape protection will go to the new body, together with all of English Nature's functions. The new body may also take over responsibility for disbursing government grants for environmentally friendly farming, while the Countryside Agency's responsibilities for tackling rural deprivation will go to the new Regional Development Agencies, which report to the Department of Trade and Industry.

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