Government caves in to countryside campaign

New rural ministry planned as estimated 200,000 protesters march on London
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THE countryside is to gain a new voice in government under plans to create a department of agriculture and rural affairs (Dara).

The creation of Dara - which will alarm environmental groups - will be seen as another major concession to rural campaigners as more than 200,000 demonstrators from the countryside converge on central London today to stage a protest march.

At the same time the Minister of Agriculture, Jack Cunningham, has privately joined disgruntled rural Labour MPs in lobbying Chancellor Gordon Brown against big hikes in petrol and diesel duty in this month's Budget. A fuel hike will hit rural voters hard because of the lack of public transport and the distances that country dwellers need to travel.

Another concession to rural voters on the eve of the Countryside March was announced yesterday when Stephen Byers, the education minister responsible for school standards, promised to end the "stream of closures" of village schools. More than 450 have shut in the past 15 years.

The Countryside Alliance said it has discussed fielding its own candidates in elections although it has no plans to do so. Its problem is that, in areas where it might win any votes, at least one of the three main parties has a candidate sympathetic to the countryside.

Mr Cunningham is at the heart of plans to gain control of key countryside areas for his new department. Under the reform, Dara is expected to take from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions ultimate control of several quangos: English Nature, the Countryside Commission and the Rural Development Commission. The agriculture ministry (Maff) already controls the Farm and Rural Conservation Agency. However, ministers have shelved proposals which would have given Dara a role in controlling key areas of the rural economy including transport, health and education.

Instead, Mr Cunningham is to be given greater consultative powers to put forward the view of the rural communities. Ministers argue that rural poverty is rife and that a new department could speak up for the poor.

Nonetheless, the move to create the new ministry will be regarded as another striking example of the extraordinary influence that a group of wealthy - largely Conservative-voting - landowners have achieved over the Prime Minister.

The proposed ministry is a pet project of the Country Landowners Association, which went to see Tony Blair 10 days ago. As exclusively reported in the Independent on Sunday, Mr Blair blocked for months plans to introduce a right to roam afterlobbying by landowners. Modified plans were published last week only after the threat of a massive backbench revolt.

The landowners say that Maff needs something else to do when it loses its powers to regulate food safety to the new Food Standards Agency. But environmentalists say the old ministry has been responsible, through giving out grants, for destruction of hedgerows, hay meadows, ponds and other features of the countryside.

David Beaskine of the Ramblers Association said yesterday: "Giving the ministry responsibility for the countryside would be like putting vampires in charge of the blood bank."

Government reaction to today's march has been shrouded in confusion, with Elliot Morley, an agriculture minister, claiming it has been hijacked by the pro-hunting lobby but Michael Meacher, an environment minister, pledging to attend as a show of support for the countryside. The lack of clarity reflects the fact that many new Labour MPs are from rural seats.

On BBC TV's On the Record today Labour's rural backbenchers speak out against big fuel rises in the Budget. Dan Norris, MP for Wansdyke, will say that the Chancellor "mustn't forget that there are many people in rural areas who need their cars desperately".

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