Ministry to be set up for rural matters

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The Independent Online
A MINISTRY for the countryside is to be created by Tony Blair in time for his first cabinet reshuffle, expected before the end of July.

But speculation that it will be called the Department for Agriculture and Rural Affairs has already been rejected by ministers - because ministers feel it smacks too much of the country romps described in author Jilly Cooper's best-sellers.

The new ministry has been under consideration for some months, and it is not a reaction to yesterday's march.

It is expected to take in a number of responsibilities from other departments, particularly John Prescott's Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), and The Independent has been told that Mr Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, is "relaxed" about an improvement in countryside responsibilities.

Gavin Strang, the transport minister in the DETR, touched on one of the areas that could move into the new department at the weekend - rural transport - when he said that better traffic management measures were needed for the countryside.

"In the coming months," he said, "we want to see work start on a handful of local schemes, across the country. These might include speed limits and traffic-calming features, parking and access controls, new ways of consulting local people, and provision for cycling, walking and horse riding."

Mr Strang also accepted the dependence of country-dwellers on their cars - lending weight to a campaign by rural Labour MPs for next month's Budget to provide relief for their constituents if Gordon Brown. the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is planning an additional "green tax" on petrol.

Dan Norris, Labour MP for Wansdyke, told BBC1's On the Record programme yesterday: "I hope the Government - when they are thinking about green taxes - just recognise the particular needs of the countryside, because any sort of across-the-board taxation that tries to deal with the problem without taking into account the particular needs of rural communities will be very unwelcome, and very unjust."

Michael Meacher, the environment minister and the only minister to join the countryside march, told LWT's Jonathan Dimbleby programme yesterday that ministers would listen to and learn from the evident concerns of country people.

He also said that he was looking for "conciliation" on any legislation that might be introduced against fox-hunting.

There were "particular issues" about hunting that could be changed, but Mr Meacher added: "I accept the point that it is a conservation issue. If you were to ban fox-hunting, you've still got to cull foxes. They do a fearful lot of damage to livestock and in other ways, so it's a genuine conservation issue in the countryside. I accept that."

William Hague, the Conservative leader, who was also on the march - as was Paddy Ashdown of the Liberal Democrats - said that ministers should carry out more U-turns following last week's announcements on greenfield development and the right to roam.

"We are having a debate about all this on Tuesday in the House of Commons," he said. "I hope the Government will be able to announce then that they can take more notice of people on the march."