Parliament: Agriculture: Farmers get extra pounds 1.6bn to protect the countryside

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A RADICAL shake-up of cash to help farmers protect the countryside was announced yesterday by the Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, with a pounds 1.6bn package for the rural economy over seven years.

The extra spending will come as some relief to farmers driven to bankruptcy by the BSE crisis. It was more generous than expected after tough negotiations with the Treasury. Mr Brown said much of the money would be spent on advancing environmentally beneficial farming practices. This would include pounds 140m to encourage conversion to organic farming.

Each pound redirected to the new Rural Development Regulation would be matched by an additional pound of new spending by the Government, Mr Brown promised, to Labour cheers. Total spending on rural development would rise to pounds 295m for England in 2006/07.

Of the total sum over seven years, pounds 1bn would go on agri-environment schemes to help bring about environmental improvements in farming practices. A further pounds 85m would go for woodlands on farms, pounds 40m to encourage better marketing of agricultural products and pounds 150m on a new Rural Enterprise Scheme to promote development on and off the farm.

Mr Brown said the "radical redirection of support for agriculture" would benefit the countryside and rural communities. The National Farmers' Union welcomed the extra spending, but said more should have been won from the EU budget by the Government.

The union warned that thousands of farmers would lose out because half of the new money was coming from their own pockets. The NFU president Ben Gill said: "At a time when farm incomes are under critical pressure, we are extremely concerned at these plans to take money in this way out of farmers' pockets from 2001 onwards. The proper way to have funded this would have been through an adequate allocation from the EU budget."

A Friends of the Earth spokeswoman, Sandra Bell, said: "We are disappointed that the minister is taking money away from farmers across the board instead of diverting resources from the bigger farmers to smaller farmers who are committed to sustainable ways of farming."

The Shadow agriculture minister Tim Yeo said the Government package did nothing to address the crisis which was "destroying" the British livestock farming sector.

He said: "It does nothing for pig farmers wondering whether their business can survive beyond Christmas, nothing for dairy farmers hit by falling prices, nothing for beef farmers whose hopes of rebuilding export markets have been undermined by one Government blunder after another."