Politics: Tories incensed by Prescott's blueprint for the regions

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The Tory head of a rural development body resigned in protest last night after the Government handed most of his empire to its new Regional Development Agencies. examines plans to breathe new life into the English regions.

The countryside would be left to fend for itself under an urban-biased system of development agencies to be set up under Labour, Lord Shuttleworth claimed last night, as he quit his post as chairman of the Rural Development Commission.

But John Prescott was entirely unmoved. "He's gone - happy retirement. I think the rural areas will be better off without him," he told MPs. There were Tory cries of "disgraceful!" as he added that the peer was about to leave anyway and was well aware that the Deputy Prime Minister had "no intention whatsoever" of asking him to stay on.

While the Rural Development Commission, which would be reduced to a mere advisory role and possibly engulfed altogether, was unhappy, other countryside groups had welcomed yesterday's White Paper, Mr Prescott added.

Lord Shuttleworth complained that the nine new agencies would cover such large areas that they would be bound to have an urban bias.

"Rural people and countryside communities will yet again wonder whether the Government really listens to their views and concerns," he said.

Mr Prescott announced yesterday that the part of the Government's comprehensive spending review which related to rural policy was being speeded up. Too many different bodies were responsible for what went on in the countryside, he suggested.

The new agencies will be modelled on bodies which already exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They will work with local authorities, Training and Enterprise Councils, industry voluntary groups, and government, and will have three main functions.

First, the agencies will produce and implement strategic economic plans for their regions. They will cover economic development and regeneration, and will contribute to the planning of transport and land-use.

Second, they will work to attract inward investment to their regions and advise ministers on bids for regional assistance grants.

The new bodies will also be given responsibility for administering European development grants, along with a number of other sources of regeneration funding.

Sir Norman Fowler, the Tory environment spokesman, said the bodies would have the power to acquire green-belt land for development, and this could lead to the countryside being spoiled. "These are not elected bodies but will be appointed entirely by government ministers. They are the creatures of Whitehall and they will be unaccountable to the public..

There were also complaints from a former Conservative local government minister, David Curry, that the agencies might end up wasting resources by competing with each other to attract investment. He said that what Britain needed was a single inward investment agency.

The White Paper will be followed by a Bill within the next few weeks.

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