Countryside tsar calls for farming to be overhauled

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The Independent Online

Farmers and rural businesses hit by foot-and-mouth disease must change radically or face extinction as "lame duck" enterprises, the Government's countryside tsar warned yesterday.

Lord Haskins, the Labour peer and businessman appointed rural recovery co-ordinator by Tony Blair, said government money was still needed to underpin farming and tourism through the winter. But in a report into the effects of the virus on Cumbria – the county worst hit – Lord Haskins said profound long-term change was needed in the rural economy.

At a press conference to launch his recommendations, he said: "There are certainly many farmers and businesses who deserve to fight on to another day. But in order to do so, they in turn will need to be resourceful, enterprising and fundamentally sound. It is not government's job to support lame-duck businesses."

Lord Haskins said a slump in exports and the collapse in incomes for farmers and other businesses meant continued financial support was vital. But he said the countryside must be "open for business" by next April and business practices must change.

Among the reforms needed was the closure of some livestock markets to stop farmers shuttling animals around the country, a practice blamed for exacerbating the foot-and-mouth epidemic.

Lord Haskins criticised the blanket closure of footpaths for up to five months by some local authorities, saying it had done nothing to halt the spread of the disease and damaged the tourism trade.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs responded to the report by announcing an extra £24m to boost rural tourism and economic recovery from the crisis, which has so far cost £4.1bn.

The Secretary of State, Margaret Beckett, said she recognised the need to help businesses through the winter, hinting that more funds could be available. But the cash was considerably less than the extra £40m that Lord Haskins said was needed to help countryside businesses across Britain, with Cumbria alone requiring about half that amount.

Lord Haskins' recommendations include: agricultural co-operatives to share costs for machinery purchases and to achieve higher produce prices; hill farmers to reduce their sheep flocks via a quota buy-back scheme and to direct them to conservation and land management; subsidies to be replaced by funding environmental sustainability and diversification.

Lord Haskins called on banks to continue offering support for their rural customers.

He criticised the "plethora" of agencies and programmes involved with rural development, pointing out that in Cumbria alone there were 160 bodies involved with tackling the crisis.

The National Farmers' Union welcomed the emphasis on financial support and the need for a "joined-up" rural economy. But Tim Bennett, NFU deputy president, said: "The need to get agriculture back into the black must remain the priority."

Conservationists said the Government could proceed more quickly with weaning the farming industry off subsidies reliant on producing excessive numbers of animals and crops.

Gregor Hutcheon, rural policy officer for the Council for the Protection of Rural England, said: "Current rules mean the Government can use 20 per cent of all subsidies for conservation and diversification. At the moment, they are pledged to use just 4 per cent."

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