Ministers get lessons on life in the country

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Senior civil servants and ministers are to be given rural awareness training as part of a package of measures to help farmers and boost the countryside's profile within Government.

Senior civil servants and ministers are to be given rural awareness training as part of a package of measures to help farmers and boost the countryside's profile within Government.

Ministers and Whitehall mandarins are to be trained in "rural policy skills and awareness", and civil servants will be sent on secondment to "rural bodies" to learn how the countryside works.

A leaked draft of the Rural White Paper, sections of which have been rewritten by Downing Street, sets out a programme to regenerate rural communities - including an extra £37 million to boost rural market towns. Farmers will be given financial incentives to move beyond agriculture and found riding stables as well as plant trees for timber and tourism activities.

"For at least some farmers seeking to diversify, the smaller scale equestrian enterprise may be a promising way forward," the White Paper says. Britain's 1,700 livery stables and 1,600 riding schools and stables and stud farms will receive rate relief, and farmers who want to adapt farm buildings for "small scale equestrian use" will no longer have to gain planning applications.

"One example of an area where existing farm assets can be reused in a diversification business is small scale horse enterprise such as stables for trekking or livery," the draft White Paper says.

An increase in funds to encourage woodland planting to £200 million will help farmers "create new woodland" on redundant farmland.

The White Paper reveals plans to introduce a new law to protect Commons and village greens for the use of local people and their livestock. The law will modernise ancient regimes on commons, many of which have mediaeval origins, and protect them from overgrazing and improve their management.

"We plan to legislate as soon as Parliamentary time allows to provide for the protection of all commons for the benefits of future generations," the Paper says.

Local communities, including Post Offices and shops, will receive a boost including rate rebates and the installation of computers to give communities better access to services.

The power of parish councils will be boosted by the White Paper, expected to be published within the next 10 days, although to increase standards they will have to pass a "quality test", which includes a requirement that all parish councillors are elected.

Restrictions on building on the most valuable agricultural land will be relaxed with the final say in whether such fields can be built on removed from the Minister's hands.

To protect the countryside, developers building in rural areas may have to contribute "financially or otherwise" to meeting rural needs under a new scheme to be consulted on. Farmers who plough up tracts of uncultivated land will have to carry out environmental impact assessments to ensure it does not have a negative impact on birds, animals or plant life.

Ministers will stress that the Rural White Paper is designed to support rural areas that are adapting to change. In future all policies will be "proofed" to check their impact on the countryside.

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