Wrong-footed over the countryside

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The environment minister Michael Meacher put on a brave performance yesterday when faced with a BBC poll which suggested that 61 per cent of rural people feel the Government is out of touch with the countryside. "We are concerned about conservation of the countryside and biodiversity, and we want to link that with increased access for recreation. We want to make sure that Whitehall takes account of rural issues in all its planning," he said. Mr Meacher suggested that the forthcoming White Paper on the countryside would go a long way to allay the fears of country dwellers. "It is ambitious, it is visionary and packed with practical measures. When people see that, they will take a very different view on what Labour is doing than they do now."

Well, let's hope so. But the words sound pretty hollow this morning, as the Independent on Sunday reveals that Transport ministers plan to give the go-ahead to a huge boost in the road-building programme, ensuring that a sizeable number of by-passes and widening schemes now on the shelf will be dusted off - and that the bulldozers will start to roll across green fields.

The Government has talked at length about joined-up politics, about the left hand knowing what the right is doing. Well, transport and countryside matters both come out of the same department - John Prescott's overmighty Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions. If two arms of the same department have such different objectives, what hope for joined-up politics? This newspaper has called before for this huge department to be broken up, and the Deputy Prime Minister demoted. We do so again today. Michael Meacher's laudable ambitions for the countryside have little hope of success, we fear, while he is under the thumb of the man with two Jags.

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