Labour misses targets for improving the countryside

Labour faced embarrassment at the start of its first rural conference yesterday over its failure to meet targets on the environment and improvements to the countryside.

Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who opened the conference in Shropshire, was criticised by opposition MPs for missing goals on air quality, water quality in rivers, wildlife havens, recycling and composting.

Research by the Liberal Democrats showed the department had suffered "slippage" in its public service agreements with the Treasury. The department's annual report admitted there had been "no measurable improvement" in nationally important wildlife sites, while there was "slippage" in targets for reducing air pollution.

Malcolm Bruce, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, said the department was a "shambles". "On the environment you need enthusiastic and committed leadership and there is no evidence of that from Defra ... They set themselves targets and when they miss them, they drop them or rewrite them or put a spin on it," he said.

Mrs Beckett said she was ready to "make a start" revitalising the countryside after her department received an extra £850m in this week's spending review.

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