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Countryside agog at cabinet massacre

[Monday 08 May 2006]

LEADERS of countryside organisations were both delighted and amazed over the weekend as they tried to absorb the future implications of Tony Blair's weekend massacre of cabinet ministers.

There was almost universal delight at the removal of Margaret Beckett from the rural affairs department Defra after the debacle at the Rural Payments Agency, which has pushed thousands of farmers to the edge of bankruptcy because its farm support payments are a year overdue.

Dales hill farmers welcome the back of Becket
Dales hill farmers welcome the back of Becket

But, at the same time, there is amazement that 63-year-old Beckett has been promoted to the key role of Foreign Secretary at a time when the Middle East seems like a powder keg on the point of explosion.

Mrs Becket is succeeded by David Milliband who said of his appointment: "I am very excited to be leading a department whose agenda touches everyone's life - from the local environment in urban and rural areas, from the farm to the consumer, to the future of the planet.

"It is particularly humbling to take on the challenge of climate change, the greatest of global threats. There are no quick answers so it will be through our actions over years that we show our resolve and effectiveness. That is what I intend to do."

Similar mixed feelings surround the fate of John Prescott, who is to be allowed to stay on as Deputy Prime Minister with all his perks despite being stripped of all his departmental responsibilities like housing development, roads and regional government, all of which have attracted massive controversy.

Prescott, who will keep his £134,000 a year salary, his two grace and favour homes and his state Jaguars, is no friend of the Yorkshire Dales or the countryside as a whole. He personally scrapped plans for bypasses around villages on the A65 between Skipton and Settle and has been responsible for diverting billions of pounds of government grants from shire counties to mainly Labour urban areas.

Farming Minister Lord Bach paid the price for the RPA debacle, losing his Defra position. One of his last acts as Minister was to announce that farmers will not face penalties for late applications for the Single Payment Scheme. The move followed severe delays at the RPA in distributing the forms to claimants.

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