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Countryside concerns as Defra slashes budget

[Monday 29 March 2010]

Farmers, landowners and countryside conservation groups will be waiting anxiously to hear what rural initiatives will be hit after the environment department Defra announced at the weekend that it will slash its budget by £194 million as part of Government plans to reduce the country’s huge deficit.

So far, with a general election only weeks away, the Government has been reluctant to announce major cuts in the big spending departments like health and education but Defra Secretary of State Hilary Benn rushed to make public his department’s savings. They will not come into effect until the 2012/13 financial year should Labour still be in power.

Defra is a comparative minnow in it spending compared with other departments but the fact that is was the first to come out with concrete plans has been taken as an ominous signal by countryside observers.

As one of the “Cinderella” Whitehall ministries, it has suffered swingeing cuts in the past. When Gordon Brown was Chancellor, he slashed budgets for coastal and inland flood defences – just before two years of catastrophic summer floods across England – and the department’s veterinary budget.

This led to allegations that a foot and mouth outbreak from a government veterinary research department in South East England was caused because the laboratory did not have sufficient funds to repair leaking drains. Since then, plans are underway to make livestock owners pay millions of pounds in levies to pay for anti-disease measures.

Government funds to the so-called “shire counties” have been systematically transferred to the inner cities since New Labour came to power and many courntry people hope that Defra’s promised cuts will be re-examined if the Tories win the coming general election.

Feedback received on this subject:

Defra has complete jurisdiction over farmers in England. The British Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer have complete control of agriculture in England. What they proposed and decide for England does not affect their constituents in Scotland and they are therefore unaccountable to those for whom these cuts will be deadly serious.

The Scottish Parliament, supported by greater grants per head of population than England administers areas of agriculture and fisheries in Scotland. This perversion of democracy will continue until we have political and constitutional parity with Scotland in an English Parliament answerable only to voters in England.

Scilla Cullen Hitchin, Hertfordshire, England

If the budget for England is cut but Wales and Scotland is protected, English Farmers have only themselves to blame. There is no English Farmers Union or English Minister to go to.

There is only one thing that terrifies politicians and that's an English Parliament. Use it or lose it.

Tally Durham

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