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Out: two countryside clowns. In: two saviours?

Friday 12 May 2006

After taking a week to realise that Tony Blair was being serious with his latest cabinet reshuffle, our rural life commentator John Sheard speculates that two of the new ministers could actually be good for the countryside

IT WOULD be very easy this week simply to scoff. The English countryside has lost two of its greatest enemies, Margaret Beckett and John Prescott, and it is very tempting to say "good riddance" and move on: the shenanigans in Downing Street seem a long way from the Yorkshire Dales so let them get on with knifing each other whilst we enjoy the beautiful spring weather.

But here is a shocking thought: I might have suffered from a touch of the sun but I have this rare feeling of optimism that slaughter at Number 10 might actually be one of the best things to have happened to the countryside for years.

David Miliband, heavyweight at Defra
David Miliband, heavyweight at Defra

Like the vast majority of the British public, according to a series of opinion polls during the week, I would have much preferred both Beckett and Prescott to be sacked because of their total incompetence in running their departments. To promote one to Foreign Secretary, and continue to pay the other £10,000 a month, plus two free homes, for doing nowt was to me an act of political madness.

Beckett, of course, has left English farmers paying an estimated £10 million a month in interest charges on the single farm payments they should have received a year ago, and Prescott has spent years diverting funds from shire counties to the inner cities, which is why our council taxes are so high. But there may well be a silver lining in this jet black cloud.

For a start, David Miliband, who has taken over the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is known as an excellent organiser who is not shy at standing up and saying his piece.

But there is an even more important reason for him to succeed in sorting out the mess left by Beckett. It is said that Blair sees him as a future Prime Minister - even as a potential rival to Gordon Brown - so he is not going to throw away his political future on another rag-bag of failure. At last, Defra has got a heavyweight at the helm and country folk can only benefit if he punches his weight.

It is not quite so easy to feel confident about the future performance of Ruth Kelly, who lost her job at education (a real bed of nails) but has taken over the responsibilities for communities and local government stripped from Two Jags/Four Homes Prescott. But there is some cause for hope in her background.

She spent much of her childhood in rural Northern Ireland, where her grandfather was a farmer, which means that she should have a real understanding the problems of rural life, unlike Beckett, whose contact with the countryside came with her caravan. That's not a bad starting point for Kelly.

But her new job title suggests intriguing possibilities. She is responsible for housing, roads and communities, and all those are matters of importance in the Yorkshire Dales. It was Prescott who famously scrapped the bypasses round villages on the A65 between Skipton and Settle, and that decision is now subject of a planning appeal.

With Prescott, there was little chance of the villagers winning their case. But as one-time country lass Kelly is now in charge of roads and communities, will she lend a sensitive ear to country folk whose lives are made a misery of noise, fumes and (often fatal) traffic accidents?

This, I admit, is pure speculation. No-one can predict what this government will do in the near future, not even Tony Blair himself. But we have got rid of two clowns, which must be good, and have two replacements with potential. Fingers crossed time, methinks.

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