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The Haskins report: missed opportunity - or political ploy?

Friday 14 November 2003

Our countryside correspondent John Sheard tries to overcome his cynicism of politicians in the countryside - and fails

WHEN it comes to politics and the countryside, I have been accused of cynicism so often that this week I almost came to believe it. But after five days trying to digest the Haskins review on "rural delivery" - his words, not mine - and find some real meat in it, I must now admit I have failed.

The report is not only acutely boring - which may or may not be accidental - it to me represents yet another failure by Government to even understand what is seriously amiss in country life.

As for putting right those ills, it comes up with the same old formula: re-shuffle the civil servants and hope that, somewhere amongst them, there is someone who has the faintest inkling of how the countryside works.

To recap, after the total cock-up of the foot and mouth debacle two years ago Labour peer Lord Haskins was asked by the newly created Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to come up with suggestions on how the Government could deliver services in a way that would help, rather than hinder, rural areas.

Even at the time, I thought this a bit odd. After all, DEFRA had just been created out of the ruins of the old Min. of Ag. Didn't anyone decide what DEFRA should do before setting it up? It costs tens of millions to create a new ministry (as well as a new wave of total confusion) so didn't it have a series of goals from Day One?

Haskins himself is a decent chap who farms in the East Riding and was for a long time chairman of Northern Foods, one of the most successful companies in the region. Trouble is, he had already been labelled one of "Tony's cronies" and, sadly, Northern Foods produce a lot of the junk which is turning many of our kids into obese monsters.

He spent two years travelling the planet to cadge ideas from other countries and came up with a 170-page report that I could have written without leaving my desk. It's main theme: let's stir up the various civil service agencies working in the countryside and merge many of them into one.

At first, that sounds a good idea - unless two of the bodies likely to go, the Countryside Agency and English Nature, happen to be about the best things Government has in the countryside. They are highly respected and, in my dealings with them over the years, seem to know what they are talking about.

This rings warning bells: this Government merged the National Rivers Authority into the Environment Agency soon after it took office and, in its few short years, the NRA had done wonders in cleaning up our waterways.

But it had made too many waves (pun intended). By launching hundreds of prosecutions against polluters - Yorkshire Water being one of their main targets in this area - the NRA upset a lot of people. Since it was merged, it has become as silent as the grave.

And here we come to the crunch of my (admittedly cynical) summing-up. The Haskins' report is either long and boring because, like all Government documents, it is written by people with zero literary skills.

Or it is so deliberately in pursuit of another favourite Whitehall tactic, obfuscation i.e., muddying troubled waters so that no-one can see what is really going on under the surface.

And here I see the dread hand of the arch-obfuscator John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister and former leader of the now bankrupt Hull City Council. Next year, he is making us vote in a referendum on a new Yorkshire Regional Parliament, which country folk need like a hole in the head;

You see, the main drive of Lord Haskins' report is that funds for countryside regeneration should be handed out by local authorities or regional development agencies like Yorkshire Forward.

If Prescott gets his new parliament, there won't be many local authorities left - certainly not in North Yorkshire - so who will get their greedy little paws on any cash meant for the countryside? The new wave of politicos from Hull and Sheffield, Leeds and Bradford. And they know even less about rural affairs than DEFRA.

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