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Taken to the dentists - the rural watchdogs with teeth

Friday 30 July 2004

Our countryside columnist John Sheard mourns the demise of the Countryside Commission and English Nature, asking did they fall or were they pushed?

I STOLE three days off last weekend to do a bit of fishing just as the Houses of Parliament were closing down for their three month break (tough life, these MPs). I should have known better.

Modern politicians do their level best to bury any bad news and one of the best ways to do so is to make unpopular announcements at the end of the parliamentary term. They hope that by the time they reassemble, the opposition will have forgotten all about the matter in hand and not force unpleasant debates.

When it came to countryside issues, the announcement slipped in by Defra was that, after months of leaks, it is true: the Countryside Agency and English Nature, two government quangos which actually know a thing or two about rural life, are to be merged into one super-agency, along with other bits and pieces which have been lying around Whitehall since MAFF was killed off in the foot and mouth debacle.

My heart fell at this news because, although I had predicted it in these columns several times, I was hoping that my hunch was not true. For these two countryside watchdogs had teeth and were known from time to time to bite the hand that fed them. It was a fatal flaw.

Now I take a view of rural bureaucracy as dim as the bottom of a mine shaft closed down by Maggie twenty years ago. But these two shone the odd ray of good sense into the Whitehall gloom.

In January last year, I congratulated Ewen Cameron, then chairman of the Countryside Agency, on his New Year knighthood because here was a farmer, top businessman and deep down countryman who from time to time spoke out forcibly against some of the dafter Government plans for rural areas.

I should have known better because, sometime in the past 18 months, Sir Ewen has disappeared from the scene, to be replaced by a lady called Pam Warhurst, who also speaks out from time to time - toeing exactly the Government line.

Now I know nothing about this lady but one thing: whereas Sir Ewen made his statements in English, Ms Warhurst is much given to the gobbledegook jargon much loved by Blairite luvvies. As a result, she has not figured in these columns overmuch: if I can't understand what she is saying, how can I possibly translate it for our readers?

English Nature, too, faces the axe which is particularly sad for the Yorkshire Dales because they have done much good work here, protecting and re-introducing rare birds of prey and encouraging a return to old farming practices with breeds of cattle that can thrive on the high moorlands where over-grazing by sheep has caused much damage.

But English Nature also has form for speaking out against the boss and has made a particular hobby-horse of opposing new airport and motorway construction programmes with such power that even the Daily Telegraph gives them grudging praise.

Both are to go next year, subsumed into some super agency under the tight control of Defra. I fear the worst. The last semi-independent body killed off by this Government, the National Rivers Authority, had a short but outstanding record in fighting pollution and dragging polluters before the courts.

Since it was merged into the Environment Agency, along with the Rural Development Commission and others, it hasn't raised a single yelp. I fear that more canine teeth are about to be pulled and we shall end up with a kennel full of pleasing but useless lapdogs.

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