Environment Secretary Hilary Benn last night signalled a significant shift away from supporting farming and rural areas as his cash-strapped department vowed to focus its funding priorities on tackling climate change.
Support for rural and farming businesses will be scrapped in favour of funding eco-projects in Africa and bankrolling inventions to provide alternatives to fossil fuels.
Westcountry MPs last night called for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to be broken up to end the unfair competition for money between the countryside and climate change.
In the week that Gordon Brown praised farmers for their “ingenuity, marketing, innovation and the sheer quality” of British food, funding for the agency tasked with marketing UK produce overseas is to be slashed by a fifth – leaving a £1 million black hole.
According to figures released by Defra, fisheries will also see a drop in funding along with Keep Britain Tidy, Natural England and some recycling schemes.
A package of measures to make millions of pounds of savings will see some 1,400 staff take voluntary redundancy, much of the funding supporting rural and eco businesses ditched and agencies ordered to make tough efficiency savings. For many agencies in the South West, confirmation of the funding ends months of uncertainty.
Challenged last night to explain why the emphasis was being placed on the environment element of its responsibility at the expense of food and rural affairs, Defra said it had made “no secret” of Mr Benn’s priorities.
Food for Britain – which works to boost Britain’s £1.5 billion food export market – will see its Defra funding fall by 20 per cent to just £4 million, half the figure it received six years ago.
Tory shadow farming minister Jim Paice said: “Just days after pledging his commitment to the British farming industry, Gordon Brown is slashing the budget of Food from Britain.
“If the Prime Minister is serious about promoting British food he shouldn’t be cutting the budget of the organisation that does just that.
“Once more the rhetoric bears little resemblance to the reality and farmers are again left with the thin end of the wedge.”
But Mr Benn insisted the Government was working with farmers “to support a thriving industry”.
He told the WMN: “The increased Defra budget this coming year will help ensure we manage animal disease and environmental risks effectively alongside industry, including provision for future outbreaks.”
The livestock industry faces a multi- million-pound levy as part of “cost sharing” plans to deal with animal disease.
“We will invest in responding to environmental and animal health challenges through a £60 million research programme as well as through CAP reform,” Mr Benn added.
The main areas to see increase are eco-projects, including millions of pounds being spent abroad.
Some £800 million will be spent on “tackling environmental challenges in developing countries” while funding for low-carbon technology will rise to £400 million.
Extra cash has also been found for dealing with rubbish and going some way to shoring up UK flood defences.
Mr Benn said: “Now is the time to act together to tackle climate change and protect our environment. The Government must lead the way by ensuring we are investing in building a low-carbon Britain.”
Tory MP Geoffrey Cox said facing up to the challenge of global warming was admirable and necessary but rural areas should not lose out as a result.
“Ministers have set these priorities that mean money will go into environmental schemes and come out of rural affairs and agriculture, but they shouldn’t be competing.
“Defra needs to be broken up – it is badly managed, financially bust and the consequences will be felt as a severe blow to rural communities.”
There will be increases in funding for the Rural Development Programme for England – but along with cash for farm subsidies, this is largely dictated by Brussels while the areas for which Whitehall is responsible are being squeezed.
Last night National Farmers’ Union director-general Richard Macdonald said: “Those budget headings over which the Government has a large measure of discretion, such as animal health and the Waste and Resources Programme, face significant cuts, in order to allow for increases elsewhere.
“Overall, it would say more for the Government’s commitment to fighting climate change if new money was being found… rather than having to be cobbled together from cuts imposed on other important areas of work.”
Natural England received £181 million this year but Mr Benn confirmed that will fall to £176 million. Although the cut is not as bad as feared – plans were drawn up in December to find £12 million of savings – the agency tasked with safeguarding the countryside and coastline has admitted “a mixture of reducing activity spend and staff spend was the only acceptable solution in the short term”.
The RSPB warned there would be a lack of funds for reversing the decline of many birds including skylarks, lapwings and stone-curlews.
The conservation charity said some £300 million was needed to implement the biodiversity action plans that would ensure the survival of at-risk species.
Defra officials acknowledged the settlement was “tough” despite a 1.4 per cent increase in real terms on this year’s budget.
The budget announcement for 2008-09 comes after Defra’s permanent secretary, Helen Ghosh, told a committee of MPs in November last year that savings of between £130 million and £270 million were needed to meet new ministerial priorities.
A recent crisis meeting with ministers was forced to consider making £1 billion of cuts over three years.
Wrap, the waste reduction and recycling agency, will see a 30 per cent reduction in its funding on 2007-08.
It said the cut was “disappointing” but in line with expectations, and its final budget of £43.2 million remained a substantial sum to deliver its programme to promote efficiency and lessen the impact of climate change.
The Environment Agency, which is in charge of much of the flooding measures, welcomed the settlement of £796 million, up by around £130 million on last year.
By Matt Chorley
22 February 2008
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