22 October 1999

Leaked report says shift emphasis from food production

By Isabel Davies

THE government wants farmers to become rural entrepreneurs and move the emphasis away from food production, according to a leaked report on the future of the countryside.

The report, compiled by the Cabinet Offices Performance and Innovation Unit, proposes radical changes which would see the biggest shake up of the rural sector for 50 years.

According to reports in The Times this week, the document includes the controversial suggestion that farmers should be able to sell prime farmland off for development.

Planning controls should be relaxed to allow the sale of land for housing and business development including tourist facilities, it says.

The report, which is due out within the next six weeks, argues that the idea of protecting prime farmland so it is available for food production is outdated and unnecessary.

But although this would allow some farmers, especially in the south-east to cash in, government is said to be considering either a windfall tax on gains or extending VAT to all new homes.

Also claimed to be included in the document are recommendations for the introduction of a pesticide tax, more farmers markets and initiatives to encourage farmers to produce more regional foods.

While the Treasury has so far held back from announcing the introduction of a pesticide tax, the report concludes that environmental taxes could help to support the objectives of rural economies and should be given more consideration.

The document also recommends that a new payment should be introduced to replace the Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowance for English hill farmers. Payments would depend on the farmer complying with environmental conditions.

Rumours about the contents of the potentially explosive report had been circulating for some weeks, but until now it had been thought that the most controversial recommendation was for MAFF to be abolished and responsibility for the farm sector moved across to the Department of Trade and Industry.

That suggestion has been met with dismay by the Country Landowners Association. "Burying agriculture in the DTI would be a disaster for the countryside and all the people who live and work there," said CLA regional director Frances Beatty.

The organisation believes that a more sensible solution would be to bring farming and the rural directorate of the Department of the Environment to create a new Department for Countryside and Agriculture. &#42