15 June 2001

New name – new attitude?

By Johann Tasker

IT appeared overnight – down came the smart silver plaque. In its place, a hastily prepared brass plate, glinting under the street lamps outside the building which just minutes before was the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Thus the unwieldy-named Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was born. But Tony Blairs radical reshuffle had been finalised at the very last moment. Before accepting the top job, Margaret Beckett convinced the Prime Minister that the new department must also encompass Environment. Otherwise it would have been little more than a renamed MAFF.

For the first time since World War One, however, no ministry title contains the word "agriculture". So is the creation of the new department good for farmers? NFU president, Ben Gill, puts on a brave face: "The inclusion of the word food in the title is of enormous significance. Not to have had it would have been a mistake." Mrs Beckett has some way to go before she wins farmers trust. She angered protesting producers in London last year by suggesting that their mascot, Winnie the pig, was a fake.

But the appointment of a heavyweight politician as the first Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has much to commend it. A senior minister, Mrs Becketts appointment indicates that Mr Blair may just be planning a revitalisation of the rural economy, which many farmers feel has been neglected by a hostile Labour government.

Other evidence points towards big plans for the new department. Alun Michael, has long been a favourite of Mr Blair. His appointment as rural affairs minister heralds a return for the Prime Ministers ally.

Family farmers believe the department may herald a new direction for rural Britain. Food and farming must be viewed alongside other rural issues such as the environment and rural tourism, says Michael Hart, chairman of the Small and Family Farms Alliance.

"The first few days and weeks for DEFRA will be watched carefully to see if it is a truly new department with a new vision for the countryside. A balance must be sought between the various issues, and we must all work towards a balanced sustainable future for rural Britain."

There will be many battles ahead – not least because rural issues are increasingly political. But fights will be within the department rather than between ministries. environment minister, Michael Meacher, wants to introduce a pesticides tax, a policy opposed by former farm minister Nick Brown. Mr Meacher is also the man who pushed through the right-to-roam bill against many farmers wishes.

Not everything rural will be covered by the new department. Schools and transport are outside the remit. Planning will remain the responsibility of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.

Potentially, this gives Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, a leading role in rural affairs. William Tew, of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, believes this is a good thing. "Planning has to be approached from Westminster. It must stay as one issue within one department, which it has," he says.

When it comes to Brussels, many farmers may feel uneasy to see an environment secretary rather than an agriculture minister attending Farm Council meetings. But it could have been worse. Mr Gill says: "I was worried it would be a junior minister. The fact that Mrs Beckett is our key person shows that agriculture is still at the top of the tree."

Farmers will have to shout louder to get their point across. It is hard to see, for example, how Mrs Beckett could shut down the countryside and authorise the mass burning of carcasses because of foot-and-mouth. Such a policy devastated rural tourism, another area for which she has been given responsibility.

Nevertheless, influential people within the industry are eager to give the new department a chance. Anthony Bosanquet, president of the Country Land and Business Association, says: "The work starts now, on day one, to tackle the enormous task of kick-starting the rural economy and bring recovery and renewal to the countryside." &#42

A new ministry has risen out of the ashes of foot-and-mouth.

to commend it. A senior minister, Mrs Becketts appointment indicates that Mr Blair may just be planning a revitalisation of the rural economy, which many farmers feel has been neglected by a hostile Labour government.

Other evidence points towards big plans for the new department. Alun Michael, has long been a favourite of Mr Blair. His appointment as rural affairs minister heralds a return for the Prime Ministers ally.

Family farmers believe the department may herald a new direction for rural Britain. Food and farming must be viewed alongside other rural issues such as the environment and rural tourism, says Michael Hart, chairman of the Small and Family Farms Alliance.

"The first few days and weeks for DEFRA will be watched carefully to see if it is a truly new department with a new vision for the countryside. A balance must be sought between the various issues, and we must all work towards a balanced sustainable future for rural Britain."

There will be many battles ahead – not least because rural issues are increasingly political. But fights will be within the department rather than between ministries. environment minister, Michael Meacher, wants to introduce a pesticides tax, a policy opposed by former farm minister Nick Brown. Mr Meacher is also the man who pushed through the right-to-roam bill against many farmers wishes.

Not everything rural will be covered by the new department. Schools and transport are outside the remit. Planning will remain the responsibility of the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.

Potentially, this gives Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, a leading role in rural affairs. William Tew, of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, believes this is a good thing. "Planning has to be approached from Westminster. It must stay as one issue within one department, which it has," he says.

When it comes to Brussels, many farmers may feel uneasy to see an environment secretary rather than an agriculture minister attending Farm Council meetings. But it could have been worse. Mr Gill says: "I was worried it would be a junior minister. The fact that Mrs Beckett is our key person shows that agriculture is still at the top of the tree."

Farmers will have to shout louder to get their point across. It is hard to see, for example, how Mrs Beckett could shut down the countryside and authorise the mass burning of carcasses because of foot-and-mouth. Such a policy devastated rural tourism, another area for which she has been given responsibility.

Nevertheless, influential people within the industry are eager to give the new department a chance. Anthony Bosanquet, president of the Country Land and Business Association, says: "The work starts now, on day one, to tackle the enormous task of kick-starting the rural economy and bring recovery and renewal to the countryside." &#42

WHAT THE NEW DEPARTMENT WILL COVER

The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs brings together:

The Environment Protection Group from the former DETR; the Wildlife and Countryside Directorate from the former DETR; all the functions of the former MAFF; and responsibility for certain animal welfare issues and foxhunting from the Home Office.

DEFRA will sponsor a number of important Non-Departmental Public Bodies, for example the Environment Agency, the Countryside Agency, Meat and Livestock Commission, English Nature, Food From Britain, and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.

Margaret Beckett becomes the first Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Alun Michael is rural affairs minister. Michael Meacher is environment minister. Elliot Morley retains a position within government as a junior minister. He is joined by Lord Whitty.