19 May 2000

Timetables needed for aid % reduction

By Isabel Davies

A NEW report by parliaments environment select committee says the government should set out a timetable for increasing the percentage cut in subsidy payments – known as modulation – to at least 10% and possibly 20%.

The report, which suggests what should be included in the forthcoming Rural White Paper, says ministers should also use "cross-compliance" mechanisms to ensure high environmental standards are maintained in return for subsidies.

It says the government should make a more determined effort to switch subsidies away from production and towards agri-environmental schemes.

Ministers announced in December MAFF would "modulate" payments from 2001 starting at 2.5% in 2001 rising to 4.5% by 2005. But MPs on the committee conclude modulation should be at least 10% by 2003/4 with a view to moving to 20%.

The report also calls for supermarkets to be more involved in their local communities, recommending supermarkets sell key products through village shops and aim to sell a much larger range of locally-sourced products in their stores.

By not making greater use of locally produced food supermarkets are contributing to the decline of the environment and the economy, the committee claims.

Among its other recommendations, the report suggests senior civil servants at MAFF should be replaced by a new team in order to breathe new life into the ministry. It criticises MAFF for a "glacial" rate of progress, claiming that even after years of shifting agendas MAFF appears to have largely stood still.

But in contrast with a report prepared by the Performance and Innovation Unit last autumn the committee suggest that agricultural land should continue to be protected.

It also rejects the PIUs call for relaxation in the planning system because it says this may lead to inappropriate development.

Alan Buckwell director of policy at the Country Landowners Association suggested the committee had fallen into the classic trap of seeking to "preserve in aspic" a quaint and unrealistic view of the countryside while failing to take on board the aspirations of people who live and work there.

An NFU spokesman said the union did not accept the use of modulation as a way of providing assistance. "With farm incomes in their current state it is unthinkable to propose taking more money from farmers in this way."

William Tew of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors agreed with the committee that high quality land should be seen as a national asset. &#42