By Peter Bullen
A draft report will soon appear in ministers red boxes that will have a profound affect on the agricultural industry.
It will outline the shape of the governments new integrated rural policy. If radical voices prevail it could presage the arrival of a bigger, revamped MAFF.
The new Whitehall department would absorb all of MAFFs present responsibilities plus the rural development section of the Department of Environment. It would act as a channel for other Whitehall departments that have influence on rural policies such as transport, employment, education, health, defence and law enforcement.
Even the title Minister of Agriculture – the last departmental minister in the Cabinet – could disappear to be replaced by that of Secretary of State. For farmers and landowners it could usher in an era of simplified grant, subsidy and even planning applications, with "one-stop shops" a possibility in the future.
Such a drastic move would come as something of a surprise. But it has been consistently promoted by the Country Landowners Association from the moment the joint MAFF/DoE white paper was announced by the two ministers concerned, William Waldegrave and John Gummer, at last years Tory Party conference at Bournemouth.
Significantly, they chose the CLAs fringe meeting as the event at which to launch the move. Since then evidence has been pouring in from dozens of interested organisations and individuals. As well as farmers and landowners, environmental and local government organisations have had their say. Evidence has also been sought on how rural policies are implemented in other countries.
Leading the task of sifting the evidence and drawing conclusions are two senior civil servants: MAFFs Paul Elliott, who helped mastermind the changes to the milk marketing system last year, and Richard Shaw, head of the DoEs rural development division.
Should more moderate, conservative opinion prevail the shape of Whitehall departments would remain unchanged. Instead procedures would be recommended to ensure genuinely integrated rural policies can be developed and implemented.
This is what the NFU would prefer. It decries the "increasingly fragmented" administration of rural polices by several government departments and agencies. Unlike the CLA, however, it does not believe the creation of a single rural department would solve the problem.
"Indeed, we believe that such a development has the potential to make the existing situation worse," it says. One suggestion that has the attraction of
co-ordinating rural policies at the top without the need to juggle Whitehall departments has been made by several bodies. Town, county and district planners have joined the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and others in calling for a new Cabinet committee on rural affairs.
This could provide the compromise needed to "sell" the idea of an integrated rural policy to all the ministers, Whitehall mandarins and interested bodies concerned.
What is certain is that having raised great expectations, the White Paper must produce some bold measures. Just tinkering at the edges would be a betrayal of the whole of rural England.