Country needs not met claim campaigners

RURAL campaigners in East Anglia have backed a watchdog's claim the majority of Government departments have "done the minimum necessary" to put the countryside's needs at the heart of policy making.

RURAL campaigners in East Anglia have backed a watchdog's claim the majority of Government departments have "done the minimum necessary" to put the countryside's needs at the heart of policy making.

Ewen Cameron, chairman of the Countryside Agency, said only half of Whitehall departments had done anything more than the bare minimum, which was not good enough if "rural proofing" was to become a systematic part of the Government's policies.

Mr Cameron added it was a bold move by the Government to commit itself to "rural-proof" its policy-making. It also asked the Countryside Agency to monitor that process - and the first report revealed how its departments had performed.

"So how has Whitehall performed in this first year? The picture is mixed. Overall, I would say some useful progress made, but still a long way to go," said Mr Cameron.

He was not convinced policy-makers were giving enough thought to the impact on the countryside and people who live there when they developed strategies

"I have seen little sign of a fundamental shift in departmental policies," insisted Mr Cameron. "Some important areas of government, like those dealing with social exclusion, largely overlook rural needs."

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David Ruffley, Conservative MP for Bury St Edmunds, said there had been "no evidence" of rural proofing in his constituency.

"I am thoroughly sick and tired of urban new Labour ministers sitting in offices in London, spinning and using rhetoric that is the opposite of the reality in rural areas," he added.

Malcolm Bruce, rural affairs spokesman for Liberal Democrats, said the report was "further evidence" the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was "once again failing to justify its own existence".

The report called for plans to modernise the post office network and an end to uncertainly about the scope of the Universal Bank "so sub-postmasters and customers know where they stand".

Jon Richardson, of the Suffolk branch of the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, added: "There has been a lot of talk, but I don't think there is anywhere near enough being done to protect rural post offices."

But a Defra spokesman said the report was a welcome and important first assessment of rural proofing across government.

"It shows that all departments have made basic preparations and more than half have gone further. We will continue to work hard with the Countryside Agency and other departments. Rural proofing can and will make a real difference to rural people," he added.

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