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Defra's new 'contract' will re-connect with countryside

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 12, 2012

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The Government will today attempt to connect with voters in the countryside by unveiling a "rural contract" outlining its promises to voters in remote corners of the UK.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says it wants to "formalise" policies it has previously announced to tackle problems facing rural Britain, such as rolling out high-speed broadband and creating jobs in new industries.

The Whitehall department came under fire during Labour's 13-year tenure for neither understanding nor caring about the countryside.

And while the incoming coalition Government is at pains to stress its rural credentials, it has drawn criticism over the botched forests sell-off, planning reforms that critics warned threatened the countryside and blundering over the crisis in the dairy industry.

Last week, David Cameron sacked the two most senior members of the department – Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman and Farming Minister Jim Paice – during the ministerial reshuffle.

In the "rural statement", to be announced today, the department will stress plans it is implementing to boost jobs, end rural disconnect from Whitehall and improve quality of life in the countryside.

Officials explained the "contract" would work by using the document as a benchmark of what it is achieving.

The department has set up a series of lines of communications – including regional panels called "rural and farming networks", and a series of ministerial "rural roadshows" – to let ministers know if they are failing.

A number of targets stick out. Some £530 million of state cash, drawn from the licence fee, will fund a plan to give 90% of homes and businesses access to "super-fast" broadband speeds by 2015, with extra cash for small rural areas.

Devon and Somerset has been named as one of five "rural growth networks" by Defra. Money will be invested in eight business "hubs" in the two counties to nurture new businesses, with 1,359 new jobs earmarked.

The new Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, said: "For too long, rural England was neglected by central Government and its businesses struggled to achieve their ambitions.

"We've already transformed the prospects of thousands of rural businesses and want to make sure that change is felt in every part of rural England.

"To do this, we've created the first 'rural contract' to give rural areas the power to hold us to account on our promise to grow the rural economy and support thriving rural communities."

But Mary Creagh, Labour's Shadow Environment Secretary, said: "The number of young people on the dole in rural areas is rising faster than in cities, and rural families have been hit hardest by cuts to tax credits. We need a Plan B for the countryside to tackle the rural cost of living crisis, protect buses and social services, and invest in green jobs and growth."

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