Minister unveils green countryside plan

A long-awaited funding boost to “green” the countryside and rural economy has been announced by environment secretary David Miliband.

A long-awaited funding boost to “green” the countryside and rural economy has been announced by environment secretary David Miliband.

The latest six-year Rural Development Programme, which will be worth a total of £3.9bn in the years to 2013, is more than double the last budget.

Mr Miliband said that this would “blaze the trail” for a greener countryside, which would help farmers to manage the land

more sustainably and enable environmental benefits to be delivered.

“There is a real vote of confidence in the ability of farmers to make a big environmental contribution and big new funds which simply weren't there before. I hope that they seize those opportunities.”

“I certainly don't pretend that money grows on trees or that there are no limits, but equally I would say that this is a big vote of confidence in the ability of farmers to deliver in a big way and a commitment to put government money behind them.

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Mr Miliband, who took over from Margaret Beckett last May, said that some £600m will be made available to make agriculture and forestry more competitive and sustainable and to enhance opportunity in rural areas.

However, the programme will be funded in large measure by so-called “voluntary modulation” or cuts in payments to farmers of at least 17pc from the annual “subsidy” cheques this year rising to 19pc by 2012.

Under EU rules, the government is required to match-fund the “modulated” payments of about £1.4bn deducted from farmers, which involves £700m from the Exchequer.

In simple terms, for every £60 raised for agri-environment schemes through voluntary modulation, the government

will contribute a further £40 from national funds.

Funding for the HLS (Higher Level Scheme) will rise to £600m (or £100m pa) from £420m for the old countryside stewardship/ESA programme.

Mr Miliband said: “I hope that the near £4bn funding, more than double the previous budget, secured today will help all concerned build on the significant achievements already made and continue to make the English countryside a thriving community for those who live and work there as well as a beautiful place to visit.

“Shifting funding from farm subsidies to payments for environmental services - green farming - is consistent with the Government's long-term vision for the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.”

Farmers' leader Peter Kendall warned that the UK will be the only member state which deducts payments through modulation.

“Most of the modulated money will go on environmental schemes, which we support. Our concern is that similar schemes in the rest of Europe are funded out of core rural development funds.

“Only in the UK does the funding come largely from deductions from the single farm payment,” said Mr Kendall, president of the National Farmers' Union.

After months of strong pressure from the NFU, the Government has agreed to co-finance agri-environmental schemes by 40pc.

“It will be absolutely essential that this extra money - likely to be almost £50m a year - is spent in ways that directly benefit the farming community, such as programmes designed to address environmental problems and materialise business opportunities.

Mr Miliband supported the NFU's call for proper accounts to show every year where modulated funds have been spent.

Applications for the woodland grant scheme will open in May as funding for forestry is increased to £231m by 2013.