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'Europe's rural areas need new policies which make stronger links between sustainable land management and viable ru...
'Europe's rural areas need new policies which make stronger links between sustainable land management and viable rural economies,' Richard Simmonds, chairman of England's Countryside Commission and co-author of the Cork Declaration on Rural Development, told the Pan-European Parliamentary Conference in Bratislava yesterday.

Speaking with Europe's agriculture commissioner, Franz Fischler, he will say 'Significant change to EU agricultural policy is inevitable and urgently needed within the next decade, but it is very important to be clear about what that change should deliver.

'Changes and new policy are not going to be cheap and there may have to be a real fight with finance ministers, who can't wait to get their fingers on savings from reduced support for agricultural commodities. It is vital to keep money in the countryside, ensuring that it is focused on real need and demonstrating value for money. That value must include sustainable environmental benefit and ensuring that people in rural communities are not disadvantaged by poorer services, for example in health, education and investment. Thus we can justify our ambition for a real 'Living Countryside'.'

Mr Simmonds also emphasised the need to develop and promote links between more sustainable land management and other kinds of economic activity in rural areas, such as tourism, forestry and small scale business and industry - producing goods and services which make best use of the great variety of skills and resources in our rural areas rather than focusing solely on agricultural support. Environmental schemes, he said, should not be seen as 'compensation' for production restraint, but as the building blocks to help farmers develop new kinds of production which place more emphasis upon net return, quality and regional diversity and less upon maximum volume of output.

Mr Simmonds emphasised that the variety and richness of the countryside meant that detailed policies should not be specified on a European scale. What was needed were 'enabling' policies at European level, setting broad directions and targets, which then allow different tiers of local, regional and national policy-making to decide how these targets should best be delivered, taking into account local needs and local diversity. Agri-environment schemes have made a welcome step in this direction, but the same principle could be applied more widely in future.
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