Back office cuts spearhead Defra’s savings plan

Chancellor George Osborne announced his Autumn Statement this week.  Pic: PA

Chancellor George Osborne announced his Autumn Statement this week. Pic: PA

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THE GOVERNMENT’s rural affairs department is not facing as big a budget cut as initially feared, but it will still see its day-to-day spending slashed by 15 per cent over the next four years, the Chancellor announced this week.

George Osborne was accused by Sheffield University’s Dr Craig Berry, deputy director of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, of once again of over-stating the likely extent of spending cuts, only to scale back on his suggested plans when final policy decisions are announced.

Earlier this month he said the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was one of a number of departments that had agreed to a budget cut of up to 30 per cent, leaving farming leaders nervous about what services would be sacrificed.

As it transpired it will have to find resource savings of 15 per cent in real terms by 2019-20, delivered through efficiencies within the department and across its network.

The Chancellor said the department will become “a more streamlined, digital department” as a result, sharing back office functions like IT, human resources and finance with its “network bodies” to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy, and devolving roles to “the local frontline to ensure effective service delivery”.

Much of the Government’s Defra spending priorities over the next four years involve flood defences, science facilities, animal and plant disease prevention and £50m for two new agricultural technology centres, headquartered in York, to support innovation and skills in the food and farming supply chain.

In his Autumn Statement, Mr Osborne also pledged to extend tax averaging for self-employed farmers from two to five years from next April, and that a new Defra taskforce will be set up to reduce farm inspections by 20,000 over the next four years.

Ross Murray, president of the Country Land and Business Association, said: “Defra is an important department doing crucial work for the environment and the economy. We will work with Defra to help them ensure the cuts do not impact on crucial front line services such as tackling animal and plant pests and diseases, and flood prevention. We will also advise Ministers on areas where there may be opportunities for cuts.”

He added that the Chancellor’s commitment to deliver 400,000 affordable homes must involve rural communities where there is a desperate need of new homes.

Gail Soutar, chief economic adviser at the National Farmers’ Union, said: “It’s reassuring that the flood defence budget will be ring-fenced and that the Government will prioritise spending on animal and plant disease prevention, for example by continuing to invest in implementing its 25-year strategy to eradicate bovine tuberculosis.”

The NFU is disappointed however, she said, that there was no mention of how farmers, many of whom are among the five per cent who struggle with broadband access, will benefit from improved broadband facilities, and that the micro employer relaxation of PAYE ‘on or before’ reporting will end in April because as it will be an extra burden on farm businesses employing seasonal workers at harvest time.

HIGHLIGHTS OF DEFRA’S SETTLEMENT

Protection of flood defence funding, including a £2.3bn six-year capital investment programme to better protect over 300,000 homes;

Over £130m capital investment in Defra’s science estates and equipment by 2020-21, including funding to enhance national outbreak response capabilities;

£3bn to safeguard the countryside through the Common Agricultural Policy, and protection of over £350m funding for public forests, National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty;

Resource savings of 15 per cent in real terms by 2019-20, delivered through efficiencies within the department and across its network.

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