Since announcing the Rural Strategy in July 2004 we have made excellent progress. Our reforms are aimed at delivering services more efficiently, through a smaller number of organisations with clearer and more accountable roles. We are devolving delivery to give a better deal for the environment and the taxpayer and the overarching principle is sustainable development.
Work is now under way to identify clear priorities and simple processes in each region of England. In order to explore better ways of supporting rural communities we have identified a local "rural pathfinder" for each region. We are working with these rural pathfinders to test innovative ways of improving local delivery and they are currently developing their plans. From this April, rural socio-economic funding will be mainstreamed through Rural Development Agencies with an increase of £27 million in their single pot allocation to £72 million from Defra. Rural community councils will be funded directly by Defra and some further social and community funds will be channelled through Government Offices.
Everyone will benefit from our radical simplification of funding streams. Rural businesses are being helped by an additional £2 million that Defra has provided to Business Links this financial year.
We are establishing a smaller, more focused body to act as a strong voice for rural people and communities, especially those facing disadvantage.
Dr. Stuart Burgess has been appointed as the Chair of the Countryside Agency and Rural Advocate. By April 2005 the new organisation—the Commission for Rural Communities—will have been established as a distinct body, initially within the existing legal framework. It will use its statutory independent voice to hold to account those who deliver to the countryside and rural communities.
In order to conserve and enhance the resource of nature and realise the economic benefits of so doing, we are establishing an Integrated Agency consisting of English Nature, most of the Rural Development Service and parts of the Countryside Agency. We have already initiated closer working at the regional level between these three organisations, as part of preparing for the establishment of the new Agency. We are moving the Rural Development Service out of the policy core of Defra and providing it with greater autonomy and devolved authority for decision-making and delivery, and, in order to pave the way for the Service to move into being part of the new Integrated Agency, we have appointed Poul Christensen to chair a small non executive board. From April 2005 the bodies that will make up the Integrated Agency will have begun working as a confederation of partners as a precursor to the full establishment of the Integrated Agency by legislation.
By April we will also have begun delivering benefits to taxpayers through beginning the process of delivering around £21 million of efficiency gains per year by 2009–10.