Sir Don Curry is the first to admit he’s taken on a complex task as head of the Better Regulation Executive. Not least because of a strange reluctance by industry to name the most costly and damaging red tape. Will he reveal his own targets? Adam Leyland reports

Sir Don Curry is not your average farmer. Oh, sure, he looks the part. In fact, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Arthur 'That'll do, Pig' Hoggett from the 1995 movie Babe.

But the length and breadth of Sir Don's CV tells its own story: last week, as chair of the North East England Food & Drink Group, he was defending the quality of restaurants in the north east after Michael Winner described them as "dreadful".

But he's also former chair of the MLC, influential adviser to the government (he wrote the seminal 'Curry report'), chair of the Leckford estate for Waitrose, as well as owning and running a 440-acre arable farm in his native Northumberland.

Not many would have predicted Sir Don's latest role, however. Since December, at the ripe old age of 65, he's taken charge of the Better Regulation Executive, a 70-strong team whose task it is to cut red tape.

Sir Don admits the position is an unlikely one. "I don't know whether it's a case of poacher turned gamekeeper, or gamekeeper turned poacher," he asks, with amiable puzzlement.

"For most of my life, I've been a critic. We had a whole chapter on it in the Policy Commission report in 2002. [Indeed], it doesn't feel as though the issue [of red tape] has been addressed.

"But having sat there criticising, I thought 'you know what, I can make a difference here'." Sir Don is already getting stuck in. And he's quickly realising the scale of the task. "To have a team of 70 reviewing the whole regulatory agenda across UK government and also the impact of EU legislation is a total disgrace.

"Who knows what will happen after the election, but this is much more complex than I imagined, both in trying to intercept legislation from Brussels and putting pressure on the government."

One task is to look at the existing stock of legislation. How much is obsolete, how much could be simplified. But it's the volume of impending legislation that must be the first priority.

One area that Sir Don is targeting is the new CAP regulation.

"The regulatory impact needs to be front of mind, not considered as an afterthought," he says. "What I'm keen to do is to build better relationships with industries, exploring how the BRE can reduce legislation. And what I need to know is: what does success look like?

"We all complain about red tape, but when I ask people to name the most damaging and costly regulations, there's a silence, a void. It seems coming forward is really difficult and I would like to start a debate. And I'm keen to start with the food industry, as that's the arena in which I've worked all my life."

These are shark-infested waters, however. For while the NFU is clamouring for an ombudsman, the supermarkets in conjunction with the BRC have held up the possibility of an ombudsman as a prime example of the red tape that Sir Don should be cutting. Sir Don is aware of the perils of his position.

"We're always selective, aren't we? We want to cut red tape but not that bit. All I know is farmers are deeply concerned about the power of the supermarkets. It is an issue that won't go away. And the new [Groceries Supply Code of Practice] does need oversight."

Where Sir Don believes he can help is in considering how the oversight is best implemented. He believes a separate quango is unnecessary, and argues that a small, dedicated function at the OFT is a sensible and appropriate resource.

In his vision for an ombudsman, Curry sees the function reporting on breaches of GSCOP on an annual basis only.

"The number of breaches would be very small indeed, and the cost would also be low." But as Sir Don acknowledges, the OFT doesn't want in. "They don't want to be involved in the resolution of disputes. And there may well be a more appropriate host, which we should explore. But the OFT is the obvious place, and better that than adding excessive cost and burden to the state."

There's also the potential for conflict in Sir Don's role with Waitrose, but he's quick to dismiss this. "The position of Waitrose is a very responsible one," he says. "It's very rare to enjoy the relationship we have with our farmers, and, put it this way, we haven't found a Waitrose farmer who's unhappy."

So what red tape would Sir Don look to cut? In the food industry, he highlights the ban on the burial of livestock.

"No one ever explained why it was necessary, and it's almost impossible to police." He's also concerned about Farm Animal Welfare codes for caged birds. "The welfare lobby would like that code to be the legal minimum. But that code of practice has been adopted. All the retailers have adopted it. Every member is inspected annually. If that standard were a legal minimum, there is a real risk standards would actually decline."

And Sir Don also expresses concern about the rules being drawn up to tackle binge-drinking. He believes setting a minimum price is a waste of time.

"Do we know minimum pricing would prevent binge-drinking? Is there any evidence? It's a sledgehammer approach to a complex issue. We ought to look at the social issues and examine more closely how other countries have avoided this. We do need people to take responsibility for their actions. We've gone too far in believing the state can [effectively] intervene."

The biggest issue Sir Don sees, however, is concern around employment legislation, and he warns of "a whole raft of new legislation" just around the corner. He is determined to engage with business to limit the damage. "The economy is on a knife edge and it's essential we work together to ensure legislation is proportionate, simple and doesn't disadvantage business, charities and the public sector in unintended ways."

With the prospect of a new government, and the government's five-year programme to reduce regulatory burden maturing in June, he believes regulatory reform will be "an interesting space" this year.

But he's not hung up about targets, even though Defra, among other departments, is likely to fall some way short of the 25% figure set at the time. "I have a concern about setting targets. It's one of the issues I want to understand. It's not the percentage that matters, it's the relative impact of each piece of regulation and its effectiveness."

Using an example close to his heart, he's concerned with the attention being focused on methane emissions from cows. "I've done some really revealing research. I've gone back to data from the earliest audit of national livestock levels, from 1904, and I found that the number of ruminants is at the same level as it was then. What's more, the productivity from these ruminants is now threefold."

The issue of global warming, Sir Don has been able to prove, is not, then, about cows. It's "the result of the population explosion, from eight million 200 years ago, when the first census was available, to 65 million today, and human behaviour."

But Sir Don doesn't counsel that we should take methane reduction off the agenda. Simply, we must be very wary of taxing the cows out of existence. "And I'm saying that not as a farmer, but as chair of the BRE," he adds.