The Government must tackle the critical shortage of affordable homes if it is to help rural businesses in the West Midlands, the country's rural advocate has been told.

Dr Stuart Burgess, head of the Countryside Agency, said the housing issue, along with red tape and bureaucracy, were major challenges for those working in the countryside.

On a visit to the West Midlands last week as part of a national tour to look at the challenges facing rural businesses, he said he admired the passion and commitment many had expressed.

As the Government's rural advocate, he will give his findings to Prime Minister Tony Blair in an effort to improve business prospects in the countryside.

Issues uncovered by Dr Burgess included the lack of affordable homes for rural workers, the problems of employing migrant workers on farms and the increasing red tape and form filling, which is taking up too much

time for small businesses. Dr Burgess visited a mailing company and healthy vending machine firm in Whitchurch, Shropshire, a craft shop and rare breeds farm in Leek, Staffordshire, and a wood carving and glass making company in Burton-on-Trent.

He said: "The major issue all over the country as well as the West Midlands is affordable and rural housing. We have done a number of inquiries into affordable housing, including one in Evesham. It is at the top of the Government agenda and we are really going to crack that. The Affordable Housing Commission reports in May and then we can begin to tackle the issue.

"The enormous problem is people can't afford to stay in rural areas, there is a lack of transport and services, for example post offices being closed down.

"The other big thing which is a growing source of both a challenge and opportunity is around migrant workers.

"There are many who are around south Birmingham and Evesham in rural areas. If you go to north Lincolnshire there are 55,000 migrant workers keeping the agricultural economy going and that is an opportunity.

"Many of these people are part of the EU and from Portugal, Poland or Lithuania but there can be problems surrounding where they are housed and whether they have access to services."

He said the complexity and vast number of forms rural businesses are forced to fill in, was also a major concern.

"Some business people complained in terms of the amount of different forms they had to fill in and the complexity of those forms," he said.