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New year, new decade, new hope?

Friday 01 January 2010

With some difficulty, our countryside commentator John Sheard looks back on the Noughties, a decade in which rural affairs took a seat right at the back of the class, and seeks out the few good bits which might, he hopes, auger well for the future

THE year 2009 will go down in history as the time when the wheels of New Labour finally came off. The decade will end with the country on the verge of bankruptcy, fighting a war which history teaches us is probably unwinnable, and with the Mother of Parliaments mired in a trough of venality and, quite possibly, criminality in some cases.

But the vehicle of state was already wobbling when the decade began and, as far as the countryside and country folk are concerned, the fact that it took ten long years to finally skid into the ditch can only be put down to the patience of the British people.

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If countries like France, which value their rural populations, had been run with such mind boggling incompetence, there would have been rioting in the streets years ago. Because from the very start, the townies of New Labour demonstrated they had no understanding of rural affairs but, much worse, that they also couldn’t care less.

Tony Blair from the very beginning is reported to have believed they there was little point in Britain growing its own food when we could buy is cheaper abroad. No-one seemed to realise that it was the farmers who created our countryside and maintain is as un-paid park keepers.

Then, as the Noughties were just getting underway, foot and mouth struck and the pictures of burning livestock and weeping farmers were flashed round the world. The handling of that crisis was unbelievably chaotic, a warning of other shambles yet to come, and it was only the Army which finally sorted out the mess.

There were other warnings of future political cynicism. A general election was looming when F&M was first reported in the North East and there are still persistent allegations that this situation was covered up for two critical weeks for electioneering purposes.

During those two weeks, livestock was being moved to marts throughout the country, thus spreading the worst outbreak of veterinary disease in living memory. At the same time, the Government closed down the countryside, forcing thousands of small businesses like pubs, cafes, shops and B&B’s to the point of bankruptcy.

it was cheaper for them to pour their milk down the drain than to sell it to the mass food retailers...

Here in the Craven area of the Yorkshire Dales, I was a member of a charity committee which raised £1 million in six months to help the victims and I shall always remember the hurt of those ordinary country folk driven to the depths of despair by an un-caring Government – and their joy in the tiny relief afforded by locally raised charity cash.

As usual, country folk were left to their own devices and, also as usual, they came to each others’ aid. That could be one of the lessons of the decade: whilst millions in the cities sit back and soak up taxpayers’ billions in welfare payments, country people roll up their sleeves and get stuck in – the recent flooding in Cumbria being the latest example of that.

The reaction of New Labour to the F&M disaster was archetypal: re-arrange the deckchairs on the Titanic. They blamed the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) and replaced it with the politically correct Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Significantly, there was no longer a Minister of Agriculture – and it showed. Defra was far more interested in environmental problems which the first Defra Secretary, Margaret Beckett, described as “sexy.”

She was an unmitigated disaster as far as agriculture was concerned, setting up the Rural Payments Agency which took over the role of bankrupting farmers by being two and sometimes three years late in paying he newly single farm payments scheme. The RPA has just been ordered to apologise and recompense farmers driven to desperation.

At the same time, the Government was stubbornly refusing to create a supermarket Ombudsman to see that food producers got a fair deal, sending thousands more dairy farmers to the wall: it was cheaper for them to pour their milk down the drain than to sell it to the mass food retailers.

That Ombudsman has still not been appointed, despite the fact that some of the big supermarkets were found guilty and heavily fined for colluding to force down the cost of milk and other dairy products.

And, of course, there is still no Minister of Agriculture, as the Tenant Farmers’ Association demanded this week (see News) despite the fact that there are growing food shortages world wide and Britain produces less of its own food that almost any other developed nation.

some idiots in Westminster are saying livestock numbers on hill farms should be cut by 75%...

I could go on in this vein for many thousands of words. I should mention Gordon Brown cutting the flood defence budgets just as the country was about to be hit by the worst floods in living memory or committing the UK to Europe’s biggest and most expensive cuts in our so-called “global warming” emissions.

This little more than a joke when we emit just 2.0% or global emissions, compared to 21.5% from China and 20.2% from the USA, both countries which refused to enter into legally binding agreements to cut back at the chaotic climate change conference in Copenhagen. It means that hilly areas like the Yorkshire Dales could soon be peppered by huge wind turbines which are grossly inefficient and make their living from subsides from the taxpayer rather than the wind.

But enough of that. The beginning of a new decade is a time to look forward as well as back. There are some good things happening in the countryside and the Twenty-Tens could become a time when the rural glass will seem half full rather than half empty.

Some of Defra’s latest plans, under the guidance of vegetarian Hilary Benn, have promise. I have long argued for a more “green” approach to agriculture than the agri-business methods which took over in the 1950s. The fields might stop being monotone green. Some endangered wildlife species are back from the brink of extinction, like farmland birds, otters and water voles. Our rivers are cleaner than at any time since the Industrial Revolution and the salmon is making its way back in east flowing Yorkshire Rivers where they have not been seen for 150 years or more.

People are increasingly aware of the importance of diet and hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – are growing their own veg. Although some idiots in Westminster are saying livestock numbers on hill farms should be cut by 75%, other research has shown that pasture land is an extremely efficient store for carbon gasses (See a week in the country, November 6).

However, modern eating trends will force farmers to re-think their markets. Dairy product sales are already falling because of obesity scares and red meat is becoming less popular because of cholesterol and its connection with heart disease.

This should lead to more production of low-cholesterol meats like venison and poultry and the latter could be the way out for my biggest hate of modern food production: battery poultry farming. Surely, pastureland no longer needed for cattle could become home to genuinely free range chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys?

Alright, our meat might cost more, but if we eat less along with more good fruit and veg, we would be healthier and the overall cost would probably even out. With luck – and someone in Westminster who actually thinks it is quite important to put food on people’s tables – this food could be produced here in the UK instead of being imported from some country with dodgy animal welfare standards.

And that brings me to the overwhelmingly important event of 2010: a spring general election. Without being too partisan about this, what I hope and pray for is a new Government which is at least competent.

I would hope, too, that this new Government will have at least a few MPs who live and work in rural areas, people who understand the complex mechanisms which make country life tick. After a decade of empty glasses, and at a time when we know the going will be tough as we pay off the debts run up by an engorged public sector, we could at least look forward to an era when the countryside glass is once again half full.

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