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New Year 2009: finding the glitter amongst the gloom

Friday 02 January 2009

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, reflecting on the gloomiest New Year in his 50 year career, peers into his crystal ball to find some good news for country folk amongst all the doom and gloom.

THE hilarious finale of the Monty Python film The Life of Brian scandalised millions of regular church-goers when it was released in 1979 but is now regarded as one of the cinema’s great classics. It showed dozens of men being crucified but gaily singing "Always look on the bright side of life..."

Media pundits are speculating that Gordon Brown might call a snap election earlier in the year before the economy finally collapses into the worst slump in living memory. I don’t think he will have the guts to do so – but who knows?

I sit at my screen humming the tune now as I peer into my crystal ball trying to compose our annual New Year preview for 2009, a year which starts with more doom ands gloom than any I can ever remember. Yet there are some small nuggets of hope glistening in the darkness – and, thankfully, many of them are to be found in the countryside.

It is, of course, swings and roundabouts time. Some improvements will come at a cost to others but in general, I feel the countryside – and the Yorkshire Dales in particular – could have a fairly good year, not least because canny Dales folk are not the type to rush into the sort of get-rich-quick investment schemes that are pushing millions of city folk to the edge of despair.

I even know several well-to-do locals who do not possess a single credit card: cash has always been good enough for them. With that thought in mind, here is my forecast, sector by sector, for 2009:

Big business: This could be as problem area, with the Sunday Times reporting this week that the Skipton Building Society is thinking of selling off its Home Loan Management (HML) subsidiary, which employs 2,000 staff managing mortgages worth £50 billion, thousands of which are likely default as the credit crunch bites.

HML is already involved in a major controversy as it is building an unpopular new HQ on prime green-field land in Skipton. This is the bad news. The good news is that the building society itself, which remained as a mutual unlike many other now failed societies which converted to banks, is awash with cash as investors looking for a more security pile in.

Small business: With many Yorkshire Dales family businesses heavily involved in the tourist industry – hotels, B&Bs, pubs, shops and restaurants – 2009 should be a good year. With the pound collapsing against the euro, thousands of holiday makers will stay at home this coming summer and many will comer to the Dales, probably for short breaks instead of day trips. To convert day-trippers into overnight guests is a key strategy of local tourism chiefs.

Farming: Again, swings and roundabouts. Big dairy farmers are facing tough new regulations on the nitrate fertilisers they use because they pollute the land and, in particular, streams and rivers. This will mean another layer of expensive and time consuming red-tape and will be most unwelcome. However, hill farmers will become eligible for a new range of government grants for the work they do in husbanding the fragile upland landscape. In particular, the environment department Defra has recognised that the peat uplands store millions of tonnes of carbon gasses which, if released into the atmosphere, would become a major contributor to climate change. Hill farmers can be paid for preserving this peat instead of draining it to make more grazing.

Wildlife: The new farming measures listed above will have a hugely beneficial impact on all forms of wildlife. Ground nesting birds like plovers and sky-lark should start making a comeback after years on decline caused by intensive farming. Insects like butterflies will benefit from less artificial fertiliser and damsel flies from less water pollution.

The latter will also be a boon for fish like trout, grayling and barbel – soon to be introduced into the River Aire to please anglers – and there are hopes that salmon and sea trout, already present in lower reaches of the Wharfe and Aire, might finally make it back to their traditional spawning grounds in Dales becks.

New sanctuary in the Dales

At the same time, the Dales national park is becoming a sanctuary for several speeds of wild birds, plants, and mammals. The foundation of a new red squirrel reserve has just been announced in the Green Forest in Langstrothdale (see picture).

Expect, however, a public backlash if "re-wilding" projects already underway in the Scottish Highlands are proposed in the Dales. This means the re-introduction of once indigenous animals like the lynx, wolves and even bears. Beavers are to be introduced to some Scottish rivers this spring – and with their habit of building huge log dams, they could cause havoc with expensive salmon fishing rights.

Politics: It would be nice to ignore this much-despised subject but, sadly, 2009 could be a momentous one both nationally and locally. Media pundits are speculating that Gordon Brown might call a snap election earlier in the year before the economy finally collapses into the worst slump in living memory. I don’t think he will have the guts to do so – but who knows?

Here in the Dales, however, expect crushing criticism of Craven District Council’s financial incompetence during the lifetime of the now-displaced Liberal/Independent administration. The District Auditor is trying to establish how the council went hundreds of thousands of pounds over budget – some estimates put the figure at one-million-plus – whilst at the same time selling of prime council-owned land at well below market value.

But even here, there could be some relief for hard-pressed Craven council tax payers. Although council taxes will almost inevitably increase well over the rate of inflation, the new Conservative controlled administration has already started cutting back on previously planned grandiose developments which could have added more millions to the bills.

With a bit of luck, that will lead to more sensible, cost-conscious local government in the future, another potential crumb of comfort on a pretty bare table. So as the Pythons sang, "Keep on looking on the bright side of life..." Happy New Year!

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