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100 country weeks, two years of turbulence

Friday 02 May 2003

In this, his 100th Week in the country column, John Sheard picks the good and the bad from the past two years

WE COULDN'T have picked a worse time for launching this column 100 weeks ago. We had hoped to concentrate on countryside matters like village life, landscape conservation, river quality, wildlife, and rural business.

Most of it, we hoped, would be good news transmitted via this new medium to widely scattered communities in the Yorkshire Dales, a new and faster link than had ever been possible before. Instead, we got foot and mouth ...!

Now I don't intend to dwell on this in depth (anyone wishing to research the matter can go to our day-by-day account) - except to say that, in a curious way, it might have helped the long-term future of the countryside and its people.

Thousands suffered, and indeed many are still suffering, but it did bring to light rural problems which had been slowly getting worse, so slowly as to have mostly escaped detection by many of the people with the power to start putting things right.

And this means not just government and civil servants but us, the country folk who in the glare of international publicity saw that it was time to stand up to be counted, for going back to those days of self-help for which we were rightly famous.

This, to me, has been one of the most important benefits of the FMD tragedy. We have realised that the countryside can no longer prosper just on the backs of agriculture and tourism. We must attract other means of employment and this is already happening with well-supported schemes in Settle and even high up on Malham Moor.

Government, too, was shocked into action by the TV footage of burning cattle. MAFF was scrapped, which should have happened over the BSE debacle, and DEFRA arrived with a much broader remit to look at the countryside as a whole, rather than just a food factory.

DEFRA has a long way to go before it gets its act fully together but some of its acolytes are beginning to show results. For instance, the Environment Agency has supervised a massive clean up of our rivers. Salmon have been seen in the lower reaches of the Wharfe and the Aire for the first time since the 19th Century.

The regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward, is also showing signs of coming to terms with real countryside issues. In the past three months, it has selected Skipton and Settle as subjects for the Renaissance Market Town scheme.

Now there have been many initiatives like this over the years and most have failed. But this one has a difference: instead of asking councillors and planners how they think towns should develop, they are going to ask the people - an idea so simple that no-one very thought of it before.

We have also seen the launch of several new initiatives to change the basic direction of farming - and in particular hill farming, the backbone of Dales agriculture. These, hopefully, will reward upland farmers for their work in husbanding the landscape as well as their stock.

This could be the future - if farmers can be persuaded to overcome their objections to becoming "park keepers." There was also recently announced a new nationwide project designed to cut down on the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides, which have done immense damage to our river system.

I suspect that, a few years ago, many of these projects would have been rejected out of hand by conservative farmers happy to go on doing things the way their grandfathers had. Now, FMD has brought home new realities and farmers - particularly younger farmers - are ready, even eager, to explore new methods.

All this is good but there is still one huge obstacle to be overcome if the villages and hamlets of the Yorkshire Dales are to survive as living communities. And that is the vexed problem of house prices.

The average price of a house in the national park is now over £200,000, well beyond the dreams of local couples, who are being forced out of their villages in ever-increasing numbers.

Their places are being taken by wealthy offcumdens, many of them weekenders or retirees. This means there are few children coming along, which threatens the local school. Pubs, shops, and even churches continue to close and there are many observers - me included - who fear that the countryside is being turned into a living (barely) museum.

Popular retirement spots like the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man introduced two-tier housing markets years ago, one for incomers, one for locals. If this government is as keen on the countryside as it pretends, we need something like this - and we need it quickly.

I want to hear the sounds of children playing in the village streets again. I want to hear the strains of "All things bright and beautiful" piping from the village school, like it did when I was nobbut a lad. Perhaps when I write the 200th Week in the country column, I shall have good news on this front too!

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