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A knighthood for the country watchdog with teeth
Friday, 03 January, 2003

Country columnist John Sheard welcomes the honour given to Sir Ewen Cameron, chairman of the Countryside Agency, because he is a man who speaks his mind.

NOW I am not one of those people who rushes to get the newspaper at New Year to see if my name is in the Honours List. As a life-long critic of political mismanagement of the countryside, I am less likely to pick up a gong than Saddam Hussain.

    Ewen Cameron
Sir Ewen Cameron
So I was somewhat devastated when it was announced that Ewen Cameron, chairman of the Government's very own Countryside Agency, has been awarded a knighthood.

For not only does this man seem to understand how the countryside works - in itself a singular rarity amongst politicians and civil servants - but he has also been known to publicly to criticise some of his political masters and mistresses when he thinks they have got it wrong (which, sadly, is quite often).

This demonstrates rare courage under this particular Government, which has shown itself to be utterly ruthless in finding civil servant scapegoats for ministerial blunders, sacking them and ruining their careers without a second thought.

But perhaps that is where the secret lies: Ewen Cameron does not need to suck up to political grandees because he is already a highly successful man in many different fields.

He runs a working farm in Somerset, chairs a group of South West travel agents which boosts rural tourism, founded a group which runs commercial radio stations, is an expert on sustainable development, and is a former president of the Country Landowners and Business Association - which can hardly be described as a friend of Government when it comes to rural issues.

There can be very few people in public life with such a broad hands-on understanding of their particular brief (and even fewer in the Palace of Westminster) and the fact that from time to time he speaks his mind makes him almost unique.

He does not rant and rave - he is presumably too astute for that - but even in press releases issued by the Countryside Agency, it takes little reading between the lines to show that he is deeply concerned about some Governmental action or another.

In Whitehall these days, most of such criticism is leaked behind shielding hands with malice of intent to damage a political opponent. Cameron does it in a press release, for Heaven's sake - you just can't get more public than that.

This has given the Countryside Agency extra punch, which it is desperately needed in these difficult times, unlike other similar bodies. I am still in deep mourning, for instance, for the late National Rivers Authority, which has been bound, gagged and blindfolded since it was subsumed into the Environment Agency - on Government orders of course.

All this makes Cameron's knighthood all the more significant. We are now getting some heavyweight country folk in places of influence: it is only a few weeks since I was welcoming Sir Max Hastings as a new leader of the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

With such a vacuum of talent in Government when it comes to understanding rural affairs - or worse, an almost total lack of interest in rural affairs - we need heavyweights like this to fight our case.

So arise, Sir Ewen, and spur up that white charger - we country folk needs as many champions as we can get.

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