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Seventeen years to save our country life

Friday 04 April 2003

Our country columnist John Sheard looks at an ambitious project to decide the future of rural life and asks: is this just more wishful thinking or can it really work?

ONE of the most important documents ever debating the prospects for country life almost twenty years hence was published on Wednesday (see News, April 3). It is a great idea. My only question is: is there the public will to make it work?

Will this still be here in 2020?

In the too-many years I have been writing about country matters, I have seen many grand-sounding schemes come and go, some torpedoed by national or international events, some simply dying on the vine as a result of changes in government.

The difference with this week's State of the Countryside 2020 initiative from the Countryside Agency is that it is asking us - the people who actually live and work in the countryside - to get off our backsides and contribute our ideas, suggestions and perhaps even some hard work to tell the Government what we actually want in 20 years time.

In launching the project, which actually queries whether we shall still have a green and pleasant land in two decades time, Countryside Agency chief executive Richard Wakeford presented us with four, sometimes unpalatable, alternatives:

  • The Countryside means business: uncontrolled business growth leading to demands for more roads, more housing, more intensive agriculture.
  • Go for green: playing the green card to its limit, which means that environmentally beneficial schemes override the needs of local residents to make a living, leading to even greater social divisions between town and country.
  • All on board: the laissez faire scenario when panning controls are relaxed, more housing development allowed, leading to even more traffic congestion and changes in social cohesion.
  • Or the "triple-whammy" in which economic, social and environmental sustainability combine to give us a greener countryside which is socially and economically more "cohesive" - i.e., in which people happily live and work together.

There are no prizes for guessing which Richard Wakeford favours, for the triple whammy is what most sensible country folk would want, excluding the rich offcumdens who treat the locals as peasants and the stick-in-the-mud locals who hate all newcomers.

But he does point out - and how many times have we heard words like this? - that this prize option will be "very demanding and expensive, calling for high levels of skills and collaboration."

The questions are: will it be too expensive for any Government to sustain and will we, the people directly affected, be prepared to lend our skills and, in particular, those high levels of collaboration.

Personally, I think that this project is a brilliant idea. But I do have a deep suspicion, sadly based on long experience, that ordinary country people will, as usual, sit on their hands and do nowt whilst the highly vocal single issue bodies will make all the noise - and the running.

The Ramblers' Association, the ultra greens, the anti-field sport brigade, the wealthy weekenders and retirees who want to keep things exactly as they are - i.e., in a state of gentile decay - will already have their submissions prepared.

If ordinary folk are to get a word in edgeways, it is time for long standing local bodies, like the parish and district councils, the WIs and the YFCs, the anglers clubs and the church committees, to put on their thinking caps to come up with some ideas that could improve country life as it really is as opposed to a chocolate box cover.

We may have 17 years to go, but it is time to wake up. If not, we are in grave danger of bequeathing our children and grandchildren a rural nightmare.

For more information, log onto www.countryside.gov.uk/stateofthecountryside

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