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Day One and the jiggery-pokery begins

Friday 06 May 2005

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who last week accurately forecast a big turn-around in rural voting patterns, marvels at the fact that on the very day a new Government is elected, the jiggery-pokery begins

IT WOULD be nice to say "I told you so" after predicting last week that there would be a massive turn-around in the rural vote in yesterday's general election. But I don't have the space. Because with staggering timing, the first mega-row over the countryside was launched even before the votes were counted.

And hopefully, for a change, this particular dispute will be settled in favour of country folk now that Labour's huge majority has been slashed and Liberal and Tory MPs in rural seats are better placed to flex their political muscles.

The first battleground - Map courtesy of the Countryside Agency.

This first conflict of the new Parliament will be of vital interest to people in the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District, because it involves a decision made on election day itself by the Countryside Agency to press for extensions of the two national parks in the region. It would mean that their boundaries would meet alongside the M6 in Cumbria.

Now there is much more to this simple-sounding proposal than meets the eye. Such an extension would place the bitterly opposed Whinash Wind Farm - subject of an on-going public enquiry which has divided many of the country's conservationists - on national park territory.

And should that project be given planning permission, it would mean that no national park landscape anywhere in the country would be safe from such intrusive developments. Huge wind turbines, which create enormous noise and kill thousands of birds, could become as common as electricity pylons.

But the machinations involved are even murkier than this, for the Countryside Agency - one of the few Government quangos which is highly regarded by the general public - may itself be doomed. There are plans afoot to subsume it into a much-expanded Defra along with English Nature and other rural agencies.

By choosing such a day to launch its plan, the agency - which has taken the highly unusual step for a publicly funded body of opposing the Whinash development - has already been accused of beginning a fight for its own survival. If that is so, this Government is in for months of bitter infighting even before Tony Blair selects his cabinet.

If there are to be few changes, as some pundits were claiming this morning (Friday, May 6), this would put two of the cabinet's least effective ministers at each other's throats: Two Jags John Prescott, the pro-windfarm brawler already dubbed the countryside's Public Enemy Number One, against the almost invisible Margaret Beckett of Defra whose job allegedly is to protect the countryside (although her efforts so far have been negligible).

So once again, the needs and desires of country folk would be subjugated to the personal ambitions of urban politicians whose sum knowledge of rural affairs could be written on a pinhead.

Of course, there might be a bright side to all this. With so many rural and semi-rural seats swinging from Labour to the Liberal Democrats, Tony Blair might be reminded that almost a quarter of the population lives in the countryside, a figure that grows by hundreds of thousands each year as people flee crime-riddled towns and cities.

And a newly empowered Liberal-Democratic Party, with numerous seats in the rural areas of the South West and Scotland, might now have the nouse to point out that the destruction of our countryside matters to townies too - even if it is for leisure purposes only.

We can only hope that Blair might sack both these Old Labour dinosaurs and put in their places some youngsters who have actually walked in a green field rather than a (vandalised) urban park. We should be so lucky...

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