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Surprise, surprise: bureaucrats hinder rural policy reform

Friday 06 June 2003

Our country correspondent John Sheard expresses little surprise at the fact that important countryside legislation is being delayed by Whitehall indifference

WELL, well. Whitehall bureaucrats came under fierce attack this week for failing to implement Government promises to "rural proof" all legislation so that measures mainly aimed at urban problems did not actually make things worse in the countryside. Would you believe it?

Cameron: a watchdog with teeth

I would have been surprised if the opposite had happened - because these promises were made in the aftermath of foot and mouth, which had decimated the tourist industry and indirectly contributed to hundreds of thousands of country folk marching in protest through London.

Times and priorities change. Since then, the Government has faced a whole battery of other problems, including a war, and is rapidly establishing a reputation of promising the moon - and delivering nowt.

What is surprising is that the attack came from the Government's very own Countryside Agency, a watchdog which not only seems to have teeth but also has the nerve to bite the hands that feeds it. Most other Government agencies would have been bound, gagged and thrown into a dark pigeon hole by now for daring to criticize its masters in such a way.

The agency's sternly independent chairman, Sir Ewen Cameron - knighted only a few months ago - wrote that on matters like crime, healthcare, housing, education and transport, there "is a real risk that scattered rural communities could lose out on essential services."

If that were said by a mate in the pub, it would be considered a given, barely worth debating. If it had been splashed across a tabloid newspaper, it would have been dismissed as sensationalism.

For it to be released to the press throughout the country as a statement from the chairman of a publicly funded body makes it totally devastating. But my question is: apart from a few well-informed country people, who cares?

The countryside has long suffered from a total lack of understanding by city-based politicians and civil servants. If they are London-based, the countryside barely exists at all: we all know you fall off the edge of the world at Watford.

Under Conservative governments, the rural vote was taken for granted and, therefore, needed little massaging. This Labour administration has such a huge majority that it could lose 40 or 50 rural seats and still win the next general election at a canter. So, it too can afford to make what it thinks to be the right soothing noises - and save real action for other issues.

What to do? That is much more problematical. MPs are virtually powerless in these days of Presidential-style Government - even if they could be bothered to get off their backsides to support country causes.

We can hope, it suppose, that knowledgeable, forceful people like Ewen Cameron will be listened to - but I doubt it.

So if we are to ensure the survival of our country way of life, it is really up to us. We must keep badgering and meithering and moaning at the people in power to keep the subject alive. The only thing that seems to register with this administration and its minions is public protest. Now might be the time to consider another Countryside March!

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