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The ups and downs of country life - official

Friday 09 May 2003

Our country commentator John Sheard digests the latest annual statistics from the Countryside Agency - and, like the curate's egg, they are good and bad in parts

WHEN the then newly created Countryside Agency issued its first State of the Countryside report five years ago, the cynic in me immediately concluded that this was to be yet another exercise in spin - a skill at which the Labour government has proved pre-eminent.

For a start, I didn't like the title, pompously reminiscent of the State of the Union address by the President of the USA. What the countryside needed was action, not more words, I decided.

A prosperous countryside...but there is still much to do

However, I have been slowly changing my tune ever since. The agency has been doing some good things and is promising even more, which remarkable taking into account that it is under the control of a Government which was once totally urban-obsessed.

Many of these steps in the right direction have been reported in our columns over the past two years - see, for instance, our news report on Internet broadband provision on Wednesday, with its veiled attack on BT.

The agency and its chairman, Sir Ewen Cameron, regularly speak out against the country's vested interests, and has often come very close of head-on attacks on the very government which supplies its funding, which is a very good thing indeed.

But the importance of these annual reports, I realised this week, is that they actually have facts and figures which are to be the basis of future action. In the past, all country folk have known that things were changing, either for better or for worse, but no one bothered to measure by how much.

In other words, with no concrete research, people planning for the future had no foundation on which to start building. Now, at least, that information is available. Some of it is quite startling:

  • More people are moving from the towns into the country than vice versa: after centuries of decline, the rural population has grown by 1.5 million (12%) since 1981 and now stands at 14 million, almost 30% of the total population.
  • Ninety per cent of the people, both urban and rural, express anxiety that the countryside should be preserved as it is now
  • Country folk are much more likely to take an active part in local affairs than their urban cousins - 46% as opposed to 32%
  • Most country residents earn more than townsfolk - but lower paid workers get on average almost £50 per week less than in the towns
  • Agriculture's contribution to the national economy has sunk to a mere 0.8% - but farmers and landowners manage 76% of the countryside
  • Businesses have been growing faster in accessible rural areas than in towns - but such growth falls sharply in remoter areas
  • Farming and tourism actually play a small part in rural employment. More than 80% of the rural workforce is in manufacturing, distribution, financial services or public organisations
  • And for townsfolk, a trip to the countryside represents a quarter of all leisure activities

In the words of Sir Ewen Cameron: "Whether we live in town or country, we all value the countryside as an essential part or our lives. But there is still much to be done to create and maintain a countryside that gives a high quality of life for people who live there and for everyone to enjoy." Hear, hear!

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