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Last will and testament for rural life

Friday 9 July 2010

A countryside quango set up by Labour and scrapped by the Coalition issued its death bed last words this week, reports our rural affairs commentator John Sheard. In doing so, he says, it leaves an important legacy for the future treatment of our countryside, its people and the businesses which still flourish there

EVEN as I reported with some glee last week the Coalition decision to scrap the Commission for Rural Communities, that body was about to issue its last will and testament. When it was made public on Tuesday, it showed on its deathbed that it had finally grasped its true purpose

My pleasure at the decision to scrap the CRC was that it was the creation of New Labour at a time when quango-mania was running totally out of control and layer after layer of bureaucracy was choking the countryside to death.

Business can flourish here.

And although this was never publically admitted in Whitehall, it was an attempt to put right one of the many disastrous mistakes made in the very early days of Labour power: the scrapping of the Rural Development Commission (RDC).

This was a body run by Lord Shuttleworth, a greater lover of the Yorkshire Dales who lives in the shadow of Ingleborough( although just over the border in Lancashire) and works in Bradford, and the job of the RDC (sorry about all the acronyms) was to support rural business and the countryside’s social and economic interests.

More importantly, Lord Shuttleworth was a countryman through and through who understood rural problems which even then were growing by the day: lack of rural housing, poor public transport, closing shops, pubs and village schools. But no doubt New Labour hated the idea of a hereditary baron running anything so out went the RDC – and the baby with the bath water.

It was almost a decade later, when things had got a lot worse thanks to a lack of interest or understanding of rural issues in Westminster and Whitehall, it was decided that a body was needed to do exactly what the RDC had been doing and along came the Commission for Rural Communities.

I am a great believer of the American phrase “If it works, don’t fix it” and here was a classic example of the opposite. Almost ten years had been wasted and all the previous experience lost or ignored. Worst still, its first utterances suggested this was a New Labour poodle: it even came out in favour of Gordon Brown’s plan for massive housing developments on green belt land, plans which were also scrapped this week (hurray!).

All that said, the CRC finally found its true role – i.e. to defend rural folk and not support townie politicians – and on Tuesday it issued its final State of the Countryside Report. One cannot help but feel that a change of Government had led to some hasty re-writing but, that said, this report contains some very good things.

we should turn to country folk to pull us out of the mire!

It is a very long document (it can be downloaded in full from the CRC website) and it goes into many of the problems that Lord Shuttleworth was wrestling with in the 1990s. But it also has some very positive things to say about country life and its people of particular interest here in the Yorkshire Dales.

It stresses the importance of England’s uplands as a food producing area and not just as a leisure park for jaded townies; it is full of praise for the community spirit in rural areas which causes many more people to take on voluntary work; and – important in times of austerity like this – it stresses the vital contribution rural business makes to the national economy.

Under the heading Economic Recovery, its states: “High levels of entrepreneurship and the apparent resilience to the recession shown by rural based businesses emphasise the potential for rural economies to make a substantial contribution to a national return to growth. This is particularly important given the scope for rural areas to provide new ‘green jobs’ for both rural and urban residents.”

I love that. Now that the city slickers who run our banks and hedge funds have pitched the world into a financial crisis, and a former Government run by townies has left the Treasury coffers bare, we should turn to country folk to pull us out of the mire!

But the dying words of the CRC have impressed a wider audience than just me. The Campaign to Protect Rural England, one of the last Government’s most outspoken critics, issued a statement praising the report and added:

“The Government must ensure that this knowledge base – which allows the right decisions to be taken for people living in rural areas – is not lost, and we will be watching to ensure that Defra continues to consider the state of our countryside one of its foremost concerns.”

Hear, hear. Although I am not sorry to see the back of almost any quango, mostly run by Labour placemen and women grotesquely profligate with taxpayers’ cash, the CRC might have served a useful purpose by leaving an invaluable blueprint for the new “rural delivery unit” set up by Defra. Let’s hope they follow it and the baby doesn’t follow the bath water this time.

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