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No doom and gloom in Yorkshire Dales?

Friday 09 September 2005

As one of England's most respected rural bodies predicts that our countryside is on the road to ruin, countryside commentator John Sheard says that the Yorkshire Dales are reasonably safe … for now

ONE rarely gets the chance to feel smug in this job but yesterday I read one of the most damning forecasts ever on the future of the English countryside - and permitted myself a small smile. I have absolutely no doubt that vast tracts of our countryside are doomed - but not, I think, the Yorkshire Dales.

There are several reasons for this optimism but the main one is that the Dales are just too important for even beauty-blind townies like John Prescott dare not meddle with them. Even the most politically correct, subservient Lefties on the Labour back benches would rebel if Two Jags tried to cement over the Dales - or any other national park for that matter.

Safe – for now?

The national parks, you see, were a Labour invention, thought up by the Atlee Government after World War 11 as a result of public demos and near riots instigated in the main by Labour Party activists demanding access to land owned by "the nobs."

Their reasons were based as much on class warfare as the desire to go rambling but the fact remains that the national parks, like the NHS, remain a totem in Labour mythology. For that, we in the Dales must be thankful, even if we have benefited from motives that many of us would not support.

So I was able to feel a little smug - and selfish - when yesterday I read a damning report from the CPRE saying that most of England's countryside will disappear by the year 2035 (see News).

And yes, I do believe that most of the horrors which the CPRE predicts will come to pass in the South East, much of the South West and large swathes of the Midlands. For I have a deep sense of déjà vu - only this time, I really have been there before.

Back in the late Fifties and early Sixties, my torture as a cub reporter was to sit through interminable council meetings as members vied with each other to spend even more money to build even bigger council estates, even higher tower blocks of flats.

It was all done of borrowed money - some councils were spending a quarter of their ratepayers' money on interest payments - and some of those tower blocks have since been dynamited before they were even paid for. Those that remain are places of misery for residents without the cash to escape.

There is a similar feeling of civic frenzy in the air now, although fortunately most of the cash spent will come from private industry. For some reasons I cannot fathom, councillors have caught another severe dose of Spend, spend, spend-itis. Although the national park is not under threat, our markets towns and villages outside the park most certainly are.

Craven District Council has put forward a huge development plan which will eat up virtually all the open space in Skipton. There are similar rumblings in Settle. And investigating this over the past few weeks, I have discovered that there are two entirely separate populations in these towns.

There is one that speaks only to councillors and council officials who, we are told, are 70-plus per cent in favour. Then there is the other lot, who speak to journalists like me, and not one of them, out of dozens I have questioned, are in favour of the complete council plan.

The civic society is dubious, too, and has spent a lot of its money to have an independent poll of every resident. Even if that produces a resound No, the council has no legal duty to listen - the voters are only mere council taxpayers, after all.

So my smugness is tinged with caution. I am fairly confident that the national park area of the Dales is pretty secure. But I have serious fears about the neighbouring towns and villages. As they say, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Let's keep a close eye on our spend, spend, spend councillors.

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