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The red-tape noose strangling the Dales country estate

Friday 19 September 2003

Our countryside commentator John Sheard reports on the maze of red tape choking the English country estate and calls for specialised training for future landowners and farmers

FIRST, my apologies to regular readers who will have noticed a glitch in our coverage in the past couple of weeks. It was caused by an 18-year-old spoiled brat in the Mid West of the USA and if I could get my hands on him, I would cheerfully strangle him.

This is the yobbo whose parents had bought him now fewer than seven computers. He used them to create the Blaster virus which knocked out millions of computers around the world, including mine. Had it not been for the technical skills of the Daelnet staff - thanks again, Simon and Edward - I would still be distributing this column by carrier pigeon.

However, ill wind time. Whilst the chaps were de-bugging my very sick machine, I had a couple of idle days so I went to see the owner of one of the most historic family-owned estates in the Yorkshire Dales to ask him how things were going.

Could you manage this?

The answer, I'm afraid, was far from good …

This man has run the estate, much of it in the national park, for almost half a century and he is what I would call a model landlord: he husbands the land on the best environmental lines, allows walkers to wander, and refuses to sell cottages to rich offcumdens who want them for holiday homes,

But, some time ago, a child was killed on his land - and the family sued for damages. Fortunately, he won the case - the child and his party had been behaving negligently - but the experience has left a legacy of deep concern.

"This lad was one my land without any formal permission, the people looking after him were acting very stupidly, but somehow they thought I was to blame. And with the Right to Roam legislation about to become law, it looks as though I will have to take out insurance in case someone else gets hurt and I am held to blame."

That insurance will not come cheap. The estate runs a busy forestry operation - and that can be a dangerous occupation. Because of new health and safety laws, insurance premiums have risen in the past two years from £1,500 to more than £7,000!

That sum alone is enough to cause landowners to get out of the forestry business altogether - just as DEFRA and other Government bodies are handing out grants to persuade more people to plant trees.

But that is only a fraction of the expensive red tape being woven round land ownership. All in all, my informant has worked out that he has to deal with no less than 30 statutory bodies - each one of them boasting an ever growing number of bureaucrats churning out questionnaires on an industrial scale.

A modern landowner, he says, needs a working knowledge of 19 different skills, ranging from architecture via ecology and hydrology to law and public relations. And, he says, there is no college or university in the country providing a course in such a wide-ranging spectrum.

"The way that things are going, no-one will be prepared to take on such an arduous lifestyle," he says. "Not only does it cause hours and hours of extra work but it also makes it very difficult to run one of these estates at a profit. One would have to be very rich indeed to put up with all these problems in order to make a substantial financial loss."

And now we come to the point of this story. My contact, who wishes to remain anonymous because he fears protest by militant anti-landowner groups, wonders if there is anyone out there doing a university degree or researching a book about country life, who would be prepared to do a full study of the problems of modern land ownership in the red tape jungle.

If so, he would be happy to give them in depth, detailed material help in the hope that, one day, some university or college will create a course which will enable future land managers not be swamped by demands they do not understand.

This, I think, is a brilliant idea because well-run country estates - of which there are many - are among the jewels in the rural crown. They are at grave risk. Should any reader be interested in such a project, please contact me via our Have your Say column and I shall put you in touch.


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