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Rural life to implode while the wheel is reinvented?

Friday 21 July 2006

Our countryside commentator John Sheard takes a jaundiced looks at the latest Government projections for rural living and asks: Why do civil servants always have to reinvent the wheel?

FIFTEEN years ago, the chairman of the Rural Development Commission (RDC), Lord Shuttleworth, told me a sad story about a visit he had just made to a small quarrying village in north Derbyshire to formally open a newly launched rural business.

He arrived early in the morning, and the one-time quarrymen's cottages were being vacated by commuters getting into their Jaguars and BMWs to drive to their offices in Sheffield. At the same time, a stream of traffic was coming the other way as the quarrymen arrived for work from their terraced houses and flats in the grimmer parts of the same city.

Commission warns of countryside imploding

Lord Shuttleworth, who lives in the shadow of Ingleborough at Leck Hall, near Ingleton, thought how bizarre this was: rich people forcing poor people out of their traditional homes and both sets wasting hours of time and gallons of fuel when they could both have lived within ten or twenty minutes from their workplaces (not to mention the exhaust fumes pumping out greenhouse gasses).

When the present Government came to power, one of its first acts was to scrap the RDC which was, in fact, England's oldest quango, set up by Lloyd George almost exactly 100 years ago - this is the ironic bit - to stop the drift of people from the land into the towns by creating more rural employment. The problem now is the exact opposite.

As has so often happened under the Blair regime, the Government soon found that it needed some sort of official body to study rural problems, conveniently forgetting it had just kicked one into the bin, and created the Commission for Rural Communities. This, which as we reported on Wednesday (see News) this week issued its first detailed findings, the 2006 State of the Countryside Report.

And guess what it reported: hundreds of thousands of townsfolk are moving into the countryside and over the next 25 years that stream will become a torrent, causing severe social problems like forcing country locals out of their home villages by putting up house prices and swamping local services.

Well I never! As I have observed in this column many times before, if the townies who run the Commission for Rural Communities had gone into any village pub in the Yorkshire Dales and bought the locals a pint or two, they could have learned this - and much more - in a couple of hours.

But, of course, we must remember that every new batch of civil servants feels the need to re-invent the wheel. They have to find something to keep them busy to justify their index-linked pensions on their retirement at 60, whilst we common folk in the private sector have to work until the grave to pay our council tax bills.

Burnsall - typical of many Yorkshire Dales villages where locals
are priced out

Now I don't pretend to know much about the Commission for Rural Communities, because as far as I know its PR system (if it has one) doesn't penetrate this far into the countryside. But I do know that its staff will all be Guardian readers for the simple reason that jobs like theirs are only advertised in The Guardian, which is Labour's way of pushing a few more millions of our cash into a mate's back pocket.

And I don't want to belittle the Guardian - I used to write for it when I was younger - but I will lay a pound to a penny that all these newly employed civil servants will have degrees in some form of social studies. And I'll lay a further tenner to a tanner (that's an old fashioned sixpence, younger reader) that virtually none of them are country folk.

They will be hard-working, well meaning, committed to sustainable (whatever that means) this and that. But they will not have the faintest idea how the countryside works. Their report this week has had some organisations like the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) on the verge of apoplexy.

Unless they begin to lay down long-term plans now, says the CLA, country life as we know it will "implode." That's serious stuff but it is probably correct for the CLA actually knows what it's talking about. However, long-term planning is a Whitehall no-no. In the timescale we are talking about, there will be a new generation of bureaucrats and what will they be doing? Re-inventing the wheel, of course.

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