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Rural proofing: promises, promises ignored

Friday 21 November 2008

Once again, our countryside commentator John Sheard raises another pledge to country folk which the Government has either forgotten or deliberately ignored. He asks: whatever happened to rural proofing?

SOME five years ago, in the aftermath of the foot and mouth debacle which laid vast areas of the Yorkshire Dales to waste, some bright spark in Whitehall came up with an idea which, it was claimed, would ensure that rural interests would forthwith be taken into account when any future Government actions were being considered.

Rural proofing: promises, promises ignored
What happened to rural proofing?

It was, of course, a sop for country folk and not just for the farmers who had suffered grievously as a result of political panic and mismanagement until the Army was finally called into sort out the mess.

In closing down the countryside, politicians had damaged hundreds of other rural businesses. And it should also be remembered that, at the time, New Labour held 60 rural or semi-rural Parliamentary seats so there were votes at stake here too.

This new policy was to be called “rural proofing” and, country folk were assured, it would mean a fair deal for the countryside in social, environmental and economic planning. A department was set up to ensure these promises were kept, bureaucrats were hired (on big salaries and index linked pensions, of course) and what happened: as far as I can tell, sweet Fanny Adams.

As someone who 20 years ago chose to quit the big city and make a living in and from the countryside, I watched this operation with keen interest. I was one of a then growing number of pioneers who had recognised that the then new technology, the fax machine, and the looming potential of the Internet meant that it was no longer necessary to waste time, cash and energy commuting into town to work.

For me, working on my own, this simply meant buying house with an attic for an office (yes, I starve in my garret). But for others, with staff to employ, it meant finding officers for staff or workshop space for small manufacturing projects. To me and many others, this seemed like the beginning of a new future for the countryside.

And there were some immediate successes. Broughton Hall, near Skipton, was converted from a fading stately home on the verge of bankruptcy into a thriving business park for hi-tech companies in a model that has been copied throughout Britain.

On a smaller scale, there was our own Daelnet operation, based in a converted barn in the national park, the company which brought the world-wide web to the Yorkshire Dales.

Now both these operations, although different in size, had one thing in common: they both gave new life to redundant agricultural buildings whilst providing hi-tech jobs for local people. If ever there was a win, win situation in the countryside in the past 50 years, this was it.

Never-the-less (I almost wrote, ‘It goes without saying’) both operations, and many more like it, were successfully created well before New Labour came up with rural proofing. And both depended on one key factor: that the owners of redundant agricultural property be willing g to take the financial risk of converting such property into modern, bright and comfortable space in the hope of finding future commercial tenants.

Whether rural proofing was failed by inefficiency, neglect, or simple incompetence is not yet

This was no minor gamble. Most companies still cling to the 19th Century idea that offices should be in towns, despite the cost, stress and environmental pollution that this causes. So rural landlords who took the 21st route to a brighter, more prosperous and diverse countryside were prepared to wait, often for considerable periods, to find those adventurous tenants.

This week, despite “rural proofing” those people were given yet another kick in the groin by the Government. In its desperation to raise even more taxation it has now been decreed that full business rates must be paid on all commercial properties after they have been empty for three months.

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) went berserk because they realise that such an imposition will not only mean big extra costs for rural landlords but could also stop dead in its tracks this important trend of small, hi-tech business moving to the countryside (See News, Thursday).

Earlier this year, before this latest show of contempt for rural issues, the CLA issued a national statement saying the Government was still ignoring its very own policy of rural proofing. At the time, Douglas Chalmers, director of CLA North, said angrily:

"All of us who work in the rural community are aware of an apparent systematic failure on the part of government bodies to support rural business. The huge economic potential in the countryside is being frustrated and even driven out through a lack of understanding by the Government and its agencies."

One wonders why politicians bother to make solemn promises which are never carried through. Why waste their breath? Whether rural proofing was failed by inefficiency, neglect, or simple incompetence is not yet known. Or could if be that, being caught in a tight spot after the foot and mouth cock up, politcians just chose to lie their way out?

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