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Nine months of peril: rural England’s battle for survival

Friday 24 July 2009

Our rural affairs commentator John Sheard fears that the English countryside and its way of life are under the greatest threat since Hitler’s thwarted invasion in 1940. This time, however, the threat comes from its own government

THE Wessex author Thomas Hardy was arguably the most lyrical writer ever to describe the English countryside in both prose and poetry. But he was also a profound pessimist, who believed that this was the only state of mind which guarantees that no-one is ever disappointed.

Now I have been writing about another part of our countryside - broadly, the length and breadth of the Pennines – for half a century and although I would not dare compare myself in any way with Hardy in creativity, I do this week share one characteristic: the pessimism.


For most of this year, I have felt fairly upbeat about the rural future. But certain recent developments make me fear that our rural landscape and way of life are under the greatest threat since the Battle of Britain stopped Adolf Hitler’s invasion plans in 1940.

This time, regretfully, the enemy is our own government as, in its death throes (I hope) it seeks to inflict as much possible damage as it can on its ancient class-war enemies: the “nobs” and other country folk who, in the main, tend to vote Conservative or Liberal-Democrat.

One must never under-estimate the role of spite in politics, and it is not just a Labour trait: when the Tories expected to lose to Tony Blair’s New Labour movement 12 years ago, they hurriedly privatised British Rail and left it in a state of total shambles – knowing that the new government would have to sort out the mess.

Labour now has a maximum of nine months to cling onto power before it must call a general election and the poison chalice they are expected to hand to the Tories makes the BR debacle look like a cup of de-caff coffee. Labour back benchers and other party hacks who runs hundreds of unelected quangos are queuing up for their last pounds of rural flesh before they are cast into the wilderness.

Now if this were a column about politics in general, I would write about young soldiers being killed or maimed because of penny pinching by Gordon Brown; about a broken banking system; immigration; the biggest national debt in the history of the nation; the rise in violent crime and drunken mayhem on our streets or hospital A&E wards.

But this is a column about the countryside so I will talk instead about the quarter mile trip to my allotment and the effect it has had on just one” typical” market town, Skipton, “gateway to the Yorkshire Dales” and my home these past 20 years.

I normally walk to my allotment but, when needing to carry heavy stuff like bags of compost or my strimmer and other tools, I occasionally take the car. But the route I used to take – perhaps half a mile – has been closed for almost three years on the orders of unelected quango.

That route across the Leeds-Liverpool canal runs through a former mill that is being converted to flats. It was closed “temporarily” in October 2006 to allow builder’s traffic free access. The local council tried to have it re-opened 18 months ago but were over-ridden by the Yorkshire Regional Assembly, a body that few people have even heard of.

It was set up to prepare for the Yorkshire and Humber regional parliament which John Prescott dreamed of creating in the last parliament. When it became obvious that even Labour voters in Northern industrial towns did not want yet another layer of bureaucracy, the idea was dropped.

But the regional assembly not only lived on but grew in power and can now countermand my local councillors, the people we voted for. And to take my car to my allotment, I have to negotiate the heavy traffic of Skipton High Street with hundreds of other vehicles denied the same short cut or go several miles around the bypass – at a time when Labour is trying to drastically cut our CO2 emissions!

Why did the regional assembly interfere in such a small local matter? Because, of course, it is dominated by big town Labour appointees who are committed to forcing through Gordon Brown’s plans to build millions of homes in rural or market town settings – because the construction lobby would prefer to concrete over grass and woodland rather than clear brownfield sites, of which there are thousands in Yorkshire.

The people of Skipton and neighbouring areas of the Yorkshire Dales have been screaming in protest for some years now, fearing that their town – whose High Street has just been voted the best in Britain – will become a suburb of Leeds or Bradford. The local Craven District Council (CDC) has done it best to stem the flow – but has been repeatedly over-ruled by Westminster.

CDC members also refused planning permission for the erection of five wind-turbines the height of Big Ben which would dominate the view from the Yorkshire Dales National Park and other areas of outstanding natural beauty across 40 miles of countryside.

But the German windfarm company has decided to appeal – going back on previous promises – and given that the government has just said that 6,000 wind farms must be built on inland sites, I fear that the spirited opposition to the Craven windfarm – and another overlooking Skipton – will be dismissed by Labour ministers as just another case of “nimbyism” (I wonder why that phrase is only used against rural or suburban folk: i.e. likely Tory voters).

From my office window, I can now see the second storey of the Tesco superstore which is due to open next month, the third supermarket in a town of approximately 13,000 people, whose award-winning High Street now has almost a dozen empty stores and a dozen or so charity shops.

I urge anyone interested in the survival of the English country way of life to be extra vigilant come these next nine months

The council also refused planning permission for the vastly extended Tesco, replacing a single storey structure which was invisible from my window, but that too was over-ruled by government. It is said that Gordon Brown likes cheap food because it means people have more free cash that he can tax!

There are hundreds of market towns in England suffering in this way, towns which like Skipton have a Tory or a Lib-Dem MP. There are thousands of villages which have lost their post offices and scores which have seen their primary schools closed down.

The Labour-led Charities Commission is threatening to close down small independent schools – many of them based in former country houses – and the schools and childrens’ minister Ed Balls has publically vowed to do all he can to close down the few remaining grammar schools – of which there are two in Skipton regularly judged as the best state schools in Northern England.

As I said earlier, never under-estimate the role of spite in politics, particularly when the politicians involved have just been exposed as venal, money-grubbing mediocrities who will find life far from cushy in the dole queues they helped create.

They want to lash out – and rural England is one of their chosen targets. I urge anyone interested in the survival of the English country way of life to be extra vigilant come these next nine months – and, if necessary take up the cudgels of protest when required. This government is notorious for its dithering: with a bit of luck, we can fight on until we are (hopefully) saved by the bell.

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