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2010: a country year to be remembered

Friday 24 December 2010

In his review of the near revolutionary changes promised for Britain in 2010, our rural affairs commentator John Sheard reflects on the good things that should improve country life – and raises an eyebrow over political promises still to be kept

IT IS ending as it began, in chaos in the cold, as once again harsh weather proves that Britain is in the banana republic league when it comes to dealing with snow – and at least they have an excuse for not being prepared.

At the end of a year in which global warming theorists were beginning to back pedal on their doom and gloom predictions, Britain’s transport network was on the verge of collapse in the cities and in a state of paralysis in many rural areas, the supermarkets were said to be running out of food, and thousands of would-be escapees face spending Christmas on airport floors.

Peace in the Dales; chaos elsewhere

This has been and extraordinary year for Britain, with many good things promised and some good promises pushed into the long grass, but nearly three weeks of Arctic weather – with more on the way, according to the forecasters – has shown once again just how far this country has fallen behind other so-called First World nations.

In the countryside, where an estimated five million people rely on oil for their central heating because there is no gas main nearby, there is no oil: delivery lorries can’t get through minor roads. And in the towns and cities, people worry about their gas supplies because Britain only holds three days of supply in hand, compared with something like a month in Germany.

In Germany, country roads are quickly cleared of snow because Government has supplied farmers with snow plough blades that fit to tractors and pays them to keep the roads open, a useful source of extra income in conditions where normal farming is impossible. They do the same in America, where snow fall is often measured in feet rather than inches.

Involving farmers in maintaining access to their local communities would fit ideally into this somewhat nebulous vision of the Big Society which Prime Minister David Cameron has been trumpeting since he created the Coalition with the Liberal Democrats in May. So far, we have seen few concrete examples of it in practice.

But it is early days and some of the ideas bode well for the countryside. By scrapping regional housing targets laid down by New Labour, mainly aimed at easing the chronic housing shortages in the big towns and cities caused by immigration, rural areas like the Yorkshire Dales might escape being suburbanised with small villages swamped by off-comers.

The planning system as a whole is to be turned on its head, or so we are promised. One almost unthinkable innovation – under New Labour, at least – is that local people will be given more rights to object to new development and – this really is a revolution – planning permission will be granted only in the interests of the locals rather than those of the developer.

Planning changes will, in fact, be awaited with alarm by many local authorities including those which run the national parks, whose role is due for intense re-examination. In my local Yorkshire Dales National Park, building small scale, in-fill starter homes for locals has proved virtually impossible for the past 20 years.

It was a good news, bad news year for wildlife. Popular birds like the skylark and the cuckoo suffered drastic declines in numbers, along with such once every day species as house sparrows and starlings. But the otter has made a come back in all counties except Kent and the humble water vole is slowly returning because of a decline in predatory mink.

There have been many good things, and a few bad, on the political scene for the countryside in 2010 since the May election. Most important, perhaps, is the appointment of a team at the environment and food department Defra of top team of people who actually understand farming and rural life.

This was a crucial area almost totally ignored in the 12 years of Labour rule when former PM Tony Blair is alleged to have said that there was little point in growing expensive British food when we could import it more cheaply from abroad.

A happy white (but I hope warm) Christmas to you all!

Within a year of that remark, a world food shortage began to develop caused by drought, a huge switch from cereals to biofuel production, and increasingly wealthy economies like China and India adopting Western-style diets and siphoning off food that for decades has fed the West.

This led to starvation and food riots in some of the poorer Third World nations and suddenly the UK found itself at the wrong end of the food supply chain. We still import some 40% of our food, much of it which we could produce here: milk and other dairy products, vegetables and, in particular, fruit – tens of thousands of orchards have been grubbed out here in recent years.

Under the new Defra Secretary Caroline Spelman, who before she entered Parliament had created a highly successful career as an agricultural adviser both here and in the EU, the Coalition is beginning a major drive to increase domestic food production. But this is no easy task.

Defra are promising to match this increased production with less pollution of our rivers from pesticides and farm effluent, which is no easy circle to square. Watch out, then, for the introduction of more GM crops and more meat and milk from cloned animals accompanied, as they will be, by mass protests from the “green” lobby.

And that brings me, personally, to my favourite development of 2010, the frenzied back-pedalling of the global warming lobby, which has been spreading doom and gloom for the past ten years or so – just after the same people had been insisting that the world was about the enter a new Ice Age.

I have been writing about environmental issues since the 1960s and there was a time when I was taken in by the cataclysmic views of so-called “scientists” who were more likely to by hippies than cautious laboratory creatures in white coats.

Since then, scare story after scare story has arrived, blossomed and died. Britain might be under snow but not under glaciers, as was predicted then. The Gulf Stream has not reversed. Thousands, perhaps a whole generation, have not died from Mad Cow Disease.

But this year, for the first time, science is beginning to admit it past mistakes. People who said sea levels would rise by several metres, swamping hundreds of coastal cities – including London and New York – now admit that any rise will be measured in inches.

The University of East Anglia, a key centre for “warmest” “theories” has been discredited by leaked emails suggesting that facts which didn’t fit its theories were suppressed. The Indian professor who leads the world’s most important global warming committee has admitted that the Himalayan glaciers won’t have melted by 2030 but will still be with us well into the next century.

Sure, there are many environmental problems that need addressing but – thanks to the Coalition’s decision to go ahead with a new programme of nuclear power stations – Britain’s lights might not go out in 2017.

But two final country thoughts: why have haven’t they appointed the promised Supermarket Ombudsman to stop the big food retailers bleeding our farmers and growers white? And when are they going to hold the vote to bring back hunting? A happy white (but I hope warm) Christmas to you all!

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