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Help demanded for country folk in the urban "war zone"
Friday, 25 October, 2002

A major "urban summit" chaired by John Prescott opens in Birmingham next week. John Sheard asks what it will mean for country folk living on the town fringe.

IT MAY seem a bit odd to write about a major conference on urban regeneration in a column dedicated to the countryside but - sadly for some - the two are hopelessly intertwined for country folk who live on the fringes of towns and cities.

Next Wednesday, a so-called Urban Summit is to open in Birmingham to discuss urban regeneration under the chairmanship of John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister. The fact that such a senior politician is involved shows that the Government place a high priority on the subject.


By coincidence - or perhaps by design - the National Farmers' Union this week issued the results of a survey amongst some of the 32,000 farmers who have the misfortune to work land on the fringes of towns and cities.

It does not make pretty reading and its conclusions are blunt: it can be like working in a "war zone" with some farmers having to contend with prostitution, New Age travellers, constant fly-tipping, illegal raves and even attacks on livestock, the report concludes.

Now it might be easy to pretend that in a comparatively remote area like the Dales, these problems don't exist. It would also be self-deluding, for rural crime is undergoing a huge surge, fly-tipping is getting worse by the day as legal tips increase their fees, and many of our country towns are suffering from violence by youths on weekend rampages from the Bradford and Leeds conurbations.

It is highly unlikely that the Birmingham summit will consider such issues - inner city poverty, drugs and crime are a Number One Government priority - but hopefully, someone, somewhere will make the connection.

It is already well known, for instance, the successful Neighbourhood Watch schemes in the towns have driven more and more criminals to seek targets in the countryside yet rural police forces are, as we all know, stretched virtually to breaking point.

After its "war zone" survey, the NFU is asking the Government for help by providing funds for more visible policing, more positive attitudes from planners when it comes to farm diversification schemes, and an end to the practice under which local councils charge farmers to removing waste that has been tipped on their land.

However, the NFU report is not all doom and gloom. It does point out that farming close to urban centres does give the farmer a market for his produce close to hand. The problem, of course, is to get farmers to take advantage of that opportunity - and so far, I have not noticed a sudden surge in farmers' markets in the Dales.

I wish the delegates in Birmingham all the best for very selfish reasons: the better we make our towns and cities to live in, the fewer people will come flooding into the countryside, forcing up property prices and contributing to many other social problems.

But I would much prefer it to be a Town and Country Summit, where delegates from both sides of the fence could begin to understand each others' problems. Then we could really start thinking up some real solutions.

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