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Mixed blessings: a confusing week for country life

Friday 27 June 2003

Our countryside correspondent John Sheard muses on two items of good news this week - agricultural reforms and a new scheme to back affordable rural housing - but wonders if anyone has read the small print

THIS MORNING, I should be jumping for joy. After years, even decades, of talking, concrete solutions are being sought for two of the countryside's most pressing problems.

Can CAP reforms save this?

A "historic" deal was announced on Thursday to end of the madness of the EU's notorious Common Agricultural Policy. And on Friday, the Prince of Wales launched a drive for more affordable housing for young rural locals (see News).

But, being the old cynic I am, I'm going to wait until I read the fine print because in all matters connected with the EU, and with almost as many connected with the planning apparatus in this country, there will be a thousand loopholes through which bureaucrats and powerful vested interests can lob spanners to jam up the works.

In the CAP reforms, the spanner is already on public view: the French, whose peasant farmers have for years pocketed a quarter of the £30 billion CAP budget, have been given permission to carry on handing out subsidies until 2007 - which, surprise, surprise, is after the next French presidential election.

Could this be of personal interest to the loathsome, devious and power-hungry President Chirac, who but for the fact that French presidents cannot be prosecuted under criminal law might already be in jail for alleged corruption?

That apart, there are many good things in the CAP reforms for the Yorkshire Dales. Subsidies will be "de-coupled" from food production and switched to support environmentally friendly farming methods to benefit the landscape and wildlife.

Even better, subsidies will be targeted at small farms, which is great news for our hill farmers. Maximum subsidises will be limited to £200,000 - which still sounds an awful lot. But there are cereal farmers in East Anglia who each year pick up half a million and more under the present lunatic system - and have turned that part of the world into featureless prairie as a result.

Even better for rural youngsters came a new rural housing campaign launched by Prince Charles backed by his friend, the Duke of Westminster, and some of the country's most active rural organisations.

The Duke, often pilloried by the tabloids as a wealthy Mayfair landlord, is at heart a countryman who loves nothing more than to flee his London office and rush back to his rural estate in Cheshire - or, soon, to his shooting estate on the grouse moors of the Forest of Bowland across the valley from the Three Peaks of the Yorkshire Dales,

I have interviewed the Duke several times over the years and, despite his external charm, he has a tough interior that I would not like to tackle (he is an active, hands-on colonel in the TA for instance). With Prince Charles using his rank to lean on people, and the Duke acting as his aristocratic bother boy, there is hope they might even get something done.

However they, too, will face a mega-problem: the "drawbridge principle." This is another aristocratic invention, this time from a neighbour of the Duke's in north Lancashire, Lord Shuttleworth, former head of the Rural Development Commission.

One of the greatest obstacles for planners to overcome when trying to promote new affordable homes is the resistance of offcumdens who have moved into country villages and object to any further development - they "pull up the drawbridge."

They are wealthy, have good lawyers, know how to manipulate the media - and often terrify their hapless local councillors into opposing any new housing schemes. So off go the local youngsters to the towns and cities, never to return.

This is the lifeblood of the countryside haemorrhaging away, as it has been doing for the past twenty years or more. Someone will have to staunch the flow soon or country life will bleed to death. This week may, or may not, be that vital first aid. I shall wait and see.

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