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Whitehall slumbers whilst hill farms slump

Friday 28 January 2005

Our countryside commentator John Sheard despairs as, once again, Defra bureaucrats pile another load of pain onto the backs of long suffering Yorkshire Dales hill farmers

I HAVE been writing about the decline of the Yorkshire Dales hill farm for the past 15 years and it was a process that began long before then. Most of the time, it was a pretty depressing scenario. Then, three years ago, from a most unexpected source, came some truly wonderful news.

From the ashes of the foot and mouth debacle, which led the old Ministry of Agriculture to its rightful place in the knacker's yard, sprang the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which promised joined-up supervision of Britain's rural way of life.

Rural communities were to be helped socially and economically and the precious landscape and wildlife were to be conserved. And, at last, our hill farmers were to be rewarded for the work they do in preserving the character of our wilder countryside - which, in effect, means most of our national parks.

This was the phoenix I had been waiting for since I was a boy. But this week, it crashed back into the ashes - thanks to the indolence, incompetence and simple couldn't-care-less attitudes of Whitehall civil servants.

Hill farming: betrayed by Whitehall yet again
Hill farming: betrayed by Whitehall yet again

Defra's one and only "big idea" was to switch farm subsidy payments from over-production of food that no-one wanted to buy towards environmentally friendly farming so that country folk could be rewarded for preserving the countryside for the benefit of townie visitors and foreign tourists.

This was supposed to happen this year. But this week, Defra announced without as much as a word of apology that the first payments will not be made until February 2006 (see News).

So already hard-pressed farmers will have to survive for 13 months on either a) any saving which they have been able to hang onto after years of low farm prices or b) go crawling to their bank managers for loans to tide them over.

And as most country town bankers understand the desperate state of hill farming far better than London civil servants, they will be lucky if such a loan is forthcoming. So, I'll bet, ever more Dales farmers will pack it in, sell up - if they are owners - or face a totally unpredictable future if they are tenants.

I wonder how these Whitehall warriors, whose inflated salaries go into the bank on the first day of every month, would react if they were told that they wouldn't be paid until next week, never mind next year? Their screams of anguish would no doubt be heard in the Outer Hebrides (not that the hill farmers up there would care overmuch).

They will no doubt blame computer breakdown and why not? After all, every time these idiots cough up tens of millions for computers, they never do work. That's why our pensions, air traffic control, medical records and inter-force police co-operation are in total shambles.

There are many more examples of this but I can't remember them all. Nor can I remember reports of any civil servant being sacked for spending tens of millions of our money on duff technology: most ten-year-old school children understand computers better.

What we should do is close down the Defra offices in London, sell them off at huge profit, and bring any staff worth retaining up North (that might be quite a small number, so they won't be swamping us).

Then we could introduce them to some farmers, let them walk in that thing called a field, buy them a drink in a village pub (if there is one left, that is) and let them talk to real country folk.

It would take a long time, of course, but after a few years they might absorb a glimmer of what country life is about. Then they could begin to earn their inflated salaries (not to mention their index-linked pensions) and try to do what they are supposed to do: become the champion, not the executioner, of rural England.

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