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Greenbelt: more countryside co-operation

Friday 29 January 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard reports on yet another important countryside co-operation between one-time vocal opponents and hopes that this might be the silver lining behind the recession and the tough times ahead

THE countryside seems to be getting more and more like that hilarious film The Odd Couple, where two totally different men – Jack Lemon and Walter Matthau – attempt to share an apartment to the dismay and chagrin of both.

For two more once vocal opponents this week announced a co-operative venture to save an important part of our national heritage, the green belts. And coming together to launch a new strategy to preserve this milestone of English planning are the Government quango Natural England and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE).

The Yorkshire green belt

On Wednesday, I was able to report a link up between the RSPB and the Country Land and Business Association to fight for reforms of the infamous EU Common Agricultural Policy which could allow farming to be both profitable and environmentally supportive for wildlife and, in particular, birds like the skylark and the yellow hammer (See news).

This is not easy task to take on but the fact that the two had got together seemed to me to be a major breakthrough. In the past, they have been highly critical of each other over the control of raptors like crows and magpies, which are massive predators of the eggs of ground-nesting game birds, and cormorants, which prey on trout and salmon fry.

On Thursday came more highly agreeable news that Natural England had linked up with the CPRE to protect the future of the green belts which, here in Yorkshire, spread from south of Sheffield into Derbyshire and northwards past Leeds and Bradford up to Harrogate and Skipton.

At the joint launch of Green belts: a Greener Future, Shaun Spiers, Chief Executive of CPRE, said: “This report confirms that the countryside around our largest and most historic towns and cities is a vital, but fragile, environmental asset.

“We must continue to strengthen our green belts and make full use of the opportunities they provide to allow people to appreciate their local countryside. Where Green belt land is underused, or in poor condition, the answer is to improve its quality, not to build on it.”

The Government has gone very quiet of late about these lavish building plans...

There is a sting in the tale of this quote because the last sentence reflects that fact that, less than two years ago, Gordon Brown and his minions – including some of the leading executives at Natural England – were demanding that large areas of the green belt would have to go to make room for hundreds of thousands of new houses. This was total anathema to the CPRE, which was founded early last century to press – successfully – for the establishment of green areas between expanding towns and cities.

The Government has gone very quiet of late about these lavish building plans, ever since it was estimated that Britain’s population was growing so fast – thanks mainly to immigration – that it would hit 70 million by mid-century.

At time when immigration is a red-hot election issue, such plans have been quietly been pushed onto the back burner. And, to be fair, Natural England, which is based in Sheffield, has recently shown a much more independent line when it comes to political manoeuvring and seems far more switched on to countryside issues that its parent body, Defra.

Sadly, the latter took a lot of the shine off a week of promising news by announcing the creation of a new animal health quango to prevent disasters like foot and mouth. This, too, will be set up in cooperation with farming bodies but the sting in this particular tail is that this new quango – which will no doubt be very expensive – will be paid for by a new stealth tax on the agriculture and food processing industry.

This, of course, is that after years of drunken-sailor spending, the nation is on the verge of bankruptcy. Everyone knows that the next few years are, financially, going to be very tough indeed. But in desperate times, people learn to work together. If this means that countryside organisations can co-operate, rather than snipe at each other, the recession might truly have a silver lining.

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