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The countryside in 2006: time to talk now

Friday 29 February 2008

Our rural affairs commentator John Sheard, delighted that a ,long-overdue debate on the future or our countryside was launched this week, looks into two different crystal balls and predicts that both rural business and landscape conservation could – and should – work hand in hand

THERE could be no better illustration of this Government’s contempt of our countryside than the row that erupted yesterday (February 28) when it was revealed that several cabinet ministers who had voted for the large-scale closure of sub-post offices – thinking most of them would be in rural areas – had suddenly changed their minds when they discovered that some of them might be in their own constituencies (See News).

We agree that the English countryside is a key national asset which is vital to the success of our tourist industry

Dorothy Fairburn - CLA

The Tories immediately accused them of "rank hypocrisy" and "nimbyism" – the "not in my backyard" accusation which the Government, and Gordon Brown in particular, aim at country folk who object to huge housing estates being dumped in their much-loved green fields.

I have many times in the past been accused of cynicism and when it comes to a situation like this, I hold up my hands and confess. In my eyes, today’s politicians are only interested in one thing: gathering votes to protect their own well-cushioned seats. And if you are a Labour MP, count the number of votes to be gathered on rural issues as ... zero.

This is why I believe that the countryside on-line forum launched by American author and Anglophile Bill Bryson on Tuesday was so important. Bryson, who wrote some of his best-selling books whilst living in Malhamdale in the Yorkshire Dales, wants thousands – hundreds of thousands, with luck of ordinary folks to become involved in the debate over the future of the countryside (see News, Tuesday).

Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson

Bryson is President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, one of the country's oldest conservation charities, which will celebrate its centenary in 2026. It hopes there will be some countryside left by then and wants to start the debate now so that no future government can concrete over our green and pleasant land by subterfuge.

The day after the CPRE rolled-out its new website (details later), another successful rural body, the Country Land and Business Association issued its comments on the project. The CLA is even older - it was founded 101 years ago in York – and, as one would expect – it believes that the countryside’s social and economic fabric needs to be protected as well as the landscape.

CLA Yorkshire regional director, Dorothy Fairburn, said that the concept of rural sustainability was based on the three legs of economic, environment and social sustainability – but that without a strong, economic heartbeat, the countryside would wither and die.

"We agree that the English countryside is a key national asset which is vital to the success of our tourist industry, important for leisure activity, a significant contributor to health and well being, as well as producing the bulk of the nation's food.

"Where we differ from the CPRE is that we believe that it must first and foremost be a living and working countryside – we have to recognise that our rural environment is a managed environment, shaped by human activity."

Now I couldn’t agree more. Without jobs in the countryside, we are in danger of becoming a museum for rich retirees, long-distance commuters and second homes, our young folk long gone to the towns and cities.

If that is to be avoided, we need bodies like these two to work together. I would like other pressure groups to join in, even groups like the once much-respected Ramblers’ Association, whose head office staff (although not local branches) was infiltrated by the extreme left 20 years ago and which rarely raises a squeak in opposition to Labour policy.

We need dozens of such organisations to make their voices heard to millions of people – people who, even though they live in towns, love their trips to the countryside. People with votes, the only people politicians ever care about (every four years or so, that is). Let’s have a Grand Coalition for the Countryside.

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