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Mixed blessings for the countryside, 2004?

Tuesday 30 December 2003

Our countryside commentator, John Sheard, gets out his crystal ball to find the good omens for country folk in 2004. It is, he says, a difficult quest - but there may be some good news in there somewhere

THIS is the time of the year when I would dearly and truly love to be brimming with optimism. A New Year should always be faced with hope. So this week, I shall sift through some ominous portents for 2004 and, hopefully, pluck out a few golden nuggets.

The bad news is, however, that this will be a year of great change - and change is not something that goes down well amongst many country folk. With luck, however, some of that change will not be all bad.

For the farming community, that will be decided within the next few weeks when Defra Secretary of State Margaret Beckett announces how the new farm subsidy system will work now that the immensely complex and often criminally unfair EU Common Agricultural Policy is being reformed (except in France, that is, but who would expect anything else?).

How will this fare in 2004?

This subject has always been clouded by the obfuscations of the cleverest bureaucrats in Brussels, so I don't claim to understand it in depth, but everyone expects more cash to be switched from huge agri-industrial cereal producers to smaller family farms, particularly farms in important landscape areas.

If this happens - and if it doesn't, it will be a complete volte face on stated policy - this will be greeted with outrage by the millionaire farmers of East Anglia and delight for many in the Yorkshire Dales.

Dales and Cumbria farmers, however, will not be so delighted when the co-called "Right to Roam" legislation finally comes into force, allowing walkers far greater access to what is now private land.

Personally, I don't think this will be as bad as is forecast for genuine ramblers are in the main highly protective of the countryside they enjoy - so long as they keep to marked paths and don't destroy acres of grazing.

Their business is often the difference between survival and bankruptcy for pubs and small shops in the more remote hamlets - and, as regular readers may have noticed, the decline of the country pub has been the cause of some of my deepest sadness in recent years.

Government action is promised, too, on the highly vexed problem of providing affordable housing for local working people who are being driven out of their villages by ridiculously high prices being paid by wealthy retirees or long-distance commuters.

This is an absolute priority if we are to stop the Dales becoming a living museum for wealthy old folk. But it is essential that such housing should be given to true locals: I know of one case when a council employee has just found sheltered accommodation here for her elderly mother who has lived in Wales all her life!

On the rural business front, the picture is mixed. British Telecom has finally relented and has agreed to install broadband Internet equipment in most of its rural telephone exchanges, which will help small businesses thrive.

Trouble is, when many of those small businesses expand they are often forced to move into the towns to find the skilled employees they need. And not just small businesses: the Skipton Building Society, one of Britain's great business success stories, is setting up a new operation away from Craven because it can no longer recruit enough staff here.

So, in fact, we have very low unemployment - the last figure I recall puts it at less than one per cent locally - which has got to be good news. However, looming over all this is the grotesque shadow of the Rt.Hon. John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister.

He rose to prominence in Labour ranks by running Hull City Council, which has just gone bust after years of mismanagement by his former cronies, despite a billion pound windfall from selling its council-owned telephone system.

This is the man who, later in 2004, will ask us to vote in a referendum for a multi-million-pound talking shop, a Yorkshire parliament. This, of course, would be totally dominated by Labour members from the big cities of West and South Yorkshire and would mean the scrapping of North Yorkshire County Council and/or Craven District Council.

If that happens, country folk might as well emigrate. With modern technology, I could write this column from a little island I know on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The sun almost always shines, the palms bow in a cooling ocean breeze, and the beer is ice cold and dirt cheap. Perhaps there is something in Two Jags' idea after all! Happy New Year.

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