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Yeo: Our vision of the countryside

Speech to the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England

"Four years ago the last General Election was held in the shadow of the Foot and Mouth epidemic which devastated much of our countryside and so damaged the rural economy.

This evening isn't the time to explore the lessons of that painful episode.

Even though there are some signs that not all the lessons have been learned

What I do remember from that period is travelling all over Britain.

Often to the areas which suffered the worst effects.

Fields where cattle and sheep once grazed were empty.

Markets were silent.

A pall of depression hung over many rural communities.

Something I hope will never happy again.

Something which made me determined that any Government I am a member of will have the countryside high up its priorities.

I spent much of that election campaign dashing from one marginal seat to another.

From the air, the countryside still dominates our land. Trees and grass have the advantage over glass and concrete. Roads are just scratches in a patchwork of fields.

But on the ground the reality is very different.

Indeed, my belief is that today the very survival of the British countryside is at stake.

Not because it is set to disappear entirely.

But because the countryside is so much more than the mere absence of town.

It is a way of life.

One that depends on economic, social and environmental qualities that are under attack as never before.

Especially from those who say that the countryside 'must change'.

This is a giveaway phrase.

It reveals those who use it to be as ignorant as they are patronising.

The countryside is always changing and adapting to change.

In a matter of decades it has gone from a community where most people earned their living from the land, to one where most people don't.

At the start of the last century more than nine out of ten people in my home county of Suffolk worked the land. At the start of this century less than one in ten did so.

Despite enormous upheavals, it has regenerated itself without fuss or fanfare.

Unlike large tracts of France or Italy, ours is not a landscape of half-deserted villages where only the elderly remain.

It is a place where people still want to live.

That is why we must trust rural communities to make the right decisions about their own future.

They have shown that they can change and yet remain themselves.

But increasingly, that power is being taken away from them.

The vital decisions are being made a long way from the countryside.

By people who neither understand nor care about the country way of life, and don't even consider the decisions they make within their proper rural context.

The irony is that while power over the countryside has been centralised, it hasn't been joined-up.

Quite the opposite, in fact, because, for too many of those that wield this power, the countryside is just an empty space into which other agendas can expand.

Labour's agenda

Local government finance

Firstly, there is a partisan agenda.

Since 1997, the Government has switched resources away from shire councils to prop up their inefficient Labour councils.

They have done this by fiddling with the system of local government finance, specifically the formula used to calculate the allocation of the Revenue Support Grant.

Contrast the lucky residents of Sedgefield, to take one council at random, who have seen their council's grant from the Government rise by two-thirds while sunny South Bucks now receive less per head than they did in 1997.

As the National Audit Office has made clear, the result for shire councils is a higher Council Tax and, by extension, a reduction in the resources available for rural services.

It is claimed that resources for all councils have been increased, but this takes no account of resources per capita or the additional commitments placed upon local government by central government.

The fact remains that well-run shire councils have been punished for their efficiency and their party loyalties.

Regionalism

Secondly, there is a regional agenda.

Not content with taking money from shire councils, Labour has sought to take their powers too.

The chosen instrument is regional policy.

In the recent referendum on an elected assembly for the North East, voters made a magificent gesture in John Prescott's direction, but his web of regional quangos remains in place.

And what a tangled web it is:

Unelected regional chambers, Regional Housing Boards, Regional Observatories, Regional Sports Boards, Regional Transport Boards and Regional Tobacco Control Managers.

And that is before one gets to the Regional Development Agencies and the Government Offices of the Regions.

All in all, a massive accumulation of power that is not only undemocratic and unaccountable, but deployed at a level where rural communities have the least influence.

Planning

Thirdly, there is a planning agenda.

Labour has used its control of Whitehall and the regional quangos to force through hostile and destructive land use policies.

On housing, wind farms and mobile masts, the balance has been shifted from conservation to development, and the power from local communities to central government.

Each year 21 square miles of countryside, an area larger than Southampton, disappears under new development.

And, of course, the essential character and tranquillity of the countryside is lost over a much wider area than that which falls directly beneath the bulldozer's path.

Meanwhile, the Government claims to be 'adding' to the Green Belt, when in fact they are loosening it notch by notch - not so much a belt as a rubber band that stretches as the countryside shrinks.

A recent Parliamentary answer confirmed that on average over 1,000 hectares of green belt are being built on every year.

Farming

Fourthly, there's a farming agenda.

Or rather there isn't.

Since 1997, farm incomes have fallen 14%.

The agricultural workforce is down 15%.

Self-sufficiency in food is down almost 10% - meaning more food imports and ever more food miles.

Ministers try to blame market forces. And Labour simply doesn't care.

I blame a Government that loads regulation on their backs and lets in substandard imports to knock them off their feet.

No wonder many farmers are calling it a day.

Unless things change Labour's vision appears to be one of farming on an increasingly impersonal scale.

Of land and subsidies concentrated in ever fewer hands, used to produce cheap, genetically modified commodities.

Country life

Finally, there is what can only be described as an agenda of prejudice.

Because that is the only explanation for Labour's attack on country sports.

If they really cared about animal welfare, they would defend the animal welfare standards achieved by British farmers.

Instead of allowing a free-for-all for imports of food grown in ways not permitted here which breach the animal welfare standards required by law in Britain.

They have destroyed a centuries-old tradition, a significant means of livelihood and an effective way of managing wildlife.

They see the countryside as a vehicle for more social engineering.

Forgetting that it is first and foremost a place were people live and work - just like towns and cities.

And they forget how much country people do to make the countryside a precious inheritance for the nation as a whole.

One on which our tourist industry, among others, largely depends.

Conservative approach

The case for a different approach is overwhelming.

And that means a Conservative approach.

The past

Perhaps, the most famous words ever attributed to John Prescott was his claim that "the green belt is a Labour achievement and we mean to build on it."

Well, Labour have built on it, but it wasn't their achievement.

The green belt was a Conservative achievement, whose half-century is celebrated this year.

In particular, that of Duncan Sandys, Conservative Housing Minister.

Since then, Conservative Governments have also led the great clean up of our rivers and lakes; introduced wildlife protection laws; formed the Department of the Environment and published the first Rural White Paper and the first Biodiversity Action Plan.

We've always maintained a balance between conservation and development, in a country where there is so much to conserve and so much pressure to develop.

Which is why in the nineties we strengthened the presumption against green field development - in stark contrast to Labour's Barker review.

Compare the way run-down areas like Liverpool and Docklands were transformed under Michael Heseltine with John Prescott's approach.

The future

But enough of the past.

What is the Conservative vision for the future?

It has three key objectives:

Firstly, to preserve the character of our landscape which does so much to make Britain distinctive today and which in future will be one of the reasons why people want to come and live, work or visit Britain.

Secondly, to sustain our ability to grow good food.

And, thirdly, to support vibrant rural communities as a part of our vision of modern Britain.

To do this we need a very different approach to our use of land.

We need a more coherent policy for rural services and rural livelihoods.

And thirdly we must build respect and understanding for the environment and the rural way of life.

Above all we'll trust rural communties to make the right decisions.

They have adapted to change in the past and will do so again in the future.

And one change they'll face will be climate change.

The issue is global in scale.

But we recognise the local consequences.

Not least for the countryside.

Whose environment may be transformed, where habitat will change,where new crops are grown and some others may disappear.

And where more and more may be threatened by rising sea levels and flooding rivers.

Last week, I set out how we'd tackle this problem.

Pillar one: A different approach to our use of land

First of all, we need a different approach to land.

Mark Twain once gave the following advice: "Buy land, they've stopped making it."

My advice is to stop wasting it.

Unfortunately the Government isn't listening.

Just look at their housing programme which involves destroying perfectly useable terraces in our great cities while covering open countryside with concrete.

Our approach is different.

Just as we want to avoid wasting taxpayers' precious money, so will we avoid wasting our precious land.

Local decision making

We will give local communities a greater say in all decisions which affect their neighbourhood.

From wind farms to waste disposal.

We'll adopt a policy of localism that lets local people choose what's right for their neighbourhood.

It will stimulate innovation.

And a sense of ownership of policy.

So we will end John Prescott's top down approach to planning.

We'll abolish his Communities Plan and instead involve local communities in deciding the right level of development in their area.

Protecting the Green Belt

Let me make clear:

This is not about freezing the countryside in aspic.

Most local communities are aware of the need for some development.

Indeed the rich and varied fabric of rural Britain is itself the result of development by previous generations.

But under the Conservatives it will be local communities that decide.

And incidentally I'm not just talking about housing.

Wind farms example

When it comes to the green belt, a much stronger presumption against development is essential.

We'll stop the destruction of green belt I mentioned earlier.

Instead we will safeguard and expand the green belt around towns and villages to stop urban sprawl.

Brown field development

We must also shift much more new development from green field to brown field sites.

We must make better use of what we've already got. That includes filling empty houses before building new ones.

Land can and should be recycled.

So we will reappraise the designation of brown field sites, around railway stations, for example, a point I'll come back to.

We'll also amend planning guidance to contain a presumption in favour of the flexible re-use of agricultural buildings.

Like the former dairy which I visited in Cambridgeshire which is now full of hard working architects.

And perhaps consider market mechanisms that support the planning process in achieving the shift to brown field development.

For instance, why not try a tradeable credit scheme to ensure that a higher proportion of development takes place on brown field sites in any given area.

Intelligent land use

Brown field development is the most important example of how to use land intelligently, but it is not the only one.

For instance, land use needs to be integrated more closely with transport policy.

We will facilitate the development of brown field sites at and near railway stations, using planning agreements to capture part of the benefit for investment in improving and modernising the railway network.

This will help to reduce the traffic consequences of dependence on the car.

Land use also needs to take account of the increasing risk of flooding and coastal erosion.

Whereas Labour's careless approach has exacerbated the problem, we will use the natural potential of the land to find positive solutions.

Sensitive buildings

Of course, intelligent land use isn't just a matter of the land you use, it is also about the buildings you put on it.

We believe there is great scope to improve design standards on new build for the benefit of all.

This applies to energy efficiency to which we attach high priority as part of our green energy policy.

Our plan in partnership with industry is to develop a realistic road map towards zero emissions on new build, reinforced by rigorous enforcement of existing standards.

The same principle applies to the impact of new build on the landscape.

A Conservative Government will scrap the prescriptive, bureaucratic standards that stifle innovation, hamper brown field development and promote monotonous, uniform housing estates.

We will emphasise quality of design, rather than compliance with Government diktats.

We will encourage local authorities to acquire the skills to evaluate each scheme on its individual merits, encouraging a human-scale approach to development which goes with the grain of our existing built-environment.

A new era

Local decision making, stronger green belts, brown field development, intelligent land use and sensitive buildings - each is important.

But they aren't the limit of our ambitions.

In Government we will be open to the best ideas on land use wherever they come from.

In power, our door will be open to all those who have the interests of the countryside at heart.

It will take a concerted effort to undo the damage done in the last eight years.

Simply removing John Prescott from office isn't good enough, everything he stands for must go too.

Pillar Two: A coherent policy mix for rural services and rural livelihoods

Of course, rural policy isn't just about land.

Like urban policy, it is really about people.

Achieving coherent policy on land use will be a challenge in itself. Achieving a coherent mix of policies for country people and rural livelihoods is a bigger challenge still.

Involving local government finance, policing, transport, housing and agriculture.

A fairer financial deal

I'll start with local government finance.

Equalisation is the name of the process by which surplus local tax receipts are redistributed from prosperous areas to compensate poorer areas with a smaller tax base.

Some form of equalisation needs to continue under any form of local taxation.

Yet recent changes to the system have disadvantaged rural areas.

Conservatives will review the changes that Labour have made to the system of redistributing grant.

At the same time, we will simplify the formulas used in order to increase transparency and accountability.

We will also ask the National Audit Office to identify the additional burdens and regulatory costs imposed on local government by central government each year.

Much trumpeted increases in funding for councils can be misleading when new commitments are underfunded or unfunded altogether.

This is especially important in rural areas which have seen some of the most marginal increases in central government funding.

Rural services

A fairer deal on local government finance will help shire councils deliver better public services in rural areas.

But we need to do much more.

Thriving rural communities are part of our vision for Modern Britain . We must trust them to make the right decisions about their own future. As I have already said, the British countryside adapts well to change - but only when it is free to do so.

To thrive, communities need to feel secure. They need to feel a strong sense of identity and responsibility. They need to feel they have the support of Government. They need to believe in a future which they have the freedom to shape.

In the age of broadband and ever-increasing consumer choice, we recognise that how essential rural services are delivered is, and will go on, changing.

Conservatives understand this . We want to facilitate that choice , not dictate it.

I spent seven months this year developing our Freedom to Choose policies for health and education. They will offer British parents and patients a degree of choice that today only money can buy. For people in rural communities, they represent an end to the doctrine of 'Take what you are given'. Our policies to give those who run our schools and hospitals greater freedom to respond to local needs rather than central government diktat goes with this grain. It is about giving local communities a much greater say in how their local services are delivered.

We want more diversity, not less.

Not every High Street needs to look the same.

Some local councils offer rate rebates to local pubs and small independent shops.

A Conservative Government will support such local initiatives and encourage others to follow.

We want rural communities to have more accessible and vibrant places for people to meet.

So we will ensure that village halls and community facilities receive greater support by making them an explicit priority for the Big Lottery Fund.

Thriving village life has many benefits, not least in discouraging crime.

But, of course, this is a two-way process.

Crime, and the fear of crime, kills community life - and for rural communities this is an increasing threat.

CCTV systems and other improvements in crime fighting technology have helped push criminals out in the countryside in search of softer targets.

Thus a priority will be to foster a greater sense of security for rural communities.

We will support rural police stations and increase police numbers by 40,000 overall, putting thousands more police on the beat in rural areas.

Today my front bench brief covers both Transport and the Environment. I know how vitally important an efficient transport system is to country life.

We will ensure the transport infrastructure serves rural communities as well as urban ones.

Rural communities depend heavily on the motor car. For 8 years Labour have punished the motorist with higher taxes and minimal investment in improving the experience on the road. We will pursue a realistic and consistent roads policy that combines an increase in road capacity with the use of modern technology to minimise impact on the environment.

We will set up two funds, each worth £70 million a year, to support local projects that reduce traffic congestion and increase road safety - both important issues in many villages, especially those used as rat runs.

We will improve the alternatives to the car. Our policy to introduce longer franchises for successful train operating operating companies will trigger substantially more investment to improve the rail experience.

We will change land use to reduce dependence on the car, for example by giving priority to developing brown field sites around stations.

On housing, our policy is again to prioritise local needs as identified by local communities.

Thus we will ensure the provision of more affordable housing in rural areas by extending and improving the exception sites policy and through our commitment to shared home ownership schemes.

Farming

With the right mix of policies the countryside can continue to be a good place to live.

But it should be a good place to work too.

The days when that usually meant working on the land are long gone, but farming remains an important part of the rural economy.

And I believe it's an important strategic industry for the nation.

Just as I also believe that we will continue to depend on our farmers to manage the countryside for us.

However, British food production is in decline.

In the end that leads to a long-term threat to our food security.

Do we really want to end up importing two-thirds of our food? Or three-quarters? Or four-fifths?

And what about the standards to which the imports have been produced? Especialy the animal welfare standards?

And what about all the miles those imports travel?

How much of our land do we want to allow to go out of food production?

When I put this question to Ministers, it was obvious they hadn't even thought about it.

Of course, land, when kept in good agricultural and environmental condition, can return to food production if the need arises.

But not if it's covered in concrete.

Labour is undermining the protection for the Best and Most Versatile (BMV) agricultural land.

A Conservative Government will strengthen that protection - taking into account not only the current situation, but also a future in which climate change may result in very different patterns of agriculture.

But first we must ensure that British farming does indeed have a future.

Tomorrow Jim Paice and I will launch our agriculture manifesto.

In it we will spell out how we intend to cut regulation and simplify the bureaucracy that Labour has created.

We will also talk about what action we will take on the crucial issue of animal health.

Today I would like to highlight how a Conservative Government will support farmers.

We will introduce legislation to reform food labelling so that consumers are given clear information of the country of origin of the major ingredients, how far the food has been transported and whether it meets the standards required of British farmers.

We will ensure that all publicly procured food meets the Red Tractor standard.

We will give farmers a fairer deal in the market place.

Supermarkets provide consumers with a rich variety of choice and convenience, but their rapid growth in market share has left many farmers feeling powerless when dealing with them.

A Conservative Government will strengthen the code of conduct between supermarkets and suppliers.

We will promote more opportunities for consumers to buy local food through farmers' markets, local farm shops and local food projects.

We will promote localised public procurement to support the market for local food producers and reduce food miles within the domestic market.

In particular, we believe that animals should be slaughtered as close as possible to where they are reared.

So we will ensure that regulations give local slaughterhouses and butchers more flexibility to service the needs of farmers markets and local outlets.

We believe that diversity must be retained in the structure of British farming.

Often the best way for farming enterprises to stay in business is to seize new market opportunities.

For instance, energy crops have the potential to reduce carbon emissions and create new markets for farmers.

A Conservative Government will stimulate a viable UK industry in biofuels through duty rebates and fuel obligations.

We will rebalance the renewables obligation away from its bias towards land-based wind power to create the stimulus necessary for the development of a sustainable biomass industry.

Pillar 3: Demonstrate and build respect for the environment and the rural way of life

In addition to these steps to help farming I've got some ideas about how to build a more general respect for the environment and the rural way of life.

Education

I want every child to have real knowledge of the natural world and the history of their own local community.

Even those who live in towns should have the same chance to experience the rural life, and thus gain a lifelong appreciation of the countryside.

I sympathise with those NGOs, including the CPRE, who have called for out-of-classroom education to be a key part of children's development.

In my own constituency the Flatford Mill Field Studies Centre does first class work with many school and college groups and I will encourage others to follow this example.

Action for country sports

Conservatives respect the millions of people in this country who enjoy country sports.

Sports that contribute £4bn to the economy and support 90,000 jobs.

We will introduce a Government Bill to repeal Labour's ban on hunting.

We will encourage responsible self-regulation of shooting and protect and enhance all forms of angling.

We will abolish the compulsory nature of Labour's 'horse passports' and will encourage the development of bridleways.

We'll do all this in the context of helping all those who wish to enjoy the countryside as residents, tourists, sports enthusiasts or anything else to do so.

As long as in pursuing their own ends they neither interfere with others nor impose too heavily on the countryside's limited resources.

Action on GM

There are other threats that unite town and country in defence of our natural enevironment.

For instance, few people in Britain have much enthusiasm for GM crops.

Other than Labour ministers that is.

Conservatives, on the other hand, fully understand public concern about genetically modified organisms.

Not ehough is yet known about their impact on the environment.

Consumers too have the right to choose non-GM foods so we will ensure that all foods containing GM material, or that come from livestock fed on GM, are clearly labelled as such.

A Conservative Government will ban any commercial planting of GM crops until or unless the science shows that this would be safe for people and the environment, and until or unless issues of liability and crop segregation are resolved.

Action against those that spoil the environment

One of the most upsetting and inexplicable attacks on the countryside is the growing practice of flytipping.

There is no excuse for this parasitical and detructive behaviour.

Flytipping should be an arrestable offence and its perpetarators punished accordingly.

Yet more balant is the abuse of planning laws, which it seems may be flouted with impunity.

This phenomenon is most commonly associated with a minority of travellers, but is by no means limited to them.

A Conservative Government would ensure that the law applies equally to everybody.

We will empower local councils to seize and remove unlawfully sited property, and allow the courts to levy fines which reflect the economic benefit of unlawful use of land.

We will enable local authorities to purchase land compulsorily, where the land is the subject of a continuing breach of a Stop Notice.

And we will allow councils to refuse applications for retrospective planning permission where it is clear that the applicant knew they were breaking the law.

Local democracy

As always our policy will be to enhance and not diminish the power that rural communities have to run themselves through their parish, district and county councils.

Rural policy is complex which is another reason why, under a Conservative Government, centralisation will be out and local democracy in.

But until then the fate of the countryside is in other hands.

Conclusion

We are still sleepwalking towards disaster.

The erosion of the distinctive nature of our countryside continues.

It may not be clear to everyone but it is happening and we will regret it.

Another five years of John Prescott means another hundred miles of land lost to concrete for ever.

It means more town and less country.

It means eating more and more food that's grown abroad.

It means the gradual breakdown of rural communities.

It doesn't have to happen.

There is an alternative.

This evening I've tried to stretch out some of what that alternative involves.

Based above all on trusting rural communities to have far more say in deciding their own futures.

Based on a respect for rural traditions and the rural way of life.

Based on a conviction that farming is still important.

And that a prosperous agricultural industry and high standards of environmental protection go hand in hand.

Based on my view that a high quality rural environment is one of the keys to our nation's future success."

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