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Lidington: Government is Failing the Countryside

We live in what is now an overwhelmingly urban and suburban society. Indeed, one of the things that I found most striking about last month's Countryside March was how those who took part saw themselves as a minority and a minority whose interests are being ignored by those in positions of power.

Our farmers and growers are struggling with the worst recession to hit their industry since the 1930s.

Red tape and regulation are holding back efforts to develop new enterprises both within agriculture and in the wider rural economy.

Police officers are too often not seen in the village street but glimpsed behind the wheel of a patrol car.

There are severe pressures on rural post offices, magistrates' courts, transport services and affordable housing.

And all this carries a human cost. The Rural Stress Information Network reports that calls to its help-line are running at twice the level of two years ago.

Now let me admit up-front that the mood in the countryside is not only one of disillusion with the present Government. It is also a mood of disaffection from the political process and politicians of all parties. It is part of that feeling of mistrust that found expression in mass abstention from the polls at last year's General Election, and about which every one of us in this House should be concerned.

But it is also accurate to say that there is an especially strong sense of grievance against the present Government.

It wasn't a politician, it was the Chairman of the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution [Mr John Wallis] who last month wrote to the Prime Minister in these terms. (He wrote about the views of farmers but his statement sums up a much wider public perception). He wrote:

"Your Government is, at best, not bothered, at worst hostile to the interests of a strong GB farming industry. It is felt that trust between the farming community and DEFRA is mutually at an all time low."

And yet the Government started with an enormous fund of good will in rural as well as urban areas.

Part of the reason for the change in public mood is the behaviour of Ministers. When the Deputy Prime Minister himself talked scathingly of "the contorted faces of the Countryside Alliance", he caused real hurt and real resentment among the hundreds of thousands of decent men and women who supported successive peaceful marches and demonstrations.

And when the Minister of State said that he thought the marchers were a little confused, it spoke volumes about the Government's unwillingness to listen. I genuinely wish that many more Labour Members of this House had come to London on 22 September and at least had been prepared to listen to the views being expressed often in desperate terms by the marchers that day.

Rural proofing

With Rural Policy as with other matters, too often we have seen a gulf between promise and delivery. The Government committed itself, admirably, to rural-proof all its policies. Yet 12 months later, the Chairman of the Countryside Agency reported: "most Departments have done the minimum necessary to introduce rural proofing" and stated "I am not convinced that policy makers generally are giving sufficient thought to the impact on the countryside and the people who live there when they develop policies".

And you don't have to search far for evidence to support that verdict.

Representation

Ministers are still committed to a system of regional government that will inevitably take power and influence away from rural communities. In a regional assembly of perhaps 30 elected members, especially if elected on a party list, the focus is bound to be on the interests of the urban centres.

Tourism

Tourism is now worth some £14 billion to the rural economy in England alone. The Foot and Mouth epidemic, followed by the collapse in the number of foreign visitors after September 11, has had a devastating impact on the industry.

Many businesses have already gone under. More than a quarter of those that have survived say that they do not expect to recover fully until 2003 at the earliest.

Yet the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has been dithering for more than six months on whether to give the English Tourism Council responsibility for marketing England as a tourist destination. The tourist industry is still battling against enormous difficulties, yet the ETC has no marketing budget, no time-table, no plan.

Broadband

Tourism, like other sectors of commerce, is going to rely more and more on fast, good quality electronic communication with its customers. That means getting access to broadband.

It's a point that people have been making to me again and again, quite literally from Northumberland to Cornwall, that, without access to broadband, new micro-businesses in the countryside will be at a permanent disadvantage compared with their urban competitors.

There are issues here to do with the number of subscribers needed to make broadband economic. British Telecom quotes figures of 200 to 750. Other studies say a much lower threshold would still be viable.

It cannot be right that, for example, in Cumbria the broadband link runs underneath Penrith yet businesses in the town are denied a connection. Britain has one of the lowest rates of broadband take-up in the OECD and it is our rural businesses in particular which are losing out.

Government action to tackle this problem, to increase the availability of broadband in rural areas would, I believe, command strong cross-party support.

Housing

Rural homes are becoming less affordable.

According to the Countryside Agency, nearly two-thirds of people living in rural areas would need to spend more than half their income on a mortgage to buy and average home.

Part of the answer lies in providing more homes. The great merit of the policy announced last week by my RHF the Member for Haltemprice and Howden is that it would provide the funds to pay for perhaps 13,000 new homes a year.

But we also need to make sure that the homes are in the right places. The Deputy Prime Minister, in his rush to concrete over large swathes of Southern England is actually planning to build big new estates in areas which are already relatively low-cost.

Surely what we need is a policy that starts with an analysis of local need. The Rural Housing Trust, earlier this year argued for the provision of six to eight subsidised homes in each of the 8,000 small villages in England.

And I was impressed by the exchange in the DEFRA Select Committee (21 November last year) between the Countryside Agency and one of the Committee's Labour members (HM South Derbyshire) over the fact that an over-rigid approach to planning guidance was focusing development exclusively in so-called "key settlements", with a lot of smaller communities effectively preserved in aspic and becoming more exclusive, less sustainable over time.

I hope that the Government will look again at its planning guidance in the light of what is actually going on.

Farming

The rural economy is about a lot more than farming but farming still lies at its heart.

Agriculture is not just important economically. Farmers and growers are the custodians of a landscape that is valued by the people in cities as well as villages, and which is a prime asset for our tourist industry.

Farm incomes, farm employment, farm investment have all plunged in the last few years.

And of course it is true that no Minister, however benevolent, can just wish away the problems caused by commodity prices, by international competition or fluctuating exchange rates.

But that makes it even more important for the Government to act urgently and effectively on matters that do lie within its power.

Britain's farmers need a fair deal out of current European negotiations. I am sure that the best future for farming lies in moving towards a system in which they are free to respond to the needs and wishes of their customers rather than the edicts of governments. It's right too to find a way to recognise the public good in terms of landscape and biodiversity that farmers provide for the nation as a whole. (I look forward to finding out later this year how the Government intends to implement the Curry Report).

But some of the key elements in the Commission's proposals, the ceiling on payments and the idea of putting modulation receipts into a common Brussels pot, seem to have been designed quite deliberately to discriminate against British farmers. I hope that the Secretary of State will indicate clearly her determination to resist discrimination of that type.

But there are things that the Government could do now to help British farmers and without the need for international negotiations.

Meat Imports

Top of the list must be effective action against the illegal import of meat. The Government is always lecturing farmers about the importance of bio-security. It's about time we saw the Government take seriously its own responsibility for bio-security at our ports.

If you fly from London to Dublin, you find on arrival in Ireland a terminal plastered with posters warning that meat was not to be brought in. You find a disinfectant point, clearly signed, for travellers who have visited a farm or are otherwise considered high-risk. You find a large amnesty bin in which passengers can dump their ham sandwiches or whatever else they have brought with them.

All these measures were introduced by the Irish Government in response to the 2001 epidemic although there was just one case on the island of Ireland.

Yet fly back to Heathrow, and there is nothing. And we know from Written Answers that the number of spot checks is pitifully small and that there are still no clear lines of command between the different agencies responsible for port controls.

We're now a year on from the last case of Foot and Mouth; six months on from the Government's misnamed "action plan" on illegal meat imports. The Government's sloth and incompetence on this issue is a disgraceful failure of their public duty.

Labelling

Our farmers want action on food labelling. Too often it is far too difficult for shoppers to find out whether the food they buy meets is British and meets our stringent standards on hygiene and animal welfare.

It's more than two years since the Prime Minister promised the NFU to introduce new labelling guidance to make sure that foreign goods are not passed off as British simply because they have been processed in Britain. Yet the Government he leads blocked a Bill promoted by my HF the Member for Eddisbury which tried to give that promise the backing of law.

If the Government will not change its mind, we shall look for an opportunity to bring this matter back to the House.

Regulation

And farmers, like other businesses, struggle with the costs in both time and money caused by Government regulations.

Too often, new rules are brought in with scant regard to the practical difficulties.

European legislation on nitrates and on environmental impact assessments have been gold-plated in Whitehall.

Burying fallen stock on-farm will be illegal from next May yet the Government has given no details of how alternative arrangements will work or who will pay for them.

The 20- day rule on livestock movements in England and Wales is causing huge practical problems to farmers. Yet you don't need to travel further than Scotland to find a more flexible system in operation.

Competence

What makes matters worse is the incompetence of the Government in administering its own rules.

The Rural Payments Agency couldn't meet its legal deadline for payments to cattle farmers.

We now learn that DEFRA still owes about £100 million to contractors which it employed to clean-up farms infected by Foot and Mouth.

And the memory of the Government's mishandling of that epidemic still rankles with many thousands of people in the countryside.

Inadequate contingency planning. The delay in calling in the army. The confusion over the contiguous cull and the question marks over its legality. The experience of so many people was, in the words of Cumbria County Council's inquiry team, of "confusion, disorder and delay".

In its Rural White Paper, the Government proclaimed a vision of "a living, protected and vibrant countryside…one where people have access to the jobs and services they require...a countryside that can shape its own future, with its voice heard by Government at all levels".

It was a statement with which few could disagree. Which undoubtedly commanded widespread support in all parts of the country.

That there is now such disillusion and discontent is down to the Government's blatant and repeated failure to deliver on the promises that it made.

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