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Hague: Time for common sense in the countryside

In a speech tonight in Northallerton, North Yorkshire, the Rt Hon William Hague, Leader of the Conservative Party:

Britain's countryside is one our greatest assets, shaped over centuries by people anxious to preserve its beauty, its richness of character and its timeless traditions for the generations that have followed. In politics I could not have asked for a greater privilege than to have represented a rural constituency in Yorkshire over the past twelve years. For me there is no greater place to return to than here in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales. There is literally nowhere to match it.

Yet today, our countryside in is crisis. And it is not hard to see the reason why. For the past four years Britain has had a Government that doesn't understand the needs of the countryside, has no feel or instinct for the countryside and so often gives the impression that it cares even less about survival of the countryside.

Labour's stewardship of the countryside has been a sorry tale of indifference, neglect and contempt for the values and traditions of rural Britain.

And anyone who lives in a rural constituency such as Richmond can tell you just how deep seated and real the problems are. Unless action is taken urgently at best the British countryside faces a bleak and uncertain future. At worst it faces a slow and painful death.

Even now, Labour Ministers hardly seem to have any idea of the extent of suffering, misery, hardship among rural communities that their neglect has caused.

Agriculture is going through its worst depression for sixty years.

Farm incomes have been halved and halved again, 40,000 farming jobs have been lost in the past two years and families who have managed their land for generations are being forced to sell up.

Rural post offices are closing at the rate of two a day and pubs at the rate of six every week.

Police numbers in rural areas have been cut, ninety rural police stations a year have closed and violent crime in rural areas has increased, so that people in communities that were once peaceful and safe often feel isolated and afraid.

Great chunks of the countryside in the South East of England have been designated by John Prescott for development with his plans to bulldoze our green fields, regardless of the views of local people.

The liberty and livelihood of thousands of people in rural communities is under threat.

And Labour hikes in fuel duty have given Britain the most expensive petrol in Europe with rural communities being hit hardest of all.

With Labour's record, is it any wonder that there's so much anger in rural communities with an arrogant, out of touch and urban dominated Government that refuses to listen to them, that sneers at them and in John Prescott's case just punches them. No wonder he likes to describe them as the "contorted faces" of the countryside.

Rural Britain deserves better. That is why a Conservative vote on 7 June will be a vote for a Government that believes in the countryside, that values the countryside and will work for the countryside.

Coming on top of every other problem foot and mouth has been a disaster for the countryside.

For so many farmers years of hard work has been destroyed in a matter of weeks. Rural businesses have seen their turnover collapse. And there have been animal welfare problems of a kind we never expected to see in Britain.

So a priority of the next Conservative Government must be to help the countryside recover. So immediately we take office, we will implement our Strategy for Recovery, containing steps to stamp out Foot and Mouth once and for all, to help our struggling tourism industry and other rural businesses and firm action to prevent this terrible disease entering Britain again.

For weeks we urged the Government to introduce an interest free loan scheme to help rural businesses through their cashflow crisis. Yesterday the hopeless inadequacy of Labour's own scheme was exposed when the Chairman of the British Hospitality Association said that the interest rate charged made it "almost like going to a loan shark" and that the only businesses that would borrow under the scheme would be the "absolutely desperate". We will introduce an interest free loan scheme for affected businesses.

The next Conservative Government will be committed to a fair deal for farmers.

We will give our farmers a fair chance to compete by applying to imported food more of the food hygiene and animal welfare standards we expect of our farmers here at home. And we'll make an example of foreign foods that don't come up to British standards of production.

We'll introduce honesty in labelling so that when something is labelled as British it is actually British.

And we'll ease the burden of red tape form filling by not enforcing European regulations any sooner or more zealously than other countries.

Our farmers are among the most dedicated and innovative in the world. On a level playing field, they'd acquit themselves against all comers. But they cannot compete properly as long as they are confined by the current Common Agricultural Policy.

The next Conservative Government will re-negotiate the Common Agricultural Policy so that many decisions currently taken at EU level would be taken by the governments of individual member states.

We will work to make the rural economy viable again. We will cut business rates for rural shops, pubs, garages and village post offices. We will introduce a benefit card so that people can continue to draw payments from their village post office.

Our plans to regenerate the inner cities, will make them once again safe and vibrant places in which to live and work, helping to stem the exodus to the countryside that has been taking place over the past thirty years.

We will defend our green belt, abolish Labour's national or regional housebuilding targets and give and give local people the discretion to determine the right level of local development in their area.

And by cutting 27p a gallon off the tax on petrol and diesel we'll help everyone in rural Britain for whom the car is a necessity and not a luxury.

Tony Blair likes to call Labour a "one nation" party. Yet no Government for the past 150 years has done more to create two nations in Britain by pitting urban against rural, town against country.

It is time for a Conservative Government that values the distinctiveness of both town and country and restores the right balance between them. It's time for common sense in the countryside.

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