It is as reliable a part of high summer as farmers grumbling about the harvest. At the moment when pasty-faced politicians, civil servants and journalists are leaving their desks in London to spend a couple of weeks reading Ian McEwan by a swimming pool, there is a brief spasm of concern about the countryside which so many people are enjoying.
Policy initiatives are released. Surveys appear. There is much concerned clucking in the press about “the beloved British landscape”, “threatened rural communities” and, of course, “our natural heritage”. Briefly, it is tempting to believe that the importance of the countryside, in itself and in what it provides to the people who inhabit and visit it, has filtered through to the mighty decision-makers who dwell in the cities. But, with the autumn, the promises will disappear as quickly and surely as departing swallows.
The problem is not exactly indifference. Most sane people value the sights and sounds of the country, in a hazy, dozing-in-the-deckchair kind of way. When the Office of National Statistics set in motion the debate about our national wellbeing, people were reported to be concerned that their environment was clean and green, that they had open spaces in which to walk, that there were animals, birds and plants to enjoy. Another exercise in stating the blindingly obvious, a survey by Prince Charles’s Countryside Fund, discovered that 94 per cent of those questioned supported the idea of protecting the countryside. A similar percentage boldly expressed their appreciation of rural peace, relaxation and fresh air.
The problem is that, in the ugly post-holiday world, this woozy approval is utterly meaningless. Politicians of both main parties talk a good game about the problems facing the countryside, but invariably find more urgent priorities when it comes to taking action.
The Labour Party at least had an excuse: it neither understood nor liked the country. Back in 2000, John Prescott and Nick Brown published a five-year plan, grandly entitled “Our Countryside: The Future”. Within months, it seemed, its breezy promises of regeneration and conservation had begun to seem like a joke in poor taste.
The betrayal by the Conservatives has been far worse. No leading politician of modern times has been more messianic than David Cameron about the importance of rural Britain â€“ until, that is, until he was required to make decisions rather than speeches.
“The beauty of our landscapes, the particular cultures and traditions that rural life sustains â€“ these are national treasures, to be cherished and protected for everyone’s benefit,” he told the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England conference in 2008. “It is not enough for politicians just to say that. We need leaders who really understand it, and feel it in their bones. I do.”
What has a Cameron government, with the countryside in its bones, actually done? It has gleefully torn up the regulations in place down the years to “protect and cherish” the landscape. A development beano will soon be in full swing, encouraged by a business-led administration. “We must accommodate the new ways by which we will earn a living,” the government minister Greg Clark has said, explaining why, as the Chancellor put it, “the default answer to development is now ‘yes’.”
Money first, the countryside second. Place this policy beside the proposed abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, which has overseen the pay and conditions of farm workers, and the government’s distinctly unattractive view of the countryside begins to emerge. It is an investment opportunity, offering the rich the chance to get richer, at the expense of the landscape and those who live in it.
Friends of the Earth, the CPRE, and even the normally cautious National Trust have warned of the dire and irreversible long-term consequences of this development free-for-all. If we really do value our countryside, then another mighty row is on the way.
Where it’s alwaysa slow news day
One of the joys of living in the country is in the news to be found in the local press. On a quiet week, a story headlined “CAR HITS WALL” can make the front page. “TOWN IN NEW TOILETS ROW” can be a lead feature. Then there are the regular favourites: complaints about litter or speeding “boy-racers”. Once a year there will be a “DUCKLINGS TRAGEDY” on the road near a pond. Acts of kindness (a found wallet, a pensioner picked up after a fall) are liable to be noted on the letters page: “I would just like to thank the kind young man who…” This week, the breaking news has been about a baby swift, found chirping piteously on the pavement outside a post office. It was rescued by Mrs Robena Brown, fed mealworms and kept under her cardigan. Last weekend, it was released. “It went off like a rocket,” said the marvellous Mrs Clark. “I shed tears for most of the day.”
But will the gift shop sell safety pins?
No one could accuse the National Trust of unadventurous marketing. Not so long ago, it set up a live streaming web-cast from a real farm and allowed online subscribers to run the farm, in order to point up the realities of food production. A shire horse was filmed as it gave birth to a dead foal, since when news from the farm has gone a bit quiet. Now the Trust is to release a collection of punk hits, wittily entitled Never Mind the Dovecotes, to attract a new audience. The idea of a punk reunion concert at a historic home should probably be resisted. Remember what happened with the foal.
Independent, Friday, 5 August 2011