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The BBC's Robert Pigott
"Tony Blair has spent a day preaching the virtues of a high tech future for industry"
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Tim Yeo
"Tory proposals for the UK's farmers"
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Micheal Meacher
"The countryside is not in crisis"
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Thursday, 3 February, 2000, 16:00 GMT
Blair admits farming crisis

Farmers protested outside as Blair spoke

Prime Minister Tony Blair has admitted there is a crisis in farming, but stressed that the problems faced by the countryside were the same as those faced by cities and towns.

Mr Blair was speaking at the start of a two-day visit to south west England as part of an attempt to woo rural voters.

Farming in crisis
In a speech to businessmen at Exeter University he said that while there were specific rural problems, just as there were in cities, "there is more that unites us than divides us".

On his arrival, Mr Blair was met by a handful of protesting farmers, with one shouting: "You're killing the British pig industry."

About 100 other protesters carrying placards appealing for support for the farming industry were at the university building.

Mr Blair said: "Yes, there are problems. Farming, in particular, is in crisis. Yes, some of these problems are specifically rural, like bus services and post offices.

National indicators
Employment is 78.6% in rural areas and 72.2% in cities
The mortality rate in rural areas is 8% below the British average
42% of rural areas have no shop
49% of rural areas have no school
83% of rural areas have no GP
"But there are villages, towns and cities in very rural parts of Britain that face the same problems as the rest of Britain."

He went on: "We aren't two nations - we are one nation. Same values. Same challenges. Often, though not always, common solutions."

South West National Farmers Union regional director Anthony Gibson asked Mr Blair whether short-term assistance could be the first stage of a strategy to help farmers.

He said the prime minister's response was "quite encouraging", but added: "But it has really got to be sooner rather than later. People are desperate now and bank managers are getting more and more nervous about overdrafts."

The prime minister's speech followed the publication of a Cabinet Office report on rural Britain that said that while there were pockets of poverty in the countryside, rural areas fared well compared with cities in areas such as schools and crime.

Blair: "City and country united"
The Devon visit comes in the same week that Mr Blair told farmers there were no quick fix solutions to their problems, despite acknowledging that income from farming has fallen by 60% since 1995.

Mr Blair left the university to a mixture of boos and cheers from a large crowd of students and some farming protesters.

The Conservatives attacked Mr Blair's commitment to the countryside, accusing him of seeing it as a "gigantic theme park - the rural version of the Millennium Dome".

'Rhetoric and misinformation'

With farmers hit hard by sterling's continued strength, increased regulations and falling food prices, Tory agriculture spokesman Tim Yeo said Mr Blair "does not believe that farming has a future in England".

We aren't two nations - we are one nation. Same values. Same challenges
Tony Blair
And shadow transport minister Bernard Jenkin said: "Tony Blair says the rural economy is strong, but his transport policies are making it more and more difficult for people who need to drive."

Liberal Democrat agriculture spokesman Colin Breed said the prime minister did not understand rural life.

He said: "He should stop preaching to the countryside and start listening to it."

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See also:
03 Feb 00 |  UK
Town v Country: Which is best?
03 Feb 00 |  UK Politics
Countryside 'not in crisis'
31 Jan 00 |  Business
Farmers win sympathy but no cash
02 Feb 00 |  UK Politics
Angry farmers cream Brown
21 Sep 99 |  UK
UK farmers struggling to survive
14 Oct 99 |  UK
Farming profits halved
01 Feb 00 |  Business
No quick fix, Blair tells farmers

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