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Wednesday, 29 August, 2001, 10:35 GMT 11:35 UK
A countryside in crisis?
Rural demonstrators hold placards protesting against govenrment policy
Protests: Ministers have faced rural pressure
The foot-and-mouth crisis has focused attention like never before on farming and fears of a genuine and continuing crisis in the countryside.

Even before the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, British farmers had been experiencing one of the worst agricultural slumps on record.

In 2000, official figures show that income from farming dropped for the fifth successive year.

Farm income changes 00-01
-13%: All types
-15%: Dairy
+2%: Hill cattle/sheep
-5%: Lowland cattle/sheep
-25%: Cereals
-21%: Other crops
+204%: Pigs/poultry
-2%: Mixed
Source: Maff (now Defra)
At the same time, the Farm Business Survey, produced by the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (now Defra) put farming incomes at an average of 5,200 - a 10% fall on the previous year and a two-thirds fall on five years ago.

The National Farmers' Union estimated that some 51,000 farmers and farm workers lost their livelihoods in the two years to June 2000, something that the organisation's president Ben Gill has described as the "biggest exodus in living memory".

Putting aside the foot-and-mouth crisis, the overwhelming cause of the problems faced by agriculture has been the strength of the pound has opened up the UK to cheap food imports.

At the same time, the value of direct support from the European Union (EU) - approximately 40% of total farm income - has fallen because of the weakness of the Euro, in which the support is calculated.

This was exacerbated by the EU ban on British beef in the wake of BSE, a collapse in world commodity prices, higher oil prices and environmental factors such as floods.

Long-term health

These medium-term developments have affected the long-term viability of agriculture and the countryside, say farmers.

For instance, the labour force has been falling but farm sizes have been increasing.

This is changing not only the demographic shape of the countryside but its character too.

Last year, an NFU survey suggested nearly half of hill farmers believed their children would leave agriculture because of low incomes and instability.

This, say farmers, affects the wider rural economy, including the sustainability of village life and the relative power of small producers against the major food groups such as the supermarket chains and processed foods industry.

And as the problems worsen, they predict, more people will leave the land in an ever-decreasing circle.

The post office

One of the key concerns for the countryside lobby has been the uncertain future of approximately 10,000 rural Post Offices.

The government wants all automate the payment of benefits directly into bank accounts rather than over the counter at post offices in order to cut social services costs.

The Countryside Alliance, the ad hoc lobby group of rural life organisations and pressure groups, warned that this would have a massive impact on rural post offices.

Ministers have accepted that the new benefits system would hit rural post offices - but it has sought to carve out a new role for the service through the "universal bank".

The service, which has been backed by the major high street banks, allows any account holder to pay in or withdraw cash at a post office.

In theory, not only does this provide rural post offices with new business to replace the loss of benefit payments, it also counters the loss of rural bank branches - meaning that money will stay in rural economies.

Other plans for the post office include providing internet access points and expanding the "one-stop-shop" idea of providing many government services in one place.

Government policy

Labour has battled hard against critics who claim that it came to power in 1997 without a coherent agricultural and countryside policy.

In March 2000 Action Plan for Farming pledged 200m to alleviate the crisis in prices.

Ministers have also promised to push for further reform of the European Union Common Agricultural Policy which, critics say, works against British farmers' interests by encouraging over-production rather than environmental management.

In November 2000 the government published its Rural White Paper which proposed measures to improve services, tackle poverty, redevelop the rural economy and protect the countryside and wildlife.

The Countryside Agency, which advises the government, has called for ministers to speed up the implementation of these measures.

See also:

28 Aug 01 | UK
Animal movement rules eased
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