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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 August, 2004, 08:30 GMT 09:30 UK
Rapid change in rural Britain

By Tom Heap
BBC rural affairs correspondent

For most people who don't live there, and even quite a few who do, their picture of the countryside is outdated.

It is based on searing images from around the turn of the century - yes the recent one.

Images of the animals who lived there consumed with flames and the people who live there consumed with anger.

Foot and mouth cattle pyre
Out go farming images of old....
You might think it was still pretty much the same, because things move slowly in the countryside. You would be wrong on both counts.

Change is now rapid and profound.

The Labour victory of 1997 ushered in a new self image of Britain. It was about what we can do, not what we have done. It focused on novelty not heritage.


Cool Britannia was urban. Rural Britain seemed to love conservation, protection and stasis.

The definition of a good countryside was an unchanged one and this just didn't match the new mission statement. It was largely ignored.

So when the move to ban hunting came along, it sparked quick resentment in a group feeling rejected.

Alex Dear, a textile student at De Montfort University
...as new rural industries spring up like Alex Dear's nettle fashions
These emotions were then brilliantly combined by the Countryside Alliance. They gave a large chunk of rural Britain a voice and, most importantly, victim status.

For farmers, both the impression and the reality were tough.

The trauma of mad cow disease made livestock farmers even more economically dependent on government - a relationship which both sides despise.

Arable farmers were suffering from rock bottom market prices. Then came foot-and-mouth, a virulent but curable animal disease which government policy turned into an assault on the whole of rural Britain.

So we are still left with the images of The Countryside March and foot-and-mouth burnt into the communal retina. Fading yes, but with little to replace them.

But now something is stirring out there.

Subsidy overhaul

A National Farmers' Union survey of the south-west - an area hit by foot-and-mouth, now experiencing cattle TB and low milk prices - found the mood amongst farmers rather upbeat.

At the Royal Show the ringside chat was more jolly than of late.

Fewer family farms
More hobby farmers
More migrant workers
Fewer food crops
More fuel crops
More houses
More roads
More airports
More beauty parlours
More wildlife
Farmers have finally accepted the world has changed. For a generation, as prices worsened, subsidies waned and public sympathy ebbed away, they were still clinging to the wreckage of the old strong demand and high subsidy model.

That has now truly gone. From 1 January 2005, farm subsidies will break the link with production.

Farmers will get a flat rate according to the area they till, if that land is kept in good environmental and agricultural order.

New breed

The term 'farmer' is becoming outdated. They are business people whose principal asset is land.

They can make money from the state by being nice to the environment. They can make money from the customer by producing food that tastes good and makes them feel good.

Farmer Richard Calver campaigning in London
The popularity of the countryside is making it more "urban"
Or they look beyond crops and find new ways to thrive in to the increasingly buoyant rural economy by converting their old barns to business units, their fields to mountain bike parks and their stables to country cottages.

The population of our countryside grows by more than 100,000 every year. Most of these people are wealthy.

Average household income is higher in rural areas than urban, unemployment is lower, educational achievement is higher, there are more businesses per head of population.

But this very popularity can mask real deprivation. The socially excluded in rural areas are relatively spread out so tend not to show up in official figures.

Ghetto villages

It's harder for them to access social support services and frequently they are the traditionally self reliant type who do not like to ask for help.

The current and growing problems come from the success of rural Britain, not from its failures
Ghetto villages, the equivalent of sink estates, are rare. The stockbroker can live beside the shivering widow.

But on the whole, far from being victimised, it is a place where people want to live and work.

The current and growing problems come from the success of rural Britain, not from its failures.

House prices are growing most rapidly, driven by incoming commuters, second homers and those who work in new rural businesses.

The quantity of affordable homes tends to be tiny or non-existent, so those on low or even medium earnings have no chance of living anywhere near where they want.

But many country dwellers have made a packet from the rising value of their house.

Traffic squeeze

There's more pressure on road space too. Traffic levels are growing most steeply as there are more employers needing to get a workforce in and out.

And most diversified farming activities like farm shops, wildlife trails or maize mazes depend on getting people out there. So yet more journeys.

All these - homes, firms and roads - demand more of the hard stuff - tarmac and concrete - and less of the green stuff and open space which attracted the people in the first place.

In short, making rural Britain more urban.

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