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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 October 2004, 09:37 GMT 10:37 UK
Viewpoints: Countryside Matters
As part of News Online's coverage of rural life in Britain, we canvassed the views of some of the key players.
What are the countryside issues that matter most? And while life in the countryside is changing fast, is it for the better?

Simon Hart, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance

Tim Bennett, president of the National Farmers' Union

Max Hastings, president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England

Pierre Williams, Housebuilders Federation

Fiona Reynolds, director general of the National Trust

Adam Sampson, director of Shelter

Simon Hart, chief executive, Countryside Alliance

"Our countryside is under threat as never before - not just from the decline of farming and of related employment but from the accelerating disappearance of village services and amenities, the lack of adequate public transport, the increasing scarcity of affordable housing for rural people themselves and the steep rise in social exclusion threatening the cohesion of many local communities.

Simon Hart, chief executive, Countryside Alliance
Simon Hart: Stop the hunting bill
After seven years of poor rural policy performance the government badly needed to show it has the interests of rural communities as well as its urban voters at heart.

Instead, absurdly, it has brought back a bill to ban hunting. Yet the government knows that this bill, supremely irrelevant to rural (and urban) people's actual needs and priorities, will antagonise rural Britain far beyond those many communities who actually hunt.

The cynical expediency of this unjust political attack on a law-abiding minority has now turned the hunting ban into a "totemic" issue not only for Labour's backbench class-war dinosaurs but for the people of the countryside.

For them the ban has become the symbol of a dishonourable, vindictive government to whom 'rural policy' merely means doing things to, rather than for, rural communities.

The government must belatedly find a way to stop this bill, get real about rural issues and start treating rural communities with respect."

Tim Bennett, president of the National Farmers' Union (NFU)

"What matters to me is the careful management and development of the countryside. Farmers must be able to continue to produce food to meet consumers' needs and to run their farms as businesses in a fair trade environment.

Tim Bennett, president of the National Farmers' Union
Tim Bennett: Mutual respect is key
The countryside must thrive as a work place and retain young people. We need to make the countryside relevant and interesting for future generations.

A good first step in this process is providing affordable housing in rural areas without ruining the natural beauty.

And, of course, farming has a vested interest in ensuring the surroundings in which we produce are top quality. So maintaining the British landscape and environment is of huge importance.

At the moment 90% of the population live in urban areas. British farmers - who equate to 1% of the population - provide the majority of food for these people. Instead of pointing to the divisions perhaps we should look at what unites us.

With the advent of the new Countryside Rights of Way Act, we will be welcoming more and more people into the countryside. In return people should understand and respect what living and working in the countryside means."

Max Hastings, president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE)

"The countryside is the most precious natural resource England possesses. Every time some portion of it is sacrificed to development, something is lost which can never be replaced. We must ensure that we still have a countryside that is big and beautiful, diverse and life-enhancing, a couple of generations hence.

Max Hastings, president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England
Max Hastings: Increasing pressures
Of course rural England will continue to change amid the huge range of economic and social pressures which bear down upon it in this crowded country - pressures which seem more intense than ever before.

But we have to manage that change in ways that conserve the things people most value about the countryside, and in ways that give those who look after the countryside a livelihood.

I fear most of the changes happening in the countryside aren't for the better. The thing that is going to make governments take heed is weight of numbers and strength of opposition.

As well as constantly advocating constructive, thoughtful alternatives to destruction, CPRE needs to shout from the rooftops and get as many people as possible to join our fight."

Pierre Williams, Housebuilders Federation

"Do you think the countryside is being concreted over? If so, it'll be because the anti-development lobby - who invariably have comfy, big homes of their own - have told you it is.

The facts are different. About 11% of England is urbanised. Even if we were to build all the homes we need, this would rise to less than 13% over the next 30 years.

Pierre Williams, Housebuilders Federation
Pierre Williams: Positive change needed

'So what?' you might be thinking. 'The environment needs protecting now'.

Yes it does - in many ways. Not least from global warming. New homes are typically four to eight times more energy-efficient than their Victorian counterparts. But we have the oldest homes in Europe. If all our homes were new, we'd be beating our Kyoto target for greenhouse gas emissions.

'But what about our green fields?' Well most new homes are built on brownfield sites. So developers clean and recycle more land than they use of new. Oh, and gardens are invariably far more bio-diverse than most so-called 'green fields'.

We all want a sustainable future. But we don't have a sustainable present. So positive change is needed.

Yes, development has an aesthetic impact. But don't let nimbys convince you they're environmentalists. They're not. Their actions regress environmental improvement as well as deny you - not them - a roof over your head."

Fiona Reynolds, director general of the National Trust

" The future of the countryside is at a crossroads. A series of major policy changes - including farm reform and the creation of the new integrated agency for the countryside - means that there is now the potential for regeneration in the countryside to deliver real public benefits, as well as ensuring that rural communities continue to thrive.

Fiona Reynolds, Director General of the National Trust
Fiona Reynolds: Stop over-production
We can now get away from the over-production that has led to environmental impoverishment, allowing farmers to focus more on quality than quantity, both in terms of food and the land they manage.

A great deal depends on the political will and vision of the government. Policy going forward needs to recognise that sustainable land management has to be at the heart of the way we manage the countryside.

That means moving away from practices that progressively diminish the quality of our natural resources - such as soil and water - and it means developing farming and wider land-management practices that have the maintenance of a high-quality environment at their core.

Above all it means making the link that is now apparent in so many communities across the UK that a high-quality, well-maintained environment, offering a diversity of natural and cultural heritage, opportunities for recreation, tourism and access are at the heart of economic sustainability for the countryside and can make a real contribution to everyone's quality of life."

Adam Sampson, director of Shelter

"Rural homelessness and bad housing is one of the key issues undermining the sustainability of rural communities.

There are real problems for many people in rural areas finding somewhere to live because they have been priced out of the property market and there is so little private rented or social housing.

Adam Sampson, Director of Shelter
Adam Sampson: Protect social housing
The lack of decent affordable housing has become particularly acute in rural areas as demand for homes in these places has increased due to people moving to the country to retire or buying a second home.

In addition, the building of new affordable housing is severely limited because of pressure to restrict building on greenfield sites.

It is therefore vital that we protect the social housing that does exist in rural areas. Incentives within the Right to Buy scheme that unduly encourage people to purchase their council homes must be restricted if we are to prevent further loss of social housing stock.

Already over a quarter of these homes in the countryside have been lost through the Right to Buy.

There is also a serious lack of accessible advice to help homeless and badly housed people in rural areas, and more needs to be done to open up these services.

When people do lose their home and can't find somewhere to live the severe shortage of temporary accommodation means that once homeless, many people's problems are made worse.

They often end up somewhere completely inappropriate, miles from their family, school, work and friends."

What do you think about the future of the countryside? Are things changing for the better or should we be concerned?

Send us your views:

Your comments

Put the farmland that has been used to grow food to better use by growing power crops
Rick Hough, Knutsford, Cheshire, UK
Build environmentally and aesthetically pleasing rural developments. Not silly imitation Georgian and Tudor brick boxes, but energy efficient modern timber houses that compliment their landscape. Put the farmland that has been used to grow food to better use by growing power crops. Sugar beet, maize, sunflower all can be grown and all can yield renewable carbon neutral bio-fuels. Get the whole country wired for broadband and encourage online shopping to reduce car journeys and at the same time encourage companies to move out of the cities and allow home working.
Rick Hough, Knutsford, Cheshire, UK

What does the future hold for Britain's countryside? Simple, concrete and tarmac.
Miles Ashton, Australia

To my eyes, the biggest long-term threat to the countryside is the increasing number of people who want to live in it but do not contribute anything to it - they work in the towns and do not use local bus services, shops or post offices, yet complain when these close. Conversely, the greed of some farmers has led to most manual work being contracted to poor immigrants (often illegal), who live in poor conditions in towns and are bussed out to the fields.
Rob Archer, Kings Lynn, UK

Just what has this government got against rural people?
Trevor, Cambs, UK
Our rural way of life is under the greatest threat in living memory from an urban-centric government whish simply does not understand rural life and rural people and sees the countryside merely as a playground for bored city folk. We are to be forced to have thousands of houses built in the countryside which, if history is any guide will be unaffordable to local people and will play havoc with flood plains; we have fuel taxes which penalise rural dwellers; we have an appalling public transport system; we have unrepaired roads full of pot-holes and to cap it all Trevor Phillips now accuses us of being racist. Just what has this government got against rural people?
Trevor, Cambs, UK

We (Parish council) have just completed a rural housing needs survey in our village; it shows that less than 25% of our houses have families with children. Young families, especially those with local connections cannot afford to buy within the village, they are being forced to leave. The new planning applications we receive are for massive 4/5 bedroom properties, not for cheaper starter homes. Our existing housing stocks are being extended by their owners to house their grown up children who cannot afford to buy homes in their own right. The long term result? We are becoming a huge retirement home, of couples or single people living in properties far bigger than we need.
Jo, Selborne, UK

Despite what people will lead you to believe, the countryside IS being concreted over. In my 30 years I have seen Reading sprawl outwards in all directions. Housing estate after housing estate of tiny gardened, over-priced house-boxes have appeared, turning what I remember as lovely countryside into depressing urban, crime-ridden mess. Yes, there is a housing crisis, but that is because everyone is encouraged to "buy to let" or to buy simply to sell and make money. How many houses are sat empty for months on end because they're in the middle of a transaction of some kind?
Steve Lake, Reading, Berkshire

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