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Thursday, 3 February, 2000, 16:32 GMT
Countryside 'not in crisis'

The report acknowledges problems in rural areas

A high quality of life and broad prosperity in rural areas show the countryside is not in crisis, a government report has said.

Farming in crisis
But the Cabinet Office report, released as Prime Minister Tony Blair began a two-day visit to the south west focusing on rural issues, acknowledges a sharp fall in farming incomes since 1995 and the lack of facilities in many rural areas.

It concludes: "Whilst farming is in many ways in crisis, this report suggests that the countryside as a whole is not."

The study says rural areas enjoy a stronger sense of community than in urban areas and have lower than average unemployment, less congestion, better health, less crime and better schools.

But the Country Landowners Association immediately rejected the report's assertion that the countryside was not in crisis.

'Not realistic'

Tim Brooks, the association's regional director for Devon and Cornwall, said: "Many rural areas are absolutely struggling.

In broad terms, the countryside is prosperous, contented and reasonably well-served but this generality conceals many real problems
Cabinet Office report
"Farmers particularly are having a desperate time, and it is not getting any better."

However, the government report says it is "not realistic to see the countryside as having a single set of problems with a single set of answers".

And it says there are also numerous links between rural and urban economies and societies.

The study says: "Rural areas do not all share the same characteristics: some are prosperous, others are not; and some have better access to services, facilities and higher levels of employment than others."

'Genuine hardship'

The report highlights specific problems in the countryside including "pockets of rural deprivation", pressure on wildlife and scenery, poor public transport and house prices beyond the reach of many young families.

Blair: Visiting rural areas
And it says: "In broad terms, the countryside is prosperous, contented and reasonably well-served but this generality conceals many real problems and much genuine hardship."

But the study adds that surveys have shown that most people in England would like to live in the countryside, while those who already do "express satisfaction with their lives".

On hunting, the report says the government would offer "reasonable time, if necessary" for the issue to be considered through a Private Members Bill once its inquiry into hunting has reported, and that there is "no question" of banning other country sports.

The government is to publish a Rural White Paper to examine rural problems in more detail, the report says.

Mr Brooks said the "wonderful landscape" in the countryside had to be backed up by a sustainable agriculture industry.

Need for flexibility

He said: "That is not the message coming across from the government on this issue.

"The prime minister says diversify, but a lot of the problem is bureaucracy - it frightens people off and terrifies them."

Mr Brooks said the government had to become more flexible with planning and regulation for farmers and landowners if they were to diversify.

Head of policy at the Council for the Protection of Rural England, Alastair Rutherford, said: "The government's report on rural Britain is a welcome assessment of the situation but this need to lead to a rural white paper to provide a route map for the future of the countryside."

Richard Burge, chief executive of the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance, said: "There are real problems out there and to claim that 'on average those living in the countryside are better off' is to gloss over the very real problems faced by many."

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See also:
02 Feb 00 |  UK Politics
Blair to woo rural voters
02 Feb 00 |  UK Politics
Angry farmers cream Brown
01 Feb 00 |  Business
No quick fix, Blair tells farmers
31 Jan 00 |  Business
Farmers win sympathy but no cash

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