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Saturday, 19 May, 2001, 19:23 GMT

Hague attacks 'rural neglect'

Labour has created a Britain of "two nations" by pitting towns against the countryside, claims Conservative leader William Hague.

Mr Hague used a speech in his rural North Yorkshire constituency to launch the scathing attack on the government's record on countryside matters.

Hague's rural claims

  • 40,000 farming jobs lost in past two years
  • Farm incomes halved and halved again
  • Rural post offices closing at the rate of two a day
  • Pubs closing at the rate of six every week
  • 90 rural police stations closed each year
    He accused Labour of indifference, neglect and contempt for the traditions and values of rural Britain.

    The Liberal Democrats accused Mr Hague of a selective memory, saying the Tory years of government saw "immense damage" to the rural economy.

    'Bleak future'

    Speaking in Northallerton, Mr Hague said the British countryside faced "a bleak and uncertain future" unless urgent action was taken.

    He told party activists: "Tony Blair likes to call Labour a 'one nation party'.

    "Yet no government for the past 150 years has done more to create two nations in Britain by pitting urban against rural, town against country."

    The Tory leader painted a bleak picture of a rural Britain where farm incomes had been "halved and halved again" while 40,000 agricultural jobs had been lost in the last two years.

    Two rural post offices were closing every day and six pubs shutting each week, he said.

    "Unless action is taken urgently at best the British countryside faces a bleak and uncertain future. At worst it faces a slow and painful death.

    "Even now, Labour ministers hardly seem to have any idea of the extent of suffering, misery, hardship among rural communities that their neglect has caused."

    The effect of what he called "Labour hikes in fuel duty" were among the other problems Mr Hague listed in his speech.

    Rural anger

    The speech is seen as an attempt to tap into what he believes is anger in rural communities in the wake of the foot-and-mouth crisis.

    It comes after Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was harangued by a rural voter in Lincolnshire, who complained about culls of "healthy animals".

    Some of the key target seats for the Tories are in mainly rural constituencies in south-west England.

    Mr Hague promised that helping the countryside to recover would be a priority of a Conservative government.

    European reform

    And he pledged to re-negotiate the Common Agricultural Policy to return powers currently held by the European Union to national governments.

    "We will work to make the rural economy viable again," he said.

    "We will cut business rates for rural shops, pubs, garages and village post offices.

    "We will introduce a benefit card so that people can continue to draw payments from their village post office."

    'Selective memory'

    Liberal Democrat agriculture spokesman Colin Breed said people in rural areas had good reason to be disappointed with the Labour government.

    "But William Hague's speech tonight was the most amazing example of selective memory I have ever seen," he continued.

    "Eighteen disastrous years of Tory rule saw post office closures, school closures and immense damage to the rural economy."

    Mr Breed said it was disingenuous of Mr Hague to deny the Conservative role in the countryside's decline.

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