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Stand up for the countryside

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 09, 2012

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Our peaceful countryside represents the biggest irony in Britain today – at least, that's how you could regard it if you were to sit back and observe the long line of threats to our natural landscape that have turned it into a vast battleground.

Peaceful it might be, despite becoming a beleaguered zone, but a first-time visitor to these islands could be forgiven for thinking we had some kind of loathing for the green landscape that surrounds us. Just look at the legions of erosive and often destructive things we've managed to throw at it of late.

Despite warnings, it has been official inaction that is partly to blame for the plethora of imported tree diseases that are now sending ruinous volley after volley into our wooded landscapes.

Ash dieback has been making headlines, but other tree diseases are lining up to hit our hills and dales, while politicians from all parties squirm with vague notions about it all being something to do with a "global economy" – shorthand for cheap foreign imports overtaking our own more expensive, but reliable, home-grown stocks.

It seems likely that the chalara fungus could have been prevented from coming our way, but politicians only become interested in such things when they make news – which tends to occur when something has actually happened and therefore is too late. Labour did nothing to stop the import of infected trees in 2009 despite being warned about chalara, while the coalition's response over the past couple of months has been tardy to say the least.

Not that you'd rely on the present lot to lift a finger to protect our natural environment – one of the first things they did when they came to power was to attempt flogging-off publicly-owned forests – and they've continued biting at the countryside's heels ever since.

In just one week we've heard about the relaxation of laws concerning phone masts, watched an argument over wind farms and felt the thump of potential earth-moving equipment grinding into virgin countryside for another round of expensive and often unnecessary road schemes.

About 12 years ago I belted around the South West peninsula covering stories regarding the countryside, and soon began to realise that the then Labour government had no interest whatsoever in rural affairs.

It was, indeed, what began to put me off politics. I was left askance, wondering how any government could so totally ignore such a vast part of the nation it controlled. But I reasoned that most Labour politicians would probably represent more urban constituencies, so why should they worry themselves over the trials and tribulations of a few remote farmers who would probably never vote for them anyway?

It didn't please me to think that at least the Tories – with all their land-owning supporters – would come along and stand up for the countryside. You can imagine my bewilderment to learn that they are worse than the last lot. Not even the urbanites of New Labour would have attempted to unleash a comprehensive downgrade of planning control that is the worse thing to have threatened the countryside in decades.

As one assault follows another on our natural environment, those of us who live in it, and care for it, are left reeling – and we can only grasp at the meaning of it all. And just about the only understanding on offer is this: the millions who live in cities must think that, although the countryside is nice, it is not wholly necessary – and that, when times are hard, it's the essentials that matter and not a few pretty places.

Of course this doesn't add up, because nature provides. But politicians aren't interested in realities, they are interested in votes – and where do votes come from? A paper from the Office of National Statistics on the urban-rural divide can tell you. "Some 42 million people live in urban England – and just under 10 million in rural England," states the report Comparing lives using rural/urban classifications by Tim Pateman. Analyse the breakdown of figures more closely and you come up with this more startling fact: just under 43 million people – or 81.2 per cent of the population – live in cities or urban centres.

Meanwhile, just 407,000 people – or 0.8 per cent of the population – live in the most remote areas – the places which you and I would call the real countryside.

Look at the report's local authority map of this peninsula and you will see that 13 out of 19 areas are classified as having the lowest levels of population. Why do you think the South West so often gets ignored by those in Whitehall?

Number-crunching shows why the countryside has so few powerful friends when push-comes-to-economic-shove. But what that means is that those of us who love it and believe in it must shout even louder from the crowns of our dying ash trees to protect it for the future.

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  • Syrrets  |  November 09 2012, 11:02AM

    Excellent and depressingly accurate article - the author should be congratulated. Politicians from all parties have betrayed our countryside and been instrumental in the continuing destruction of the natural environment.

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