Pro-hunt group begins 'crusade for rural life'

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The Independent Online

The Countryside Alliance, formed two years ago to preserve the right to hunt foxes with dogs, declared yesterday that it had become a "broad-based political movement" to crusade for rural Britain.

The Countryside Alliance, formed two years ago to preserve the right to hunt foxes with dogs, declared yesterday that it had become a "broad-based political movement" to crusade for rural Britain.

John Jackson, chairman of the organisation, said government plans to ban fox hunting had "lit the fuse" of rural discontent and given rise to a new body campaigning for a range of issues including job opportunities, affordable homes and farming.

More than 7,000 new members have joined since Tony Blair's pledge three months ago to ban hunting with hounds and total membership through links to other groups now exceeds 400,000.

Mr Jackson said: "We are aiming for influence not power. Our role will be to provide the administrative structure, information network, policy development direction and political lobbying capability to enable rural communities to marshal their influence and energies.

"We will seek to work with any party or organisation which has something constructive to offer rural communities, and will challenge all those who threaten the countryside's interests."

Mr Jackson was speaking before a one-day conference in London organised by the alliance, which has masterminded nationwide marches against a ban on fox hunting.

A six-point plan to protect rural Britain was outlined by Richard Burge, the alliance's chief executive. The plan does not mention fox hunting and instead allies the group with rural causes including organic farming, low-cost homes for workers and good public transport.

It called for a cabinet-level Department of Rural Development, the re-empowerment of parish councils, the democratisation of regional development agencies and for new housing in the countryside to be linked with rural jobs.

Mr Burge said: "People accuse us of being dominated by field sport issues -- but it's only because the Government has put it there."

The Environment minister Michael Meacher, whose attendance at the conference was welcomed as the first official contact between the alliance and ministers, insisted the Government was "in listening mode" and wanted to engage in dialogue right across the country.

"It is not for any government to ride roughshod over minorities. That is not our intention and we will not do it," he told the 300-strong audience. Mr Meacher also indicated that anti-fox hunting legislation was far from immediate. "There is a deep divide on this issue and people on the other side feel as strongly as you do.

"It is unhealthy in a democracy to have such deep divides. We must find a way through and it is not yet clear how we shall do it."

Mr Meacher also reaffirmed the Government's commitment to a statutory right to roam. "People should not be trespassers in the land of their birth. In a democratic society at the end of the 20th century surely we all have a right to experience the beauty of open land," he said.

The 6-point plan

1 Creation of a Department for Rural Development, with agriculture and the environment under one roof.

2 Democratisation of the Rural Development Agencies in England.

3 Enhancement of parish councils as the primary democratic body in rural communities.

4 Protection of parish and district councils from the financial power of business and the political power of central government.

5 Policy focus on creating sustainable economies within the countryside - houses with jobs, not a recreation park or a dormitory for continued urban growth

6 Ensuring that the land continues to be the primary source of economic activity in the countryside, and moving agriculture from subsidy to investment.

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