To see some real poverty, visit the countryside

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The Independent Online

Two Danes walk into a pub in the west Highlands of Scotland in search of dinner. At this late hour, 8.40pm, they've missed last orders and the chef has gone home. Where can they get a hot meal? The nearest place is several miles away along the coast. It is the Fisherman's Mission, doing a roaring trade as a glorified soup kitchen for all those out of work.

Two Danes walk into a pub in the west Highlands of Scotland in search of dinner. At this late hour, 8.40pm, they've missed last orders and the chef has gone home. Where can they get a hot meal? The nearest place is several miles away along the coast. It is the Fisherman's Mission, doing a roaring trade as a glorified soup kitchen for all those out of work.

Meanwhile, helicopter pilots flying over the east Highlands report a strange phenomenon. The landscapes they are crossing are increasingly littered with the dead bodies of animals, their carcasses left to rot. Welcome to rural life 2000.

There is something rotten in the state of Britain. A mighty schism has opened between the thrusting urban new economy and the hobble-behind, depressed rural one. There is a good reason for those abandoned carcasses. One Somerset farmer recently made headlines when he was reduced to selling 10 heifers for a princely £2.97 (29p per calf). On Thursday accountants Deloitte & Touche published a grim report saying that farmers' incomes plunged 28 per cent last year and have fallen by a staggering 90 per cent over the past five years. The study predicts that worse is to come in the year ahead.

The knock-on effect of this crisis for those employed in the farming industry is appalling. The worst areas of UK poverty are not to be found in the post-industrial slums of Merseyside or Glasgow, but in Cornwall. There, wages are nearly 30 per cent below the national average. The broken-windowed, tumbledown cottages some farm labourers live in would be condemned if they were in city slums.

The problems are not confined to farming. In the Eighties there was talk of a revival in the rural economy being led by a more general entrepreneurial upsurge in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) choosing rural, greenfield sites. But in the last two years there has been zero jobs growth in rural SMEs, compared to 7.9 per cent in businesses in larger towns.

No wonder the shires are in revolt, from the Countryside Alliance to the fuel protests. Fuel is certainly a problem for SMEs. I visited one last week - my sister and her husband have set up in drug distribution (no, not the shadow Cabinet kind) in deepest, darkest Wiltshire. I have never made so many car journeys - 40 minutes each way to get a newspaper or buy a meal; the same to the nearest railway station. It was a bit like visiting Los Angeles.

Yet solutions such as the mooted "blue diesel" do not tackle the more general problem - the near- complete destruction of the rural infrastructure. Some 400 sub-post offices closed last year. More than half of all rural parishes have no school or shop, and 80 per cent of villages have no GP. As for public transport, in many areas this has to all intents and purposes ceased to exist; it certainly has where my sister lives.

What should we do about all this? The easiest response is to reach for the subsidy cheque book. The Government was quick last week to head off the Deloitte report with a major initiative - a £1.6bn programme over seven years to boost the rural economy. But the Agriculture Minister has himself pointed to the increasingly absurd levels of some subsidies - apparently hill farmers receive some £33,000 each in subsidy to make up for "real" incomes of only £6,000. Equally, pro-European enthusiasm for the European project continues to be undermined by the Europe-wide handouts made as part of the Common Agricultural Policy (£3.2bn a year). At last, four dissenting nations met earlier this month with a determination to sort this out (though the fact they will be known as the Capri group, having met in a luxury hotel on Capri, does not send the best signal to taxpayers).

Perhaps it is time for us to stand back and review the whole question of the countryside and what we want from it. One rural spokesman recently complained of the invasion of the countryside by townies, who apparently are flooding in at a rate of nearly 1,700 a week to buy homes. Hence the number of Cotswold villages stuffed with £300,000 cottages. Should the man in the street be subsidising these people?

At the same time, there are 20 individual landowners who receive subsidies of more than £1m a year. Taxpayers haven't paid for farming on that scale since Marie Antoinette dressed up as Bo-Peep.

Objections to many townies' desire for the right to roam will provoke the question: who is paying for all this and why? The Government asserts that it is committed to "sustaining and enhancing the distinctive environment, economy and social fabric of the English countryside for the benefit of all". These last words are crucial.

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