To see some real poverty, visit the countryside

A A A

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.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They make daily deliveries to most foodservice...

Recruitment Genius: Transport Planner

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They make daily deliveries to most foodservice...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - C#, ASP.Net, MVC, jQuery

£42000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is looking for a C# ...

Recruitment Genius: General Driver - Automotive

£15500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading Motor Re...

Day In a Page

Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

Latest on the Labour leadership contest
Froome seals second Tour de France victory

Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

The uses of sarcasm

'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

No vanity, but lots of flair

A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

In praise of foraging

How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food