Conservative Party Conference: Warning on the countryside `Town and country divided'

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT'S lack of understanding of the rural economy has sown divisions between the countryside and town while farmers are being hit by the worst recession since the 1930s, the Tories warned yesterday.

Gillian Shephard, the environment spokeswoman, prom-ised that her party should stand for "Conservatives and conservation" to regain rural seats in the next general election.

In her speech to the conference, Mrs Shephard said there should be a cabinet committee dealing solely with rural affairs. She made clear, however, that farmers had a duty to ensure greater environmental protection in the years ahead. "The goalposts of environmental awareness and protection clearly have to be moved forward," she said.

In an attack on the Government's handling of the Green Belt, she argued that while it had doubled in size during the Tory years in office, increasing to an area the size of Wales, John Prescott's policies on transport, the environment and the regions were already threatening to undermine it. "This Labour Government, by their threats and discrimination against rural areas, have so widened the gap between country and town that they have dealt a body blow to national understanding and thus to the environmental concerns of a wider world," she said.

The rural economy could not function without viable transport. "Labour are creating a two-tier transport system - a new deal for towns, no deal for rural areas," she said. She added: "Their assaults have widened the gap between country and town at the very time when the pursuit of sustainable development demands that gap be bridged."

Over the "right to roam'', on which the Government may still legislate if landowners fail to extend access to the country, Mrs Shephard warned that they should not be approached "with threats. The nation cannot afford a chasm of mistrust between country and town."

The Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, said: "The Tories have no plans for rural Britain, They have shown at their conference in Bournemouth that they are a party of protest not policy."