Gummer plants seeds for a rural revival

Country strife: Government strategy for ensuring economic success and keeping agricultural areas 'living, working places'
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The Independent Online
The area of England covered by forest should double in the next 50 years, from 7.5 per cent to 15 per cent, according to the most dramatic and imaginative proposal in the Government's White Paper on Rural England, published yesterday after a year's preparation.

John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, told the House of Commons that the document ''sets out how the countryside can continue its economic success and remain a living, working place''.

But the White Paper announced no firm new spending commitments, and said voluntary work by country dwellers had to be encouraged.

By 2045, the Government wants the proportion of English countryside under trees to be equal to that in Scotland now. This would still be less than in Italy, France and Germany.

It believes this will happen with current incentives ''and the necessary future changes in the European Union's Common Agriculture Policy''.

The Government recognises that further reform of the CAP is the single most important way in which the habitats and landscapes can be conserved and improved. That can only be done collectively, with the European Commission and the other EU member states, and it will probably take the rest of the 1990s.

Mr Gummer and the Secretary of State for Agriculture, Douglas Hogg, said they wanted the CAP's subsidies for crop and livestock production to be sharply reduced. These are said to have encouraged environmentally- destructive farming at a high cost to taxpayers and at high prices to consumers.

The White Paper makes it clear that some of this support should be switched to direct payments to farmers in return for them managing their land in a way which enhances wildlife and landscapes. ''A substantial level of public funding ... would be justified,'' it says.

These direct payments already exist on a small scale, but they are mostly concentrated on those countryside areas which are richest in habitats and traditional rural landscapes. The Government now wants any extra "green payments" to farmers to apply throughout the countryside, including those rural areas most degraded by intensive modern agriculture, such as East Anglia - if the money can be found.

The White Paper does little to heal rural conflicts over housing. It upheld existing commitments to encourage the building of state-subsidised homes for people on low incomes. But these measures and existing funding allow only a few hundred low-rent or shared-ownership housing association homes to be built each year. The Government's own Rural Development Commission estimated a need for 80,000 between 1990 and 1995.

The White Paper does not advocate moves to make it harder for affluent city-dwellers to buy second country homes or to commute from the countryside. While it backs balanced rural communities ''it is not for the Government to determine who should live where.''

Labour's agriculture spokes-man, Dr Gavin Strang, said: ''Under the Conservatives, unemployment and crime have increased faster in our rural areas than elsewhere. Rural homelessness has more than doubled and low pay is more prevalent than in our towns

Pressure groups representing both conservationists and developers felt the White Paper presented a good analysis of the major rural conflicts and threats but had done almost nothing to resolve them. Instead, it promises a mass of further consultation papers and reports.

The Country Landowners' Association, whose members include many wealthy farmers and estate owners, gave a guarded welcome. ''There are deregulation points, but we do wonder wether they go far enough,'' said policy adviser Tony Bailey. The Council for the Protection of Rural England was worried about a proposal that farmland of middling quality should be given less protection from development in areas where there was little low quality farmland.

''It is the ordinary countryside which most people care about and which is getting it in the neck from development,'' said its director, Fiona Reynolds.

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