Foot-and-mouth controls 'did more harm than virus'

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The Independent Online

The decision to seal off the countryside during the foot-and-mouth crisis was more damaging economically than the devastation caused by the virus itself, campaigners said yesterday.

A report stated that ministers initially failed to take into account the interests of other businesses such as tourism because of their outdated perception of a distinct rural economy dominated by agriculture. The Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) said the Government's response was based on a number of false assumptions about links between the countryside and the wider economy.

The CPRE pointed out that 25 per cent of all businesses, including many urban companies, lost trade during the foot-and-mouth epidemic, and argued that a more inclusive view of the countryside was needed.

Gregor Hutcheon, the CPRE's acting head of rural policy, said: "The initial response to 'close the countryside' was based on the misnomer of a separate rural economy isolated from the rest of the country.

"It failed to appreciate how much businesses other than agriculture also rely upon a high-quality countryside. Many businesses, in both town and country, have thus experienced tremendous hardship."

The campaigning body said a range of sectors, from tourism in London to travel, had been adversely affected by foot-and-mouth disease, potentially inflating the £2.5bn cost of dealing with the virus.

While farming remained important, it was no longer the only section of the economy that relied on the countryside and more needed to be done to include such activities as conservation, the report said.

Mr Hutcheon added: "There are now far more rural stakeholders, such as tourism and the preservation of the landscape, who draw income from the unique resource that is our countryside.

"Economically, they are very significant but they found it very difficult to make themselves heard when the crisis began. They faced very real frustrations in persuading ministers to listen."

The CPRE said it wanted a recognition that the beauty and diversity of the countryside was an economic as well as an environmental asset, which should be better protected and restored. Rather than focusing on agricultural production, a broader vision was needed to make farming more profitable through higher quality, localised production in a countryside made more accessible for all.

Farmers' leaders said they recognised that links between the countryside and urban areas were now substantial but that the means of controlling the virus was not the sole reason for the impact on the wider economy.

Ian Gardiner, deputy director general of the National Farmers' Union, said: "There were dramatic effects, much more dramatic than was expected, on the British economy. But I think that's more to do with the fact that we have the disease, than the way in which we decided to control it."