Property crime is rising faster in the countryside

People who live in the inner cities are far more likely to have their homes burgled than their counterparts in the countryside but, it was revealed yesterday,rural crime is catching up fast.

In a week when the debate over rural lawlessness has reached fever pitch following the jailing of farmer Tony Martin for the shooting of a teenage burglar, the Government's advisers on rural matters have released their annual State of the Countryside report.

The Countryside Agency painted a bleak picture of life in rural districts with rising homelessness, farm incomes at their lowest, higher hidden unemployment, erosion of the environment and many people suffering from "exclusion and isolation". But absolute risks of crime in rural districts remained, in most respects, lower than urban areas, it said.

Isobel Coy, of the agency, blamed the rise in fear of crime on a breakdown in village life. "We have seen an increase in thefts and vehicle crime, faster than in urban areas, but you are starting from a lower level," she said. "There is a diminished sense of community, people are feeling more vulnerable. Fear of crime is exacerbated by community fragmentation and reduced social cohesion."

Whereas the agency's analysis of recent crime figures showed that 10.3 per cent of inner-city homes were burgled in 1995, the figure dropped to 6.3 per cent in other urban areas and 3.9 per cent among rural households. The past two decades have seen a dramatic increase - by 88 per cent - in reported crime in the countryside. But city inhabitants are still subjected to far more violence. While the increase in vehicle-related thefts was almost double in the country than in inner-city areas between 1991 and 1995, the rise in muggings and assaults was far less.

The agency, Ms Coy said, wanted the Government to offer rural districts minimum standards of service in areas such as policing. "People want a guaranteed response time," she said. Nigel Henson, a director of the Countryside Alliance, accused the agency of playing down the problem with crime. "They really are not paying sufficient attention to an area which we believe is a top priority for people," he said.

He welcomed other issues highlighted by the report but accused it of being "revisionist" in its lack of reference to country sports. The State of the Countryside 2000 report outlined the challenges the Government faces in its forthcoming Rural White Paper, said the agency's chairman, Ewen Cameron.

It revealed that hidden unemployment is higher in rural areas, while more people are dependent on part-time work. Total farm income has fallen to its lower level since entering the Common Agricultural Policy and rural homelessness is increasing .

Tim Yeo, the Conservative spokesman on Agriculture, said: "This report, from the Government's own rural policy advisers, exposes Labour's blatant lie that there is no rural crisis."