Editor-At-Large: If I ruled the countryside...

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Last Saturday morning, in my local high street in North Yorkshire, it was business as usual. The window of the walking shop was packed with thick socks and chunky boots. The two butchers had home-made pork pies and sausages in every flavour (from beer to cheese) except plain. The chemist was doing a brisk trade in hay-fever remedies. The height of summer in rural Britain, and overweight caravanners in shorts waddle along clutching bags of rolls ready for a barbie. By now, everyone has stopped eating normal food and started buying stuff on skewers, chicken limbs painted bright red, big potatoes to bake and corn on the cob. The supermarket's top sellers are beer, cheap plonk, miles of paper towels, tin foil and bottles of that foul-smelling liquid labelled "barbecue lighting fuel". This is what dinner is going to taste of for the next two months, so you might as well stock up on even more to drink.

We've just had the local festival, with exhibitions, sports events, live music and talks. We didn't have (as far as I know) jerk chicken on sale or a reggae competition. I don't think we had any curry cook-offs or even a bhangra evening in the Memorial Hall. The Countryside Agency would have been appalled.

This government quango (funded by taxpayers) has just published a report, What About Us?, costing £300,000, which concludes that most country pursuits are targeted at white, middle-class, middle-aged people. Over a three-year period, £1.5m is being spent considering how rural areas can attract a more diverse group of users. Howls of incredulous laughter greeted these conclusions last week - for most of us, saying that the countryside isn't packed at the weekends with Muslims or Afro-Caribbean people camping and hiking is like saying that sausages have two ends or socks have one opening for your feet. Obvious or what? Prejudice is alive in rural areas, but that's nothing new.

As someone who has lived half the time in the countryside since 1978 and been president of the Ramblers Association, I can claim to know what I'm talking about. At a conference in my area last year, one snotty farmer disparagingly referred to me as an "incomer". I've only lived in the same valley since 1978, so I dread to think how that person would treat a family from Bradford or Leeds if they dared to set up a picnic on a foot- path on his property. I can tell you about small-mindedness in the countryside without receiving £300,000 to go around and research anything.

But after I'd finished sneering at the Countryside Agency's report, I started to think again. Five years ago, the Government issued a Rural White Paper with the admirable aim of expanding the number of users of the countryside. This report is the next stage in that process. The right to roam gives us millions more acres to enjoy without breaking the law. More national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty are being created. A lot of effort is being put into better signage for walkers and mountain bikers, and many rural towns are creating heritage trails. Yet it cannot be denied that many people, black, brown and white, feel a bit lost when they leave the motorway and start to explore.

During a long walk one sweltering July, I sought refreshment in a pub near Petworth in Sussex. I was accompanied by my bloke of the moment, who sported black shoulder-length hair. The obese landlord behind the bar immediately boomed at me: "I'm not serving him. He's not suitably dressed." In this establishment, regulars could have beer guts big enough for triplets, and smear greasy strands over balding domes, Donald Trump-style. They could commit fashion crime of the highest order by wearing pee-stained ancient cavalry twill trousers with socks and sandals, but incomers could not wear a vest, and their hair had to be off the collar.

When my Jamaican boyfriend walked into a pub deep in the Yorkshire Dales a few years ago, there was complete silence. We got our drinks and sat down, all eyes on us. Then an ancient farmer in a filthy tweed jacket came over, eyes twinkling, and whispered in a broad accent: "Would you mind if I touched your hair? We've never had a black person in here and it looks fantastic!" It could have been tricky - but it wasn't. After Sam had stroked Norm's dreadlocks, they were soon the best of pals, buying each other beers and snorting snuff.

The fact is that not a lot of black and brown people live in Cumbria, the Yorkshire moors or the wilds of Northumberland. And the people who do are often eking out a living as hill farmers. The future for them will be to diversify into tourism, and that means welcoming "incomers" and not regarding them with suspicion. This process is not going to be helped one jot by reports and government "initiatives". That's just a waste of money.

One easy way to get people into the countryside is to forget reports and spend the money taking more schoolkids camping and on activity holidays. Another is to take the countryside into towns. Go and promote your rural area to the nearest urban conurbation. Offer meal deals, keep your cafés and pubs open longer, set up farmers' and craft markets selling local produce, and tell people where they can picnic and what attractions they can see. You have to go and persuade them to visit you - the rural economy depends on attracting everyone, not just the middle-class and middle-aged.

* * *

The BBC governors announce in their annual report that they are "broadly positive" about the corporation's programming. How bloody predictable. Do these pompous people ever find BBC output anything other than acceptable? It's yet another round of back-slapping. The governors have approved the disgraceful amount of £546,000 to be paid in bonuses to the BBC executive board at a time when 4,000 people are to be made redundant. The lay-offs will save £355m, which will go back into production, but it seems the height of insensitivity to award highly paid executives extra cash.

The chairman, Michael Grade, claims that the BBC matches the average salary in the private sector across the board. But the kudos of working for the BBC means that when people leave they are highly sought after. Why can't executives be paid straight salaries like the workforce? The staff don't get bonuses if they do their jobs well, make programmes on time and on budget. It stinks. The deputy director-general, Mark Byford, earned £457,000 in total - hardly a figure he'd merit outside the cosy world of Auntie.

Grade says bonuses will be cut to 10 per cent in future, but execs will get a salary rise of 2 per cent and a further 10 per cent "consolidation". Get rid of this overpaid bunch and get substitute people who work for a straight salary. TV and radio is bursting with talent. No one is irreplaceable. I despair of the BBC sometimes.