The inexcusably white, wrinkly middle class

Whether in opera or in parks, we are now in the age of social engineering through funding
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The Independent Online

It occurred to me, as 2005 made its unusually tentative and nervy entrance, that it was time for a spot of modernisation. This column, for example, has been far too elitist in tone and on several inexcusable occasions has succumbed to a bias reflecting age, background and, yes, sometimes even gender. Beyond a few token references to letters or emails, there has been scandalously little public access or social inclusion.

It occurred to me, as 2005 made its unusually tentative and nervy entrance, that it was time for a spot of modernisation. This column, for example, has been far too elitist in tone and on several inexcusable occasions has succumbed to a bias reflecting age, background and, yes, sometimes even gender. Beyond a few token references to letters or emails, there has been scandalously little public access or social inclusion.

There are, fortunately, guidelines to help in these matters - glossy booklets produced by quangos and government departments and containing all the right references to cultural diversity, community development and opportunity for the deprived. Then, regularly reported in the press, there are examples of public bodies who are working hard to bring the light of social equality to even the murkiest corners.

Only this week, for instance, the authority which runs the Lake District National Park has struck a mighty blow for inclusiveness by announcing plans to withdraw funding for guided walks, events and some information centres. The decision was not prompted by a financial crisis - the 100 volunteer rangers who take tourists on guided tours give their services free, so that the only cost, some £32,000, is to cover expenses, training and safety equipment.

Nor is the problem a lack of support from the public. Of the 14 million tourists who visit the park every year, 30,000 people attend events and 4,500 are guided by volunteer rangers on their walks. The issue is not about the quantity of punters trudging across the fells, but their quality. They are simply not the kind of customer that brings in the right level of EU and regional funding.

Over to Mick Casey, a spokesman for the park authority who has been explaining the rationale behind the decision: "Our research shows that the majority who do the walks are white, middle-class, middle-aged people. The Government is encouraging national parks to appeal to young people, to ethnic minorities and to people with disabilities. It is saying we ought to focus our activities on these kinds of groups."

Although there were no specific plans as to how to attract their new market, the authority was taking an important first step by closing down facilities which catered to the inexcusably white, wrinkly and middle-class.

At first glance, the move seems a touch high-handed - perverse, even. For all their defects of background and age, the people who give of their time to act as unpaid wardens and those who benefit from their expertise have this in common: they love the countryside and want to do all they can to preserve it.

On the whole, they behave in a manner of which most governments would approve: as citizens, they are involved in their surroundings and, as individuals, they are taking exercise. As the success of organisations as diverse as Greenpeace and the Royal Society of Birds confirms, they put not only time but money into their enthusiasm.

But, of course, we are now in the great age of social engineering through funding. It is not enough to open up new experience, whether at the opera or in a national park, to those who were once deprived of it; if that access is seen to be at the expense of those deemed to be in a privileged minority, then that is a bonus.

When it comes to government or lottery support for improving activities, whether cultural or rural, it is the social constitution of a potential audience, the event's contribution to diversity or community, that is now more important than what is actually on show.

In this context, the countryside is just another show. It belongs to us all, the thinking goes, and yet, scandalously few people - and of the wrong type - are enjoying it. So it is time to shift resources from those who love and appreciate the landscape to those who ought to, whether they know it or not.

While all funding efforts in the Lake District will be shifted towards the laudable, if faintly absurd, object of luring inner-city youth into their walking boots, up the motorways and on to the fells, another great exercise in open-air democracy is taking shape, one which will benefit that other deprived minority - those who like to drive across country in large four-by-fours.

A cool £20m of government money is currently being invested is something called the "Discovering Lost Ways Project", which is being researched and co-ordinated by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Recent right-to-roam legislation, it has been decided, was rather limited in scope, only covering current rights of way.

Defra's researchers are hoping to uncover up 20,000 new rights of way, some of which may not have been used for several centuries. These paths, bridleways and byways, which cover an estimated 16,000 miles, will be opened up the public. Of these, some 1,600 miles will once have been tracks for horse and cart and therefore, to the delight of those who drive of gas-devouring, off-road monstrosities, will under highway law be "open to all walkers, cyclists, riders and motor vehicles".

That is the logical destination of those who believe that the landscape is a leisure resource and that the pleasure derived from it requires no investment or commitment from those who enjoy it. Perhaps, the Defra team will find a cart track across the Lake District. Then everyone will be happy.

terblacker@aol.com

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