Leading Article: Forgotten crisis in our countryside

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The Independent Online
City dwellers tend to think of themselves as uniquely subject to stress. If only they could escape to the countryside, they dream, their troubles would dissolve in bucolic bliss, their cheeks would become rosy and their children would gambol in the fields instead of taking drugs and watching television.

Not a bit of it. Rural stress is now a serious problem. Nearly 600 male farmers and farm workers have committed suicide since 1979, twice the national average, according to a new report by the National Farmers' Union. Suicide among farmers' wives is 20 per cent higher than the national average. Poverty, isolation and depression are rife.

The stress comes from many factors: financial pressures, the lunacies of the European Union set- aside programme, the decline of rural transport, shops and post-offices, the changing expectations of women and partly, perhaps, from an identity crisis brought on by competing views on what the countryside is for.

This problem was addressed yesterday by a new pressure group, inappropriately named after a London restaurant, that seeks to bring together conservationists, farmers, and other rural dwellers in search of co-ordinated policies. They want both national and European policies to focus on rural regeneration in all its aspects: farming, village life, transport, unemployment, poverty, the preservation of wildlife and environmental protection. Oddly, they do not mention recreation.

There has in fact been increasing co-operation among the various interests involved but the results have made little impression on the Government, where responsibility remains split among different ministries. This means that no one, for instance, formally relates the provision of rural shops and post-offices to local transport, the isolation of the elderly and marital breakdown. Nor has there been enough official interest in the probable advantages of subsidising organic agriculture rather than set-aside. Brussels would be an obstacle, but where is British pressure on this issue?

If the foolishly named 'Gay Hussar Group' can agree on policies that connect all elements of the problem, the Government should respond by setting up an interdepartmental cabinet committee to examine them and, if they are workable, put them into effect. Rural regeneration is at least as important as its urban counterpart.