Leading Article: Stop sitting on the fence, Tony, and stand up for townies

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BRITAIN is an urban country. Its wealth is generated in towns and cities; there most of its people live and there they form their identity. Yet for them, still, the "countryside" is a strong and attractive idea. The reality is hugely mixed. For townspeople, it offers leisure. The native industry, agriculture, is one that pollutes and destroys. Large tracts of the country landscape are half-built, neither identifiably rural nor urban. Within the countryside there is a great diversity of forms of life. Is a village most of whose inhabitants decamp to the nearby town to shop and work and go to school country? Is a topography cherished and paid for by the tax money of townies really classifiable as rural?

It makes no sense to pit town and country against one another in some Manichean opposition. Yet the illusion of two nations suits the propagandists. When the Countryside March sets out in London in a fortnight it will be a clever attempt by a specific interest group (the fox hunters) to pretend that villagers worried about their shops and services, ramblers avid for access, NIMBYs who don't like new semis at the bottom of their street and the rest really do have a common cause. The "countryside movement" has a politics and, you guessed, it tilts right. These people in wellies and headscarves, guns in hand, brandishing their beef on the bone are not progressive-minded modernisers. Beware mistaking a motley crew who cannot adjust to the fact that Labour won the last election for a broad- based expression of non-urban opinion.

Sadly, though, the Labour government seems desperate not to offend this same collection of baying voices. Poor Bernard Donoughue, junior agriculture minister, has apparently been ordered to don his Barbour and march in solidarity with the backwoodsmen. Pity John Prescott: No 10 has recently batted him back and forward like a shuttlecock, trying to avoid hard decisions on planning for housing and, now, the "right to roam". As for fox-hunting ... There are good reasons - we think - why legislation to ban fox-hunting would be an unacceptable intrusion by the state: it is the supreme test of a liberal society that it can maintain buffers of tolerance around activities which large numbers, even a majority dislike. But you have not heard powerful arguments either way from the Blair government. Ministers and their acolytes hint that it will hamstring the Foster (private member's) Bill yet still seek to introduce its own anti-fox-hunting amendment later, and this for the very poor reason that they have not yet girded their loins to deal with the Tory and aristocratic bias in the second chamber of Parliament.

Worst of all is Labour's fence-sitting on the right to roam - its promise to put an end once for all to those "trespassers will be prosecuted" notices on tracts of land where the only trespassers are walkers and birdwatchers whose love of the open air, the fields and the moors far exceeds the commitment of lordly and exploitative landowners to sustain the countryside. It needs to be said, straightaway, that across much of England, Scotland and Wales walkers do not have too much of a problem. The work in recent years of district and county councils, other public authorities and the National Trust in signposting and waymarking is a huge achievement. The countryside is, as a result, much more civilised. Problems occur in pockets, in parts of upland England, with certain landowners; privatisation of the utilities and commercialisation of the national forests have not helped. Whether a new statute is needed to deal with access (as opposed to local pacts with local authorities and ramblers' groups) is arguable. But Labour fatally lacks political imagination if it does not recognise the potent symbolism of aligning itself with a popular freedom movement, which is what the ramblers and the townsfolk out for some country air indeed are.

Besides, Labour made a firm commitment to the electorate. The longer the delay, the more suspicions grow. Could it be that the Prime Minister, who evidently takes some pleasure from proximity to the plutocracy, has been nobbled by landowners? Or could it be Mr Blair's sincere but unrealisable ambition of being loved by one and all that prevents him doing things that might get crowds marching down Whitehall?

They are marching anyway. Power, Labour needs to see, can be uncomfortable. Sometimes you have to tell selfish people they will have to give up some fraction of their quality of life so that others can have a better life (this is what is at stake in providing development land to meet the shortage of affordable new homes). It may involve instructing landowners that they, too, must share space. Some conflicts of interest are irreducible. Modern British government has no choice but to choose the urban way.

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