LEADING ARTICLE: The dream of Gummerius

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The Independent Online
The strains of Elgar swell and our mental cameras pan the lush fields, the flowered hedgerows, the gnarled oaks and ivy-clad cottages of rural Britain. We all love the countryside; those few of us who actually live in it, those who aspire to it and the great majority who simply like to visit it. On the whole we believe that it should be preserved or enhanced, a living counterpoint to the dirty, exciting world of town and city. And yesterday the Environment Secretary, John Gummer, unveiled a White Paper (one year in the making) designed, he claimed, to do just that.

It recognises that the physical depradations of industrial-scale agriculture have been followed by a hollowing out of village communities. Scarce housing stock has been bought up by commuters whose work takes them to cities during the day, by second home owners and by retired people who want to keep themselves apart. Younger villagers have been forced out by a lack of housing, services and - as agricultural employment has declined - by the lack of jobs. The new country-dwellers have exacerbated this through their adeptness at opposing any development that threatens the perfection of their rural retreat. Village shops have closed, unable to compete with the cornucopia available a short Volvo-ride away in the out-of-town hypermarket.

Not all of this has been inevitable. Much of it has happened because badly constructed subsidies have encouraged undesirable outcomes. Farmers have been given money to grow more than we need and cut down hedgerows and trees to do it. We have subsidised commuting through free motorways and cut-price railways. Store chains have been allowed to build hypermarkets on greenfield sites.

To his credit John Gummer has recognised all this and more. The White Paper sets itself the task of ushering in a new era of policy explicitly designed to assist the preservation and enhancement of a "living countryside". And many of its provisions will find wide support. On services, it proposes to assist small general stores and post offices with rates relief. It suggests a greater role for parish councils - especially in the area of community transport. It allows for a limited and sensitive relaxation of planning constraints on the setting up and accommodation of new businesses. It recommends a Rural Charter, allowing the special needs of country customers to be addressed in the service measurement of service providers.

Fine and good. Together these measures should improve things. Yet on the central question of housing, the White Paper is far from convincing. True, the right of housing association tenants to buy will not be applied in small villages, thus preserving a stock of social housing for the less well off. But this will have only a marginal impact on the availability of low-cost housing. So we are left with the intention to "produce a discussion paper on the options for accommodating necessary housing development". Given that the problem is what it has ever been - how to reconcile the need for new housing with the desire to avoid gobbling up more fields - this is a disappointing return on a year's work. No one can pretend that the politics of Nimbyism are easy, but Mr Gummer seems to have run from the fight. Until there is leadership on this point, any policy for regenerating our countryside will have a large hole in the middle.

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