This green and threatened land

Today the Government reveals its thinking on rural life. What kind of future awaits the countryside? Nicholas Schoon reports

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Lie back and think of England, and you will probably think of its countryside. Gently rolling hills, a patchwork of fields, hedgerows and copses, church spires poking from clumped villages.

This warm and dreamy national emblem still survives largely intact across much of the country - but it is looking increasingly faded and ragged. The fields are bigger because many of the hedgerows have either been grubbed out or ruined through neglect. The woods are full of ageing, rotten trees because no one manages them for timber and other traditional forest products.

The village? There is a hotchpotch of modern, suburban-looking houses on its edges and for most hours of the day the place seems strangely dead. The church now holds services only every third Sunday and the bells seldom peal.

Today, after a full year of consultation, committee meetings and redraftings, the Government publishes its long-awaited White Paper on the future of rural England. In the face of the most rapid changes in the history of the countryside, the White Paper cannot be regarded as premature.

Agriculture employs ever fewer people and yet the land is still shaped almost exclusively by farming. The number of farmers and farmworkers has fallen by 60 per cent since 1950. As a consequence the great majority of people now working in the countryside have no direct connection with the land. On average only 6 per cent of rural workers are employed in agriculture. The country workforce has become much more like that of the towns, with service sector and tourism jobs growing particularly fast.

Even more significantly, more and more people who live in the countryside don't work there. They have retired to the country or they commute increasingly long distances into towns and cities. In so doing they have pushed up house prices because planning controls ensure the supply of property is well short of demand.

While there has been a strong net outflow from city to country across most of England in the past few decades, there is a sad flow in the other direction. Young people who grow up in villages have little prospect of finding homes they can afford, so they leave for town - to find cheaper homes to rent or buy, or to go on the council's waiting list - and possibly into temporary bed and breakfast accommodation.

Another great change is the decline of rural services - buses, village schools and shops. In some of the remotest parts this process is fuelled by depopulation, but elsewhere an increasingly mobile, car-borne rural population is choosing to drive into town in search of cheaper, more varied shops and leisure pursuits.

The upshot of these changes is an increasingly polarised countryside. At one extreme there are wealthy newcomers who have no connection with the area apart from living there, and who are determined to fight off any development which would alter the landscape they have bought into at a high price.

At the other, there are the resentful rural poor. Their children have next to no hope of finding an affordable local home. And they hate the way in which any new development that might keep jobs and economic life in their villages is resisted by the arrivistes.

The other great rural battleground is between man and nature. Modern agriculture and urban development are destroying much of the wildlife and the landscapes which make us cherish the countryside in the first place. Each year between 50 and 100 square kilometres of rural England - an area equivalent to a large town of at least 100,000 people - disappears under new buildings - mostly homes, but also factories, out-of-town shopping centres and roads.

The intensification of agriculture since the Second World War has done more damage still. Traditional farming practices allowed plenty of scope for rich and colourful flora and fauna to exist alongside man. Since the 1940s most of these semi-natural areas such as wetlands, coppice woodlands, unfertilised downland pastures and hay meadows have been ruined. They have either been damaged irreparably by neglect or vanished under the plough.

But this is the one destructive rural trend whose end may be in sight. The Government is coming round to the view that if farmers are to be heavily subsidised, it should not be to grow surplus food but to manage the countryside in a way that people want.

This change is in its infancy. The amount of subsidy that farmers receive for delivering environmental goods (such as maintaining dry stone walls or conserving salt marshes) is still minuscule compared to the production subsidies which encourage intensive agriculture.

The single largest manifestation of this change is the Common Agricultural Policy's set-aside regime, in which 10 per cent or more of cropland is left fallow. Set-aside does appear to be a boon to wildlife. The downside is that it has contributed to the massive decline in agricultural employment.

The battle to save the countryside's cherished landscapes and wildlife has begun. Rebuilding the social fabric of the countryside may prove more difficult. Trends such as polarisation and suburbanisation of rural areas are part of other formidable changes of our age - rapid technological progress, jobless economic growth, escalating use of transport and telecommunications.

The challenge is to create a more vibrant rural economy in which people can live and work in the same village. This used to happen naturally when most people worked on the land, but thanks to technology that time has gone forever. Even a massive increase in organic farming would create only a few tens of thousands of jobs.

What government, local and national, has to encourage is the creation of local jobs for people who have grown up locally and want to stay in the area, along with the provision of affordable - and therefore subsidised - homes. This goes against the grain in a society which is increasingly mobile and for a government which likes to deregulate.

Yet it is starting to happen already, albeit on an inadequate scale. The Rural Housing Trust and housing associations are now allowed to build low-cost homes for rent just outside villages, on land which private housebuilders would not be allowed to develop because of planning restrictions.

Because of this the land involved is relatively cheap, which helps to keep the cost of these village housing projects down - and the rents as well. They are allocated to local people on low incomes who would otherwise have to leave the area to get subsidised housing.

The rest of us, who live in the cities, have to be encouraged to stay there. If we all fulfilled our wish to live in the countryside - in retirement or as commuters - we would ruin the place by gobbling up open countryside under houses and causing heavy traffic pollution and congestion. There has to be continued restraint on commercial - as opposed to subsidised - house-building in the country.

Part of the salvation of England's countryside lies in improving its cities and making them places we want to live in all our lives. The countryside should be somewhere to visit - preferably by train or bus.

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