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NOW YOU MUST ACT ON COUNTRYSIDE ISSUES 

09:00 - 07 October 2002 
Everyone agrees that the problems besetting rural England are complex and deep-rooted.

But it is the Government's seeming inability and lack of desire to change matters that continues to infuriate country people.

Rural Secretary Margaret Beckett was last week accused of treating the countryside with contempt after her keynote speech at the Labour Party conference failed to address any of the issues plaguing rural areas.

It was Mrs Beckett who claimed at the European Parliament's inquiry into the foot and mouth crisis that she had never heard of a bungled cull in the Devon parish of Knowstone.

It was also Mrs Beckett who dismissed Devon's foot and mouth inquiry as meaningless and "purely local."

Now the Western Morning News is challenging Mrs Beckett's ineptitude. All this week we will be highlighting the problems faced by rural communities and examining the ways in which they can be solved, in other words doing Mrs Beckett's job for her.

We have come up with a list of five main issues in the countryside that need to be targeted, and we asked experts what the way forward holds.

If Mrs Beckett's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is to make any progress, it must tackle the problems associated with farming, rural amenities, housing, funding and transport.

Professor Michael Winter, director of the Centre for Rural Research at Exeter University, has called on the Government to make "big decisions" to safeguard the future of rural life.

"The Government has dedicated a lot of time to rural issues, but it certainly doesn't seem to be getting across to rural areas," he added. "Foot and mouth, and the criticisms that the Government was ham-handed with its treatment of the crisis, has been one of the reasons for the lack of trust from the rural community."

Prof Winter said that the Government must lead by example to win back the rural community's trust. Lending support to the WMN's Buy Local campaign, Prof Winter said that one avenue could be through greater promotion of home-grown produce.

"We really need to get some kind of commitment to them putting money into regional food. It's quite possible that people might start to feel that bit more trusting of the Government if it led from the front.

"They should make their own agencies - the Department of Health, the National Health Service, the Ministry of Defence - eat British. They should not be buying the cheapest beef on the market, but go that extra yard to protect the rural economy. It would send such a strong message out to rural areas, and it would be an amazing show of confidence."

Richard Haddock, National Farmers' Union livestock representative for the South West, said he thought Margaret Beckett was "not doing her job" with respect to farmers.

"She does not give me any confidence at all," he said. "She hasn't come and sat down with any of us - she talks down to us."

Mr Haddock said that Mrs Beckett's Agriculture Secretary predecessor, Nick Brown, had a much better understanding of farming.

"At least Brown would come down and talk directly to us. We want someone who understands us, and assists us."

He added: "Farmers want to feel wanted and loved. No one wants to listen to us - we are the unwanted minority. We all know there has got to be change, but at the end of the day all we want is a fair day's pay for a fair day's work."

Ian Johnson, spokesman for the South West National Farmers' Union, said: "The Government is right in saying it is attempting to address these issues economically, but nobody has understood the psyche of farmers. They have not looked at the human factor. Although it is true to say technically a great deal of money is put towards farming, that is not the fault of farmers, it has its roots in previous governments' attempts to maintain an unlimited supply of cheap food.

"With increasing globalisation, the fact that food can be imported cheaply and there is no longer any kind of immediate threat to that supply chain, politicians have quite cynically washed their hands of the people who have fed the nation effectively until now. Mrs Beckett has the same attitude that Margaret Thatcher had towards the miners, constantly attacking them and keeping them under her foot.

"Mrs Beckett is just like the school teacher who has been charged with looking after the naughty schoolchildren who have been put in detention. She is more concerned with telling farmers what they should be doing, rather than looking at how she can improve matters. She could certainly do with a lesson in how to be more sympathetic to farmers."

Colin Breed, South East Cornwall MP and Lib-Dem rural affairs spokesman, said that despite the Government's claims of improvements for country people, the results are yet to be seen. Many of those in the rural community feel neglected and think that no matter what they do the Government's not going to help them.

"They don't see the promised public transport schemes the Government is always talking about, they still see the local post offices closing, they still see the village halls closing and they still have difficulty getting onto the housing ladder."

Listen to rural England - Page 10