Coming soon, the next rural fiasco David Cox Monday 28th January 2002

After botching the foot-and-mouth outbreak, the government promised to make amends. But now it is botching the follow-up, argues David Cox

This month, we were finally assured that the worst foot-and-mouth outbreak the world had ever seen was officially over. The handling of the catastrophe may have been a fiasco, yet at least we were promised one thing. "The lessons would be learned."

Back in August, the government announced the creation of three separate inquiries into the whole unhappy business. Two of these were concerned with the management of the disease itself. The third, however, would address the more fundamental questions thrown up by the outbreak. And on Tuesday, the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food is to report.

The ten commissioners, chaired by the Northumberland farmer Sir Donald Curry, have had no easy task. After wading through a mountain of evidence, they must still be reeling from the confusion bedevilling current attitudes to their subject.

We seem to want farms to look like the cute establishments of our childhood picture-books, rather than soulless food factories. Yet it is large-scale, intensive agribusinessmen, not struggling family farmers, who are best placed to ward off livestock disease, sustain animal welfare and meet food hygiene and environmental obligations. They also produce more cheaply. Well-heeled, caring citizens insist we should be prepared to pay more for politically correct produce. The less well-off, who may spend up to half their incomes on food, can be forgiven for disagreeing.

The right-on are convinced that the future is organic. Yet not only the poor, but most of the better-off as well, seem to prefer ingesting chemical residues to paying the organic premium. Among the well-meaning, localising supply has become a popular cure-all: reducing "food miles" would not only help our quirky, low- volume suppliers, but also save energy. Sadly, food autarky would hurt people even poorer than our own disadvantaged. Many of the wretched of the earth have nothing to offer the world but agricultural products. Selling more to the developed world offers them their only real prospect of emerging from poverty.

Faced with such contradictions, the commissioners, like others before them asked to reconcile the irreconcilable, will doubtless chart a discreet path leading nowhere very useful. The government will be left to decide whether to rise to the real challenge posed by last year's drama, or to allow things to slip back to the way they were beforehand. If it is to do the former, it will, however, have to look beyond the precincts within which it confined Sir Donald's team.

The foot-and-mouth outbreak did not simply raise the question of how, in the words of the farming commission's terms of reference, "we can create a sustainable, competitive and diverse farming and food sector". As the public footpath network was closed and the tourism industry devastated, people started to question the whole idea that public policy and #3bn a year in subsidy should be directed to sustaining an industry that produces less than 1 per cent of the nation's annual income, and employs less than 2 per cent of the workforce, yet hogs 70 per cent of our precious national territory and subjects this to devastating environmental damage. What seemed to be required was not a boost in help for farmers, but a complete redeployment of the scarce national resources they consume.

The government appeared to recognise this when, after the election, it abolished the Ministry of Agriculture, which had long been seen as a tool of the farming lobby, and subsumed its functions into the new Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Ministers seemed to acknowledge that, since domestic food production had ceased to be a strategic necessity, propping up uneconomic food production no longer made sense. There would have to be change. Gradually, however, it began to look as though the only changes to be contemplated would be those that would leave intact both farmers' hegemony over the countryside and the scale of the privileges they enjoy.

Sir Donald's terms of reference were, perhaps, an early indication of this attitude. And by the beginning of this month, without even waiting for the commission's report, Defra's Secretary of State, Margaret Beckett, was assuring farmers that, far from withdrawing their subsidies, the government proposed to maintain them. They would merely be re-engineered to encourage environmental improvement, instead of stimulating the production of surplus food. Public policy would, apparently, continue to sustain the countryside's present incumbents, at continuing public expense.

If this is indeed the government's intention, it is in no way an adequate response to the national trauma that foot-and-mouth became. Paying farmers to enhance landscape value and wildlife diversity would be a waste of money, because any public funds available for this purpose could be used far more effectively by conservation organisations than by people whose true interests lie elsewhere. But the real problem with this approach is more far-reaching. Artificially maintaining the hegemony of agriculture would pre-empt the long-overdue reshaping of our countryside that would otherwise take place.

At present, agriculture claims a far higher proportion of our land surface than it does in other comparable countries, such as France and Germany. Consequently, on our densely populated island, many eager potential land-users are kept waiting in the wings. Now is our chance to assess their claims and reorder our public practices so that, where farming no longer makes sense, it gives way to other, more valuable activities.

The most obvious of these is housing. In the countryside, young people are being driven out of their villages, as rich outsiders looking for second homes push up prices. In our towns and cities, many families are confined to small flats. Our house prices are higher than elsewhere in Europe because "development" is forbidden on most of our land, supposedly to protect its agricultural potential.

Only 13 per cent of our land surface is currently built up. A small increase in this figure, reflecting the expansion of existing settlements, would be enough to crack our housing problem. By bringing poorer people into villages, it would also increase the demand base of withering services such as schools, buses and post offices, which the Range Rover classes ignore. By bringing down house prices in general, it would restore some equilibrium to our property-distorted economy.

From the comfort of their own comfortable homes, the chattering classes condemn house-building as a threat to the landscape. Yet agriculture, which has reduced much of our countryside to a featureless desert devoid of wildlife or character, is a far more intense and extensive environmental menace. If farmers' subsidies were redirected to railways and hospitals, the countryside would become far more attractive for everyone. Where farming became unviable and the planning regime continued to preclude development, land prices would fall. This would create the opportunity for wildlife organisations to create new native forests, flower-rich downland, heathland and wetlands. Local authorities would be able to provide more country parks. Individuals would create their own amenity woodlands and nature reserves.

Other urgent uses for rural land might also get a look-in. We ought to be creating flood plains to protect low-lying settlements from inundation, and handing back some coastal areas to the sea, before nature does this for us in a violent way. We could address global warming by encouraging wind-farm development and bioenergy forestry.

There are arguments to be had about many of these activities, but we should be having these arguments, not burying them. There is only one real justification for instead maintaining the countryside as an agricultural theme park at public expense. This is the mystical notion that only in this way can our nation stay in touch with the soil. Some people really believe this. Let these people, too, make their case. But let's not throw away this opportunity to review the use of our national space, simply because our government cannot face the thought of another Countryside March.

David Cox is the chairman of a forestry company