Bleak picture of gloomy countryside let down by official response to crisis

Oct 19 2002

Rhodri Clark Rhodri.Clark@Wme.Co.Uk, The Western Mail


THE official response to last year's foot-and-mouth crisis has been so inadequate that an attitude of resignation and pessimism is setting in, according to a survey of rural people.

University researchers from Aberystwyth studied two communities to find out how the outbreak affected people's lives and livelihoods.

Their report - which the National Assembly has declined to publish - concludes the crisis hasn't been followed by any significant changes in rural policy, which continues to react to problems instead of building a structure for development.

The report alleges the Welsh Development Agency has little interest in the countryside and says a new version of the former Development Board for Rural Wales is needed.

But Alister Scott, one of the report's authors, said yesterday this was unlikely to be created because the WDA wouldn't want to relinquish any power.

He also said the Objective One programme was a disaster in rural Wales as bureaucracy was stopping much of the money going where it was needed.

The support system for rural businesses was characterised by small, overlapping organisations competing with each other for grants to keep themselves in existence.

Dr Scott, and colleagues from the Institute of Rural Studies in Aberystwyth, focused on Tregaron, in Ceredigion, and Llanfair Caereinion, near Welshpool, as representative samples of rural Wales.

They interviewed 140 people in a five-mile radius of both towns. Many represented small enterprises.

Although some tourism businesses reported big losses of trade during the crisis, some retailers saw sales increase as more people shopped locally.

"Most respondents talked about the need to regenerate not just agriculture but the whole rural economy, set within a wider agenda of diversification and entrepreneurship," says the report.

"This brief insight has highlighted the varying and profound impact that the foot-and-mouth crisis has had on two rural communities.

"Their responses suggest that solutions must be conceived as part of an integrated package for rural recovery rather than as a unilateral response to foot-and-mouth.

"There are lessons on the agricultural side too. Historically rural policy has been reactive, conceived in response to problems arising out of ill-conceived agricultural policies rather than embracing a wider rural agenda.

"Today, some 12 months on, with the rather sectoral manner in which the rural recovery packages have been implemented, there is a concomitant risk that the wider rural picture is again being missed."

The nine-strong team of inter-viewers discovered clear demand for a more holistic and inclusive approach to rural development and a concern about the lack of organ-isational infrastructure to implement it.

"The amalgamation of the Development Board for Rural Wales into the supra-Welsh Development Agency is seen as a retrograde step that relegates rural interests in favour of urban-based investment programmes," says the study.

"Perhaps the greatest challenge emanating from this research is to engage more directly with local people so that their voices, experiences and concerns can be heard. In this way rural areas might get the support that they manifestly need."

The researchers presented their findings to the Assembly, which had requested articles for its farming magazine. But the Assembly declined to publish it, officially because of lack of space.

Anthony Evans, a GP in Llanfair Caereinion, took part in the survey and said yesterday he had seen an increase in people suffering from stress symptoms during the outbreak.

"It wasn't just farmers. Tourism is a fairly big industry here and in some cases people who ran tourism businesses had worse health problems than the farmers," Dr Evans said.

Dr Scott, a lecturer in countryside management, said a new rural agency should be established with a remit to promote economic and social development. The DBRW had had only a weak social duty.

He said many country dwellers expected a new rural policy to emerge from the ashes of foot-and-mouth. But although some extra money was provided for farmers and small businesses, there was no underlying change to rural strategy.

"There was a lot of resignation there (among the interviewees)," said Dr Scott. "If you keep getting knocked back you become so exhausted mentally that the idea of optimism goes out of the window.

"There's nothing there that can sow the seeds for a long-term improvement. That's down to a lack of real vision and planning towards achieving that vision."

He said the planning system needed reform to recognise that there were other legitimate reasons for living in the countryside than profit-making farming and forestry businesses.

"The system is still based on Dig for Victory in the 1940s - that we've got to be productive and profitable," he said. "For farmers to build houses in the countryside they've got to demonstrate agricultural need and profitability."

An Assembly spokeswoman said, "The WDA plays an important role in economic regeneration throughout Wales, including rural Wales. The agri-food directorate comes under them and is responsible for all sorts of things within rural Wales."

She said the WDAhad launched a report on its rural activities at the Royal Welsh Show.

"There's on-going research into problems and solutions for the rural areas," she added.