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Country matters
The landscape is changing a year after foot-and-mouth

Times Leader Feb 20 2005

The storm has passed. But the costs are still being tallied. Just one year ago the first case in the foot-and-mouth epidemic was officially reported. The disease, its effects and the vigorous dispute as to how it might be countered dominated public debate for months afterwards. The plight of those farmers ruined by the disease touched the nation. The Prime Minister felt moved to delay the general election while the Prince of Wales intervened to provide financial help for those most in need. One year later, ministerial attention has moved on. While rural Britain attempts to recover economically and socially the focus of government attention is elsewhere. A sense of abandonment now colours countryside reaction. But while there is still unfinished business for government in the wake of foot-and-mouth there is also a responsibility on rural voices to recognise that their position is neither as simple, nor desperate, as the more strident claim.

Government’s continuing responsibility to the countryside is being discharged in a number of ways. Sir Donald Curry’s report on the future of farming which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs welcomed last month argued persuasively for a shift towards more support for organic farming and environmentally sensitive land management. There are institutional pressures, not least from the Treasury and Brussels, which may work against the best of the Curry report, but ministers appear determined to help farming to move in a more sustainable direction towards higher quality food production.

On the debit side, the Government’s mulish resistance to a full inquiry into the circumstances of the foot-and-mouth outbreak smacks of arrogance. The epidemic revealed weaknesses not only in farming practice but in government crisis management and Whitehall co-ordination. The failure to hold a full public inquiry will only reinforce perceptions that the Government is congenitally shy of scrutiny, reduce the chance of lessons being learnt which will avert future maladministration and further alienate rural voters who feel their concerns are marginalised. If the Government cannot find time for an inquiry but nevertheless makes time in this Parliament for a bill to ban hunting with hounds then many country voters will conclude that its priorities are driven more by political convenience than the national interest.

The hurt which undoubtedly exists in the countryside, with one in ten farmers now planning to leave the industry in the wake of foot-and-mouth, should still be seen properly in context. Even before the outbreak of the disease there was a drift away from conventional farming, reflecting the underlying truth that there was domestic overproduction of many foodstuffs which, in a proper market, were more cheaply sourced elsewhere. The drift towards the economies of scale delivered by larger industrial farmers on the one hand and more environmentally-attuned niche farming on the other was already in train before foot-and-mouth. The outbreak has accelerated, but certainly did not provoke, a flight from farming.

The changes in rural employment which have followed the disease also reflect the altered priorities of the British people. The countryside’s role as the nation’s breadbasket has assumed less importance in the public mind as food-buying habits have changed. Increasingly rural areas are seen as environmental resources to be carefully husbanded and amenities in which an increasing number of leisure activities can be enjoyed. A shift in the future nature of rural employment, towards leisure industries such as equestrianism or sports shooting, is increasingly reflected in the syllabus of former agricultural colleges and the nature of government strategy. There is still a need to think even more imaginatively about how employment and a rich social infrastructure can be maintained in the countryside. But that process is best achieved by openness on the part of both Government and those organisations which speak for rural Britain rather than a jealous protection of old sectional interests.