Douglas Chalmers : Our agenda for a living, working countryside

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sHOW often over the last few months have you seen a headline including the words “countryside” and “threat”? According to the numerous self-appointed guardians of our countryside – many of whom seem intent on creating a rural playground for the wealthy and privileged – the biggest threat to our countryside is that it changes. But to those of us who live and earn their livings here, the biggest threat is that it is not allowed to change.

A long term, economically viable countryside is vital for us all. The 3,500-plus Country Land and Business Association members in Yorkshire own half of the rural land and are also involved in over 200 different types of business. They manage our landscape and provide jobs and housing for many, as well as doing the most important job of all, feeding us.

This is why we have already produced our manifesto for the 2015 General Election, Unlock the Countryside’s Potential, proposing how the next Government can achieve long term security in key areas such as food, water, housing and energy.

New planning legislation introduced to encourage economic growth and help ease the housing crisis is being challenged by those with little regard for the need for homes and jobs for country people.

Do they really want to cleanse the countryside of future generations and drive them into towns and cities?

Government policies must let our farmers be competitive in order to be less reliant on public funding, and this includes embracing new technologies and emerging trends. In an increasingly volatile and competitive global food market, it is only right that farmers should be rewarded for maintaining and enhancing our natural environment, particularly with regard to offsetting biodiversity losses caused by development elsewhere.

Farmers should be encouraged in their role as providers of flood defences for urban areas as well as future providers of energy through renewable resources such as wind, water and sunlight.

Too often in the past the countryside has suffered from the consequences of predominantly urban-focused legislation that fails to appreciate the social, environmental and economic benefits rural areas can deliver to the whole nation.

The very fact that our manifesto proposes 76 recommendations, from property ownership to farming, natural resources and business and technology, should in itself challenge urban preconceptions of the countryside as an environment to be preserved in aspic. Compared to economic hot spots such as Leeds and Sheffield, where change and growth is actively promoted, it is easy to see why areas, such as Craven, Ryedale and Richmondshire –where there are fewer than 50 souls per square kilometre – do not attract a great deal of inward investment. But to relentlessly pursue an agenda of protectionism is to condemn these communities to a slow and agonising death as young people are gradually forced to find homes and jobs elsewhere.

In our modern times of turmoil, stress and uncertainty, many people understandably turn to the countryside to restore their wellbeing. Who can blame them? But they must not mistake the calm, uncluttered space they immerse themselves in for simply a hinterland to their far more important urban lives. Nor should they try to impose the views of an occasional or part-time countryman on those who live and work there permanently.

There is enough talk of independence in the media at the moment. “Rural” is neither a separate state nor simply an urban service area. With governments and populations wondering where their food, water, energy and clean air will come from in the future, it is time to recognise the countryside has to be allowed to develop.

We all love the countryside, but it is far more than just a view. It is a living, working environment, and it is people who do the living and the working. The landscapes we all hold so dear have evolved from a human purpose. The field boundaries, woodlands and tapestries of colour have come from generations of farming. The villages grew and evolved around the lives of working families.

Far too many Yorkshire villages have already lost their schools, pubs, shops and post offices. Without an agenda to actively manage the land and provide jobs, this situation will only get worse.

In the run-up to next year’s election, we will be working hard to ensure that as many party candidates as possible are given the opportunity to read the CLA manifesto. Before you vote next year, make sure it’s for someone who understands the issues and cares enough to make a difference.

• Douglas Chalmers is director of policy and public affairs for the CLA North.