This week is National Countryside Week. We know it is National Countryside Week, because none other than Prince Charles has declared this week to be National Countryside Week with the words "I hope that it will provide us all with an opportunity to celebrate the people who make our countryside the very precious national asset that it undoubtedly is."
You won't find any argument from the Countryside Alliance; although it probably ought to be noted that for our 100,000+ membership, every week is National Countryside Week. There is however a good logic to the new seven-day initiative. The Prince's latest project - The Countryside Fund - is one year old this week, and its efforts to foster a greater understanding of, and attract more investment into, Britain's rural areas has been a welcome addition to the coalition of groups that work to preserve our green and pleasant land.
But these groups - of which the Countryside Alliance is proud to be a part - haven't always enjoyed this sort of high-profile recognition. Indeed, successive Governments have often felt content to ride roughshod over the rights and interests of the countryside in the pursuit of urban regeneration (and votes). While millions of pounds have been ploughed into improving the lives of those in Britain's towns and cities over the past twenty years; rural businesses, farms, and the rural infrastructure have had an extremely tough time with little or no support coming from Westminster.
Rural post offices, schools and pubs - the social and economic centres of rural Britain - have been closing at an alarming rate, tearing the heart out of communities. Coupled with the rising price of housing and falling income from rural jobs, it is fast becoming financially unviable to live in the countryside for all but the wealthiest commuter. It might be easy to dismiss this development as an inevitable financial consequence - the British countryside coming to terms with the financial reality the rest of the UK is facing. But the situation has far greater consequences; from food security and food miles, to the preservation and conservation of a landscape which the Government has valued at around £300 per person per year in health benefits. If the countryside falls, Britain falls with it.
Despite early promise and eye-catching statements like promising to be "the Greenest government ever" the Coalition has so far struggled to turnaround the anti-rural policies of previous administrations. The first Natural Environment White Paper for twenty years was hotly anticipated but eventually released last month to very little fanfare, and the paltry total of £7 million pledged towards the upkeep of a countryside Defra had earlier valued at £30 billion. Add to this the umming and ahhing over forests and badgers; and the ludicrous decision to drive a bulldozer through some of Britain's most beautiful rural vistas at a cost of £17 billion - just to shave thirty minutes off the train between London and Birmingham - and it all looks rather bleak for the British countryside.
But there could be a bright spot on the horizon. The Government looks set to throw the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) on its bonfire of the quangos. The CRC was a well-meaning organisation that engaged in superb research; yet time and time again it was ignored by Whitehall. In its place we are promised a new Rural Communities Policy Unit. It's not sexy stuff, but this small change could hold the key to giving the groups who fight hard to get rural issues listened-to a new voice within Government. If the Coalition gets this right and the policy unit becomes an independent voice for rural issues in Whitehall that has the ability to hold the Government to account, is respected by rural communities and decision makers alike, and contributes to the rural debate with robust research and vision for the countryside, then we might see the first positive and sustained improvement in countryside policy for many, many years.
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