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Saturday, 15 November 2014

Why HRH The Prince of Wales is Right About the Countryside

The latest edition of "Country Life" magazine contains an article by Prince Charles entitled, "How Much is Our Countryside Worth?". The article puts forward a number of crucial arguments which in my view make a lot of sense and should be given major consideration by the Green Party when  framing policy concerning rural affairs and agriculture. The central thesis of the article is that our countryside is under threat because the, "delicate woven tapestry", that is rural life, farming and rural human activity are themselves under threat. While accepting that there are intangible aspects of the countryside that defy valuation, ..."the haunting cry of a curlew.. an ancient hedgerow...", it is the economic value of the 'ecosystem services' and the farming industry that are the best defence against the loss of the countryside.
I think that there is much truth in this. It is very tempting for us in the Green movement to assume that the best approach to conserving the countryside would be to turn as much of it as possible back to wilderness free from human activity. However, as Prince Charles argues, in the real world this would be a massive mistake as unless we put a value on the countryside that is economic as well as instinctive then the developers will. At the moment our countryside faces an unprecedented threat from the two-headed monster that is profit-hungry developers and politicians eager to base economic growth on the construction industry. The current issue of the Green Party magazine, Green World, points out that the Coalition's National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has created a laissez faire approach to planning, with much of the protection of the countryside removed and a 'presumption in favour of sustainable development' (which basically means a presumption in favour of development since the term sustainable is not defined and is open to a myriad of different interpretations. In addition Green World also points out that the proposed new Infrastructure Bill is a developers' charter which will exempt fracking companies from trespass laws and make it harder to oppose road building in the countryside. No wonder so many rural communities feel under siege at the moment from developers. No wonder also that wildlife in the UK is undergoing unprecedented rates of decline as a spate of recent reports has indicated. For example on average farmland birds have declined by 55% since 1970. Some such as the skylark, lapwing and yellowhammer have declined by 70%.

Given the scale of the assault on our countryside, I would agree with the Prince of Wales that it is vital to emphasise the economic value of the countryside as well as its natural beauty. As Prince Charles states:

"...meadows and other semi-natural grasslands are estimated to store around 300 tonnes of carbon. They also provide homes for pollinating insects, which are estimated to be worth £440 million a year to the agricultural economy. They play a big role in tourism too. Visitors to the South Downs alone put over £300 million into the economy."

Moreover it is also vital to help the farming industry to survive and to encourage it to work in harmony with the countryside. Put simply, if the farmers move out, the developers will move in. This is because we live in a current UK zeitgeist of crass materialism whether we like it or not (and I most certainly don't). Unless we defend those rural communities that keep and maintain the countryside as countryside and unless we enable our farmers to prosper then the countryside will disappear under developments. The politicians of the grey parties will not defend it, indeed they will facilitate its destruction and are doing so now.
Prince Charles paints a gloomy picture. Farmers in the upland areas of the UK last year earned, on average, only £8000. 700 rural pubs (the hubs of the community) closed last year and also 400 village shops.
The Green Party must make it a priority to help and defend our rural communities:

1) We should aim to compliment initiatives such as Prince Charles' Countryside Fund with emergency grants to farmers and government initiatives to save local services , pubs and shops.

2) We need to be brave and take on the supermarket vested interests who are putting farmers out of business by driving down wholesale prices to unprecedented levels. The grey parties are timid in the face of big business and we need to put communities first.

3) We need to preserve and extend rural public transport.

4) We need to encourage farmers to farm in harmony with the countryside and provide funding for organic farming initiatives and small scale producers.

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