Amongst measures designed to kick-start a social and economic revival in rural communities announced on 28 November are increased funds and protection for the countryside itself. With the White Paper the Government is seeking to persuade rural voters that they have not been forgotten. A new position of Rural Advocate to lobby ministers on countryside issues has been created to show that the Government is listening; the post has been awarded to the current Chairman of the Countryside Agency, Ewen Cameron.

Amongst the package of new measures announced, National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty will receive £1.6 million and £3.5 million of extra funding respectively, and the latter will receive additional management and training for those employed in them. The number of new Countryside Stewardship Scheme agreements, which pay farmers to farm in ways which benefit wildlife and enhance the landscape, is to be doubled and there will be consultation on applying environmental impact assessment procedures to major new agricultural activities which could affect landscape or wildlife. The White Paper will also be include an increase in the role of forestry in the rural economy, more woodlands on derelict and former industrial land, more woodlands available for people to visit and enjoy as well as an increase in the extent of semi-natural and native woodlands.

More controversial are the changes to development on greenfield sites announced. Although Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Nick Brown announced “a more holistic approach to take better account of all landscapes in planning decisions” and “strong controls on building on greenfield sites”, a large scale house-building programme will also take place, of which only 60% will be on brownfield land. “Overall we expect to provide 3,000 new homes each year in small rural settlements which will be affordable to local people,” the ministers said. The Ministry of Agriculture is to give up its veto on the development of prime so-called “best and most versatile” farmland, meaning that up to 15 million acres, a third of Britain’s total farmland, will be free to be developed by local authorities. This policy was severely criticised by Conservatives and environmental groups when the initiative was leaked (see related story).

Another principal aim of the White Paper is better protection for wildlife. There will be expanded agri-environment schemes and more promotion of best practices in agriculture to help reverse the long-term decline in farmland birds by 20%. A recent RSPB survey showed the number of farmland birds fell by 36% between 1970 and 1998 (see related story). A target for 95% of nationally important wildlife sites to be brought into favourable condition by 2010 was set, with the help of £8 million in extra funding for English Nature, through agri-environment schemes, and through new measures to improve the management and protection of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).

The Government said that only about 60% of sites of SSSIs are at present to be in a favourable condition. There will also be a new biodiversity strategy for 400 species and habitats identified as particular priorities, new national guidelines for the identification and management of local wildlife sites, and extra planning guidance on nature conservation and biodiversity to ensure that they are better taken into account in local government decisions. Under the plan, there will also be greater sustainable water management, taking more consideration of development and changing agricultural practice, and a fundamental review of policy on alien and invasive species.

Amongst the most popular of the measures announced is a new right of access for walkers by 2005 to four million acres of mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land, with appropriate safeguards for landowners. The rights of way network will be improved with better “legal remedies to secure the removal of obstacles” and extra finance from central Government. There will also be additional guidance on revitalising country parks and funding to improve the countryside around towns, where the Government says the pressures are strongest and the need for green spaces greatest.

“Day visitors spend around £8 billion a year in the English countryside,” the Paper says. “We want more people to be able to enjoy its pleasures, which is why we are opening up more rights of access. In future, tourism-related businesses such as forestry and horse riding will provide increased sources of rural income, as will distinctive local products. The English Tourism Council and the Countryside Agency will produce a joint strategy to help promote rural tourism beyond the oversubscribed ‘honeypot’ sites. It will focus on better visitor information, better business advice and co-operation, access to start-up finance and a review of planning guidance.”

Opposition parties and environmental groups welcomed some of the measures, particularly the increased right to roam. “These new laws will substantially improve the prospects of our meadows, wetlands, wild flowers and animals surviving long enough for future generations to see,” said Matt Phillips, senior wildlife campaigner at Friends of the Earth. The organisation warned, however, that farming practices still threaten the UK’s biodiversity, and that some sites, such as peatlands, could still be damaged and destroyed by businesses and developers.

WWF also welcomed many of the measures, including the proposal to build more affordable homes in rural areas. “This White Paper is a start down the road to rural sustainability but needs to go further especially in terms of agriculture and promoting nature friendly farming practices,” said Chris Howe, Senior Wildlife and Countryside Campaigner at the organisation. But WWF is disappointed that “the government hasn’t taken this opportunity to signal further reform to support farmers in the future by introducing cross-compliance to prevent the worst environmental damage and to further increase the funds available for agri-environment schemes and organic farming by increasing the amount of modulation”.

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