4 April 1997

Countryside Movement falls to funding crises

Sixteen months ago the Countryside Movement was launched amid a massive advertising campaign. It has now merged with the British Fields Sports Society having just cleared its debts. Tony McDougal reports

IT SEEMED to have everything – promises of substantial funding, the support of a former respected Party political leader and a charter to embrace the myriad of country organisations.

But financial difficulties dogged the Countryside Movement from day one. Promised funding from the Countryside Business Group for the £3.25m launch costs proved smaller than anticipated, and money from supporters did not arrive in sufficient quantities.

Its launch was also clouded in controversy. Despite the presence of former Liberal Democrat leader Sir David Steel as the Countryside Movements executive chairman, media coverage centred on its links with the pro-hunting fraternity. Support from the NFU, which felt the new organisation would duplicate its own work, was muted even though its director general David Evans was on the Countryside Movements board.

But Melinda Appleby, Countryside Movement policy director, was optimistic that the four-point charter – to increase public understanding of the countryside, lobby Parliament for rural changes, carry out surveys and bring organisations together – would be welcomed.

Certainly, support if not cash, was evident from the general public, with more than 110,000 supporters backing the Countryside Movement. Crucially though, the voluntary funding arrangement with members failed and an annual newsletter, set for last June, failed to materialise. Active recruitment campaigning halted in November.

Ms Appleby admitted one of the biggest difficulties was overcoming the scepticism of the single issue pressure groups, which could not come to terms with the multi-disciplinary approach to the countryside adopted by the Countryside Movement.

Many simply felt the Countryside Movement was a front for field sports supporters. But Ms Appleby stressed the setting up of an independent review on hunting, whose findings are scheduled to be unveiled in May, was the only input into country sports.

"I am disappointed that the world wasnt ready for an organisation such as ours, and I believe there is still a need for a group to take an overview of the countryside and provide a rural voice," she said.

She stressed the Countryside Movement did play an important rural role during its 16 months, launching an animal welfare charter, calling for environmental audits for new housing developments, holding a seminar on the role of the horse in the countryside and co-ordinating the first ever rural presence at the National Education Show.

Ultimately though, its demise was down to lack of funding: "We were promised money from a variety of sources but often little came and what did was less than we anticipated."

Last summer, in frustration, the Countryside Movement said it had ceased its financial links with the Countryside Business Group.

Neil Kennedy, Countryside Business Group spokesman, denies that his organisation could have done more to save the Countryside Movement.

"We provided an initial £150,000 for their launch, a further £35,000 in December and were instrumental in obtaining an additional £400,000. We have never fallen out with the CM. We unequivocally endorsed them verbally and in writing."

Janet George, BFSS spokeswoman, said the Countryside Movement had cleared its outstanding debts and that Sir David Steel would chair a new countryside committee, though its programme had yet to be adopted.n

Sir David Steel (right) is expected to take on a new role with BFSS.