25 December 1998


As the old year draws to a close, now is a good time to take stock of the future of the rural economy. Next summer the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will produce a rural White Paper. Many would complain that a consultation paper two years into this governments administration is long overdue.

But the focus outlined by deputy prime minister John Prescot is promising. He is right to highlight problems such as Rural Development Commission figures that 75% of rural parishes have no daily bus service. But waiting for the government to act could be too long a wait.

It is time for rural communities to accept that there is an interdependence between town and country, and that the growing rural population must be harnessed. The potential for a vibrant rural economy is not a pipe-dream, there are solid grounds for this belief.

In the past 15 to 20 years country-dwellers, and farmers in particular, have had to come to terms with an extraordinary political shift which has spread throughout society. The radicalism of Mrs Thatchers premiership saw big changes in the economic construction of the country, most obviously within industry.

The radicalism of Mr Blair lies in internal Party reform which has cemented these changes. It spells the end of the industry versus agriculture, urban versus rural divide that has characterised the British social and political landscape. To this end the size of the work-force in finance and banking grew 71% between 1981 and 1994. In the same period farming, forestry and fishing fell 18%, manufacturing fell 21% and construction dropped by 16%.

Although farmings contribution to gross domestic product grew from £5810m to £9148m between 1984 and 1996, it translates into a fall in its contribution to total GDP from 2.1% to 1.4%. Falling farm incomes make diversification in the rural economy is more important.

To survive the rural economy must continue to adapt to the world of soundbite politics, a global market and the information superhighway. New technology is breaking the barriers of geography. The debate rages about genetically modified crops. But what of the people who contribute to the rural economy?

According to recent MORI figures, 20% of the population claim to live in the countryside but only 7% actually do. The urban/rural barrier is being blurred and farmers are taking on the role of custodians of the land. We must be pro-active in making people aware of access arrangements and in protecting wildlife.

On the international stage, the greatest test is a closer European Union. Struggles with CAP reform and Agenda 2000 will continue but its general direction has been set and the fluctuations of interest rates and the strength of the pound make a single currency increasingly attractive for farmers. Regardless of when the UK joins EMU one can see an impact already as the pound remains a safe haven in the currency world.

Within different regions of the UK, the importance of the management of land and farms can be seen once more.

Farming makes up less than 2% of the UKs workforce, but it is 4% in East Anglia, 5% in Wales and 8% in Northern Ireland. Thus economic vitality depends on farming to a differing degree in the regions of the UK.

In Scotland the agricultural workforce is much more in line with the UK average, but the scale of land ownership is far greater.

It is up to all those involved in the countryside to make our voices heard. No less than the future of the rural economy is at stake.

Now is the time for

those involved in the

rural economy to make

their voices heard,

says James Laing

…the rural economy must continue to adapt to the world of soundbite politics, the global market and the information superhighway.


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