National Countryside Week shows Prince Charles at his best

Nik Darlington 6.05am

Prince Charles is a man who has spent much of his life being berated for trivial things (like having his toothpaste squeezed on to the toothbrush, or whispering not-so-sweet-nothings down tapped phone lines) whilst being heroically correct about some of very important things when chatterers decried him a fool: such as climate change, conservation, heritage and farming. Moreover, the heir to the throne has done more for young entrepreneurs in this country through his Prince’s Trust than Lord Sugar could do in a million lamentable episodes of the Apprentice. And he is the driving force behind the inaugural National Countryside Week.

One year ago, the Prince of Wales set up the Prince’s Countryside Fund with the overall aim of aiding the survival of “the smaller family farmer”. The fund’s objectives include encouraging sustainable farming, attracting young people into the profession, and improving people’s relationship with and knowledge of the great British outdoors.

The fund’s recent survey made for sober reading as it showed the public consistently misunderstand the size and value of our countryside. Four-fifths of people overestimate farmers’ salaries, three-quarters underestimated or didn’t know the extent of agricultural employment (1.8 per cent of the UK workforce) and nearly nine in ten people underestimate the value of rural tourism (£14 billion). On the flipside, more than 90 per cent of people value the countryside and agree that it is important to protect it. There is a basic, innate appreciation on which to build.

Over the past twelve months, the Prince’s Countryside Fund has given half a million pounds to projects such as the Yorkshire Moors Agricultural Apprenticeships Scheme (YMAAS), which has five apprentices working full-time on farms and receiving college training, and the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, which is delivering grants to more than fifty school farms and getting nearly two hundred children involved in farming and gardening - also showing that ‘rural’ shouldn’t necessarily mean apply to the countryside alone.

Of course, despite the prince’s best efforts, he can only be a figurehead. Whatever recent ‘revelations’ about his meetings with ministers, it is politicians not princes who instigate and implement policy. Dylan Sharpe, head of media at the Countryside Alliance, says that the current government has ‘so far struggled to turn around the anti-rural policies of previous administrations’. Sharpe also downplays the recently published Natural Environment White Paper (which I gave a thumbs up to last month), whilst pointing out the forestry fiasco 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’.

The criticisms of the attempted forestry sale and the HS2 project are valid - one was killed off quickly and the latter ought to die a similar death. However, there is plenty in the Government’s credit side, such as the Green Investment Bank, the newly designated ecological protection areas, the pledge to protect amenities such as rural post offices and, as Dylan Sharpe points out, reform of the rural policy framework in replacing the ineffectual Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) with a new Rural Communities Policy Unit.

Moreover, whatever one thinks about wider Conservative party policies, and putting cynicism to one side, a Conservative-led government ought to be a good thing for the countryside. Rural areas of Britain are almost exclusively represented in Parliament by Conservative MPs. Throw the Liberal Democrat MPs into the mix, with their large rural seats in Scotland, and for the first time in many, many years the entire British countryside has siginificant rural representation on the Government benches. Of course, there are potential problems with the currently predominant breed of Conservatism if the obsession with cutting back on red tape means a damaging dismantling of environmental protection regulations in the autumn.

I have written before about the difficulties vote seeking politicians face when reconciling environmental policy with the democratic electoral cycle. If David Cameron is going to go down in history as having led the ‘greenest government ever’ then he and his ministers need to buck the trend of putting short-term votes ahead of long-term environmental benefit. The coalition appears keen to put economic recovery ahead of electoral interests and it must do the same for environmental sustainability.

Prince Charles, however, is not at the whim of any electoral cycle, only the natural coming and going of time. He has consistently put the environment first, and performed wonders for disadvantaged young people all over the kingdom.

If you would like to make a donation to the Prince’s Countryside Fund, you can text it, donate online or over the counter at your local Post Office - follow this link for more details.

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PMQs review: bodyline bowling leaves Cameron bruised but still standing

Nik Darlington 1.52pm

This week Ed Miliband dumped the plumping and opted for splitting. The Labour party leader’s half dozen sandwiched a Soames patsy.

David Cameron must have been delighted to receive that gentle long-hop by his Honourable Friend from Mid-Sussex, because he was peppered either side by an over of accurate fast bowlling. Soames’ delivery was a free hit but none of Miliband’s were no-balls.

The Prime Minister ducked and swayed and manfully survived this parliamentary bodyline but his pained expression betrayed unease. It was like watching Atherton versus Donald at Trent Bridge in 1998, except David Cameron must have wished he had twenty-two yards separating him from his opponent, not two.

The first half of Miliband’s over was economical and educational. Inflation is up, growth stalled last quarter, and youth unemployment has hit record levels. The new ball fizzed but the Prime Minister is a sound batsman and stood tall, playing each on its merits. He stated correctly that youth unemployment has been a problem for many years, particularly under Labour. The Sun reports that more than half a million school leavers in the period 1997-2010 have never had a job. So Labour can’t lecture on youth unemployment. Moreover, we are coming to the end of an adolescent demographic surge, during which the youth population grew faster than the workforce. This affects all Governments.

The temperature rose with an attack about EMA. This is a weak spot for the Government - not because the policy is bad (it’s not, it is absolutely right) but because it is a presentational problem of ministers’ making. Labour wanted to go much further and had plans to scrap it entirely. This Government is not scrapping EMA, as claimed, but re-directing it towards those who need it the most. The mistake has been to scrap the name and re-package it as something else.

Once Mr Soames had given the Prime Minister time to take a walk to square leg and do some gardening, Ed Miliband resumed with an unplayable salvo on forestry sales: “Is the Prime Minister happy with his flagship policy on forests?” So unplayable, in fact, that Mr Cameron could only return it with a wry smile and an honest answer. “No.” Twice Miliband asked him whether he would drop the policy and twice he replied (truthfully) that a decision had not been made and there was currently a consultation. It is the proper response but the discomfort was clear. The whole exercise is becoming increasingly difficult to defend.

David Cameron finished their exchange on something of a high. After an earlier, pre-planned quip about Miliband’s internships had fallen flat, he regained some pride with one more spontaneous: “He wrote the questions before he’d listened to the answers. I think the bandwagon has hit a tree.”

It was the sort of self-effacing humour that used to get Tony Blair off of sticky wickets - turning a reference to his own difficulty back towards the opposition - but not nearly enough to salvage anything approaching a win. The Prime Minister is too good for his adversary for his defences to be breached completely. Nevertheless, the minnow Miliband scored a moral victory.  At least David Cameron can point with some confidence to the fact that they are playing out a five year Test Match, not a short-term Twenty20.

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