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.