town, shadow environment secretary Gillian Shephard told the Conservative party conference in Bournemouth today. She said:
'This has been a very important debate - important for us because it
comes from the very heart of the Conservative Party and important
'Because it was their policies, their policies for rural people which
provoked, in the countryside rally last year, and the countryside March this year, the biggest peacetime protest this country has ever seen.
'Hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom had never before marched behind a banner, came from all corners of the kingdom to tell the government enough was enough. Not a Rent A March crowd, a spontaneous uprising by rural people. The government panicked. We know that, because on March 1st Labour changed their policy three times between nine o'clock in the morning and lunch time.
'At first no government spokesman could be found. But by the time we all got to Hyde Park, Michael Meacher, hitherto so unimportant that he
hadn't needed the controller's permission to go on the March, found that he had suddenly become minister for rural affairs - much to our surprise and, no doubt, his.
'How sad that this apparent change of heart said more for the
government's commitment to presentation than for their commitment to the countryside, or indeed to real people power.
'Because, despite the March and all that it meant, this government has
continued its assault on our rural communities:
- on our rural economy
- on our green belt
- on our country sports and pursuits
- and on the freedoms of rural people
'Why does this matter? It matters because our nation cannot afford the
strife between country and town.
'Conservatives understand that the maintenance of the countryside for
everyone to enjoy depends on the viability of the rural economy and on
'And it matters because we must ensure not only the future of our
national environmental heritage. But also because we must fuse that
policy into the wider vista of global issues and the future of the whole planet.
'No government, and certainly not this one, can begin to do that while
they fail to understand that rural and urban economies depend on one
another. Conservatives believe that the health of the countryside and
the well-being of the people who live and work there should be a measure of the success of the whole nation.
'This Labour government, by their threats and discrimination against
rural areas, have so widened the gap between country and town that they have dealt a body blow to national understanding and thus to the
environmental concerns of a wider world.
'Just look at what this 'inclusive' government has achieved for our
rural communities. This year, they cynically switched nearly£100m away from shire areas to urban ones. Hampshire lost more than
£10m, Norfolk faces cuts of more than£14m and this, despite the evidence from the County Councils Network - as if we didn't all know, that it costs more to provide services in sparsely populated
'Everyone knows that the rural economy cannot function without viable
transport. And that means motor transport because in rural areas the
car, van and lorry are not wasteful luxuries, they are necessities.
Everyone knows that - except John Prescott.
'Mr Prescott orders people to use their cars less before he puts in
place public transport alternatives.
'Mr Prescott persecutes the motorist and tries to abolish the school
'Mr Prescott imposes swingeing fuel tax increases which hit the rural
economy hard, and the rural poor hardest of all.
'Mr Prescott trumpets his so-called integrated approach to transport and planning, while at the same time approving the building of more than two million new houses in the Green Belt - quite a drive away for jobs and services. What sense does it make?
'Labour are creating a two-tier transport system - a new deal for towns, no deal for rural areas.
'And what about the green Belt? These are the facts. The green belt
doubled in size in our time in government. We left in place a designated green belt area the size of Wales.
'But Mr Prescott has allowed a development of up to 10,000 homes on the green belt in Hertfordshire, the first ever major house building project on green belt land and, thereby, a legal precedent, which will undermine the sanctity of the green belt nationwide.
'That decision has, rightly, caused uproar, but he has pursued his
'inclusive' policies still further. He ordered West Sussex CC to increase the number of new houses they wished to build by
nearly 13,000, riding roughshod over the objections of all three
political parties on the council and the advice of his own planning
inspector, fighting West Sussex all the way to the high court to impose his will.
'Inclusive? Well, if that's inclusive, include us out.
'But we should not be surprised. Labour never did understand the
countryside and they never will. Richard Caborn, the minister for
planning, revealed more than he knew when he said that the green belt is 'up for grabs' in the sense that it is always 'up for grabs'.
'Mr Prescott now tells us that 60% of all new houses are to be built on previously used land. He has entitled this, grandly, a 'new sequential approach to planning.' Unfortunately he has done nothing so far to bring it about, it hasn't altered a single line of planning guidance - except, you've guessed it: he has set up a task force. Well, he's only had 18 years in opposition to think about it.
'But it is perhaps this Labour government's assaults on the individual
freedoms of country dwellers that have aroused the greatest fury. A
government treads a dangerous path when it seeks to apply political
correctness to country sports and pursuits. If you start by outlawing
hunting, what do you ban next? Shooting, angling, where does it stop?
'Assault, on rural communities, the rural economy, on the green belt, on rural freedoms, that is what we have seen in the past 18 months. And these all stem from the government's cynical disregard for the
countryside. Their assaults have widened the gap between country and
town at the very time when the pursuit of sustainable development
demands that gap be bridged.
'People who earn their living in the countryside know that those who
want to visit it understand and respect that simple fact. All of us know that, but this government's lethal combination of bullying, nannying, and plain ignorance is destroying the bridges we worked hard to build. Their assaults have widened the gap between country and town at the very time when the pursuit of sustainable development demands that the gap be bridged.
'80% of the United Kingdom is still farmed - it is our heritage, but it is also a workplace. People who earn their living in the countryside know that those who want to visit it understand and respect that simple fact.
'That is why the issue of right to roam has to be approached, not with
threats, which we heard again from Michael Meacher last week, but with
care and by listening. All of us want our wonderful countryside to be
enjoyed by as many as possible but not in a way which means that jobs,
natural habitats and the landscape are to be put at risk. Surely, good
will and good practice are worth something, even to this arrogant
government? Of course, their view on consensus is rather different from ours. They mean 'if you don't agree, we'll impose consensus on you - caringly, of course.'
'It is a sad fact that in just 18 short months, Labour have undermined
to the point of destruction, the understanding between country and town, and by a combination of threats and bullying, have ruined the legacy we left in place.
'And what about the Liberal Democrats, who like to present themselves as little friends of all the world, but especially of the countryside? What have they done to stem Labour's headlong course of destruction? Precious little. They are too busy deciding who will succeed Paddy Ashdown when Tony drops him.
'I began by saying that this nation cannot afford a chasm of mistrust
between country and town. And yet this is what this Labour government
has created. People in the countryside themselves perceive a chasm of
mistrust between them and the government. That is important to us in the Conservative party, because it is at local level that we see the revival in our fortunes. Look at the local government election results. Since May 1997, we have gained 440 seats from Labour and the Liberals in councils up and down up and down the land. Next May, with the local elections and the Welsh and Scottish elections, we will be fighting 13, 000 seats at local level.
'What an opportunity. Let's use it, let's use your enthusiasm and will
power, and ours, to give this Labour government, and their Liberal
lackeys, the shock they deserve.
'Ladies and gentlemen, it is the Conservatives who have always seen
Britain as one nation. That is why we deplore this Labour government's
'This is, of course, a debate on the countryside - but let us not forget what was done in our time for urban regeneration through the hugely successful regional and city challenge schemes.
'And let us not forget either, what was done to help rural communities:
- rate relief for small village shops and post offices
- more power to parish councils to encourage community transport and
- Introducing pioneering green taxes, like landfill
- and incentives for environmentally friendly farming like ESAs
'And we should remember too, our internationally respected green
credentials, because a Conservative government made Britain one of the
first countries to set out a detailed strategy for meeting its
international commitments on sustainable development.
'When we say we believe in one nation, we mean it. We will take an
integrated approach to rural policies - the shadow cabinet has six
sub-committees and one of them is devoted to rural affairs. Tony Blair's cabinet has 27 committees and sub-committees and not one of them is devoted to rural affairs.
'We will defend the rights of local communities to take the decisions
that affect them, at local level - local government that is local and
'We will defend the freedom of the individual to enjoy traditional
country pursuits, and to make a living off the countryside.
'We will listen to Britain, so that we can reconcile the rights of
country dwellers with those who wish to enjoy our beautiful national
'And we will hold this government to fulfil its promises on sustainable development, at home and globally. They must meet the targets established by us at Rio, reaffirmed by them at Kyoto, and to be taken forward at Buenos Aires next month.
'And by our policies, we will seek to re-establish harmony where they
have sown discord between country and town.
'Because that harmony, that understanding, are vital for our one nation, for our environmental heritage, and for our global future.
'It was a Conservative who said 'We have no freehold on this Earth,
merely a full repairing lease.' She said it ten years ago this week, at the launch of the Tory green initiative.
'That Conservative was Margaret Thatcher. Her message reverberated
around the world. Because of it, we maintained the leadership of the
international environmental debate. It has guided all our thinking over the last ten years.
'And it will continue to guide our thinking, in our countryside, for our future, for the future of our children and our grandchildren and for the future of our world.'
- Labour's policies have sown division between country and town. The
countryside march earlier in the year was the biggest peacetime protest this country has ever seen, and was caused by the frustration of country people at the arrogance and urban bias of the government.
- Thousands of acres of green belt land are under threat due to
decisions taken by John Prescott. He allowed a major development of up
to 10,000 homes on green belt land in Hertfordshire, and fought West
Sussex CC through the high court to force them to accommodate an extra 13,000 homes.
- The government switched nearly£100m away from shire areas to
urban ones. Changes to the way central government grant to local
authorities is calculated meant that shire counties and districts lost
£94m to Labour's heartland metropolitan areas.
- Labour's transport policies will hit rural people hardest. The
government has already announced a£9bn hike in fuel duty. Their
White Paper set out plans to introduce three new taxes on motorists:
congestion charging, motorway tolls, and workplace parking. For people
who live in the country, the car is a necessity, not a luxury. They will have no alternative but to carry on using their cars and paying Labour's new taxes.
- The government's plans to create a 'Right to Roam' will set landowners and ramblers at odds, and further increase the gap between country and town. The Conservative party favours bringing all sides together to reach a voluntary agreement, and, as part of the 'Listening to Britain' campaign, we are consulting with interested parties to find a way of achieving this.
- Under the Conservatives, the UK was at the forefront of international environmental development. The UK was one of the first countries to set out a detailed strategy for meeting the Rio commitments on sustainable development, climate change, biodiversity and forestry.