15 Nov 2010

Big Society or Big Business? How Spending Cuts and Reductions in Regulation threaten the Environment and Access to the Countryside.

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Six months into Coalition rule and perhaps, just after the spending review, the student protest and last week’s welfare announcement, it is probably only now that many of us are actually beginning to realise the extent of the proposed cuts and change in policy and waking up to the reality that they will, whether employed or unemployed, young or old, private or public sector, affect us all and in ways we might not have originally considered.

Well, yes, maybe but what’s this got to do with getting out your boots and bike and heading for the great outdoors, I hear some of you asking? Well, rather a lot and, as more and more proposals are rolled out, the potential effects on all aspects of life and groups in society are becoming ever more evident. And, as far as the great outdoors is concerned, with proposals to sell off woodlands in England and threats to move ownership of national parks out of government control, we’ve already got enough to get on with. Clearly, whether you welcome, or fear, these proposals depends largely on your own personal political viewpoint, but what is not open to debate is that these radical changes could affect access to and use of the countryside.

Of course, the countryside is also a place where people live and work and does not exist solely as a playground for the rest of us, but mountains, coasts and forests should never become the exclusive preserve of those who can afford to buy large tracts of land, or who want to exploit them for commercial profit.

At a time of increasing concern over inactivity and conditions like obesity, combined with the need to understand as much as possible about climate change and environmental factors, it is absolutely vital to encourage and enable as many people as possible to visit, enjoy and conserve the countryside. However, if large areas of land now fall into private hands, particularly if accompanied by a reduction in regulation, then opportunities to experience the countryside will inevitably decrease.

Depressingly, the portents don’t look too great. The Guardian (November 13th) reported that representatives from, amongst others, McDonald’s, Pepsi Cola, the Wine and Spirit Trade Association and catering company Compass (of turkey twizzler fame) are now to be at the heart of writing government policy on obesity, alcohol and diet-related disease: all part of the Coalition’s desire to work with relevant commercial partners to explore voluntary, not regulatory, approaches and to support them in removing obstacles. A strategy described by Jeanette Longfield, head of the food campaign group Sustain, as akin to putting the tobacco industry in charge of smoke-free places. “This isn’t “Big Society” it’s big business,” she added.

Meanwhile on the same day, the Independent headlined that the Coalition intends to allow badgers to be cage-trapped and shot and is set to scrap a tranche of animal welfare measures including:
*the proposed ban on beak mutilation of laying hens
*intended prosecutions of slaughterhouse operatives accused of kicking and stamping on animals, some of which had their throats cuts while fully conscious
*a proposed ban on keeping game birds in battery cages, following intense lobbying from the Countryside Alliance and shooting organisations
These measures were justified by James Paice, the agriculture minister, as important ways of cutting bureaucracy.

Cutting bureaucracy may be close to the Coalition’s heart, but responsible access to the countryside is regarded as a fundamental right by millions of citizens of this country and any indication that the government is being unduly influenced by the Countryside Alliance and landowners’ organisations should raise alarm bells among everyone who has supported the fight to remove restrictions on access.

Indeed, access is already difficult enough for a number of reasons. Although many millions enjoy walking, cycling, climbing, visiting gardens and country houses, many more never visit the countryside at all, although many of them claim to want to. The reasons are varied and complex, ranging from lack of knowledge of, and confidence in, the countryside, to disability, social isolation and cultural alienation.

Large numbers of people, and not just in inner cities, simply cannot reach the countryside because they cannot drive or do not have access to a car and this  problem can only get worse when proposed cuts to bus subsidies and local authority spending begin to bite. Our public transport provision is already limited enough, our trains expensive, overcrowded and sparse in rural areas. so any further reduction in bus services and public transport will simply cease to exist. Given that we should be trying to limit car use, particularly in sensitive environments, withdrawing what little public transport there is makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Reduction in regulation may be an appealing catch phrase for some but, as far as access to the countryside is concerned, we must all ensure Cameron’s Big Society includes all of us, not just big business and big landowners.

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