The grass could be greener

February 3, 1995

Britain needs a complete rethink of the way it sees rural areas, according to Philip Lowe, director of the Centre for Rural Economy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

The centre, which investigates the social and environmental basis of economic activity in rural areas, is unique not just in the UK but in the English-speaking world, says Professor Lowe.

It was set up in 1992 backed by a Pounds 1 million endowment raised in the region after the death of first chancellor of the university, the Duke of Northumberland. Professor Lowe's chair of rural economy is named after him. It had its origins in an Economic and Social Research Council-funded Countryside Chan-ge Centre at Newcastle established in the late 1980s, which was one of two, the other being in London where Professor Lowe previously worked. Today the CRE is based in the department of agricultural economics and food marketing.

The centre is keen to have a European perspective and some of its nine staff work on various comparative studies in Europe - from the effectiveness of Environmentally Sensitive Areas to the implementation of water directives.

Such comparative work helps not simply to understand others better but to understand ourselves better, says Professor Lowe. It helps illuminate "why we do not do things differently" and shows that things we thought were in the natural order of things are not.

He points out that in the 1880s, about half of Britain's land was owned by 2,000 families, while two thirds of France was owned by three million peasants. That gives very different starting points for changes and institutional structures. The British remained concerned with the land question, while the French were preoccupied with bringing the peasantry into civil society, he says. In France, rural sociology developed, while in Britain it hardly advanced. Here the focus was more on agricultural economics and rural geography.

The centre is beginning to make up for this neglect. It is offering two masters courses beginning in October - one in rural resource and countryside management and the other in European rural development. This latter course will become a peripatetic one after the first year with students spending part of their time in Wageningen in the Netherlands and part in Galway in Ireland.

The centre is also moving out into the wider policy debate about rural futures in Britain. In the first of a series of public lectures presented by the centre, Professor Lowe last week laid out a number of challenges to the Government, which is preparing the first ever White Paper on the rural areas.

Although he believes the White Paper is long overdue, he adds: "Now is possibly the worst possible time in history that we should have a rural policy - one that ignores the fact that Bucks is very different from Devon and so on."

In essence past policy was that "in the pursuit of domestic self-sufficiency in food, farming should be supported by the state and this in turn would ensure the well being of rural areas". This is no longer appropriate.

Now policy should deal with the specific disadvantages of rural living and safeguarding the public interest in rural areas, which are no longer homogeneous. Today "rural society is predominantly middle class, not an agrarian society, and the rural economy is largely a service economy" from which agriculture is largely detached.

A substantial, socially-excluded minority of rural dwellers is emerging, he believes. They have low incomes or no access to transport and are stuck where they are with very little choice.

Although car ownership is much higher in rural than urban areas, Professor Lowe has been shocked to find that mobility for those without private transport is worse now than for villagers 50 or 100 years ago. Moreover, local services such as village schools, garages, and shops have also disappeared, restricting access to services and choice even further.

"There is already acceptance that standards of certain very basic services should differ in rural areas" he says. For example, response times for the fire service can be twice as long as in urban areas and ambulance response times five minutes longer. Widespread subsidisation of rural services, however, would not be efficient or equitable.

He believes the White Paper should - in a clear Citizens Charter - clarify the levels of service people should have a right to expect wherever they live. It should also show how this should be reflected in the requirements imposed on public and private providers of services.

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