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franciscan - May 2003

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2003

The Crisis in the Countryside and the Church's Response

by Anthony Russell

 In recent years, ‘the crisis in the countryside’ has risen to the top of the political agenda, and although the problems are easy to define, the solutions are less easy to identify.  The Church has been closely identified with this process since the publication of Faith in the Countryside (1990), and more recently through the Church’s response to the devastating effects of foot and mouth disease in certain areas.

Traditionally, the problems of the English countryside were thought about in isolation.  Today, it must be recognised that England is essentially an urban nation, with the second highest population density in Europe, and with the exception of a few upland and remote areas, almost all of rural England is within the commuting belt of a major centre.  The expansion of urban Britain, with the new housing requirements being imposed on every county, puts great pressure on the countryside, which is seen as losing its essentially rural and remote character.  For many, true countryside is now found in the Dordogne and Tuscany.

We live in a single society, and to speak of urban and rural Britain as different entities is no longer realistic.  House sale particulars on the Fens, once one of the remotest areas of England, speak of it as a place convenient for commuting to the West End of London and the City.

Today, the central question is ‘What is the role of the countryside in a predominantly urban society?’  Dr Johnson said that heaven would contain the joys of the countryside and the amenities of the town, and there is little doubt that most English people wish to achieve such a compromise.  The consequence of this is that most villages, except in the more remote areas, have become discontinuous suburbs.  The number of people who actually live and work in rural areas has sharply declined, and the population profile of many villages is dominated by the elderly and the retired.

The central issue in rural areas is the future of farming.  Put simply, for a variety of reasons, commodity prices have fallen dramatically in recent years, whilst production costs have continued to rise.  Today, almost all milk is produced at a loss, as are pig meat and poultry products.  Wheat is being sold at less than half the price it commanded a few years ago.  There are complex reasons for this, but the most important is the fact that, like other major production industries, farming is being exported.  Purchasers will always follow the cheapest sources, and for grain, this is now the cut-price Black Sea or Ukrainian wheat; pig meat and poultry come from the Far East and South America, produced under very different conditions, but at a fraction of the cost of home production.

The number of health and other scares associated with British food have also had their effect, and there is a sense in which the root problem is not the low nature of commodity prices, but the fact that confidence in the future has largely evaporated from the farming community.

To address this complex situation, the Government has recently produced a report The Strategy for Sustainable Farming and Food, chaired by Sir Don Curry.  The report supports ‘modulation’: the commitment to spend more in agri-environmental and rural development strategies by effectively taxing agricultural commodity production.  Other recommendations are designed to promote farming co-operatives, and to cut back on the red tape and paperwork which has become such a feature of modern farming.

The effect of all this on the countryside is to create a two-tier situation.  In the lowland East, large farms employ the latest technology and science to produce very heavy yields which they hope to sell on the world market.  In the West and the upland areas, farming remains more small-scale, and much of it has become niche and part-time farming.  It is increasingly difficult to speak of a single agricultural industry in this country.

Different groups have different ideas about what the countryside is for.  Whilst the farmer sees it as the shop floor of one of Britain’s largest industries, the retired, the commuter, and the second home owner see it in a very different light.  Many people are surprised at the high level of conflict which exists in many villages because of these different understandings of what the countryside should be.  Whilst for some it is a place of escape and tranquillity, for others it is a place of entrapment and low expectation, from which people escape as soon as they can; a place of poor job opportunities, difficult access to facilities and service, and poor educational achievements.

The difficulty is reconciling these divergent understandings of what the countryside is for, and here the Church, as it seeks to stand alongside people, has a significant role to play.  For the Church is a place of meeting, not just with God, but with fellow villagers, many of whom hold very different understandings of what a village should be like in the twenty-first century.

In the face of the widespread awareness of the declining community, the Church has an important role in building and sustaining a God-centred community at the heart of the village.  One of the important functions of the Church is to be a model of community, which exemplifies the values of love, care, support, neighbourliness and freedom.  Villages are important because they say things about society, and about people in community, that need to be said.  It is easier in a village, for a number of reasons, to act out some of those basic beliefs we hold to be true about the nature of people in community.  This is in part because villages are small and human in their dimension, and in part because they have a past which confers stability and perspective.

 The ‘crisis in the countryside’ is not just about the decline in agricultural commodity prices, and the suburbanisation of the village; it is about deeper questions about the nature of modern society with which the Church is engaged in every generation. f

The Rt. Revd. Anthony Russell is Bishop of Ely.


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