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Future Countryside: a vision for change

In June, The Countryside Alliance Foundation (TCAF) launched a major new initiative, Future Countryside, with the aim of creating a forum in which those who care about rural Britain can share views and connect with decision-makers. This unique event, held at Hatfield House by kind invitation of The Marquis of Salisbury, brought together over 200 experts in farming, conservation and land use with politicians from major political parties. 

The aim was to set aside differences and develop a shared vision for a modern countryside, focusing on the opportunities that this extraordinary natural resource can offer everyone: a place to restore health, to help to address climate change and energy security, and of course to grow good food. The event set out to put rural communities at the centre of these solutions, rather than regarding them as inconvenient accessories or part of the problem. 

Future Countryside was created by Julian Glover, Chairman of the Government’s Landscapes Review, and Nick Herbert (Lord Herbert of South Downs), Chairman of the Countryside Alliance, supported by a Steering Committee of eminent rural figures. While the Oxford Farming Conference has become an important annual event for agriculture, and there are other specialist gatherings, this was the first time that a major countryside conference had been held. 

Exclusive polling and focus groups commissioned especially for Future Countryside set the scene for the day, revealing that the British public are immensely proud of the countryside, ranking it second only to the NHS, and believe that it should be regarded as part of our national heritage. The research showed that people think it is important to protect the countryside, but are pessimistic that the countryside will be in better shape in a generation’s time, and have little faith in the rural policies of any of the major political parties. 

The day began with keynote speeches from former Cabinet Minister Rory Stewart and former lead Non-Executive Director of Defra and food expert, Henry Dimbleby. The Environment Secretary, Therese Coffey MP, launched the Government’s action plan ‘Unleashing Rural Opportunity’, reminding the audience that “the countryside is the bedrock of our island story.” Lord Mandelson warned the Labour Party to stop alienating rural voters (read more on page 74) and there were also contributions from Defra Minister Lord (Richard) Benyon and Shadow Minister Daniel Zeichner MP, as well as from experts such as Professor Baroness Kathy Willis and Dame Fiona Reynolds, former Director General of the National Trust. 

However, what made Future Countryside special was the desire to not just have big headline speakers but to engage those attending in the big questions of the day. As interventions flowed from the floor, often raising some of the challenging issues facing the countryside, some common themes began to emerge. 

If we want a healthy countryside and to use it as a place of healing to improve the nation’s health and happiness then we also need to look at the impact of biodiversity on human health. This is a clear example of the role farmers can play in improving the health and wellbeing of the nation. 

To achieve a productive countryside, one that thrives economically and environmentally, we need to conserve natural resources, support local agriculture and invest in our countryside, creating long-term economic opportunities that will protect the rural landscape for generations to come. 

For a vibrant countryside, we need to look at how we can make the countryside a better place to live, work and invest in – and nurturing local economies is key to that. If we want rural areas to become hubs for innovative industries, such as agribusiness, and eco-tourism, then we need to encourage entrepreneurship, provide access to funding, and create partnerships between businesses and rural communities. However, this does need to be coupled with improving rural infrastructure such as broadband and transport networks. 

The Future Countryside event captured a positive energy and willingness by all who attended to foster collaboration and share ideas, reflecting a common ambition to shape the countryside’s future. One delegate described the event as “seminal”. A report will be produced and sent to politicians and policymakers, and it is already clear that there is a desire to maintain the initiative — so watch out for Future Countryside 2024!


Feedback from Focus Groups:

“I don’t go to the countryside enough, but when I do, it’s just the quiet. It’s just the birds and not the hustle and bustle and just getting on that train and seeing the greenery for miles… just get a sense of calm.” - Urban focus group participant 

“I think we all accept that we have a London-based government and media. So… the way people live down there, they all consider that normal and that gets perpetuated throughout policy… we have to accept we are a very important minority.” - Rural focus group participant 

“I think people from cities are starting to understand more and hopefully the education will keep growing. So, I’m hopeful, but I think it will change and won’t be the countryside as we know it now.” - Rural focus group participant.

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