South of the River – this land is your land


Compass-SouthComment logo 2I don’t know how many readers of South Leeds Life listen to The Archers, it’s not an obvious demographic for the makers of ‘an everyday story of country folk’.

I’m afraid I’ve been listening for 30 years. They have some very good story lines – Jack’s dementia, rural isolation and suicide – happy stuff. I’m not so sure about this week’s story of Elizabeth, the lady of the manor, getting off with her trusty lieutenant Roy at a music festival. I’ve been to few festivals in my time and nothing like that has happened to me, except the odd snog with my lovely Other Half.

Actually that’s where it all started. Lazy Sunday mornings and half listening to the Archers omnibus … ironically, of course. And then you get hooked.

One of the more important storylines at the moment involves what used to be called ‘the estate’. Thirty years ago a big chunk of Borsetshire was owned by one family, then a company of local businessmen and farmers was set up to take it over – Borsetshire Land, or BL. Brian the local big farmer was Chair of the Board and pushed through modernisation and diversification. They built (and now run) a new market, and an industrial scale dairy unit.

But this is capitalism, so there’s always someone bigger and now BL has been taken over the big boys from the city of London. Brian’s very upset. There are plans to turn fields over from growing crops to solar panels, building anaerobic digestion plants that turn food waste into gas and electricity. Then they’ve colluded with the council to drive big road through the village, building a service station along the way.

Justin Elliott the new boss at BL isn’t green, like all successful capitalists he’s just looking for the greatest return on investment. At the moment energy pays more than food crops, but when the prices shift, he’ll shift his production.

Of course the village of Ambridge is up in arms. Well, it’s just not cricket. He’s an outsider, he doesn’t understand, our fathers and forefathers farmed this land, etc. They even burned an effigy of him at the village barbecue. It’ll be pitchforks and burning torches before the year’s out, you mark my words.

So this is all very interesting, but what has it got to do with urban, inner city South Leeds?

Well, that’s the point. City dwellers need the countryside. We need milk and beef and bacon and fruit and vegetables in an immediate sense, but we also need the landscape as a place to escape to. We need the chance to explore the hills and valleys, to commune with nature to exercise our bodies and clear our heads.

We have a legal right of access to the countryside, but that wasn’t always the case. Workers fought, often literally, for the right to walk on the hills. Read up on the mass trespass on Kinder Scout if you don’t believe me. It’s no coincidence that the first National Parks were set up by the same government that created the NHS, legal aid and the rest of the welfare state.

In a week’s time the world’s media will be marvelling at the beauty of Buttertubs Pass and Swaledale as the Tour de France caravan passes through. But too many people in South Leeds don’t get to see the amazing countryside that surrounds us in Yorkshire. That shouldn’t mean we don’t have a stake in that countryside.

I’m particularly fond of the Dales and the Lake District. These are places where farming is not economic. Hill farmers struggle to get by running sheep on the fells. The question then, is should we pay farmers to manage a landscape, or run productive businesses?

Nearer to home on the plain of York the question is whether we should let the landowners remove the remaining hedgerows. The push is to create ever bigger fields that they can put their huge machinery in and maximise their investment.

As things stand we don’t really have a say. It’s the logic of capitalism, the market will determine what is most profitable and someone looking at their balance sheet will deliver it. If the people who currently own the land won’t make that change then they’ll get bought out by bigger fish, just like BL.

If we want a say in how the countryside develops, let alone how the city develops, we have to change the system.

Jeremy Morton Aug13There’s lesson in here, especially for Brian, I’m sure not if it’s ‘play with fire and you’ll get burned’, or ‘be careful what you wish for’, but it’s one of them. I guess it applies to me too, I started listening for a bit of a laugh and now I’m an Archers Addict.

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.