Help save our rural life - plea

Calls have been made for more help to keep the rural way of life alive in East Anglia - as the Duke of Edinburgh spoke out about 'a complete change in the population of the countryside'.

Calls have been made for more help to keep the rural way of life alive in East Anglia - as the Duke of Edinburgh spoke out about 'a complete change in the population of the countryside'.

The Duke mourned the loss of rural businesses because of big shopping centres in towns and retail parks, and said that commuters and second homes were also breaking up the fabric of rural communities. But he also criticised modern farming methods, in particular intensive dairy farming.

His comments came at a key time as local councils across the region draw up their planning blueprints for years to come, and the government presses for up to 300,000 new homes to be built in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire in years to come.

Last night, James Frost, director of the Norfolk branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: 'There is nothing wrong with urban regeneration, but we should consider how that affects the countryside and people who live in rural areas. It is essential to keep rural communities thriving.'

He said that the growing numbers of supermarkets in East Anglia were causing local businesses to suffer and in some cases to close down. 'We would like to see more protection for local shops in planning policies, and where there is protection that should be adhered to.'

He also called for tighter restrictions to make it more difficult to turn a house into a second home. He added: 'The Duke is bringing this up at a very important time, with all local councils reviewing their planning policies and central government trying to force more and more housing into counties like Norfolk.'

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The Duke of Edinburgh said in an interview with Shooting Times: 'The country villages have changed from the sense of being places where people who were associated with the countryside were living and now most of them are second homes occupied by commuters.

'Villages used to have to be more or less self sufficient: they had a butcher, a baker, a shoemaker. Now that has all gone because of the way retailing is concentrated in big centres and multi-stores.'

Michael Mack, from the Norfolk Rural Business Advice Service, said rural businesses were facing tough times. 'There are lots of small rural businesses, but it is getting harder and harder to keep them running, for example with the cost of fuel increasing, so getting their produce into town costs more. Getting good labour is also really hard.'

But he said some businesses are fighting hard to survive and are improving as a result.

Jane Miller, director of Produced in Norfolk, a social enterprise working to protect rural jobs and skills, agreed that standards are being raised. And she said it was up to local people to keep their services alive. 'It is up to people in the countryside to make sure services don't decline any further by supporting local shops and services.'

The Duke spoke of his concerns about the direction of modern farming, saying: 'They are constantly trying to produce cattle that will produce more milk and less cow - like a hat rack with an udder attached. They can't really go on making such a travesty of an animal.'

Nick Champion, regional communications manager for the National Trust, said: 'We do support the Duke of Edinburgh's view that modern farming practice has become unsustainable. Predictions that we are going to need to grow more food in coming decades are creating this idea we need to farm more intensively, which is worrying. Modern herbicides and pesticides create sterile land. We would like to encourage farmers to create more sustainable ways to grow crops in the long term, and also as a population we need to waste less food.'

'We feel strongly that people have to think about sustainable farming and where their food comes from.'

John Purling, chief executive of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association and chairman of the Associaion of Shows and Agricultural Organisations, said he had some sympathy with the Duke's comments about intensive dairy farming. 'I see where he is coming from very much, but I also feel there is a duty to produce enough food to feed the world population.

'Agricultural associations are doing their best to promote rural life, educate people and involve rural community through shows.'