Welcome to "austerity countryside"

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The environmental record of a government that once described itself as "the greenest ever" is already deeply worrying.

Cuts in the budget for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have been announced that could fundamentally change our natural areas.

Among plans being considered are the privatisation of nature reserves and the Forestry Commission, a reduction of grants to the body that manages Britain's canals, and cuts so severe that Natural England, the country's main conservation organisation, could lose a third of its staff.

A recent statement by 25 conservation groups points out that these cuts will be immensely damaging to our countryside. The outcome, they say, will be an "austerity countryside".

Bodies that protect plants and animals, clear waterways, protect coastlines and encourage the breeding of endangered species are all under threat. The impact won't simply be upon the natural world. The cuts will stop us using and enjoying bridleways, canals and paths. In the austerity countryside "huge swathes of the English countryside and coast are effectively closed to millions".

In addition the coalition is backtracking on commitments to new greenhouse gas emission standards. These were aimed at restricting emissions from power stations and were supported in opposition by both Cameron and Clegg. The immediate impact will be the return of plans for new coal power stations. A new proposal for a plant at Hunterston, west Scotland, has already attracted tens of thousands of signatures in opposition.

The attack is about more than saving money. Defra's budget is merely 0.5 percent of the government's total budget. This government wants to open up the natural world - the forests, waterways and countryside - to exploit. Environmental legislation is a barrier to that. Of course, the rich will still have their country estates and their private land to enjoy - it's the rest of us who will lose out.

One of the signatories to the statement criticising the government's plans is the Ramblers Association. It evolved out of the mass trespasses that won the right we have to explore and enjoy the countryside - something we should well remember if we are to avoid the austerity countryside.