For the first time since the end of World War II, a British government is formally proposing that farmland should no longer be automatically reserved for food production. But the idea is creating an uproar among conservationist groups who predict that the new approach will place the British countryside at the mercy of predatory land developers. Britons have a high regard for their rural areas. But European Community farm planning (as enshrined in the 14-year-old Common Agricultural Policy) and more efficient food production have resulted in large tracts of farmland lying unused. British farmers have increased their output by an average of 3 percent a year over the past 37 years. As a result, Britain is now capable of feeding itself, and many farmers would like to put unproductive land to uses other than farming.
Until now they have found it difficult to do so, because of the postwar rule that food production was the top priority. The rule goes back to when the slogan ``dig for victory'' was coined as part of wartime policy.
New draft regulations published on Feb. 9 propose that, except in the case of extremely high-grade land and areas designated as having outstanding natural beauty, farmers will no longer need to seek official permission to convert their property to non-farming use. As much as 85 percent of the nation's farmland is likely to be involved in the switch of policy.
The plan drew a sharp rebuke from the Council for the Protection of Rural England. Its director, Robin Grove-White, said it would make it too easy for builders to acquire land and put up houses and commercial buildings in what are now pleasant rural settings. Large parts of the countryside, he said, would be put at the mercy of builders who could override the objections of local authorities to particular building proposals.
Nicholas Ridley, the government's environment secretary, anticipated some adverse reaction to his proposals, but he clearly did not expect a major uproar. The government's critics, however, fear that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's commitment to free market economics will lead to a free-for-all in the use of farmland.
Some Cabinet ministers are believed to favor the erection not only of housing, but of light industrial buildings, hypermarkets, and even theme parks in rural areas close to large towns. But although some farmers would be happy to sell their land for such projects, many Britons are more traditionally minded.
Conservationists point out that city dwellers have fairly ready access to farming areas within, say, 50 miles of built-up areas, but find it difficult to spend much time in the deep countryside. Therefore, the argument goes, the government should make a special effort to conserve farmland near the fringes of cities. It should, by the same argument, prevent the land becoming an extension of suburbia.
But the government is in double jeopardy on this point, because people who live in cities are also acutely aware that there is a housing shortage and that more building on the edges of main centres would ease accommodation pressures.
Defending the proposals, Environment Secretary Ridley said this month that ``The general beauty of the countryside and the environment are as important, perhaps more important, that the production of food.''
Huge numbers of his countrymen would agree, but judging from the public response to the new plan, just as many are deeply suspicious that large chunks of their green and pleasant land are about to become a brick and mortar jungle.
Mrs. Thatcher's advisers are warning her to tread warily on the farmland issue. They say her party could lose a lot of votes at the next general election if too many people come to believe that the countryside is in danger of being spoiled by unrestrained commercial development.
EC farm policy guarantees high prices for crops and thus encourages farmers to grow as much of them as possible. In addition to creating milk lakes, butter mountains, and other examples of over-production, the policy has also cut heavily into the attractions of the English countryside. According to one estimate, since 1945, 95 percent of Britain's hay meadows, 90 percent of its ponds, and 80 percent of its ancient woodlands have disappeared as part of successful attempts to make farming more productive.