I am delighted to see so many people here today for the launch of Business in the Community's Rural Action Programme. And I want to thank you all for coming, particularly the Minister, Alun Michael. I know what fiendishly busy diaries you have, but I do genuinely believe that what has gathered us all here today, the future of our countryside, is one of the most crucial issues of our time.

I am delighted to see so many people here today for the launch of Business in the Community's Rural Action Programme. And I want to thank you all for coming, particularly the Minister, Alun Michael. I know what fiendishly busy diaries you have, but I do genuinely believe that what has gathered us all here today, the future of our countryside, is one of the most crucial issues of our time.

One of the results of the on-going nightmare of foot and mouth - and believe me, it has not gone away even if it has come off the front pages of the newspapers - is that perhaps more people now better appreciate the countryside. The enormous generosity to the farming charities which the public and some businesses showed, many of them, I am proud to say, BITC members, demonstrated that deep down in this nation there is a sense of real concern and pride for the countryside. And I would just like to make a plea at this point - the farming charities who have done such extraordinary work to help farmers and, where they can the wider rural community, are in desperate need of further funds.

The anguish in the countryside goes on, and not just where FMD is still spreading. And there could be a real problem developing in the autumn and winter. Help is still desperately needed.

Although the genesis of this new BITC campaign on Rural Action stretches back to well before FMD, it has become more important now than ever before.

In recent years the desperate difficulties facing farmers have had an effect on the entire rural economy. Even before the disaster of FMD, average farm incomes were £5,200 per farm and last year alone 20,000 jobs were lost in agriculture. Behind these figures is a way of life and an entire culture at risk of collapsing.

If FMD has taught people anything it is that there is an intimate connection between the land, the animals and themselves. They visit the countryside because of its beauty, they eat food which is grown there and sometimes they even choose to retire there. So I happen to believe that each and everyone of us has a responsibility for it and the people who live there - in just the same way that I believe we have a responsibility for our inner cities, which is one of the reasons why BITC began. These are not someone else's problems - they are ours.

That is why I have been badgering Peter Davis, Nick Hood and Julia - to all of whom I am immensely grateful - to redirect some of BITC's attention from the inner cities - where such extraordinary work is being done by so many companies - to the rural communities. I think it is fair to say that it did take some pushing on my part. I was told that it was difficult to see how business could help - or, indeed, why it should. So I decided that I would have to prove my conviction that there was a role for business.

I decided to take four groups of business leaders to four rural communities in Wales, North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Shropshire, to show them the problems and then test their reaction. Many of them are here today and I hope I do not put words into their mouth when I say that most of them saw the point immediately. If I may, I would like to quote from one of them, John Roberts, chief executive of United Utilities.

He said after a visit: 'Rural communities face significant challenges in terms of social inclusion that are every bit as difficult and daunting as those found in inner cities'.

With these words in our ears I asked Julia and her team to create a package of initiatives which will make a substantial difference. And not just in the short-term as a quick fix - that helps no-one - but for the long term. This is about determined and sustained activity and I will be watching with the closest possible attention to make sure that it is working - and if it is not, why not.

So how can business help? There are three initiatives being launched today and I hope that each company in this room will sign up to at least one of them.

Firstly, building enterprising local communities. Within rural communities there is a remarkable talent for enterprise, often, I should say, led by the women. Already farming families are diversifying from bed and breakfast to cheese-making to high tech companies. And there are other non-farming individuals with lots of good ideas to help themselves or their community. Of course, the utter tragedy of FMD has been the effect on those enterprising farming communities who have already diversified, only to have the ground cut from beneath them.

Building on our experience from the inner cities, I want to see the business community lending these people their support and advice. In a minute you will hear from Jane Brook who, through her own determination, set up Orton Farmers' Market. When I led a Seeing is Believing visit there the business leaders asked her what most they could have done to make her life easier. Three things, she said: help with the bureaucracy, with the business plan and with marketing. How easy that would be for a company to give. Since the Seeing is Believing visit AWPR have agreed to develop a website for the Farmers' Market.

And Graham Melmoth from The Co-op, who has been such a stalwart supporter of this initiative, has agreed to lead a 'Partners in Rural Leadership' Programme which will bring together an initial 50 rural entrepreneurs with 50 leading business managers. Perhaps there are people in this room who will become one of these 50.

And why not encourage enterprise in another way? One of the features of life in the countryside today is a lack of services. For instance, there was a time when the pub used to be at the heart of village life, but now 40 per cent of villages do not have one. At the same time, village stores and Post Offices are shutting at an alarming rate. So why not, I thought, make the 'Pub the Hub'. Put into the pub the Post Office and the store, and increase the income so giving the pub itself a more secure future.

I know this can be done. There is a wonderful example in Suffolk of The White Hart Inn where Adnam's Brewery have supported the tenants of the pub to expand its services. And it is a great success with extra staff now being employed.

Thanks to John Longden of the Brewers and Licensed Retailers Association I am hopeful that we can extend this idea far and wide through a Best Practice Guide which he has agreed to write for us.

In a moment you will hear from Dr Jim Cox from the village of Caldbeck in Cumbria - another marvellous community leader - who will tell you how something as simple as a minibus, supplied by Ford and with the help of the Countryside Agency, can make a significant impact on one small community.

Our second initiative is centred on market towns which were once the economic engines of rural life. Recently they have been in desperate decline with many of the problems of inner cities: crime, drugs and vandalism. So BITC has an initiative bringing together partnerships in market towns to deliver business skills to help in their regeneration. The first pilot is in Yorkshire where BITC is working with Yorkshire Forward, in the shape of the incomparable Heather Hancock, the Countryside Agency, Lloyds TSB, Blazefield Holdings and BITC's ProHelp team. I await the results with the greatest possible interest. Incidentally, people seconded from business can make the whole difference to an initiative. Retired executives contribute enormously in terms of business skills to rural communities.

The final initiative is all about local sourcing and this is something which every person in this room could do something about right now, whether you are a major retailer, a hotel chain or a one-man enterprise. Buy your food locally for your stores, for your restaurant, or for your canteen. And why not even buy your office furniture from local craftsmen? The difference that such a change in your company policy could have on your local rural community would be significant and lasting.

I am particularly pleased that we have the support of major food companies for this initiative like Sainsbury's, SPAR and the Samworth Brothers. And I am pleased that BITC is working with the Institute of Grocery Distribution to demonstrate that local sourcing can give retailers a competitive advantage. Just before I come to my final challenge, there is a fourth dimension; that is the issue of affordable housing in rural areas. I hope we might be able to discuss this with volume housebuilders, the construction industry and above all, Housing Associations.

Now for my final challenge. I am asking the 750 member companies of BITC, many of whom are represented here today and who I know are committed continually to improving their positive impact on society, to carry out a Rural Impact Assessment published today by BITC. It could not be simpler and it is at the back of the document which you have been given. I much look forward to hearing the results. And so when I take business leaders on Rural Seeing is Believing visits in the future they will know before they start why it is that the countryside matters to them.

Do not underestimate the power which you have to make a difference. There are some significant companies and organisations who are on the Leadership Team of this Campaign and to whom I owe a great debt. I have already mentioned some of them, but there are others which are listed at the back of the brochure. But we need more of you. Over the next few weeks Julia and her team, led by Graham Russell who has worked particularly hard, will be chasing you.

Together we can help to keep living communities within our unique and glorious countryside so that people born and bred there can find an economic future. They and the countryside are what define us as a nation in an every changing world. The consequences if we fail are too awful to contemplate. But between all of us I am sure we can make a difference.