Examination of witnesses (Questions 20-39)
WEDNESDAY 13 DECEMBER 2000
MP AND MR
20. Surely you accept that rural areas could
easily and very quickly be spoilt if inappropriate industry is
allowed to develop in the countryside, particularly on farmers'
(Mr Meacher) Absolutely. We are not suggesting a major
factory should suddenly spring up around the countryside, it has
to be compatible with the general character of the countryside,
that is absolutely right. That is why planning departments do
have to say no. Some proposals are, frankly, unacceptable. As
I say, it is the manner in which you say it. If you explain to
the applicant, to the potential developer, to the farmer, as to
why it is not appropriate, what are the limitations of acceptability,
try to get him to understand, hopefully he will look at alternatives.
21. Having seen in the past some agricultural
workers' residencies built as executive homes, as Crispin was
talking about earlier, when we build these executive homes in
the countryside should we not be laying rules down as to where
these executives work? Certainly with agricultural workers' residencies
there were strict regulations that they were for agricultural
workers only. Should we not be looking at strengthening that on
the question of executive homes?
(Mr Meacher) My understanding is that planning departments
would look at the location of a proposed executive home. You could
not suddenly turn a barn out in a field into a massive new executive
home. I imagine in almost all cases that would be turned down,
that is not an appropriate development.
22. There are a number of reports of fairly
major programmes on road bypasses. Can you just confirm, I know
in the White Paper it says something like a billion pounds over
the next three years, is that a figure which you would suggest
(Mr Meacher) It is part of the ten year transport
plan. We do anticipate, I think, about 50 rural bypasses.
23. Over the period of ten years?
(Mr Meacher) Yes.
24. But over the next three years is that expenditure
in the order of a billion pounds?
(Mr Meacher) A billion pounds? I thought it was over
ten, but correct me if I am wrong.
25. The White Paper states that you are allocating
a billion pounds over the next three years on rural programmes.
(Mr Meacher) If the Rural White Paper says it, it
must be right.
26. You agree with that then?
(Mr Meacher) Yes, I do.
27. That is a step in the right direction, is
(Mr Meacher) Yes.
28. Can I just ask in connection with the situation
of bypasses, I have visited a number of bypasses recently built
and there are a number of issues, not least the environmental
impact that they are making. Just what are you taking into account
as far as that situation is concerned?
(Mr Meacher) All new roads, including rural bypasses,
are subject to the Government's new approach to appraisal which
includes the five headings: safety, environment, which is the
point that you have just raised, economy, integration, and one
that I cannot recall. Those five tests have to be applied and
they have to pass on each of those tests before the road can go
ahead. There is no question that there would be a presumption
against any new road development which in any significant way
adversely affected environmentally sensitive sites.
29. You are going to lay down, are you, specifications
for the type of surface on these roads as well as everything else?
Some of these roads are built of concrete which is absolutely
unbelievably noisy. They will be laid down as well as everything
else as far as conditions are concerned. You will also create
a situation where if a bypass needs to be built near to a home,
say within half a mile of that home, automatically they will be
given grants to double glaze and triple glaze their properties,
(Mr Meacher) On the question of road noise, we are
proposing, if I recall, 60 per cent of trunk roads will be resurfaced
over the next ten years with, I think in most cases, low noise
porous asphalt. With regard to double glazing where people are
living within a certain distance of, say, roads which have a concrete
surface, I think those are normally granted. I cannot remember
the conditions, whether it is automatic. Certainly on the basis
of application and certainly within half a mile, depending again
on the contours of the land, I would expect grants for double
glazing to be given. If you want a further note I would be glad
to give it.
30. Can I take you back to this question about
industry development in rural areas. How do you get over the problem
that very often you start with a small industry development which
is perfectly appropriate for the rural scene but then it starts
to get bigger and bigger?
(Mr Meacher) You are raising a question of whether
further planning permission is required if it is going to be turned
from an acceptable small development into a possibly unacceptable
large development. Again, I think it is true thatI am trying
to think of the rulesthere is no requirement for new planning
permission for larger development or, indeed, for change of use.
(Mr Cleary) I think we come here to one of the objectives
of the White Paper which is to strike a balance between the need
to achieve the level of business activity which will support rural
communities, whether it is in market towns or on farms and, as
you say, development which is contrary to the character of either
the town or the open countryside. What the White Paper does is
to illustrate some of the ways in which that balance will be achieved.
Part of it is in relation to agricultural diversification, as
we have heard already, part of it is in relation to market towns.
For example, one of the changes which is heralded in the White
Paper, is the changes to PPG13 which will aim to strike a balance
between, for example, the demands that transport places on the
rural infrastructure and the need to ensure healthy growth in
towns but also in farms, which increasingly are going to have
to diversify in order to survive as viable units.
(Mr Meacher) The question, I think, Chairman, if I
can say it is if you have a small development which has been approved
how do we prevent it growing into a larger one which is unacceptable?
I am not absolutely certain of the answer to that since I am not
the planning minister.
(Mr Cleary) I think the answer to that is that if
you are on a farm, for example, if you want to change use from
agriculture into an alternative use you must apply for planning
31. I understand that.
(Mr Cleary) Part of that planning permission is actually
32. The difficulty about that, I mean I have
an instance, is that farmers are caught in this Catch 22 situation.
If they try to diversify and they attract a certain amount of
support then they are in danger of tipping over into a real industrial
development and they become very unpopular not only with their
neighbours but with everybody else. Certainly I have one unit
which has consistently grown and it is right out in the countryside
and it is now very specifically industrial development. Frankly
no-one has put workable limits on that, so every time planning
permission is refused they simply appeal and get it on the grounds
that if someone else has done it so should they.
(Mr Meacher) It is the case that original planning
applications, if approved, are subject to certain limits.
33. I understand the limit but the problem is
that a firm sets up in an area, it employs perhaps 20 people locally,
then there is the opportunity to expand to employ 40 people.
(Mr Meacher) Yes.
34. The pressure on the local authority is very
considerable. They say "if you turn it down and we cannot
have permission to go up to 40 we will move away to somewhere
else and you will lose the 20 local jobs". The temptation
is to allow it to grow and to grow. In fact, most of our big companies
in this country started off as small ones.
(Mr Meacher) Yes, I do understand that, but it is
also the case that if there is a limit on the size of the development
which is approved, you cannot go over that without putting the
matter back to the planning department.
35. I understand that. Can I take you on to
the rural enterprise scheme and the small business advice service.
How far do they really give people advice and are they good at
giving advice on what is an appropriate development on a farm
to avoid these sort of problems coming along?
(Mr Meacher) We are proposing, as I did say, to issue
new planning guidance precisely to show how we are proposing to
ease the problem of farm diversification but also to show the
limits within which it will be allowed, namely that there is a
need to maintain the basic character of the countryside.
36. I would like to explore some issues about
wildlife and habitat, if I may, Minister. We have seen a lot of
habitat lost, we have seen intensive farming and as a consequence
we have lost a lot of bird species. How are you going to go about
reversing the decline in farmland birds?
(Mr Meacher) I am glad to say that we have begun to
have some success and these things are long term, so I am not
saying it is all this Government. I do think some of the proposals
that we have put in place in the last few years are beginning
to have an effect. In the last headline indicator on farmland
bird population, I was able to announce that there has been a
four to five per cent increase in bird populations, including
some rare species like the Red Kite and the White Tailed Eagle,
which is the first time we have been able to announce that. The
basic causes are, I think, very widespread, basically to do with
the intensification of agriculture over the last 50 years, changes
from spring to autumn sowing which reduces stubble rich fields
for birds because it is not available during the winter, the reduction
in field margins, the extensive reduction of hedgerows and, over
the last 50 years again, there is evidence that appears to have
been arrested in the course of the 1990s and is gradually now
increasing. It is a matter of addressing those basic causes. We
are taking powers, and have taken powers, in the Countryside and
Rights of Way Act, as it now is, to protect wildlife in sites
of special scientific interest. We have given statutory underpinning
to biodiversity action plans for the first time. We have laid
an obligation on Government departments and local authorities
to take account of biodiversity in planning their policies. This
is, I think, a collection of policies which is more extensive
and goes further than ever before. I appreciate there is still
a problem, I think we have turned the bottom but we have a long
way to go up.
37. The Government has decided not to go down
the route of a pesticide tax. We know the agri-environment payments
will cover a minority of parkland areas. Is that something that
you regret? Is it something you will look at again?
(Mr Meacher) On agri-environment we have, as you knowNick
Brown did make an announcement about a year ago, I think, as I
am sure you are all awarethe England Rural Development
Programme, the switch from the production of subsidies to agri-environment
schemes amounting to £1.6 billion over seven years, so that
is very considerable.
38. It is not that considerable, is it, compared
with the whole of the expenditure on the CAP?
(Mr Meacher) That is perfectly correct. The amount
which is paid to this country in CAP terms is about £2.5
billion a year and the proportion of switch increases from two
and a half per cent to four and a half per cent over those seven
years. I do understand, and I think the Minister of Agriculture
would also agree, that we do need to go further. The point is
modulation, as it is technically called, does produce substantial
gainers and losers at a time when farm incomes are extremely low
and in some cases still going down. It is very difficult to get
a greater switch at this time. We do need to go further, I agree.
On the pesticides issue, Government's clear position is that we
want to reduce the adverse environmental impacts from excess pesticide
use. The question is whether that is done through taxation or
whether it is done through a voluntary approach. We have not excluded
at some point the possibility of a tax if the voluntary approach
does not produce the necessary result. We have been in touch with
the British Agri Chemical Associationit is now I think
the Crop Protection Associationwho are, of course, opposed
to the tax and asked them to produce their proposals on a voluntary
basis to achieve that objective. I think it is fair to say that
their first set of proposals were rather feeble, that is certainly
my view. They consulted the relevant interests who took a similar
view. They then produced a further set of proposals which we are
currently examining which are better, but in my view still not
adequate. As the Chancellor indicated in the Pre-Budget Report
last month, we are having very serious discussions with them in
the context of the period leading up to the Budget. That is as
far as I can take it.
Chairman: It is fairly blunt.
39. The Government has responsibilities under
the Common Rules Regulations to try and focus more of our agricultural
subsidies on environmental protection. Are you confident that
you are going to be able to fulfil your requirements? Have you
drawn any conclusions on how you will move that in the right direction?
(Mr Meacher) This does come back to the intention
to make this switch to support the Rural Development Programme
which I have already referred to. Others may take the view it
is still not adequate. It is a watershed in my view. It is a very
significant switch, a significant switch in the direction of CAP
funds away from production subsidies to the whole area issue of
agri- environment, as I say, £1.6 billion over seven years.
We would like to build on that but it does involve significant
redistribution of subsidies which would otherwise go to farmers.
I repeat there are substantial gainers and losers.