Examination of witnesses (Questions 40-59)
WEDNESDAY 13 DECEMBER 2000
MP AND MR
40. Are not most of the gainers those who are
small hill farmers in the parts of the countryside where landscape
is most important to protect?
(Mr Meacher) I think it is the losers, of course,
who are going to be the ones who complain most bitterly. As we
know, politically the gainers tend to say little and just pocket
41. That is hardly unusual in politics, is it,
Minister, not necessarily restricted to the environment and agriculture?
(Mr Meacher) Absolutely, Mrs Dunwoody. I would say
that it is universal. It is a fact of life that we have to take
42. Surely any form of social engineering requires
there to be winners and losers otherwise it would not be social
(Mr Meacher) That is true, but what I am saying is
that some poorer farmers are going to lose out as a result of
this. It is for Ministry of Agriculture ministers to determine
how far they can press this at this time. I do believe they want
to take this further as soon as they can. It did cause considerable
unrest. Nick Brown did not increase his popularity in general
by doing this. I think it was a brave act, I think it was right,
but we do have to take account of the politics of all this.
43. Can I bring you to the question of best
and most versatile land?
(Mr Meacher) Yes.
44. It is implied, I think, that might not always
be the most critical point when considering how to develop in
rural areas. If best and most versatile land is not going to be
the most critical factor in deciding on development, what is?
How are we going to control it?
(Mr Meacher) What we have said is that whilst it was
the case in the aftermath of war that the nation was, understandably,
overwhelmingly concerned about the security of its food supply
and best and most versatile land was therefore reserved, unquestionably,
for agricultural use. Now, 50 years on, when there is over-capacity
and those issues no longer apply with the same intensity at all,
and other issues like the quality of the environment have come
much more to the fore, it does make sense to reduce the rigidities
of the previous process and to allow best and most versatile land
in appropriate cases to be considered for other uses. Now that
does not mean, I underline six times, there is suddenly going
to be a massive sale of prime agricultural land in the South East
for development all over the place. I am sorry that some Members
of the Committee who might be thinking that are not here. I hope
they read this. This is not the intention. I do not expect this
to happen to any significant degree. The planning rules, of course,
still have to be met and the planners, I am quite sure, will not
allow this process of building on prime agricultural land to proceed
to any significant degree. It is just removing the rigidity is
what is the aim. If you do preserve best and most versatile land
purely for agriculture, it does mean the development will then
take place, perhaps, on land which is environmentally very sensitive.
We do need to take account of that balance, that is all we are
trying to do.
45. What about wildlife protection and protecting
wildlife habitats, how is that going to be given an appropriate
level of priority?
(Mr Meacher) I think the Countryside and Rights of
Way Act certainly does that for all the reasons I said in answer
to your earlier question. There are much greater protections for
sites of special scientific interest. There is greater protection
of wildlife at local sites outside SSSIs and there is this statutory
underpinning which we were pressed to deliver, and did deliver,
in regard to biodiversity action plans. The main problem now I
think is not the powers, it is the availability of personnel to
deliver those plans on the ground and inevitably probably more
money. The one other aspect of this which we have brought into
play is the National Biodiversity Network which is a computerisation
of data which is collected on the ground so that anyone, once
it is up and runningwe will put a quarter of a million
into it this year and it will be half a million next yearon
the ground who wants to know the incidence of species in any part
of the country should be able to get it at the flick of a switch.
46. One of the things that concerns me is that
soil quality and soil development is something which is pretty
poorly understood at the best of times. How are we going to protect
the soil quality in all this?
(Mr Meacher) That is another very good question. I
have been looking for some time at not just one but more than
one draft of the soil strategy which has been delivered to me
by my own officials and those from MAFF. I have not been satisfied
with it and I have asked for some significant changes. I recognise
that after the Royal Commission Report on soils we do need to
come forward with a strategy. We intend to do so and I hope, dare
I say, Chairman, shortly.
47. I will not ask you when.
(Mr Meacher) On this occasion, I am not able to say
when because this is an issue of some contention within the Department,
but let me be on the safe side and say within the next three months
we will publish a consultation paper on soil strategy.
48. A final question then. In the study which
in the West we call ecology, in the old days, certainly in Russia,
they used to call bio-geo-scenicologyI will explain the
etymology of it laterthe reason being that they understood
the importance of geology on the formation of soil as well as
the importance of wildlife on the development of soil, they saw
the whole ecological niche from geology through to wildlife. It
is a very, very complex understanding of the way habitats develop.
How are you going to reflect that sort of complexity in decisions
about development on the land which we now call the best and most
versatile land? Given that I do not know of a single local authority
that employs an ecologist, how are we going to make sure that
planning bodies are actually taking informed decisions in these
very complicated areas?
(Mr Meacher) When I go to public meetings and someone
asks me a question like that I immediately assume that they know
far more about the subject than I do and I immediately invite
them to write to me because they are asking a question of which
they have a very clear idea of the answer and almost certainly
I do not. That exactly applies on this occasion. I have not given
thought, I am not sure whether the Department has given thought,
to this question of the relationship between ecology and habitats.
49. Would you like to give it some thought and
perhaps send a note?
(Mr Meacher) Henry, do you want to say something?
(Mr Cleary) It may help the Committee if I say there
are a number of techniques which are being trialled and explored
by some very innovative authorities. We mentioned some of those
in the White Paper, whether it is countryside character or environmental
character. One of the features of the new regime, as the Minister
said, which is after all to develop a more holistic approach in
relation to landscape, is that we will be issuing best practice
guidance on the way in which you take account of the environmental
value in all its diversities you have mentioned, and the countryside
character so that people can take a more integrated approach to
planning decisions in the new order following the changes on BMV.
(Mr Meacher) However, I think it would be a very good
idea if we did give further thought to this and gave you a written
response in the light of further consideration.
50. Can I just ask you to consider one element
in this. They used to be called town and country planners, I notice
more and more these days they are just called town planners. Maybe
one of the things in the guidance should be that an ecologist
be employed by local authorities. There should be a country planner
on every local authority that has to make these sorts of decisions.
(Mr Meacher) I am not sure if, Dr Ladyman, you were
an ecologist before you came here or whether you are just speaking
on behalf of others but we will take that on board. We have noted
51. Minister, in the White Paper on page seven
you have announced £37 million to strengthen market town
regeneration. Then you go on to say through a £100 million
programme in 100 towns. Is it £37 million or £100 million?
(Mr Meacher) £37 million is the input which Government
is proposing under this White Paper. We are saying if you add
in partnership funds which are complementary and have a similar
purpose it is about £100 million extra in the package and
it would apply in the first instance to about 100 market towns.
I think there are about 800/900 market towns.
(Mr Cleary) A thousand.
(Mr Meacher) A thousand, yes, within the general definition
of market towns. This is the first tranche.
52. Are you proposing to spend those additional
funds purely in market towns? What proportion will be spent in
market towns? A lot of the partnership money is the RDA funds?
(Mr Meacher) Yes.
53. Which presumably will be meant to be spent
in the hinterland rather than the market town itself?
(Mr Meacher) Indeed. The proposal is that it would
be used for such purposes as restoring high streets, improving
local amenities, providing new work spaces, access to training,
better transport links, etc. You talked about RDAs. We are proposing,
also, as part of this initiative, and this comes from I think
the American concept of charettes, that there should be consultation
with local leaders and local people involving outside experts
and the drawing up of plans by consultation between all the relevant
parties as to how the role of the market town could be better
developed as a focus for regeneration and as a provider of services,
not just for the market town but for the hinterland. Action programmes
would then be drawn up and RDA money would be used in conjunction
with money from local companies, if we can lever that in, and
also from European and Lottery sources.
54. Effectively, if I have grasped it, only
100 towns will be helped?
(Mr Meacher) In the first instance.
55. There will be 900 who do not receive anything?
(Mr Meacher) In the first instance.
Chairman: You want to ask if Thirsk is one of
56. None of my market towns benefit. I just
wonder if it is Labour held seats which benefit, just being a
complete cynic. Can I just ask, you have mentioned the European
Regional Development Fund and also the Government's Single Regeneration
Budget and also the Rural Development Fund, now my concern is
I know North Yorkshire does have access to a sizeable amount of
farms but the farming community in particular seem bedazzled as
to who they should apply to. What information are you putting
out as to who should apply to which agency for which fund?
(Mr Meacher) Can I take up firstly your point, slightly
pejorative, that it is only 100, what about the other 800 or 900?
I do repeat that this is in the first instance. I think it is
sensible for public bodies and Government, or indeed private bodies,
when you are looking at a major new initiative to have a test
run, see if it works, learn the lessons before moving on. Certainly
if it does work, and we expect it will in the light of American
and other experience, then we would certainly wish to expand it
further. We are selecting the towns initially on the basis of
their potential as a focus for growth and as a service centre.
On your question of where you get information, well that should,
of course, come from the local authority, also from websites.
I do not know how many of your North Yorkshire farmers are on-line
but certainly a lot of this information is provided on-line. Do
you want to add to that, Henry?
(Mr Cleary) Only to say, increasingly, as you say,
the providers of support funds, whether it is coming through the
England Rural Development Programme, which is obviously a growing
area of support particularly in farming, or from the RDAs, are
working together in providing information. It is going to take
time to get that to happen right across the piece. You have got
a large number of funds targeting these areas. As you say, the
RDAs are spending something in the order of 90/100 million in
rural areas generally, even before the market town initiative,
and that will continue. The provision of advice increasingly will
be integrated between the major rural agencies, whether it is
MAFF operating the RDP, or the RDAs, or the Countryside Agency
advising people on programmes that they run.
(Mr Meacher) This is excellent for officialdom in
Whitehall. I think the question, which I have some sympathy with,
is how does the farmer in an outlying area of North Yorkshire
know about this and how do we get that information to such people
(Mr Cleary) Can I just give two illustrations from
the Rural White Paper. Both of these are areas which fall under
the MAFF responsibility. One is the Farm Business Advisory Service
which has just been set up which offers three days of free business
advice to farmers who are looking at business development. Secondly,
MAFF have also announced the Rural Portal Initiative which is
an integrated website which will give access to all sources of
support and assistance to farmers. That is currently the subject
of a feasibility study but it is intended to roll out and apply
right across the rural spectrum.
57. Can I ask about PPG13 and when it might
finally be adopted? Will it ensure that appropriate services are
located in the centre of market towns rather than on the outskirts?
As you will be aware, towns like Thirsk, Boroughbridge and Easingwold
have a problem with the increasing use of charity shops which
are filling vacancies where a lower business rate applies, or
no business rate applies. Will that be addressed by the PPG?
(Mr Meacher) On PPG13, I know it has taken some time
58. Can you just confirm that there is not a
Treasury veto on it?
(Mr Meacher) There is not a Treasury veto on it. As
is often the case there are discussions, to put it politely, between
departments about some of the details. There is not a Treasury
veto. The aim of PPG13 on transport is to implement the policy
to make market towns the focus of development and, therefore,
the intention is to concentrate, as I said, not just housing but
other kinds of development on market towns. And as well to ensure
that new employment opportunities are not ruled out simply because
they are in less accessible locations. On your point about charity
shops, again I am not the Minister responsible for PPGs, again
it is Nick Raynsford, I am not sure whether they are dealt with
specifically in PPG13 and I suggest we perhaps give you a note
59. Can I turn to the main problem in the countryside
which is the collapse of farm incomes. A conservative estimate
is that probably over the course of this Government 50,000 farmers
will have gone out of making a living in farming. Does this concern
the Government and what are you proposing to do about it?
(Mr Meacher) It massively concerns us, as I think
we have made abundantly clear. There is a very, very deep and
profound crisis in farming. It did not begin under this Government,
and I think we should be very careful not to be party political
about this. There was a growth in farm income, a substantial growth
in 1995, and an almost equivalent reduction in incomes on average
between 1995 and the present day. It is very severe. It is also,
for reasons that go much wider than national policy, largely to
do with overcapacity, low prices for farm products across the
world and, therefore, level of imports. We are trying to address
it, as I am sure Miss McIntosh does know very well, firstly by
the Prime Minister's Action Plan for Farming, which was announced
in March, an immediate £200 million which was designed to
tide over farmers until the effect of the Rural Development Programme
begins to come through over the current couple of years. We have
added to that a new framework for farming, another £300 million,
and that of course is in addition to the CAP benefits of £2.5
billion. I recognise that is not solving the problem, there are
large numbers of people who continue to lose their jobs. We are
doing whatever we can to tide over those who can remain on the
land by giving immediate financial assistance, by expanding for
some of the poorest farmers, those who live and work in the hills,
agri-environment scheme payments, countryside stewardship, environmentally
sensitive area payments, all of these are being increased, as
well as an expansion, for example, of funding for organic conversion,
for the growing of energy crops. These are small measures but
collectively I think can make some difference. I think it is quite
wrong, and I am not suggesting that you were suggesting otherwise,
to suggest that the Government is able to wave a wand and resolve
a crisis which is very deep and has extremely deep roots, most
of which stretch well beyond this country.
Miss McIntosh: As long as we are going to have
the same approach to farming that we take to the motoring industry
I think I would agree.
Mr Olner: What?
Miss McIntosh: The biggest way to encourage
farmers to farm in an environmental way
Mrs Dunwoody: I think it is called capitalism.