Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 40-59)




  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 the proceeds.

Mrs Dunwoody

  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 into account.

Dr Ladyman

  42. Surely any form of social engineering requires there to be winners and losers otherwise it would not be social engineering?
  (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 running—we will put a quarter of a million into it this year and it will be half a million next year—on 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.

Dr Ladyman

  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-scenicology—I will explain the etymology of it later—the 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.

Dr Ladyman

  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 it.

Miss McIntosh

  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 them.

Miss McIntosh

  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 better?
  (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 on that.

  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.

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