Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


5.54 p.m.

The Earl of Lytton: My Lords, I welcome the announcement in the gracious Speech that the Government will continue to promote enterprise, to reform agricultural tenancy laws and to strengthen the delivery of environmental policies. It is particularly on the delivery side that I should like to address your Lordships. However, I cannot go on without paying tribute to our two maiden speakers. I thought that their contribution was outstanding. On these Benches I particularly congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, who referred to the Natural Environment Research Council. I have some recent experience of that body and it has an outstanding contribution to make.

The measures that have been announced are potentially good news for the countryside. I also applaud the recent appointment of the noble Lord, Lord De Ramsey, to the chairmanship of the advisory committee on the new environment agencies. His is an impressive track record, not least in environmental matters, and I wish him well.

23 Nov 1994 : Column 323

Noble Lords may wish to note that I, like many others, am a landowner and I also farm within a national park. I am also a chartered surveyor and a member of the Country Landowners' Association and the National Farmers' Union. So I have both a strong personal and a professional reason to be interested in rural land management. Furthermore, I have an involvement in the use of information technology in this area.

It is really about land management as part of the delivery system that I am concerned this evening. Whatever the precise use of our rural areas, they require active and positive management, not least to provide for employment and for the goods and services which are so urgently required in some areas. My father used to describe graphically the appalling state of the countryside in the 1930s when effective management simply disappeared because of economic circumstances. Even now, some of our most important habitats and landscapes—often in marginal agricultural areas—are at risk from poor and absent management of the right sort. Failure of the delivery system is therefore an extremely serious matter. Non-management is practically never beneficial in the long run.

Like any other activity, land management requires sustained commitment, motivation, the deployment of resources of time and money, a vision or target and the prospect of benefit at the end. In other words, to use just another term, it is a conventional socio-economic model, even if we refer to it by some other name such as farming, forestry or sporting. It is also a technical resource in its own right, with an enormous amount of empirical knowledge and experience which is not replicated elsewhere.

The management systems in our countryside have to meet the minimum standards of compliance which are set for the industry sector as a whole: health and safety, employment, environmental protection and animal welfare. Those costs all have to be paid for out of the activity in question. The more marginal the profitability of the activity—for example, for agriculture or forestry—the greater the risks of failure and the greater the chance of management being redeployed to safer ground. So it matters how easy or difficult it is to comply with the requirements of regulators or how far those requirements add to administrative or other costs.

Referring to what the noble Lord, Lord Williams, said in his opening comments, it is a terrible mistake to make the requirements a chore. We must regard them as positive matters which are attractive objectives. After all, if ultimately it is impossible to manage land in a traditional manner, or for that matter in any alternative way, the question has to be asked: why waste time on it? Standards are comparative. I raise the point as to whether the British public will insist on cheap food from abroad at world prices and on environmental standards at home which make existing agriculture uncompetitive. I think that that is an important issue which we have to address. I know that the Minister is aware of the problem.

The countryside is, above all, about people, but land managers are human beings and they are involved in local businesses and employment. They have the same aspirations as the rest of the nation. They respond to risk

23 Nov 1994 : Column 324

and cost in broadly conventional terms and they try to be proactive and positive-thinking businessmen. But they are in something of a dilemma.

First, management of the countryside is increasingly being dictated from outside the industry: by local planning authorities, political lobby groups and environmental agencies, and—yes—by central government. There does seem to be the appearance of very little discussion and very little investigation going on as to what happens on the ground. Theory is all very well, but it is time now, as much as anything else, that those regulators started investigating how things actually work, and, if necessary, doing a little retraining themselves rather than expecting the industry to retrain itself in aspects that are set externally.

Secondly, the industries that currently pay for management costs and the management process have been severely affected by the constant chopping and changing of policies, and particularly by unintegrated environmental standards. To judge by the talk of cross-compliance, it seems to me that that may get worse. I wonder how many of those who advocate farm plans have ever tried to draw one up. It is not easy. However, I hope that I detect correctly that the Government propose to do something about all that. I was pleased to note the noble Viscount's comments about an integrated approach for the future.

Thirdly, environmental targets are simply not being set. On the ground it often appears that there is an aimless set of management prescriptions which concentrates on methodology without stating clearly the objectives that are being aimed for. Worse still, thresholds of compliance are being set which, because they are set nationally, may be appropriate in one location but could be quite senseless in another. The system is simply inflexible. Like the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, certainly those on the ground find it terribly confusing. After all, what happens when one day those targets are reached—the ultimate preservation order perhaps? I do not know what the answer to that question is, but it is a matter about which we need to think.

The results, I am afraid, are all too obvious. Land managers are telling their offspring in many instances that there may be only a limited future in the sector. We hear time and again of the concern of constituency Members in another place that their farmer constituents say that there is no future in this sector. That is a terrible thing to have to admit. Income and employment in the traditional sectors of our rural areas are, I am afraid, in marked decline. The risk is that disinvestment will follow. In the meantime, some are reconfiguring their operations so as to get maximum return on their most fertile land and profitable areas of endeavour. That, of course, is producing an intensification which may itself be unsatisfactory.

My plea is therefore quite simple. If the Government are serious about management systems and the delivery of environmental policies that are something more than job creation schemes for bureaucrats, they have to rethink what they are doing. Environmental land management schemes are sound in theory but need a great deal of fine tuning. Land managers need proper,

23 Nov 1994 : Column 325

long-term partners and shared objectives. They need to discuss the issues that lie before them on an equal basis with competent and experienced officials. The risk is that the environmental straitjacket that now looms in some areas of our more heavily protected countryside may be just as damaging as the pursuit of production in agricultural products was beforehand. I have said previously in this House that good management follows attractive prospects. That always remains the case.

So much for the theory. I now wish to touch on one or two particular experiences of my own. In the rest of my speech I speak on my own behalf. Not so long ago I contemplated a management scheme for a woodland fringe area to enhance a colony of a nationally rare butterfly within a site of special scientific interest and in accordance with guidelines set by an acknowledged national expert. Not one agency was prepared to assist with any sort of grant aid for a project which for me would have been totally uneconomic in any sort of farming terms and would have been nothing other than a loss-making activity. It was outside the parameters of some agencies, and in the case of others there was said to be no money. Unless my holding, a hill farm, starts making very significant profits, that work will almost certainly never be done.

Consultation is another area on which I have touched before. In many instances it is supposed to take 28 days but regularly takes months, even for quite simple applications. It slows forward management to an absolute crawl. The response has to be not to apply for grants, unless it is unavoidable, and to try to avoid having to consult. A price is being put even on simple dialogue, and that price is too high.

Tree planting is another vexed area. On marginal land it is often relatively uneconomic, and it is therefore peculiarly awkward when, for landscape reasons, agencies and others insist on species that simply do not do well in that location—either because they are not windfast or for some other reason. That does not make any sense. I am a great believer in the idea that, if one does not plant something that will be worth while for a future generation, the likelihood is that it will not be looked after. I could add to those examples with instances where there seems to be a level of official ignorance about how things work in practice and some very partial interpretations of the law or fact. That sort of approach destroys confidence among land managers in the way in which governance is being pursued in this area. It is vitally important that there is more talk with land managers. They may be the only people capable of delivering the environmental objectives that are set by the Government.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page