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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, perhaps I may respectfully remind speakers that when three minutes is signalled on the Clock that is the end of the time the speaker has been allotted. We are in danger of some speakers not having time to speak at all.

4.24 p.m.

Lord Gisborough: My Lords, I must start by declaring an interest as an owner of land. National parks and beauty spots will come under increasing pressure and the proposed open access to moorland will do irreparable damage to it.

The North Yorkshire National Park published a figure of 16 per cent. of walkers wishing to walk off footpaths. More recently, an officer of the park put the figure at 1 per cent. The walker wants and should have a good footpath system. With very few exceptions, landowners have always been prepared to talk about that and most of them support it. But the vandals, the egg collectors and the long dogs men will all enjoy any right of access. Even now, 56 per cent. of walkers on the moors run their dogs out of control, in contravention of the country code. Drystone walls will simply not stand up to the pressure of orienteering.

Of course, it would be against the law to vandalise, but there is no way in which the national parks can be under supervision all the time, any more than populated areas can always be under the eye of the police. Once there is disheartenment over the management of moors near urban areas and it has gone, inevitably high heather and bracken will soon turn even the militant rambler back onto the footpath. By then the moors will be permanently ruined for everyone. If Ministers do not understand what is involved, I hope that they will make it their business to find out. They will be welcome visitors to any moorland manager. It cannot be right to jeopardise the economy, management and consequent enjoyment of 84 per cent. of walkers--those who say that they wish to walk on footpaths--for the sake of satisfying the political desire of a militant minority, who should not be allowed to wreck things for everybody else.

The rural interests are worried and would like an assurance that, in the proposed merger of Objective 5b, they will receive a fair share. The countryman feels, with some reason, that he is largely represented now in Parliament by town dwellers with little practical knowledge of country problems. Therefore, it behoves the Government to take particular notice of the countrymen's concerns.

This is a huge subject. I had a mass of points which I had to throw away. I do not feel that a debate such as this should be conducted in three minute speeches. It makes a nonsense of the debate. When a debate is scheduled and the number of speakers means that the time allotted falls below seven or eight minutes, the list should close. There is no way an argument can be developed in three minutes.

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4.27 p.m.

Lord Palmer: My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lytton for introducing this important and timely debate. I must declare an interest as a farmer and landowner and as someone whose home and garden are legally obliged to be open to the public.

I say "timely", because most stewards of the countryside are currently experiencing significant economic difficulties. Cereal farmers in Scotland, for example, have had a poor harvest and cereal prices are very significantly down on last year, in some cases by as much as 50 per cent. Hill farming and particularly the beef sector continue to face the consequences of the BSE crisis. Our commercial timber producers face severe competition from imported timber. If we are to have a well tended countryside, we need to ensure long-term economic stability of farming and forestry. Much of Scotland's tourist industry is based on the attractiveness of its managed countryside and the scenery that it produces.

It is important to remember that the countryside is not a natural resource which has been created overnight. It is the result of generations of hard work and applied land management, achieved at great expense to those generations. Had fox hunting been banned 100 years ago and other field sports 50 years ago, dare I say how very different our countryside would look today?

Public interest in the care of the countryside is a relatively new phenomenon. Traditionally, the countryside has been relied upon to produce food and timber and particularly strategic supplies in time of war. The great success that was achieved must not be swept aside. I believe that it was criminal, back in the 1970s when we were told that more food was required, to say, "Drain the wetlands and here is a grant to do so." Now, we are told, "Stop, set it aside and here is a grant to do so." Real commercial management is the raison d'etre for ongoing management in the countryside and that must not be forgotten. Who would want to see ranch or prairie-type farming in this country?

What we really need and deserve is a proper balance between modern production measures and economic pressures, and, most importantly, sustainability and preservation of the intergenerational equity. I urge Her Majesty's Government to look at that most carefully, especially as land use, farm production and, indeed, the woodlands sector require long-term planning. One simply cannot correct yesterday's mistakes overnight and such long-term planning is essential and vital for the future of the countryside.

I believe that a departure from the situation in which land managers are seen to be those responsible for damaging the countryside and jeopardising biodiversity is a number one priority. Single pressure groups must not be allowed to think that they know best. In reality, there is a very great cost to land managers of having the public presume that they can wander wherever they wish. Responsibility is very much a two-edged sword. The voluntary principle of countryside stewardship is vital to the countryside as a whole. I just hope and pray that this Government have no intention whatever of doing away with it.

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4.30 p.m.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I declare an interest as the chairman of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. It is good evidence--not just anecdotal, but polled evidence--that there are few matters about which the British people mind more, whether they live in the town or the country, than the English countryside.

It is about two years since the previous government produced the first substantial White Paper on rural matters and about a year since that White Paper was updated by the previous government. The special point about the White Paper was that it required all government departments to take an interest in the concern for rural matters. That needed some doing. It was not just a product of the then Ministers who were responsible for the environment and agriculture. Michael Heseltine took a big part in pushing it as did the then Prime Minister also. I hope that the new Government will take that mantle and inheritance, burnish it and update it and fairly soon bring out their own views where they may differ. In general they were supportive of that White Paper.

One area where I know the Government are considering possible changes is in the speeding up of the planning system. Planning was one of the two great legacies of the Attlee Government. I believe that the beauty of rural England and Britain as a whole would not be what it is without the planning system. I should like to bring one specific point to the Government's attention.

Planning is essentially something in the public interest and the cost of the proper planning process should be part of the cost of development. There is a real danger of local authorities and other completely legitimate objectors to certain proposals by developers being intimidated either by the prospect of costs being awarded against them by the inspector in the case of a planning refusal on appeal or, indeed, by developers bullying and intimidating objectors, particularly local authorities and saying that they will ask for damages for delay.

It is necessary for the present Government--it should fit in with their ideological attitude to these matters--to ensure that, unless there is evidence of malevolence or impropriety in an initial refusal of a development application, the planning appeals should be heard without local authorities being landed with extremely heavy costs. Going round to the CPRE county branches, again and again I have been told that local planning authorities, faced with a bill for costs of perhaps as much as £100,000 for expensive lawyers hired by developers, are intimidated and inhibited from doing their proper duty in planning. This is an important point and I hope that the Government will respond to it.

4.33 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe: My Lords, I declare an interest as the chairman of the Parliamentary All-Party Group on Forestry. I am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, for making the case for forestry so positively and succinctly this afternoon. I hope that his speech will be taken on board by the Minister.

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I want to put forward two statistics which justify the concern for an expanding forestry policy. One is the fact that imports to this country of wood products amount to £6 billion per annum. We are the least forested country in Europe. The other statistic is not economic; it is social. In the Forestry Commission estates last year, 50 million day visits were paid by ramblers and people escaping from the dreariness of towns to enjoy the beauty of the countryside. Those statistics are important.

It is interesting that in the past--20 or 30 years ago when I was chairman of the commission--we had a policy of partnership in forestry. The private and the state sectors worked together in research, training and forestry management. I regret that during the period of the last government that partnership disintegrated because there was an obsession with privatisation. Ramblers, trade unionists, land owners and everyone involved with the countryside opposed privatisation; but privatisation was practised by stealth.

Let me give the House a further couple of statistics. Forestry Commission planting 20 years ago was 15,500 acres per annum. Last year the Forestry Commission planted 461 hectares. Twenty years ago the number of employees in the Forestry Commission (we have been discussing employment in the countryside) was 8,000; 10 years ago it was 5,700; last year it was 3,600. Those are skilled people who know what they are doing in the countryside and love the countryside. That represents a reduction of state interest in forestry.

Can the Minister give me an assurance that under the new policy of the new Government we will restore the partnership that formerly existed in forestry? Can he also give me an assurance in relation to devolution? I notice that devolution is a subject devolved to Scotland. One of the things I did during my time in the Forestry Commission was to take the commission headquarters to Edinburgh. Edinburgh is the centre of the Forestry Commission (UK). Under the devolution proposals Scottish forestry will be devolved to the Scottish parliament. What will happen to English forestry? It will have no national authority and no national office. Can the Minister assure me that national forestry policy will be protected?

4.36 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, perhaps your Lordships, on this autumn day, will let your imaginations stray for a moment from Westminster to a grassy valley two miles outside Lewes in Sussex which has been walked over or ridden over on horseback by the people of Lewes from time immemorial. That grassy valley has almost all the initials attached to it that the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, mentioned in his opening remarks. It was a site of special scientific interest, environmentally sensitive and outstandingly naturally beautiful.

This spring the local farmer ploughed up the valley. He gave notice to English Nature. He followed the rules. But English Nature was unable to make an adequate financial settlement with him. He therefore ploughed it up and planted a crop of flax--wholly unsuitable to the

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flint and chalk out of which the Sussex Downs are made. I walked up and had another look at the valley last Sunday; it is close to my home. One third of it is outside the SSI. The crop has been harvested and there is now six inches of brown stubble. The one third in the SSI has been replanted with either wheat or grass which is starting to grow and, most remarkably of all, the bottom third has been "de-ploughed". Volunteers from Lewes came out to roll the turves back onto the ground which they had walked over for so many years.

I do not blame the farmer for acting as he did, although my family too had walked over the valley for many years. He did it because of the subsidy. He was able to obtain a subsidy of £500 per hectare for his flax crop, no matter what the yield. That compares to the £40 subsidy for continuing with the grassland which he and his father had previously had. The matter received a certain amount of national interest. I mention it in the House because the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, promised an answer as to how the conflict between Department of the Environment aims and Ministry of Agriculture subsidies will be resolved. We wait with interest to hear what is to happen. Obviously, what happened can be repeated in other parts of the Downs.

I must declare my interest. I have the honour to be succeeding the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, as chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board in just two days' time. It will be very hard to follow in the noble Lord's footsteps. He is aware, as I am, of the tremendous pressures that are now on the Sussex Downs and on other areas of outstanding natural beauty which, like them, get no direct central government grant and no mandatory local authority grant either.

I suggest to the Minister that the Government, who are to spend £750 million on a millennium dome, might consider putting aside some millions of pounds for the Sussex Downs which, after all, attract 32 million visitors a year and which have 10 million people living within an hour's drive. I suspect that the Downs will be there and being enjoyed for very much longer than the millennium dome.

4.40 p.m.

Lord Cobbold: My Lords, I should like to thank my noble kinsman, Lord Lytton, for introducing this important debate so early in the life of the new Government. In the interests of brevity I shall confine my remarks to one topic; namely, the vexed question of rights of way. Local authorities currently have a target of having the rights of way network properly maintained, well publicised and legally defined by the year 2000. Under this umbrella there has been a lot of activity as councils have attempted to agree on the definitive map for their areas. Much of this activity has been contentious, expensive and, in many cases, has verged on the absurd.

I have been involved in two cases recently--one where an expensive two-day public inquiry was necessary, when in fact all parties were in agreement outside the meeting on the appropriate solution, but that could not be put forward by the local authority for procedural reasons.

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The other involved the designation of a footpath/bridleway as a byway open to all traffic or a "BOAT" as it is curiously called. This designation means that the byway can now be used by motor cycles and four-wheel drive vehicles, in competition with the pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders who used it all along.

The rather spurious evidence used for the BOAT designation was a variety of ancient maps which indicated that these routes may--and I stress the word "may"--have been used by horse-drawn vehicles in previous centuries, but their usage during the current century was not taken into account.

I believe that the present situation is illogical and often absurd. The previous government issued a consultation paper a year ago entitled Vehicles on Byways. That paper contained some valuable and commonsense suggestions, particularly for the creation of a new class of highway determined by whether the surface has ever been metalled.

I do not know what has happened to that paper, but I hope that the Minister will be able to resuscitate it. It is not an issue of party politics, but of common sense and balancing not necessarily irreconcilable interests. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond on that point.

4.43 p.m.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, having lived in the country all my life, I certainly appreciate my good fortune. It was not until I grew up that I realised that with such a privilege came responsibility for the land. We are only the custodians and I believe that we should be careful in such a position not to alienate those who wish to visit or move from the city to join our rural communities.

I believe that more should be done to help newcomers to understand that the country needs managing, and that has been referred to by other speakers. The cost is not inconsiderable, as we all know. I have only 43 acres, but fencing, keeping footpaths clear; keeping stiles in good repair; woods free as possible from rabbits; protecting badgers and bats--I have a cave full of bats--are all things that take many hours of attention. There is also the responsibility of cutting down dead trees--something which appears to upset those who come from the city more than many other things that one does. They do not seem to understand that trees actually die.

Having planted 700 hardwood trees in a valley, I take pride in what I have done and want others to enjoy my efforts. I have also put in a lake which is fed by a nearby spring. The grants for planting amenity shrubs and trees are far from generous. I received £190 for an area of 100 such shrubs and trees and that cost me £900. That is not very much encouragement for a small farmer such as myself.

Welcoming 50 youngsters to use the woods for part of the national motorcycle trials has proved a great success and perhaps more people should follow that.

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These are only a few examples of what can be done if we have the will to understand the views of others who may have a very different perception of rural life from our own. Thank you.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Bridges: My Lords, I first became interested in the subject of land use as a schoolboy growing up in the Second World War when there was a very active debate on this subject. I read with some fascination what appeared in magazines such as Picture Post, the Architectural Review, or the writings of Thomas Sharp, Lewis Mumford and various other authors of eminence. It was out of this debate that we had the Labour Government's Town and Country Planning Act to which the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, has paid some tribute and I join him in that. It was a milestone piece of legislation. It was perhaps a trifle too comprehensive and it could be described as a belt and braces and buttons piece of legislation designed to constrain or contain any unplanned expansion or contraction. It was left to what now appear to be the decades of Conservative government which followed to trim off some of the unwanted excrescences of that legislation and such things as development charges or undevelopment payments, which were not really necessary. I believe that what we have now is a pretty well tried and worthwhile system. I very much hope that the Government will be able to continue it.

Speaking as somebody who has spent much of his life living abroad, one becomes very aware of the deficiencies of those nations where there are no such systems. Perhaps the leading example in my life has been the coastline of Attica, a natural jewel which has been desecrated by human development and to which the final insult is now to be added; namely, the installation of a major international airport at Spada in the centre of the peninsula. In looking at our system I hope that the Government will be able to concentrate on one or two areas where I believe that some updating and improvement is now necessary.

The first question to arise is that of resources, both human resources and cash resources. The human resource is very important. It is a question of the human quality of those managing the system on which all depends. Some years ago I became interested in the way in which the Department of the Environment selected, appointed and trained inspectors conducting planning inquiries. I was rather impressed by the trouble that they took. I hope that that investment in human quality can be continued.

There is also inevitably the question of the cash resource. Here I have been concerned that the budget for the Countryside Commission, which is responsible for supervising and controlling much of importance in the countryside, appears to be lacking resources for funding such things as the committees which run areas of outstanding natural beauty. Even more important is the inability of the commission to make evidence available to public inquiries in areas in which they are interested. That seems to me to be a serious failing and I very much hope that this resource deficiency can be made good.

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I would also like to say a brief word about the question of 4.4 million houses. I believe that the way in which that figure has been arrived at is open to serious criticism. It is derived from a study of population statistics at the centre. The figures are then extrapolated and allotted to counties. That is not the right way for us to arrive at the best system. It would be far more sensible if local input could be obtained at an earlier stage so that the local authorities who have some better knowledge of social trends and requirements can devise a system in a more sensible way. The present system fails to distinguish as it should between economic need and social reality. This is an important debate, but I have tried to keep within the time limit available. I hope that the Government will be able to respond to some of the constructive suggestions that we have already heard.

4.49 p.m.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, for initiating this debate. We have also heard two scintillating maiden speeches, particularly appreciated by those of us who live in rural areas.

Although there are many advantages in living in the country, such as lack of pollution (although not always, because sometimes, with intensive farming, erosion sets in, the topsoil starts blowing off, and everything gets covered with a fine red dust); lack of noise (although not if you live within a mile or so of a motorway); birds and butterflies, particularly if you feed them and do not spray; hedgehogs and roe deer, and rabbits (if you call those an advantage), there are many disadvantages too. That is shown by the number of people who find it easier to live in an urban area. Shops, libraries, cinemas, theatres, recreational facilities such as swimming baths and public parks, and public transport are all there and easy to get to.

In rural areas there used to be vans coming round--now there are not. We have no milk delivery, nor bread, and the grocer's van with its horse is long a thing of the past--although we do have a fish van from Arbroath on Thursdays. Buses to town are few and far between, and there may be as much as a mile or even further to carry home your shopping. The local rail station, to which I used to bicycle every morning to go to university in Dundee, has now closed down.

A car is therefore a necessity, not a luxury, for all rural families. Of course, most people in the country grow their own vegetables and keep hens, but they do not all have a cow or make their own bread. They need a car to fetch the other essentials for living or, dare I say it, to go to church, to the cinema, or to take their children to school (or at least to the school bus), or swimming. The girl who lives next door to us at Megginch had a baby yesterday, called Fern, and doing well. Luckily, her husband had a car and was able to drive her 10 miles to the hospital, saving the ambulance journey and the heavier petrol consumption that that would have meant. I am making a small plea to the Government to consider reducing the tax on one car per family for people who live in a rural area and who really need it.

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Those of us who scrub mud from our leeks and carrots, who put on gumboots when we go out and overcoats when we come in, may not have all the advantages and rich pickings of Johnny Town Mouse, but though like Timmie Willie we prefer to live in the country, because that is where our roots are, we would still like to have some.

4.52 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I have always felt that visitors to the countryside should be given plenty to do so that they enjoy, and learn to understand, value and respect it. I thank my noble friend for this debate. My wish today is to bring to the notice of your Lordships one important matter in which I must now declare an interest. I refer to the use of agricultural land for riding schools. Many people, be they locals or tourists, who cannot afford their own horse or pony and have no facilities to keep one, use those facilities if they exist. I have a small centre for just that purpose in North Yorkshire.

Running a riding establishment is very expensive. One has to produce or buy the horses or ponies, provide the facilities, buy and repair the tack, provide the feed, repair the fences, worm the animals several times a year, shoe them regularly at £40 a time, pay the staff and do the administration such as paying the telephone and vet's bills and the insurance and licence fees. Advertising costs are high, but so is the growing need for security. In the past 10 days my small centre has been burgled twice. Crime in the countryside has become big business. Tack seems to be very popular and resaleable. Even with security lights and alarms, padlocks and chains, the burglars still keep coming into the rural areas from the cities to reap from the countryside what they can get. Many villages no longer have policemen who used to give protection and a feeling of security.

On top of all those problems, the councils are trying to rate such establishments out of existence. I now quote from Horse and Hound magazine of 9th October:


    "Surrey School new victim of rates burden. A Surrey riding school has become the latest victim of savage business rate rises. Ray Lodge Riding School at Lingfield was forced to close after its rates soared from £790 to £4,300. To worsen the blow, proprietor Sheila McCory was presented with a back-dated bill, landing her with a debt of £8,000. The farm is to revert to purely agricultural status. Mrs. McCory said she would take the case to the European Court".
That sort of thing is happening up and down the country.

Many young girls in particular spend hours helping at riding establishments in return for free rides and instruction. Their parents know where they are. Riding gives them a healthy interest, keeping them away from drink and drugs. These places provide a service to their local communities. They should not be penalised and put out of use. I hope that the Minister will give some hope to the people who are struggling to provide a leisure facility in the countryside. Compared with set-aside, where farmers are paid for doing nothing, this seems totally unfair and ridiculous.

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