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Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, if ever there were a topic for debate which combined both items of the portfolio that I hold--conservation and the countryside--it is this one which, I understand, is about the conservation of the countryside. I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, for bringing it forward.
I am one of those who believes that it is impossible to have civilisation without our cities being set in a countryside which is in a dynamic relationship to them. The ideal cities of the past, the city states, had that relationship. The countryside and the city both had their separate cultures which were complementary. That is an ideal pattern which has been rendered today more or less impossible, largely, I regret to say, by the enlargement--not least by my party--of the fairly harmless ideal of free trade into an all-consuming monster. So in order to assure a healthy countryside we
We are almost all in agreement, I think, as to what we wish the countryside to be like. I start with one or two of those essentials which need no intellectual defence because they are obvious but which need practical and often legislative defence because in practice they are apt to go by default. The first is the need for biodiversity. Today we have elaborate philosophic arguments to support what any man--except that monster, homo economicus--feels in his bones. Our ancestors, especially the ancestors of many of us in this House, may have massacred animals by the game cart load. I remember in our house that the gong rung for dinner was suspended between elephant tusks. One started on a walk around the lake by passing between two whales' jaws. But it was thoughtless slaughter, exactly that. It never occurred to our ancestors that they might be exterminating species. Today we know better. We realise that we must so run our countryside that we encourage diversity of species.
Another "must" is the preservation of wildernesses and of beauty, touched on by the right reverend Prelate. It is not enough to have generalised goodwill when we are as overpopulated a country as we are and have developed slowly but surely a network of natural parks which we must not only protect but govern well. And here I make a plea to the Government that they do nothing in the interests of departmental tidiness which would lead to insensitive treatment of the national parks. I look forward to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, which I imagine will touch on that subject.
A third "must" is not only the preservation of species, but also the welfare of those animals which we have tamed for various purposes. Battery farming, whether of hens, pigs or cows, is not only wrong in itself; it also creates eyesores and, if I may add, nose sores as well in the countryside.
Moving away from the "musts" to the mechanics, the preservation and development of the countryside need a healthily sized rural population. Villages need to be large enough to support pubs and post offices, village shops and parish churches so that those in their turn can support the villages. We are all aware of the problems of villages without a shop or an adequate bus service to the next conurbation up the line, the market town. And, where possible, as much of the population as possible should be involved in the chains which serve the basic tasks of the countryside--agriculture and all its ancillary trades and the preservation of the countryside itself. That is another reason why we should be encouraging family farms and smallholdings.
In that context I draw your Lordships' attention to the fascinating evidence given to Sub-Committee D in the past week by a professor from Munich who, while admitting that there was a net trend away from part-time farming in his part of the world, pointed out that it was the product of a balance between a heavy exodus and a heavy ingress. The same conditions are unlikely to apply here but I believe it is the sign of a really healthy rural community and one which we should try to emulate.
The population dedicated to the country does not need to be made up of people coming to spend quality time in second homes. Those people can, with time and tact, be valuable additions. But they drive up the prices of houses so that those who really need homes--the younger generation, say--cannot find affordable social housing. Second homes are basically an anti-social luxury and should be discouraged, to put it mildly.
Nor does the country need new housing estates. A great deal can be done by sensible infilling. We on these Benches have a colleague, Professor Pritchard, who is a councillor in Leicestershire. Before he became a councillor he carried out a survey and found a sizeable number of sites which could be used for infilling. He drew the council's attention to them. It was grateful and used them but pointed out that it was a one-off bonus. Five years later he became a councillor--as Liberal Democrats do these days--and conducted another survey. The result, miraculously, was the same number of sites again. There appeared to be a widow's cruise of sites. I am not sure what the moral of that is. It may be that if we act sensitively and take our time, the Lord will provide; whereas if we start being brash and plonking new towns about, the results will be appalling.
The English, and the British, countryside is a great heritage. We must treat it as such. It is not to be handed over to developers or even landlords--good though some of your Lordships are. And it is a great deal more worth spending money on than cheap food--as are its people, who should be guaranteed, by any healthy society, enough work of a worthwhile kind to keep them and us happy.
Lord Wade of Chorlton: My Lords, I should first declare an interest in these matters by saying that I am an ex-farmer and landowner; I am now president of the Federation of Economic Development Authorities and chairman of the Rural Economy Group, which is both cross-parliamentary and cross-party. I believe in the need for economic growth and investment and support the need for a prosperous and diverse rural economy.
The matter being debated today is not the serious countryside issue that it is being made out to be. Ninety per cent. of the population of the UK are urbanised and want all the benefits of an urban life--jobs, schools, shops, transport and leisure. It is a question of how existing urban areas will continue to grow internally and at the edges.
The housing needs suggested by the Department of the Environment and discussed earlier under both governments of some 4.4 million homes are over the 25 years from 1991 to 2016. One million of those houses has already been built in the period 1991 to 1998. Over the next 20 years the demand will probably be in the order of some 20 million homes per decade. It is absolutely right that these matters are discussed now against predictions. Housing cannot be provided on demand but must be planned ahead in local and regional plans.
In the 1930s we built 3 million homes; in the 1950s, 3 million homes; in the 1960s, 3.5 million homes; in the 1970s, 3 million homes; in the 1980s, 2 million homes, and it will be around 2 million homes in the 1990s and no doubt in the early decade of the next century. The suggestion that that level of growth, which is lot lower now than it was soon after the war, will cover the countryside in concrete is absolute rubbish.
My experience and knowledge are in the north-west of England. There is more designated green belt in the north-west and the Midlands than in the whole of London and the south of England, and that amount doubled during the 1980s. In our towns and cities the effect has been to stifle natural growth; to drive development into valued countryside; to cause increased commuting from rural to urban work areas; and to prevent new, imaginative and innovative planning developments on the urban edge. It has provided solutions to transport, jobs and housing needs, and prevented the development of combined new development opportunities providing housing, jobs and leisure in one sector.
Most importantly, tightly drawn green belts have caused increased density in certain towns and cities which has brought pain in terms of traffic and pollution on the one hand and reduced the wealth to provide the money to find solutions on the other. A recent study by Business Strategy, an economic consultancy, reported in the Financial Times, showed that cities and towns with a well educated workforce and room for growth were best for creating jobs and attracting investment. Its study in the most successful towns in the UK showed that the key factors were low population densities, high rates of land change from rural to urban, low traffic congestion and quality housing.
Green belt policy has not protected beautiful, open English countryside. More usually it protects poor, unattractive land on the urban edge. The policy is causing particular problems where within the green belt there are derelict buildings and sites such as unused farm buildings, ex-airfields, hospitals and other institution buildings that are no longer required. Many local authorities are anxious to make improvements to such sites and see them bringing benefits to the community but are prevented by a blanket green belt policy.
A recent study by the London School of Economics, reported in the Economist, showed that green belt policy is bringing disproportionate benefits to the rich--that is, it affects those who already live in the green belt, rather than the community as a whole. In the eyes of many people it has become an elitist policy. During this century society has grown steadily richer and in the next century it will continue to get richer because it will be driven, as it has always been, by innovative technology and ideas and the desire by the people to become richer. That will continually increase the need for new homes, jobs and all the added luxuries that the future will provide in terms of leisure, health, fitness and, we hope, a more active old age.
I conclude by saying that I very much agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, relating to a more innovative taxation system to encourage the better use of urban sites and to thank my noble friend Lord Marlesford for instigating this important debate.
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