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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Lord is right about past experience. I am sure that there have been far too many examples of wasted aid. If I may say so, that was particularly the case under the policy of trade-and-aid introduced by the previous government, which certainly led to a very considerable distortion of our aid programme. With the abolition of that particular distortion, we are certainly being very active in seeing to it that the social effects of our aid policy are carried out. We have representatives in all parts of the world to ensure that that is the case.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Little things please little minds; like mine. In 1996, faced with the threat of infraction proceedings by the European Commission, the then government began the process of aligning the duty rates on sparkling cider and lower strength sparkling wine. This culminated in yesterday's Budget with the increase in sparkling cider duty which affects less that 0.5 per cent. of cider production. The process has had the support of the National Association of Cider Makers and has been phased in over a number of years.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. He has made the very point I wish to make; namely, that this is a small problem. Perhaps that is why neither party when in government has chosen to address it seriously. Sparkling cider is an historic drink. It is a 17th century drink--
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I am coming to it. Obviously none of your Lordships drinks 17th century cider. As the Economist said, at one stroke this measure will wipe out a small, rural craft industry of the type the DTI and MAFF seek to protect with grants. Does the Minister feel that his action is in conflict with that of the DTI and MAFF? What can he do to remedy the situation?
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, does the Minister realise how much we appreciate the fact that he has answered all four Questions on the Order Paper? He thus joins what I gather is an extraordinarily exclusive club of which I never managed to become a member. I am sure that it will be particularly welcome to the Yeomen of the Guard that their Captain has joined the club of those who have answered four Questions out of four. It is the first time, I believe, that has occurred. We congratulate the noble Lord on giving his ministerial colleagues a day's holiday in that regard.
On the subject of the Question--and in connection with the first Question on the Order Paper--would it not help us all to celebrate the millennium if the duty on Scotch for the period of this New Year were reduced to 23p per litre?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, when I said that little things please little minds, I am glad to note that there are two little minds in the House, the noble Lord's and mine. As is well known, the Chancellor announced that he is imposing no new increases on any form of alcohol, with the exception of the matter raised in the Question, before the millennium. I think the noble Lord asks rather a lot in seeking a reduction in the duty on Scotch whisky.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, when the noble Lord justifies his position by saying that the Greeks are being forced to come into line on the duty rates between ouzo and whisky, can he give the House an assurance that the Greeks and other Mediterranean countries always obey EU directives?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we seek to take action against the Greek Government as Italian manufacturers have sought to take action against us with regard to sparkling cider. The issue has not yet been resolved. When it is resolved, we shall expect the Greek Government to obey European Community directives, as we do.
Lord Carter: My Lords, after the first debate today my noble friend Lord Simon of Highbury will, with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement that is being made in another place on enterprise and competition.
Moved, That the debate on the Motion in the name of the Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer set down for today shall be limited to three-and-a-half hours and that in the name of the Baroness Thomas of Walliswood to two-and-a-half hours.--(Baroness Jay of Paddington.)
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer rose to call attention to the case for policies which will ensure a living, working countryside and in particular to the need for clarity in the new relationships between the regional development agencies, the Countryside Agency, government offices, the European Commission and local authorities; and to move for Papers.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, as I introduce this debate this afternoon I especially welcome the fact that so many noble Lords have chosen to take part. The future of rural Britain needs a new vision, and sharing our thoughts and concerns today will certainly help to build that vision. I especially welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, is making his maiden speech this afternoon. He has long expertise in this field which I am sure will be welcomed.
For decades we have lived with the myth of a countryside which has now ceased to exist. We have lived with the myth of rural England as the cosy, rose covered cottages near the village green. But the reality has changed. People who were born in the cities now move to the village when they have enough money or when they retire. People who were born in the village have to move to the cities as they grow up because that is where the cheaper housing is and where the jobs are. People from urban and suburban Britain want to visit the countryside for a day to walk, to go to the country pub for lunch or to watch the heron rise from the river. People working in the countryside want access to training to help them keep as skilled as their city counterparts. But the sad fact is--it is this fact that we must address today--that the political vision, the policy and the resources have been denied to rural Britain by successive governments. The Government have trailed dismally behind the pace of change and that is why we are now faced with a crisis in the countryside.
Liberal Democrats have long advocated many practical policies for putting our vision of a thriving countryside into action. Indeed, our Liberal Democrat councils have, in spite of the lack of central government action over the past decade, worked with their rural towns on regeneration and with their village communities on practical measures. This Government have adopted some of them, for example rate relief for rural post offices and shops. One of the major points which we have consistently made is that rural issues need addressing in a comprehensive way.
This Government are proud of the phrase "joined up thinking". Where, then, is the rural policy unit or the rural ministry that could achieve this? Early on this Government were minded to think about that, but it seems to have fallen off the agenda. We need an overall vision. We must implement the kind of changes that will create a rural Britain that is not a museum where there is no real work; that is not a wilderness of wheat with no wildlife; that is not a preserve of the wealthy second home owners; but is a place where wildlife thrives; where wholesome food is produced; where children can grow up in communities that offer them varied opportunities; and where elderly people do not need to dread isolation and diminishing essential services as they grow older.
The Government are now preparing a White Paper on rural England and a discussion document has been published in the past fortnight. But what will be the reaction to this document? Rural communities and their representatives have been consulted literally dozens of times over the past few years. They have been consulted on their local plans, on how many houses should be built and where they should be built. They have been consulted by their community councils on how their communities are progressing and what kind of things need to happen to build them up. They have been consulted on their response to the crime and disorder proposals. They have been consulted by their local housing authorities on housing needs, and they ask themselves what has changed. What they do know is that their post offices and village shops continue to struggle and sadly in many cases continue to close. I am sure that most noble Lords are aware of the huge number of rural villages that have no shop or post office. People in rural communities also know that there are fewer hares in the fields and fewer larks in the sky and--as has been highlighted in your Lordships' House over the past few months--fewer sparrows and fewer lapwings. They have heard about good intentions from successive governments, so one cannot blame the people of rural Britain for being cynical.
I wish to turn for a moment to the people who are trying to deliver the rural services. I have to say, off the record, that they are cynical too. They are cynical because the forthcoming White Paper on the future of rural Britain will come after the Government have done so much to define that rural future. It will come after the creation of the RDAs and the guidance to them on what their strategy should contain. I remember the struggle in your Lordships' House to include a reference to representation of rural interests. The White Paper will
In their Select Committee on the Countryside Agency, Members of another place wondered whether this decision to, in their words, "cobble together" was more a matter of administrative convenience than a vital part of a new strategy for rural areas. Furthermore, the White Paper will come after the Government have decided their negotiating position on CAP reform. Hardly anything will have more impact on rural Britain than that. The White Paper on rural England should have led this process, not followed it.
After hearing that catalogue, your Lordships might be forgiven for asking what there is left to discuss. I am an optimist and I hope that there is quite a lot left to be discussed. The positive step in this direction is that the discussion paper on rural England is a joint publication between MAFF and the DETR. So there is a partial acceptance that rural issues are cross-departmental. But other departments whose policies are crucial are not included; for example, the DTI. Small businesses outside the agricultural sector are very important. Tourism, too, is of great importance in many of our rural regions but is so often left out of the equation.
It is possible to foresee an environment in which small rural businesses thrive and where farmers, especially those on the smaller family farms, get their due for implementing agri-environment schemes and receive a decent return for producing high quality food. A recent Exeter University study estimated that producers receive only 15p in every pound for their produce. If the Government supported a processing and marketing scheme for farmers, imagine what that would do to change some of the returns producers would receive. I think it is the small producers, despite the exchange I had at Question Time, who need special consideration. They are the ones who are building the whole picture of the agricultural sector in rural Britain. Although we may dismiss only 15 producers as a very small part of what happens, we know that it is local produce and the distinctiveness of that produce that are very important to people.
There are European funds for such schemes, but as yet the Government have chosen not to take part in them. I hope that we will benefit from the reform of CAP funding that can introduce agri-environment and rural development measures. But who will decide how to use these funds? Who will decide the priorities in each region? Crucially, who will measure the success of such schemes? In short, we have a jigsaw of agencies, boards and authorities. How do they fit together? The question that should have been addressed right at the start of this process is: which agency or authority is responsible for what?
Regional development agencies' guidance is that their fundamental purpose is to improve their regions' economic performance and enhance their regions' competitiveness. The guidance makes almost no mention of either the quality of life of the people living in the region or of maintaining and enhancing the
This would be less of a thorny issue if the Government had defined that relationship between RDAs and the regional chamber. Noble Lords will remember that it was not defined on the face of the Regional Development Agencies Bill. The RSPB, among others, has picked up this point. It says that,
I recently had a meeting with the chairman of the Young Farmers in Somerset. I asked her what was at the top of her members' agenda. I expected her to say BSE or the difficulty of entry into farming. But at the top of her list, too, was lack of affordable housing. So who is the housing authority? Who must draw up and implement the integrated transport plans? It is the local authority.
Into this melting pot I would just like to throw the Government Offices for the Regions. Among other tasks, they must encourage a constructive dialogue between, for example, the regional planning conference and the RDA. That is particularly crucial at the moment when we are all still struggling to predict and provide the number of homes that will be required and which
We now have many new bodies and a good deal of re-organisation. Will these structures be easy to understand and work with? Will they make it easier for a community to rebuild its village hall? Will the funding mechanisms for such projects be easier to deal with? It is very, very difficult for a local community to get together four, five or six partners; frequently we need a professional red-tape interpreter. I hope the reorganisations will make this simpler.
Recognition of the problems and solutions offers us opportunities. The European CAP reform proposals offer a chance to draw on funding for rural development which will strengthen the whole of the rural economy. It offers an opportunity because a regional structure with regional assemblies could draw the strands together. It offers an opportunity for the Government to create a Ministry which will draw the strands together nationally, or will at least do what so many in the countryside are after and "rural proof", a phrase which people like the CPRE are now using. It is a time of opportunity because there is a recognition that everyone has a stake in a rural future. The city dweller, those in the market town, the farmer, those living in villages and those who live in our isolated uplands all have a stake in that future and we need to get it right. We must not miss these opportunities because they fell through cracks in the structures. Let us be clear in our vision. Let us make the links and fill in the cracks. I beg to move for Papers.
Lord Williamson of Horton: My Lords, this is an important debate for me for three reasons: first, because it is widely acknowledged that debates in this House and the reports of committees of this House have made a valuable contribution to public policy and discussion on agriculture and the countryside; secondly, because so far in this debate there has been a monopoly of speakers who are Somerset folk, and Somerset folk think that they know a thing or two about agriculture and the countryside; and thirdly, because it is the first time that I speak in this Chamber and I ask your Lordships' indulgence. There is a very good principle to which I subscribe. It is that newcomers should be seen and heard--but not for too long!
I support very much the approach proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, in seeking a living, working countryside. If farmers cannot make a living, or if they do not think that it is worth continuing to work, we shall not have a living, working countryside. So agriculture is central to this debate. However, the countryside is much more than farming, and there are many things we can do to improve co-ordination between the various agencies to which the noble Baroness referred.
In the countryside we are in any event going to depend in the future very much, perhaps even more so than now, on small businesses. The action taken in yesterday's Budget is very welcome. It should be part
The type of small business in the countryside is bound to change, with fewer manufacturing and more service businesses, and more distance-working. I do not know how far the public services have gone in encouraging distance-working. I doubt whether a part of the department of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will be established in Chilthorne Domer in the near future, but at least we should seek to remove any barriers to distance-working by which people or groups work at home with a connection to the main centres by computerised means.
In addition, the increased attention being given by the public to the protection of the environment and to leisure activities in the countryside is to be welcomed, provided that we do not overrun the capacity of the countryside to handle the changes. That is particularly important following the recent Statement on the right to roam. We should not under-estimate the attractiveness of the rural landscape, not only to walkers but to the public generally. A recent study in the south west indicated that an estimated 10 million holiday trips in the area are motivated by the rural landscape. Conservation organisations such as the National Trust and the wildlife trusts provide a large number of jobs and a great deal of economic activity, going well beyond their own employees. The estimated figure for the National Trust--I declare an interest as a member of the regional committee for Wessex--is that for every one job in the National Trust, 3.3 jobs are created elsewhere in the south west. Altogether, about 5,000 full-time equivalent jobs depend on the activities of the National Trust. It is a significant figure.
All the agencies need to understand the changes that will, or have, come about in the common agricultural policy. There is a certain time lag in comprehending the changes. I am sympathetic to that, as they are fairly complicated. However, I believe that changes in the common agricultural policy will have a significant impact on the countryside. After all, we are making changes in terms of reducing prices, reducing the importance of intervention and in setting up more direct and agri-environmental grants, and grants for rural development. These are important changes. They will mean lower prices. Regrettably, there may be a higher budget cost. And there will probably be very low stocks in intervention in the near future. All those factors will affect the way in which farming develops. The safety net will be somewhat lower and farmers will be more reliant on market prices and direct grants.
Finally, we need to look beyond changes that have already taken place towards possible future changes. As we debate this matter, Ministers of the member states are meeting yet again in Brussels to discuss further changes in the common agricultural policy. As one who
Overall, I believe that the forthcoming changes are important, as is co-ordination between the agencies. Change will be difficult, but it is absolutely necessary if we are to have a living, working countryside of which we can be proud.
Baroness Young of Old Scone: My Lords, on behalf of the whole House, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, on his excellent maiden speech. He brings to this House a wealth of experience, not only of the Department of Agriculture in this country, but also of the machinations of Europe which he so well described. Many of the issues with which we shall be wrestling in the forthcoming months and years to safeguard the vibrancy of our countryside for the future are ones in which the noble Lord is thoroughly steeped. We look forward to the benefit of his knowledge and wisdom. If I may be bold enough to say so, attending 108 European Council meetings eminently equips him for this House!
I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for the opportunity to debate this important issue of a living, working countryside. I declare an interest as chairman of English Nature, one of the plethora of bodies that she described as presently working for the countryside.
The rural agenda that we have heard sketched out is an extremely wide one. It includes all the economic, social and environmental issues described by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. Indeed, we are all looking forward to the rural White Paper. I was with the Deputy Prime Minister when he launched the rural White Paper. I found myself experiencing one of life's delicious moments when he turned to me, pointed his finger and started lecturing me on the importance of tackling the decline in skylarks. It is not a topic on which I have often heard the Deputy Prime Minister wax lyrical. I am glad that the rural White Paper has brought him to a recognition that the decline in biodiversity in our countryside is an important issue.
I had another wicked thought while he was lecturing me on the value of skylarks. We have had several other rural White Papers, none of which has solved the problems of the countryside. I do not believe they have been short on ideas, they have been short on implementation. It might be easier if we erased the word "Conservative" from the last rural White Paper and wrote "Labour" at the top of it and proceeded to implementation immediately, rather than going through the process of asking everyone their views all over again.
What we need is integration of the three countryside issues to produce a sustainable countryside. We need to bring together the economic considerations and the economic crisis in the countryside, the real social deprivation and lack of amenities and the need to protect the environment.
I am pleased that we shall look at the rural White Paper also in the context of the urban White Paper because, as the noble Baroness pointed out, the town and the country are not hermetically sealed from each other. These days they are mutually dependent, they share issues like deprivation, poor transport and lack of employment.
I wish to tackle three issues. First, I shall look at what is different in the countryside. It is distinctive because it is green, it has biodiversity, it is our landscape. It has a value that is intrinsic in that its wildlife and biodiversity are important for the future of all of us and the sign of a healthy environment. But those distinctive features of the countryside are also economically important. Our wildlife and landscape create jobs--conservation management is now one of the fastest growing employment sectors in the countryside. For every direct conservation management job there are five other jobs created in support services and areas like green tourism.
I hope we will see more of extensive agriculture under the common agricultural policy reforms. It employs more people than traditional--as it has now become--intensive agriculture. A high quality countryside is economically good because it promotes inward investment. Many firms go to parts of the country that have high quality rural surroundings because they want to operate there and know that they can recruit staff to live there.
Last but not least, our landscape and biodiversity are important for social reasons. People enjoy visiting them and we will look with interest at the development of the access provisions recently announced.
In tackling the social and economic interests in the countryside, we need to ensure that we are building them firmly on the basis of the natural assets that are so valuable in the countryside. Economic development must enhance the environment and reflect regional character rather than destroying it.
The noble Baroness also pointed out the plethora of regional processes that we are now seeing impacting on the countryside. I wish to focus particularly on the regional development agencies. They have the potential to become a positive force for change and renewal in the countryside and not just engines for economic
Most of all, we need the rural development agencies to operate within the framework of the planning system which has been developed over the past 30 or 40 years, to do the job of bringing together competing needs in the countryside and resolving those competing needs.
My time has overrun. The third point I wished to raise has already been well covered by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson: the common agricultural policy reform. I end by saying that the countryside is distinctive because of its natural assets. In tackling social and economic issues it is vital that the solutions are built on enhancing those natural assets.
The Earl of Selborne: My Lords, I also wish to start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, on his maiden speech. He clearly has great expertise in the area, but he particularly commands our admiration as a veteran of 108 Agricultural Council meetings. His speech was admirable; his attendance record at those meetings even more deserving of praise.
I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for initiating the debate. She reminded us of a number of far-reaching changes here in the United Kingdom, in the regions, and in Europe. It is extremely important that we work out how we can achieve what our own rural White Paper seeks to achieve: an integrated and effective approach for rural areas.
National policy must ultimately be the key. It is clearly helpful to have a European input. It is sad in a way that the great aspirations at the time of the Cork conference two years ago have clearly not been fulfilled. There is much watering down of the rural development element; nevertheless it is still there. I hope that that can be harnessed to our own aspirations--national, regional and local--for the rural areas.
One factor is absolutely clear. We cannot conceivably determine the rural initiatives that are needed in order to recharge the rural economy at a European level. It is self-evident that we have completely different aspirations and problems in our rural areas from region to region, let alone compared with other parts of the continent of Europe. Objective 2, which is an innovation within the Agenda 2000 package, is something we will no doubt welcome provided it can be seen to be subservient to the measures that it is incumbent on us to identify.
We have a raft of initiatives from the past five to 10 years on which to draw. We know that the population in the rural areas of this country--unlike so much of the Continent, particularly France--is increasing. We know that this, in turn, causes great pressure on housing. There is a shortage of low-cost social housing. We must put in place the appropriate housing in order to meet the aspirations of younger wage-earning adults of whom there is a shortage in the rural areas. The rural areas have a greater preponderance of the elderly, often suffering from lack of transport.
A point touched on by all speakers is that agricultural employment is in long-term decline. There is nothing new in that; it has been happening ever since the war. That is not to say that the agricultural industry is inevitably in terminal decline. Nor is it automatically true--and this is where I part company with the noble Baroness, Lady Young--that extensive agriculture employs more people.
If we require agriculture to be competitive in world terms--and we do require it--we must ensure that we develop agricultural systems which have the least impact on the environment and provide the most opportunities for the rural economy. There is no reason why extensive farming or intensive farming should be better or worse. If we consider some of the best managed farms and estates which have won national awards for environmental measures, some can only be described as intensive, highly competitive agriculture. If that agriculture does not survive, we will not have a rural economy. Agriculture may be declining in terms of rural employment, but it is still a large part of the rural economy.
We become muddled when we use emotive words about intensive agriculture and the impact on the environment. I make the point time and time again that while organic farming may be an important niche, which we are failing to fill, we must ultimately determine how we have agricultural systems which fit most happily into the environment and particularly into the landscapes which we all cherish. The phrase, "a living, working countryside", to which the terms of the Motion refer, implies that there must ultimately be commercially competitive agriculture.
There is one specific proposal to which I should refer on the agricultural side. I was saddened that the previous administration removed the UK processing and marketing scheme. If we recognise that we must have a competitive agriculture, we quickly determine that we must meet the regional aspirations to which the noble Baroness, who initiated the debate, referred. We must also try to add value as close as possible to the farm. That means creating jobs in the countryside and trying to bring marketing and processing as near the farm as possible. We missed an opportunity to do that by removing the scheme which was funded by the CAP.
My time is up. I shall set a precedent by being the first person not to exceed the six-minute time limit. I hope that noble Lords will not ignore the great contribution that can be made by competitive agriculture.
The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for introducing this important debate. I also add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, on his excellent maiden speech. This debate gives us the opportunity to consider again the vital needs of a living, working countryside at a moment of change when we see the evolution and emergence of several new agencies with, we hope, complementary but possibly conflicting responsibilities. The picture is very complicated. It is a kind of three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle with many uncertainties, some risks but also a number of important possibilities for revitalising rural life.
I believe that the key lies with the new Countryside Agency which is a national body with the specific remit of promoting a living, working countryside. It has been created out of the old RDC and the Countryside Commission, but continues to be housed in the former base of the Countryside Commission. Many of its staff were formerly with the Countryside Commission. This has led to some fears being expressed that the Countryside Agency may be too much concerned with environmental issues and too little interested in rural development, infrastructure, transport and all those other vital factors that make for a vigorous and sustainable rural community.
In reality it would be difficult to be too much concerned with environmental issues, which are clearly crucial. I long to see more larks and lapwings. A fortnight ago I was in Normandy under leaden skies and saw huge flocks of lapwings. I wondered what the French knew about lapwing habitats that we appeared to have forgotten. But the new Countryside Agency needs to act quickly to win the confidence and support of all in rural communities: farmers, small business people, landowners, voluntary organisations and environmentalists. The research and advisory function of the Countryside Agency is of critical importance. It will need to give clear and convincing advice to the RDAs, which are dominated mainly by urban and business interests, and also to the Government Offices and local authorities. It will need to maintain a close and fruitful relationship with Brussels.
The RDAs are emerging as very powerful players with easy access to government which is to be welcomed, but they need to take over the old rural regeneration functions of the RDCs and to be put in charge of European Union structural funds as well as the single regeneration budget. I hope that the Minister will be able to give noble Lords some indication that that will happen. There is real concern about the urban domination of RDAs. Their members need to remember that 23 per cent. of the population live in the country and 30 per cent. of national GDP is accounted for in rural areas.
The Government Offices may appear to be losing out in terms of power and influence to the RDAs. I understand that in many places Government Offices staff have been offered the chance to transfer to the new RDAs. But further devolution to the regions is very much on the cards. That process may well bring other functions to the Government Offices, such as Home Office or culture, media and sport responsibilities. One very important change that it would be good to see and that would be especially beneficial to rural areas is the incorporation into the Government Offices of the regional offices of MAFF. Indeed, MAFF needs to be much more concerned in future with rural development in the broadest sense, especially by helping farmers to add value to their produce locally. Moreover, MAFF needs to advise the RDAs about businesses that can appropriately be located in rural areas to help the process of regeneration. I ask the Minister to give your Lordships' House an indication of whether the Government intend to encourage the convergence of MAFF and the Government Offices.
The regional chambers are as yet fairly shadowy bodies. It is not clear how influential they may become. They are important because they give a voice to local authorities and voluntary agencies. In due course they may develop into regional elected assemblies. That would transform them into very powerful bodies. In the West Midlands there is a strong head of steam in favour of that development. But for the moment I see the chambers as ensuring a close and harmonious partnership between the RDA and the local authorities. It is the local authorities who still handle the vast bulk of public funding, even though they may believe, as one local politician put it to me rather cynically the other day, that RDAs are a necessary evil so that they can continue to have access to Richard Caborn's wallet.
Rural people and voluntary organisations including CPRE and the Churches are not well represented on most chambers. We are concerned about being taken seriously. We are also concerned about the end of European 5b funding which was specifically targeted for rural regeneration. Common agricultural policy reform has run into predictable difficulties and access to European funds for rural development appears to be increasingly difficult and problematical. The Minister's assurances that this problem is recognised and will be tackled vigorously would be very welcome.
Finally, I touch upon another change that we may have to envisage. We may have to look again at local government. We have just been through a great upheaval in the form of the introduction of unitary authorities in many places. In the diocese of Hereford, which is almost equally divided between Herefordshire and South Shropshire, I can compare a new unitary authority--Herefordshire--with a weakened two-tier Shropshire. Having lost The Wrekin with a large population and significant resources, Shropshire, although an extremely well run county, is struggling. The argument for simplifying local government, for example by creating new unitary authorities in North and South Shropshire, begins to look quite convincing.
If regional government does come it is clear that unitary authorities will have to come too in place of the more elaborate two-tier county structure. The prospect of more upheaval is not attractive, but I believe this debate has made us think more radically and long term. However the present relationships develop and whatever comes in the future, a living, working countryside will remain of vital importance. Tourism will become more important, but to take rural England as a whole it can never make more than a marginal contribution to the kind of well balanced, sustainable rural communities that we urgently need to maintain.
Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Williamson. I know that we have a strong agricultural voice on his Bench. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for initiating the debate. The Government make frequent Statements on the countryside and produce White Papers and consultative documents, but positive action is much less substantial. This week it has been totally negative, in that we have had a big increase in the tax on fuel, which is our life-blood in the countryside. On most farms it is essential to have fairly high-powered vehicles to pull trailers and to get round the countryside. The same goes for transport. We have also had a Statement on access to the countryside, to which I shall turn later, and the continuing muddle of the CAP in Europe. All together, this is bad news for the countryside.
I speak with some credentials as one who steered the Wildlife and Countryside Bill through another place and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is aware, served on the Nature Conservancy Council for nine years before she became chairman of English Nature. By and large, I have strongly supported what we have done in the countryside, with two exceptions: wind farms and telecommunication towers. Both the previous government and the present one have made it far too easy to erect these most unattractive, almost obscene, towers all over the rural countryside. Nothing can be done to enhance the environment, improve habitats, support wildlife, achieve a high standard of husbandry and retain employment unless farming and forestry are profitable. We must have a fair return on capital and labour if we are to make any improvements in the rural economy. At the moment that is manifestly not so.
We had a period of increasing income up to 1996-97. Since then almost everything has gone wrong. There has been a severe drop in farmgate prices. In Scotland, the income from agriculture was £600 million in 1995 and £100 million in 1998. Every sector is affected, especially the hills. No wonder there is gloom. I think that it was made worse by the wholly one-sided government Statement earlier this week. I do not think that the Government have appreciated the substantial progress in the past few years towards voluntary agreements and arrangements. The CLA, the Scottish Landowners' Federation and the NFUs of each country have worked hard towards that. Under the excellent chairmanship of Magnus Magnusson--sadly he is retiring this year--Scottish Natural Heritage introduced
However, harmony was ruined by the confrontational approach by the Government this week. I think that they will rue the day. It is sad to see the argument polarised. We must have a long debate on the subject when we can raise the tone of discussion and seek consensus.
The Government seem enthusiastic to reform the CAP. I recommend caution, and did so in public on many occasions as a Minister. Any major reform which reduces income, coupled with the current low prices, will be the death knell of farming. That industry is the mainstay of the rural economy. At present the world is full of cliches from Ministers to academics on advice to farmers. It is so easy to give and difficult to achieve. Buzz words are everywhere--training; conversion of buildings; tourist development; farm shops; country cottages; co-operatives; rural transport; bed and breakfast, and so on. They tell you everything except where the money is to come from. Even if there were a 50 per cent. grant from the development agencies, from the enterprise companies in Scotland or from Europe, the matching 50 per cent. on many grants is just not there.
How can farmers make substantial investment without a good cash flow? There are also the lengthy arguments they have to undertake with planning committees, which, my goodness, can be difficult, and the grant-giving authorities. The Government's first duty must be to get farming off its knees; then the rural problems will begin to disappear. But if there is no increase in income, no capital, no employment and no development, the countryside will deteriorate. Last autumn I was in northern New York state on a military visit. The countryside there had been largely abandoned, with derelict fields, fences and buildings. It demonstrates what can happen if farming is allowed to go to rack and ruin; and that includes all the environmental aspects too.
The CAP presents many aspects which are unattractive to us, in particular the modulation scheme. I hope that the Government will be careful how they proceed. They must realise that if we are to improve the environment they must make farming profitable.
Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, noble Lords will be glad to hear that there is no need for me to make my speech. Everything has been said, and said well, in particular by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who placed the correct emphasis on the importance of agriculture. That was emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Monro, in a somewhat more gloomy manner.
I visited a farm machinery firm representing one of the best known manufacturers. In the past year-and-a-half of bad figures relating to farming, while it has not sacked anyone--it is a good firm and wishes to keep its good people--it has not replaced five people out of 20 in the workshop. That is a significant figure which demonstrates the dependence on prosperity in agriculture.
A somewhat lesser illustration comes from a pest control officer--we used to call them rabbit trappers. He said to me, "The farmers are daft. In bad times they don't employ me to kill the rabbits. They leave the rabbits to multiply and eat the grain they need so badly". So he, too, was suffering. It is an illustration of the importance throughout the countryside of reasonably prosperous agriculture. It is true that we need to develop and facilitate other forms of employment in the countryside. On the east coast of Scotland one of the great snags, for example, to developing old farm buildings for other purposes is the difficulty of obtaining planning permission. For example, a young man may have a good idea in engineering. It is ludicrous that the planners, for some extraordinary reason, refuse permission or take so long to give it that the project falls through. We need to pursue all these practical matters.
In introducing the debate, my noble friend Lady Miller had an English background in mind because she is rightly concerned with the cohesion of the various bodies. I wish to point out, with others, the absolute necessity of a prosperous agricultural industry if we want a good, viable countryside. It is vital to spend money--we have many enterprise groups in Scotland--on encouraging co-operation and marketing. The ludicrous figure of the farmer receiving 15 per cent. of the end price needs to be improved. I have said enough and will sit down well within my allocated time.
Lord Gray of Contin: My Lords, I associate myself with others who have thanked the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for allowing us to discuss the subject today. Perhaps I may be forgiven if I do not mention agriculture. Four of the first seven speeches were by experts in agriculture. It is sufficient for me to endorse heartily all that they said.
One of my reasons for taking part in the debate is that I see a distinct danger of this House becoming divorced from Scottish matters after the creation of the new Scottish Parliament. The functions of that Parliament are far-reaching; and we shall have no locus in the legislation it may pass which could affect seriously the Scottish countryside. My hope is that your Lordships will not feel inhibited in any way from comment or advice on such issues, and that the new parliament will
It seems likely that either Labour or the Scottish National Party will emerge as the largest single party after the May elections, and since both are committed to some sort of land reform, a Bill to enact their proposals will be among the first to be presented to the new parliament.
I trust that very careful thought will be given to the preliminary researches already carried out by the Scottish Office. In September 1998 a land reform group, chaired by the Scottish Office Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, and including a number of distinguished Members, produced an interesting document entitled Land Reform - Identifying the Solutions.
I have no criticism of the way in which the case is presented or with the detailed analysis given to each of their "Visions for the Future"--the somewhat romantic title which they gave to their ideas. But I do hope that they, or the Scottish Office officials who will service the new Ministers, will take very careful note of the many disadvantages as well as the advantages, outlined in their own document. In the future nobody can suggest that the new parliamentarians have not been warned. The disadvantages of every aspect of land reform is there in black and white for all to read.
I would not deny that over the years we have had some bad landlords in Scotland, but they have been far outnumbered by the far-sighted, dedicated and thoroughly good landlords who have struggled to make their estates viable.
I trust that some research will be done into the present viability of estates particularly in the Highlands of Scotland. If it is, it will be discovered that few would be viable without the injection of capital from business or financial interests from other sources and sometimes even from other countries.
Should those estates be broken up, their limited viability would be further eroded. I do not want to see the baby thrown out with the bath water. I want to see a way of life preserved and rural areas continue to act as the lungs of the countryside, free of pollution and available for both leisure and sport, with each having regard to, and respect for, the aspirations of the other. For example, there is no merit in encouraging hordes of ramblers to climb hills where eagles or falcons are known to nest. Their very presence will scare off the birds they wish to observe. Yet there are opportunities for hill walking which are readily available throughout Scotland, as can be witnessed by the number of enthusiasts who conquer munros in Scotland every weekend.
Fishing, shooting, and stalking all provide sport for a sector of the tourist industry which we neglect at our peril, for within that grouping are customers who are prepared to pay substantial rents which help to finance the land over which they shoot or the rivers which they fish. I doubt that land reform will play a significant part in improving the situation. The problems of the countryside in Scotland differ from those in England and
The Countess of Mar: My Lords, the timing of this debate is most appropriate. I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for tabling her Motion. I also add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Williamson for his very enlightening speech.
I must declare an interest. My husband and I have just over 100 acres in Worcestershire. We have a small flock of pedigree black Welsh Mountain sheep; a small herd of pedigree Blonde Aquitaine beef cattle and about 20 milking goats, from whose milk I make cheese. Our local family butcher, who has a low throughput abattoir attached to his shop, kills our surplus lambs and kids and prepares them for private sales. He, his brother and other members of his family have awards for their specialist meats and sausages. There is, as the Minister is no doubt aware, a niche market for these meats. Neither our lambs nor our kids are acceptable to the supermarket buyers who dominate local auction markets and co-operatives. No large-scale abattoir would look at the small numbers we would want killed. Even if it would, we would have to travel many miles to our nearest one. Our local hunt kennels takes our fallen stock. The local knackerman went out of business during the BSE crisis.
It seems to be the policy of this Government that farmers should lose their local abattoirs and hunt kennels; the first in the name of rationalisation and the second in the name of morality. I wonder whether they, their supporters and advisers are aware that by doing so they are in grave danger of killing off the few remaining local markets and, with them, upland and specialist meat producers. Do they not realise that there is a ready market for meat with flavour that has been reared, slaughtered and prepared to the highest welfare and hygiene standards? Is it not the intensively reared, industrially slaughtered, pale and tasteless relation that masquerades as meat that is in surplus in the EU?
The Minister's honourable friend, the Minister of State for Agriculture, appeared only last weekend on BBC2 South-West in a debate on the plight of small abattoirs. He said in effect that, while he had sympathy for the small abattoir owners, the "big boys in the meat industry" would not allow him to order charging on a headage rather than an hourly basis. It is all too clear why these "big boys", with a throughput of a beast every 45 seconds, will not hear of a headage charge.
We are also told that there is over-capacity in the slaughter industry. Dare I suggest that it is not a question of over-capacity? It is one of profitability. I understand that the Meat and Livestock Commission calculations are based on the throughput capacity in the slaughter hall. Will the Minister persuade his colleagues in MAFF to go back to the MLC and ask it to produce true capacity figures, including chiller capacity, together with those for profitability? Could it be that the "big boys", to whom the agriculture Minister says he must
As an aside, there is a 300 per cent. over-capacity in car production plant in Europe. Why not close Longbridge? As the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, will very aptly illustrate, the social and employment effects of the closure would be similar in both situations. Instead, it seems that Longbridge might well get £200 million of taxpayers' money. The charges to be levied on the slaughterhouses and cutting plants are for meat hygiene inspections. Is this not a public health matter? Should not these costs also be paid out of general taxation as they are in some of the other European states such as France?
We are told that, because of a lack of suitably qualified veterinary staff, only the small throughput abattoirs with low hygiene scores will face the higher inspection charges in the initial stages. I wonder whether noble Lords are aware that although there are legally established requirements for hygiene, for staff, premises and equipment in slaughterhouses and cutting plants, the scores applied to each plant are based upon the subjective judgment of the inspector, as I gather some owners have found to their cost. I am also reliably informed that members of the State Veterinary Service have recently been going round deliberately downgrading hygiene assessment scores. There is no appeal mechanism. A senior vet stated at a recent tribunal that it was no part of his duty to act fairly. What is the world coming to?
Perhaps it would be much simpler if we are told that there is no longer a place for small producers, livestock in the hills and speciality British farm foods. The rural community would then know where it stands in the great plan. Its members could then be issued with mowers and contracts to keep open the paths for the roaming urban population.
Lord Kimball: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, in an excellent maiden speech, rightly drew attention to the jobs created by leisure activity in the countryside. The Motion calls for clarity. It is timely with the new organisations, the Countryside Agency and the regional development agencies, coming into effect on 1st April. The Motion also addresses the role of Government Offices, and I shall endeavour to show briefly how two ministries are failing to recognise the major growth area of their responsibilities in the countryside.
In previous rural debates, we have lamented the restructuring of the Rural Development Commission. It has achieved so much since its foundation in 1909. Whole villages in my old constituency in the heartlands of Lincolnshire have been resuscitated by it. It goes into the Countryside Agency in company with the Countryside Commission but disembowelled of its
Powers passing to the Countryside Agency under Section 35 of the Regional Development Agencies 1998 include ones that can be applied across a wide-ranging experimental sphere covering social, economic and recreational areas. I want to put down an early marker here concerning the urgent need for licences to be issued for extensive experiments in avian predation management by quota and translocation. It is needed as a result of the Langholm study and the correct procedures for dealing with a major rural problem of the employment and harvesting of the most valuable crop of the heather moorland; the red grouse. The department has the power to issue such licences in relation to the hen harrier and peregrine falcon. Research by the Game Conservancy as a follow-on from the Langholm project shows that this may be an opportunity to save these birds as part of the rural working landscape.
Like the right reverend Prelate, I am concerned that the Minister of Agriculture was missing from all press briefings about the Countryside Agency and the regional development agencies. The Deputy Prime Minister was to the fore, supported by Ministers from the departments responsible for the environment, trade and industry and education and employment.
If you take a graph of agricultural employment and production and compare it with a graph of employment of production from the British Horse Industry Confederation, you will see that in rural Britain the horse will overtake agriculture in a very short time. No Minister is responsible for this major development. The interest of the Home Office in racing is purely as a regulator of betting. It has no responsibility for breeding or export.
It is the moment to pay tribute to the bold action of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, who, from the Ministry of Agriculture, has played such a key role in encouraging and facilitating the creation of the Horse Industry Confederation. It is most welcome. The confederation has an estimated annual value of £2.5 billion and more than 160,000 jobs. The confederation wants to discuss with the Government more encouragement of British equine exports, trade missions and taxation, especially the favourable conditions granted to Irish and European breeders, and at least six other major issues, including rights of way and a proper data base. I do not want to see the horse classed as an agricultural animal--it is a very complex issue--but I do want the Minister of Agriculture to become the responsible Minister for one of the major areas of development in the countryside. It is certainly an area that needs clarification.
Finally, can we say loudly and clearly that rural England needs the motor car? The Government's hostility to the motorist does not support their pre-election promises on traffic. The Motion deals with working in the countryside. In the rural south-west of
Lord Hooson: My Lords, my noble friend Lady Miller has crafted her Motion with great care. She speaks of policies which will ensure a living, working countryside. In 1962, I fought a by-election on the very problem of rural depopulation from Montgomeryshire. I therefore know that there is enormous ignorance among the public and those in high places about the problem of having a living, working countryside.
In today's debate and outside this House, speakers have spoken with pride, saying that if the common agricultural policy disappears and is not replaced, and if agriculture is unable to compete in a free trade world, the countryside will look after itself. It will not. A great deal of the English countryside is man-made and we would quickly see the kind of countryside that is to be found in New York State, New Jersey and such like, with its abandoned fences and so forth.
Life in the living, working countryside involves a rural economy which sustains civilised life. When I became a Member of Parliament in 1962, 1,000 young people left my area of the country each year. The unemployment figures were low because people did not stay in the area. They moved elsewhere to find employment because they had been brought up to be industrious. Unless adequate steps are taken now, we are in danger of allowing the whole of our countryside to slump into a rural depression.
I do not believe that the problem will be solved by bureaucracy. We are in great danger of creating too many bodies charged with the function of helping the countryside. The countryside needs more carefully thought-out, directed help. Perhaps I may give two examples. I remember the help which was given by the local councils and others to Bernard and Laura Ashley when they started a business in my constituency a few months after I became an MP. They employed two people when I first knew them and their business grew to become a large concern. It still provides more jobs
When one thinks of a living, working countryside, its backbone is agriculture. I do not care what anybody's theories are. I should fight to the death to preserve a healthy agriculture in this country because without it, the countryside will not be preserved. I have not been one of those who has hammered away at the common agricultural policy as though if we got rid of it tomorrow, everything would be all right; far from it. One would perhaps need a better-directed policy, but we should need a policy nevertheless.
We need a healthy agriculture and the ancillary industries and services which depend on it are then important. There are other matters. When I think of a typical farmer living in my area, I think of a husband and wife on the farm. Sometimes the wife goes out to do clerical work and the daughters are working in one or two of the factories nearby. That means that the average income of the household is enough to sustain life in a very beautiful part of the countryside where people want to live. In the area where I live, I am amazed by the number of people who go away to work, but who return when they retire. They tell me that they wished that they had never had to leave the area at all.
We are living in a time of great change and there will be enormous developments. There will be some problems and I advise people in England to take care because we have faced those problems in Wales. There is a danger of transferring the ethos of an over-centralised UK into an over-centralised region. Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Cardiff have their own metropolis complex and one must take care that the countryside is safeguarded when there is regional development because the interest of the region is not necessarily the same as the interest of the countryside within the region.
The Earl of Radnor: My Lords, I too am very grateful to the noble Baroness for bringing forward this very wide subject of the living countryside and how it should survive and work well. I believe that it does still live and I declare an interest because I have worked in it all my life. Many people still do.
In particular, I echo what the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, said. It is absolutely vital that farming should be efficient as it goes into the future. There should be no idea of holding it back into a kind of Stanley Anderson A. G. Street period. If we are to work our way in the world, which I hope we shall eventually do, and put up with the sort of wheat and barley and pig prices that we have had, then we must be efficient.
The next matter on which I wish to touch is local and central government. It is really local government on which I wish to concentrate although central government must be included. I wish to refer to planning. Planners have been an absolute dead hand. The process has always been too slow. The ideas behind planning are always fairly unimaginative and because of the large number of people who must be consulted about everything, somebody is bound to disagree and the whole performance is extremely expensive. That is bad for small workshops in the villages and so on. The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, mentioned Laura Ashley. As my neighbour I have Von Evzdorv who has one of the best silk-printing businesses in the world. It was established originally in a derelict stable and is now in a derelict cow barn. But it has been hard work the whole time.
It is too early to tell what the new agencies will be like or what they will do. I liked the Rural Development Commission because it covered the whole of England. It was much better placed on a national scale to pick out priorities instead of dividing up the country into smaller areas where the very badly-off areas may be left out. The noble Lord, Lord Vinson, ran it very well as did my noble kinsman, Lord Shuttleworth, after him.
That takes me on to the right to roam and so on. I was deeply sorry that no agreement was reached on a basis any more friendly than that legislation is promised for the future. Of course I understand why people want to go onto the land, but we must acknowledge that people and wildlife do not mix. Large numbers of people and wildlife do not mix and it would be a sorrow to the ramblers that if they get their way and go all over the place in large numbers, they will kill the very thing that they love and want.
I do not know about the French being better, as the right reverend Prelate said. France is a much more rural country with a great deal more countryside. In Italy I believe that a starling makes a very good sandwich. At least we do not do that here.
Perhaps I may revert back to central government and the subject of forestry which nobody has talked about. The Forestry Commission has set forestry in aspic. If you cut down an oak tree, you plant an oak tree; if you cut down a beech tree, you plant a beech tree. Lots of oak trees are growing in the wrong soil as are beech trees. It may be better to plant a Douglas fir, make a bit of money and plant the oak trees elsewhere. That does
Lord Peston: My Lords, having moved back to the countryside 18 months ago, I hope that I possess the necessary credentials to take part in today's debate. I have a few remarks to make. Some are positive and supportive of the countryside and country people, but one or two are negative and critical.
I start with the positive. I had forgotten the pure pleasure of living in the countryside and the many benefits stemming therefrom. I do not take a sentimental view of all that. Even today country life can be very harsh, and while rural poverty does not stare one in the face as its urban counterpart does, it undoubtedly exists. The abandonment of full employment as a policy objective is no more acceptable in one part of our economy than in another. Nonetheless, I see in the rural area in which I live a sense of community and neighbourliness which is lacking in the big city. Let me add that that is characteristic of the local towns as well as of the villages and hamlets. I also see it in the excellent local newspapers (in my case the Sudbury edition of the Suffolk Free Press). The treatment of local issues, whether it be the conflicting uses of the River Stour, the future of the local hospital, the reports of the Women's Institute, the parish councils and gardening clubs, is an endless source of fascination to me. The letters pages of such papers have a simplicity and an honesty which contrast attractively with the self-importance of their counterparts in the national dailies.
I have no doubt, therefore, of the importance of preserving what we have, not ruining it, and, more to the point, enhancing it. It is eminently reasonable to scrutinise policy at the level of central government and the European Union in terms of how it impinges on rural life and the rural economy. I should add, like other noble Lords, that the rural economy amounts to a good deal more than farming. There is, indeed, very little that other noble Lords have said that I could possibly disagree with.
My doubts arise in the area of what I can best describe as the present tendency of some country people to feel sorry for themselves and to look for blame in others; notably the people who live in the big city. Not least of those who are blamed are members of the government, of whatever political persuasion.
I have no doubt that there are always valid grounds for complaint. Obviously, country people will ask how any item of legislation--not least yesterday's Budget--will affect them, but in that they are the same as all of us. What I find unreasonable is the current tendency, evinced most strongly by the so-called Countryside March, to try to make the case that the inhabitants of our rural communities are somehow specially selected for adverse treatment and that they are victims. How farmers, who because of the common agriculture policy are a clear example of the dependency culture, can say that is quite beyond me. There are plenty of industries
However, my point is more extensive than that. Let me give two examples with which I am directly familiar. I live in a small hamlet on a country road lying between two main roads. My road is only just wide enough for two average sized cars to pass safely. However, it is used as a so-called rat run between the main roads, and the speed limit is widely ignored. It is not people from big cities who are behaving in this way and destroying the peace and quiet for the sake of saving a couple of minutes; it is country folk. It is not my noble friend's department which is failing to deal with this problem; it is Suffolk County Council and other local councils. It is not the Metropolitan Police who do nothing to enforce the speed limit, but the local constabulary. My reading of the local press tells me that my experience is not unique. I shall not dwell on the related issue of the destructive use of all-terrain vehicles on small roads and lanes. My point is that countrymen and countrywomen have the power to act, both personally and through their own institutions, to improve the quality of life. Too often they are themselves the source of the problem.
My second example concerns local shops. I have recently been involved in research on the future of neighbourhood shopping. While this is relevant to urban areas, it is especially important to rural areas, and in particular to those lacking motor vehicles. In our part of Suffolk there are still local shops, including some small stores run by the larger chains. There are also some excellent supermarkets. Clearly the latter take a substantial part of rural trade and, while providing a service themselves, also threaten their smaller rivals. When the Office of Fair Trading completes its work on supermarkets, it will be interesting to see whether it will report that the rural chains are engaging in unfair competitive practices.
Our research shows that consumers would be worried if the neighbourhood shop disappeared but they feel no obligation to change their own behaviour to help it survive. Most households do not favour strong government aid to local traders. In this connection it seems that our legislation and tax system are less helpful to the small shopkeeper than those of our European neighbours. So much for Napoleon! That is not all. Both the big banks and the Post Office appear to be in the process of closing down many small local branches.
In my judgment, the least we can do is to ensure that rules and regulations are not biased against the neighbourhood shop, which, of course, is generally a small enterprise--which I hope will benefit from the Government's announcements yesterday and today. I should also like to say to my friends in rural areas, do not shop in the supermarket and then blame someone else when the village store closes.
I do not wish to end on a negative note, because both the countryside and the big city are part of our nation's history and heritage. I am convinced that their interests are complementary and that the way forward requires each to show some sympathy for and to place some trust in the other.
Lord Vinson: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Peston. I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for this timely and, I hope, possibly influential debate. I declare a personal interest. I live and farm in a deeply rural area. Fortunately, I do not have to make my living there. It is an area where there are more sheep than people. It is the most rural county of England. Also, for 10 years I was chairman of the Rural Development Commission. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, for his kind remarks.
The policy of the Rural Development Commission was to help develop indigenous enterprise by building on local skills and, having found and developed that enterprise, help to house it in redundant farm buildings and workshops. That policy over the years helped to create tens of thousands of jobs in rural England that would not otherwise have existed. I can only hope that the initiative will be continued, financed and recognised for the value it has, by any new agency.
We tried to do some practical things on the ground. After all it is not governments who create jobs; they can only provide the setting for others to create jobs. We recognised the whole time that our primary task was to inform government about the rural condition, not least the problems raised today, the problems of distance and sparsity that are so often overlooked, not deliberately but through lack of experience, by the urban dweller. At the same time we recognised that fundamental employment creation in truly rural areas is, and always has been, based on agriculture. I am therefore very glad indeed that the point was made earlier, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, in an excellent maiden speech, and by the noble Viscount, Lord Selborne.
The impact of what is happening in agriculture today is perhaps not sufficiently recognised. It is experiencing its worst crisis in 60 years. There has been appalling weather which, incidentally, in my view, is responsible, to a greater extent than any changes in agricultural practice, for the decline in skylarks and other ground-nesting birds. Cold springs have helped to wipe them out. I wish that that was more readily recognised by the RSPB. But it is not only appalling weather which is making farming--obviously very weather dependent--extremely difficult. There has been an absolutely massive fall in prices over the last year of some 30 per cent. right across the board in virtually every commodity except potatoes.
Even with subsidy, most farms in Britain today are now running at a loss. This has a profound effect on the rural economy. Basically, food is too cheap to give a living return to those growing it. This is not just a United Kingdom problem; it is worldwide. We always argued that the CAP was far more important to the rural economy than the RDC. That remains the case. Indeed, it will remain so because any new agency cannot possibly have anywhere near the same input in rural areas as the CAP.
It may be useful to analyse the problems behind the worldwide crisis. Such an analysis is often overlooked. Nations starve if they run out of food, so governments encourage the production of food. That creates a surplus. That, in turn, leads to low prices. There are then calls for subsidies. Those continue until the next generation of politicians becomes bored with the whole thing and decides that all subsidies should be scrapped. To maintain a living, farmers then increase production. Prices get even lower; massive bankruptcies result; governments panic; and the whole cycle begins again with new subsidies.
That is precisely what is happening in the world today, with America's wall-to-wall "grow-anything" policy. The price of wheat in Chicago is at an all-time historic low in real terms. There are massive numbers of farm bankruptcies in both the United States and Canada. One could say that the market is correcting. However, there is no way in which the United Kingdom could possibly substitute--in a hurry, anyway--the 25 million tonnes of grain that it grows. And there is no way in which the EC could substitute the 150 million tonnes of grain that it grows. We simply must nurture our own. Farming and agriculture must remain central.
That begs the question: what can any government do about this? There is not enough time to spell out the answer, but government at all levels should strive to help to bring supply and demand into balance and restore equilibrium to the market so that prices recover to their proper level.
Finally, I hope that if any new agency is a multiple agency, the department that is charged with looking after rural affairs will be a discrete arm of it, with dedicated staff. If that is not the case, rural problems will be overlooked and will be treated as secondary to urban problems instead of rural life being seen as part of the whole spectrum of our society.
Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer for having initiated the debate. As we reach the halfway mark, perhaps I may say what a good debate this has been so far. I should like to thank particularly the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for her remarks about slaughterhouses. I hope that the Government will take that point on board.
Perhaps I may advise the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin, that I do not think that land reform is necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps we should remember that most of this century's industrial giants, including all the countries of South-East Asia, had major programmes of land reform before they managed to take off and become prosperous countries. There is much to be said for what
A living, working countryside is absolutely essential. Many of us remember such a thing in our own lifetimes. Admittedly, its highest point was in wartime, but we should not need a war to protect our countryside. Nevertheless, it does no harm to look back and see what we had then. We had a countryside which was primarily dedicated to producing food. The food that it produced was bought and consumed by the people of Britain. We fed our own nation.
Now, free trade has ensured that only a few food products can earn a farmer enough to keep his family alive. As for the main staples, you cannot give them away. The problems of beef have become legendary and have been discussed in this House over and over again, and it is difficult even to give away lamb and pork.
There used to be something called "animal husbandry"--do your Lordships remember that?--when the ratio of workers to animals was such that every cow was known by name and appearance to everyone on the farm; when the object of the government was to get people onto farms; when we had land girls, Italian prisoners of war, and schoolchildren working in the holidays and even in term time, planting potatoes; and when we used muck to fertilise the land, thus achieving an admirable level of integrated housekeeping without poisoning the countryside. Although there were some excesses of production and bureaucracy--the old WarAgs were not always sensitive or efficient--we left behind us a good-looking countryside and held the balance between producing food and caring for the land. I do not remember any great threat then to biodiversity.
Now, the countryside is becoming increasingly denuded of country workers and the state of agriculture and rural life is such that family farmers are going bankrupt by the score and committing suicide by the handful. That is no exaggeration. At the same time--and this is a source of great trouble--we must face the fact that the next generation does not want to farm. Very few farmers have children who want to continue farming after their parents.
The countryside is also becoming a desert; not because nothing is growing--the countryside is very green--but because it is a landscape without figures. There are not even any animal figures, as animals are concentrated more and more in large areas of factory accommodation, where more and more animals are kept in less and less space. The populations of wild birds and butterflies are virtually disappearing. What is the result of that depopulation? In spite of the influx from the urban middle classes, we are seeing a decline in public transport because the middle classes have cars and the railways were destroyed long ago. There is also a deficit of shops; the middle classes shop in supermarkets.
But what basically needs to be done? We must not throw up our hands and admit defeat. We must not hand over our countryside to the insurance companies and the factories, or even to such attractive and energetic people as Oliver Walston. We must realise that some trends have gone too far and that trends do not continue in a straight line for ever; they more often describe a sigmoid curve, which, as your Lordships know, flattens out following a large rise. It is not inevitable that what happens on the 14-acre farm is dictated by money made in Washington behind closed doors.
Our fight back must start with the big international organisations. It must start when our Ministers are talking to those in the WTO and GATT. We must be able to have the freedom to put our house in order. We must keep and cherish our countryside. In this Parliament, we must remember that directions are changed little by little. We must not give up hope. A 1 per cent. divergence today in our actions may be only a tiny step, but as the future radiates out, the difference in destination becomes vast. It is time that we stopped going in one direction and that we chose another--one that produces a living, working countryside, such as we see probably once every 50 years, but which we never manage to keep. This time, let us find it, let us make it work and let us keep it.
My noble friend Lord Kimball slightly wrong-footed me by making reference to the game conservancy work at Langholm and its effects on red grouse. As chairman of the Game Conservancy I declare an interest. But I do not particularly wish to be tempted down that path of debate this afternoon, important though it is; no doubt it is something to which we will return at a later stage.
I am sorry that the right reverend Prelate is not in his place; he mentioned lapwings, peewits or green plovers, whichever terminology one likes to use, and his perception of their decline in this country. There are certainly less than there were, but it is clear that it is on the well-managed grouse moors of England and Scotland that the green plover is to be found because the management there is right for them.
The introduction of regional development agencies and the new Countryside Agency herald a new beginning for rural England. I sincerely hope that it proves to be successful. I regret the emasculation of the old Rural Development Commission and have my doubts as to whether the RDAs will be able to bring to the countryside the same expertise as the Rural Development Commission did in the past--a point to which my noble friend Lord Vinson referred.
I am also slightly baffled by the cobbling together of what was left of the Rural Development Commission and the Countryside Commission. They do not seem to me to be natural bedfellows. I am surprised that the Government did not emulate what has been done in Scotland and Wales; that is, merge the Countryside Commission with English Nature. I am wondering whether that implies that the Government have doubts about the success of SNH and CCW. Perhaps the Minister will be kind enough to give us his views on that question.
I congratulate Ewen Cameron on his appointment as chairman of the new agency, but with the Government's announcement on Monday to legislate on the right to roam and given the Countryside Agency's remit on that subject, I suspect that it could well turn out to be an agency destined for countryside damage limitation only. That would be a great pity.
It is essential that those living and working in rural areas and their representative groups have access to and confidence in the government agencies. It is important that each one has a clear and distinctive role. Some of us would say that there are perhaps already too many such bodies in the countryside resulting in duplication of responsibilities, inevitable overmanning and a certain degree of confusion.
I wish to take an optimistic view of the new Countryside Agency. As its name suggests, it must speak out and act for the wellbeing of rural England as a whole. But confidence among country people is very low. So there is a crying need for the new agency to champion the interests and aspirations of all those living in, working and managing the countryside. It must do so despite external pressures and the ever-increasing ascendency of an urban culture.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, mentioned one of the most important issues in the countryside at the moment; that is, the question of planning. Farming is changing. Inevitably, regrettably, farm sizes will increase. It seems to me that there remains a pressing need for the Government to promote a less rigid and more flexible planning system. There are too many examples of intransigent planning officers impeding sensible progress despite the more enlightened central government planning policy guidance. Therefore I urge the Government to tackle this issue. I hope that the RDAs and the Countryside Agency will be able to monitor such schemes and provide government with information on the success or otherwise of such policies.
The noble Countess, Lady Mar, and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, mentioned the question of abattoirs. I must declare an interest in my involvement with the Duchy of Cornwall. In the south-west of England this is becoming an extremely serious problem. Small abattoirs are being closed down and the effect of that on animal welfare is obvious, and also on schemes the Government are backing to try to induce home produce being sold from farm shops and through farmers' markets. It is important therefore that abattoirs are preserved. There is a perception both by local butchers and vets that it is a deliberate policy by the inspectorate to seek closures to reduce costs and
Finally, I know that the Minister will be well aware that a number of rural Back-Benchers in another place produced a report in which they asked for the standard spending assessment formula to be reconsidered. That report recommends that a set of rural indicators be developed and adapted in order to consider why metropolitan areas receive an average 20 per cent. more of SSA per head than rural areas. It is a serious matter. I am sure it is one at which the Government are looking, but I would be grateful if the Minister could assure the House that they take it seriously.
Baroness Maddock: My Lords, my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer introduced a timely and important debate. It has been extremely wide-ranging and some of us have been going down memory lane this afternoon. My noble friend Lord Beaumont reminded me that my very first paid job was picking up potatoes in a field for 1s 9d per hour.
However, I am grateful today to be given the opportunity to highlight the importance of housing policies in a living, working countryside. People living and working in the countryside need homes and jobs. They will go on needing housing when they are retired. It is therefore extremely important that the regional development agencies recognise, along with local authorities and other government departments, the importance of housing provision as part of the social and economic structure of our regions.
The availability of housing, both public and private, is central to achieving sustainable communities. In practical terms, where inward investment is being attracted and jobs created, account must be taken to audit the availability and quality of housing and, equally, the socio-economic profile of the residents who will inhabit that housing. If economic regeneration occurs in an area where there is not a significant supply of housing, problems arise; for instance, problems of transport, which can be two-fold. An enormous increase of pressure on transport infrastructure can bring real misery to people living in some of our small towns in trying to get to work. Some employees will not have the opportunity to get to work other than by using personal transport. If they are young or elderly they may not possess that.
If we are not careful it may also lead to the over supply of and excessive demand for housing in certain localities. That too can bring associated problems. Sometimes it will lead to excessive house prices. That is a problem in some rural areas for young people who are trying to stay in the area. Also, as was mentioned earlier today, people who cannot have access to services
I know that some of us--this was raised in the debate on the Bill setting up regional development agencies--had concerns that the agencies may be led and staffed by people who were more committed to economic regeneration and who did not have sufficient appreciation of the social policy agenda which is integrally linked to it. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, because he gave us assurances at an earlier stage in those discussions that the regional development agencies would be able to take part in facilitating the provision of housing--though not be direct providers--and that they would have similar powers to those of English Partnership. I hope that the Minister can perhaps give us some indication today about what further steps he thinks the Government can take to ensure that that is a reality.
I am particularly pleased that one government department--indeed, I might almost call it a "quango"--has taken up the challenge here. I have in mind the Housing Corporation. However, I am rather disappointed that the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, is not present in the Chamber, because I wish to complement her on being the chairman of that organisation. The Housing Corporation recently produced a news release about its new funding proposals, which actually put the RDAs right at the heart of such matters. Such proposals include,
The provision of affordable housing and a cross section of types of housing in rural areas is an increasing problem. We have all seen villages that have become commuter villages. Indeed, sometimes that is the reason why the shops and the other facilities close. We have also witnessed the problems experienced by young people trying to find somewhere to live in rural areas. That also affects their ability to obtain jobs.
Only this week Shelter produced a report outlining the great difficulty experienced by young couples when they try to get into the housing market. Many of them will be on low incomes, and may well have just started out in life. Moreover, the changing pattern of jobs is a further difficulty. Very often, the people who are made homeless in rural areas are those who cannot keep up with their mortgage payments and subsequently their homes are repossessed. As one speaker said earlier, there is also the problem of second homes in our rural communities but I do not have time today to go into that situation.
Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, I have a recurring nightmare: a nightmare of all these agencies, guided by the Health Education Council; abetted by the Sports Council; supported by ASH and other quangos and charities all advising the British to abandon their sofas, their computer games and their TVs in favour of a Good Brisk Walk. I have a nightmare of thousands of cars pouring out of town and city to tear up grass verges, to block farm gateways and to choke village streets. I have a nightmare of thousands of dogs chasing wildlife:
Noble Lords may think that I am being unduly alarmist. So I should like to draw the attention of the House to some of the comments that have been given in evidence over recent months to various inquiries. First, in its evidence to the Environment Sub-Committee in the other place, the Ramblers' Association stated:
The problems of "open access" have to be recognised and used to inform the debate on access generally. The most important of these is the preservation of wildlife, which has a prior claim on the open countryside. At a time when the countryside is under pressure to have the "right to roam" legislated upon it, the countryside would have warmly welcomed any new help given in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Budget yesterday; an acknowledgement of the continuing and deepening plight of the countryside's economy. That opportunity was missed.
However, the Chancellor of the Exchequer did lavish money on politically sensitive areas. For example, £300 million extra on capital spending on the electorate of Scotland and Wales to help cut crime and modernise schools. That is a part of the UK which already enjoys higher spending in these areas. The Chancellor said that the,
For my part, I start with my concept of the countryside as a precious landscape of extraordinary diversity and quality which is perhaps unique in such a small island, but which, as a result, is subject to tremendous pressures and threats. What I seek are policies which help to protect the countryside and enhance our environment and, of course, enable the communities who live there--and who shape the countryside--to enjoy a good quality of life.
As 80 per cent. of our rural landscape depends in one way or another on our farmers, agricultural policies should be our starting point. That has been fairly evident from the speeches of most speakers today. But first I must flag up what I loosely call the housing issue; that is, the perceived need for 4.4 million houses in England by 2016; that is to say, four Bristols every 25 years if, as expected, the demand is likely to continue at that level. This issue was hotly discussed a year ago and the Government made a number of changes. However, I suspect that unwittingly some of those changes will turn out to be more cosmetic than real. This is an ongoing debate but I simply make the point that even if government policy manages to achieve its objective of 60 per cent. of the need being met from brownfield sites, the erosion of our countryside, especially in the south-east and the south-west of the country, will be pretty awful, and in fact unacceptable. The solution must lie in making our cities more attractive places in which to live. That, to me, is where the real interdependence in this matter lies. The Government have, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Rogers, and his committee working on this matter. I eagerly await his report. He has a challenging task.
I return to agriculture because it is so central to a living, working countryside. I am puzzled that it earns only a few mentions in the consultation document. As almost every noble Lord who has spoken has mentioned agriculture--I refer in particular to the outstanding speech of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne--I shall confine myself to making one point to draw attention to some of the work of the National Trust, in which I no longer have to declare an interest. Country Life states, in regard to the work of the National Trust,
As I see it, the rural problem is not so much one of low paid jobs but is much more of a social problem of poverty and social exclusion. It is a problem of considerable patchiness at village level, of pockets of unemployment and lack of job opportunities. There are patchiness problems of affordable housing, as has been mentioned. In general there tends to be--perhaps partly inevitably--a much poorer provision of essential services, especially public transport provision, as we all know. Schools have not been mentioned in this connection but shops have. These facts are well known and were well rehearsed by the Rural Development Commission, whose demise a number of speakers have regretted, as I do. It is in this area that the RDAs will be of crucial importance.
On this I have time only to make a few bullet points. First, above all, I am worried that the RDAs and the chambers will be urban dominated. There is an exceedingly tight timetable for drawing up regional economic strategies, a timetable which is out of kilter with the regional planning conference frameworks. There is the danger that sustainable development policies will be poor relations, despite the useful draft guidance, due to the timetables and the pressures for immediate results. The lack of environmental expertise in the RDAs has been mentioned by some. It has been mentioned that MAFF still after all these years has not merged its offices with the GORs. The Countryside Agency, with its new shape and its new chairman--incidentally I warmly welcome the choice of Ewan Cameron as chairman--is not yet up and running and is not therefore in a position to fight the countryside corner with the RDAs. I have run over my time and I shall sit down.
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