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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I hope I may ask noble Lords to keep to their allotted time; otherwise, the Minister may not have time to reply to any of the points that have been made.

5.17 p.m.

Lord Inglewood: My Lords, as I have explained in a number of previous debates on similar subjects, I have several rural interests which I should declare, and which I hope and believe I have accurately included in the register.

In his impressive maiden speech, the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, referred to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. He said that they both came from Somerset. What they can do well in Somerset, we in Cumbria can do better. I am delighted to speak after the noble Lord, Lord Chorley.

There is no point in beating about the bush. It is pretty depressing in the rural north-west these days. After all, farm incomes are down at 1930s levels in real terms.

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CAP reforms do not seem to be going well, and it looks as if the wrong systems of support may be gaining the upper hand. Modulation, which is a serious threat to legitimate UK farming--and, in my view, a stumbling block to economically sustainable reform--seems to be gaining in popularity. The high pound is depressing commodity prices, and that affects not only agriculture but also timber prices. The outlook for the continuation of much of the existing 5b areas is--I am told by those involved--looking distinctly bad. The important tourist industry has, overall, had a bad year.

If rural Britain was, quite simply, a market--a bazaar where anything went--it would be quite understandable to say that that is the way of the world and you must take the rough with the smooth. But, of course, that is not a fair description. Rural land use--which is heavily regulated--and agriculture in particular are not in an open market; rather they are heavily regulated by government, which have given certain pledges in respect of them.

In particular I wish to draw the attention of the House to the provisions of the European Community treaty. I would like to draw attention to two provisions in particular. Article 39(1)(B) states that one of the purposes of the common agricultural policy is,

    "to ensure a fair standard of living for the agricultural community, in particular by increasing the individual earnings of persons engaged in agriculture".
I suspect that that sounds like a sick joke to most people involved in farming these days. Article 130(a) is concerned with regional policy. It states,

    "In particular, the Community shall aim at reducing disparities between levels of development of the various regions and backwardness of the least favoured regions including rural areas".
After all, Article 130 is the policy background to what, as I have already mentioned, I am reliably told looks like being a significant reduction in objective 5b eligibility in the north-west in the middle of the worst agricultural recession for some 50 years.

What will the Government do about their obligations contained in the European Community treaty? In particular--I have already raised this matter with the Minister--will the Government replace whatever may be lost from objective 5b by compensating national aid? I should be very grateful if the Minister will deal with that point during his summing up. If he cannot do that--I understand he may not be able to--will he write to me and put a copy of the letter in the Library?

Had we on these Benches been in government, I know that we would not have added to the complication of the multifarious agencies and tiers of administration that the establishment of the RDAs and the new Countryside Agency entails. But we are not in government and the Government have electoral legitimacy to do what they are doing. I do not complain about that.

As your Lordships may know, I am privileged to be number one on the list of prospective Conservative candidates in the north-west for the European elections. I wish to make it clear that while my party was opposed to the establishment of the RDAs, which it considers to be an error, it is the firm intention of whichever Conservative candidates may be elected for that region

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to work constructively--I hope that this may be of some interest to the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington--with the RDA in the north-west in the region's best interest.

The RDA there, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Macclesfield, has a big task. No one in the north-west wants him and his fellow members to make a hash of it. As to rural areas, just because they are less populous than the urban areas--this point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Chorley--it is important that they are not overlooked. I know that a number of the RDA members are rurally based and focused, and I am sure that they, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, will use their judgment and sense of fair play to ensure that it does not happen.

Finally, I wish to make a plea for simplicity. By any standards the relationship between the various agencies and tiers of government and administration is Byzantine and opaque. Cynics might well suppose that the whole thing had been designed to make the services they provide as non-user friendly as possible. My plea is to have a "one-stop shop" from which all the various services can be delivered in a single place and in a coherent, comprehensible, simple and non-bureaucratic manner. If that can be done they will do a great deal more good than otherwise might be the case. After all, when all is said and done, that is their sole real raison d'etre.

5.22 p.m.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone: My Lords, first, I wish to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, on a masterly maiden speech. I wish also to thank my noble friend Lady Miller for initiating this important, interesting and complex debate.

I wish to speak fleetingly on two issues with specific reference to Scotland. In three months' time these issues will be the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, but they share, nonetheless, important common problems with the whole of the UK. The debate in one part of the country will both reflect and inform, I hope, the debate in another. The issues are agriculture and land reform, although I have to admit to a fraction of the expertise of many of the speakers in the debate. These subjects are highly topical; they are distinctive but related in their agendas; and both are at a critical point in their histories.

Policies which will ensure a living and working countryside could not be more important in the Scottish context--not least because to a greater or lesser extent 80 per cent. of the land mass of Scotland is in agriculture of some kind or another. While some of it may have little productive value, some has the highest quality of production to be found anywhere in Europe. Furthermore, I believe that Scotland has countryside of a beauty unsurpassed in the rest of the world and an environment which we must treasure and nurture as one of the nation's greatest assets.

All this is at grave risk. Never has there been such a crisis as there is in agriculture today. Never before has it been so difficult for those whose lives are devoted to or associated with agriculture to make a living. Yet it remains the economic mainspring of our rural communities. If that dies, then those communities also die.

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The statistics are terrifying. The average net income per farm in Scotland dropped to £416 last year from around £5,000 the previous year. Many suffered negative incomes. How can any industry survive if such circumstances persist? The answer clearly is that it cannot. The strength of the pound coupled with impossibly high interest rates compared with our competitors in Europe mean that its viability is seriously compromised. The result is that borrowing by those in the industry now stands at £1.2 billion. People are not borrowing to expand but to live--and we are talking about one in ten of the Scottish population.

Where I was raised, in the Perthshire hills, on what my father only half jokingly referred to as a "non-revenue producing asset", where once three people were employed full-time we are down to one; where holiday cottage letting of what was once a shepherd's home is necessary; where a reduction in sheep and an increase in forestry has taken place; and where sporting lets are now an important part of the picture. Survival is now the issue.

Never before have subsidies been so necessary, but they must be restructured so that they are not seen to be linked to production alone but can ensure farmers' livelihoods. Payments for agri-environment measures which are project-based, not production-based, are examples of a way forward favoured by many in the industry. They link payments for good farming practice to good environment and conservation practice. Policies which can combine these economic, social and environmental elements into an agreed strategy in rural communities and pull together all the varied but interconnecting interests are surely the way forward.

Linked crucially to the debate on the crisis in agriculture and the implications for living in rural communities is the question of land reform, now the centre of debate in Scotland since the publication in January of the Government's Land Reform Policy Group's recommendations for action. Its essential purpose was how to,

    "best utilise the land resource so as to enhance the lifechances of people living and working in rural areas".

That sounds splendid, but in reality it is a diversion from the central crisis. It covers, among other things, the wider rural community, the legislation relating to land ownership, private, community and public, and the accountability and involvement of all these groups, one with another. But the importance of land owners as key players alongside farmers--they are often synonymous--in the sustaining of the rural economy is crucial.

The development of greater accountability and more communication between landowners, tenants, farmers, local and wider communities is widely, and rightly, welcomed. But investment and job creation must be encouraged as a priority and bureaucracy and uncertainty kept to a minimum. So far, slogans like, for example, the "community right to buy" have simply generated anxiety in the farming and landowning sectors, not least since it is not at all clear what is actually meant by "community" in such a context or how it is all turned into a reality.

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Thus there is an important balance to be struck between the necessary regulation of, say, bad landlords, and those regulations or controls which act as a disincentive to good investment in the countryside. Of key importance is the improvement of landlord-tenant relations across the whole of Scotland, something over which the NFU and the SLF have been in consultation. The availability of let land is vital in the evolution of the rural economy. It is issues such as these which should be focused on as a priority.

If we are to assume, as I do, that our rural communities are an integral and essential part of our society, then all measures possible must be devised to sustain our threatened agriculture industry in its hour of greatest need and all possible encouragement should be given to those who can invest and sustain the rural community in all its forms. Without that commitment and support we put at risk the very essence of the society in which we live.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for providing the opportunity to discuss this important subject. The objective of a living, working countryside is one that we all share. That has been clear from all the speeches that we have heard. Britain's rural economy is presently facing one of its most serious crises. On top of a damaging drop in farm incomes, Britain's meat industry is on the brink of disaster, thanks to the rigid, inflexible implementation of EU meat hygiene directives, to which both my noble friend Lord Peel and the noble Countess, Lady Mar, referred. I wish to enlarge on the subject as it has a big impact on the rural economy.

From 1st April, hundreds of meat firms will find themselves liable to pay hugely increased charges for inspection--charges which small businesses simply cannot afford. They will have to sell out or close down. The results will be felt by thousands of farmers, butchers, hotels, restaurants, and of course individual consumers--in fact, by the whole local economy.

Noble Lords may think that that is a generalisation too far, but that is not so. Perhaps I may give just two examples of the kind of business that will face ruin unless the Government seriously rethink the matter.

Pipers Farm is a specialist meat business in Exeter, employing seven people. It enjoys an enviable reputation throughout the country for providing top quality beef, lamb, chicken and sausages. Its suppliers do not use intensive farming methods. The stock are all extensively reared, without the use of growth promoters, routine antibiotics or artificial additives. The produce is sold by special delivery throughout the country to hundreds of satisfied customers and the farm has won numerous awards for its superb quality. Most notably, the farm is supplier to the Gidleigh Park Hotel on Dartmoor, whose chef, Michael Caines, recently won his second Michelin star. It is one of the very few restaurants in Britain to achieve that award.

In short, Pipers Farm is a roaring success, the sort of business that we all admire. It has got there not by cutting corners, skimping or cheating, but by investing

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in quality: quality in its raw materials, quality in the processing, and quality in service--and of course, quality people.

But the farm faces ruin, not through any fault of its own but under the beetlecrushers of the hygiene police in the shape of the Meat Hygiene Service. On 1st April its new charging structure will come into effect. Nationally, according to a Written Answer given to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, by the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, the new charges will be £21.5 million to enforce EC regulation of the disposal of specified risk material. A further £21 million will be required to comply with an EC ruling that British meat firms should have 100 per cent. cover by official veterinary surgeons.

That is not all. The Food Minister, Mr. Rooker, in reply to a parliamentary Question, confirmed that the cost to the meat industry of the Meat Hygiene Service will be £33.1 million to March this year. The industry will thus face total costs in a full year of £75.6 million. That is an eye-watering 128 per cent. increase.

But, of course, it gets worse. Those increases will of necessity hit the smaller firms hardest. Pipers Farm is supplied by a small local slaughterhouse in Ottery St. Mary, run by a local farmer, Mr. John Coles. At present, Mr. Coles pays a subsidised charge of £61 a week for two MHS inspectors--one of whom, incidentally, is a Spanish gentleman with a limited command of English. But from April he must pay the full costs for the whole week, even though he slaughters and dresses on only one day each week. His costs will rise from £61 to £702 per week, or £36,500 for the whole year. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that these charges will make his business completely unviable.

This is institutionalised lunacy. Mr. Coles, a local slaughterer who meets a local need, will close. Pipers Farm, which is a nationally successful business, will have to close. Pipers Farm employees will lose their jobs. The 25 local farmers who supply Pipers Farm will have lost their best customer. Transporters and suppliers will lose yet more business--a loss that could tip them over the edge as well. In short, it is a total disaster, a huge hole blown in the delicate web of that area's economy.

My second example is in Norfolk, where a top-class poultry processing business which employs 72 people is faced with further veterinary inspection charges which will jump from £400 a week to £1,600 a week--an increase of £62,000 a year. The owner of that business will have to shut up shop. Bang go not only the 72 jobs there, but at least another 150 which depend on that business in one way or another.

What makes this even worse is that these costs which will ruin so many British businesses and do incalculable damage to the rural economy are, in the rest of the EU, met by the state, by the taxpayer. Ministers in this country seem to be seriously under-informed on this matter. The Food Minister denied in a radio interview last November that the French Government paid these costs. But that is the case.

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What is so deeply depressing is that these small businesses, encouraged only yesterday by the Chancellor in his Budget, which are now under threat are the engine room of the rural economy. They should be nourished and supported, not cut off at the knees because they do not fit some bureaucratic procrustean bed.

In the light of that, I hope that the Minister will treat as a matter of urgency a review of the Government's position. If, as is the case, the costs of our European Union competitors are being paid by the state, then surely it is only fair that the inspection costs of the meat industry in this country should also be paid by the state. I thought that that was what the single market was all about. I understand that there are derogation procedures which have not yet been explored to enable extra support to be given to small abattoirs and meat processors. My noble friend Lord Vinson hoped that this debate would be influential. I share that hope. This is an important matter.

5.34 p.m.

Lord Geraint: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Miller for initiating this debate and for her constructive opening remarks. I thank also the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, for his maiden speech and wish him well. I am sure that we shall hear a great deal from the noble Lord in the years to come.

I am very concerned about the severity of the crisis in the countryside and its effect on the local economy. Farm incomes in the United Kingdom have fallen by nearly 100 per cent. in the past two years in the worst recession for decades.

Once again, I urge the Government to set up a Royal Commission to look into the state and role of the countryside and agriculture. When I made that plea a few months ago on behalf of my colleagues on these Benches, the Minister refused point-blank to consider it. But how the scene has changed in a matter of months. Now the Government are willing to set up a Royal Commission to look into the problems of this House. If a Royal Commission is good enough for your Lordships' House, I am sure it is good enough for the countryside and agriculture. I wonder what the Minister will say today.

I turn first to the tenanted farm sector which plays a major role not only as a source of lifetime family farms but also as a means of entry to the industry for young farmers. The provision of smallholdings by county councils makes a vital contribution to the tenanted sector. They provide a structure of starter units and larger units to which the tenant can progress. County councils should be discouraged from further disposal of such smallholdings. They should, whenever possible, increase their resource of land available for letting. I urge the Welsh and Scottish parliaments, when established, to consider providing extra financial resources to local authorities to buy more land within the next three years.

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EC structural measures should be made available to farmers in the United Kingdom. Similarly, young farmer entrants on smallholdings should be offered low-interest loans and other incentives such as direct income aids for a limited period to assist in their establishment.

The abolition of agricultural subsidies would cause major problems in the countryside for producers and consumers alike. The health industry is almost entirely funded by the Government, as, too, are education and training, the police and the Armed Forces. Those industries are important to our society and their services should be encouraged. Underfunding would create untold damage to the rural economy in Wales.

Let us look at the policy of the New Zealand Government over the past 10 years. There are no government payments of any kind coming back through the farm gate in New Zealand and for some farmers the past 12 years have been a real pain. Over the 10-year period from 1986 to 1996, the overall number of farmers has declined by 17 per cent. Sheep farms have declined by 44 per cent. I wonder whether it is the Government's intention to pursue similar policies for the United Kingdom.

Farm size has to increase to cope with lack of profitability in New Zealand. Sheep farms have increased in size from an average of 1,057 acres to 1,485 acres; dairy farms from an average of 215 acres to 304 acres. The number of sheep in New Zealand has come down from a peak of 70.3 million in 1983 to 46.2 million in June 1998. The number of people involved in sheep and beef farming decreased by 32 per cent. between 1986 and 1996. But statistics like those do not show the full effect of such changes on farming couples and their families. I hope that that type of policy will never be pursued by any British Government.

We on these Benches press for the creation of an independent appeals panel for Wales and other countries within the United Kingdom to adjudicate in disputes between government and farmers involving the processing of grant support applications and their payments. Many farmers suffer financially every year because of these rigid and unwanted rules and regulations imposed on the industry. What we need is a little common sense to prevail on both sides. On behalf of my party, the Liberal Democrats, I urge the Government to introduce an independent appeals panel forthwith to make sure that justice prevails within the agricultural industry.

We must ensure that the Government safeguard the future of family farms and maintain the rural infrastructure before it is too late. I also believe that we need a supermarket watchdog because United Kingdom producers have little influence in the market place. When farmers bargain with the big supermarket buyers they often have to take the price they are offered, however low.

Farmers may understandably be reluctant to criticise the retailers who are their biggest customers. The public may be more sympathetic to the plight of producers in the developing world. However, pointing out that many

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UK farmers face problems too need not trivialise the issues facing producers in developing countries. If supermarkets can support farmers in the developing world by signing up to the ethical trading initiative, then surely they can adopt a more ethical stance with UK farmers.

5.42 p.m.

The Earl of Clanwilliam: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for introducing the debate. I wish to refer particularly to the needs of the countryside and the dependence of its environment on agricultural and local employment.

Agriculture as an employer has been in decline in direct proportion to the rate of intensification of farming methods. On the other hand, extensive methods such as organic farming and the management of ESAs, countryside stewardship and other scheduled areas all provide opportunities for increased labour input. My noble friend Lord Selborne referred to organic farming as a "niche" market, but at 100,000 acres out of 24 million it is not only a niche market but a niche niche market. If my noble friend Lord Selborne would allow us to extend to 10 per cent. of the market, we would then be in a position to make an effective contribution to local employment in agriculture.

It is the small employer who needs support, particularly at present. His business is being greatly affected by supermarkets. RDAs may be able to assist with the increasingly popular farm gate shops--another of my noble friend's niche markets. The small farmer has particular difficulty in getting his cattle to market. Ever-decreasing in number, the abattoirs become larger and larger, and it is becoming more difficult and expensive for the small farmers to get to the abattoirs. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, has already referred to the matter, and the possibility of mobile abattoirs has been mentioned.

Under Agenda 2000, funds will be available from the savings resulting from CAP reform, but the proposed 25 per cent. is not nearly large enough a slice to compensate for the damage done. The agricultural environment is delicately balanced and the inroads of CAP-inspired insensitive intensification have caused enormous damage. There has, incidentally, been a considerable move among so-called conventional farmers towards extensification in the light of public approval of organic methods, which I call conventional; the other methods are modern.

But overall there has been much damaging activity, such as the ploughing of the shallow turf of downlands which for generations, up to 50 years ago, were the exclusive preserve of sheep, and also the ploughing up of watermeadows, with the resultant annual flooding of crops. That is all in response to the opportunities offered by the common agricultural policy. If that is competitive farming, is it sustainable?

Undoubtedly the best thing for the rural environment would be the reform, if not the scrapping, of that evil monstrosity, the common agricultural policy. We have yet to see an accommodation between the, now sparring,

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partners in the original design--that is, between Germany and France. Until that valuable day, we are unlikely to see much reform.

Employment will be the responsibility of the new RDAs, supervised by their senior partner, the Countryside Agency. A major problem they face is the exodus from the urban areas into the countryside, with the increased demand for housing and its concomitant pressure to encroach on the green belt. While urban areas are becoming wastelands, the all-powerful supermarkets are driving the countryman and the urban dweller alike into the motor car. The village shop is fast disappearing and 70 per cent. of our villages now have no village shop.

What is the result? You have to drive to the supermarket along country lanes which, at that rate of growth, will not be able to carry the traffic generated. A 50 per cent. increase in rural traffic is forecast over the next 25 years.

Another factor in the urban exodus is the demand for the so-called right to roam. These roamers seem to be enthused by some irrational desire to have their way at any cost. At a recent meeting convened by my noble friend Lord Marlesford, consisting of representatives of all sides of the controversy, it was evident that we could peacefully pursue a course of voluntary action, with the exception of a surly reply from the roamer members of the team answering our questions. There is an unattractive bitterness in their approach which does not augur well for future decisions. There was no acceptance of the cost to society of providing the roamer with his dubious rights. Who is to pay for the inevitable lavatories and car parks which, of themselves, are obtrusive in the sensitive environment that these roamers wish to trample?

There is a well-known phrase: "Keep off the grass". I suggest a new one: "Keep off the heather". The wildlife and biodiversity exist because of the wilderness, itself an ecology that should not be wantonly disturbed.

5.48 p.m.

The Earl of Lytton: My Lords, along with other noble Lords, I have several interests to declare. I am a member of the Country Landowners' Association, a chartered surveyor and a part owner and manager of a hill farm, I am glad to tell my noble friend Lord Williamson, in the Somerset part of the Exmoor National Park. Very proud of it I am too.

I describe myself as a rural entrepreneur, and I am not a fan of the dependency culture of grants and subsidies. The VAT bill I pay substantially exceeds those grants and subsidies that I receive. I am particularly interested in rural land use outside the towns and villages, especially the difficult to manage, less favoured areas.

The nature of the Motion tabled by the noble Baroness denotes part of the problem: too many interests and a painful lack of focus. I do not regard CAP reform as the Holy Grail of rural economics and I am sure that many noble Lords share that view. I believe that we should be developing our own rural strategy, in particular a socio-economic one. Part of the problem is

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administrative baggage from the past: land use planning and control, the regime of consents and designations and regulations. I do not say that they should not be there but that they should be properly focused. If one follows the argument adopted by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, we do not even have a playing field, let alone a level one.

My estate thrives on income from sport and tourism. I am very proud to say that I regard the public as a resource. In that context I should also like matters such as public access, which I have tried to foster, to be regarded as a resource and not a burden on countryside management. I accept that my situation is probably untypical. As the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, pointed out, this is a niche operation. Some good land will always be profitable. At the other end of the scale not only is land unprofitable, but there is no realistic alternative because it is too remote and there is no possibility of diversification. These areas will require continuing and large support measures unless we are to witness substantial landscape and land use change. Particularly at risk are the uplands. However unprofitable it may be, the only method of management in some areas is agriculture, but we cannot simply throw money at the situation because the dependency culture is itself not sustainable. Nor can we parachute urban uses into the countryside willy-nilly unless there is a real need because such uses may be substitutes for other rural employment and so they will destabilise the rural economy in their own right. We need a basket of measures and a "can do" mentality.

The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, made reference to the need to add value. I accept that. There must be farm diversification but, please, it must be related to land use and there must be a proper planning, rating and fiscal regime in place to deal with it. At the moment there is a scattergun approach. I should also like to see producers acting as processors. If the example cited by the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, is adopted no one will ever make a start down that road. I believe that that is a terribly bad message to give.

Service industry in rural areas is fine if it adds value, but it needs to be locked into the rural economy for rural purposes and for the reasons for which the land is to be managed; it should not be something that is totally different from it. The Government's initiatives on organic production are particularly welcome. One wonders whether they will stack up. Presently I shall tell the Minister about this. I am looking into this myself to see whether or not it can be done on my estate.

There is also a need for a change in the buying culture to which the noble Lord, Lord Peston, made reference. Whether we buy elsewhere or from abroad, we export the fundamental worth of our countryside, which is not right. As for tourism, we need to consider the quality of accommodation to see whether it is possible to extend the season in the face of fairly unpromising weather. We need a culture of doing that. I have a special interest in country sports which I hope will continue to be the backbone of my estate. I hope that others will be able to enjoy their countryside pursuits. Further, I should like to see greater emphasis placed on bio-fuel and biomass--the use of low-quality timber products--to

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add value to land use management. I should like to see access as a resource, not a threat. Perhaps we can encourage business sponsorship of environmental works in the countryside. One hopes that it will be possible to use existing manpower, not to supplant it and thereby bypass that part of the local economy.

The methods to be adopted must be varied and there must be a multi-warhead approach. Land use planning must respect economic and social aspects as well. We will probably require dwellings for non-agricultural estate workers--that is a problem which particularly afflicts me--as well as for an increasing rural population. The agencies require a common strategy that is focused on objectives with some pooling and streamlining of resources. Finally, I hope that local authorities which in many cases have tried to put rural strategies together will be encouraged to do so. Perhaps the Government and the various agencies will pick up that ball and run with it as well.

5.54 p.m.

Viscount Thurso: My Lords, I begin by congratulating the maiden speaker, Lord Williamson of Horton, on an excellent contribution. He will forgive me if I do not wax lyrical about it. Given the constraints of time I should like to crack on. This has been an absolutely fascinating debate. It is a testament to my noble friend that she has managed to achieve a good attendance in the House as well as a number of contributions to the debate. I note the number of noble Lords who, although they have not spoken, have sat in their places throughout the debate listening to all the contributions. Those contributions have been varied and of great skill. Perhaps attendance is a little thin on the Government Back Benches; nonetheless the quality has been good.

It is impossible to reply to every point that has been made and therefore I shall canter through and cherry-pick. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for doing so. I congratulate my noble friend on tabling the debate and on her consummate skill in drawing together the Motion before the House. It casts a general net across the countryside, which has certainly caught quite a few interesting fish. However, my noble friend has focused on two key issues. One is the coupling of the words "living" and "working" countryside. It is almost like saying "living and breathing". That very important element has clearly emerged from the many contributions we have heard. The other dart, thrown very accurately by my noble friend, relates to the number of agencies, the wide diversity of functions they perform and the newness of many of them. Some of these bodies have not yet come into being. She is also to be congratulated on having raised that issue.

I turn to the second of those topics. A number of speakers have referred to the RDAs. I believe it was the noble Baroness, Lady Young, who referred to the potential of the RDAs not only in economic terms but in other areas. Broadly speaking, we on these Benches warmly welcome the RDAs. However, I have some concerns; I wish to refer to three.

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One may be forgiven for forgetting sometimes that the "R" in "RDA" does not stand for "rural" but "regional". That is where my first concern begins. I refer to the sheer size of these bodies. For example, my office is established just outside Tring in Hertfordshire. I understand that the RDA stretches from East Anglia in the north to Sussex and Kent in the south. It is like a huge doughnut with the hole in the middle representing London. My worry is that the people in the northern and southern parts of that area will not have a particularly homogenous view of what they want to happen. That is particularly true of tourism where the approach at the two ends is quite different.

My second concern is the urban context of the RDAs. There is a danger, particularly in the more affluent southeast--or (if I may say so), compared with Scotland, the affluent southwest--that the number of cities in RDAs will give those bodies a rather urban feel. We need to ensure that rural issues have their place in RDAs.

My third concern about RDAs is that their remit lies largely in regeneration in economic terms. Speaker after speaker on all sides of the House has pointed out that the preservation of the countryside is not simply about profit and loss and balance sheets but much greater issues than that. Perhaps we should consider giving the RDAs a wider remit.

I turn to the first of my noble friend's darts: the combination of the words "living" and "working" countryside. This highlights the fact that very often there are two aspect to the countryside. There is the countryside that is very often close to a large city--usually in the south--which is fairly affluent and perhaps lived in by people who do not work in the countryside. In the truly rural countryside, the more distant areas, people live and work there. As many speakers have said those areas are genuinely in crisis. We must not use the term too lightly. As the noble Lord, Lord Peston, mentioned, there are real problems of rural poverty. There are real problems of sub-standard houses, as my noble friend Lady Maddock mentioned. There is considerable social deprivation. Those problems are largely hidden from the gaze of the city dweller by the leafy surrounds in which they exist.

Perhaps I may make one small party jibe at my neighbours. I find it somewhat rich that after 18 years in power noble Lords on the Conservative Benches attack the Government for what they have not done for the countryside. I think, frankly, that it was Thatcherism that ripped the guts out of the Highlands. I have no doubt that the policies pursued by the previous government were not helpful to the countryside. However, over the past two years it is equally true that the crisis has widened and deepened. It is now a requirement for the Government to take action. Whatever may have been true two to three years ago, we now have a much graver crisis.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, referred to the fact that people in the countryside have no greater right to a living than those in the city. He was right to bring that to our attention. I largely agree with him. However, he went too far when he accused farmers of living in a

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dependency culture. One of my noble friends pointed out that the income of a hill farmer is £416 a year. I do not think that one can accuse them of living in a dependency culture. Agriculture is at the heart of the countryside and is extremely important.

I wish to touch on one other issue: tourism. It would be difficult for me to speak on any issue without trying to bring tourism into it. A number of noble Lords have been slightly dismissive of tourism, saying that it is on the periphery of what can be done in the countryside. I draw noble Lords' attention to a recently published document entitled Tomorrow's Tourism. It sets out the Government's tourism strategy. While I congratulate the Government on the document, I have some severe complaints about some of it. However, on page 53 a case study of the Crocker Farm in Devon sets out what can be done to sustain existing jobs and provide new jobs in agriculture. I do not have time to tell your Lordships about it, but it is, I suggest, a document worth reading.

To ask hill farmers, as some of us believe the Scottish Office would like to do, at one leap to swap the ploughshare for the serving spoon, and sheep for tourists, is redolent of Marie Antoinette's, "Let them eat cake". It is insulting to hill farmers and hoteliers. In many of the worst hit rural areas tourism will not have an impact. It will have an impact in those areas which are already slightly more affluent.

My noble friend mentioned that on these Benches it is our policy to have a rural affairs ministry. I have been struck during the debate by how integral farming is considered to be within the rural community and the extent to which it is interdependent with so many other rural activities. I believe that the time has come when rather than having a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food we should have a ministry of rural affairs which can look after agriculture and fisheries in the context of the countryside. Food can be looked after elsewhere.

There is a crisis in the countryside. I look forward to hearing the Minister. I hope he will have some crumbs of comfort for us.

6.4 p.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I, too, would like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, on bringing this debate before us today. The question we are debating is in two parts. It calls attention to the case for policies which will ensure a living working countryside; and it seeks to clarify the relationships between the many agencies involved.

I have said it before, and I say it again: unless our farmers are able to make a profit, the countryside that we enjoy today will be destroyed. Confidence is low, as my noble friend Lord Peel said. The fact that this is our fourth farming debate within the past three months indicates how this House appreciates the dire situation faced in the countryside.

But farmers are not the only ones working in the countryside. Market towns, village shops, craft businesses, our farmhouse bed and breakfasts, village pubs and churches are all part of the interwoven pattern

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of our countryside today. Whether we earn our living there, whether we live there but work in the town, or whether we visit it for enjoyment, we should acknowledge that the countryside exists as it does at present thanks to those who have worked the land and cared for it over many generations.

In the debate following his Statement on Monday, Mr. Meacher stated,

    "we have always made it clear that the protection of wildlife and environmental crops is our priority".--[Official Report, Commons, 8/3/99; col. 24.]
In saying that, he put his finger on one of the most important aspects of the definition of countryside. Unfortunately he confined protection to meaning,

    "temporary and limited closures, probably in a wide area of countryside, during the lambing season and the breeding season, particularly between April and June".--[Official Report, Commons, 8/3/99; col. 33.]

In the debate that followed the announcement in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, replied to the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, in reference to the closing off of access for periods of time:

    "We would not envisage that being a very lengthy period ... the landowner would be able to close the area for up to 28 days. That would probably cover most of the situations the noble Lord has in mind".--[Official Report, 8/3/99; col. 51.]

Those two responses contrast unfavourably with the submission by the Moorland Association--it was touched on by the noble Earl, Lord Peel--in its response to the access consultation. It stated that disturbance can be caused particularly during territory establishment, nesting and fledging, all of which lasts from February to June. Clearly the needs of the countryside are seen differently by differing agencies and resulting policies will be heavily influenced by the relative power wielded by each of those particular agencies.

The constitution of the bodies is of vital importance to the sustenance of our countryside. It should represent and reflect the constituent parts; namely, the villages through their parish councils, the WIs, local churches, old people's organisations, and so on. It should also include the farming community, the local landowner, local businessmen, local authorities, national authorities and--dare I say it?--Europe. Many of its directives, and some of its bureaucracy, have a huge impact upon the living and working environment of the countryside. The RDAs should reflect different shades of political opinion. They should reflect the young and the old, those who work away from home and those who stay in their villages. Concerns have been expressed to me with reference to the regional development agencies. Indeed, some noble Lords have referred to that today. Their rural and political appointees do not always fully represent their constituents. Perhaps the Minister will inform us of the rules of selection which have been operated. For example, Lincolnshire is very different from Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, but the representation on the Lincolnshire authority is not as good as it might be.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, most astutely highlighted the challenge of legislation on open access by stressing the importance of agreement between the various agencies. My noble friend Lord Kimball spoke of the powers that pass respectively to the regional

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development agencies and the Countryside Agency from the Rural Development Commission: two heads; two minds; and two hearts where there was previously one. The Government are now demanding an effective relationship between those agencies, plus the European Commission, the Government, local authorities and the new local fora which have been envisaged by Mr. Meacher. What a plethora of agencies is involved!

The maintenance of the countryside as a living, working environment; as a source of rest and recreation; as a sustainable entity and as a valuable resource for prosperity means providing adequate funds; setting up viable planning parameters, to which many noble Lords have referred today; monitoring progress; evaluating developments; incorporating expert advice; recognising changing needs and encouraging small businesses. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, highlighted what a niche market can do. There are many other examples in existence. What most people want is less legislation not more. They also want a level playing field to enable our business people to thrive.

To enable these agencies to fulfill their objectives the Government must provide sufficient resources to support these activities. Perhaps the Minister will give us assurances that the necessary funding will be made available not just in the initial stop-gap, but on an on-going basis. Pilot projects are necessary and a reasonable way of testing expert opinion, but those that are shown to be successful should be supported for some little time after that to ensure their long-term success.

For instance, I refer to Monday's Statement on open access. It is not sufficient,

    "to ensure that resources are available to local authorities to cover...the building of stiles, the gates and signs and possibly some rangering services"
if those same stiles, gates and signs fall down or are pulled down or damaged through fire, flood or tempest and there is no more money to replace them. Arguments about who is to finance it cause serious dissension between government departments and local authorities and far less the discussions about matching European moneys on some of the agri-environmental schemes. How are the Government planning to handle the continuing development of such projects?

The countryside is home to countless animals. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred to that earlier. In fact, I shall have to read Hansard carefully tomorrow. I thought she said at one point in her speech that the present government were going to adopt Conservative policies and just put "Labour" on them. I shall have to look at that very carefully. The countryside is also home to 23 per cent. of the population of the United Kingdom and a source of about 30 per cent. of our gross domestic product. For instance, in places such as North Yorkshire, over 50 per cent. of the population lives in isolated rural communities. For these people the decline in local services, the lack of public transport, the increase in petrol tax announced only yesterday, which will hugely affect rural areas; the closure of community hospitals; and the delay in planning decisions spell the beginning of the end for some of these communities.

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I quote from the Countryside Alliance about the low level of car ownership in urban areas reflecting poverty while people in,

    "rural [areas] rely on cars and own cars, no matter how battered or old as the lack of public transport leaves [them] no alternative".

Many noble Lords have referred to housing, planning and commercial competitiveness. The contribution of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, this afternoon was very worthwhile. In that respect I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, on his excellent maiden speech.

The new government agencies must look to their duties in a spirit of co-operation and refuse to allow the polled opinions of many people to destroy one of our most treasured possessions; namely, our English countryside.

6.13 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for initiating this debate and everyone who has taken part. The subject has been dealt with so fully that I am not sure that I can cover all the points raised in the time allocated to me. I shall attempt to do so. I pay a particular compliment to the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, who made a formidable maiden speech. If a speech made by a survivor of 108 Agricultural Councils can be called a maiden speech, then the term needs looking at again.

Although for half a century I have been an inner-city kid, I recently moved to the countryside and to Dorset rather than Somerset although I can see Somerset from my back garden. Therefore, I have some sympathy with the first two speakers in the debate. After a few general remarks I shall concentrate primarily on the area of the institutions to which the Motion draws attention. I shall try to answer some other points, but many will have to be dealt with in writing.

As the debate has shown, the rural agenda is very diverse and quite different in some parts of the country from others. Much that is positive is being done already in rural areas. There is a good quality of life for most people who live in such areas and a quality of environment which is of benefit to us all. Nevertheless, the pace of economic development in many of our rural areas has not been substantial. Despite official unemployment being relatively low, there is much hidden and exported unemployment. There are also serious social and poverty problems. As a number of noble Lords have pointed out, there are also serious problems as regards access to services and a lack of transport.

This Government have recognised the problems. We have taken action on a number of fronts specifically to help rural areas. We shall spend an extra £150 million over the next three years to support rural public transport. We have increased to £174 million the money spent by my department on countryside programmes. We have included specific rural areas in health and education action zones where there are problems. We have introduced rate relief for single village shops and

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post offices. We have supported the agricultural community in terms of a special aid package for livestock farmers. A further £35 million will be spent for a new cattle tracing system. As regards planning in general, we have developed a new approach to encourage greater use of brownfield sites for housebuilding while protecting greenfield areas.

These and many other targeted measures illustrate the Government's commitment to a living and working countryside and give the lie to the allegations sometimes made, to which my noble friend Lord Peston referred, that this Government and perhaps to some extent their predecessors have ignored the interests of the countryside. We are a government for the whole country. We recognise the specific and difficult problems some parts of our rural countryside are facing.

Yesterday's Budget will disproportionately benefit the countryside. There is help for the low paid in the taxation system plus the national minimum wage, help for those employed in the countryside and those who are failing to get jobs. The level of poverty and incomes is disproportionately low in those areas. Having taken those specific measures we now intend to develop them into a comprehensive rural policy. The noble Baroness was a little impatient that we should get through the consultation process on the White Paper. We believe that we need a further round of consultation. The discussion document was issued a few days ago. It invites questions and comments. I have no doubt that a number of your Lordships will wish to contribute. Perhaps I may remind noble Lords that the closing date is 30th April. In addition, we are having seminars in each of the English regions in order to listen to the views of local and rural organisations. We intend it to be a very inclusive process. We shall produce a White Paper on rural policy later in the year.

We have already set up a number of agencies. There is some logic in what the noble Baroness said about the order of events, but there is a much better logic in the sense that it takes a long time to establish organisations. They will deliver the policy which we shall announce in the White Paper. I understand, and have some sympathy for, the central point of the noble Baroness's Motion. There are a number of agencies involved, all of which are making a contribution to the delivery of policy in the countryside, although I do not necessarily concur with the noble Lord, Lord Geraint, that it requires a Royal Commission to sort out all the different institutions.

As regards the farmer, entrepreneur or the inward investor into our countryside, I believe that there is need for something closer to what the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, referred to as a one-stop shop. We may not be quite capable of delivering that, but we need to convey the role of each of these organisations and to guide people seeking help and advice to the appropriate one in an understandable way. The Government are committed to do so.

There has been a demand from the Liberal Democrat Benches and elsewhere to create a rural ministry of some kind. Examined in detail, that has no great logic. A note passed to me indicates that this is a matter for

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the Prime Minister, just to stop me making policy on the hoof! But the reality is that the present government departments are acting increasingly together. The noble Baroness noted that the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are working closely together on delivering the White Paper and on many other programmes. MAFF has had an input in the regional development agencies and so forth. The Government Offices increasingly operate in covering all government departments, incorporating their relation with MAFF--not physically in the same office, but there is a great deal of joint working.

Furthermore, there is much closer working between local authorities and the agencies of central government, bringing together local authorities and regions as a whole in the new planning structure and process. Parliament's job is to ensure that all these agencies work closely together to ensure that their functions are performed efficiently and effectively. There is a change in institutions, some of which will require organic development, but once we have a comprehensive policy it will become clearer which of the agencies delivers which aspect of policy. They have clear objectives in terms of economic and countryside development, rural transport and so forth. It is not appreciated how much there is joined-up government in the rural areas. The existence of a comprehensive rural policy will make more evident how the agencies are pursuing the same objectives.

A number of specific questions were raised about the institutions. It is important, for example, that the RDAs and the regional planning bodies work closely together to develop their strategies, not least strategy towards the rural part of their remit. There has been some public concern, repeated today by a number of noble Lords, that the transfer of the RDC's regeneration function to the RDAs may militate against rural areas. The Government believe that the rural areas will benefit from being included in the rural strategy for the whole region and not marginalised into what is seen as a solely rural dimension. To ensure that rural issues have due rate, the RDAs are being given specific remit to serve rural areas. It is the case that at least one member of each RDA board, except for London, has rural experience. As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, indicated, RDAs will also benefit from the expertise and knowledge of staff transferring from the RDC as they have substantial experience of rural regeneration issues.

Our commitment to rural representation will continue to be reflected in the RDAs' funding of rural areas. Rural funds will be separated to ensure that the needs of rural areas are addressed and will be allocated specifically to those areas. We are also giving guidance about how RDAs should use their rural budgets, including how they determine the rural needs within their regions.

A number of questions were raised about the role of RDAs in relation to European funds. Some complex issues arise. They were mentioned by the right reverend Prelate, among others. The RDAs' role in general strategy is clear. They can co-operate in the delivery of structural and other regional funds. However, as the

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RDAs are also involved in decisions on individual programmes, we must avoid any lack of propriety in that respect. Therefore, we have yet finally to define the RDAs' relationship with the delivery of structural funds to rural and other areas.

A number of noble Lords asked about the role of the Countryside Agency. We are determined that the agency will play a major role in addressing rural needs and complement the work of the RDAs. The RDC's research and advisory role will transfer to the Countryside Agency next month. At the same time, the RDC's old regeneration activities will transfer to the RDAs. The combined experience in the new Countryside Agency will provide a national source of research and advice about countryside and rural issues. The agency will be able to develop a more integrated approach to conserving and enhancing the countryside and helping to meet the needs of rural people. The agency will continue to advise government on social and economic issues in rural areas and it will continue to play an important role in assisting the development of rural services and identifying new approaches. It is also important that the Government Office in each region, the RDAs, the Countryside Agency and local government work closely together.

I have spoken mainly about England, although I appreciate that several noble Lords raised points relating to Scotland and Wales. Most of those issues will become the responsibility of the devolved Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. The question of how the Scottish and Welsh executives approach rural matters will be for them. That will include the issue of land reform, which has been prioritised in Scotland. It has a different history of land tenure and slightly different geography and climate. Agriculture and other land use issues are different in Scotland and it is appropriate that land reform together with agricultural and rural development policy are as far as possible devolved to the Scottish executive and Parliament. The same is largely true for Wales where, as noble Lords have indicated, there has already been progress in that direction.

Many issues were raised about agriculture. I gently chide the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, who said that this was a farming debate. It is not a farming debate; it is a debate about rural development as a whole. Agriculture is of vital importance to land use, the environment and the rural economy of rural areas, but it is not just agriculture that defines the interests of the rural economy. I believe that, in reality, the noble Baroness recognises that.

Agriculture is vital as a direct and indirect job provider, an economic motor and as the manager of the countryside, the environment and many aspects of rural life. We respect that. We also recognise that there is a serious problem in much of the agricultural sector at present. As a city dweller, I used not to feel sorry for farmers, but at present I feel very concerned about many aspects of the agricultural sector. The Government are helping in turning them around but, in the long run,

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reform of the agricultural policy needs to be of benefit to agricultural managers as well as to consumers and the interests of the environment.

The noble Lord, Lord Williamson, referred positively to reform of the CAP. Others, including the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, cast scepticism on the process. Nevertheless, in the medium term it must be to reform of the CAP that we look for a better system of improving both the efficiency of our agricultural system and the degree of protection that it gives to the more vulnerable elements, particular hill farmers in this country. The original CAP among the original six was a very successful regional and social policy. It then turned into something more of the monster referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam. We need to return it to its original purpose which was to upgrade and modernise agriculture; to provide social support for those areas which are most vulnerable; and to protect consumers and the environment. If we can achieve that it will not only benefit the agricultural sector; it will also benefit the whole of the rural economy and environment.

A number of points were raised in relation to rural housing, rural transport and access to the countryside which we dealt with at some length the other day. There may be some continuing disagreement which will be resolved, it is to be hoped, when the legislation comes before this House--or possibly not!

Important issues have been raised relating to rural housing and transport to which I shall respond in writing. Such has been the enthusiasm of noble Lords in contributing to the debate that I must leave some time to enable the noble Baroness to sum up. The debate has shown the wide range of concern in this House about the rural economy and a great deal of experience has been brought to bear on the issue. The White Paper will provide a focus for what we can do for the countryside not only in the short term but also in the medium term so that whether we visit it, or live or work there, we can have a countryside which delivers both economic benefit and a great deal of enjoyment and quality of life for us all.

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