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Baroness Barker: My Lords, in the short time available this afternoon I have been able to read through the report. I cannot help but reflect that it may be a new Labour attempt to avert a general strike such as those taking place across the rest of the continent. How times have changed.
Does the noble Baroness agree that the main driver for pension reform is informed individuals within schemes? While many proposals in the paper aim towards that endincreasing the power of individuals to changehas she noted that the complexity of contracting-out regulations was cited in the Green Paper as a major barrier to individuals' understanding of the workings of their pension schemes? Can she illustrate further than the points made in the report the steps the Government envisage taking to simplify the contracting-out regulations and when we are likely to see those changes come about?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am sorry to disappoint the noble Baroness, Lady Barker. I cannot give her the information she has asked for because we have not yet worked through a timetable of the proposals or, indeed, their full content.
The noble Baroness was absolutely right to point out that pensions, in particular for women, are workplace-driven and therefore information-driven. I am sure that she will welcome many of the proposals set out in the Green Paper to ensure that employers will take a much more proactive view to ensure that people are made aware of the virtues of the schemes.
I do not want to take up the time of noble Lords, but I shall make a brief point. I was shocked when I encountered a company running a scheme which required a 2.5 per cent contribution from the employee and 12.5 per cent from the employer, and only 47 per cent of the women employees belonged to it. That is foolish by anyone's standards. So much work has to be done in this area.
Lord Brookman: My Lords, when I woke this morning, I was feeling pretty chuffed. I read the Western Mail, in which the headline told of success for Cardiff steelworkers and for the union I worked for in representing their interests. The article went on to state that there was an argument for "natural justice" for the Allied Steel and Wire workers. That statement came from a senior departmental source.
This is a practical situation. Here we have a works that closed down some 12 months ago. It has been purchased by a Spanish steel manufacturer and will reopen later in the year. Will TUPE regulations pertain there? My noble friend stated at the Dispatch Box that this is a forward programme, which implies that any law would not be retrospective for those workers who unfortunately and tragically have lost their rights and pension rights over a number of years. What is the position for the people at Allied Steel and Wire, a company that is to be taken over, but which will have had a gap of over 12 months since it was closed?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I wish that I could help my noble friend, but I am afraid that I cannot do so. TUPE does not pertain in that situation because, as my noble friend rightly anticipated, these proposals are not retrospective. Aside from all else, the pension protection fund does not yet exist. So I am very sorry, but I cannot give my noble friend the assurance that he would like.
Lord Hayhoe: My Lords, are any public service pension schemes to be affected in any way by what is being proposed? If not, does that mean that the existing inflation-proofing for public sector schemes will continue and that the 2.5 per cent limit announced will not apply? In other words, will the whole of the public service pension provision be insulated from what is being announced today? Does not that make public service employment extremely attractive for young people?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, that is such a broad-brush question, it is not answerable in the form put to me by the noble Lord. I say that in part because we are dealing with some pension schemes that are funded, some that are pay-as-you-go, someas is the case for the Civil Servicethat are non-contributory but are paid for through adjusted salary arrangements, some of which are contributory, some
Earl Russell: My Lords, rather than gilding my noble friend's lily, may I ask the Minister to take a more wide-angled view and consider the change in the ratio between people's earning lives and their pensionable lives? Fifty years ago, when the school leaving age was 14, it was possible to have a 50-year earning life and a five-year pension life; that is, 10 years' worth of earnings for each year of pension. Today, people often work between the ages of 30 to 50 years, resulting in less than one year's earnings for each year of pension. Does she agree that the solutions to that change go far beyond pensions policy alone? Will she also bear in mind, when considering the difficulties encountered by the young in entering the labour market, the cruel costs of extending higher education to 50 per cent of the age group and the cost of legislation on age discrimination?
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is absolutely right to say that pensions policies formulated when women derived their pensions from their husbands and those husbands could expect a working life of at least 40 years at 40 hours a week in a fairly stable company, or often in the public sector, are no longer valid because that period is over. That is due in part to the extended education age, but also in part to the very good reason that people are living longer.
There is a bundle of responses for the noble Lord. In a more limited sense, our action plan addresses ways in which to encourage people through our age-positive programmes and the like to continue working after the age of 65indeed, to remain in the labour market from 55 years old onwards. We are not saying that we want to raise the age at which the state pension is paid, but we are saying that one of the biggest problems is not that people are not working beyond the age of 65, but that those aged between 55 and 65 who could and should be in the labour market because they have something to offer and they want to work are too often dropping out. We are finding throughout Europe that people are dropping out of the labour market at a younger age while living longer. It is a longevity issue that we have to address.
In our proposals we are encouraging people very positively to work not only to the age of 65, but beyond, if they wish and need to. We are making generous increments in terms of the deferred state pension so that they can work. People will be able to run their occupational pensions alongside part-time working. A substantive point is that more generally we have a transitional generation. I accept that in future in a family there will be not just the expectation that two will depend on the pension of one, but crucially that we have to encourage all people, women as well as men, to carry their own pension into retirement. If they do so, as I hope they will, as a result we shall have pension prosperity for them as a family and also for
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, perhaps I may remind your Lordships that speakers who are unable to stay to the end of the debate in four hours' time should remove their names from the list of speakers. I also point out to your Lordships that if every speaker continued for 60 seconds after "six" had registered on the clock, the Minister would have minus time in which to reply; he would be totally unable to reply to the debate within the four hours. I am sure that all speakers would wish to hear the Minister's reply.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am most grateful to my fellow Cross-Bench Peers and especially to my noble friend Lord Tenby for persuading them to allow me this Wednesday slot to call attention to the state of the British countryside. I know how much we are all looking forward to the maiden speech of my noble friend the Earl Marshal and looking at the list of speakers I feel certain that we are going to have a full and wide-ranging debate on all aspects of the British countryside.
I have to declare an interest as a farmer with a small acreage of forestry. I also open my home and gardens to the public which in turn generates a small amount of income into a very sparsely populated corner of the United Kingdom. I also remind your Lordships that I am president of the British Association of Biofuels and Oils.
In September last year over 407,000 people, at great inconvenience and cost to themselves, joined the countryside march through the streets of London to try to persuade the Government to listen to their worries and concerns about rural Britain. It was the biggest civil liberties protest in British history and the vast majority of those taking part were non-political. When non-political people feel that those ruling them are out of touch, that is when politicians have to start worrying. To quote the Sun on September 23rd:
It is impossible to prepare accurate budgets for agricultural products without knowing what costs are to grow, harvest, dry and, more importantly, what at the end of the day they will be worth. No other business has to operate under such uncertain conditions. It discourages investment, especially bearing in mind the long turn-around period between investment and yield in the farming world. To change or expand an agricultural enterprise takes careful long-term planning. When I used to make biscuits, we could produce a new product and market it within weeks. In farming, new products can take years to introduce.
I quote some statistics which I hope will emphasise the real and perilous plight of the farming community. In 1982 I received £114 per tonne for my wheat; last year, 20 years later, the gross figure I received was £62a drop of 52 per cent. The farm gate price of malting barley has dropped 38 per cent and yet the price of a nip has increased by 116 per cent in the past 15 years. Wages in the agricultural sector have risen by 179 per cent while the basic hours worked have decreased by 3 per cent.
I am aware of the introduction of the IACS payments, but in reality they fall very far short of giving farmers a decent return. Pre-IACS, my cereal income 20 years ago was £314,000 and last year my cereal income along with my IACS payment was £176,000, which is a drop in income of £182 per acre. Milk is perhaps the only bright star on the horizon. The price paid to the producer has increased by 2.6 per cent over the past 20 years. Yet most producers are losing two pence per litre. To think that bottled water is more expensive than milk is a classic example of the mess, muddle and confusion that we are in.
I turn to potatoes. Last year the current producer's price of top quality white potatoes was £60 per tonne. That is £13 per tonne less than it was two years ago. And how much does that tonne cost to produce? £73 per tonne. Yet those same potatoes were retailing at just under £1,000 per tonne. Farmers cannot and will not be allowed by the banks to struggle on in such a crazy financial climate. Borrowings by the agriculture industry currently stand at £3 billion, compared with £600 million 30 years ago.
GM crops offer enormous advantages but there are still serious public concerns about their safety. The Government are facing a major challenge over the public debate. I believe that the Government must ensure we have a system in place whereby the location of GM crops is strictly registered, interested parties are notified well in advance of planting and the media and public have full access to information. This would allay many of the concerns felt about GM crops and lead to a more rational debate about their potential benefits, which could be considerable.
Since ARBRE has gone into liquidation, the Government must accept biomass is neither a financially nor environmentally viable alternative. However, unless the Chancellor changes his present stance there is no chance whatever of that target being achieved. Again I ask: why does all my oilseed rape go from Scotland to Austria and Germany and get turned into biodiesel? This country is being left behinda tragic wasted opportunity.
I turn now to forestry. Britain uses about 50 million cubic metres of timber, paper, boards and other wood products each year. Around 85 per cent of this has to be imported at a cost of about £8 billion, our fourth largest single import commodity. In 1992 the total returns of forestry producers were somewhere in the region of 4.4 per cent; by 1996 it had dropped into the red at minus 3 per cent; and in the last year for which statistics were available that minus figure had almost doubled. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide encouragement for all commercial forestry producers.
Many countryside dwellers have been encouraged to diversify into tourism. Hard-working farmers' wives offer bed and breakfast the length and breadth of Britain. However, for many it is not a viable alternative and their plight was highlighted during the foot and mouth crisis. So often these tiny businesses are strangled in their infancy by red tape bureaucracy and curious tax anomalies. For instance, income from holiday cottages is taxed separately as are the profitswhile the farmer, however, is facing huge losses on his mainline farming business. Not only does this fly in the face of government pleas for farm diversification; it is simply unjust. The Government must encourage small rural businesses to do all they can, not stifle them in infancy.
In 2002 tourism in the United Kingdom was worth £76 billion and employed 7 per cent of the working population. It is a growing industry which is good for Britain, its people and the countryside. Tourism needs every possible encouragement to continue playing a growing role in our national prosperity. Yesterday's royal visits to the four corners of the United Kingdom to promote tourism were extremely well received, as widely reported in the press today.
I turn to crime, which appears to be the one area flourishing in the countryside. Some of your Lordships may have seen an article which my brother recently wrote in the Spectator. It was entitled, "We do not do burglary". His motor-bike was stolen. A passer-by had seen it being stolen and went immediately to the
Many of us living in the countryside are concerned about transport. While my local authority subsidises the local bus company, it is disheartening that almost every time I see a bus it is empty. Would not a subsidised taxi service based on the successful Swedish model be worth considering? It would be particularly welcomed by the elderly and would be far more cost effective, particularly where visits to hospitals, the doctor or dentist are involved.
Whether you own a postage stamp size area of ground or 50,000 acres, in a just society the principle of ownership should be the same. Our rural estates underpin the rural economy and preserve the landscape of our countryside. They are not the preserve of a vested elite but provide a framework for rural diversity in terms of services and jobs. We often read in the press of some of the great estates having to sell pictures or other assets to keep the infrastructure of their estates intact. Many of us believe that this infrastructure is vitally important to British rural life.
People are the countryside's most vital ingredient. I took on 17 people when I started farming 25 years ago; I am now farming a bigger acreage with only four. Our family has always paid the council tax for our workers and it is interesting to note that 15 years ago 50 tonnes of barley covered the bill. Today it takes 107 tonnes.
In 1984 there were nearly 7 million hectares under the plough. Last year that figure was well below 6 million. I am aware of the constant need for housing, particularly in the South East, and I hope that the Government will do all they can to encourage further development on brownfield sites. No two areas of the United Kingdom are the same, as revealed in a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report. It found that alongside Westminster and Islington, North Devon and Purbeck were among the least affordable areas in England. Knowing what people are able to charge for rented accommodation in the south makes me green with envy. I am lucky to get £45 a week for a two-bedroom cottage.
If a ban on hunting with hounds becomes law, three things will happen. First, the life of not one single fox will be preservedthe situation in Scotland is proof of that. It must not be forgotten that foxes are vermin and have to be controlled. Secondly, many thousands of rural jobs will be lost. Thirdly, the rural environment, the countryside that so many love, will not be conserved in the way it is today. Surely the Government have more important matters on which
The noble Lord, Lord Haskins, has proposed a reorganisation of "delivery" agencies in the countryside distinguishing between programme planning, policy and delivery. That could be a massive change for existing agencies such as Defra, English Nature and the Countryside Agency. The challenge for the Government is to demonstrate how the environment will retain its importance at a local level.
The implementation of the water framework directive will also be a challenge to the Government. If we are to implement the requirements of the WFD we will have to reform the way we use the land. Equally, this will have an influence on agricultural planning and transport policy. How do the Government intend to implement this?
I have not time to mention so many other important aspects of the countryside such as schools, hospitals, churches and broadband. The British countryside is in dire straits. It needs help and encouragement now before it is too late.
We must develop a long-term strategynot one that will simply paper over the cracks. It must involve landowners, farmers, growers, the entire food industry, all government agencies and the Government so that British agriculture and the British countryside can flourish once again. Our great nation surely deserves nothing less.
Lord Clark of Windermere: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for choosing this debate and for introducing it in the way that he did. I suspect that all noble Lords in the Chamber have one thing in common; namely, our love and appreciation of, and concern for, the British countryside.
I was born, brought up, studied, worked and now live in the countryside. I declare an interest as chair of the Forestry Commission. That allows me the opportunity to travel the length and breadth of Great Britain talking to people and discussing the undoubted problems of the countryside.
In debating the countryside, my greatest concern relates to those who seek to distinguish and divide the town from the country. In a small island we are very much interdependent on each other. In my native Cumbria, I am conscious that when we are sick we may go to Carlisle or to Kendal, but if we are very sick we are taken to Newcastle or Manchester. The visitor who walks around hills one day may well be the theatre nurse at Christie Hospital the next day. We should never forget our interdependence on each other.
The noble Lord stated this point clearly. We all agree that agriculture is in a state of deep turmoil. He quoted the figures. I know that they are the right figures. We pour £3 billion into British agriculture every year. Yet we have farmers living on a knife edge who have meagre returns. The figure I have used was that under the CAP only £1 in £3 got through to farmers. The rest was used in export restitution and support for middle men. Little money got through to the producers of our food, or the people who look after our countryside. I hope that through the mid-term review, to which the noble Lord referred, we shall have a fundamental change.
We should not short-sell those who live in the countryside. The educational standards of our young people in rural areas are higher than in urban areas. Equally, economic activity in the rural areas, difficult though it may seem to be, is higher than in the urban areas and is increasing at a faster rate.
If we are seeing a reorganisation of agricultureas, clearly, we arewe need another driver for the rural economy. In many areas that may well be IT. But, as the noble Lord suggested, it is certainly tourism. I commend his activity in this field. Perhaps I may give a couple of examples from my sphere of forestry. We seek to apply lateral thinking in the countryside which will provide an economic opportunity for regeneration. The noble Lord made the point that timber prices in Britain are at their lowest ever in real terms. It is hardly worth while chopping down trees. That applies to state forestry as well as to private forestry. We have sought to look at other ways of utilising estate. Clearly, forestry is about more than trees: it is also about the spaces between the trees. We need to think laterally.
I cite the classic example. With a stroke of luck and some good planning, we have ospreys in my native county of Cumbria. We put flat tops on trees. The ospreys came back. Last year, 110,000 people came to see the ospreys. We estimate that with capital spending that brought £2 million into the local economy. Very little went to the Forestry Commission because all we charge for is the odd car. But all the rest of the money has gone into the local economy. Equally, in north Wales, at Coed y Brenin, we spent about £100,000 putting in cycle paths. Two years later, the consultants estimated that that had brought £4 million into the local economy.
Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for initiating the debate and for putting the case so brilliantly for the countryside. I, too, declare an interest as a farmer and a member of numerous organisations connected with the countryside.
It is a coincidence that this debate occurs while on the Continent the mid-term review of the CAP is being discussed. I am filled with concern that inevitably farming, which is already depressed, will be worse off after those deliberations than it is now. With the notable exception of our noble friend Lord Whitty who is always present and in good humour, Ministers disappoint me by showing so little enthusiasm for farming and rural life. They seem to wish that problems would go away. I fear that they will get worse and worse.
I followed yesterday's debate with increasing worry about the future. Cannot everyone involved see that the retention of the beauty of our landscape, the habitat, wildlife and food production depends on profitable farming? Without that, we shall have run-down buildings, derelict land and abandoned rural communities. I have seen all that in the US. But we, too, are on the same slope. We see abandoned rural schools, abandoned churches, many abandoned post offices and shops, and communities following suit.
Council tax in rural areas is bearing highly and heavily on the population. In Scotland, those who follow the Scottish press will know that the water industry is out of control. Water charges have increased between 25 per cent and 500 per cent. Much of that bears heavily on the farming industry and rural industries. It is all desperately serious. But at the same time the Government are supporting policies which will reduce farm income. Decoupling and cross-compliance will have that effect. Can anyone present who has studied the mid-term CAP and read the report of the noble Lord, Lord Selborne, explain how incomes will be retained if grants are taken from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2? Any major reform of the CAP will mean less income for agriculture.
How can the average farmer, who is playing his part in enhancing the environment, obtain a reasonable income from the CAP proposals. Modulation is already biting, but where is the money taken from farmers going into the environment? I have yet to see it. Most importantly, it is essential that grants and agricultural support are attached to the land in future, and not to the farmers; otherwise we shall have immense problems in buying and selling land.
It is interesting that while we say that we must do all this because of the enlargement of the Community and the World Trade Organisation, the US, which is vociferous about world trade, has given huge new grants to farming in America.
Who is really looking after the countryside in the United Kingdom? I hoped that the Countryside Agency would take a much more prominent position on behalf of the agricultural industry. It must give much more leadership. It seems far too tied up with
It is disappointing that in The State of the Countryside 2020, published not long ago, there was no word about the value of country sports to the countryside and to tourism. Will the Minister affirm to the House what the Prime Minister has said elsewherethat shooting and fishing have nothing to worry about from a Labour government in future?
I am concerned about planning, as wind farms go up everywhere and there are radio masts on the top of every hill. The Government seem to be turning over every appeal and giving approval for these unsightly monstrosities.
As the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, so rightly said, the Minister should give us some long-term ideas for the future. At the moment, we are sunk in jargon from the market such as modulation, de-coupling, cost compliance and degressivity. That is double Dutch to the average farmer. It is high time the Government brought together all the reports done by distinguished people in the past year or two. A long-term view should be drawn from those reports of where we ought to go in practical terms. That is what farmers want to know.
Will the Minister give us some assurance that the vast sums of money being spent and, I believe, partly wasted on the mainline railway are not at the expense of the peripheral railway? I hope that we shall not see the lines that are less used being sacrificed for the sake of the West Coast Main Line.
Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, I do see people on rural buses. The cost inflation indicators for the bus industry are quite different from those for ordinary cost inflation. Costs are going up very quicklywage and insurance costs particularlyas the no-win-no-fee culture takes hold. The effect of the working time directive on the bus industry will be huge. Should not subsidies be tied to some new inflation indicator? Oxfordshire, my own county, is offering something over 1 per cent when inflation is running at something like 10 per cent in the industry. In addition, the rural bus grant has been woefully misdirected; it is being spent on what I would call "no hope" services, when the true marginal services are dropping out of the net for lack of support.
I turn to housing. Although it may be possible to rent a house for £45 a week in the area where the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, lives, that would be a laughable figure in Oxfordshire. A special effort is needed to house the indigenous population of rural areas. Parish councils should be allowed to specially designate areas for housing for indigenous people, and those houses should be protected from the right-to-buy legislation.
The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, also referred to the issue of law and order. I have two issues to put to the Minister. First, hare coursing is a particularly troublesome issuea very rural issueas are unlicensed raves. Could the law be updated so that, instead of seizing equipment and dogs, the police are empowered to seize the vehicles of people who care nothing for the law and take up very large amounts of police time, which is then unfortunately not spent on catching motorists? Those people believe themselves to be above the law.
Secondly, the issue of access is important. I refer not to the access talked about under the right to roam but access to national trails and bridleways, which are consistently being ruined in many parts of rural England by the activities of people using quad bikes, motorcycles and four-wheel-drive vehicles. As with heavy lorries using country roads, it is not good enough to rely on the effectiveness of traffic orders. They are expensive for county councils to promote and are thoroughly ineffective and slow, they require huge police resources in order to prosecute and the fines are derisory. We need a proper prohibition of certain types of vehicles in certain places, and the presence of such a vehicle, once noted, should be sufficient ground for proper prosecution.
Lastly, I refer to road safety. My noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market referred to this matter in Committee on the Railways and Transport Safety Bill last week. About half the casualties on our roads happen in rural areas; excessive speed in rural areas is no doubt a large factor, coupled with the fact that the roads are not very well maintained. Will the Minister say something about the review of the road hierarchy that is being undertaken, and when we can expect to see some results?
The Duke of Norfolk: My Lords, I must start by saying how honoured and humbled I am to be making my maiden speech. I admit to a touch of nervousness, but I cannot tell your Lordships what a relief it is to enter this House today walking forwards not backwards.
In the Countryside Agency's latest annual report, a recent survey shows that over 90 per cent of people living in England consider it important to keep the English countryside the way it is now. For those of us who love and cherish our British countryside, that is heartening news indeed. The problem is that beneath the surface the countryside is suffering, and farming in particular is in real crisis.
The majority of farmers accept that global restructuring is taking place in their industry and that they must embrace change. They are willing to diversify whenever possible and, increasingly, they are entering into agri-environment schemes. They acknowledge their role as managers of the countryside, but at the same time they must be able to make a living out of food production if they are to have a future in the long term.
One of the main problems facing the farming industry is over-regulation, and every farmer I speak to believes that we are now more regulated in this country than anywhere else in Europe. Bureaucrats in Brussels dream up new regulations and then hand them down to our civil servants in Whitehall, who are expert at re-drafting them, and often adding to them, so that they are as water-tight as possible for the UK. There is a commendable quality in the British nature that then makes us abide by new regulation to the letter, in a way that does not seem to happen in the rest of Europe.
Our dairy farmers, for instance, have complied with the milk quota regulations from the moment they were introduced in 1984. In Italy, they are still arguing about what the base year level should be 19 years on, and in practice they have avoided milk quotas.
In this country the IACS form which our arable farmers have to fill in runs to 13 pages. In Ireland, it runs to two. In the livestock sector our regulatory controls are now so severe that it is estimated that compliance costs our farmers 30 per cent more than in other parts of the world. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that our home market is flooded with beef from South America and Ireland, and with lamb from New Zealand.
A recent example of even more red tape from Brussels is the Animal By-Products Regulation, which, from 1st May, requires all farmers to dispose of their dead animals by taking them to a licensed incinerator or rendering plant. For a sheep farmer in the Yorkshire Dales who loses some of his stock on the open moorland, very often half a mile or more from the nearest road, that is going to be extremely difficult to comply with. Is the scientific evidence behind this latest regulation really robust? Would it not have been just as beneficial simply to regulate that all carcasses buried on a farm must not pollute a water course? Has anyone done an estimate of the extra pollution to the environment of all these farm animal carcass movements and the effects of incinerating them? What about the dead carcasses on our roads? Are councils going to pick them up? What about dead pets?
If farming in this country is to have a future, we must reduce unnecessary red tape instead of constantly adding to it. We must remove regulation where the benefit is disproportionate to the costs of implementing it. We must get away from the current system of central government trying to micro-manage the farming industry from Whitehall, gold-plating everything that comes out of Brussels. We must find new ways of letting the farming industry regulate itself through farmer assurance schemes, allowing it to produce good-quality food safely, to comply with the high standards demanded by supermarkets and other retail outlets. Somehow we must give the farming industry back to itself and get central government out of it.
There are many examples in the world where deregulation in an industry has been made to work very successfully. In New Zealand, in 1984, the government decided to deregulate the trucking, shipping and airline industries, with remarkable results. They moved the bias of their transport safety regulations from one of operator compliance to operator accountability. Instead of central government writing the safety rules, and then ensuring that they were being complied with, they made the industry accountable for safety outcomes. The result was that the number of Ministry of Transport regulators in New Zealand was reduced from 4,500 employees to just 57. Safety in the transport industry improved across the board, and prices either stabilised or fell as the industry discovered innovation.
Deregulating the UK farming industry will not be easy, and it will take time; but somehow we must start this process. The British countryside is one of our national treasures, and farming is its backbone. I believe that Her Majesty's Government must ensure that farming has a future in this country.
The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, it is a great privilege and pleasure to congratulate the noble Duke the Earl Marshal on his excellent maiden speech. It was a valuable, expert, well-directed and robust contribution to this important debate.
Your Lordships will all have reasons to remember with great gratitude the immense contribution to this House and to the nation made by the noble Duke's father. It is good to be able to welcome the noble Duke as an active Member of this House. We look forward with enthusiasm to his future contributions to our debates. On a personal note, perhaps I may say what happy childhood memories I have of visits to Arundelto that wonderful cricket ground and that beautiful part of West Sussex farmed by the noble Duke.
I, too, must declare an interest as bishop of the most rural diocese in England. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for securing this debate, for enabling us to range over the enormous canvas of rural life in Britain, and for his outstanding speech in introducing the debate.
I have been asked to speak specifically about the role of the Church in rural areas. I gladly do sobased on more than 30 years of hands-on rural experience. But, first, perhaps I may make three brief points about farming.
Our thoughts and prayers are with those negotiating on our behalf in Luxembourgtoday, tonight, tomorrow and tomorrow night, or however long it may taketo sort out the outstanding current issues of CAP reform. I hope that they will support Commissioner Fischler with real determination that they will achieve far-reaching reform; full decoupling; a much strengthened second pillar; and well-directed environmental and rural infrastructure proposals that will create a proper living for farmers. That modulation money must come back into farmers' pockets.
I want to refer, secondly, to the recommendation by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, for a significant transfer of rural funding to rural development agencies. I hope that the Minister will think long and hard about that. We do not need further upheaval and change. We need the continuing reform and improvement of Defra and of the Countryside Agency. Many people in rural England doubt whether RDAs are the right bodies to be making decisions about financial support.
Thirdly, and rather more cheerfully, I want to offer a warm welcome to the recommendations of the Tenancy Reform Industry Group. They will bring real hope and help to beleaguered tenant farmers. The Minister has said that he believes that they are in the right ballpark. I hope that the Government will implement them swiftly.
I turn to the role of the Church. The parish church has been at the heart of rural communities for 1,000 yearsfor longer in many cases. Huge social change, social mobility and social fragmentation have radically altered the character of rural community life. But it remains true to say that the Church has a central role in rural communitiesranging in population from hamlets of less than 100 people who still have their own parish church to market towns of several thousand.
Last Sunday, I had two wonderfully encouraging experiences which proved how true it is that the Church is at the heart of community. The first was in a small market town. The church was fullthere were 500 people of all ages from all walks of lifefor a civic service to welcome the new mayor and to set the tone to his mayoral year. There were children, young people, representatives of business, farming, the professions and the arts, music of various kinds and morris dancers. There was participation by Christians of five different traditions. There was an air of unity, purpose and commitment which was inspiring. On the same day, in the evening, I was in a very remote church where we celebrated the centenary of the church's rebuilding. The population of that hamlet is 70. There were 65 people in churchnot all of them, I have to admit, from the hamlet itself, but wanting to come
Mutual support is critical. The foot and mouth outbreak showed what a vital role the Church had in supporting farmers and their families under very great stress. It was extremely well done and greatly valued. But many deep anxieties remain in rural life. The critical level of product prices for farmers has been pointed out. How will decoupling affect farmers in unsupported areas of agriculture?
Farm borrowing is at record levels. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, referred to a figure £3 billion. The Bank of England figures I have indicate that it is £7.9 billion6 per cent up on last year. Social exclusion is a real problem in the deep country where struggling family farmers often resent the arrival next door of a well-heeled hobby farmer who brings city money and a very different lifestyle. The Church has a vital role in pastoral care for everyone, and in encouraging mutual understanding.
I am not simply talking about the Church of England. In many rural areas, the Anglican parish church may be the only building but its congregation will include Roman Catholics and Free Church people who are more than welcome, and many rural churches incorporate in their worship elements from traditions other than the Church of England.
However, we needwe desperately needmore realistic help from society at large towards the maintenance of our historic built heritage. The Church of England is the least well-supported Church in Europe from that point of view. Our congregations have gladly maintained their historic buildings for many centuries but the strain is acute and radical change is needed. Communities are much more important than buildings but the buildings matter and are a precious inheritance and a national treasure. More public recognition and financial help are essential if the Church's contribution to rural life is to continue to be strengthened and to grow, freed from what can be a preoccupying concern with maintenance. We would rather be in the business of mission and community building.
Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, along with every other noble Lord who is taking part in this debate. Without entering upon the slippery slope of everyone congratulating the maiden speakerthat is much deplored in your Lordships' HouseI must say how much I welcome the arrival in the House of another Baron Beaumont. In my rather prejudiced view, we cannot have too many Baron Beaumonts in this House. The arrival of the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, as Baron Beaumont is more than welcome.
Any serious discussion of the countryside is about agriculture. We have now had the opportunity to talk about it on two separate days in the past three days. I take it that few of us want to see a countryside of theme parks and second homes.
The Green Party is not a party of yokels, in spite of its name. Indeed, one of my problems as its spokesman for agriculture is finding enough people with agricultural knowledge. However, we care passionately about the countryside. Today, I received an e-mail from a very rural part of Derbyshirefrom a Conservative constituencywhere a rather distinguished gentleman wishes to start a branch of the Green Party, having discovered that most of the people in his village voted Labour in the past but no longer wish to do so.
The real bugbear to the whole question of agriculture is free trade. Free trade is a con trick imposed by politicians who want to buy urban votes for cheap food at the expense of agricultural incomes and the environment. It has succeeded as a con trick. As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said on Tuesday, perhaps food is so cheap now that we cannot be bothered to think about the problems it causes. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, said in the same debate that the objectives of the CAP are to provide a decent living for those in the country and food security but it fails to do either.
We appear to have abandoned the idea of food security. That is a grave error. Many noble Lords, like me, remember when that mattered. Looking around the world today, I am far from betting heavily on its not being needed again. If we have protection for agriculture, we could have a decent, populous, environmentally secure countryside. We would also have, I admit, more expensive food, but that expense would have preserved the British countryside. Against that, we will be told that we would be harming the poor. Governments always use the fact that they refuse to introduce policies to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor to avoid doing other desirable things. They go on to say that what I am suggesting would hurt the third world. I categorically deny that. It is not true; if I had sufficient time, which I have not, I could prove that.
Meanwhile, once again, I urge a real determination to tackle the World Trade Organisation. Until then, I look forward with gloom to the continuing decline of the countryside because I do not believe that the suggestions that will be and have been made in your Lordships' House today will really do much good at all. We need a revival of agriculture. The suggestions being made about the improvement of the countryside do not go far enough to do anything serious about that.
Lord Haskins: My Lords, I must declare an interest as the son of a farmer, as a retired farmer and as the father of two farmers: one in Yorkshire and one in County Wicklow. Both of them, I am rather hesitant to say, are making a profit, and both of them are rather keen to expand their businesses.
The British countryside is much more economically diverse and successful than it is prepared to admit. Most farmsmore than halfnow benefit substantially from non-farming income. Wives and children, better educated than their parents, find alternative jobs in nearby towns. Many of today's liberated farmers' wives prefer to do another job, rather than be stuck alongside their husbands at the back end of a cow for all their lives.
Rural tourism is booming. The "half-term, four-day break" phenomenon is doing wonders for tourism in the countryside. Farm buildings are being increasingly adapted for other business purposes, despite the planners. The Yorkshire farmer's wife who has built a big business flogging knickers on the Internet is not on her own. All of those initiatives are welcome and need to be encouraged. The planners and romantic dinosaurs must not unnecessarily resist progress.
Farming itself is now recovering well after several difficult years. The doomsters who forecast that foot and mouth disease would be a death blow have been proven totally wrong. The massiveprobably excessivecompensation that was handed out by the Government clearly helped, as did the strength of livestock prices, which was a consequence of the disease.
Farm prices have recovered substantially in most sections, thanks to the weaker pound against the euro and stronger global prices, although the strong euro against the dollar is creating problems. The dairy industry is also experiencing its own problems. Lower interest rates have helped a heavily borrowed industry. British farming has greatly improved its competitiveness. At last, British farmers are learning to co-operate with each other. They are joining together to strengthen their buying power and making much better use of their assets through sharing and contracting. They are also managing their businesses better. There is more intelligent and more sparing use of chemicals and pesticides. They are concentrating on profit rather than yield; learning that good animal welfare is also good business; and managing bigger herds and more hectares in a responsible way.
When British wheatYorkshire wheatis exported to New York and New South Wales, as happened last winter, one realises how much more competitive many British farmers have now become. Labour shortage is one of the greatest problems facing the industry if one is a dairy person, or growing fruit and vegetables, or trying to pick flowers. Finally, land prices remain strong, enabling those farmers who want to retire in comfort, to make selective disposals for development and to borrow with confidence. However, that does not of course apply to tenant farmers.
British farmers, however, like the rest of British industry, will benefit from the stability of participation in the European single currency. I believe that the Chancellor's positive Statement on that matter in another place on Monday will take us some way closer to that aspiration.
I have one final farming point. The capacity to grow niche markets, such as organic and local food markets, is limited. When, as in the case of organic milk, supply runs ahead of demand, the consequences are disastrous for those involved.
The non-farming rural society continues to thrive. There are rising numbers of urban commuters, who admittedly create problems for others. There has been the remarkable expansion of rural small businesses benefiting from better access to markets through the Web and also from the increasing number of visitors to the countryside.
Rural public services are in my view also exaggerated. Why are the rural buses so empty? It is because over 90 per cent of the rural population owns cars and most of the rest have obliging car-owning neighbours. Why are rural shops closing down? That is because people in the countryside will not use them. They rather like the once-weekly visit to the nearby town and the supermarket. Why are local pubs in decline? The reason is that drink/drive laws rightly stop people in an inebriated state from driving to and from them.
My impression is that there are three real problems in the countryside: the lack of affordable housing for young people, which is also an urban problem; the lack of access to entertainment for rural teenagers; and people in remote areasin what the French call "rural rural areas"continue to experience problems of social and economic isolation as in the past.
The Countryside Alliance is, I am afraid, something of a myth. The countryside is as divided as the towns are about hunting; environmentalists clash with farmers; pragmatic environmentalists argue with the evangelists; organic and conventional farmers have their differences; competitive and hobby farmers are at odds with each other; and small farmers resent their larger neighbours. Cowboys and farmerssince the days of Oklahomahave never got on. There is endless tension between the full-time countryside folk and the commuters and second-homers.
I say a final word about the Defra review. The Government have created a new department with a radically different and much more complicated remit. It has to apply an agricultural policy in which it itself does not believe; to cope with an avalanche of controversial environmental regulations; to anticipate radical changes in agro-environmental policies; and to handle a remit for rural affairs without really defining what "rural" means.
My priorities in this review are: first, to improve accountability; to draw clear lines between policy making and delivery. Secondly, as much as possible to devolve delivery to the regions; to get away from top down. Thirdly, to get ready for a huge increase in the
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, as a farmer I take a somewhat dispassionate view of the countryside. In my boyhood agriculture was recovering from the deep depression of the 1920s and the 1930s. In those days there was a great deal of derelict land. It may not have looked very beautiful but the birds, the bees and the butterflies were having a wonderful time. Today, we are againdespite the noble Lord, Lord Haskinsseeing a period with agriculture descending into depression.
Set-aside is planned dereliction. I am bound to say that, by observation, rotational set-aside at any rate is not as green as derelict land. In my youth, when I was studying agriculture, the Rothamstead Research StationI am not sure whether that has survived all the changes in agricultural research and education in the intervening 50 yearsused to have a plot of land which it had deliberately neglected for more than 100 years. It finished up as oak forest. If allowed, nature will take care of itself without too much help from us.
During the in-between period, for the first 30 years when policy was dominated by the need for the security of food supply and for the past 20 years, through advances in communications, we have seen the need for the drive of government policy. As an agricultural industry, we now find ourselves in the position perhaps of a drug addict: we wish we could work without the support of government. The Government are addicted to the same problem and wish they could stop supporting the agricultural industry.
We have a community of interest but, in a world where support for the agricultural community is general and the environment is so artificial, in fact we cannot escape from it and have to work within those dreadful parameters.
Agriculture and the countryside are indistinguishable. Strictly, we should not confine our remarks to agriculture today. The problem, however, is the same as that which we faced in the 1930s. That is, there is now insufficient income in the agricultural community to support the countryside in the way we wish to see it keptin the rather beautiful state in which it is.
Of course the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, has a point when he talks about the countryside and includes within it all the small rural communities, which are, generally speaking, quite dynamic and include a great deal of small business and so on. However, during the foot and mouth outbreak we saw how quickly they can become damaged when agriculture goes into crisis. That outbreak damaged hugely the agricultural industry, but it damaged quite remarkably the economy of the whole country because of the damage done to all the peripheral industries to which our countryside relates.
The real question we need to ask ourselves today is: if we cannot rely on agriculture as we know it at present to maintain the country, can we find additional income streams to the rural environment? Tourism is all very well, but there is a limit to the number of bed and breakfasts one can put in the countryside. Letting surplus agricultural cottages is all very well, but one cannot get permission to build any more. So that is also limited.
The fact is that while tourism brings a great deal of income into the rural community, it does not actually benefit agriculture on which it depends. I am bound to say that the tourist industry would be very reluctant to start to take responsibility for maintenance of the countryside.
The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, has always been a strong and powerful advocate of biofuels, and particularly bio-diesel. He is right in principle but I have always argued that he is wrong in detail. The brutal fact is that plants are very inefficient converters of the sun's energy. If we are serious about producing green energy from the countrysideand I think we should be, in view of all the concern about global warmingthen why not opt for photo-electrics? From the same area of ground we could produce at least 10, possibly 15, times as much energy. With current technical developments one could probably further increase that figure. That green energy would come from nothing.
However, for that to happen one would need a very different approach to the planning regime because one would effectively be putting land to industrial use. That is one method. Unlike my noble friend Lord Monro of Langholm, I do not think that wind farms are impossible. This is another possible source of income that could be brought to rural areas. I have to inform my noble friend that there is a wind farm within 50 miles of my home that is a tourist attraction. Certainly, the large wind farms that exist in parts of mainland Europe are not that unattractive.
We have to look for these additional ways to make use of the countryside. If that means a change in the planning regime and a changed psychological approach to the way we view the countryside, so be it; but society is moving on and the countryside must move on with it.
Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, has done well in introducing the debate. He has also done well in the assembling of an enormous number of facts and figures, which must have been a most laborious processone that I hate but one which he must obviously love.
I want only to make one point. In introducing it, I must say that the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, is right about what is happening in the countryside. He was perhaps a little too enthusiastic in support of the Government, but, nevertheless, what he said was true: great efforts are going on; new marketing
It is true that, given a reasonable level of support, farming can advance and thrive, but there are all sorts of snags. The primary producer needs some help because, where free trade has run riot, enormous misery has resulted in the farming population of the central American prairies and of this country. So we have a chance to move on, but the common agricultural policy is all-important.
More than 25 years ago, I was rapporteur of an agriculture committee considering the problem of olive oil. It was obvious that an enormous amount of money was being wasted and acquired corruptlyespecially in Italy. In fact, we worked out that, given that it was made for home consumption as well, every Italian was consuming about a quart of olive oil every day. So a great deal can be accomplished with the CAP.
Decoupling payment from production is without doubt the answer. That is the only simple solution. Does that decoupling apply to the farmer or the land? There seems to be some doubt. If it applies only to the farmer and is not tied to the land, that is absolute nonsense. I trust and hope that the Minister will assure us that that is not so; and that if it is, he will go to Brussels to try to get that put right.
There is some hope if we sweep away all those regulations and really decouple to a single payment. On the olive oil, people said, "Ah, but if you pay farmers simply by the tree, they won't pick the olives". As there was a great surplus, I said that that would solve the problem. It will also solve the problem in farming if people receive a single payment. They will look for a simpler, easier way in which to farm, or develop a highly technical advance.
Lord Rogan: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, on introducing the debate. Issues relating to the countryside are often not addressed in sufficient depth, and I hope that the debate will highlight some of the serious issues presently affecting the rural community. I cannot declare an interest in farming, but I have an interest in farming. Perhaps I may especially draw attention to what is happening in rural Northern Ireland and, in doing so, make a number of points.
The past few years have been a time of transition in the rural community, with many factors contributing to changing circumstances. Perhaps the most prominent catalyst behind rural change has been the decline of farming throughout the Kingdom. That is nowhere more apparent than in Northern Ireland, because of the Province's traditional and heavy reliance on agriculture and the fact that farms in the Province are on average much smaller than in mainland Britain.
Despite the decline in the farming industry, it is still the largest single contributor to Northern Ireland's gross domestic product. Nevertheless, some of our problems are similar to those in other parts of the United Kingdom and thus the same solutions can and should be applied. However, on many occasions the problems are different and require local answers in conjunction with communities.
It is also true that even in Northern Ireland, which is a relatively small region, there is not one type of rural area. There are different areas with different problems requiring different solutions and responses. One suggestion that I very much support is that of a rural White Paper. England had such a paper some years back and I have heard various organisations, such as the Countryside Alliance, calling for the Government again to set the wheels in motion. Any rural White Paper would need to be as inclusive as possible and bring together a wide range of governmental and non-governmental organisations.
There are many difficulties in rural Northern Ireland similar to those alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer: problems with crime in the countryside; the closure of rural post offices; the pressure on rural schools to close; and accessibility of cash machines. That is to name but a few of the issues and factors that collectively put the sustainability of rural communities in grave doubt.
With the decline in agricultural employment, new initiatives to encourage new business and enterprises have never been more important. Increasingly, Internet access through broadband is becoming an issue that needs serious attention in rural areas of Northern Ireland. The absence of broadband prevents the progress and development of many rural businesses. More government assistance is needed, both practically and financially.
For instance, I note that earlier this year, Lincolnshire County Council received a grant from the European Union to subsidise broadband services for 3,000 rural businesses in the county. Without such assistance, companies will be understandably both reluctant and financially unable to invest further. Opportunities to create wealth and employment will thus inevitably be lost in rural communities.
The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, mentioned many transportation matters. In Northern Ireland, there is a growing trend for young people to live in urban areas, while the rural areas become more middle-aged. One factor influencing that is access to transport. Still, today, significant numbers of rural dwellers have no access to private transport, despite the fact that the availability of alternative public transport is limited.
Organisations such as the Countryside Alliance are playing an increasingly important role in lobbying politicians at the heart of government on issues affecting those who live or work in the countryside, or who enjoy what it has to offer us all. The Rural Development Council will soon be launching its 2003 rural baseline document in Westminster. No doubt it will reveal issues that the Government need to take into account.
I shall finish with a simple point. Rural people have as much right to equitable access to services as those who live in urban areas. The Government throughout the United Kingdom must continually remind themselves of that, and aim to deliver. The best way to assess the present condition of the countryside is for the Government to produce a White Paper. From knowing exactly how deep are the problems, we can develop and set in place solutions effectively to deal with the wide range of problems.
There needs to be joined-up government. At present, there is a rural gap between government departments in their work together. A rural White Paper would help government departments to co-operate more effectively and bring rural groups into the equation. I hope that the Government will recognise the existing need and that, as pressure grows for such a government process, they will initiate its development.
Baroness Mallalieu: My Lords, I must declare an interest, first as president of the Countryside Alliance and, secondly, as what is sometimes pejoratively referred to as a hobby farmer. I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for his superb introduction to the debate. I also much enjoyed listening to my noble friend Lord Haskins.
The picture that he painted of a land of milk and honey has some resonance with my own experiences. His description of increasing co-operation of people using innovation, particularly in agriculture, and of a growing diversification of non-agricultural jobs in the countryside, is a pattern that I can see.
However, what was missing from his speechand I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I take a moment to say a little about itwas the sense of deep unease, which was fundamentally what brought people in such huge numbers on to the streets of London last year. Most of us recognise that the countryside is undergoing enormous and rapid change. Our concern is that a great national asset will be lost in our generation. There are bound to be changes, but we want to see the retention of things that are precious.
The countryside is two things. First, it is landscape. Very little of our countryside is true wilderness. The majority of it is managed landscape, which means that its pattern, which most people want to see retained, is dictated by our farming patterns. If our agriculture fails, if it dwindles and dies, that pattern changes and the countryside as we know it goes. So the crisis in agriculture to which many others have referred and which I shall not go into in depth, is far more of a threat to many of us who have no income and no job dependent on agriculture. That affects the essence of the countryside that we care about.
Beyond that, perhaps even more, the countryside is about people. It is about communities throughout the country and a way of life which, in 2003, is still different, quite separate and distinct from that in the towns. There is a sense of belonging, a sense of having
In the past 20 years one and a half million people have moved into the countryside. Over the same period there has been a rapid decline in rural amenities and services. The family farms of our nation have for generations been the cornerstones of those rural communities. There is no question that their decline is causing a crumbling effect. We have seen the loss of council housing and tied cottages. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, that the top priority if we are to retain those communities is to tackle local and affordable housing. I have seen the decline in the area where I grew up in Buckinghamshire, and am seeing that now in even more remote places such as Exmoor, where I live part of the time.
More and more people cannot afford to live in those areas, particularly the young, who move out because the only places they can afford to buy are in the town. Those families that dominated the villages for generations have gone within the space of the past five to 10 years. The small family farms are sold. The houses go to people from outside who can afford to pay the prices, and the agriculture units become larger. Planning regulations can and must be altered to allow for more affordable housing where it will improve the sustainability of those rural communities and benefit those areas. Powerful incentives or legislation to that effect should be at the top of Defra's agenda, as should the removal of restrictions that inhibit the creation of small jobs and enterprises, many of them non-agricultural.
I echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. If rural areas are left behind in the provision of broadband radio, that will be a blight from which those areas will never recover. The Government have the power to ensure that the telecommunications industry makes proper provision. Do the Government have the will to do so or are they going to wash their hands of it?
Finally, there is limited legislative time for any government departmentand that applies to Defra. Many of us were pleased when that new government department was created and we had high hopes. The department has used its government legislative time so far to bring in an Animal Health Bill, which many of us thought was profoundly insulting, adding insult to injury for many farmers who had suffered during the course of foot and mouth. In another place the Hunting Bill is a travesty of the promise of fair legislation based on evidence and principle. We have seen animal by-products regulations that are impossible for people to abide by. While Ministers are urging an end to hunts, out in the sticks their officials are urging the hunts to keep going, because there are
I beg that in the forthcoming months and years Defra will use its legislative opportunities not to impose more restrictions and regulations on the countryside, but to do things for the countryside that give people from the towns and the country an opportunity to continue to enjoy what is, and we hope will continue to be, a jewel in our nation.
Earl Peel: My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for introducing the debate, I join with others in welcoming and congratulating the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, on his maiden speech. Having had the pleasure of knowing him for a long time and being a neighbour of his in Yorkshirehere I declare an interest as an owner of landit came as no surprise that his first contribution in your Lordships' House was impressive and erudite.
Agriculture and rural Britain are undergoing a revolution. The high profile disasters of BSE and foot and mouth may have disappeared from our television screens, but profound and long-term changes are taking place and there are huge uncertainties and much hardship. Equally, there is much debate over what the Government could and should be doing to ease the crisis. There is no easy solution. I welcome the report of Sir Don Curry, which has made a considerable contribution to the debate. I also acknowledge that there is a plethora of schemes and initiatives flowing from all the different agencies that exist. However, most lack direction and co-ordination and end up leaving most rural dwellers confused, with a sense that large sums of public money are being wasted. Indeed, many of us are unsure of the direction of DEFRA.
I was surprised the other day when I saw a letter from Alun Michael describing himself as the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life. Perhaps, the noble Lord, the Minister, can tell us whether he is responsible for the urban quality of life in this House. So it is not surprising that I welcome the review that has been awarded to the noble Lord, Lord Haskins. He has an interesting job to do.
However, my real concern is that there appears to be a growing tendency to assume that farming is likely to become an irrelevance to the countryside as it will in time be substituted by other means of employment. That is a highly dangerous notion. Of course there will be fewer farmers, but I cannot accept that in this country we are not capable of producing the majority of food for our own population at a good quality and a fair price, from an agricultural sector charged with the responsibility of developing and maintaining an environment of which we can be proud. I accept that the latter part will continue to require some form of public support.
However, only farmers can deliver those goals, through working the land, as farming is the bedrock of the rural economy and the vital link between food, the environment and tourism. As my noble friend Lord Monro rightly said, farming has to be profitable.
So what can the Government do towards ensuring that that objective is met? First, I believe that there is a misconception in some quarters that the majority of consumers would automatically support home-produced products out of loyalty. The truth is that the larger retailers will continue to source their food from the cheapest suppliers, often from abroad. It therefore seems farcical that our farmers are being subjected to a range of rigorous animal welfare and environmental regulations, admirable though those may be, only to see imports flooding into this country which are not subjected to the same conditions as those placed on our producers, who are then being undercut. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that the Government should seek at the very least to ensure that no new legislation on production standards is introduced unless it is implemented throughout the whole of the European Union.
So, accepting that profound changes are taking place, clearly there is a need to create alternative jobs. That must remain an essential part of any change. It is to that end that I was immensely impressed when I was recently introduced to the Rural Revival Initiative. Conceived by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and implemented by his Prince's Trust, there are three strands to the scheme. The one I looked at is called Dale and is supported largely by the Countryside Agency and Yorkshire Forward, which is our local regional development agency. It is designed to create employment in the Yorkshire Dales region. Managed by the admirable Jill Robinson and started in 1999, it has created 70 new businesses. It is, I believe, a model of what can be achieved given the right structure, advice and, above all, motivation. However, I was particularly struck by one thing: despite an 87 per cent success rate, the local banks had shown a hugely disappointing reluctance to participate through the provision of loans or borrowing facilities.
That unhappy state of affairs is heard of far too often as the traditional role of a local bank managerand his close personal link with his clientelediminishes to a point where in many cases he no longer appears to have even a name. As banks close, the vital link between the customer and local financial services becomes ever weaker. Rigid systems governed by electronic programmes appear to make no allowance for personal circumstances and the banks are now seen by many as more interested in selling pensions and life assurance schemes than in producing the vital services that have served local communities so admirably in the past. I believe that it is incumbent on the banking sector as well as the public sector to take forward this entrepreneurial spirit and to play their part once again in rural Britain.
I revert to the debate on horse passports which we had on Monday 2nd June, when the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said that there may be a particular problem with elderly horses. Does he agree that it is possible that some people might turn old horses out and leave them on common ground rather than get a passport? Would it not be possible to exempt old horses above, say, 20 years if the owners signed a declaration stating that they were not being moved from home? If the horses were sold, they would then require a passport.
Will the Minister also give an answer about fallen stock? Some hunt kennels will not collect. Others do not take sheep because hounds could get a taste for it. So, with no disposal unit or collection service in the vicinity, what are we to do in the rural areas? I agreed to support a scheme but have heard nothing to date. Will the Minister extend on-farm burial until at least September? Something workable might be in place by thenotherwise what is going to happen? What is to happen to dogs and cats? Until now we have buried them in a woodland garden that is nowhere near water. There has been a dog cemetery there for years. What is to happen to deer, foxes and badgers and the endless rabbits which die of myxomatosis by the hundreds?
A few weeks ago I had a debate on human tuberculosis. There is a global partnership to battle against the growing, deadly international public health threat of multi-drug resistant TB. The Farmers Guardian of 6th June stated:
It is true that the perception and fear of crime in rural areas is very real and is growing. There has been much concern about the lack of visibility of the police and a feeling of remoteness from police services as traditional stations have been closed. The police station at Masham, where I live, is going to be taken over by local veterinarians. A few weeks ago, 19 saddles were stolen from the riding centre on my farm. The tack room was doubled-locked and alarmed. It happened at lunchtime in the middle of the day. Several other people's tack was stolen around the same time. The crimes never seem to be solved and the tack is not found. The thieves are very skilful and quick and know just what they want. Small rural riding schools really do have their problemsif it is not crime, it is the cost exacerbated by rates, which livery stables do not have to pay. I wonder whether the Minister can explain that inequality.
Over the years I have heard of several people living in the country who have become disabled and have not been able to get planning permission to build housing suitable for their disability. The headlines in this week's Darlington & Stockton Times have highlighted the difficulties of a lady with multiple sclerosis who tried to get planning permission for a bungalow on the edge of Gunnerside in the Yorkshire Dales. Disability can strike at any time in many different ways. It is very difficult if country people and their families cannot remain in their home villages because there is no suitable housing. Special consideration should be given to disabled people as long as their new home fits into local surroundings.
In Yorkshire many people feel that the administrative burden of government regulations on farmers and the low returns that farming is generating are driving away the next generation of farmers needed to maintain viable and environmentally important areas which are best managed by individuals rather than by government bodies. Therefore, government should aim to reduce those burdens and increase incentives.
I should like to make two rather different points, the first of which has to do with the rate at which we are using up our countryside by building on it. The second concerns our upland areas which lie on the margin of cultivation, but which have recreational and nature conservation importance.
It puzzles me that in England and Wales we have one of the highest population densities in Europe. Yet, we have the lowest housing densities. I do not know why this should be, but if we cannot cure ourselves we will eventually turn the South-East into a vast housing estate. Do I exaggerate? No. One need only look at a map of the south-east of England 100 years ago to see what an awful mess we have made.
The future of our countryside must in the first instance lie in the renaissance of our cities. We need policies that mean that people will want to live in our cities. We have been shown the way forward. I refer, of course, to the 1998 report of the Rogers Committee, which showed us with real expertise and authority the way forward. The question is whether we are doing enough to carry forward his vision.
I turn now to my second themefrom suburban England to our wild uplands. My remarks are in some measure derived from a seminar organised by the Royal Geographical Society on "Sustainable Futures for the British Uplands". The key theme is the inter-dependence of upland agriculture, tourism and landscape conservationa point that has already been made. The okay phrase is, I understand, "multi-functional landscapes".
That inter-dependence was starkly emphasised by the FMD disaster, which for a period of months brought tourism in the Lake District to its knees. In short, the wider economies of those uplandstourism employs far more people than farmingdepend on the well-being of farming. As is well known, upland farming is barely economic and it is widely accepted that the production-based subsidy systems were seriously damaging our landscapes through overstocking. Other support systems were required.
Some years ago the National Trust, whose chairman I then was, started experimenting in north Wales with whole farm management plans. Subsequently the Curry report and one by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution set out the ingredients for this sort of environmental farm management.
More recently the trust gave evidence to the European Sub-Committee of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, as did others, on that approach. So it is gratifying to read of their enthusiastic endorsement, and to see that in a wider sense a new approach is bit by bit getting under way in the CAP reformsalthough I keep my fingers crossed. In that Connection, I listened with interest to the debate yesterday.
We have come quite a long way in the past 10 years. But we still have a long way to go. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, in that connection was very interesting. My information from the Lake District bears out much of what he says. We have to think on a wider canvass than just agriculture. The excellent Curry report showed us the way forward.
I shall end by mentioning briefly some practical examples from the Lake District. First, I refer to the promotion of Herdwick woolthe traditional background to Lake District farming. In recent years farmers have been burning the fleeces because it is more costly to transport the fleece to the Wool Board than the price they receive. By attacking the wool supply chain the trust's project office is now able to get a price of 50p a kilostill less than the shearing costfor the members of the Herdwick farmers' co-operative. That added value has different sources, including a local Kendal firm that makes Herdwick carpets. We have one in our flat, and it is very hard-wearing.
Another project is the development of high quality Herdwick meat products. Again, these are projects to diversify from tourism and agriculture by converting redundant farm buildings into light industrial or service uses. I could go on, but, as my time is up, I shall stop at this point.
I am fortunate to live just one mile away from the Ridgeway national trail. I wish to draw the attention of the House to recent and disturbing developments on this ancient path. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, has already touched on the protection of nature trails. I support what he said, but wish to expand on it.
As your Lordships may be aware, the Ridgeway is regarded as the oldest path in Britain, with a history of use by man going book more than 6,000 years. This makes it older than any building in this countryindeed much older than the Pyramids. It links numerous sites, such as a fine series of iron age hill forts, the great stone circles of Avebury, the oldest white horse in the country at Uffington and the huge and mysterious Silbury Hill. It crosses some of the best scenery in the south of England. It is rich in flora and fauna, and it should provide a wonderful and easily accessible leisure amenity for millions of people. It is one of only 12 national trails in Britain, and it runs through two areas of outstanding natural beauty.
However, the Ridgeway is currently facing the biggest threat in its long history. The threat comes from the rapidly increasing number of 4x4 motor vehicles and off-road motor bikes that are using it as a playground. They are disturbing the quiet enjoyment of the countryside for the walkers, cyclists and horse riders who make up 95 per cent of the users of the Ridgeway. They are destroying the surface of this ancient path, turning it into a deep and unpleasant sea of mud in wet weather. In the summer this sets into a series of ankle-twisting ruts, which are dangerous to anyone on foot, pedal cycle or horse. They create pollution and are driving away the local wildlife for what should be a precious bio-diversity reservoir in this intensely farmed part of the country.
If this threat continues, there will not be a Ridgeway for future generations of country lovers to enjoy. Your Lordships may ask why motor vehicles are allowed on this national trail. The reason is that until recently our law provided that if it could be proved that horse-drawn traffic once used a particular route, it could now be used by motor vehicles. Until about 20 years ago, this did not matter too much as few motor vehicles ever used it. However, with the recent explosion in the numbers of off-road vehicles, there is now an enthusiastic sport of "green laning"driving such vehicles down the ancient green lanes of Britain. At a time when we are quite rightly to curb motor vehicles in our major urban areas, we appear to be encouraging them to drive deeper and deeper into our countryside.
The problem is not confined to the Ridgeway. It is manifesting itself all over the country, with areas of the Lake District, Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales being badly affected. We live in a small island and it is vital that we take steps to protect our countryside from the ravages of the internal combustion engine before it is too late.
It is ironic that the websites of 4x4 clubs in mainland Europe are exhorting their members to come and drive the Ridgeway and other British green lanessomething that they are not allowed to do in their own countries.
A good parallel might be the action that has been taken to protect the centres of some of our ancient towns and cities from the ravages of motor traffic. For example, the rights of drivers to use roads near York Minster have been removed to preserve and protect that magnificent building for the benefit of future generations. What is the difference in the case of the Ridgeway, which is an even older part of our heritage?
The Government are to be congratulated on passing the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. The Act introduces the new category of a restricted byway, which is not accessible to motor vehicles. When the final parts of that Act come into effect, it is hoped later this year, some parts of the Ridgeway will become restricted byways.
I hope that the Minister will not mind if I ask him three questions on this single issue. Can he confirm that from that date motor vehicles will be banned from those sections of the Ridgeway? Will the Minister consider urging local authorities to use their new powers under the Act to ban motor vehicles from the whole of the Ridgeway on the grounds of conserving natural beauty and protecting the geological features of the trail? Will he consider using his powers under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 to ban motor vehicles from the Ridgeway?
It is clear that the legal means are in place to protect the Ridgeway and other precious green lanes in our country from this increasing threat. We need to act quickly and I urge the Minister to take the lead before it is too late.
Lord Cavendish of Furness: My Lords, as on previous occasions when the countryside has been debated in your Lordships' House, it is right that I declare an interest as chairman of a number of family companies concerned with land ownership, forestry, farming, construction, mineral extraction, tourism and National Hunt racing. I have a personal stake in these enterprises whose assets for the most part are in Cumbria. Like other noble Lords who have spoken, I, too, express my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for his elegant and informed introduction to this debate.
It had crossed my mind to taunt the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, with his colleague's gross misinterpretation of the countryside march. I decided against it, having chanced to hear him wind up for the Government in yesterday's debate introduced by my noble friend Lord Selborne on the mid-term review. The Minister in his speech, as I remember it, said that nearly everyone now, including leaders of farming organisations, understood the compelling need for change. Indeed, I felt that the Minister, without underestimating the problems, conveyed an unambiguous commitment to support the proposed fiscal reforms. If I have understood him correctly, I warmly congratulate him; and if I have misunderstood him, I congratulate him on having so comprehensively fooled me.
Hugely important as agriculture is, I shall concentrate today on the non-agricultural aspect of the countryside. The twin obstacles to growth and investment in Britain's countryside are taxation and regulation. In their different ways, both of them bear down disproportionately in rural areas. Council taxes are high as a direct result, we are told, of the Government's nakedly political decision to boost rate support in urban areas at the expense of the shire counties. In Cumbria, our latest rise is 13.5 per cent. Fuel tax is, for obvious reasons, disproportionately high in the countryside and the latest hike in national insurance is, of course, simply a tax on jobs.
On regulation, I do not give up on the Better Regulation Task Force. It appears to be approaching its job with some vigour. However, the sheer scale of its task is awesome. One worries also that the minute such beasts become effective to the point of discomforting the Government, devices are found to bring them to heel. I wish that task force well.
The trouble with regulation is that there appears to be a built-in increment: the old problem of enforcers needing to justify their existence. I want to illustrate my position based on my own experience. I employ 250 people, rising to almost one third again in the summer. In this financial year and last, we spent £30,000 in bringing up to date systems to comply with human resources and health and safety statutory requirements and best practice. The annual cost, I estimate at today's prices, will be between £15,000 and £20,000. In the past two years, production managers have had to devote on average 12 per cent of their time to handling new regulation, which is a damaging distraction from their productive time. Reflecting the abject condition of public services, I have concluded that the people I employ need health protection that the state should offer but manifestly fails to provide. Accordingly, at our own cost, we have felt compelled to buy in medical advice and back-up.
If I try to measure improvements in our duty of care to our workforce since the arrival of this avalanche of regulation, I would be bound to admit some gains. It would be extraordinary if there were not. Such gains, I have to say, could have been achieved at a fraction of the cost. And there are losses. In the slate quarries that we run, it is my judgment that the HSE requirements have a tendency to impose huge costs and actually reduce levels of safety. This is partly because safety inspectors cannot possibly be expected to understand the geological complexities of something unusual like a slate quarry, especially as no two are remotely alike. Furthermore, the hugely bureaucratic nature of the new world of health and safety has gone a long way to destroy the safety culture which has traditionally been such a feature among workforces operating in naturally hazardous environments.
The remedy, it seems to me, is that I, the employer, should take greater responsibility for the people I employ. I should submit safety cases for the inspector's approval and then be held to account for their delivery. How can the agencies of the state pretend to understand how to make a quarry safe? The trouble with my solution is, of course, that armies of inspectors would find themselves without a job. The way we are going is ever more safety regulation and an ever diminishing culture of common-sense safety in the workplace. And it is that common-sense element, I contend, which to a large extent prevents accidents at work and, in turn, saves lives.
In the past few weeks, my companies have marketed, organised and run six days of events in Cumbria which have attracted some 80,000 visitors. They come from town and country and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, that it is dangerous to distinguish between the two. Trade stands took businessmuch of it localI am told into the many hundreds of thousands of pounds and the economic activity generated runs into millions.
Although these are high-risk, weather-dependent activities, I do not pretend to be doing this for the public good. My trustees, however, have increasing grounds for saying that that is exactly what we are doingand here is the rub. We are currently having to review what amounts locally to substantial capital projects, and if we feel compelled to cancel or defer investments it will be because, and only because, margins are continuously eroded and risks increased through this Government's attrition of tax and regulation.
The Earl of Liverpool: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for initiating this timely debate on the British countryside. I want also to say how much I enjoyed the speech of the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk. I agreed wholeheartedly with everything he had to say. I know that I speak for the whole House in saying how much we look forward to hearing from him on many future occasions.
The world's resources of fossil fuels are fast depleting. Oil reserves will have been largely exhausted within a generation. Quite apart from anything else, this makes us too dependent on other parts of the world and potentially a hostage to fortune. I am not saying that the whole answer to this lies in biofuels, but surely part of it does. Obvious benefits could accrue from such fuels. They could reinvigorate the farming industry and, importantly, the farming communities. They would be a sustainable crop and there is an almost infinite continuum of resources from which biofuels can be generated.
For example, if 1 million-odd acres of set-aside land was planted with Miscanthus Sacchariflorus, and assuming that produced a median-dry matter production of six tonnes per acre per year, that could be converted to approximately 3 million tonnes of oil equivalent biofuel. That is equivalent to nearly 4 per cent of UK annual oil demand. As set-aside land represents only 3 per cent of this country's land within agricultural holdings, we begin to see what an enormous contribution biofuels could make. Another enormous advantage of these fuels is that, unlike fossil fuels, they have a negligible effect on climate change.
Therefore, there are any number of good reasons for increasing research funding in this area. But, sadly, investment by the Government is at a very low ebb. Research funded by Defra has yet again been cut. I should like to quote briefly from the introduction of the Institute of Biology's paper of January this year entitled Fuelling the future 3, in which Jonathan Cowie, head of science policy, stated:
There is an urgent need to set in place demonstration projects which show that the use of existing technology can forge a market in which potential users are assured of a reliable and timely supply of bioenergy. I hope that the Minister can give the House some encouragement that things are about to change for the better.
Sustainable development can apply as much in the country as in the towns. What I mean by sustainable development is looking at ways of making the buildings we put up as independent of conventional resources as possible. Solar power can now be retrieved from special slates which to all intents and purposes look almost indistinguishable from Welsh slates. The capture of grey water is easily achieved, and there are companies now making systems to hold this water from road surfaces.
I hope that the Government can assure me that they are seized of the importance of these and other technologies, and that they can give encouragement to developers to adopt as many eco-friendly systems as possible. This would greatly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels over time. Not only would that help with our commitment under the Kyoto summit agreement, but, with luck, it should reduce the need to build more nuclear power stations, which, because of their build and running costs and the nuclear waste problems they create, will for ever be dangerous white elephants.
The Earl of Erroll: My Lords, I must apologise, but because of the Statement I have had to scrub my speech. It would have endorsed and expanded upon the excellent maiden speech of the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk.
Lord Judd: My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am deeply grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for the opportunity to debate these issues this evening. We were all very impressed by his introduction to the debate.
I should declare an interest. I live in the countryside, in the Lake District National Park. I am a vice-president of the Council of National Parks, and I am a member of the North-West Regional Committee of the National Trust.
In his introduction, the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, dwelt mainly on agriculture, as have other noble Lords. If we are concerned with agriculture, what is happening in Brussels at the moment is of crucial significance. We have heard in the debate that the majority of people in Britain want to see the countryside preserved. Farmers and farming are central to the preservation of the countryside. If the countryside is to be preserved, there has to be an income for the farmers, as has been made very clear in the debate. Part of that income, I have become convinced, will come from giving farmers a distinguished and important role in managing the environment. That should receive positive and practical support from what comes out of Brussels in the next few days.
My noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere spoke of the interdependence of urban and rural communities. I totally endorse what he said. I would only add to his illustrations the very basic reality that the urban communities want the recreation of the countryside, but those in the countryside want the wealth produced in urban areas to sustain that countryside. That is a very basic economic interdependence.
First, 28.5 per cent of the population live in England's rural districts. Between 1981 and 2000 there was a 12 per cent growth in that population, compared with only a 2 per cent growth in urban areas.
Next, if we look at the quality of life, we see that 46 per cent of the population in rural areas are involved in local organisations, compared with only 32 per cent in urban areas. Forty two per cent of people living in the countryside are highly interactive with their neighbours, compared with only 28 per cent in urban society.
The health record of the rural communities is better than that of urban communities. The educational achievements of children in education in rural areas are significantly better than those of children in urban areas taken as a whole.
Whatever the difficultiesand I was very sorry to hear about themencountered by the brother of the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, in retrieving his motor cycle with the assistance of the police, it must be recognised that for those living in the countryside there is an approximately 50 per cent smaller likelihood of burglary or violent crime than for those living in urban areas.
But there are, of course, big challenges. We have heard again in this debate about the need for affordable housing, the high cost of housing, the impact of all this on the young and the less well-off. I have seen in the valley in which I live, the Lorton valley in North Cumbria, some very imaginative work by a housing association. Far from damaging the environment, the building of a small number of affordable houses enhanced the environment, because it was done in keeping with the whole style and atmosphere of the valley.
There is a need for support for rural businesses and greater access to information technology and broadband. If my noble friend Lord Haskins will forgive me, I wish that in his lively journeys through Britain and Europe he had been able to spend more time with the elderly and infirm, because one of the big challenges in the rural areas is the disappearance of post offices, banks, cashpoints, transport and other services for the elderly, infirm and vulnerable. Of course, that is not an issue limited to the countryside; it exists in urban areas too. But we should face the fact that it is an issue in the countryside.
I commend my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport, because he has asked us very bluntly whether we want to disappear under a sea of asphalt or whether we want to have a quality of life which resists the advance of asphalt. In the rural areas, as much as in urban areas, we have to look at road pricing. Already in the national parks we see in the targeted road programme that the Department for Transport has produced road schemes which strike at the very purposes of the national parks. I should like
My noble friend Lord Haskins referred to "romantic dinosaurs". I urge my noble friend, who is also a personal friend and for whom I have great regard, to be a little careful with his language in this respect.
I ask this: where would civilisation have been without imaginative romanticism? It is the ability to think, to imagine and to have vision that carries society forward. As we come up to the review of national parks, let us not tinker in management terms with it. Let us use our vision to ask: what do we want our children to inherit? Do we want them to be able to enjoy open spaces, to see the Milky Way by curbing the intrusion of light pollution? Or do we want to surrender ourselves to the mercenary, materialist advance of a rather dull suburbia across the whole land?
Let us bring back some vision, commitment and passion to our fight for the kind of decent, balanced, British society we want to see. In that, the countryside will have an absolutely invaluable and irreplaceable place.
The Earl of Arran: My Lords, although what I am about to say bears some similarity to the maiden speech of the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolkperhaps I may say that it was an excellent speechI hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I do not scrub my remarks. I wish to continue with my few words because I return to the subject of agriculture, but particularly and specifically agriculture in the West Country.
The countryside is so many things to so many people and used in a myriad of different ways, all of which ought to exist in harmony. But in spite of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, and my noble friend Lord Cavendish of Furness, there seems to be a division between people who make their living from farming and animals and those who do not. So many new houses in villages are suburban in type and their owners have little connection with the working countryside around them. They work mostly in towns and are better off than their farming neighbours. But those who work with animals, whether farm animals or horses, are on the receiving end of an increasing amount of hostility, both in terms of general tolerance and new legislation. They are not alone in facing an extraordinary raft of petty bureaucracy and obstructive legislation and, given their low incomes and attacks on traditional pursuits, it is not surprising that some believe that society is out to get them.
I intend to concentrate on farming in the South West, from whence I come, where my wife is the farmer and, indeed, where the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford married us. The farmers there are
Farm incomes have improved, albeit from the disastrous to the merely diabolical, and confidence has been seeping back. But that confidence is fragile and springs from the strong support which the farming community has received from consumers in the region, manifested in the remarkable growth in demand for high quality local food rather than from any perceived change in the Government's policy for, or attitude towards, the countryside.
The recovery, modest as it is, is being taken forward despite the perceived role of the Government, not because of it. That may seem a harsh thing to say in the light of the sustainable farming and food strategy, born of Sir Donald Curry's report, which contains many good things. Nevertheless, I am afraid to say that it is true. The level not merely of confidence in this Government among the farming community, but also that of trust, remains at rock bottom.
For that, Ministers have only themselves to blame. This all goes back to the formation of Defra two years ago. The omission of any reference to agriculture in the name of the department came across to the farming community as a calculated snub, and everything that has happened subsequently has served to confirm that initial impression.
Other than the usual cheap shots at the common agricultural policy, Ministers never talk about agriculture if they can possibly avoid it. They will talk about diversification, or local food, or access, or the environment or farm tourism until the cows come home. But never, never do you hear them even acknowledging, let alone championing, the core function of agriculture, which is to produce over two-thirds of the nation's food. It is almost as if they are ashamed of being responsible for food production, that they would rather that we allowed our food markets to be captured by imports so that the countryside could be spared the dirty business of growing food and turned over entirely to butterflies, birds, tourists and urban refugees.
That may be an unfair characterisation of ministerial attitudes, but I can assure noble Lords that that is how it comes across to the farmers in my part of north Devon, who feel themselves and the food which they produce regarded as a rather inconvenient by-product of countryside management programmes.
Far too much of the funds desperately needed for the revitalisation of the rural economy is instead being wasted in what I am told is the tortuous and infinitely frustrating process of applying for grants of one kind or another. Even ventures that are launched with the full blessing of Defra and the RDA, such as our regional food industry development agency, South West Food and Drink, are having to devote weeks of time and thousands of pounds to jumping through bureaucratic hoops and being bounced from one government agency to another like a ball-bearing in a pinball machine.
If the Government really want to facilitate and encourage the development of the rural economyand I have no reason to suppose that they do notthen they need to smooth the way for industry-led projects which can contribute to that process rather than putting endless bureaucratic obstacles in its path. If Ministers want to encourage the recovery in farming, they could do no better than to start at least to recognise the importance and value of food production, both in its own right as a vital economic activity and in the way it underpins so much else of the rural economy, rural society and the rural environment.
Lord Moran: I thank my noble friend Lord Palmer for introducing this debate and for his admirable speech. I want to say a brief word, not about farming, but about the look of the countryside. Thirty years ago, one of our leading poets wrote:
We all know that large tracts of the country have been obliterated by expanding towns, motorways, factories and the cutting down of woodlands in both world wars. We see the inexorable spread of housing, driven by the exceptional density of our population and our record number of divorces, each of which usually results in two households in the place of one. But it is sad to see the Government bullying reluctant local authorities to build hundreds of thousands of houses in unspoilt country.
Amazingly, a fair amount of unspoilt country survives. If you look down from an aircraft, it is surprising how much is still green and yet to be built over. In a small, overcrowded island like ours, we ought to try to pass on at least some of it unspoilt for future generations.
In three or four minutes I can make only a few specific suggestions. Could we not levy a tax on housing built on green fields and offer tax advantages to those who build factories and houses on brownfield sites in cities and towns? Could we press on with research to discover truly cost-effective white street and road lights, and then replace all the glaring yellow sodium lights? Even if it is impracticable to do much about high-voltage lines, could we not bury intermediate voltage and telephone lines, especially in areas of high landscape value?
Could we bring an end to the siting of heavily subsidised wind turbines standing up to 400 feet high in unspoilt hill areas where they can be seen for miles, destroying the sense of remoteness and giving an industrial aspect to parts of the country where it has no
Too many of us take for granted the incomparable beauty of our countrysideor what remains of it. We forget just how fragile it is. It has been the inspiration of Shakespeare and Hardy, Constable and Turner. A passionate feeling about the countryside is not confined to a few middle-class enthusiasts. The large numbers who volunteer to do back-breaking physical work on bird reserves, canals or woodlands show how strong this feeling is among the young. Polls have shown that a large majority of our people believe that the countryside is in danger and are dissatisfied with the Government's efforts to protect it.
What then can we do to preserve what is left? Much has been achieved by voluntary bodiesthe National Trust, which saved the Lake District and much of our coasts; the CPRE and CPRW, although, sadly, the RSPB takes little interest in landscape. But only the Government can take really effective action on a national scale. To do this they must give the preservation of our countryside a higher priority. This area of policy has been downgraded. There used to be a Secretary of State for the Environmentand only the environmentsitting in the Cabinet, but no longer. Mr Meacher does his utmost, but he is not a Cabinet Minister. The Government pay lip service to environmental objectives, but in practice do not give them much weight. Great care needs to be taken to ensure that essential development does not damage or destroy too much of our uniquely beautiful countryside and the old cities, towns and villages that have come down to us. This House should use its influence to persuade the Government to do much more to preserve our heritage.
The Earl of Sandwich: My Lords, in these farming debates we now rightly recognise the diversity of the countryside and the urgency of finding alternative sources of income. We acknowledge the growing importance of tourism and attractions which add value. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, has generously allowed me to put in a word for gardens, both public gardens and those open to the public. I declare an interest, since my wife and I are responsible for a garden open to the public in West Dorset. Apart from
Heritage and tourism are high on the Government's agenda, and various grants through English Heritage and local RDAs are now available to attractions in private ownership provided they meet the criteria for public access. Defra's successful Countryside Stewardship Scheme now extends to historic parks and designed landscape of historic properties, thus enhancing the quality of these attractions.
However, such grants are not directly available to gardens. Gardens are Cinderellas as regards public funding, perhaps because of their dynamic and changing character. Yet every year an estimated 13 million people visit houses and gardens in private ownership nationwide, of whom the number of garden visitors is on the increase, with all the maintenance and wear and tear that such numbers involve.
The Government might like to consider one or two of the problems facing the owners of these historic gardens. One is that when matching grants are made available, it is the built heritage to which the owners have to give priority. Roofs must come before summer houses or garden features. Whenever capital has to be spent on a leaking roof, the last thing to be repaired will be outdoor paving, stone steps, walls, fountains or grottoes. Yet visitors enjoy these features and soon notice any decay. They are increasingly conscious of standards, thanks in part to the higher levels of maintenance in National Trust gardens.
There is a further problem for owners of gardens, like many other attractions, and that is the securing of alternative sources of revenue, such as a gift shop, plant sales or a cafe besides admissions. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, touched on that. If a private owner derives any benefit which, according to rating law need not be financial benefit, the income from these sources is liable for non-domestic rate assessment even if there are trading losses on the combined hereditament, as there invariably are because of steep maintenance costs. If an owner appeals, quite apart from legal costs there may be an accumulated deficit over a period of months, even years, until the appeal is determined. To my knowledge, there is no redress through local government or the various countryside agencies. In this situation, government, far from supporting gardens and tourist attractions, is effectively penalising them. I sympathise with much that was said by the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish.
There can be very few private owners of gardens open to the public who can sustain this level without selling their own assets unless they enjoy very substantial private incomes. It may be fairly argued that some derive some personal benefit; but for many owners these gardens are not private at all. They may
As regards maintenance, there is another difference. While major capital repairs come, say, every 10 years, gardens require the same level of expenditure year in and year out. Higher salaries, better equipment and new investment in planting all add to increased running costs and may require additional capital.
At this time of year there is nothing more breathtaking than the beauty and colour of our English gardens. We take a lot of pride in them, and the gardening industry itself is flourishing. Yet the HHA has warned that without proper support, many future owners of these gardens may allow them to revert to wilderness. The HHA says that that,
Lord Hoyle: My Lords, perhaps I may also join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for introducing this debate. It has been invaluable to all of us. It is important for me to say when I speak in this House that I have always lived in the countryside. Perhaps I may be slightly critical of your Lordships: it always appears to me that when we have a debate on the countryside all the emphasis is put on agriculture. The noble Baroness shakes her head. A lot of the emphasis is placed on agriculture.
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