Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Baroness Byford: My Lords, I was shaking my head because the contributions made today have not concentrated solely on agriculture, which I find very helpful.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, one might say that they have not concentrated as much on agriculture. It is important to the countryside, but there are many other jobs and occupations there. Many people who live in the countryside travel to nearby towns to work.

The total spent on agriculture of 3.2 billion by the Government is far more than is spent on the whole of manufacturing industry. That is an important point to make. That is not to say that agriculture does not deserve our support. I believe that it needs our help in standing up to the power and actions of the supermarkets. They could buy more British produce and label it far better because it is still very difficult in most supermarkets to find food which has been grown in this country. When he replies to the debate, I should like to hear my noble friend the Minister say that

11 Jun 2003 : Column 256

government departments now buy British produce for their canteens and restaurants. The Armed Forces, in particular, should do the same. While the Armed Forces buy quite a lot of beef, what are they doing about buying British lamb, for instance? A good deal more could be done in that direction.

It is true that most villages need help in relation to post offices, which are still closing. We need to find other ways of attracting people into village post offices. I know that the Government have given this issue a great deal of consideration. Perhaps my noble friend can tell the House what is the current situation. I know from personal experience the difficulty of persuading national banks to remain in villages. Despite making a profit, they seem to ignore the needs of the elderly, the disabled and those who do not have cars. Even though they are making a profit, as I said, they continue to close.

As to shops and pubs, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, that in many cases closures are the fault of the people who live in the villages because, first, they do not use the pubs as much as they did in the past and do not make them the centre of the village; and, secondly, they generally do their shopping in supermarkets. The shops need more help from the villagers themselves if they are to be kept from closing.

We must put pressure on the telecommunication companies to ensure that they take broadband to rural areas as well as to urban areas. In the discussions I have had with them, the emphasis has always been on urban areas—the easy target—rather than on rural areas.

Affordable housing is essential for people who live in villages. I should like to see more done in that regard. I hope that my noble friend is able to update the House on the Government's plans on that issue.

Tourism is one of the growth areas in the countryside. In my area, the Commonwealth Games helped to make a wider audience aware of the lovely countryside that surrounds us. The cycling events took place in the Bolton and Chorley rural areas and drew attention to Rivington and other places. This has enabled us to attract many more tourists.

On the down side, however, many people who come to walk there find that their cars, having been left unattended, are broken into. There is a need to consider the issue of law and order and the policing of rural areas, which in itself is very important.

The countryside is a haven to both country and town dwellers alike. For all of us—country and town—it is a cause worth preserving

6.43 p.m.

Lord Mancroft: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for introducing the debate. I echo the closing words of the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle: the countryside is important and we all need to work together to preserve it. It has been an excellent debate so far and will continue to be so as there is a long list of speakers.

11 Jun 2003 : Column 257

I wish to focus on two points. The crisis in the countryside, about which we have heard a great deal, exists and is important. To a certain extent it is a hidden crisis. The countryside is full of new businesses and has a vibrant housing market and a great deal of new wealth is coming into it. The new businesses and the new wealth are marvellous, but beneath that a crisis exists in local communities which is sometimes unseen. They have problems with housing, as the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, said, they have severe employment problems and they worry immensely about poor public services.

Of course the world moves on—we cannot stop that, nor should we try to—and the countryside cannot expect to remain in aspic. In his excellent maiden speech, the noble Duke drew attention to the survey which found that 90 per cent of the British people wanted to keep the countryside as it is. That may be a slightly romantic view but it is, nevertheless, what most people in this country want. We therefore must strive for progress and, at the same time, preserve the best of the past. That is the difficulty we face.

Agriculture is important. This is not specifically an agricultural debate—perhaps we talk about it rather too much in rural debates, as the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, said—but we need to understand that agriculture is the canvas on which every other activity in the countryside is painted. If we do not look after the canvas it will be impossible to paint on it.

The Government are quite rightly keen to promote diversity for farmers and others. Tourism is probably the most important area of diversity. It takes many forms but is probably centred—again as the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, said—around the beauty of the natural countryside, which is of course preserved by farmers. The fells, the dales, Exmoor, Dartmoor, the Cotswolds, the Norfolk Broads, stately homes—every part of the country has its beauty spots. Indeed, I suspect that the Government's right-to-roam Bill was a rather clumsy attempt to encourage people to enjoy these areas rather more.

That is all right up to a point, but we must not fall into the trap that London fell into in the 1970s when over-exposure led to a fall in quality and almost killed the goose that laid the golden egg. We need sympathetic management, not too much of it.

One of the reasons for the success of rural tourism is the natural beauty of the countryside and its wildlife. The noble Lord, Lord Clark, referred to the marvellous reintroduction of ospreys. That is a great example of the kind of work that can be done in the countryside to encourage people to come and see its wildlife.

But the countryside—both its habitats and the wildlife that lives within it—needs to be conserved. That requires skill and knowledge. Those skills and that knowledge reside mainly within the traditional rural communities—and those communities are in crisis. While the customers must be given what they want, they must not be given it at the risk of destroying that which the customer has come to enjoy. The

11 Jun 2003 : Column 258

moorland is a favourite destination of walkers, particularly managed moorland. Such moorland is managed by land owners and keepers for sports. If those land owners cannot manage their moors, the moors will deteriorate, there will be no wildlife and no one will want to visit them.

The recent report by the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent on habitat conservation in lowland agricultural England made clear that most existing conservation work in lowland areas will vanish without the incentives of field sports, and that those cannot be replaced by subsidies.

In the recent dry spell at Easter, a number of land owners wanted to close their moorland, as they have a right to do under the access rules. But they needed the permission of the Peak District National Park Authority and the authority refused to close the moors. Two moors were substantially burnt as a result of the hot, dry weather. Who is going to visit a burnt moor?

The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, referred to wildlife. Unfortunately, not so many people in England understand that wildlife cannot be left alone; it must be managed very carefully. Many people from the towns and country want to see wildlife but they will not want to go on seeing it if it is not managed properly.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will be delighted to hear that I do not want to rehearse the hunting debate today, but there are some examples worth considering. Where deerhunting has been stopped on National Trust land, more deer have to be shot. The concentrations of deer are heavier; there are more injured deer; and, because of shooting, they are less visible and the tourists cannot see them. That is to no one's advantage.

At the other end of the moor, I understand that in the sanctuaries of the League Against Cruel Sports deer have died of tuberculosis. The animals in the red deer herd have been over-concentrated for their welfare, but it has severely affected their management. We must avoid doing that. It is incredibly important that we remind ourselves and the Government that conservation must be the governing factor. If we have to manage populations—and we shall have to do so—we should look after their welfare in the most humane way possible; otherwise there will be nothing left to conserve and look after.

6.50 p.m.

Lord Walpole: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Palmer for initiating the debate although I am not sure that the subject he has asked me to speak on is quite the one I enjoy. I congratulate the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, on his maiden speech. It is a pity that his country house in Norfolk belongs to Norwich Union pension fund. His city house in Norwich is a car park but I have an over-mantel from that house which I use as a bedhead.

I like the British countryside, but I am biased. I have lived in it for most of my life and for the past 40 years have endeavoured to make my little bit more beautiful

11 Jun 2003 : Column 259

and environmentally friendly. However, I have noticed that not only in Britain but in large parts of continental Europe the state of the countryside is deteriorating and in many areas has become very scruffy. I think that that is partly due to the lower income in the agricultural and allied sector which has led to less painting and tidying up of premises and less time and labour to keep the countryside clear of rubbish. Fly-tipping is a major problem.

Motor tyres are a special problem. Under the landfill directive it is no longer possible to put motor tyres, (even, I believe, shredded), into landfill and there are millions of used tyres to dispose of each year. If they are dumped on the roadside verges, it is the responsibility of the local authority to remove them. If they are dumped on private land, it is the responsibility of the landowner to remove them. They cannot be burnt and reputable contractors are very expensive. At Sculthorpe in Norfolk, where thousands of tyres were illegally dumped on an industrial estate, at last the authorities decided that they were not only illegal but also dangerous—a fire hazard. Steps were taken to remove some and divide them into smaller heaps to lessen the serious fire risk. A special grab was brought in to deal with the problem. The first night someone broke into the site to try to steal the grab. However, it was too secure so they set fire to it. Luckily, the tyres did not go up as well.

We all know about the refrigerator problem, which is now gradually being dealt with. But that does not stop the odd old refrigerator being dumped around the countryside. There is about to be a problem with small electrical and electronic equipment, which under the WEEE Directive will have to be disposed of in a special way. I hope that the Government will foresee the problem before old irons and computers join the fridges in our woods.

Motor cars, both whole and burnt out, are again a major problem in certain areas. The vehicle end of life directive will cause more problems unless we are fully prepared to deal with those vehicles before they are dumped.

Then there is a whole range of small garden, domestic and builders' rubbish which appears overnight. If it appears on the verge, it is for the local authority to deal with. Bottles are a particular problem if thrown into a crop of grass or peas. If at harvest time a bottle is smashed by a flail harvester or pea viner, the whole load will have to be discarded. Several tonnes of peas with one smashed bottle in them are themselves a disposal problem—what on earth do you do with them?—and, of course, a financial loss.

I should like to draw to your Lordships' attention two other small problems. The first is road management, widening and providing passing spaces. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, does not want us to put notices on parking spaces. However, by far the greatest mileage of roads in this country were designed for the horse and cart or for driving cattle along. If you live in the West Country, it is not quite so much of a problem as you cannot drive your car into a hedge because the hedges are full of stones; it is a foolish thing to do.

11 Jun 2003 : Column 260

However, in the eastern counties, driving into hedges merely brings the verge down and ultimately the hedge on to the road. Great lengths of road are "widened" by large vehicles, agricultural tractors and articulated lorries, and are bare, scarred and ugly when dry and muddy and stony when wet. Can the road authorities look carefully at providing proper passing places with no parking notices?

The second problem is vandalism. By that I mean particularly the removal of tiles, stones, bricks, slates and coping stones from walls. I believe that in one national park one whole building disappeared—presumably to make rockeries somewhere.

In conclusion, I ask the Government to encourage the local authorities to be even more vigilant in their responsibilities, to consider some form of help to landowners—private, public, National Trust or Forestry Commission—in clearing away fly-tipping on their land; and to try to pre-judge correctly the effects of the various rubbish-related directives coming out of Brussels. In that way, perhaps we could have a tidier and more acceptable British countryside.

6.56 p.m.

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Palmer for initiating this debate. By rural standards, we are almost near neighbours. I commend his opening speech which seemed to me to bring knowledge, understanding of the issues, and a commitment to face them positively. It is also a pleasure to take part in a debate with a fine maiden speech that opens up further dimensions of the issue.

I take two starting points for my few remarks, both, surprisingly perhaps, press announcements from the DTI. On 22nd May there was an announcement of government commitment to provide broadband access for remote areas of the UK. On 6th June a further press release marked a meeting or conference bringing together three agencies, including the DTI, with the aim of promoting support for small businesses in rural areas. I pause at this point. Noble Lords may wonder who this strange man is who reads from any DTI press releases. I have to confess I ask the question occasionally myself.

The two press releases incorporate some fine language and rhetoric. Indeed, I spotted what I believe to be now a fairly rare sighting of what was once a commonplace of government press releases—the phrase "joined-up Government". I also spotted an ever rarer event: an example of inter-departmental coupling that justifies the use of that expression. There was, commendably, reference to an interaction between DTI and Defra over the issue of helping small business in rural areas. I commend the Government and the relevant departments for that. I hope that the progeny of that coupling will be liberating rather than regulatory.

In the press release of 22nd May there was reference to the government commitment, which I commend to your Lordships, to bring broadband access to every school by 2006. That will include rural schools. Let us give credit where credit is due. As I suggested, there is

11 Jun 2003 : Column 261

in those press releases some fine words. Equally, in the rural areas there are also fairly harsh realities against which fine words will be tested.

I make two points. First, others have spoken of the need for infrastructure in terms of transport, postal services, banking support, and so on. I wish to focus my remarks specifically on telecommunications. I was pleased to hear the word "diversity" used well and properly in the debate. Two other words not used which I commend to noble Lords—they underlie almost everything that my noble friend Lord Palmer, said—are "development" and "adaption". As my noble friend's speech indicated, in our rural communities, in particular among those who farm in those communities, there is huge evidence of the capacity of the farming community to develop and adapt to new circumstances about which we should be very pleased indeed. There is a balance to be made.

If the farming community is to continue to adapt and develop, it will need adequate telecommunications infrastructure. Any business today requires that, including the business of farming. I sometimes buy supplies of fresh fish and meat on the Internet. If the capacity to provide such a service is not in our rural communities, a sale has gone. Equally, we have heard mention of the importance of tourism. Again, many of us book holidays, flights, hotels and guesthouses through the Internet. If that capacity is not there, the infrastructure cannot cope with the demands that modern users of the facilities will make and, again, business will be lost.

Alongside the word "diversify", I put the words "development" and "adaption". However, the reality is that the quality of current telecommunication provision in some rural areas is appalling. As many noble Lords do, I move between rural areas and London, and have noticed the difference in quality of service that a single telephone link gives us in this city compared to the quality in the rural areas where some of your Lordships live. Certainly, when a train passes my home a mile away, I lose my Internet connection, if I have it, or the conversation goes. That is not the noise of the train, it is the electronic noise created by the lack of suppressers on the line. If one talks to the telecommunications provider, it is the fault of the railways, and vice versa.

The point that I am making is that there has already been a lack of attention to telecommunications. We hear fine words about providing broadband. I know that that will introduce a new technology, but the standard attitudes to which reference has already been made will still apply. For example, there is the attitude that rural communities are not a mass market. The risk is that that one comes at the end of the queue and the previous queue and the one before that has not been cleared, let alone the queue for broadband access.

I commend the Government's commitment to supply broadband access to all schools by 2006, including rural schools. I ask the Minister for a comparable commitment to the homes to which the

11 Jun 2003 : Column 262

children return each afternoon, in which their parents may be struggling to diversify without adequate telecommunications infrastructure.

7.2 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, I join in the commendation of the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for his initiative in securing the debate and maintaining his substantial record in this area. Many noble Lords have expressed anxiety about agriculture. They clearly feel that the echoes of policy documents, such as the one on food from our own resources, should not ebb away entirely or speedily. There is clearly anxiety that agriculture might revert to a museum activity. I do not share that view. Therefore, I listened with interest to the ebullient and optimistic contribution of my noble friend Lord Haskins. My one reservation is to share the anxiety of my noble friend Lord Judd about the difficulty of enjoying the night sky because of excessive illumination. That has certainly happened in my experience over the past four or five years as houses and jobs have proliferated in the Dearne Valley.

There is an increasing awareness inside and outside agriculture of the importance of maintaining an agriculture that marries and matches the need to preserve the natural environment and protect our natural heritage. That is commendable. I know a number of farmers who are as committed as anyone to that cause.

The Government are committed, too, but they do not seem to get much credit for the good things that they do. I accept that there are areas in which Government support could be more accurately directed. Grants should be directed to the land rather than the individual, for example. That argument is as strong as the argument that support should be based on acreage rather than headage, which some of us were arguing 20 years ago.

The Government have often been unfairly criticised; they were not responsible for BSE or foot and mouth. They inherited BSE, and foot and mouth started as a result of foul and grossly unacceptable farming malpractice and spread because of rapid transportation of wildlife that bore no relation to legislation or humane practice. One hopes that the legislation since that horrible event and the experience that beset our farming communities in many parts of the island does not happen again.

However, there will be crime. My noble friend Lord Judd suggested that crime was worse in urban areas, but it is serious in rural areas. I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, about the criminal tipping of waste material in rural areas. I remind the House that my noble friend Lord Whitty, with general approval, suggested that the courts should take a much more serious view of these offences. The fine should be such as to prove a proper deterrent.

One of my concerns is that, despite good television programmes and good coverage of conservation matters in our newspapers, there is a widespread and lamentable ignorance in this country on those matters. I live in the South Yorkshire forest area, and I doubt

11 Jun 2003 : Column 263

whether more than a tiny proportion of our population fully understand or know much about that commendable development—which is commendable in the way that other community forests are.

In a case that I heard about the other day, the first thing that a resident who had moved in from an urban area to live in the greenbelt did was to buy his young son an airgun, give him some pellets and send him down to the local lake where people enjoy watching the wildlife. He did not go far in that direction. I think, too, of a case of a farmer whom I know very well, who said only a few weeks ago that he would have to stop cultivating a field not far from my home because every time his tractor appeared, children were throwing stones at it. Parents should be reminded more often of their responsibilities. Perhaps the increased resources given to the police will assist with the prosecution and discouragement of crime in our rural areas, because that is needed.

I share the view that something has to be done about the housing problem in rural areas. There must be proper planning control to ensure that local people can remain. If they do, they may be more likely to use the rural post offices. We must give a much higher priority to brownfield development. I do not believe that enough attention has been given to that, but in some parts of the country a real achievement can be perceived.

I moved to such an area—it was my constituency. It had been devastated by the closure of 10 collieries in a very short time, with unemployment and the rest of it developing. A very fine example of brownfield development has led to an absolute transformation and the regeneration of the economy and of hope. That would serve very well. We are right on the edge of the greenbelt, and I would rather build away from the greenbelt and achieve that sort of thing than see more houses built—especially houses that cost a lot of money and occupy a great deal of land. Such building disfigures the rural area, injures the landscape and dashes the hopes of those who live in rural England.

7.8 p.m.

Lord Tanlaw: My Lords, I start by declaring an interest in a hill farm in Dumfriesshire and owning a heavy electrical engineering group. I thank my noble friend Lord Palmer for instigating the debate, which has attracted a great number of excellent speakers. That is about the only advantage of coming in as tail-end Charlie—one is able to listen to those speakers and find that there is not much to say oneself. The debate has attracted a great maiden speech from my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl Marshal.

Many speeches seem to be based on the sense of belonging to an historic, local or village community, which the Government have somehow to preserve economically and protect from the baser aspects of modern urban life, of which we have heard. That is a fundamental misconception. Many rural communities, almost without exception, are no longer purely agrarian based. Most rural communities are divided between those who live there all week, mainly

11 Jun 2003 : Column 264

because of their historic landed interest, and those who work in city offices some distance away. The latter seem to be mainly weekenders, who may have no family roots in the local area. This difference in occupations, incomes and means of transport often proves to be a divisive social factor because of the differing attitudes and needs in housing, education and other pursuits within a small community. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford covered this aspect very well. I believe that the social and political implications of these divisions require a separate debate on how the Government have to face up to these important clashes of lifestyle and objectives.

The second area of disagreement extends to the Government and the Countryside Alliance because of the low priority that they have given to broadband, which, as many speakers have emphasised, is important for access to communications in rural areas. The main point of my remarks is to try to underline the importance of broadband communications, as other noble Lords have done. This is based on my experience of declared interests. There is no such thing as the countryside in electronic communications. Therefore, should we not recognise that we are now part of one huge global electronic village—a village that makes no distinction between town dweller and country dweller? Those who choose not to subscribe, or are unable to do so, to the broadband IT network will be excluded in future from a full education and an opportunity for economic and social advancement.

It is necessary in farming—for example, in stock monitoring and marketing from conception to the point of sale. It is what the market requires, and it will require broadband masts and dishes for stock tracking and for the control and prevention of outbreaks of disease among farm animals—which cannot properly be controlled and monitored without broadband and the electronic tagging of stock. It has to come, but I have heard very little about this from the Government.

What happens if a farmer wants to diversify? I refer to farm shops and to the sporting and holiday letting of cottages. Such activities will require broadband promotion if they are to be successful. Investment in derelict farm buildings, if they are to be turned into rural offices or factories, will require planning permission and broadband access for new tenants.

I speak as an engineering manufacturer. When I put inward investment into a country I cannot do it without broadband access. No company will come to the countryside without such access. The investment that we saw in Eskdalemuir in the 1960s came about through the forestry people. That transformed the area and saved the whole community. But it was based on an entirely wrong misconception—which was why I planted my trees in the 1960s; namely, that forest industries would be established with the forests so that, when it came to cutting, forest industries would be chopping the wood into small pieces and putting it on the road as finished products. At present, huge lumps of trees are being moved on articulated lorries with 20-tonne axles which are destroying the road system and affecting bridges. That is because the factories were not located in the forests. Any further forestry

11 Jun 2003 : Column 265

investment by the Forestry Commission should be dependent on the industry being located in the rural communities.

The farmer who wants to diversify needs broadband. The local post office needs to update: it needs a postmaster who is computer literate. Unless the local schools have broadband access, the children in those areas will not be able to catch up and have the same education as those in urban areas. The year 2006 is cited as the year when broadband will be available to the whole nation. Let us hope that it comes to Eskdalemuir. I want to see it there—like everyone who is concerned with the local community.

It is said that rural police are non-existent or that there is difficulty in getting to see them. With broadband a household would be able to access and talk about its problem to a major police station, with top policemen. The same is true of hospitals. Local doctors would be able to gain access to homes in outlying areas. The problem could actually be filmed, and a doctor would be able to give medical advice and deal with the situation on the spot.

It would not cost much for the Government to help and to subsidise people to gain access to broadband, but they have not done so. The communications companies have used the commercial argument that in areas of low population there is no commerciality in setting up masts and dishes. Please will the Government look into this? I cannot understand why the Government are spending money on mapping. I find it extraordinary. If ramblers are unable to find their way to the countryside, they have no business being ramblers.

In a debate on ADSL, I once quoted an ode from Horace with which I shall not bore the House. Horace complained that when he was in the country he missed the pleasures of Rome, and when in Rome he missed the pleasures of the countryside. With broadband, you are able, to a certain degree, to enjoy both.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, on his introductory speech. It was a tour de force in terms of facts and figures and experience.

It was right that we should touch on agriculture. The noble Duke gave an admirable maiden speech on the subject. We have also touched on a wide variety of other themes. I noted in particular gardens, fly-tipping, sodium lighting, broadband and the role of churches among the matters on which I shall not have time to expand. As regards agriculture, I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply to the question from my noble friend Lord Mackie of Benshie about decoupling.

I should like to dwell for a moment on the issues raised by the noble Lords, Lord Clark and Lord Mancroft, in regard to wildlife and species management. The noble Lord, Lord Clark, explained

11 Jun 2003 : Column 266

particularly well the benefits that having exciting species can bring to tourism. We ought also to worry about the species themselves.

In replying, will the Minister comment on how he feels the biodiversity action plan—as set out in the Government's document, Working with the Grain of Nature—is going? Defra states that its biodiversity policy relies heavily on the partnership with the private and voluntary sectors. That is quite right. But Defra now needs to build on the success of the countryside stewardship scheme, which has always been hampered by lack of funds. Nevertheless, between landowners, the voluntary sector and now Defra, it has achieved some critical changes. Examples are: bigger grass margins round fields, which are good for nesting birds, insects and the food chain; retaining weedy winter stubble for feeding birds; and encouraging the renovation or creation of ponds—which encourage a wide range of wildlife.

The RSPB and Defra are to be congratulated on the work of Operation Lapwing, about which I learnt much more when I went recently to the Parrett festival in Somerset. Operation Lapwing is based on work taking place on the River Parrett. Talking with some of the farmers and the RSPB, I was struck by the sheer amount of volunteer time it takes for those involved in trying to reintroduce a reasonable number of lapwings onto their land. It involves matters as basic as marking the birds' nests with poles. I did not realise that the eggs can then be moved to the edge of the field, any necessary cultivation can be done, and the eggs can then be moved back. That is acceptable. I learnt that the chicks can run as soon as they are born, which I did not know previously. As your Lordships can tell, it was a very informative session.

The Minister will remember that some time ago he told the House about some of the headline species that have been chosen by the Government. The skylark was one. But what about barn owls, whose numbers are dropping? I could quote a number of other species to illustrate the point.

The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, raised an extremely important issue regarding deer. The Hunting Bill will come before this House. Your Lordships have been very restrained; but with that Bill facing us, the issue of species management is crucial. Whatever the outcome of the Bill, hunting is not the only area that the Government will need to dwell on. The issue of deer and traffic accidents is very serious. The number of deer across the country is growing rapidly. Some worthwhile schemes are being developed through the deer initiative but there is further work to be done.

Badgers are protected but are being experimented on through the Krebs trials. We may have to address difficult issues involving badgers; for example, the fact that they undermine foundations of houses. We had to move many badgers from my home town of Yeovil, where they were undermining the foundations of almost a whole street.

Noble Lords frequently ask questions about invasive species such as knotweed and Himalayan balsam but I want to discuss biodiversity as a whole.

11 Jun 2003 : Column 267

We have not yet got cane toads from Australia but species have become a global issue to the extent that what could be called non-indigenous species create problems.

I enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, and I look forward to the recommendations of his review. However, some of his optimism was misplaced. He pointed out that small shops were closing because people did not want to use them, but I take issue with that. Small shops were also threatened by supermarkets that laid on free buses to rural areas, which people found to be more convenient because it also gave them access to the town. Supermarkets did not do that from the good of their heart; they did so because they felt that people would then shop with them, and they were quite right. They also benefit hugely in small market towns because they have free car parking, which local authorities do not usually offer to other shops, which suffer as a result. I hope that the Minister will comment on those issues.

The review of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, provoked much discussion in my neck of the woods, mainly about the streamlining of grants. I did not agree with much of what the noble Earl, Lord Arran, said, but I agreed with his comments on grants. I declare an interest as a Somerset county councillor. The council often acts as a facilitator in that process. The current system is appalling. There are now full-time jobs as grant bidders but—worse—I discovered that new jobs as advisers to grant bidders are also springing up in the private sector. Basically, there are too many bodies that must be bid to, and they all have different criteria.

Partnership is good but it now means that even small projects must assemble a vast range of partners. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford was absolutely right when he mentioned the inappropriateness of rural development agencies in that context. Their top-down approach in some of their policies in rural areas is completely inappropriate.

The Government had a good idea involving community interest companies. However, I do not believe that it has been rural-proofed, which I thought was now supposed to happen with all government policies. I give the Minister an example. Rural schools could be a centre of many things and, in some instances, could be a community interest company. However, schools are excluded from that. In a village, a school is often the only centre that is likely to fall into that category.

I also welcome some of the Countryside Agency's current work. I expect that other noble Lords also received through the post today the new questionnaire about the countryside code. I am pleased to say that we on these Benches persuaded the Government to introduce that into the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. We look forward to filling in the questionnaire and sending it back. That code should be highly promoted and used as one of the tools that the Government use to draw together what should happen when people visit the countryside.

11 Jun 2003 : Column 268

I also praise the Government for what they have called MAGIC. The Minister will be aware of it. It is a land-based mapping system, and very exciting it is, too. I was introduced to it on the Defra stand at the Royal Bath and West Show. It is an excellent innovation and I recommend it to noble Lords.

I turn to the excellent points made by the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, on which I should like to expand. He discussed renewable energy and biomass and the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, discussed biofuels. I regret the fact that the Government have allowed the biomass plant known as Arbre, which the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, mentioned, to flounder. I realise that it is a private sector initiative. The Government found it in their heart to bale out British Energy time and again to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds. Apparently, according to one farmer among 35 who were supplying Miscanthus or willow to the plant, there has not been a single contact from the DTI about the closure of the plant so soon in its operations. The farmer felt that the DTI could have helped the farmers to look for new markets and to consider co-firing biomass with coal. That is extremely regrettable and leads me to wonder about the Government's commitment to renewables.

Finally, I want to mention two other issues. The first, that of branch lines, was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Bradshaw. If the Government want to introduce congestion charging more widely in other cities, they must consider the position of rural railways that serve the towns. I shall give two examples: the Barnstaple to Exeter line, which is very rural and very good at serving Exeter, and the Weymouth to Bath and Bristol line, which serves dozens of small market towns and goes straight to the heart of Bath and Bristol. Secondly, I turn to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, about national parks. We can expect a review of national parks to be published soon, and I hope that we will debate it in your Lordships' House. National parks should be the test-bed for sustainable development; they can be the test-bed for exciting ideas. We must debate the progress that the parks have made and the role that they should serve in future. I refer in particular to introducing children from urban communities into the most beautiful and inspiring areas of our countryside.

Finally, I again congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, on a truly inspiring debate.

7.28 p.m.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I begin by welcoming the noble Duke the Earl Marshal to the House and congratulate him on his excellent maiden speech. It gives me double pleasure because he welcomed me three years ago, I believe, to his farm in West Sussex. We had a long discussion about the crisis facing agriculture. I am very grateful to him. We look forward to hearing from him many times in the future.

I remind the House of my family's farming interests. We have an arable farm outside Lavenham in Suffolk and released land for affordable housing. Many noble Lords have touched on that. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for giving us this opportunity once again

11 Jun 2003 : Column 269

to go through many of the arguments and challenges that are faced by those who live and work in the countryside and those who come to enjoy it.

The noble Lord gave some fairly stark figures on incomes and crops and described how many tonnes he had to produce to get the money required at the end of the day. We all know that he is a great champion of the biofuel industry. He also touched on the closure of Arbre, which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, mentioned. We view it as a great sadness. He proposed the new idea of a subsidised taxi service. So often we are told by the Government, "All you do is complain; you never come up with good ideas". That is a good idea, and I hope that the Minister will respond to it.

This debate very sensibly was chosen to look at the whole of the countryside and not just at farming per se. We have touched on affordable housing, broadband, landscape, churches, communities and the support they give to each other, crime and on the whole question of the CAP reform and of the need for it to be attached to the land rather than to go with the person who farms the land. We have talked about wildlife. But most of all we have talked of—and I return to it because it underlines the whole issue—the need to have profitable and sustainable farming. Whether or not we want to talk about farming all day—and many of us in this House would be very happy to—the one thing on which we would all agree is that if we do not have a profitable farming community then the very things we want to protect, encourage and have other people enjoy will not be available because one cannot continue to sustain farming if one does not make a profit.

I agree with other noble Lords who said there should not be a divide between town and country. Whenever I speak, I try to bring the two together because we all eat food. The question is: what food do we eat? I hope it says on my back, "From UK agriculture every day if I can", because I am very anxious that we should promote our own agriculture here and not, as we heard in our debate yesterday—I have to say it was discrimination—that of the less developed countries. We have a role to play there.

Agriculture and horticulture are at the heart of what happens in the countryside. Whether we live and work there or are visitors, we love the countryside. The countryside is as it is because it is worked and farmed. It is man-made and maintained. That is something that we should never forget.

On many occasions we have talked about people moving from urban areas and going to live in villages. Some of them are perhaps a little disappointed when they arrive. Aspects they have taken for granted in towns are not accessible in villages. It is a long drive to work, to school or to visit old friends. There is often no shop within five miles. The nearest post office may be two miles away; and 194 of those closed last year. There may be only one doctor's surgery, which might be in the next village.

Sometimes children and fathers of those families complain bitterly at the loss of broadband access to the Internet. The nearest play area that allows ball games

11 Jun 2003 : Column 270

may be a mile and a quarter away and down a narrow winding lane, which is used from morning until night by large lorries trying to make up lost time. Indeed, I was grateful for the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, who reminded us that half of all accidents occur on rural roads, and that it is a really large problem.

So, all is not as easy as it might be. Not all those who move to the countryside leave, but some stay, settle in and support what happens in their villages. However, as other noble Lords have said, broadband is one of the issues that the Government need to address. Only 1 per cent of houses in remote locations and only 7 per cent of village homes have access to broadband, compared with 95 per cent in towns. I hope the Minister received those figures because they speak for themselves. In addition, young adults or widowed pensioners wishing to remain find that there is a shortage of affordable properties to buy. There is also a lack of homes to rent at rates they can afford—a matter which has been touched on around the House.

Transport is a problem. Again we have touched on that issue. A sizeable proportion of rural dwellers are not car- owners. There may be a car in the family, but usually the wage earner takes it with him and the other person is left without adequate transport. Sometimes it is not possible to take a bus to visit a doctor, to go to the dentist or to visit a hospital because the return journey begins too soon or too late. As we have said in previous discussions, magistrates' courts have closed down in many rural areas, making it difficult for people to attend when necessary.

Many noble Lords have spoken about urban crime. It is reducing because of the installation of CCTV and the targeting of police methods. The smarter of the criminal fraternity are therefore moving to the countryside.

Fly-tipping, as we have heard—we had a debate on it last week—is on the increase, as public tips enforce charging for large quantities of waste. The beauty of rural walks is increasingly being marred by heaps of stinking household rubbish, mounds of builders' rubble and the dangerous and unsightly carcasses of burnt-out cars. In many cases the local authority moves them when that occurs on the roadside, but when it occurs on someone's private property it is the landowner's responsibility to do so at his expense.

Those who have lived and worked in the countryside for generations—and I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, for her very specific contribution today—know how it is and how it is kept. They have done so at their own expense and using their own experience, but they are being overwhelmed by costly rules and regulations.

Farmers are faced with steadily increasing costs, particularly as a result of European legislation, such as the ear-tagging of sheep and the non-burial of fallen stock. That has not only affected the disposal of animals that die on the farm; it is a great blow to our abattoirs, which now have to look at different ways of disposing of blood. So, there is an impact on small and medium-sized abattoirs.

11 Jun 2003 : Column 271

Agriculture, tourism and rural diversification are beset by multiple incentive schemes, many of which require bids which either will not succeed or will do so after the available money is exhausted. My noble friend Lord Arran spoke about that. I give one example. The Countryside Agency runs a "vital villages" scheme, which has been hugely successful. Unfortunately, the scheme has been stopped because it has run out of money. That is not really very helpful when one is trying to plan for the future.

Perhaps I may touch on tourism. Ten members of the Royal Family, as has already been said, devoted yesterday to promoting tourist attractions throughout the UK. The main aim was to persuade our own people to spend some holiday time in our countryside rather than going abroad. I place my thanks on the record for the action they took because it really has highlighted the attractions we have within our own country, which so often we fail to realise.

Rural people are working hard to learn the modern skills of marketing, Internet selling and product development. All is not doom and gloom out there. There are many good examples of new people coming into business who actually do not look back over their shoulders but who are looking at ways to take business into the 21st century. All around the country, pubs and cafes are using locally-sourced foods. Guides and cookbooks promote county specialities. Farmers sell their produce at the farm gate and in their shops. There are box schemes for fresh produce, farmers' markets, visitor attraction centres and craft centres which incorporate wonderful home-cooked food in their restaurants. So there are good things happening out there.

However, I should like to touch briefly on the CAP reform. It should assist those who have maintained the countryside as a by-product of farming as an end in itself. However, as we have heard, large numbers are leaving the land. If CAP reform means that the amount of money able to be claimed by a farmer goes away from the land, I think it will raise great problems. What will happen, for example, when the person has moved away and a new entrant comes on to the land with no support by way of subsidies? How can he compete against another farmer who still has subsidies? That is an issue that perhaps the Government have not fully taken on board. Have they realised the environmental implications? Obviously, the new entrant will be very keen to farm in the most aggressive way he can to get the best return for his money. That will have a huge environmental impact.

Also, the Rural Payments Agency is still six months late with its payments on suckler cow premiums. What is being done about that? As a result of bovine TB, some 23,000 cows were killed last year. What are the Government going to do about that, because it is getting out of hand?

My last two points concern rights of way and the mapping exercise. First, the mapping exercise has been hugely costly. What is the cost? Secondly, what of the question of private land and gardens being included in

11 Jun 2003 : Column 272

some of the mapping exercises and the arbitrary reclassification of some private paths as public footpaths? Those are hugely important issues.

I end by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for introducing this excellent debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.

7.41 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for initiating this wide-ranging debate—probably even more wide-ranging than he thought it would be—and in extending my thanks and congratulations to the noble Duke, the Earl Marshal, in his informative maiden speech.

I am not sure that I can reply to all the points that have been made; with some, I shall not try. Your Lordships will be glad to hear that I shall not respond to any points relating to hunting—I suspect that the House will have plenty of time to discuss those later—save to say that the references to hare coursing made by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, may also be dealt with in that context.

Nor, with apologies to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, shall I go into great detail about negotiations on CAP reform, partly because we had a detailed debate yesterday and partly because the negotiations started at 3 o'clock this afternoon, and the whole situation may have changed by now. I would not want to undermine my right honourable friend Margaret Beckett in her negotiations by saying anything about the likely outcome at this stage. We are all clear about the general direction in which Commissioner Fischler wants to go, much of which fits in with the Government's view.

I shall make two points to begin with. First, I echo the point made by several of my noble friends and others, that we must not allow ourselves to consider the countryside as being significantly different in its concerns, anxieties and prospects from the rest of the community. Of course, there are differences between rural and urban society, but the latest Countryside Agency survey highlights the key fact that, although there are significant problems in the countryside, the pattern of distribution of income, the problem of access to services and the general level of prosperity are, if anything, better in the countryside than in the town.

My noble friend Lord Judd pointed out that education, health and the prosperity of new businesses are, in general, better in rural areas than in towns. That does not mean that there are not pockets of serious disadvantage in remoter parts of the countryside or serious economic problems in parts of the agricultural sector. But it is important to say that many problems are the same, and therefore need to be addressed by general rather than specific policies—while not in any sense reneging on the Government's commitment to ensure that those general policies are positively and clearly rural-proofed. Where there are differences in both delivery and problems, we must address them.

11 Jun 2003 : Column 273

The other point is that it is wrong to say, as, I fear, the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, said, that the countryside is in dire straits. There is significant prosperity in the countryside. My view is closer to that of my noble friend Lord Haskins than to some of the remarks that have been made in the debate. There is much vibrancy and change, new enterprise and business in the countryside; people are moving in and out of the countryside; and that of itself causes some tension and problems, which we must address. But to say that the countryside is in a state of depression is, with a few isolated exceptions, wrong.

Of course, I do not entirely go along with my noble friend Lord Haskins in his dismissal of romantics, or even of dinosaurs. As my noble friend Lord Judd said, we need a special approach and vision for the countryside—especially for the national parks and more attractive areas of our landscape. But, in general, prosperity is reasonably spread.

As ever—and, I suppose, rightly so—the debate has concentrated on agriculture although not, today, disproportionately, compared with earlier debates in which I have participated in the House. Nevertheless, that industry has been most focused on, albeit that it is no longer the biggest industry in our rural areas. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, himself emphasised the problems of agriculture. I agree with his analysis of some of them. As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, and others said, we must approach them broadly through the strategy laid down by the Curry commission, which is a strategy for the whole food chain.

Some of the economic problems of farming can be addressed not by changing the subsidy system so much as by changing the relationship between farmers and the rest of the food chain—in particular, the supermarkets and large processors—whereby farmers get back more of the value added in the food chain and of the price that consumers pay in the shops. But some of that relates to the effects of the CAP and how subsidies have distorted what farming is done, so that, as I said yesterday, farmers have been chasing subsidies, rather than the market.

The whole point about profitability in farming—which, I agree, is part of the sustainability of agriculture and the countryside as a whole—is that if farmers are freed from the burden of chasing subsidy, they will chase the market. The way to get prosperity in farming enterprises, as in any other enterprise, is to anticipate and meet the market. Yes, there is a public interest in supporting farming in general land management, because we want the country landscape as a background for other economic and social activities in the countryside—tourism and others. That is the way in which we hope that the CAP is moving, but it is also important to recognise that the way to get money back into farming is by making it more market-oriented than some sectors have been—largely, although not entirely, as a result of the CAP.

Many references were made to the problems of regulation in farming. The noble Lord, Lord Monro, the noble Duke, the Earl Marshal, the noble Earl,

11 Jun 2003 : Column 274

Lord Peel, the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, and others emphasised the problems that farmers face through regulation. I shall say only two things about that. First, it would be wrong for me to give the impression that regulation will go away. Society demands more from economic activities of all sorts, and farming has been exempt from some regulation that is now hitting it—relating to waste, water pollution, and so forth—which has hitherto been faced by other parts of industry. That is not to say that it is easy for farming to meet those regulatory requirements, but it is equitable to ask it to do so.

Also, it is true that regulation in this country is largely driven by Europe. I accept that, sometimes, European regulation can be disproportionate, clumsy or too prescriptive. The Government are trying to ensure that the European approach to regulation moves more to outcome-related regulation from prescribing exactly what farmers and other businesses do. But it is important that we have Europe-wide regulation. The single market, which exists in agriculture as in other sectors, should be subject to common rules.

It is therefore important, on the one hand, that we fulfil the Prime Minister's obligation to agriculture—that in future we do not gold-plate European legislation—but also that we recognise that European legislation sets the standards for our farming, and, frankly, stop knocking other European Union countries. Frequently, when we investigate the individual allegations about their rather lighter touch of regulation, if anything, the opposite turns out to be the case. Certainly, if we compare ourselves with France, the level of regulation and number of inspectors and checkers of the food chain and farming in France tends to be somewhat higher than ours. Therefore regulation at European level is inevitably part of agriculture.

We need to ensure that regulation is delivered in an entirely different way. Instead of forcing farmers to deal with 17 different regulators and umpteen different sets of regulation, we approach it as a total production. The whole-farm approach should apply to regulation as it should to planning and to the delivery of assurance schemes. If we can achieve the benign cycle where regulation operates on a whole-farm basis, delivers a whole farm plan and delivers the quality of goods that is appropriate for whole-farm assurance schemes, then we are out of the rut of dealing with bureaucracy on the one hand, from the subsidies on the other, from regulation and from the assurance schemes themselves. We are driving towards that end with the whole-farm strategies as laid out by the Curry commission. It will take us a little time to arrive there, but it is a top priority for Defra and its agencies.

Before moving on I shall say two things about agriculture. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, asked about the fallen stock regulation. I agree that there is some concern about whether that is appropriate, but the regulation is an important protection of our environment arising largely from the BSE experience, and it is a European obligation. I regret that the farming organisations did not consult and deal with us

11 Jun 2003 : Column 275

to set up a national disposal scheme earlier in the game. When we reached agreement with the farming organisations a few weeks ago for a viable national disposal scheme to which we would make a significant government contribution—but expected a levy from farmers—they then contacted their members and have been vigorously trying to make their members sign up. Regrettably, we are not yet at the point where we could deliver the level of participation where a national disposal scheme can operate. I wish we were. A national disposal scheme was the best solution, and could still be, but unless we receive a greater response from farmers we will not be at that point.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page