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Lord Borrie: My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree with me that one of the downsides of the new competitive environment in gas and electricity is that some of the new suppliers are cherry-picking the better-off customers with the result that there is an increasing discrepancy in the price for these basic essentials as between the better-off and the poorer customers? Would it not, therefore, be a good idea to require regulators to have an obligation to protect the disadvantaged customer?
Lord Simon of Highbury: Indeed, my Lords; in the creation of the market place we have seen an extraordinary price differential on offer. That is one of the successes of the policy. I should like to point out that my honourable friend the Minister for science, energy and industry has asked the DGES for reports on the practical implications for differential pricing in the electricity market. He is also concerned about the widening gap among gas customers, especially those on prepayment. My honourable friend has also asked the Director-General of Gas Supply to review the situation.
Lord Simon of Highbury: My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to make provision about competition and the abuse of a dominant position in the market; to confer powers in relation to investigations conducted in connection with Article 85 or 86 of the treaty establishing the European Community; to amend the Fair Trading Act 1973 in relation to information required by the Director-General of Fair Trading with respect to monopoly situations; to make provision with respect to the meaning of "supply of services" in the Fair Trading Act 1973; and for connected purposes. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.
The noble Earl said: My Lords, in moving this Motion, I am mindful that in March of this year the House debated the rural economy. I follow that with a related topic: land use in the countryside. I welcome the large number of distinguished speakers who have chosen to take part today. I look forward particularly to the contributions of the maiden speakers. I am delighted that they have chosen this day to make their debut.
I declare an interest as a co-owner of a hill farm high in the Exmoor National Park and of some mainly wooded and pretty soggy acres in the low Weald of Sussex. Therefore I come from the traditions of extensive livestock husbandry, not intensive agribusiness. I am a practising chartered surveyor and a member of the Country Landowners' Association. I have a special interest in rural land use management but my views are those of a private sector land manager and are essentially my own.
The saying goes, "Live your life as if you would die tomorrow but farm your land as if you would live for ever". At the heart of this is a social responsibility. It is on this aspect that I intend to start and finish in this debate. Land uses have shaped the countryside mainly by farming and by forestry. Of course land use in the past, particularly pre-war, was extremely diverse. But that turned into an imperative to grow two blades of grass where one grew before. Now the view is that much of the countryside is more valuable for other uses and methods of husbandry are coming under critical scrutiny. One of the biggest land use issues is the rural share of the 4.4 million households projected by the year 2016.
Most land is under private management but the process is immensely more complex than for previous generations requiring new skills not easily learnt or taught. Environmental and public amenity factors have been added to the fiscal and regulatory challenges of the past. Unless a land manager is in the business to make a profit he will almost certainly go under. Production support after the war, the CAP and the fiscal regime did much more than change techniques of husbandry; they altered the culture of land use, shifted the capital base and revised the entire rationale of the management process. It is not surprising that something started in wartime and continued thereafter for 40 years will take some time, perhaps even a generation, to refocus.
Society is questioning the old order and I question it too. What is being asked of land managers has changed and the practical and business environment has been substantially and irreversibly altered. A simple comparison of land value and the extraordinarily low returns achievable from its use compared with any other business shows us how far this has gone. In the uplands, where my chief interests lie--leaving land value aside--it is frequently not possible to make a profit on the cash account alone without grants and subsidies. That is
Some land managers--and I am one--try to diversify to augment their income but the opportunities are woefully limited and sometimes involve specific requirements. Few schemes succeed in tapping the public interest and public demand for facilities in the countryside. When they do that tends to be for tourism. The problem with that is that the season may be short, competition with foreign holidays fierce and the risks are accordingly high. At the same time public perceptions of what is valuable in the countryside result in closer scrutiny of what goes on there. But critically, conservation and recreational factors may produce no land use benefits. They may not even relate to legal ownership. Woodland plots for leisure rather than silviculture and pasture for amenity and horses are increasingly common phenomena.
Too much has changed to turn the clock back to an age of low input, low output farming, and I should know. The countryside is in play as a commodity. Everyone is now expecting the CAP to change but without an agreed policy to supplant the current and admittedly flawed system. In this vacuum land management philosophies have become a good deal less cohesive. It is easy to destroy land use utility but much harder to recreate it. Land managers are understandably a little confused. Doubt represents cost and risk and affects management and land use. The response becomes more short term and tends to be opportunistic. Where fragmentation of farms and estates results, they frequently default to high value second or retirement homes with a few acres and capital starved ranch land beyond. Therefore the entire level of expectations within society as a whole and among land managers in particular has shifted.
The rights of ownership from which much management control derives its authority are said to be a social construct. However, it is worth remembering that social realignment may itself lead to conditions in which management and resultant land use alter and often in imperceptible ways over many years. Short-term measures, sometimes in response to public opinion, can conflict with the need for longer term strategies. Indeed, despite the interest in the countryside there is a real gap in the understanding of rural land use and its management by the majority of the nation who do not live there. This situation leads to incompatible objectives. If environmental works have no benefit for the land manager, he needs other means to fund them. If he is strapped for resources, even a 60 per cent. grant still leaves him 40 per cent. short. If the only way to get grant aid is by long-term commitment through a management plan of questionable profitability, that may have the same effect as no grant at all. Unprofitable habitat management, especially where bank managers are involved, makes little sense.
Old hazel coppice in my part of Sussex has value for dormice, but save for small-scale schemes, it has little economic use. I calculate that it costs between £800 and £900 per acre to rejuvenate. Grants of up to 50 per cent. can be obtained when there is some money in the kitty. But spending say £450 an acre to maintain land worth £1,200 an acre with no prospect of return is an elegant way of "going bust". Of course some of us like a challenge but that is not a sustainable way of dealing with the matter on a wider scale. It is little wonder that such woodlands lack management. Despite all that I am encouraged by the great amount of work that is being done in the countryside in these difficult-to-manage areas.
Similar considerations may apply to the regulation of protected areas. On Exmoor I have heather moorland, improved pasture and other bits and pieces of woodland in a site of special scientific interest. However, according to my calculations, there are six other designations which all affect my land and which all have different emphasis. Consultation is longwinded and tortuous to say the least. On occasions I have missed windows of opportunity altogether. The rules change fairly frequently making forward planning pretty difficult. The regulators--I make no particular criticism here--tend to lack knowledge of land use. The administrative cost to me is high. That is a disincentive because there is no end to it all. It is no good taking away control by designation and then wondering why management falls off.
It is not possible to democratise land use in the sense of undertaking consultation at every turn. Public debate at national level needs to set the cultural filters and philosophies. That is fine, as is an expression of broad local preferences, but this must be followed by executive decisions and good relevant advice if land managers are to be guided effectively. This gets more pressing the more the regulatory process bites into daily land management.
Official bodies have grown up to deal with specific problem areas but it is apparent that many of their tasks overlap--I suggest to the point of unnecessary duplication in some instances. The regulatory process appears heavily fragmented in a number of instances. The approach tends to be prescription rather than targets. When targets are set the means are all too often methodological standardisation. Of course that leads to arguments about the best way forward. There is a real need for a new approach. The present process is inefficient and gives the impression that the regulatory agencies hold no real authority to deal with the matters under their control and that the public interest speaks with many and often discordant voices.
I think that the number of bodies claiming to represent the public interest, in particular with regard to the proportion of annual budgets devoted to administration, needs looking at. Despite the valiant efforts of the staff of your Lordships' Library, to whom I am most grateful, it is almost impossible to identify the element devoted to administration. The indications are that the costs are well in excess of the amount acceptable in a well run charity. The matter should be looked into.
No one is guaranteed a living; but value for the purposes of publicly acceptable land use could be added to holdings. Land managers need to be able to capture some of those values which society places on the use and management of land. High grade land may always be profitable; and land with higher amenity value, such as the uplands, may always have a command for special assistance. However, mediocre land in between--and there is a lot of it--is susceptible to reductions in product support and grant, with precious few alternative uses. Therefore there are real risks of land use change, disinvestment and rural deprivation.
There needs to be a better understanding between consumer and producer. The consumer is entitled to environmentally acceptable methods of production, but he has to show commitment by purchasing a product so produced. Unfortunately this simply does not happen. As consumers we cannot go on asking the impossible, compromising the countryside use and expect no change in land use.
Public access to the countryside--I promised the Minister that I would not make an issue of this--is a huge asset. It creates business for the makers of maps and hiking boots but is seldom a resource to the land manager; sometimes quite the converse. The same applies to a view, a place to picnic, to paddle in streams, and so on. Many land managers provide access free, but beyond a certain level it represents a cost and a risk. I await with interest to see how the responsibilities on users will be imposed under a statutory right of open access. I think that enforcing it will be a difficult task. It is that which would worry me rather than the principle of open access.
On urban fringes, there are impediments to husbandry because of levels of access. I refer in particular to dogs, vandalism, and so on. Not unnaturally, land use and general amenity suffer. Woodland buffer strips may be preferred but they result in loss of views, landscape change and perhaps cover for fly tippers. Risks have to be shouldered in respect of that. It is almost impossible for private sector managers to police and manage those areas effectively. I noted today that Dr. Miriam Rothschild confirmed that lack of appropriate management is one of the most significant causes of ecological and environmental loss. That has to be considered in the context of lack of management, and the inability to manage the land because there are no means and resources to do so. Simply tightening the regulatory framework misses the target. Part of my land is so full of ticks that grazing is limited. An imposed grazing regime may fail if the livestock simply will not eat what is on the ground.
I invite the Government to take a new initiative. A cohesive domestic rural policy is needed without having to wait for the rest of Europe. The culture of taxation of rural business needs fresh consideration so that multipurpose long term land use is encouraged, not discouraged. Hedges and habitats could be made assets to the land manager. As matters stand, environmental works do not even rank as farming for tax purposes. In short, we need to make public objectives of land use valuable in the hands of managers. Some holdings will
There have been failures in both the public and the private sectors. I recall policies which involved grants for preserving hedges while at the same time assisting their grubbing out. That was not many years ago. Land managers may have sinned but I suspect that it is mostly in pursuit of Government and EU policy. Re-education all round is needed; but it also needs motivation with relevant and accessible training.
Partnership is a current buzz word. All I will say is that partners share costs, risks and investment culture. They have compatible and transparent agendas. And I have a word about management plans. Often those have different meanings for different people. They should never be compulsory, even less the sole means of providing incentives or grants. They should be kept simple, cost effective and flexible. Whole farm plans should not represent an entry ticket for gaining planning consent.
Despite those concerns, I am positive about the future. The problems can be overcome and land managers have had to become enormously flexible in their approach. But the right signals need to be given. That has not always been the case in the past. A new long-term strategy is needed especially for those areas where farming will never make money, or where land use is controlled on environmental grounds.
If collectively land managers and government on behalf of society can formulate common aims and objectives for the future of the countryside, I believe that the latent expertise of managers will deliver results. To adapt a quote from Errol Flynn, we all need to,
Lord De Ramsey: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, for instigating this short debate on land use in the countryside for two reasons: first, because the European Commission has this year issued its paper entitled Agenda 2000 on the reform of the common agricultural policy; and, secondly, because it gives me the opportunity to make a speech on one of the few subjects about which I know anything.
I have to declare an interest. My family have lived and farmed at Ramsey on the edge of the Fens for over 200 years. Our land is mostly below sea level, which is inclined to concentrate the mind. Ramsey men and women have been forced by their geographical situation to concentrate on survival. It is therefore probably no surprise that when I started farming there was an advertisement in the Ramsey Post which read, "Ramsey man seeks wife with tractor--please send photograph of tractor". But Ramsey is no exception. The British countryside has always had to survive by change although I expect many people would be surprised if they could be shown how much Bronze Age man altered the wilderness and how agricultural it was even in those days.
Most of the changes have been gradual. The violent depopulation of the countryside by the Black Death was not equalled until the 1880s when a combination of bad summers and imported grain from the opening up of the middle west brought dereliction on a scale that was not seen again until the depression of the 1930s. We saw then the effect of dereliction on the countryside; and we know that we never want to see it repeated.
That is why I am so delighted to be able to take part in this debate. We need to get across the message that the Scott Report was right when it said that the countryside was not there just to provide recreation and holiday facilities for the town. I have seen many examples of small tourist businesses all over the country, in particular the West Country. People are very enterprising. On one visit, a notice on a farm gate said, "50p to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Rambler".
We are partly to blame for failing to explain how the countryside works. The 1947 planning and agricultural Acts enshrined the belief that the countryside is just for agriculture; but while 80 per cent. of land use will always be agricultural, our communities cannot survive on agriculture alone. We need to spread the word through schools and open days to influence our local decision makers. Like many farmers, I have parties of school children round the farm and hope to educate them and, in turn, their teachers and parents. I am not normally at a loss for words but on one occasion, after I had been explaining about the Fens and flooding and had referred to Noah's Ark, a small girl asked me a question. "Were you on the Ark?" she said. "I certainly wasn't", I replied, rather offended. With that unanswerable childish logic, she said: "Well, why weren't you drownded then?".
I count myself extremely fortunate to be able to contribute not just to the patch of land that I farm, but also to the health of the countryside through the Environment Agency. I have two mottoes on my desk. The noble Earl has already mentioned the first: "Live as if you were to die tomorrow, but farm as if you will live for ever". The second is: "The town has a face but the country has a soul". That spiritual quality is the reason
Baroness Nicol: My Lords, it is a great pleasure on behalf of the whole House to congratulate the noble Lord on his maiden speech. I confess that I was rather surprised to find that it was his maiden speech. The noble Lord seems to have been present in the House for so long that I thought he had delivered it long ago. It was thought-provoking and helpful. Apart from anything else it was a very learned speech. Noble Lords may not know that in his own area the noble Lord is a shining example of how to live in an environmentally friendly way. He is greatly respected in the neighbourhood for that approach. I hope that we hear from him a great deal in the future.
The time allowed is very short. The House will be pleased to hear that I shall not attempt to refer to the CAP. We must remember that this debate is conducted against a background of the Government taking up the legacy of the previous government; namely, the commitment to sustainable development. I am therefore very pleased to agree with the noble Earl's remark that a great deal has to be done to the regulatory system in order to get it right.
The two main pressures on land are the need to maintain the viability of rural areas and the demand for housing. The estimated need for 4.4 million houses referred to by the noble Earl is a subject for argument. However, there is undoubtedly a need for considerable expansion.
Earlier this year a regional conference took place in East Anglia on what should be done in relation to the pressures on land. Noble Lords will forgive my particular mention of that area since it is where I live; a number of the points raised are also relevant to other parts of the country. It is perhaps obvious that we should use brownfield sites first where they exist and encroach on valuable agricultural or recreational land only as a last resort. I include in the term "recreational land" landscape and open natural countryside which provide an escape from our crowded way of living and for which the Countryside Commission has a special responsibility. I commend its efforts to fulfil its aims.
But the amount of brownfield land is diminishing and in some areas, such as East Anglia, there never has been enough to make a significant contribution to the projected need. East Anglia is under particular pressure at this time. It has the fastest growing population in England and, although the new development of industry there is welcome, it brings its own pressures.
The first priority requirement is the need for clearer government guidance on what constitutes brownfield land and how the target for its use is to be measured. Does it include, for example, derelict brick pits and abandoned military sites in rural areas? That is an important question in East Anglia, as it is in other parts of the country.
The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells: My Lords, in the time available I want to make one theological, spiritual point and one practical one. In English we use two words for what in Hebrew is expressed in one. The Hebrew word "eretz" means both "earth" and "land". There is no doubt about the teaching of the Old Testament that,
"Land" is used to describe a possession, a commodity, where we tend to resent any restriction upon our ownership. Of course we all need to have clear, defensible space and people need to make their living from the land. That will always involve an element of being treated like a commodity, but it remains a parcel of the earth and carries with it important responsibilities as well as rights. It is my belief that real dialogue is needed between those who concentrate on the use of the word "earth" and its big ideas and those who use the word "land" in a very practical way.
Secondly, I wish to make a practical point. In my experience in Somerset most farmers are highly conscientious about their responsibilities for the countryside. We owe many of them a great deal for their persistent care; and many farmers--especially in the hill country--are struggling to survive. The structure of subsidies is generally biased towards intensive and large-scale, industrial farming, leading all too often to the destruction or removal of important habitat, reduced variety of species and severe inroads into the natural food chain. What is the philosophy which lies behind subsidies of £193 per acre for oilseed rape and yet only £20 per acre to encourage any change to organic farming methods? Has the time not come in Europe and the UK--I was interested to hear about the developments in Europe--to recognise that the impact of subsidies should be urgently reviewed in the light of the need for greater sensitivity to the ecology of our countryside? In New Zealand a new look at subsidies
Moreover, with or without a reform of subsidies, there is a need for good ecological information to farmers as they decide how to manage their land. It is not just a question of ownership; it is foremost a matter of management. Are farmers getting enough good and tested information in relation to the delicate ecological balance in their area? For instance, why has the monoculture of rye grass been largely unchallenged, thus excluding a variety of plants and insects and distorting the natural order? I am convinced that with a positive and resourced approach, most farmers would respond. As a lay member of the Conservation South West Awards, I saw at first hand what could be done with woodlands and landscapes given the right advice. I commend the work and approach of the Farm and Wildlife Advisory Groups (FWAG), which are constructive and realistic, revealing how much difference can be made by thoughtful and practical steps to preserve conservation headlands--creative spaces where nature can grow and be a host to a greater diversity of plant, insect and bird life.
The whole intricate balance in the creation of Planet Earth is endangered by what we so often do in the use to which we put land. We all carry responsibility and share the stewardship--the use of cars, the waste we accumulate and not least the way in which we seek to use our countryside without destroying it. It is already five minutes to midnight; the situation is serious; but we can all do a lot in the remaining five minutes to give the earth a better chance if we behave like the good stewards God wants us to be.
It is my very welcome duty, on behalf of the whole House, to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells on his maiden speech. He is one of those people who comes to us with an enormous reputation before him. Many of us in the Church of England have been waiting for Jim Thompson to come to the House of Lords and wish that it had happened earlier. We are very grateful to see him here.
I take family farms as my subject. My noble friend Lady Hamwee will deal with some of the other matters which arise from this subject. She has kindly said that I may trespass on one or two of her lavish 10 minutes if I need to do so.
I am a vice president of what used to be called the Small Farmers' Association until they began to be afraid that they would be taken for a race of hobbits. It is now called the Family Farms Association. I did my later practical training in farming on two small south Devon farms.
This is an important subject and one on which I should be speaking from these Benches, because I suspect with some confidence that the members of my party in another place represent more small farmers in the West Country, Wales and the north of Scotland than does any other party. But the most important reason for raising this subject is that in both the short and the long term family farmers can do more for this country in human terms, which are the only terms worth our considering, than can large farmers.
In the short term an increase in small farmers can repopulate the countryside. The countryside is primarily for agriculture and it is a sad and sorry distortion of its nature if we divide it up into areas for factory farming and a series of playgrounds for the urban masses. The more people we have living in the country the better. It relieves the overcrowding of the towns and provides the demand which is needed for the provision of rural public transport, shops, cottage hospitals and all the other services which no one with an ounce of humanity and aestheticism wants to see replaced by endless cars, supermarkets and enormous health centres.
We want to repopulate the countryside and we want to repopulate it with people who respect it and want to serve it, not just people who sit opposite a computer screen at the end of a 'phone, useful though those tools are. If that means having rather more people living in new buildings in the countryside than the CPRE would like, that is just too bad. I do not believe that we need to fix the British countryside in an Edwardian pattern of large Dukeries, prosperous large tenant farmers and underpaid agricultural labourers any more than we want to turn it into an industrial waste of large farms with no hedgerows.
It is quite clear that CAP reform must embrace "modulation" with enthusiasm. It is essential to address the ridiculous situation where 80 per cent. of aid goes to 20 per cent. of farmers. We must address the situation where more food is essential to feed more people. It is realised that small farms and indeed smallholdings are the most efficient way of doing this--not the most efficient in terms of pounds and pence but certainly the most efficient per acre of ground and in providing human employment in a world where conventional economics have deprived millions of people of employment; the most important in terms of producing healthy food, as no doubt the noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam, will remind us; and the most important in providing an ecologically sound and environmentally attractive countryside.
I hope that the Minister will tell us that the Government will resist the blandishments of the big and greedy farmers and listen to the small farmers for a change. I hope that they will pledge themselves to an approach to modulation which will help the latter even if it robs the big men of some of the million-pound cheques that we have heard about. I hope that, beyond that, they will announce some imaginative policies in
Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I should like to argue the case for forestry as a versatile land-use option that fits into a rural development policy and is able to fulfil a range of resource, recreational and environmental needs.
The production and manufacture of timber is a significant generator of jobs. Current research indicates that one hectare of productive hardwoods sustains the equivalent of one full-time employee. Commercial activity along the timber chain tends to be more labour than technology intensive, making enhanced activity in this sector a fruitful focus of investment when sustainable employment is a goal. Projections forecast that productive forestry is set to create 1,000 jobs a year over the next 16 years' expansion.
Forestry performs well as an alternative to agriculture and is a recreational resource for a largely urban population. Woodlands can be managed for recreation without loss of production and can absorb large numbers of people without the appearance of crowding.
Forestry has a significant contribution to make to environmentally sound economic policy by providing a renewable, managed resource of raw materials. Timber is the second largest traded commodity after petrochemicals. The UK currently imports 85 per cent of its timber requirements. The British wood products sector is therefore in a strong position as a supplier, and demand is expected to increase in all sectors.
The key to further investment in processing is resource security. Our forestry industry must achieve a sustained annual yield of 15 million cubic metres per anum. This will require approximately a further 275,000 hectares of commercial softwood planting (exclusive of amenity, native woodlands and community schemes, where productivity is not a principal objective).
The previous government set ambitious targets for forestry expansion in the three rural White Papers: in England, doubling over 50 years; in Wales, a 50 per cent. increase over 50 years; and in Scotland, a steady expansion. There has been talk recently of reducing these targets to "encourage a significant expansion" and I am unclear what the Government's policy is. I should be grateful for some clarification and encouragement on this point from the Minister.
In that context, and in view of the shortage of time, I confine myself to one activity in which I have recently become particularly interested; namely, coppicing, which was briefly mentioned by the noble Earl who opened the debate. We have worked closely with the Wessex Coppice Group based in Hampshire and much of what I say has been derived from information which it has most kindly supplied. I find it interesting that, in speaking of coppicing, I echo the few words that the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, devoted to it and also the noble Lord, Lord Astor, who referred to forestry. There are many in your Lordships' House who have extensive knowledge of forestry and coppicing, whereas I have very little; yet it seems to me that there is something to be said for coming down to earth and avoiding the great wide issues which others are so much better equipped to address than I.
In Hampshire there are about 16,000 acres of neglected coppice and there is a substantial and probably somewhat similar area in East and West Sussex. Coppicing has been neglected for the past 50 years. Revival depends on marketing. Some idea of the size of the market can be gauged from charcoal, of which some 40,000 to 60,000 tonnes a year are required and of which about 4,000 tonnes are produced in the United Kingdom. The employment potential is substantial. Sales of hurdles are increasing; in the suburbs, demand is growing to replace panel fencing; likewise on motorways. Coppice workers are struggling to meet demand.
Studies of the financial viability of hazel coppicing indicate that, if harvested every eight years, the highest quality might produce some £9,000 per acre. If 5,000 acres were restored--out of the 16,000 acres in Hampshire, for instance--a total sum of some £45 million would be raised, or over £5 million per annum. Restoration costs for an area of 5,000 acres are estimated by those qualified to do so at around £3 million. Coppicing is financially viable. The main problem is the cost of restoration.
But beyond the economic and social benefits are benefits to the environment, particularly to landscape and wildlife. Sir David Attenborough put it succinctly when he said about the hazel coppicing industry:
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