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Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, it will come as no surprise to your Lordships to know that there is a Welsh dimension to the subject of this debate. I add my compliments to those already received by my noble friend Lord Peel on initiating this debate.
First, the Welsh farming unions and the Country Landowners' Association in Wales welcomed the Prime Minister's announcement last week of extra funding for dairy, beef and sheep farmers. But, of course, they regarded it as a kiss of life for a patient in need of major surgery; and farming in Wales is, indeed, critically ill and in need of intensive care if it is to survive on a sustainable scale. It needs long-term nursing and care to prosper. There is not much sign of that from this Government. Indeed, the Government seem to be totally at a loss as to what to do. Of course, we are extremely worried about that.
The crux of our problem in Wales is that so much depends on rural prosperity. After all, we are a country where the farming units are very small for the most part and, therefore, fragile in adverse economic circumstances. I am told that the average farm income is now below £5,000 per year. The dire effects of that are beginning to become visible in the countryside.
It is not simply the ancillary businesses in villages and market towns which are dependent on a successful, agricultural community. Whole swathes of life and the language and culture that go with the community are dependent on it. We draw our teachers, nurses and many of our professional people--doctors, lawyers and so on--from that community. If it is weak and its future unpromising, the whole fabric will disintegrate. That could happen sooner than many think, as some of your Lordships have already implied.
If I were limited to one example of the extent of dependence on the land and farming families, I should refer to my personal experience of attending a major North Wales hospital last year. I was really struck by the fact that a high proportion of the nurses came from farming families in the hinterland of the Clwydian hills.
Perhaps I should not have been so surprised as I was, but my stay at the hospital brought home to me very forcibly the extent of our dependence on a thriving, hard-working, conscientious agricultural and rural community and the human resources which that community provides.
We have heard already that people who live in rural areas have undoubtedly been hit very hard in recent years. There are not only the well-known difficulties--the farmers whose incomes have fallen so drastically in the wake of the strong pound and other problems--but there are also those relentlessly rising fuel costs of
It seems to me, as a country dweller, that everything must be fetched and carried over ever-increasing distances these days. And it is not surprising that the talk among the young is of depopulation and even emigration. I only hope that the long-awaited rural White Paper referred to by a number of your Lordships provides an antidote to the Government's current complacency, for that is how it seems to the farming and rural community.
The other major recruiting ground for that hospital, the Glan Clwyd Hospital which I mentioned earlier, were the coastal resorts of Rhyl and Colwyn Bay, with their dozens of small family businesses engaged in various aspects of the tourist trade. And tourism too is a very significant employer in the Welsh economy. It employs some 100,000 people. One in 10 of the working population are engaged in it.
Its importance has been recognised by successive governments. The Wales Tourist Board was the first quango established in Wales. That was done by a Labour government in 1969. The board has achieved a great deal over the years, including the promotion of on-farm and rural tourism, often against the wishes of the traditional coastal resorts which saw their livelihood being sapped and taken away from them by rural enterprises.
I am sorry to say that the board now appears to have lost favour with the Labour Government, who hold somewhat giddy sway at the National Assembly in Cardiff. Its budget has been frozen for three years. That has occasioned a quiverful of parthian shots from the retiring chairman, Mr Tony Lewis, perhaps better known to your Lordships as a former captain of the English Test cricket team in the early 1970s--so he has served both countries well.
He has compared his standstill budget of £14.9 million with the Scottish Tourist Board's increased budget of £25 million this year and his marketing budget of £5 million with the Irish Republic's £30 million. I have a great deal of sympathy with the retiring chairman's somewhat plaintive tone at a time when Wales is yet again turning to the tourist industry to make up for jobs lost in the countryside. There is much to be said in support of his national action plan for the development of tourism as a counter to the diffusion and duplication and, indeed, dissipation of effort that one sometimes finds at local level.
The trouble with tourism as a remedy for the ills of agriculture is that many farming families have already diversified into tourism projects of all kinds. A well-known tourism figure in west Wales, Mr Ashford Price, described only last week how he was being approached by farmers for advice as to how they might further diversify. He said that 10 years ago he would have encouraged them, but now the market is saturated. I for one hope that he is wrong. There is a lot of potential and scope for the development of projects, particularly in field sports.
A strong pound adversely affects the domestic tourist trade, as it does agriculture, but there is no monetary compensation to be claimed on behalf of the tourist industry. I might tell the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, that the fact that the Valleys and West Wales have been declared an objective 1 area is not likely to be particularly helpful in relation to tourism. I understand that tourism-related projects are to be given a comparatively low priority and will be in competition with other service and manufacturing applications for funds. Of the total £1.2 billion to be made available over a period of years, it is estimated that the tourist industry will receive only 2 per cent--about £3 million--although it accounts for 8 per cent of Welsh gross domestic product.
I hope that the National Assembly, which apparently does not place tourism development high on its agenda, will give further consideration to the issue for the simple reason that tourism is likely to continue to be one of themainstays of the Welsh rural economy. I hope that the Assembly will have regard to the UK Government's guidance to the regional development agencies in England which have been strongly encouraged to co-operate in tourism development. I hope also that the Assembly will give urgent consideration to the suggestions put forward by the Welsh Rural Forum in its report Rural Wales 2000, published yesterday. There are some excellent ideas in the report.
There is no doubt in my mind that we are facing an extremely serious situation in the rural areas. I fear that it may all get worse before it gets better. My only hope at present is that the Minister will have some positive things to say when he comes to end the debate.
Lord Montagu of Beaulieu: My Lords, first I must declare an interest as president of the Southern Tourist Board and also as the owner of Beaulieu, one of the largest tourist attractions in rural England. As we enter the third millennium, it cannot be repeated enough that for some years tourism is and will be absolutely vital to the rural economy. It was not ever thus, as, from 1939, all efforts in agriculture were focused on growing more. Tourist related activities were thought to be invasive and were routinely discouraged. We now live in a different world. Agriculture is once again in crisis, and as a motoring historian I am reminded of the early part of the last century when the rural economy was entirely based on providing for the horse; be it hay, straw, blacksmiths, horse-drawn vehicles, vets, saddles and all the ramifications of hunting. Then came the car; prompting another crisis which not only revolutionised the agricultural economy, in particular altering agricultural practices, but also the look of the countryside.
As townsmen began increasingly to explore the countryside, so new facilities were required and so they have developed over the years in a peripheral way to the main business of farming; a nice icing on the cake for the more enterprising farmer. Now we have a new agricultural revolution. Farmers are urged to grow
I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Wade, who mentioned places such as Bournemouth or Blackpool, where, if one is staying, one is bound to enjoy the New Forest or the Lake District. They are like reservoirs for additional tourists. It is rather unfortunate, however, that some resorts selfishly want to keep their visitors to themselves and they deliberately try not to publicise the surrounding areas, which are sometimes of equal or even greater interest than those seaside resorts. However, I should like to compliment Bournemouth, which has long recognised that its attraction includes its surroundings and has marketed itself accordingly with great success.
Tourism affects the countryside in an all-pervasive way, not only through the obvious means such as coaches and caravan sites, but also through walkers, climbers, caravanners, fishermen, hunters and shooters, weekend sailors who go to rural coastal areas; in fact, everybody who wishes to leave the town for the country. The bulk of businesses that make up the rural economy and contribute to it are almost always small businesses, but by themselves they derive little benefit from the larger-scale campaigns of the national and regional tourist boards.
The regional tourist boards must concentrate their efforts a great deal more on promoting the benefits and management of tourism on a much smaller scale, indeed right down to parish council level. Unfortunately, such councils are too often composed of persons with rather NIMBY attitudes, who inevitably oppose even small and sensible tourist developments and then wonder why their area and many market towns face a crisis with high street pubs, shops, post offices, garages, local bus services and even banks closing. Those losses to the rural community are often compounded by the competition from large out-of-town shopping complexes with Sunday shopping, which is a great problem for historic houses at the moment, and 24-hour opening times.
There has been a great increase in farm diversification with such activities as "pick-your-own"--who would have thought before the war that one would be picking one's own sweetcorn? However, there is a danger of new farm-based attractions of small scale and poor quality damaging the existing market. There is much more scope to provide high quality B&Bs and self-catering accommodation, although planning restrictions, not forgetting the ever-increasing number of regulations coming from central government, can be a great obstacle.
It is important to stress that the viability of most small businesses in rural areas depends greatly on the contribution of tourism, particularly in the area of employment. At Beaulieu 200 people are employed which shows what can be achieved.
Many commercial premises are seasonal and are profitable only if they close in the winter. More permanent retail establishments, such as a chemist's shop, would only just about break even if it were not for the summer trade. The selling and processing of films, the selling of first aid items, sun lotions and so forth, can increase turnover by 30 per cent which will make a shop viable.
I am convinced that tourist boards should follow the key theme of creating and marketing local distinctions of special and unique character, such as local customs, food, crafts and dialects, if only to counter the creeping sameness of so many of our high streets that are packed with McDonalds and Travelodges. Soon, when everywhere looks the same, there will be no reason to travel.
Destination marketing on a small scale is difficult, but the enormous expansion of IT and, in particular, the Internet, provides great opportunities for targeting promotion more accurately. I am told that when the Orkney Islands recently advertised its B&Bs on the Internet, the accommodation was sold out within a few weeks.
As MAFF is largely responsible for future rural economy and is now confronted with a bleak future for agriculture, I want to make a bold and rather radical suggestion. I believe that MAFF should seriously consider providing financial assistance and marketing advice to farms and other rural industries for tourist-related projects and developments. Surely, a farmer would find that advice more welcome than advice on how to grow more pigs.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, early in the morning of 1st April 2000, Radio 4 quoted the world tourist organisation that predicts that this year the United Kingdom will receive 28 million tourists and that by the year 2020 the number will have increased to 54 million. That is a huge number.
In this well-timed debate, for which I thank my noble friend Lord Peel, we have heard what tourism is; what this country already has to offer to those who venture beyond London into our rural areas; and how the industry may be developed in the future.
I want to talk briefly about the need to "manage" tourism, by which I do not mean loads of bureaucracy, the plethora of which the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, has referred to already. We have recognised systems of grading various levels of service; we have a national system of route signing; we have easy access to accurate maps at reasonable prices, and we have a network of information centres whose staff--as I can testify from a recent experience with the English Tourist Board--are helpful, well informed and swift to respond to requests for information.
In that regard, I welcome the consultation document Working in the Countryside which will look, in the widest possible terms, at how tourism can be managed in the countryside. A balanced approach is absolutely crucial to any future policy. We must encourage tourism, but at the same time we must protect wildlife and their habitats.
The popularity of tourism brings new challenges and new opportunities, but it also brings pressures, especially on some of our most visited rural beauty spots. Growing numbers of tourists and day trippers travel everywhere by car because it is cheaper than paying rail fares for two, three or four adults and it is the only way to reach some areas. When they reach their destination, the vehicle is often unnecessary to the rest of the visit and a nuisance both to them and to the residents of whichever town or village they visit.
Many organisations, such as the Country Landowners' Association, the Local Government Association, the National Farmers Union, have warned of the difficulties of high levels of seasonal demand for water, for entry to historic buildings and for access to parkland and famous beauty spots. If such things have to be rationed in some way, they will lose their attraction and people will simply go elsewhere.
I have quoted the figures of 28 million tourists this year and 54 million in 2020. For that same period, the increase of visitors to Europe will be even greater. It is not only in agriculture that we are likely to lose out to our continental neighbours. If we do not look to our laurels we shall see a continuation of the trend whereby more Britons abandon their own country to travel abroad and more overseas visitors confine their attention to London and the main attractions of the Lake District, Stratford-on-Avon, Scotland, and Snowdonia.
Such a trend will not benefit the majority of our rural areas. The efforts of so many farmers and their wives in developing bed-and-breakfast facilities, to which other noble Lords have referred, in offering farm visits and holidays, and in housing craft centres will count for less. The need to encourage visitors to try the less well known areas is crucial. Transport is a key to that. Planning, mentioned by other noble Lords, needs to be dealt with in an imaginative and sympathetic way.
Britain offers many contrasts in a small area: not for us the vast distances of America, Australia or parts of the Continent; not for us the seemingly unending vistas of prairie or mountain. Tourists, whether home-grown or from overseas, can opt for the height of luxury or for the backpack and the youth hostel. They can choose culture in the form of the world's finest theatres, art galleries and concert halls or they can climb, canoe, skydive or simply walk. They can relax for a week, two weeks or a long weekend. They can join activities as varied as painting, music making, snorkelling or sailing, to name but a few. We should be proud of the variety that this nation can afford.
Our rural economy must take full advantage of the range of activities that tourists of all ages and backgrounds enjoy and for which they are prepared to pay. Walking, cycling and horse riding are as popular now as ever. Farmers and landowners can benefit by offering traffic-free access to beautiful landscapes and perhaps challenging terrain.
Coming from Leicestershire, I can attest to the range of tourist attractions within the county. I shall mention a few because they highlight the problems and challenges that we face. On the sport side, there is motoring racing at Mallory Park and Donington Park; the canals give pleasure to walkers and boat enthusiasts; beautiful Bradgate Park and the Beacon Hill are free to walkers and soon, in some areas, to cyclists. The noble Earl is not in his seat today, but there is the Ferrers Centre for Arts and Crafts, which is a real tourist attraction. At the smaller end, there is the Stonehurst Family Farm and museum which was awarded the Leicester Mercury award for tourism only a year ago. There is also Twycross Zoo, the Birdland Centre with tropical birds, and fishing in our reservoirs.
In addition, Leicestershire, as my noble friend Lord Kimball has said, is the home of five of the best known fox hound packs as well as the Oakley Beagles and the Westerby Bassets. Those seven hunts make a great contribution to the economic activity within and around the county through direct and indirect employment and in the purchase of goods and services. They attract people from all over the UK and visitors from abroad, which is very important. My noble friend gave the House the figures.
Others enjoy riding for pleasure, as compared with for competing or hunting. Riders bring our farmers the opportunity to convert barns into stabling for riding centres, as some of my neighbouring farmers have done. Fishing and shooting, enjoyed by local and overseas visitors, play an important part in a county like Leicestershire.
Shortly we shall debate the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill in this House. It will place extra burdens on our land managers, and if some of the more practical requirements that are proposed in the Bill are not understood, appreciated and met, it may well cause a reduction in landowners' ability to attract tourists to their land. I hope that the Minister will pass that comment on to his colleagues.
Like other speakers in the debate, I have mentioned only a few of the many tourist attractions. Rural tourism depends on a thriving farming industry, a point made by several noble Lords. I refer to it every time I speak in the House. Farming is still in crisis across the whole range of food production. As others have said, the situation is not being helped by increased regulation, the early introduction of EU legislation, or the continuing pressure on our small abattoirs. All these factors are adding to the demise of agriculture.
I was also pleased to learn of a campaign to tempt culinary tourists on a rural ride. Some £50,000 has been given to the Heart of England Tourist Board to pilot such holidays. The initiative brings together farmers, food producers and the tourist industry to produce a top quality package based on farms as well as hotels and restaurants.
Farmers are willing to adapt, to accept new challenges and to look at ways of encouraging tourism. However, I should reflect the views of other noble Lords and say that a saturation point can be reached beyond which it is not possible to keep on diversifying. I welcome the announcement made on 31st March that the Government will apply a zero business rate for horse projects on farms. Perhaps some relaxation of rules or pump priming for other types of farm projects might be considered. That would provide the stimulus that will persuade the agricultural community to diversify even further. In doing so, they will not only sustain agriculture and the production of food, they will also attract more tourism to rural areas.
Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Peel for introducing this timely debate and I congratulate him on his excellent speech. However, I should like to mention one minor peccadillo: my noble friend mentioned the strength of the pound, but no doubt that must have been a slip of the tongue. We are talking about the weakness of the euro here.
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