§ The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Gummer)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.
I shall today lay before both Houses of Parliament five statutory instruments providing for revisions to the environmentally sensitive area schemes that were first designated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) in 1987. They cover the Broads, the Pennine dales, the south downs, the Somerset levels and moors and west Penwith——
§ Mr. Gummer
They were not; they are an entirely new extension.
These upgraded schemes signal a further significant step forward in the development of my Department's environmental policies. I am therefore glad of this opportunity to inform hon. Members of the steps which I plan to widen the coverage of the scheme and to secure further conservation and enhancement of our countryside through the encouragement of environmentally friendly farming practices.
As I was Minister of State in MAFF when the ESA scheme was first launched in 1987, I know only too well how important a step we took, breaking new ground in our approach to agricultural support. It provided the clearest possible recognition of the dual role of farmers as producers of the nation's food and custodians of the countryside.
The Agriculture Act 1986 provided the legal base, but within a short period the European Community was sufficiently convinced of the merits of our approach to make similar provision in EC law and to go on to provide an element of support from Community funds. Our pioneering work was thus, in due course, followed by similar actions by other member states, including Denmark, France, Germany, the Irish Republic, the Netherlands and Italy.
We remain, however, firmly in the lead in promoting this policy and there is no doubt that the European Commission would now like to see much greater application of these measures throughout the Community. Indeed, the package of agri-environmental proposals linked to Mr. MacSharry's proposals for common agricultural policy reform include provisions aimed at encouraging wider adoption of such measures.
I am sure that most hon. Members understand how the scheme works, but to assist those less familiar with the scheme, I have deposited in the Vote Office copies of a single-page leaflet describing the arrangements. I am also writing to all hon. Member whose constituencies include an existing ESA or are likely to do so when the boundaries of the proposed new ESAs are determined.
This afternoon, however, I want to underline the first objective of the scheme. It is to single out those areas which have environmental features of national importance, which are threatened by impending changes in agricultural practices, and to encourage the continuation of traditional, but less remunerative systems. Our second aim, which characterises the new schemes, is to give farmers the opportunities to restore environmental losses 970 already sustained. This is the key change that we have made and it will increase the cost of the original ESAs from about £5 million to £11 million a year. In these ways ESAs ensure that some of our most valued landscapes and wildlife habitats may continue to be protected and enhanced by farming methods.
When the schemes were opened for application in 1987, our first year's expenditure was £2.8 million. In 1988 we designated five further areas. These were Breckland, North Peak, Shropshire borders, Suffolk river valleys and Test valley, and by 1991 the expenditure in the 10 areas designated in England had increased to £9.5 million. The schemes in England now cover more than 330,000 hectares, which is almost 4 per cent. of agriculture land, and involve more than 3,000 agreements with farmers and landowners. The changes now proposed to the first five areas, together with the proposals that I announced in December for designating a further 12 ESAs in England. will more than treble the area of land covered by the scheme, and by 1994 expenditure is expected to reach £45 million in England—£65 million in the United Kingdom.
The approaches pioneered in the first five schemes have gained the full support of environmental interests and, importantly, of farmers whose voluntary participation is essential if the schemes are to succeed. Given its experimental nature, we decided in 1987 that we should carry out a thorough review of the impact of the schemes after they had been in operation for five years. To assist in our evaluation, we set in place a comprehensive monitoring programme to measure the environmental benefits achieved and the effect on farm incomes. The results of that work have been published and the reports are in the Libraries. They show that the schemes have largely achieved their objectives. In virtually every case, damage to sensitive landscapes and habitats has been averted and in some areas we have recorded positive environmental gains. To take but one example, in the Pennine dales there has been an increase in the floral richness of some grassland that was previously more intensively managed.
In the Somerset levels and moors, however, we found that the scheme had been less successful in conserving the wetland habitats so important to wading birds, and there was evident need for some fairly radical changes to that regime.
My proposals for modifying and upgrading the five schemes were the subject of extensive and detailed consultations with all the interests in the second half of last year. I also had the benefit of the advice of the Countryside Commission, English Nature and the Department of the Environment. My conclusions are incorporated in the new statutory instruments which I shall today lay before the House. The important point to note is that, in all the areas, the schemes have been reoriented to provide greater rewards for agricultural practices designed to deliver positive environmental gains while continuing to conserve what is already there. I have also introduced a greater range of conservation options. All participating farmers will also now be able to submit a conservation plan for their holdings and obtain payments for carrying out work on specified environmental features which will enhance the particular character of the areas.
I will not go into the details of each of the five schemes, but as examples I would mention that in the Pennine dales, we have again focused on the importance of maintaining and enhancing the flower-rich meadows, and the 971 designated area has been considerably expanded to take in a further 18 dales bringing the total covered by the new scheme to 28.
In the Somerset levels and moors, the important change is the introduction of a new option aimed at encouraging the raising of water levels in those parts of the ESA where there is the greatest potential for farming under the wetter conditions that are vital to the breeding bird populations. We have had long discussions with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on these matters. It is most concerned that this important area should be protected and enhanced, and by these major changes I seek to make that possible. This is an internationally important wetland and I am especially anxious to encourage farmers, with the co-operation of the NRA and the inland drainage boards, to return to the traditional management of the area.
The revised schemes tabled today will effectively open for business in February when the new scheme literature and application forms will be distributed. New agreements will begin to be made from 1 April——
§ Mr. Gummer
That may be a hint from the hon. Gentleman although I have no idea of its meaning.
As I say, new agreements will begin to be made from 1 April with payments to farmers in October. Perhaps to the hon. Gentleman that is also a hint. This year I shall review the second round of ESAs designated in 1988. I expect to outline my conclusions and any proposals for their future development during the summer. After the usual consultations, the schemes will be renewed early in 1993, when I shall be happy to renew them.
Following my announcements of the proposed new designations to be made this year, detailed work has been in hand to define the boundaries and appropriate prescriptions for the areas concerned. I expect to announce during February my proposals for Exmoor, Hampshire Avon, lake district, north Dorset and the south Wiltshire downs, north-west Kent coast and the south-western Peak. Following a period of consultation, I plan to lay the necessary statutory instruments before the House so that the schemes can be open for applications in July.
Also during this year work will begin on the designation of the further six environmentally sensitive areas in the Blackdown hills, the Cotswold hills, Dartmoor, the Essex coast, the Shropshire hills and the upper Thames tributaries. Following the same procedures for designation and consultation, those schemes will open for business early in the summer of 1993.
All that amounts to a substantial development of my Department's environmental policies, which I know will be welcomed by farmers and environmental interests as well as by all Members of the House. The proposals have been followed and copied extensively in Europe and beyond. They represent a major revolutionary step initiated by my right hon. Friend the previous Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—now the Leader of the House. We in Britain have every good cause to be proud of them.
§ Mr. David Clark (South Shields)
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is quite right that we welcome the Government's intention to extend the concept 972 of environmentally sensitive areas. I look forward to accepting the right hon. Gentleman's invitation and standing at that Dispatch Box this summer to announce the extension of the scheme, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested.
As the Minister knows, the Labour party has been a long-time supporter of environmentally sensitive area schemes. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that I advocated such a scheme first, in my successful private Member's Bill, now the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Act 1985. Unfortunately, as the Minister will also recall, at that time the Government had not quite seen the light and they managed to block that section of the Bill, but we were delighted when, a year later, they did an about-turn and accepted our ideas about a scheme for environmentally sensitve areas.
We welcome the Minister's announcement. We have long argued the case for environmental objectives to be incorporated into the very core of the agricultural support system. That is right. But we believe that the people in the country want value for money out of all these schemes. We do not want farmers to receive money for doing nothing, as so often appears to be the case under the set-aside scheme. Farmers must not be given the idea that environmentally sensitive area schemes are a soft touch. It is important to get that message across.
The whole scheme has environmental objectives. They must be attainable objectives that can be measured and paid for by results.
The Minister devoted considerable time—more time than he spent on any of the other ESAs—to examining the case of the Somerset levels. That specific case seems to us an example of an ESA that has not given value for money either for environmental purposes or in financial terms.
That ESA was designated to protect its wading birds, especially snipe and black-tailed godwit, and to preserve its rich meadow flora. According to research conducted by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds into sites of special scientific interest, the dramatic decline in that bird population has not been arrested. Vast sums of taxpayers' and consumers' money have been poured into the scheme area—more than £550,000 in SSSI management agree-ments and ESA payments, to which must be added approximately £3 million in price support under the common agricultural policy agreement, also paid for by taxpayers and consumers. In short, the scheme has absorbed huge sums of public money, for virtually no discernible environmental benefit. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] Conservative Members may say that it is nonsense, but I think that, in that particular case, the Minister will agree with what I have said. That is why he has announced the changes.
As we understand it, one of the major problems with the scheme has been the action—or, rather, inaction—of the drainage board. Does the Minister agree that that is one of the major problems and, if so, can he give the House a categorical assurance that he has the powers to deal with the drainage boards and to force them to integrate environmental objectives into their operations?
Has the Minister received any results of any work that has been done to try to ascertain the cost savings on the CAP Community price support systems that have accrued as a result of the ESA schemes, because there is also a financial gain to be made from environmental payments?
The Minister mentioned the reform of the CAP. Is he satisfied that the environmental provisions of the 973 MacSharry proposals are included not in the main text of the proposals but in a bolted-on package that will require individual state funding? Will he follow Labour's policy of advocating the incorporation of environmental premiums and criteria into the main thrust of agricultural reforms?
Does the Minister accept that the green premium payment system advocated by the Labour party would extend the benefits of environmentally sensitive farming not only to the restricted areas but gradually throughout the country, so that all farmers could benefit from such environmental objectives?
§ Mr. Gummer
I thank the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) for his first couple of sentences, in which he was kind enough to thank us for the considerable expansion of the schemes. 'When I made some notes on the sort of questions that I might be asked, I thought that there would be no need to be party political because this is an issue on which we all agree. As the hon. Gentleman raised the issue, however, I remind him that the leader of his party has said that any saving from the CAP reform will be spent on Spain and Portugal and on cohesion and that none of it will be available to help Britain. The hon. Gentleman has so far failed to convince the Leader of the Opposition.
In answer to a question about how the regional and social fund and the cohesion fund should be paid for, the right hon. Gentleman said that the common agricultural policy would be the major source of reoriented finance for the development of cohesion in the Community. That means that the only ESAs that Labour would support would be those in Spain and Portugal. It is outrageous for the hon. Member for South Shields to try to make a party political issue out of something which he knows has hitherto been accepted by all sides. He has once again failed to rise to the occasion and recognize—as hon. Members on both sides of the House could and should have done—that the proposals are valuable to us all.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the need to ensure that we get the best value for money. That is why we monitor these matters carefully and why the customers—those concerned with environmental matters and the farmers—have agreed that the scheme is very successful.
I was direct enough to include the Somerset levels in those areas that I intend to discuss. The problem there is that the water levels cannot be dictated by one farmer entering the ESA if his neighbour does not enter. By means of this improvement, we seek to build on the considerable benefits already provided by the Somerset levels ESA. We wish to secure further benefits by encouraging more farmers to come in so that the water levels may be raised further. I believe that this step will make that possible. Having had very long discussions with the various bodies concerned, I believe that it will be a success.
It is my intention that this should be a voluntary matter. It saddens me that the Labour party never wants people to do things voluntarily; it wants to force everybody to do everything. The Opposition spokesman says that he will not even discuss the issues that I have raised. He asks, "Do you have the power to force them?" The Labour party has only one prescription for everybody: people ought not to be encouraged to do something better, but forced to do what the party wants them to do. Sadly, that attitude characterises the hon. Gentleman's view, which represents a fundamental departure from any proposals that he made either before 974 or after the passage of the Agriculture Act 1986. We have advanced very considerably by voluntary means, and we intend to continue along that road.
The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the common agricultural policy. I have always said that, as a central feature, the common agricultural policy ought to enhance and improve the environment. Mr. MacSharry's proposals have other failings, and this is an add-on package that is not central. All along I have insisted that it should be central. It would not be proper to agree a common agricultural policy without achieving agreement on this measure as part of the total package.
On the question of the financial reform of the common agricultural policy, I remind the hon. Gentleman that it has been made clear by the leader of his party that, despite the fact that the MacSharry proposals will cost more than the present common agricultural policy, the Labour party is committed to taking money from British farmers and giving it to farmers abroad.
§ Mr. Speaker
I am relieved to hear that this is a non-political matter. That being the case, we shall no doubt be able to get through questions very rapidly. I shall allow questions to continue until 4.45 pm, when we shall have to move on to the next business.
§ Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)
Does the Minister recall that when the scheme began, some farmers—particularly those in upper Dentdale in the north of England—were immediately suspicious about it? However, they discovered that it was both voluntary and generous, and it has been a huge success. Indeed, it has been so successful that all the farmers in lower Dentdale have demanded that they be included. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the extension to the scheme will take in not only lower Dentdale but Garsdale and Mallerstang? The addition of those to the extra 18 dales—the number in the north of England having gone up from 10 to 28—will assure the new scheme of a warm welcome from many hundreds of farmers in the north of England and in much of the rest of the country. My right hon. Friend deserves the warm congratulations of people who farm in those areas, as well as people who visit them for their natural beauty.
§ Mr. Gummer
My right hon. Friend created the idea and has won support for it right across Europe. We have tried to carry further forward the proposals that he outlined in the Agriculture Act 1986. I agree that farmers and conservationists were suspicious to start with but, throughout the country, both farmers and conservationists have learned to use the method to work together.
I am sad that the Opposition's first questions on the statement sought to cast some doubt on the way in which farmers have been treated in the environmentally sensitive areas. Throughout the conservation movement. ESAs are widely welcomed as an affective way of using taxpayers' money to enable farmers more properly and effectively to look after the land. Casting aspersions on farmers may be electorally convenient for some parties, but people in the countryside will remember from where those aspertions came.
§ Mr. Geraint Howells (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)
I welcome the extension to the ESA scheme and I am delighted that it is voluntary. As a practising farmer, I 975 can advise the Minister from my own experience that farmers are pleased with the present scheme. However, does the Minister agree that Britain may have too many environmental schemes at present? Might it not be advisable to have one scheme in this country which could be administered by the Countryside Commission and which, in the end, would produce the same results? I am sure that the Minister is aware that many farmers farm within our national parks and that they unfortunately cannot apply for such grants. It is a great shame that those farmers will never have the opportunity to do so.
§ Mr. Gummer
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his support. However, I do not think that the Countryside Commission would agree with him, because, when we had that argument originally in Committee on the first Bill, the Opposition—not the hon. Gentleman's party but the Labour party—argued that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should put the scheme into commission with one of the countryside organisations. We argued firmly that there were two reasons why that should not happen. The first was because I wanted an increasing number of MAFF officials to be trained in conservation matters so that when they moved on to other things, conservation as well as production would have been part of their training process. Those officials therefore became concerned not only with the farmer's job of producing food, but with his duty to care for the countryside.
Secondly, I said that if we did not introduce the provisions in that way, the farmers would be unhappy because they would be worried about whether, in the end, the scheme would make it impossible for them to make a living because they did not have the same relationship with some of the organisations as they had had historically with MAFF. I believe that that experience shows that we took the right decision.
The Countryside Commission has now said publicly that it would be happy to hand over to MAFF the administration of the scheme that it has started. I am pleased that we are now discussing with the Countryside Commission how best we can draw its countryside premium scheme into the ambit of our provisions so that it is easier for people to make their choices and to know about the scheme.
The ESA scheme is not suitable for the whole country. There are specific detailed prescriptions for each area. As the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) pointed out, the prescription for the Somerset levels is wholly different from that for west Penwith and the like. Therefore, we need to aim specific work at particular areas. I believe that we now have the right balance. However, I am looking at ways in which I can get closer to what was said by the hon. Gentleman by bringing together the schemes, many of which are pilot schemes, so that, when they become fully fledged and we know about the detail, they can work together more precisely.
§ Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a wholly admirable extension of the wise policy that was introduced a few years ago by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling)? Can he confirm that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has similar 976 policies in mind for extending the ESAs in Scotland, where they have also been successful? Does he agree—I believe that to some extent he has already done so—that conservationists, of whom I have been one for many years, feel that this is a worthwhile extension? After some misgivings at the beginning, the scheme is now accepted as being the right way forward, bearing in mind the fact that this is a much simpler method than that used for dealing with developments within sites of special scientific interest.
§ Mr. Gummer
My hon. Friend is right about the conservationist view. He is also right about the fact that my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Wales will be making announcements about further extensions to ESAs in the near future.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
I welcome the extension of ESAs. Does the Minister accept that, if the quality of life and the health and vitality of rural areas within ESAs are to be maintained, it is essential that the presence and activity of the majority of farmers, particularly small farmers, are sustained in those areas? Does he accept that he has failed to secure any advantage for those farmers? Does he agree that, until such advantage is secured, his Government will have failed disastrously?
§ Mr. Gummer
The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. ESAs will help farmers considerably and they have shown that they are being helped. We are supported cross-party on that basis. The hon. Gentleman has not considered the facts. I am sorry about that, because the first part of what he said is right.
§ Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)
If he has not already done so, will my right hon. Friend consider extending the north Peak ESA to cover the village of Marsden in my constituency? There is a pressing problem there. Sheep wander off the moor into people's gardens and homes. Indeed, sometimes they wander on to the very busy A62 Manchester road. An extension would provide incentives to farmers to take sheep off the moor. An extension of the north Peak ESA would not only be environmentally friendly but would bring long-awaited relief to many of my hard-pressed constituents in Marsden.
§ Mr. Gummer
I shall be reviewing the north Peak this year, together with the second round ESAs, and I shall take account of the sheep problems.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
May I press the Minister further on the extension of ESAs to national park areas? Bearing in mind that one fifth of the land area of Wales is within national parks, is he aware that many farmers find it difficult to understand why an area designated as a national park is not important in ESA terms? It would be much more beneficial to bring the ESA benefits into national park areas rather than to put greening criteria on to the hill livestock compensatory allowances, as is proposed. Can he consider again an extension to cover national parks?
§ Mr. Gummer
Some parks and national parks are in ESAs and get the full benefits. The hon. Gntleman proposes that all national parks should be covered by ESAs. On that I am advised by the Countryside Commission, by English Nature and by the Department of the Environment. That was not the order of priorities which they gave me. I took in large measure the order of 977 priorities which they put before me. It was difficult because the different bodies had slightly different priorities. I tried to get the right balance. That was not the proposal which they put forward. Probably it would be wrong to make all national parks ESAs. I should not like to deny the greening of HLCAs. Wherever possible, receipt from the common agricultural policy should have cross-compliance of an environmental kind. I wish to keep that in the forefront of my policy.
§ Sir Charles Morrison (Devizes)
My right hon. Friend's statement amounts to another considerable step towards environmentally friendly farming. Can he say whether restoration of environmental losses will involve the inclusion of payment for more conservation headlands in more ESAs? As to wetlands, I hope that there will be payments in other ESAs besides those in the Somerset levels.
§ Mr. Gummer
We are now considering the prescriptions for the new ESAs announced in the first round. Later there will be a second round. I shall take my hon. Friend's comments into account. Certainly our intention is to ensure that the losses sustained by farmers in the way wanted by the Community are properly recompensed. The fact that farmers can opt out after five years of the 10-year period and that there will be regular review of payments on that basis should give confidence.
§ Mr. Skinner
Why does not the Minister of Agriculture have the decency to admit that ESA stands for election sensitive area? Is he aware that, in Derbyshire and other coalfield areas throughout Britain, one of the most environmentally important issues is opencasting, which has doubled during the period of the Government's tenure of office? While he is here, will he deal with the environmental issue in Bolsover—the dioxin problem which has not yet been cleared up? Will he have a public inquiry and pay the environmentally conscious farmers who have to put up with the problem some compensation?
§ Mr. Gummer
The idea that English Nature or the Countryside Commission is in some way electorally involved is insulting to those organisations and unacceptable to the House. As the decisions about the areas are based on their advice, the hon. Gentleman should realise that, while it does not matter if he mixes it with people in the House, to those outside who provide independent advice his comment is unacceptable.
On the dioxins problem, the hon. Gentleman knows that we are doing research in his area and paying the farmers while we do so.
§ Dame Peggy Fenner (Medway)
I commend my right hon. Friend on the extension of this British initiative. I am delighted that it is finding its way in the rest of Europe, and particularly pleased that 10 per cent. of the cost will be refunded by the European Community. The beauty of the scheme is that it redeploys resources from the common agricultural policy budget to promoting environmental protection instead of encouraging and paying for surpluses.
I have a specific question for my right hon. Friend. I am delighted that his second tranche includes an area of north-west Kent. Will he have a quiet, urgent word with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and let him know that the east Thames corridor is not simply a stretch of derelict land? There is 978 some good agriculture there, some wonderful wild marshes which are among the last in the United Kingdom, and some green belt. I welcome my right hon. Friend's initiative in the area. Will he ensure that the Secretary of State for the Environment is mindful of it?
§ Mr. Gummer
My hon. Friend knows that I spent much of my childhood in wellington boots around that very area in All Hallows, Cliffe marshes and the rest, so she will not find me unwilling to press the case for that wild area so near to London. That is one of the reasons why we especially want to protect that whole area, including her neighbour's area of Sheerness. I take my hon. Friend's point and will put it to my right hon. Friend.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
Have you noticed, Mr. Speaker, the extraordinary way in which the Secretary of State manages to turn every announcement that he makes from the Dispatch Box into something akin to news of the relief of Mafeking? He has made an important statement, but will ESAs be as cheerfully destroyed as the Government have allowed the sites of special scientific interest such as Oxleas wood and Rainham marshes to be destroyed? What sort of protection will the ESAs be given by the Government?
§ Mr. Gummer
I find it difficult when Opposition Members can find nothing nice to say even when a good statement is made. It must make people outside wonder whether Opposition Members can be believed about anything. The Government have announced some major improvements, yet the Opposition can do nothing but complain. Therefore, no one can take any complaint that they make seriously.
The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the SSSIs have been clearly championed by the Government. They were given considerable support under the Government's Acts. The Government introduced ESAs and have extended them. I have announced further extensions today. The Government are clearly guardians of the countryside, which from the comments of Opposition Members, clearly the Opposition are not.
§ Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)
In view of the churlish remarks and attitude of certain Opposition Members, may I assure my right hon. Friend that his announcement today will be welcomed, especially by the farmers, as well as the conservationists, in west Penwith? I would go so far as to say that some farmers have been saved by the ESA scheme. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the statutory instruments for the first five areas amount to an expansion of all those ESAs, including that at Penwith moors? If so, by how much will the area of that ESA be extended?
§ Mr. Gummer
On the west Penwith ESA, the main changes are not the extension of the area but the change in the prescription: increased payments of £65 per hectare; the option for farmers to earn additional payments under conservation plans when they carry out works to improve the characteristic works of west Penwith; and an extension in the period of agreements from five to 10 years. When we originally drew the line in West Penwith, it was viewed by most people as accurate and reasonable. However, if my hon. Friend wishes to raise a point about that, I shall be happy to talk to him.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
Would it help if I were nice to the Minister? Halvergate marshes in the Norfolk 979 Broads has been a success but how is it that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) has said, for £4 million in the Somerset levels we now have fewer breeding waders? Does he accept that when I was the guest of the National Farmers Union in West Lothian last week I became exceedingly uncomfortable at what its members were saying about the value for money involved in set-aside?
§ Mr. Gummer
First, on the Somerset levels, we must not think that the only purpose was to ensure that we improved and continued opportunities for wading birds. There are a range of interests there and the previous prescription met a number of those needs. If there is an experiment, as was the case there, clearly there are lessons to be learned. One lesson is that we have not satisfactorily provided a mix to deal with wading birds, and that is what I have added. That is a proper way to extend and that does not mean that we have wasted money until now but that the money has bought some environmental benefits, although not enough. I shall therefore spend some more money, with a different prescription, to extend the mix and to try to ensure that we get all the environmental benefits that we want. I happen to believe that it will work, but if it does not—or if any of the other prescriptions do not work—the purpose of individual prescriptions is for us to learn by them. That is why I told the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Howells) that I was anxious to have a staff who were increasingly in day-to-day touch with environmental matters.
§ Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)
First, may I thank my right hon. Friend for his courtesy in advising me of the creation of an ESA on the Dorset side of the River Avon in my constituency and of its relevance to the River Stour in Dorset? Will farmers be able to include in submissions that they make to his Department, alleviation of the problem of Blandford fly? Will he include the Department of Transport in his consultations? Is he aware that there has been a suspicion in my constituency since the Dorset structure plan was approved that the removal of the word "outer" from the proposed Christchurch relief road plan has meant that the preferred plan could be jeopardised by his announcement today? Will he please consult the Department of Transport and let me know—although he cannot do so today—how his announcement might affect the ultimate choice for the Christchurch relief road by that Department? Finally, on aircraft noise—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. What the hon. Member has already said was rather wide of the statement, and aircraft noise is even wider.
§ Mr. Gummer
Certainly during debates on the Agriculture Act, 1986, it was said that an ESA designation would not be used for planning purposes. It purposely does not carry a planning designation, because one of our greatest problems when trying to get farmers to come into the scheme was that they felt that, if they signed up for 10 years, they might be signing up to planning blight for that time. I think that that answers the second part of my hon. Friend's question. I am not intimately connected with the Blandford fly and my knowledge of it is not sufficient to give him a direct answer, but I shall do so as soon as I can.
§ Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)
Is the Minister aware that the beautiful and unique Gwent levels in my constituency, which provide a habitat for wildlife virtually identical to that of the Somerset levels, are not now protected as environmentally sensitive areas? Although the Gwent levels in Newport have been jealously protected by the Newport and Gwent councils, the levels have been destroyed on the Cardiff side and they are now little better than a semi-rural, semi-industrial slum. There is a need for such areas to be protected. Will the Minister liaise with his colleagues in the Welsh Office to ensure that the Gwent levels are included as a future environmentally sensitive area?
§ Mr. Gummer
The hon. Gentleman should first address himself to those who advise me and the Secretary of State for Wales on where the areas should be designated. Those organisations are statutorily required to do that. In those terms, he will understand why I had to reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) as directly as I did. If the hon. Gentleman applies himself to those advisers, they will no doubt consider his proposals and they may revise their propositions in light of them. I know the area well and I know the problems to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I saw the area last week and noticed, as the hon. Gentleman has, that there is a degree of growth of rather less than good development which does not help the wildlife as the hon. Gentleman wishes.
§ Mr. Tony Speller (Devon, North)
Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations on behalf of areas such as Exmoor? Will he accept my thanks for the lifeline that he is throwing to the hard-pressed farmers of upland north Devon? A little more help is needed because, in years to come, although the environment will he there, the farmers may not be.
§ Mr. Gummer
My hon. Friend is right to say that the farmers are essential if our beautiful countryside is to be conserved. I am only sorry that I could not look further and do something for Bodmin moor. It was not recommended, largely because it is an area that has no basic management arrangements to enable me to do anything, let alone establish an ESA. I very much hope that something can be done in that part of the world because it is another place where we need, one way or another, to try to enhance the environment.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that my constituents are extremely grateful for the proposed extension of ESA status to Exmoor and to the Blackdown hills? We hope that he will consider including the Brendon hills within the designation of Exmoor.
On the Somerset moors and levels, I am grateful that my right hon. Friend recognises that there are farmers in my constituency—based on North Curry and Stoke St. Gregory—as well as wading birds, who have interests there. I visited that area a short while ago to see the consequences of a rise in the water level. I hope that my right hon. Friend has the balance right there.
Will my right hon. Friend accept that there is a need for administrative back-up for the ESAs to continue from Taunton and that it should not be moved to Bristol?
§ Mr. Gummer
I do not accept my hon. Friend's last comment. Administrative back-up is most importantly carried out in the ESAs themselves. That is the most 981 important location so the rest of the work can be done just as efficiently from Bristol as from Taunton. I have made my changes to use our money effectively. If I carry out a considerable expansion of ESAs, I must ensure that I do not waste money on ill-organised administrative systems. I must use the benefits of modern technology to be able to centralise in major centres the supply of services to farmers and to others in the way that we should expect in the spirit of the citizens charter. That is why I have made those changes.
My hon. Friend is right to say that there must be a balance in the Somerset levels and moors. However, farmers in that area will have to recognise that the importance of those levels and of the water support for the future of our wading bird population, and the whole question of how one ensures that their interests are looked after is of national and international importance. It cannot be thought of as a mere secondary matter. As those matters have to be decided jointly between neighbouring farmers, which is the only way in which one can get the levels right, and as they have to be carried through by drainage boards, it is important that the farmers get the kind of return that makes it possible for them to farm with higher levels of water. That is what we have sought to do and that is why we have sought to do it on a voluntary basis and not by diktat. I am sure that a voluntary system is likely to get far better results in the end.
§ Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)
Will my right hon. Friend accept a strong welcome from the Yorkshire dales for the improvements that he has announced to the Pennine dales ESA? Will he accept an even stronger welcome if, as I hope and as I have suggested to him, upper Wensleydale and the smaller dales that surround it are included in the ESA in future?
Will my right hon. Friend remind the House that, without his announcement today, many of our finest pastures and meadows in the area would soon have been lost for ever? As a result of the announcement, much of our finest countryside will he preserved and many of our hardest-pressed farmers—hill farmers—in that area will be given greater assistance in preserving it.
§ Mr. Gummer
My hon. Friend is right to say that this is a major change. There is a threefold increase in the designated area to bring in 18 new dales and to cover 46,000 hectares of land. We could have dressed it up and said that it was a new ESA because it is as large as many 982 individual ESAs, but I felt that it was right to run the whole area together and that the Pennine dales were better run as a unified group.
It is one of the areas in which we have learnt most from the association between conservationists and farmers. I well remember meeting farmers, who may have been my hon. Friend's constituents, who proved to the conservationists that they had their dates wrong if they wanted to ensure that the hay meadows were cut at the right time. I am pleased that that incident shows that the practical experience of farmers can often enhance the theoretical views of the scientists and that conservationists are able to teach farmers things that farmers originally felt that they did not need to learn. It is the fact that throughout the country, both farmers and conservationists are now praising the others' part in the ESA system, which makes the system a significant contribution to the countryside.
§ Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West)
I thank the Minister warmly and comprehensively for including Dartmoor in his second tranche of ESAs. That is magnificent and he has scored a unique double with the ESAs of giving pleasure to millions and of continuing the livelihood of the farmers who allow the ESAs to be continually beautiful.
When my right hon. Friend thinks further on the matter, will he bear in mind the Culm measures which meant so much to the late Professor George Allen of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, who died tragically last week, and which are of large importance in my constituency and in the neighbouring constituencies?
§ Mr. Gummer
I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. Dartmoor, like Exmoor, was made possible only by the clear method of management which has been achieved in the area. I congratulate the county council on its work which made it possible for me to make those areas ESAs.
The Culm areas are less well dealt with by an ESA. I understand that the Countryside Commission is discussing those matters along with its associated scheme, which would probably deal with patchy individual areas which are rather more complex than the areas that we cover. I hope that we shall be able to deal far more effectively with such areas through that system. As we work so closely with the Countryside Commission on those areas, I hope that they will not fall between the two schemes.