§ 3.35 p.m.
§ Lord Middleton rose to move, That this House takes note of the report of the European Communities Committee on The Future of Rural Society (24th Report, 1989–90, HL Paper 80).
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, it was a happy coincidence that your Lordships' European Communities Committee should have produced its report on The Future of Rural Society at virtually the same time as that of the Archbishops' Commission. We were working quite independently but looking at very much the same problems and coming to very much the same conclusions, the difference between us being that the inquiry of my Sub-Committee D was done in a European context, in contrast to the English context of that of the most reverend Primates. It is also a happy coincidence that I should have the honour of presenting our report on the day when the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York presents the other one, living as I do, if not quite within the shadow of York Minster, at least within half an hour's drive of Bishopthorpe.
§ The European Commission published in 1988 a communication addressed to the Council and to the Parliament entitled The Future of Rural Society which attempts to identify policies for sustaining the economies of the rural areas in the Community and to face up to the problems arising from diminishing support for farmers. The issues addressed in that communication have far-reaching implications for the Community and particularly for the agricultural sector.
§ The Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, Mr. MacSharry, has closely identified himself with initiatives to implement a programme based on that communication. Indeed, Sub-Committee D of the Select Committee has already found the thinking expressed in it to be increasingly evident in Commission proposals. We therefore decided that an inquiry into the subject would be opportune.
§ In our report, also entitled The Future of Rural Society, we concentrated on the United Kingdom experience, though we have attempted to relate this experience to that of other member states. We paid special attention to the implications of change in the countryside for the agricultural sector and for agricultural policy-making. Our report is a long one, and we received a mass of evidence, printed in the accompanying volumes. We are grateful to all those who contributed to the report; to our specialist adviser, Dr. Berkeley Hill of Wye College, who guided us through the complex issues involved, and particularly to our clerk for his industry and skill.453
§ What then are the problems? In its paper the Commission identifies three standard problem areas. We agreed that this was a sensible attempt at classification on a European basis. In the United Kingdom there are problem areas that fall into all three of those categories which are described in paragraph 15 of the report. We found little evidence that, except in the more remote parts, the rural areas were suffering from depopulation or from disproportionate levels of unemployment compared with the national average. There is, however, especially in the United Kingdom, a pronounced change in the social composition of those dwelling in the countryside, as new businesses and urban dwellers relocate to rural areas. There is too a problem peculiar to the United Kingdom arising from the growing shortage of affordable housing for the indigenous rural population. The second of these problems is consequential upon the first.
§ The Commission believes, and the committee agrees, that because of its major significance in the rural economy the restructuring of European agriculture consequent on its greater exposure to market forces will increase the risk of unemployment, depopulation and social disruption in the rural areas. I do not have to remind the House that a restrictive price policy in force since the late 1980s is putting increased downward pressure on farm incomes. Any conclusion of the current round of GATT negotiations is likely to continue that pressure. Structural adjustments are being made, the agricultural workforce is declining in numbers across the Community and farm organisation is changing.
§ In the United Kingdom statistics show an increase in the number of large-sized farm holdings and in the very small holdings. However, there is a decrease in the number of intermediate-sized holdings. A major trend seems to be an increase in the number of part-time holdings and a movement towards what in Eurospeak is known as "pluriactivity" in all EC member states as well as in the United Kingdom. The committee saw that trend as being favourable to sustaining the fabric of rural society. Nevertheless, it is clear that the capacity of the Community to produce food is outstripping its ability to consume it. We simply do not need as much land to be as intensively farmed as is the case today. The Commission estimates that in the Community anywhere from 6 million to 16 million hectares will become surplus to requirements by the year 2000. That compares with the total land area of the UK which is 24 million hectares, of which only about 40 per cent. can be cultivated.
§ The committee was told in evidence that there could e as much as 4 million surplus hectares in the UK. That would be a very high proportion of our 10 million hectares of cropping land. Estimates of surplus land depend upon the rest of the land being farmed as intensively as it is now. The alternative approach is to encourage more extensive farming methods—something some people appear to want, although they may be less enthusiastic to pay for it. The question of how 454 the notional surplus of land is to be managed raises environmental problems to which I should like to return later.
§ As to what should be the objectives of rural policy, members of the committee were of the opinion that the potential objectives fell under five main headings: first and foremost, maintaining the potential of the countryside to produce food, timber and water; secondly, promoting economic performance and providing job opportunities so as to enable people to remain in their communities; thirdly, pursuing social objectives, maintaining social balance and ensuring access to basic services such as housing and schools; fourthly, protecting the environment; and, fifthly, maintaining cultural and recreational benefits.
§ I turn now to rural development policies. Members of the committee had three main reservations about the Commission's initiative. First, we considered that policies towards the countryside needed to guide rather than to inhibit change. Secondly, we were of the opinion that rural policies must recognise the diversity of rural areas. The notion of some kind of model rural society is illusory. Finally, we felt that the Commission tends to overemphasise the relative importance of agriculture to rural economies and societies and hence the availability of purely agricultural means to deliver new economic prosperity. We felt that agricultural support should be merely one of a range of measures which can be addressed to rural problems. However, it is clear that agricultural policies will continue to play an integral role in sustaining the economies of many rural areas, in supporting rural communities and in determining the appearance of the countryside.
§ There has always been some debate as to the extent to which the common agricultural policy is fundamentally a social policy. In some member states the social objectives of the CAP assume greater importance than they do in the United Kingdom because of the political weight attached to the maintenance of people in farming. In the UK farms are seen primarily as economic rather than social units. Hence the British tendency to regard the CAP as primarily an economic policy.
§ By contrast, the committee recognised that, as the CAP is reformed, it will be necessary to target assistance to those farmers most affected. In that context a form of income aid which has been applied with great success in the United Kingdom is the system of payment to farmers in the less favoured areas.
§ In addition to special payments to farmers in LFAs, the Commission has proposed three other types of support mechanism. First, the modulation of price support. The committee regarded a policy of modulation of price support in favour of economically weak family farms as doubtful in principle and flawed in practice. Further, it did not regard the concept of "the family farm" as one which is useful for policy purposes as it can mean more or less anything one wants it to mean.
§ Secondly, the committee recognised that the current Community scheme for direct income aids 455 may be impractical because in most member states there are administrative difficulties in assessing the level of farmers' incomes. Thirdly, in regard to diversification, while the present support scheme is welcomed, the committee believed that the focus should be switched away from on-farm diversification to the promotion of other forms of employment which will enable farmers, farm workers and their families to live in the rural areas. In general the committee was concerned that the entirely legitimate social aims of minimising hardship do not become reasons for inhibiting the development of more efficient agricultural structures.
I should like to reinforce what I said in that last sentence in the light of a recent statement made by Mr. MacSharry, which I heard two weeks ago in Brussels. I was invited to speak at a hearing convened by the Agriculture Committee of the European Parliament, the purpose of which was to discuss the use of rural areas. The committee's report was considered to be of some relevance. The commissioner made an opening statement in which he said:
We have begun the process of adapting the agricultural market mechanisms to ensure that they are more specifically targeted on farmers who find themselves in a structurally difficult position".
§ As I have already said, such modulation of price support did not find favour with the committee. Members of the committee were in agreement with MAFF which said in evidence that in principle the market support mechanisms of the CAP should be neutral as between regions as well as between farmers. MAFF has long felt—and we agreed—that the issue of small farmers, or of farmers in less favoured areas, is primarily a social one which should not be addressed by distorting the price mechanisms.
§ Whatever social measures may be devised—in my view, payments to farmers in less favoured areas come under this heading—headage payments in LFAs are not primarily to do with lamb production; they are intended to keep farmers in the hills. Whatever social payments are devised, the way to preserve rural communities is to open them gently to market forces and not to insulate them from such forces.
I turn now to deal with regional economic policies. As the committee says in paragraph 205:
Agricultural policies alone will not be sufficient if many rural areas are to be helped to adjust to agricultural reform".
The committee continues in paragraph 206 to say that,
the prime requirement is to broaden the range of economic activities".
If there had to be but one message I could give your Lordships from this report, that would be it. The main instruments at Community level to achieve this aim are the reformed structural funds. If rural development initiatives are to be effective, it is essential that the three funds are used in a co-ordinated way.
§ The selection of areas and the method of allocation of funds under the Commission's Objectives (1) and (5b) mean that some peripheral and sparsely populated areas such as the Western Isles and the Western Highlands have lost out under the reform of the funds.456
§ In the United Kingdom the three most important agencies in the public sector which promote such economic diversification are: in England, the Rural Development Commission, and I am delighted to see that the noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, who is the chairman of that organisation, will be speaking later; in Scotland, it is the Highlands and Islands Development Board; and there is a similar organisation in mid-Wales called the DBRW. Each of those agencies appears to have played a significant part in promoting employment in rural problem areas. The committee considers that they will remain the proper vehicles through which to channel public support for rural economies and social development.
§ We noted the absence of similar agencies in many other member states and consider that those United Kingdom agencies may serve as a useful model to be adopted elsewhere in the Community. Less that should seem too chauvinistic an opinion, I should say that it was suggested to us by the Commission when it gave evidence to the committee.
§ At a local level, the committee saw the need to bring together public, private and voluntary bodies to deliver integrated rural development initiatives. I note that the Commission itself is now taking steps to promote such an approach under what is called its LEADER initiative.
§ One further issue of importance emerged in our inquiry to which I referred earlier: the question of low-cost rural housing and housing for rent. Many witnesses suggested that the shortage of affordable housing was the largest problem affecting rural areas in the United Kingdom. If the economies of such areas are to diversify it is clearly important that local accommodation at reasonable prices be available for workers. We therefore recommend that the Government take steps to increase the provision of low-cost rural housing and to retain such housing for the benefit of the local community. The announcement made last Monday night by my noble friend Lady Blatch on increased funding for low-cost rural housing in rural areas is welcome. I look forward to hearing anything more that she may have to say on that subject later this afternoon.
§ I turn lastly to environmental policies. The terrestrial environment is rightly perceived by the public as a common heritage to be enjoyed by all. However, the land is also the property of individual members of society who, equally rightly, wish to maximise their returns from it. Those two public requirements—to protect the rural environment and to benefit from its produce—have not been resolved satisfactorily. Farmers, as main land users, have been asked to play two roles: as food producers and as environmental managers. It goes without saying that farming practices which are harmful to or which pollute the environment can and should be controlled. Good environmental management in the sense of conservation of natural beauty and of fauna and flora is a much more subjective matter where regulation may not be appropriate.
§ If farming in a certain way produces environmental goods which the public wants, farmers must be paid 457 for producing them. That principle has already been established in the environmentally sensitive areas schemes. The committee therefore supports an extension of the ESA principle more widely throughout the Community. I also note that the Commission has recently proposed such an extension. In that context, we have also drawn attention to the need to relate payments to farmers in less favoured areas more closely to environmental objectives.
Perhaps I may conclude by quoting a speech delivered by Commissioner MacSharry earlier this year at the University of Ulster, because I believe that it provides a summary of the committee's main theme. He said:
The Commission's general approach is to ensure a balance between the agricultural and the non-agricultural sectors of economic activity in rural areas. In most cases their economies up to now have been based mainly on agriculture and will continue to remain largely dependent on it. We need a policy which both supports the primary sector and integrates it into a wider economic context by providing alternative sources of employment for those wishing to leave the land".
§ The challenge on the Commission now is to live up to those words. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That this House takes note of the report of the European Communities Committee on The Future of Rural Society (24th Report, 1989–90, HL Paper 80). —(Lord Middleton.)
§ 3.55 p.m.
The Archbishop of York
My Lords, I have been told that I should say that I shall not move the item standing in my name on the Order Paper, but I am nevertheless grateful to have the opportunity to draw to the attention of your Lordships' House the report of the Archbishops' Commission on Rural Areas entitled Faith in the Countryside. I speak as one of those who commissioned the report and to whom it was addressed. Later in the debate your Lordships' House will have an opportunity to hear the noble Lord, Lord Prior, who chaired the commission for us and who can speak on it with far greater authority than I can. I hope that he can take your Lordships into some of the detail. It is he who should be making this speech, but this is an opportunity for me to thank him for what he did on our behalf.
I am glad that the report is being considered alongside that of the European Communities Committee. As the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, has said, our report is primarily about the situation in England, but as the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food reminded us in the General Synod yesterday, the state of the countryside in England, especially in its agricultural aspects, is now about 80 per cent. dependent upon what is happening in the European Community. The two reports therefore belong together, and I hope they will reinforce one another.
An organisation known as Rural Voice has already produced a list of agreements between the two reports, and what it says reinforces the message that there are severe and identifiable problems in our countryside which need urgent attention. What the noble Lord, 458 Lord Middleton, has just said about the vital importance of the diversification of employment in the countryside is one of the main conjunctions between the two reports. I hope that it will be taken seriously.
Faith in the Countryside is a long report—some 400 pages. The evidence is not included—it is all report. It is one which needs to be read. In case any of your Lordships quail at the thought of reading 400 pages, perhaps I may say that it is a good read. It is entertaining to read as well as instructive. Your Lordships will be pleased to hear that two-thirds of its 148 recommendations are addressed to the Church and that the remaining 48 are not an exercise in government baiting because, as your Lordships will know, the Church of England never goes in for government baiting; it merely tries to state facts objectively and elicit a response. I say that despite the initial response in one of our popular newspapers which had the headline, "Runcie's Last Stand" when the report came out.
The recommendations arise out of a serious and many-sided analysis of what is happening in the countryside and, in particular, an analysis of what a large number of people feel about it. It is that analysis and feeling which come through the report rather than the recommendations which constitute its main value.
It was an enormously active commission. It did not just sit and receive evidence; it travelled widely. Members of the commission visited 41 out of the 43 English dioceses. They received evidence from some 500 individuals and organisations, and in their travels they talked to some 6,000 people. They have managed to provide a quarry of information, of ideas and encouraging stories of good practice on the social, economic and spiritual condition of the countryside. The report needs to be read as a whole because the totality of the picture is important rather than this or that proposal.
It is a sad fact about the way in which our society is organised that very few bodies except the Church are in a position to look at the totality of what is going on in an area of activity. Government concern is inevitably fragmented between different departments, but in the countryside we are concerned with housing, transport, education, health, social services, agriculture, industry, tourism, environmental issues and such imponderables as the health and vitality of community life. These all interact with one another in what the report calls the arena of the countryside. The main message of the report is that unless these are brought together more effectively in terms of policy and planning we shall see a progressive degradation of the countryside; indeed, a loss of those very qualities for which both country and townspeople value it.
This is a Church report, rooted in a clearly stated theology which stresses reverence for the created world, our need to cherish and care for it, our individual responsibility but also our need to do these things together as persons in community. Again, in our fragmented society so rooted in individualism these days the quality of community life in the countryside can be one of our most precious possessions and one of the things which drive many 459 people to live in the country when they are fed up with the rat race in the cities. Alas, very often they destroy the very thing they have come to enjoy.
The report tries to set out boldly some of the aims for human living, why we should care about these things and what we are doing about them. Unless we have such aims for human living and rise above the level of individual self-satisfaction or self-interest, we are not likely to be able to handle the complex choices which now confront us without further destroying what we have inherited.
Many Members of your Lordships' House value their connections with village churches. Whenever a bishop comes into this House he is buttonholed by one or other of your Lordships with a horror story about what is going on in his village. I hope that your Lordships will find the report reassuring in the strong affirmation which it gives to the life of local parishes centred on lively churches and the determination which is expressed to maintain and develop this life, to strengthen community and to ensure that the spiritual heart of the countryside is not allowed to decay.
However, there are problems. If I concentrate now on the secular aspects, it is because they lie more within the responsibility of this House. The commission found deep anxiety about the future in many of the areas which it visited, a deep sense that all is not well in the country communities and evidence in some quarters of real deprivation. There is the village family, for example, without its own transport, having to rely on minimal and diminishing public transport, without easy access to health services, without the cost savings that can come through shopping in supermarkets, without leisure facilities such as one might expect to find in the towns, with low wages and no prospect of buying its own house. Such a family is caught as effectively in a poverty trap as those who live in the most deprived areas of our cities.
The single most common ground for complaint is —as in the European report—the shortage of low-cost housing, particularly housing for rent. Many of these people will never be able to buy their own houses on the levels of wages common in the countryside. This inability to find proper housing is not just an inconvenience for individuals who might be encouraged to move elsewhere; it is a major factor in driving people away from the countryside, driving away those very people who in the past have maintained it as a community worth living in. Therefore, unless this housing problem is tackled we shall destroy one of our greatest assets, which is the community life of the countryside.
The report then draws attention to the obvious conflicts of interest between commuters, "second-homers", conservationists and those who see the salvation of country life in the bringing into it of suitable light industry and small businesses. These need to be worked through. There are questions too in the report about the closure of village schools, the closure of cottage hospitals and such basic matters as the maintenance of local post offices and village shops as well as the crippling financial burdens which are now placed on these fragile institutions. There are 460 problems about the limits set on general practitioners who act as their own dispensers in situations where it is extraordinarily difficult for people to travel to a properly set up dispensary. There are 101 issues of a similar kind.
It is not for me to go into further details, even if I were competent to do so. Many noble Lords know these problems from experience because they are themselves deeply involved in the life of the countryside. All I wish to say is that in the report the issues are exposed. They need to be seen in relation to one another and not tackled piecemeal. They will need sensitive handling at local, regional, national and European Community level. Therefore I simply wish to commend the report to your Lordships as a resource for the tasks which lie ahead.
§ 4.7 p.m.
My Lords, the House would wish me to thank both my noble friend Lord Middleton and the most reverend Primate for the way in which they have introduced the House of Lords Select Committee report on the countryside and the Church of England report, Faith in the Countryside.
The publication of the House of Lords report and Faith in the Countryside has focused attention on rural areas. I welcome this opportunity to debate the topical and wide-ranging issues raised by both reports. The debate also provides an opportunity for me to respond on behalf of the Government to the reports' recommendations.
I should like first to set the scene by explaining the Government's overall approach to rural development and then to look in more detail at the committees' recommendations.
Our overall aim is to maintain a thriving countryside through a sensible balance between farming, conservation, recreation, employment creation and the needs of rural communities. Our twin objectives are to achieve a healthy rural economy and an attractive rural environment. Our policies provide a framework for achieving these objectives. Government departments work together to develop policies to cope with changes affecting rural communities. They work closely with the private sector, voluntary organisations, local authorities and government agencies to solve rural problems.
Our main task is to guide and encourage others. We want to encourage the enterprise of all those who live and work in rural communities and to see increasing activity by the private and voluntary sectors. We are anxious to see that the best possible use is made of limited public funds, by making full use of opportunities to influence others and by concentrating activities in the areas with the greatest needs. But we do not hesitate to take direct action where necessary, through legislation or by providing pump-priming finance.
In many rural areas the efforts of all concerned have resulted in substantial improvements. The population of the rural areas of Britain increased by about 10 per cent. between 1971 and 1981. Employment and economic activity have become 461 more diversified and, in many areas, the unemployment rate is now well below the national average. But there are still places with problems. These are often related to their remoteness from the main areas of economic activity or to a decline in employment in traditional industries. Other rural communities are now suffering from the problems of success, with shortages of low cost housing and strong pressures for extensive new development. Both reports have highlighted those points. I know that a number of your Lordships will have views on those and many other issues.
The Government are taking steps to deal with these problems and to ensure that policies are flexible and up-to-date to meet the changing requirements of the countryside. Where particular problems develop in some rural areas, as with rural housing, we have developed new measures to deal with them. When necessary, we have commissioned research reports to provide the information which can be used to inform future decisions and policy changes.
Many of the Select Committee's recommendations are directed at the European Commission. We share the committee's concern that the European Commission's activities should have clear objectives. They should be well related to the problems on the ground and should be sufficiently flexible to deal with the different and changing circumstances in member states. There are many recent examples which point up the need for flexibility.
Your Lordships will have followed closely reports of discussions in the agriculture and foreign affairs councils leading up to agreement on the EC agriculture offer last week. The aim is to reduce agricultural support by 30 per cent. over 10 years from 1986. The proposal is a tough one with significant implications for our agriculture, industry and the rural economy.
One very important element, which is of particular relevance to your Lordships' debate today, is that we are seeking to maintain and develop the environmental and conservation policies which will ensure that environmental benefit will flow from any restructuring that may result from the new competitive position. The Government have also been making strong efforts to ensure that the Commission's structural funds are directed at the most severe problems and that bureaucracy is kept to a minimum. We are pleased that the Commission selected some areas in the United Kingdom, although we were unable to secure eligibility for all the areas for which we bid.
The Government entirely agree with the Select Committee that more support should be given to peripheral and sparsely populated regions in Britain under objective 5b of the structural funds, although this should not necessarily be done at the expense of objective 1 or 2 spending priorities. My honourable friend the Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry pressed Commissioner MacSharry hard to provide increased funds for the UK's objective 5b areas. While the increase of 15 mecu which he secured was welcome, it was insufficient to enable European 462 Regional Development Fund funding in the Highlands and Islands and other 5b areas in England and Wales to continue at more than a fraction of that in earlier years. We hope that the Community initiative on rural development, the LEADER initiative, will enable further funds to be channelled to those areas and we shall be pressing for a good share of the funds available for our objective 5b regions and for the objective 1 region of Northern Ireland.
In order to limit the amount of bureaucracy involved in administering the funds, several decisions have been taken recently to streamline operations in the United Kingdom. Officials are also in discussion with the Commission on ways in which its procedures might be simplified and made more flexible.
In addition to our efforts to influence the European Community, we have taken many steps to help rural areas through this period of change. In particular we have taken action ourselves on farming, forestry, rural housing and planning. We have also worked closely with our rural development agencies to provide assistance for rural areas when and where it is most needed.
The encouragement of entrepreneurial activities both on and off farm is already an established part of Government support. Similarly, policies introduced to help farmers make the necessary adjustments to the new economic circumstances in agriculture, for example farm diversification and woodlands grants, or to assist in the protection of the environment, for example environmentally sensitive areas, can at the same time contribute significantly to rural development. What is not desirable is to introduce into the CAP, in the name of rural development, measures which are primarily social in character. In the first place other measures and expenditure, often at the national level, already exist to tackle social problems. We must avoid taking action at the EC level which cuts across perfectly adequate national measures.
I think we must be cautious about the Select Committee's conclusion that,Agricultural policies alone can no longer be assumed to provide widespread benefits to the rural economy and society as a whole".What we are seeing is a significant change in emphasis in those policies. As agriculture and forestry occupy 90 per cent. of the land, these industries have a major influence on the appearance of the countryside and on the condition of wildlife habitats and our natural resources.
As the recent White Paper This Common Inheritance made clear, it is now Government policy to integrate environmental objectives fully into agricultural support measures. A great deal is being done to protect and improve the countryside and reduce pollution while at the same time bringing agricultural output more into line with demand. The Archbishops' Commission recommended that payment should be made to farmers and other landowners to facilitate communities' enjoyment of rural land. The White Paper sets out proposals for a national countryside initiative by the Countryside Commission which is very much along these lines. I am delighted to 463 say that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment was able to announce last week the provision of £1.1 million next year and £3.8 million in 1992–93 and £8.4 million in 1993–94 to allow the Countryside Commission to launch this initiative.
The Government have been in the forefront of attempts to shift the emphasis of the common agricultural policy towards improving the environment and have pioneered the introduction of support for this purpose. Environmental measures were first introduced into the CAP in 1985 and there has been considerable progress since. Most recently the Commission has proposed new measures this year to encourage low input, environmentally friendly farming right across the Community. Our experience with our existing programmes will stand us in good stead as these proposals are considered.
I welcome the Select Committee's support for an expansion of forestry, especially in the form of multiple-purpose woodland and community forests, and its endorsement of the view held by the Government that foresty offers a major alternative use for agricultural land that is no longer needed for food production. There should be no doubt about the Government's continuing commitment to forestry; the fact that about a quarter of a million hectares of new planting has been grant-aided over the past 10 years is proof of this. Certainly much of that planting has taken place on land of poor agricultural quality and it is now central to our forestry policy to encourage more planting on better land. As I think the House is aware, the Government are supporting major forestry initiatives to create new national forests in the English Midlands and central Scotland. Three community forests in east London, south Staffordshire and Tyne and Wear are already being supported by the Government. Planting these new forests will provide a wide range of public benefits.
As regards financial assistance, we are already doing a great deal. The Forestry Commission's woodland grant scheme is now well established and attracting a great deal of interest. This scheme offers substantial rates of grant with higher grants for the planting of broadleaves and with a supplement for planting on better land. We have also announced recently that we shall be introducing management grants under the scheme in April 1992. Care for the environment is an integral part of the scheme which has been designed to achieve the full range of our policy objectives.
I will turn now to housing and planning in rural areas. Both the Archbishops' Commission and the Select Committee draw specific attention to housing issues in rural areas. We accept that it is crucial that affordable housing should be available for those who live and work in rural areas. We recognise that there are particular difficulties in some rural areas, especially where house prices have been driven upwards by demand from long-distance commuters and well-off retired people. On the other hand, we cannot simply resist these market pressures; after all they represent genuine demands from many people 464 who wish to live in attractive rural surroundings. The survival of rural communities depends on successfully adapting to change.
In July 1988 the Secretary of State for the Environment announced his rural housing initiative which for the first time set out a policy on low cost housing in rural areas. Since then we have introduced a series of measures designed to boost the supply of low-cost housing in rural England. We are increasing the level of investment in rural areas through housing associations, which have a major role to play in providing affordable housing for rent and low-cost sale, particularly on shared ownership terms.
We have increased the public funding available to the Housing Corporation from £1.1 billion this year to over £2 billion in 1993–94, enabling it to increase the targets under its special rural programme for low-cost housing for rent and sale in small villages. Despite recent cash planning difficulties resulting from housing associations completing houses faster under the new financial system, the Housing Corporation has been able to maintain the programme. The corporation has publicly stated that no rural homes will be lost.
In Wales, Housing for Wales launched a rural housing initiative last year aimed at assisting local people to find affordable housing in their own communities. Housing for Wales has directed around £25 million—no less than a quarter of its resources —to be spent by housing associations in rural areas this financial year.
In Scotland the Government asked the housing development agency, Scottish Homes, to formulate a rural housing strategy as one of its first priorities. Research carried out by Scottish Homes has established that, although problems exist in rural areas, mechanisms are already in place which would allow Scottish Homes and others to tackle those problems and that very few new means are required to fill gaps in provision. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has approved a number of new initiatives intended to tackle rural housing problems. He has also approved 10 areas throughout rural Scotland where the initiatives can be demonstrated and proved. The Government have also made available to Scottish Homes an additional £1 million to launch the scheme this year.
We have also introduced a scheme in England to allow housing associations in rural areas to repurchase former shared ownership dwellings at full market value when an occupier moves on, thus preserving the supply of shared ownership houses for local needs.
Noble Lords will be pleased to hear that only last week we announced a new scheme to boost rural housing in England. A sum of £50 million is to be allocated to local councils where the needs are greatest to support housing association activity in rural areas.
Of course public sector provision alone is not enough. We have also taken steps to encourage landowners and developers to provide new houses at prices or rents that local people can afford. In particular, we announced changes to the planning 465 rules in England and Wales in 1989 which enabled local authorities to release small sites not previously designated for housing for low-cost housing schemes to meet specific local needs, subject to arrangements to ensure that the houses remain available for local needs. That should enable housing to be provided at lower cost since the land concerned will not be valued at the price of housing land. We shall shortly be commissioning research to investigate how successful that initiative has been. Scottish Homes has recommended that the Scottish Office should encourage Scottish planning authorities to adopt similar policies.
I turn to the committees' recommendation on assessment of housing need. Earlier this month Housing for Wales published results of two research projects on the nature and extent of the need for housing in rural Wales. We shall shortly be commissioning research into the nature of demand for housing in rural areas in England.
In Northern Ireland affordable rural housing is generally available. However the number of single unfit rural dwellings is a significant problem which is being addressed positively by enhanced incentives to improve rural dwellings and through a rural housing review.
Considerable work has been done on the development of planning guidance for rural areas over the past few years. For example, in England planning policy guidance on rural enterprise and development was published in 1988. Advice on the countryside and the rural economy is now being finalised. The development plan system is to be improved and streamlined with regional guidance as an integral part of the system.
In Northern Ireland, where the main responsibility for the countryside is shared by government departments, the Department of Agriculture has recently published a countryside management strategy and the Department of the Environment is developing a planning strategy to guide and control development in the countryside.
The Government sponsor specialist agencies to do much of the work in implementing their policies for rural communities. In England the Rural Development Commission, which is sponsored by my department, is the Government's main agency for diversifying rural enterprise. Its task is to highlight rural problems, to create a climate in which rural businesses, communities and services can prosper and to initiate action which will improve the economic and social development of rural areas. In Wales similar tasks are undertaken primarily by the Development Board for Rural Wales and the Welsh Development Agency. In Scotland the Scottish Development Agency and the Highlands and Islands Development Board fulfil broadly similar functions. In Northern Ireland, an inter-departmental committee is considering how best to tackle problems in the most deprived rural areas.
466 The agencies have a star-studded list of achievements to their credit. They provide advice and work space and create jobs. The success of the Welsh Development Agency demonstrates that point well. Over the last five years the Welsh Development Agency has created over 12,000 jobs in its rural areas. Nearly 50 inward investment projects have been secured for rural areas in the Welsh Development Agency area involving capital investment of almost £40 million.
The Archbishops' Commission has commended the use of the integrated approach to economic development being used in the Rural Development Commission's priority areas, the rural development areas. There are many other examples of close co-operation and the Government believe that it is important to allow room for flexibility to meet local circumstances while encouraging close working relationships among private, public and voluntary sectors. That is a point that was made very forcibly by the most reverend Primate and my noble friend Lord Middleton.
For instance, I would draw your Lordships' attention to the rural enterprise programme which the Government are introducing in the Highlands and Islands. A project team with a programme controller and locally-based project officers has been set up. The Government envisage that a loose, informal structure will be set up appropriate to the wishes of local communities rather than a centrally prescribed format and membership.
The Archbishops' Commission also suggested that local authorities and the Rural Development Commission should be empowered to declare a special status for areas which are dependent on a single employer and where that employment is being substantially reduced. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that the Rural Development Commission already targets its activities on such areas as well as on others with pressing needs. Earlier this year the Rural Development Commission announced a package of financial assistance for rural coalfield areas with high unemployment. The Rural Development Commission offers its full range of assistance in the rural coalfields of East Derbyshire, North Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire. A more limited range of assistance has been extended to the rural coalfields of South Derbyshire and North West Leicestershire. Hence the Government are aware of the problems and pressures which the countryside faces. They are taking steps to protect the countryside, which we value, to open up more varied employment opportunities where that is appropriate and to ensure that the social needs of rural areas are not neglected.
The last decade has seen rapid and substantial change in the countryside. In many cases we have been successful in meeting our objectives for a healthy rural economy and an attractive rural environment. We are targeting our policies on those areas where there are still problems. In future, above all, we must maintain a package of rural policies which will continue to meet 467 our objectives and must ensure that European Commission policies are designed to meet the varied needs of the countryside.
§ 4.28 p.m.
§ Lord Gallacher
My Lords, the report on The Future of Rural Society submitted by your Lordships' Select Committee on the European Communities is in our opinion an excellent document. If anything, the scope of the document is almost too wide, but that fault, if fault it be, lies with the Commission because the scope of its communication to Parliament and the Council of the European Communities is significant and almost without limitation as to the ideas it seeks to encompass. As it stands, the report is in some ways a definitive document. Everyone who has had a hand in its preparation deserves both the thanks and congratulations of your Lordships' House.
I go along entirely with the submission that it is impossible to define rural society, even in Great Britain. For example, the Scottish Borders and Western Isles have little in common. The affluent villages in the South East of England have little in common with the mining villages in the North Midlands and the northern half of this country. The hill farmers of North Wales do not have a great deal in common with the dairy farmers of Pembrokeshire. If such disparity exists in rural areas of Great Britain, how can the European Community define and effectively administer assistance with rural change in mind? There are 12 member states. They are all different and within each country there are undoubtedly disparities as wide as those which we know exist in our own country.
That leads me to suggest that a weakness of the report, no doubt influenced by the communication, is that it addresses itself mainly to a European Community solution to the problem. I am well aware that the prospect of Community funding is something which no self-respecting committee can afford to ignore, but the opportunity to state a case for the repatriation of these problems as the beginning of the unscrambling of the common agricultural policy seems to me to have been missed on this occasion.
Community funding as such, despite its undoubted popularity and acceptance—indeed, we almost have an industry building in Britain in an attempt to get money out of the Community—is both a roundabout and a somewhat expensive way of financing basic national activity. It is more so in Great Britain's case because of the additionality principle which all governments have applied ever since we became a member of the Community.
For example, when one considers Britain's share of the FEOGA guidance awards, it is fairly obvious as and when they are announced that they tend to favour a few large applicants. No one quarrels with that. Undoubtedly the idea is that it is better to give fairly substantial sums of money to a few large applicants than to spread what is available too thinly over a great number of applicants. Therefore I believe that the opportunity has been missed in the report to begin what undoubtedly will have to happen one day: the 468 return of those aspects of common agricultural policy which are better dealt with on a national basis than by the European Commission.
It was right to mention the GATT negotiations because until we know the full implications of the GATT settlement—if there is a settlement—on the common agricultural policy, we shall lot know for certain how the whole of the changes will impact upon rural society as well as farming. But we know that on the basis of what has already been offered by the Community the impact will be significant. Farming practices will undoubtedly change and in addition we shall probably face even more intensive import competition than is currently the case.
In regard to planning aspects, I was grateful for the amplification conveyed in the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. Although country planning was not much mentioned in the gracious Speech, the document entitled This Common Inheritance is somewhat vague on the subject. Yet, reading that document and studying its references to agriculture, one has the feeling that there will be substantial changes, perhaps not during this Session but certainly in the future. Our feeling is that country planning needs careful handling, not least because town planning is not universally regarded as a great success by those people who have experience of it. It is a costly business, slow in operation and sometimes inflexible. If country planning is to be approached on that basis, it will be necessary for those who are likely to be affected by it to make sure that some of the errors inherent in town planning as such are not repeated in the country.
For that reason we are glad that the Select Committee's report welcomes the reprieve for county councils' structure plans which the Government recently announced. Perhaps also county councils should be the planning authorities for rural areas. It seems to us that their wider geographical spread is more important in the context of county development than district councils can hope to be. But the whole question of planning divergence, which we know exists in this country, justifies my proposition that member states should handle the future of rural society rather than leave it to the Commission.
Turning to national agencies, we accept as wise the recommendation in the Select Committee's report that those successful rural agencies which are already functioning and well experienced in this area—namely, the Welsh Development Agency, the Highlands and Islands Development Board, the Rural Development Commission and the Development Board for Rural Wales—should continue to be regarded as the main bodies in promoting diversification of the rural economy.
Too many bodies in this area may result in much consultation —a thought that crossed my mind as I listened to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch—but may also result in too little being done about a problem which will not diminish but tend to grow the less urgently it is tackled. Also, the fewer reference points there are, the better as regards redevelopment. The less confusion that there is in this area, the better it will 469 be for the rural economy as a whole. Indeed, in its conclusions the report acknowledges that by anticipating in the long term a rural development advisory service.
Much attention has been given to housing. Undoubtedly it is a key question so far as concerns the rural economy. We all agree that rural housing at affordable rents for local people is the crux of the problem. It is the most basic aspect of the rural society problem. We recognise too that it is tied to land values in the country, which vary considerably, as well as to planning consent and local demand, which again are variables in the light of who administers the arrangements, who asks for what and who is prepared to pay for what is on offer.
Here again the severity of the problem varies. As I listened to the noble Baroness I had the impression that it was bad in certain parts of the country—for example, in Scotland, although there are other areas affected and, taking the country as a whole, the problem is not as acute there as it is in, say, the South East of England. We are all famililar in the South East with the syndrome of the two agricultural cottages which are knocked into one to provide a single home of high standard in an attractive area, appealing to the affluent commuter or the home-working professional and available for the sum of perhaps £200,000 plus. How can the local artisan who is born and bred in the village find accommodation in areas subject to such a situation? Come to that, how can small firms be encouraged to move to the area, having regard to their need to recruit local labour? In other areas, in our opinion planning refusals are too easily influenced by local people whose housing needs have been met. There is an element of selfishness which it is as well to recognise.
Housing associations are currently favoured by Her Majesty's Government as the medium for providing rural housing. That view was fully confirmed by what the noble Baroness had to say on that subject. Quite frankly, we welcome the additional money that is to be made available to housing associations through the Housing Corporation for rented housing in rural areas. However, without prejudice to the housing associations, we ask whether there is not still a role for local authorities in rented housing in rural areas. Could not district councils with accumulated receipts from housing sales, the use of which is currently restricted, be allowed to use somewhat more of those funds if they were devoted specifically to housing in rural areas?
The question of planning gain is important in this context. Currently we tend to think of it in terms of urban areas. From this side of the House we ask whether there is not also a rural dimension to planning gain. For example, a change of use from farming to other activities must be sympathetically handled, we agree, but if job creation is used as a supporting factor in applications for change of use should not applicants who use that argument be expected to make a contribution to housing demand?
470 I have in mind golf courses, which are a popular form of alternative use for farmland in many parts of the country. In most such applications, in addition to the clubhouse and the hotel there is usually a substantial housing element. It is mainly the four-bedroom, two-bathroom detached house which the agricultural or factory worker in a rural environment could not afford even in his wildest dreams.
In those circumstances would it not be reasonable to ask such applicants to make land available for housing so that the demand for labour which they say will be created by the development could be met by the provision of low-cost housing in those areas? It would not be a major contribution and, having regard to the economics of some of those schemes with which I am reasonably familiar, I am sure that it could easily be afforded.
Regarding community co-operatives, I was disappointed to note that the only mention of co-operatives in the report was a reference to a visit made by the Select Committee to a co-operative society in south-east Belgium. Of course housing associations and co-operatives are not always referred to as such. Is there not a role for a community co-operative on a village basis, possibly to run a post office, a shop, a local bus, a petrol station and even a pharmacy? One can run a pharmacy on a co-operative basis provided that one gives the pharmacist a seat on the board of directors—as we well know from our experience.
Now that Her Majesty's Government have wound up the co-operative development agencies, and recently have discontinued grants to establish agricultural societies, we on these Benches see a gap in the provisions for the formation of new co-operatives in such areas. Cannot the four rural agencies commended in the report be asked to undertake the provision of advice on forming community cooperatives in villages? A small survey would show whether or not there was a reasonable prospect of success for such a development. Such self-help should commend itself to Her Majesty's Government.
I do not wish to spend too much time dealing with other farming aspects in the report, important though they are. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, will deal with them when he replies. Perhaps I may conclude by saying that the problems of the rural society are likely to be with us for some considerable time. On the basis of all the evidence, they are likely to intensify. However, there are also opportunities, and both reports indicate ways in which they can be fully realised. The reports make a valid and useful contribution to the question. We are grateful to the authors in both cases for bringing the matters to our notice in such a clear, concise and helpful fashion.
§ 4.42 p.m.
§ Lord Hooson
My Lords, from these Benches we congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, and the members of the Select Committee on their report, and the noble Lord, Lord Prior, and the members of his commission on their report. They both make 471 fascinating and interesting reading to someone like myself who was brought up on a family farm and still lives in the heart of the Welsh countryside.
I regret that the two reports have been discussed together. It seems to me that the report of the Select Committee deals basically with the underlying economic problems—the skeleton, as it were—while the Church of England report deals with the flesh to be put on the skeleton thereafter. Both would have made more interesting debates had they been debated separately.
I intend to limit my remarks to one issue. I should like to quote on it from the report of the Archbishops' commission. At page 310 it states:Policies which provide local work, local homes and local communications for those who are less well-off, but who wish to remain in the country, are crucial if rural living is to retain the balance and cohesion which appear so attractive not only to those looking on from outside, but also to many of the people whom we met throughout the villages of England".It seems to me that that presupposes a basically sound agricultural policy and a paternalistic role in the state or in the European Community. I am a firm believer, as I am sure is the noble Lord, Lord Prior, who chaired the commission, in the paternalistic role of government and the need for it to interfere at times to protect the governed.
I refer to page 17, paragraph 43 of the report of the Select Committee. From my experience I entirely agree about the importance of farming to the rural economy as emphasised by the Welsh Office and the Northern Ireland Office. It states:the Welsh Office emphasised the 'strong dependency' of rural parts of LFAs on agriculture and the Northern Ireland Office considered agriculture 'the cornerstone of the rural economy"".I was brought up on a family farm. I well remember my parents and the agricultural community talking about the grave slump that hit agriculture in the 1920s and 1930s, the terrible devastation that it caused to rural communities, the rural depopulation that took place as a result of it, and the interference with and undermining of the cohesion of social and cultural life as well as its economic life. In 1962 I fought a by-election in my old constituency of Montgomery when we were suffering enormously from depopulation. It was before there was a rural development board, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, referred. In the by-election I concentrated on the need for a policy for the rural areas which maintained some certainty of a decent future. The noble Lord, Lord Plumb, will remember how important the Milk Marketing Board was to the rural areas of this country. It brought some certainty where uncertainty existed before.
I therefore wish to concentrate on the basics: agricultural policy. Although from my experience a rural community cannot live on agriculture alone, certainly the rural community cannot live without a healthy agriculture. We are today discussing the reports against the background of the Uruguay round of the GATT talks where there is increasing pressure from the United States in particular, from the Cairns group, and, to a lesser degree, from Japan, for greater 472 liberalisation in agriculture. Free trade in agriculture is their eventual aim. I believe that we should regard the process with considerable circumspection.
I wish to put the much maligned agricultural policy of the European Commission into proper perspective. In many ways, whatever differences we may have, however we may criticise parts of it, it is the greatest success story of the EC so far. Without it there would have been enormous depopulation in Europe. There would have been great unemployment. There would have been not only agrarian unrest; there would have been tremendous industrial unrest.
Noble Lords who have talked to German politicians know the importance that they attach to the small farmers whom one often sees farming the land around the perimeters of the great cities. They regard them as being the most stabilising factor in their industrial sphere. It is estimated that between 10 million and 12 million farming families within the EC benefit enormously from the agricultural policy. In addition to the 10 million or 12 million farming families, there are those who depend on agriculture, servicing it, and so on. Without these farmers in the countryside one would not have the population for one's rural industries.
I have been involved with the development of rural industries in mid-Wales. I have had an association with one of the great success stories of rural mid-Wales—a company which has become a great international company. That in itself brings other problems in its train. Nevertheless, the point I make is that one cannot find the labour for rural industries unless one has farmers, farm workers, whose daughters and sons provide the workforce in the rural industries. Rural industry and agriculture are closely linked.
I was in the United States last weekend. I have already adverted to the fact that it is the United States in particular which is bringing pressure to bear on the Uruguay round of the GATT talks. It is interesting to ask the question: why was agriculture not included in the GATT negotiations in the first place? It is because in 1955 at the specific request of the United States it was excluded because it served the United States book at the time. It did not consider it wise from the point of view of its own economy to include agriculture in the GATT discipline.
However, in a leading article in the New York Times this week the following statement appears:European taxpayers pay huge sums, more than $100 billion each year, to support a handful of inefficient family farmers".That is the way in which the agricultural policy of the EC is being mispresented. It states,to support a handful of inefficient family farmers",instead of referring to the fact that between 100 million and 200 million people within the EC may be directly supported by that policy.
The article goes on to state what American policy has in mind: 473The economic gains from an international trade agreement would be enormous, adding perhaps $1 trillion to the US economy alone. To reap these benefits, the Western leaders will have to stare down the special interests".In fairness I must quote an earlier passage from the article. It states:The Europeans are not the only obstinate leaders. The Japanese won't agree to import rice; and the US proposes to exempt telecommunications, aviation and shipping from the new regulations governing service industries".I believe that France and Germany were right to object to going beyond the concessions now made by the EC in their negotiations on agriculture. If we were as successful in our economy as France and Germany have been during the past decade we could read them lessons on how to run their economies and how to balance their agricultural interests with their industrial and commercial interests. After all, between the two of them they indulge in much more world trade than we do. Our Minister of Agriculture described the attitudes of the French and German opposition to further subsidy cuts as making the Community look ridiculous and incompetent, and that was a stupid observation. It makes our country look stupid and incompetent.
We must appreciate that the problems of agriculture are difficult to anticipate. A fair balance must be made with many other interests. I have in my hand a copy of a publication by the OECD. It was published this year and is entitled Agricultural Trade Liberalisation: Implications for Developing Countries. The argument has been put forward that the Western countries are extremely selfish with regard to their agricultural policies, for example, and benefit would be brought to third world countries if we had far greater liberalisation. The studies do not bear that out.
I shall quote from page 476 of the publication. The OECD studied many models and it states:All the models point to increases in meat, dairy and sugar prices, and all but one … forecast rises in food grain prices".The article goes on to discuss those various aspects and concludes:Certainly some developing countries will be adversely affected by international price rises, particularly of food grains".Noble Lords will be aware that the world price of grain is now just above £40 per tonne. However, that is the subsidised price of food grain. I am assured that the actual price in economic terms if there were no subsidies in any country would be about £86 per tonne.
Every country, even a large industrial country with an enormous agricultural background such as the United States, Argentina or Brazil, subsidises its agriculture. The reasons for doing so are obvious and I shall quote again from page 479 of the publication. It states:In practice, we know little of the actual factors that drive the instability in agricultural markets".Everyone concerned in agriculture knows how during the past three or four decades we have been protected from that instability. The paragraph continues: 474But we do know that political uncertainty cannot help. The major political actors should define clearly and irrevocably the direction that liberalisation is to take to avoid contributing to this inherent uncertainty in agricultural markets. Equally, price booms and busts which are sure to occur must not be used as an excuse to derail the long-term adjustment process and further contribute to uncertainty".Agricultural policy is and still will be the basis of our rural economy in this country. I believe that we should get it into the correct perspective. It is important to us to have a measure of protection from instability. It is important that this basic component of the health of the rural economy should be right. That means a fair balance between the industrial and commercial interests within our country and the Community, on the one hand, and of our agricultural interests, on the other.
I hope that in reviewing the two reports it can be seen that we must achieve such a balance in our policy approach. That alone will enable us to add the superstructure with which much of the reports—particularly the Church of England report—is concerned. We can talk about rural housing and about bringing industries to rural areas. In my part of the country much of that has been or is in the process of being done. However, such areas cannot survive without a basic healthy agricultural policy.
§ The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Trumpington)
My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned several countries which have subsidies. Does he have any comments to make on Australia and New Zealand?
§ Lord Hooson
My Lords, they have changed their attitudes but there remains a deal of subsidy. The claim of New Zealand that it has abolished all subsidies is not borne out by the studies that I have read. It is a question of balance in all such things. We admit to the EC exports from New Zealand under special arrangements, and I am all for those continuing. However, in the interests of our rural areas it is necessary to make sure that we get the balance right.
§ The Earl of Radnor
My Lords, I know the Argentine well and believe that it would be wrong to say that it subsidises its agriculture. The reverse situation has always been the case. The so-called Oligarchy, who basically are the Estancieros, have been taxed up to the hilt.
§ Lord Hooson
My Lords, I hear what the noble Earl says. In relation to my remarks about the Argentine, I relied on articles which I read recently in the American press. They stated that the Argentine food producers are subsidised.
§ 4.57 p.m.
§ Lord Wrenbury
My Lords, I shall confine myself, if I may, to the report Faith in the Countryside, which is a major work both of erudition and investigation. I should particularly wish to commend the theological reflections at the start of the report and the analysis of the objectives of ministry halfway through. In view of the way in which the debate has progressed my contribution may not be sufficiently in line with your Lordships' thinking.
475 However, my heart sank when I read the list of recommendations arising out of the report and that is so for the following reasons. First, out of 47 principal recommedations only about 15 can really be said to have any connection with spiritual affairs. The rest are concerned with material, practical and political problems. That leads directly to the question of what the function of the ordained ministry should be. To what extent should the priesthood involve itself in political and domestic issues at national and local levels?
There are some who will tell you that if religious faith is to have any relevance to contemporary society the Church—here meaning the institution as opposed to the individuals who compose it—must involve itself in all aspects of modern life and particularly the problem areas. On that view of the matter there is unlikely to be any aspect of the domestic and political scene on which the Church will not feel entitled to hold a view and to get involved. This in turn will lead to, indeed has already led to, the creation of a substantial bureaucracy in order to keep these interests properly serviced and the expenditure of a great deal of money in order to promote the various corporate endeavours and initiatives that require to be undertaken.
I do not believe that the scriptural authority quoted at the beginning of the report supports this proposition, and nor do the more modern authorities quoted under the chapter heading "Ministry" appear to do so. The foremost duty of the ordained ministry is correctly stated by the 1988 Lambeth conference as being "to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom", and this is something as different from official involvement in the material, practical and political problems of the day as the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount are from a political manifesto.
It is perfectly true that the proclamation of the good news will undoubtedly result in a deepening commitment by individual Christians to all aspects of our national, social and environmental well-being. After all, the whole purpose of the proclamation is to make manifest the workings of God in the lives of men, and the whole essence of a Christian life is one that is dedicated to the service of our fellow man. But involvement in public affairs for the benefit of the community is the end product of the proclamation and not the proclamation itself.
My own conviction, and the reason why, after 63 years as a layman, I felt impelled to offer myself for ordination to the non-stipendiary ministry in June this year, is that the Church in the countryside is wilting for one reason only, and that is that the sheep are not being adequately fed. And in this context it should be remarked that to feed them with the wrong food is no better than not feeding them at all.
The difficulty I see with the kind of recommendations made in the report are, first, that by suggesting solutions to current national, domestic and environmental problems the Church identifies itself with particular courses of action and thereby implicitly rejects all others. I dislike the word "judgmental". But 476 on this occasion it seems to me apt to describe the espousal by the Church of points of view which have no direct connection with the promulgation of the gospel. Politics is about legitimate differences of opinion on practical affairs, not about ethical issues, and the Church makes a mistake when it takes sides on these matters.
Secondly, it seems to me that the main purpose of the Church is to equip individual Christians with the spiritual armour necessary to go out into the world and tackle these problems most effectively. To the extent that the Church itself decides to get involved in these affairs of state it usurps the functions and free choice of its individual members who have no moral obligation whatever to favour any particular solution to the exclusion of others. The Church must not fall into the error of the petrol pump attendant who, having filled his customer's car with the best lead-free spirit, took it upon himself to tell him where to drive afterwards.
Thirdly, my training leads me to suppose that there is considerable confusion at the present time as to where the functions of a welfare officer leave off and the functions of the ordained clergy begin. It is perhaps significant that in order to accommodate Moslem susceptibilities our padres in the Gulf are now officially referred to as welfare officers, thereby one might suppose effectively hiding their light under a bushel. All I can say, and I do so with absolute conviction, is that church membership will not be increased by the appointment of welfare officers in the guise of clergymen, which seems to be the implication of some of the recommendations in the report, and still less will it help to appoint public relations officers as per Recommendation No. 34.
Nothing that I have said should be interpreted as implying that the Church should not get involved in good works to the extent that these can be undertaken without prejudice to the wider responsibility of bearing witness to Christ. There are respectable precedents for this, one of the more obvious perhaps being the hostels for weary travellers that used to be run by medieval monasteries. But to undertake charitable work oneself is a very different thing from directing others to do so. The danger of the recommendations in the report is that they go a long way towards turning the Church into a political pressure group, and nothing could be more fatal to its survival than that.
By way of illustration of the dangers I must tell you that when I was an impressionable young man, the question arose as to whether I should be confirmed into the Church of England or the Church of Scotland. The Church of Scotland, I was assured, was immeasurably better at preaching sermons. So in order to sample their wares we arose at 6.30 one Sunday morning and bicycled 20 miles to the nearest church. I regret to tell you that the minister preached at length about the current housing situation, and this finally and irrevocably determined my confirmation into the Church of England.
However, the commission has merely responded to the terms of reference put to it, and one feels bound to 477 say that it has responded very well. The danger lies in the terms of reference themselves, which assume that the objectives of the rural ministry require rethinking as opposed to restating. If the commission had been asked the simple question, "In what way can the relevance of the gospel message to the problems of modern life be more effectively demonstrated?" it might have come up with very different answers. As it is, one is conscious of an uncomfortable lack of distinction between the things which are Caesar's and the things which are God's.
I dislike either hostile or destructive criticism and I hope that what I have said will not be taken as either. The sower went forth to sow good seed; he did not tell the plant how to grow, and that in essence is what I have sought to say.
§ 5.6 p.m.
§ Lord Walston
My Lords, when I first put my name down to speak in this debate there were relatively few noble Lords who had already done so. It was only today that I realised that the debate would perhaps go on for a time far beyond the last train that I have to catch. If that is so, it means that I shall not be able to be here for the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, and possibly for other noble Lords, and I ask the indulgence of the House for that. The reason why I did not withdraw, as I perhaps should have done, was partly my great interest in the subject and also my particular respect for the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, as chairman of the committee on which I was privileged to sit and which brought out this report. It is indeed a valuable report. I shall not go through it. The noble Lord has done so in a way that would make it otiose for me to do so.
However, I would emphasise one point. The noble Lord spoke of the difference between social and economic objectives in agricultural policy and that they must be kept separate. That was emphasised even more by the speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Lord, Lord Hooson. At least on one or two points I feel I must take issue with them, and I speak as someone who has been involved in farming for virtually the whole of his life.
It is entirely misleading for us to believe that we can solve the problems of rural society purely, or even primarily, by having a prosperous agricultural industry. It is of course important that we should have one for a whole variety of reasons. But let me remind your Lordships that, whereas in the days of the youth of the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, on his family farm —why he did not stay there I do not know if it was such a lovely life, but that is a question one can ask a great many people who have been brought up on family farms and have taken the first opportunity to leave them—the chances were that you needed one man to milk about 12 or 15 cows, today you need one man to milk 100 cows.
In those days on an arable farm of some size you needed three men for every 100 acres, and that was pushing it rather fine. Today you are not doing very well if you have one man on 300 acres. It is more like 478 one man on 500 acres. Therefore, no matter how prosperous agriculture is, while the countryside will look prosperous and tidy and may have trees planted on it and even some hedges trimmed, it will not repopulate the rural areas and it will not play a significant part in helping to create a vital rural society.
Why do we like the idea of a rural society? What is it about a rural society that attracts all of us no matter where we live? In what way does it differ from an urban society? Partly it is because the countryside is much more attractive to look at than the streets of London or Manchester. It is more fun to play and recreate oneself in the countryside than to wander through streets teeming with the noxious fumes of motor cars. In other words, it is attractive because to town dwellers it is an escape from town life.
Part of the reason is also nostalgic. People still think of thatched cottages, with roses growing around the door. They do not remember that those thatched cottages were lucky if they had a privy down the garden; that they had no running water except the water which came through the leak in the roof. The countryside is a lovely nostalgic idea. People like the idea of lowing cows and the absence of bustle. Very often when they come to live in the countryside those same people are the ones who complain about the noxious smell of dung when the cattleyard is cleaned and the smell seeps in through their bedroom window or about the cows blocking the road as they hurry to catch their morning commuter train. The picture is not always 100 per cent. rosy, so that is not really what attracts us.
The real reason we are all anxious to preserve rural society is that it is a small society. It is a society where everyone knows everyone else; everybody feels some responsibility for their neighbour, tolerates their weaknesses and helps where help is needed and, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York said, people are prepared and able to take community action to make their community a better place.
There is nothing anonymous about rural life. People know each other. We can compare that with the big cities where every night when we walk home we pass the homeless sleeping in the doorways of shops. They are anonymous people; we do not know who they are. We pass by on the other side and pay no attention to them; that is someone else's job. One has virtually no neighbours except the people who live in the flat next door. They may do the same kind of job, work in the same office and leave for work at the same time as oneself. But that is not community life.
It is the absence of community feeling in towns which draws people into a rural life if they can possibly manage it. Above all it makes rural life worth supporting for the country as a whole. It is important to ensure that there are places still, in spite of our urban bustle, our great factories and huge insoluble problems, where problems are soluble, where one can play a part in the community and one feels a worthwhile member of society.
479 In order to achieve that, a true rural society must be small, though not too small. It must have a mix of ages, of interests and of income. It must welcome newcomers but not be swamped by them. It is essential that rural communities allow new houses to be built to accommodate newcomers. Some newcomers will undoubtedly want to live in former farmworkers' cottages. Houses will have to be built for those who would have been farmworkers had they been born half a century earlier. They must now look elsewhere to live. But they may not want to leave the village of their birth, the friends with whom they played football and the village life of which they are part.
The most reverend Primate and the noble Lords, Lord Gallacher and Lord Middleton, mentioned the overriding need for rural housing of a sort which can be afforded by these young people who are anxious to marry, to start a family and to contribute to their rural society. Often they cannot afford the houses that are available at the present time.
Those young people must find work. There will not be sufficient work in the village, forgetting the farming side. There will not be sufficient factories and offices in the village to give them all an occupation. In any case, they will want to spread their wings and travel a little further away. Opportunities must be provided for varied employment —high technology, shops and offices, the whole range of jobs—within reasonable travelling distance of the rural areas. Without that it will be impossible to keep young people in the village.
New jobs will be needed and the siting of those jobs will be decided mainly by local authorities. They must bear in mind that there should be small towns and industrial centres which are close enough to every village for young people to reach them within a reasonable time. At the same time, the training of those young people, which has also been mentioned and I should like to support and emphasise the point, must not simply be as it was under the previous Agricultural Training Board, to teach them to milk cows, look after pigs and drive tractors. They must be trained for a whole variety of other jobs—industrial and office jobs—which can be obtained within the locality.
We must not simply cater for the young; we must also look after the old. A whole variety of services are needed for old people, as most of your Lordships are aware. There must be a good bus service provided to enable the old to travel into town from time to time to do their shopping. There must be a village shop. Increasingly village shops find it impossible to continue and are succumbing to poll tax business rates, the competition of the multi-nationals in the nearest town and the supermarkets.
By some means or other the shop and the post office must he maintained in the villages. The post office is particularly important for old age pensions and so on. There must be a doctor's surgery and the facility for the doctor to dispense medication in his surgery rather than writing out a prescription and people travelling a long way to have it fulfilled. All those things and many 480 more are needed—especially adequate transport facilities—to make life supportable and reasonable for the older people of the community.
If the natives, old and young, are provide with affordable houses, work, schools and shops, it will be easier for them to accept newcomers and not resent them. Also the potential conflict of interests—again mentioned, rightly, by the most reverend Primate—between these people and the commuters, the retired and other people who come in (I believe nature lovers were mentioned) will be minimised and a form of community of the sort that we all wish to see will he created.
I believe that in that way the old spirit of a rural community can be maintained or perhaps one should say revived. We will find in our country districts a new form of rural society to take the place of the old form. It will no longer be based on the squire and the parson. I imagine that the parson will have a role to play, if enough people can be found to play that role. The squire is of the past. Mutual interest and shared responsibilities will prevail and the dangers of an uncaring, divided urban society will be avoided.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Lord Shuttleworth
My Lords, it is unusual, regrettably, to receive one major report on rural areas let alone two. However, within a few weeks of each other we have seen published both our Select Committee's report and the Archbishops' Commission's report. Both complement and reinforce each other and have done much to raise the profile of rural matters which I for one find most welcome.
Before I go further I must declare an interest in this debate on two counts. First, I am chairman of the Rural Development Commission to which much reference—favourable reference, I am glad to say—is made in both reports. Secondly, I am also an upland sheep farmer, identified in both reports as an endangered species. On both counts I must congratulate the chairmen, my noble friends Lord Middleton and Lord Prior, and their colleagues, on their inquiries and the reports. Taken together they provide a superb analysis of the problems facing rural areas, highlighting in particular the issues facing the United Kingdom.
Your Lordships will know that the Rural Development Commission is the government agency for economic and social development in rural areas of England. We have a statutory duty to keep under review and advise government on all matters relating to the economic and social development of English rural areas. We have wide powers, together with an annual budget of just under £40 million, to take measures to further such development.
Much of our effort is concentrated on advising government, raising awareness of the particular needs of rural areas and rural dwellers and seeking to influence the policies and actions of other bodies—public, private and voluntary—to take account of the rural dimension. However, what distinguishes us from other government countryside agencies is that we are concerned principally with the people who live and 481 work in the countryside. We are, therefore, very concerned with all the contents of both reports, but I shall be as brief as possible.
One of the important messages from the Select Committee's report is the danger of confusing "rural" with "agricultural". Here in England the proportion of jobs related to agriculture is in fact the lowest in the European Community. The ratio is about one-in-50 compared, say, to one-in-four in Greece. While agriculture remains the major land use in the countryside and its contraction poses serious problems for the management of the landscape, it is no longer the main economic activity in most rural areas. I am not sure that that point is always understood or accepted elsewhere in Europe. We must try to ensure that the European Community initiatives on rural development do not have too narrow a focus on agriculture and the land.
In many areas the rural economy is adapting and becoming more diversified, with a minimum of public sector intervention. In other areas, particularly the remoter or hillier areas such as where I live, the economy is fragile because of over-reliance on agriculture or on other declining industries and because of geographical obstacles to the easy establishment of new businesses. These areas have a continuing need for support.
The Select Committee's report—and other noble Lords who have spoken today—recognise that there is a great diversity of rural areas in England. Even the commission's priority areas encompass places as different as upland hill farming areas in the North and West, relatively inaccessible lowland areas such as the Isle of Wight and North Norfolk and the declining rural coalfield closure districts of the East Midlands.
There cannot be one solution for the development of them all. Our approach through our regional staff structure is to work out rural development programmes with local bodies in each priority area. These are suited to local needs. Rural development needs to be small scale, environmentally sensitive and locally determined. We put that point strongly to the European Commission and it seems to be reflected in its proposals, which envisage local agencies playing a key role in the delivery of community programmes.
It is gratifying that all these reports recognise the work of the Rural Development Commission as providing perhaps a useful model for other parts of the European Community. Personally, I take no credit for that as I became chairman of the commission only this year; but I pay tribute to the work of my noble friend Lord Vinson. He has asked me to say how sorry he is that due to an inescapable engagement elsewhere he is unable to take part in the debate. He has also asked me to convey to your Lordships his endorsement of both reports.
Just for a moment I shall concentrate on one particular issue—that of rural housing. The subject has been much mentioned today but it is so important that I make no apology for doing so again. For some years now the commission has seen this as the key 482 issue facing many rural communities. We welcome the recognition of the problem by the Government and the steps they have taken to increase the supply. However, we are quite clear that much more still needs to be done.
A recent study for the commission estimated that at least 116,000 additional homes will be needed over the next five years. In the main what is needed is an increase in the amount of rented accommodation at affordable levels. The private sector, through developers, landlords and landowners, has a role to play but by definition adequate provision of low-cost affordable housing is not susceptible to a commercial market solution. Much of the need will be met only with public sector financial assistance.
After helpful discussions with the chairman of the Housing Corporation and with others the Rural Development Commission suggested a number of additional steps to the Government which we feel should be taken as a matter of urgency. These proposals are additional to the support we already give to achieving the existing programme. I do not suggest that any particular step will have a major impact on its own, but taken together with earlier government initiatives I think they can all make a useful contribution. I wish briefly to refer to three of them.
First, we should like to see an increase in the Housing Corporation's rural rented programme. The corporation has given an assurance that current slippage in the programme will be recovered by the end of 1992–93. That is welcome, but the fact is that the planned target for 1992–93 of 1,500 units is simply not enough. Secondly, local authorities should be allowed to retain more of their capital receipts from council house sales on condition that the extra amount retained is reinvested through housing associations for an increase in the supply of low-cost housing in those small communities targeted by the Housing Corporation's special rural programme. I welcome the statement made by the Minister for Housing last Friday on a new scheme to boost the supply of low-cost rented housing in rural areas through local authority housing credit approvals. However, it is not yet clear what this means in terms of additional houses to be built and which areas will be eligible under this new initiative.
Thirdly, further steps are needed to make sure that sites which landowners are willing to make available for affordable housing are not lost due to the current shortage of public funds for development. One option is to make funds available to purchase sites in advance. A more attractive proposition might be to build on the land bank trust concept which has been adopted by the Devon Rural Community Council, which takes options from landowners on sites which have a reasonable expectation of planning permission. The only costs involved are administrative and legal. If the Government were willing to support the idea, the Rural Development Commission would fund the costs of similar trusts in other counties. These are not 483 the only steps—far from it—that might be taken, but I believe that they could go some way to ease the immediate problem.
I am sometimes asked whether housing is an economic or social problem. It is both. Those who try to categorise problems in this way fundamentally misunderstand the countryside. It is an extremely complicated web of interrelated issues. For example, I visit businesses which are short of labour because of the lack of local housing. I visit village housing schemes isolated from services like shops and schools. The Commission sees most aspects of life in the countryside as interrelated and practises an integrated approach to rural development. It believes equally in the importance of working in partnership with local authorities, the county rural community councils and so on in assessing the problems, needs and opportunities of an area and in drawing up programmes of action. I am pleased that the Select Committee endorsed this approach in its report.
I have referred principally to the issue of rural housing this afternoon because a shortage of rural housing now threatens the very viability of rural areas. However, that is in no way to minimise the importance of many of the other issues identified in both reports. We in the Rural Development Commission feel that rural areas and rural people do not get enough attention. We live in an urban-dominated society and too often policy is formulated from an urban standpoint. The Select Committee's report and the Archbishops' Commission report have helped to remind a much wider audience that the countryside is where large numbers of people live and work. There are some special problems and solutions need to be tailored to local circumstances. I welcome both reports for focusing attention on the rural areas and the future that they face.
§ 5.33 p.m.
§ Baroness White
My Lords, I welcome our debate today partly because the report of your Lordships' Select Committee well deserves consideration, and partly because it provides me with an opportunity to draw your Lordships' attention to the very serious problems which face the rural community in my own country of Wales. I listened with much interest to the stimulating speech of the most reverend Primate. It left me with the feeling that salvation stops at Offa's Dyke. I am sure that that was not intentional. It was very much an English enterprise.
The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, also made a wide-ranging and very interesting speech. I could not help feeling that he was so much immersed in American journalism that he had not been reading the Welsh press recently. Otherwise I feel that we would have had more reference to the problems in rural Wales than the very agreeable personal reminiscences with which he regaled us.
In the report of the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, and his colleagues, there are some references to the Principality. But the only oral evidence taken, which allowed cross-examination by members of the Committee, was that of the Development Board for 484 Rural Wales. It is true that the Association of County Councils, whose team included the very knowledgeable chief executive of the county of Gwynedd, also touched on Welsh affairs. The Welsh Office submitted a written memorandum but did not think it necessary to send representatives to London, although the Scottish and Northern Ireland Offices did.
The committee interviewed the National Farmers' Union and the National Farmers' Union of Scotland, but not the National Farmers' Union of Wales. Of the voluntary environmental bodies, audience was awarded to the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), but not to CPRW, which is its Welsh counterpart. The committee itself numbered 11 Members of this House, including the chairman. Of these, four noble Lords are based in Scotland, one in Northern Ireland and five in England. The noble Lord, Lord Raglan, who unfortunately is not able to be with us today, is based in Wales. I can only suppose that the forebears of the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, must have had some Welsh connections in 1765, when the title came into being, but he seems to be firmly established in Wiltshire.
§ The Earl of Radnor
My Lords, I must put the noble Baroness right since she has mentioned my name. There is no connection whatsoever.
§ Baroness White
My Lords, that is most regrettable. I had always hoped to recognise him as a fellow countryman, but I am obviously deprived of that privilege. Perhaps he will tell me afterwards which Radnor he belongs to.
The noble Lord, Lord Raglan, has an exemplary record of public service in what is now the county of Gwent and in the border country adjoining Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester. I am sure that he himself would not claim close familiarity with the position in south-west, mid and north-west Wales which is where our acute anxieties lie. I am aware that the membership of the Select Committee in this House is personal and not representative. Nevertheless, in the circumstances which I have described one could have expected that the committee might feel it necessary to include Wales in its programme of visits. It did not. Visits were paid to the Highlands of Scotland, Northern Ireland and south-eastern Belgium. No one bothered to come to see what is causing alarm and despondency in large areas of rural Wales.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, suggested, most of us in Wales can trace our origins to a rural, if not a farming, background. My paternal and maternal great grandfathers farmed in Cardiganshire and Denbighshire respectively. The mainstay of most Welsh farming, as I expect most of your Lordships recognise, is sheep or cattle. Today, especially but not exclusively in the upland areas, there is not just anxiety about the future. There is an element of fear. I wish that had been more fully recognised.
This fear is based mainly on the collapse of livestock prices, with even darker clouds on the horizon. It is true that the Government are trying to take palliative measures such as advance payments on the sheep annual premium, the suckler cow premium 485 and beef intervention, referred to by the Secretary of State for Wales on 29th October in another place. But these provide no permanent foundation. In addition to the 30 per cent. farm support reduction, who is to know how far the present international discussions may change the current restrictions on imports—for example, of New Zealand lamb—or whether there may be further reductions in dairy quotas or a drop in milk prices? We do not know. Two days ago Sir Simon Gourlay, known, I am sure, to many of your Lordships, was trying his best to sell the idea of supply management to Welsh farmers. I can say that was done with only limited success.
By Mediterranean standards, small farmers in Wales may appear better off than those in Greece and Portugal, but as Professor Michael Haines of University College, Aberystwyth, pointed out in his memorandum to the Select Committee, what matters in social and economic terms is what is relative to the society in which you actually live. Proposals for an income support scheme based on Mediterranean standards could be very damaging, and not beneficial, to small farmers in Wales. I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, endorsed that view in her speech. I hope that we shall not have any move in that direction. It is essential that in dismantling the CAP we lose no time in establishing an alternative regime which will sustain and retain our upland farming population.
A partial framework is to hand in the less favoured areas, to which the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, referred, and in the environmentally sensitive areas which, with national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, cover virtually the whole of rural Wales. But the framework must be filled in and the pattern thought through—and quickly.
I understand that, under the ESA regime, the Community pays 25 per cent. and the Treasury 75 per cent. of the cost. That explains the reluctance of the Treasury to agree to extensions of the ESA areas, although the concept has the great advantage of being environmentally beneficial while restraining production. There is also an EC proposal for a LEADER scheme as a mechanism for sustaining local economic and community development work in selected rural areas. Meanwhile, the proposed reduction in agricultural support payments, to whatever level, will release Community funds. Unless our negotiators are skilful and persistent, we may fail to transfer adequate amounts in other ways to sustain rural society, particularly in the physically disadvantaged areas of our country, at a tolerable and ongoing level. Hence our profound concern at the present state of affairs.
This concern is greatly intensified in Wales by the fact that it is primarily in the rural areas of north-west Wales, mid-Wales and south-west Wales that our Welsh language, traditions and culture survive and flourish. If these areas seriously decline, then much of what we cherish may go too. It is far more than simply an economic problem, most particularly in the Welsh speaking areas.
There is no doubt that the past decade has shown 486 marked Welsh success in obtaining inward investment to replace the declining basic industries of coal, steel and shipping. The present Secretary of State for Wales was recently in Japan, simultaneously with the Prince and Princess of Wales, but with more mundane objectives than imperial ceremonial on his mind. We have attracted both Japanese and German entrepreneurs of substance. It is only right to acknowledge the efforts of successive Secretaries of State, including the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, who set an excellent example to his immediate successor and to the present incumbent. But they and the Welsh Office have not been equally successful in bringing European Community funds to Welsh rural areas.
This too was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. It is partly but not entirely due to the bureaucracy of Brussels. In particular, the delay in obtaining any financial benefit at all for rural Wales from the European Community ERDF source, although the three Welsh rural counties of Powys, Dyfed and Gwynedd have been lingering in the designated 5B queue literally for years, has been irritating beyond belief. I am told that there is now something definite in the pipeline. Perhaps the noble Baroness who is to reply to the debate may have some good news for us.
Finally, I turn to the major agencies with economic and to some extent social responsibilities in rural Wales—the Development Board for Rural Wales, the Welsh Development Agency and the Wales Tourist Board. Important as tourism is, in this debate I believe that the two economic agencies should take precedence.
For reasons of history, their relationship is anomalous. Sir Wyn Roberts, Minister of State at the Welsh Office, has recently provided some very interesting information on their respective achievements. This too was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. The Development Board for Rural Wales, based at Newtown in Montgomeryshire, has jurisdiction in the country of Powys and in one district each of Dyfed and Gwynedd—in all, some 40 per cent. of the land area of Wales but only 8 per cent. of the population. Its writ does not run in the other distinctly rural areas of Pembrokeshire, Carmarthen, Caernarvon or Anglesea nor in the more industrialised counties of Glamorgan, Gwent and Clwyd. In these, it is the Welsh Development Agency which operates, with increasing emphasis on rural investment, but lacking the social remit of DBRW.
This is not the occasion to discuss these irrationalities, but in relation to the increasing influence of Community decisions on patterns of rural life throughout Europe one must ask whether the present arrangements are really the most effective ones that we can devise for Wales. Both DBRW and WDA are doing admirable and, in general, successful work in the Principality, assisted by the Wales Tourist Board, Coed Cymru and Tai Cymru, for woodland development and rural housing respectively. But are the two agencies, separately or conjointly, in a strong enough position to carry adequate weight in Brussels? They are both answerable to the Welsh Office, as is the 487 Welsh Agricultural Division. But the Welsh Office has multifarious concerns and its ministerial team carry extensive responsibilities. Can they spare the time and effort needed seriously to influence both Whitehall and the international activity on which the future salvation of rural society in Wales depends? Judging by the showing of the report which is before us this afternoon, one cannot help expressing a certain degree of doubt. But the noble Baroness who is to reply was put on notice that Welsh concerns would be raised today. I for one await her response with interest.
§ 5.48 p.m.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, I rise to speak in the debate as a member of the committee which was chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Middleton. He is an admirable chairman. He has a wide knowledge and a kindly way of putting one down. He has all the necessary characteristics except that he is too kind a man. When the Whips came to him and said that they wanted to lump two reports together, one from the Church and one from the committee, he said yes, of course. He would not be nasty enough to tell the Whips where they should go. However, that would not apply to me.
It is ridiculous for us to discuss two important reports. The most reverend Primate who introduced the Church report said that it was 70 per cent. addressed to the Church. The Select Committee report is one on rural society and is mainly concerned with economic and other social factors.
We now have a situation where we have a list of 30 speakers which means that the proceedings will run extraordinarily late. I am 500 miles away from home. I expected to discuss one report and, as a result, both my noble friend Lord Hooson and myself, who live in remote parts of the United Kingdom will have to be discourteous and leave before the end of the debate. We apologise to the assembled noble Lords and to the Minister for that fact. Of course, the latter has full permission and scope to be rude about us in our absence. Nevertheless, we shall read what she says with great interest.
As everyone has said, the whole question of rural society is one which is not susceptible to one single solution; indeed, there is an enormous variety over the whole of the United Kingdom. In some parts of the South East the great problem is not to let people into the countryside, but in parts of the Highlands, and in agricultural areas, the problem is how to retain the population.
I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Hooson that the question of agriculture still remains absolutely paramount in many areas. I know that those directly employed in that industry represent only 2 per cent. of the whole working population, but there are also a large number of dependent industries which make agriculture remain one of the most important industries in the country. Certainly, in large areas of the countryside, if you do not have a viable agriculture then you will not have a very comfortable or viable countryside.
488 In the debate on the gracious Speech, I, and others, gave figures on the decline in the income of agriculture which applied not only to small farmers and family farmers but also to the larger farmers. There is no questioning the fact that farming income is in decline. However, that is not the part of the report upon which I wish to concentrate.
I wish to concentrate upon the other industries in the countryside. I dare say many noble Lords have visited the Black Forest. I recently toured the area. It is absolutely delightful. One valley which we visited had perhaps half a dozen farms. We came across on the top of a hill a most glorious little chapel which was beautifully kept. We noticed that there were two good cars outside each farm and that there was no possibility of that standard of life being supported from the acres of land which we saw. Of course, the answer is that there is spread throughout greater Germany, or the Federal Republic, a large variety of industries in which people may work, while still living on their farms. It was quite apparent to me that that was supporting an extremely healthy rural society. Clearly that factor is one of great importance.
I was delighted to hear the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, whom I regarded with great suspicion because he succeeded such a good chairman in the RDC. However, no doubt he will be relieved to know that my fears have been set at rest. I am sure that the commission will continue to carry out extremely good work. Members of the committee were very impressed with its evidence. I hope and trust that the Minister will pay close attention to what the noble Lord said about the need for rural housing, the need to support rural local government communities and the need to release money. Further, I hope that they will be allowed to keep the houses and that they will not have to sell them because of the sale policy of the Government which, taken as a whole, is excellent; but, in rural areas, there are many places where this has done a great deal of harm.
Along with the RDC in England, the noble Baroness will be pleased to hear that the committee also took evidence from the development agency in central Wales which was obviously on top of its job.
§ Baroness White
My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt simply to correct the noble Lord. It is called the Development Board for Rural Wales.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, I stand corrected.
These other agencies have been of enormous value in showing us the way which we should go. I hope that the Government will not only bless them in theory but that they will also bless them with money. The Highlands and Islands Development Board and the Scottish Development Agency in Scotland have done much good. However, the format has now been altered. They are now called, respectively, the Highlands and Islands Enterprise Board and the Scottish Enterprise Board. A great deal of devolution of power has taken place. I am not sure about the situation, but I shall watch it with great interest. In my view, it is most important that the Government 489 support these agencies by giving them the money which they need. Of course, they will get the money back because there is nothing which costs a government more in the countryside than having to support a run-down area. Indeed, if an area proves to be prosperous, the Government's investment will provide dividends. That is the essential assurance which we need from the Minister.
I was not altogether reassured when the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said that Scottish Homes were to receive £1 million in respect of an experiment in housing. I hope that that is not all that it will receive. I say that because, so far as I know, £1 million will not build many houses. I see that the Minister does not wish to say anything further on the matter, so it appears that £1 million is the correct figure.
I have great hopes of Scottish Homes; that is, if it is properly funded. However, if it is not, then the present troubles that we have in the Scottish rural areas will continue. In that area we are seeing exactly the same situations arising as has been the case in the South for many years. People come up to Scotland, having sold their homes at a high price, and buy up the houses. That means that local people cannot afford to stay in the area.
Many of the topics mentioned in our report have proved to be most useful. All the evidence the committee took—and the evidence given by the noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, is recent confirmation of this—showed that housing in the countryside for local people must he available for rent at an affordable price. If such housing is not available, we shall not see the right kind of development.
Unless people actually work in a community, they do not take part in it. That is the evidence we heard from all over Scotland and England. If you commute 30 or 40 miles from your home to your place of work, you simply have a house in the area. That is not good enough. We know that the numbers of people in farming will decline, but a major Government objective should be to ensure that any enterprise outside farming is supported and that industrial ventures in the rural community are also supported. In that way we can contain and hold the indigenous community and make a much better community for people who wish to come into the countryside.
§ 5.59 p.m.
§ Lord Plumb
My Lords, it is timely that we debate the issues facing rural society. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Middleton on his Select Committee's report and wholly support his comments upon it. I also warmly welcome the fact that it is linked with that excellent document Faith in the Countryside produced by my noble friend Lord Prior. I am almost tempted to agree with the opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, and those of the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, and say that we perhaps should take two bites at this massive report because there is the agricultural and the rural content to consider. We 490 should remind ourselves, however, that we have one rural society and therefore it might be appropriate to link the two reports.
I shall deal with the various parts of the workbench: the land itself and those who live in the countryside. We are aware that since the report was written the problems facing agriculture have escalated. The financial position of many farmers is critical; and people are still leaving the land in ever-increasing numbers. The causes of that are well known and have been well researched, but solutions must be found if traditional farming families are to survive. We must avoid at all costs driving the whole of agriculture into huge intensive units. Neither farmers nor society want that. We should realise that at the height of the surpluses caused by the CAP, 80 per cent. of the cost of the CAP was spent upon the storage of surpluses and export subsidies. So a combination of measures is necessary to rectify that unbalanced expenditure. That can be done only by a switch from production incentives to market management, linked to further extensification and care for the environment.
We are well aware—we have experience of this that progressive price cutting does not by itself provide the answer. In fact it can, and does, do the reverse. Farmers are realists and accept that farm support will be reduced in the years to come, but within the framework of any GATT settlement we must not drive thousands of farmers, and young farmers, out of business.
As has already been said, there has been a move into the countryside, with people taking over country dwellings. We note that one in five people in England live in rural areas, and nine out of 10 who live in those areas are not involved in farming. It is therefore essential to unite the voice of the countryside and to use every endeavour to create an environment in which we can all live and work together to maintain or protect village life, the Church, the school, the community centre and the very fabric of the countryside. However, we have first to recognise one another's needs in order to create the balance of demands for land use, housing, farming, recreation, country pursuits and the development of small businesses which now form a growing part of the national economy. The provision of services to those rural areas must not be neglected. Medical, pharmaceutical and advisory services and care for the elderly and sick are crucial in order to help rural areas.
So we see the whole face of the countryside changing. Nearly every farmer in my village has applied for planning permission to convert barns and other buildings into dwellings or business enterprises which we hope will keep village life alive without destroying the environment; but will the newcomers be made welcome by those whose roots are in the village?
The most reverend Primate mentioned the role of the Church in rural society. I was reminded of when I was staying with friends in Dorset a while ago. As we went into the village on the Sunday morning the church bells were ringing. People were coming out of 491 every house and going up to the church for the service. I said to my host, "This is quite remarkable. You must have a good vicar". He said, "On the contrary, but you see we own all these houses and I only let a house to a family which promises that at least one of its members will attend church on a Sunday". I said, "That sounds positively feudal". He said, "You see, I have to look after the welfare of the church. I am the patron and that is the way to keep it going". He said it had brought the community together and that all the village activities take place in the community centre.
Villages will die without organisations to keep them alive such as the Women's Institute, the Young Farmers (that fine marriage bureau) and the many voluntary bodies that are wholly dependent upon voluntary contributions of time and effort. That is a factor that cannot always be measured in financial terms.
As we hear so often, "No man is an island". We cannot live in isolation from one another. We look at the problems of pollution and environmental issues. Chernobyl shocked and frightened the world into the realisation that pollution knows no boundaries.
Both rural and urban dwellers are therefore affected by the world's development. Every nine year-old schoolgirl will lecture over the breakfast table on the ozone layer, acid rain and the greenhouse effect on the weather. Even the world's 25 million flatulent cows are accused of blowing a hole in the ozone layer as we are told that they produce 90 million tonnes of methane gas a year, which brings global disaster nearer by boosting the greenhouse effect. Your Lordships will of course be aware that one tonne of methane has the same effect on the earth's atmosphere as 75 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The good news for cows, according to some scientists, is that brewery products are better for them than cereals and grass since they produce half the quantity of methane gas.
I should like to concentrate on agriculture and the need for balance. We seem to live in an age where society has rediscovered the environment. There is an increasing demand for all things healthy or natural. The paradox is that against the concern for "natural" is the growing demand for a higher standard of living. It is a human characteristic to want to have one's cake and eat it: the countryside should be there as a haven of recreation, of calm and of natural beauty when work in the city or factory is finished.
The public perception has changed. People now talk about the scandal of surpluses and of the rape of the countryside and do not applaud economic efficiency. Sir Derek Barber, who is known to us all, reminded us recently in his anatomy of "green" agriculture that by definition "green" should mean:a commercially effective industry which operates within the sensible constraints imposed upon it by the need to protect and enhance the farmed environment".That seems to me the most balanced definition of what might be termed the environmental care of farm land and the economic health of the agricultural industry. It is outrageous to postulate a situation where wholly non-scientific pressures lead to agriculture being 492 placed in a straitjacket of dubious fashioning which will blunt the edge of its ability to produce economically and to compete in the market place.
Farmers will be blamed and criticised increasingly by consumers and "Christmas Tree Party" supporters alike for polluting the atmosphere. Yet is it difficult to link a particular environmental quality problem to a farm or set of farms. That makes the design and enforcement of pollution control policies extremely difficult.
Pollution transcends national boundaries, especially in respect of water. Countries that would benefit from reducing agricultural pollution are therefore often different from the countries that would have to bear the cost. Uniform environmental regulation across countries would result in differential incidence of control costs across countries. For example, the strict regulation of pesticides in Western Europe would disadvantage farmers in Mediterranean countries relative to northern European countries due to the greater pest problem in countries with warmer climates.
I make no apology for stressing this point because I believe it is an important factor involved in what is happening in rural society: balancing food output with environmental legislation poses many questions. To make food and water safe, we must decide what we mean by safe. Safe from what? Safe for what? Safe for whom? At what cost, and who pays? Who decides what safe means? Is it the bureaucrats? Is it the scientists? The answer in money terms is simply—a lot.
The big question to legislators is: can a European directive be equally operative from Portugal to the Po valley? There is of course in all this a need for flexibility and common sense. To balance farming and further demands for land use in the countryside is, I believe, the most important and demanding task we face. We have to look at the development of rural society in two ways. The first concerns the living standards for all those for whom the countryside is a home and a workplace, farmers and non-farmers alike. We must remember that life in the vast majority of rural areas has been shaped by agriculture. This means that rural areas must adapt to the rapid changes occurring in agriculture. The European structures policy is designed to do this, covering not only purely farming interests but the non-agricultural income-earning activities which are open to farmers.
Perhaps the second way of looking at rural society involves seeing the countryside as a vital part of the Community's geographical area. It means making the countryside accessible to the urban population, as well as recognising the role the countryside plays in the environmental balance. In this context, all the European Community's policy-making must take account of the importance of rural development. In monitoring the laws of supply and demand in the food market we must distinguish between those able to cope with reforms and those who through no fault of their own are unable to do so. The policy therefore has to be designed to help them adapt to new conditions 493 and to help older farmers who so wish to hand over their farms to younger men and women who are perhaps more prepared to take up the challenge.
I have a vision of people in the not too distant future working a 30-hour week for 30 weeks of the year. If that vision becomes a reality, then the growth industry will inevitably be the leisure industry. The rural areas of Britain can provide the facilities, but as David Bellamy said recently:Hotel owners and others involved in the tourism business should contribute towards the cost of looking after the countryside—calling for urgent action if we are to avoid loving our countryside to death".If faith is to be restored among the rural society in the countryside, as indicated so clearly in the report of my noble friend Lord Prior, following the initiative of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury we would do well to recommend action on the report so ably presented by my noble friend Lord Middleton.
§ 6.13 p.m.
§ The Duke of Somerset
My Lords, I too rise as a member of the sub-committee that produced this report. I feel that the document under discussion produced by the commission is to be warmly welcomed. Today's debate on the Select Committee report occurs at a most appropriate time when the worldwide debate on GATT and public concern for the countryside are reaching a crescendo. As the report makes clear, the commission's initiative is a good start but it needs flesh added to it and it needs objectives clarified. It is significant that the EC finds it difficult to agree its own negotiating position in Uruguay.
Agriculture is still the heart pump for the rural areas of the EC, all 80 per cent. of it, and the 50 per cent. of people who work and live therein. Even in the UK where agricultural sophistication has meant that farming touches upon a low percentage of the population, it causes the electorate concern where their aspirations for the beauty of the countryside are affected.
A typical economist's view of any rural problem might be to consider abandoning agriculture to market forces. The reasoning for this embraces a wider political concept as well as that of a market economy. We believe that some third world countries are close to obtaining nuclear weapons. Perhaps in future the only way to stop them being used for territorial gain is for the developed countries to make third world countries more prosperous thus avoiding internal coups d'etat. In other words, they must improve their agriculture and primary industries.
Thus the EC must, in the greater interest, give up any protectionist policies, such as for agriculture, to pacify these threatening countries. Of course, the result will be a slow dereliction over about the next 20 years with recreation being an important user of the land. I find it interesting to note that in the summary of the commission's paper, paragraph 2 at the back of the report refers to recreation and leisure.
494 Is this the future that we want? We must not allow our greed for short-term profits to permit the sale of nuclear materials to such countries. Likewise, we must develop a policy to retain a viable rural economy while changing to an open market that is properly regulated throughout the Community.
I am most taken by the mission of Rural Voice from which I quote:We look to the maintenance or creation of rural communities which have a measure of social mix … in order to nurture that communal self-help without which very heavy financial burdens must fall on the statutory social services".The management of supply in agriculture is not a success. Set aside has not been an environmental panacea nor will it reduce cereal outputs because of biotechnology improvements. Quotas have produced divisions of interest and reduced prospects for new entrants. They will inevitably ossify the industry. On the other hand, we do not wish to give up this country's efficiency and competitiveness which has been achieved by nearly 40 years of restructuring and investment. Let us make the most of our advantages and expertise.
It is the smaller producers with, say, under 30 hectares that are most favoured by supply management. Paragraph 250 of the report rejects the concept of the family farm for policy purposes. As the CLA states, an open market is not inconsistent with a supportive market. Producers in the UK expect similar levels of support as in any other country and as allowed under GATT. A case in point is the hill farmers and those in the marginal areas. To my mind it is vital that those in the UK are aided by the raising of HLCA and extending the ESA. Environmental incentives are now allowed and should be incorporated into these provisions.
The imminent decline of communities in these hill areas epitomises what could happen throughout the rural areas if a proper and sensible policy in the CAP and GATT is not achieved. To illustrate this, I wish to comment on one or two of the detailed points covered in the report. These are topics that we need to get right if an open market policy is to work. The greatest of these, to my mind and the minds of other noble Lords, appears to be rural housing. It may well be that the number of times the subject has been mentioned in this debate reflects the importance that noble Lords attach to it. However, I am afraid that I do not share the Minister's confidence in this matter. Rural housing is not such a pressing problem elsewhere in the Community. Second homes in the countryside do not hold the same appeal for Romans and other Continentals as they hold for British people.
I wish to pick up the point of the Housing Corporation's desire to have 1500 rural dwellings built a year. As we have heard, the present rate of building is 300 to 400 houses per year. Even the upper figure of 400 per year will not go very far to satisfy the need for housing that exists over the length and breadth of the countryside. The Minister talked about surveys. A figure was given which tallies with the figure I have. The organisation Action with Communities in Rural England estimates that the rural shortfall is of the 495 order of 23,000 to 37,000 dwellings. Are the Government aware of the size of the need for rural housing? Will the funds that have recently been announced be adequate to meet the need? Further, will the Minister say why local authorities are not allowed to spend more than 25 per cent. of their sale receipts from council houses in assisting in the provision of social housing? The report highlights that factor as a major problem. I hope we can be reassured that the Government will address that problem.
A point of concern that is of equal importance to the one I have just referred to is the environment and planning controls. Positive management which produces environmental benefits needs to be paid for. That management has been established under the environmentally sensitive areas scheme and in Part VII of the Environmental Protection Act. Those measures represent a start and they are good news. The Country Landowners' Association's environmental land management scheme and the Countryside Commission's "menu" scheme can be adopted Community wide. However, the negative effect of any increased planning controls in the countryside would not encourage entrepreneurship or the much vaunted diversification.
The reorganisation of local government funding has thrown up a real crisis for village shops and post offices which are a lifeline in remote rural areas. The combined effect of the unified business rate and the personal charge is seriously threatening their viability and thus their continued operation. In my local village the unified business rate alone is almost twice the level of the former rates. In Suffolk a survey has revealed that increases of up to 235 per cent. have been levied. That figure will, of course, be reduced by the five year transitional arrangements but it still represents an increase of 37 per cent. this year. Most of the increases levied in that county are three-figure increases but admittedly one or two of the increases are as low as 8 per cent. However, a storekeeper then has to add to those expenses the cost of at least one personal charge, or more if he is married. The result is that a grocery and post office business comes near to losing its viability. Any closures of such businesses are devastating to a remote village without public transport. The Government must view that matter as a problem. I would be keen to hear how they will tackle it, or will it just be put to one side? Petrol forecourts and pubs are assessed on a profitability or turnover basis. Could this not be extended to the shops I have mentioned?
Forestry is frequently mentioned as a good rural alternative to pure farming but it again suffers from a similar malady to that I have already mentioned and that is a lack of sufficient funding to make it a good starter. The prospect in two-and-a-half years' time of maintenance grants which are subject to the ravages of inflation is not encouraging and neither is a determination to avoid planting the much needed softwoods in England to feed the established processing sector. Without adequate rabbit, squirrel and deer control, the envisaged hardwood forests will not materialise. The shortfall that exists between 496 actual planting and the Government's targets is an adequate demonstration of the loss of confidence in this industry.
The report touches on the subject of energy and the potential for renewable raw materials. Even now exciting experiments are being conducted to try to run diesel engines on raw rapeseed oil, apparently without any modifications. However, I gather that the engine life is fairly limited. Nevertheless the Brazilians have used alcohol as a substitute for petrol for a number of years. In view of the current price of oil surely there is plenty of scope for research into alternative diesel fuels. I wonder whether the Government have any information on that matter.
Finally, I wish to encourage the Commission to develop training and educational facilities for the young. That point is emphasised in the report. I hope the Government will act upon it. Since the Second World War the UK has been a leader in Europe on matters of agriculture. Let us not squander that advantage but go into Europe and lead the way in adapting land and rural communities to present needs and constrictions. We have roughed out a basic framework but many of the schemes need a little more financial help to enable them to succeed. That is a better way than overt price support. I hope I may join the chairman of the sub-committee, the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, in thanking all of those who have helped in one way or another in facilitating the production of this report.
§ 6.26 p.m.
§ Baroness Elliot of Harwood
My Lords, I speak as a member of the Select Committee. The noble Duke, the Duke of Somerset, was also a member. I wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, for the splendid way in which he chaired the committee. The committee's affairs aroused enormous interest. We met a large number of people and many people expressed their views. Those views are all recorded in the report. That is vitally important. We are very much indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, for the way he handled the report.
I wish to assure the noble Baroness, Lady White, that the interests of Wales coincide very much with those of Scotland. Although the only member of the committee who was a Welsh farmer was the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, a great many of the committee members knew about Wales and about farming in Wales. I live in a very beautiful area which is considered to be one of the less favoured areas. I appreciate that Wales has the same problems as those present in my area. Therefore the problems of Wales were continually before us and I wish to reassure the noble Baroness that we were concerned about agriculture in Wales.
The important point that has come out of the report and this debate concerns the diversity of agricultural areas. It would be useless to have one general policy for all farming methods. The variety of farming methods has been and must continue to be recognised and catered for in any agricultural policy. I wish to mention five of the matters that the report 497 considered as they outline what is needed. First, it is important to maintain the potential of the countryside as the public wish it to be maintained. However, that process must be carried out within the economic constraints that exist. The public, after all, enjoy the rural areas and they would be disappointed if those areas ceased to exist. It is not just agriculturalists who wish to preserve the countryside.
Secondly, it is important that the right produce is provided to ensure that employment is maintained in rural areas. Money must be invested to provide for the production materials and methods that are needed. In my opinion agriculture represents a good investment. Money invested in it is not wasted. It is not a matter of throwing money away but rather of investing it in something that will produce what the ordinary consumer needs. I believe that is important.
Thirdly, we must provide the right social conditions. The quality of life would then be as good in rural areas as it is in towns, or even better. We must not remove schools from rural areas. Rural children want to be educated in their home areas. Housing has been dealt with by a great many speakers so I shall not mention the subject other than to endorse what they said. There is also a need for doctors and pharmaceutical services in rural areas. No doubt many of your Lordships have received very interesting letters from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain urging that facilities for doctors and patients should be available in rural societies. Transport is also very important. Although nowadays many people have motor cars there are still some people who need to use buses and a bus service is therefore essential. Post offices are also vital. In my opinion, those needs are still with us and require to be supported. Opportunities for young people to learn about agriculture and rural activities are also of great importance.
It is important to maintain the attractive aspects of rural areas—landscapes and buildings, access to rural beauty spots and rural walks. All of those come into the picture. Although they do not necessarily involve production, they create the atmosphere and scenery which attract people from other parts of the country.
The rural environment should be protected from ugly developments or uses which conflict with rural landscapes and interests. I had a shattering experience in my own area while I was still a member of the county council. There was a proposal to rebuild the county offices and the plans were put out to competition. We selected a very nice building which would have been most suitable. However, the Royal Institute of British Architects was involved and chose another building which is absolutely hideous. Every time I go past it I can hardly bear it. It was built not at the will of the rural population but at the will of the architects. I have never forgiven them.
In modern times development in country villages means the integration of people who work in towns or in industry but who want to live in a village. The integration of different ways of life can be difficult but it is not impossible. In my village—where I have lived 498 for 50 years or more—there are now a great many people who work in towns. Although that has created problems they have been largely overcome. That is due to the voluntary organisations. I am very enthusiastic about the voluntary organisations in rural areas such as the Women's Institutes, youth clubs and sports clubs, which can bring people together in their spare time. Village halls and clubs are a great help. It is important to approach the problem with an open mind and see how the interests of urban dwellers coming into rural areas can be assimilated to the benefit of all.
Members of your Lordships' House have spoken about finance. Without help from the department or the EC, agriculture would be in a very poor way. If farming is to continue in less favoured areas—which are usually the most beautiful —it is essential that there should be some income support. Unless that continues farms in by far the greatest proportion of land will go out of production. In Scotland almost 80 per cent. of farms are in less favoured areas and the figure for Wales is similar. That assistance is not expenditure; it is an investment. It ensures that the countryside stays beautiful, it provides jobs and means that people take an interest in the countryside, and people from urban areas can also enjoy it.
If we did not have that support those areas would become wildernesses. I believe that that would also apply in Europe. I do not know what the situation is in Europe, but I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, with great interest. I believe that the same applies with regard to less favoured areas in Europe, which would also become derelict without support. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie, spoke about the Highlands and Islands, and we all know how important it is that help should be given there.
Diversification is very much part of the picture, but it is difficult to carry out in less favoured areas where the only diversification appears to be in forestry. No income is generated by trees until they are felled, and that takes 30 to 40 years at least. I believe that the theory of alternative production in vast areas of the country simply will not work. If one does not want those areas to become derelict they have to be given support.
Some farmers living near urban areas have diversified into other activities which are possible because they are near urban areas. For example, they sell farm produce or open small restaurants attached to their farms so that people from the towns can buy fruit or vegetables or have a meal. However, that will pay only if the farmer is near to customers, and that is not always the case.
Nothing can be done without some financial aid. Financial support will keep down the price of food to the consumer, save the countryside from dereliction and help the preservation of country areas to the benefit of everyone, not only farmers. I hope very much that the Government will appreciate that and develop an agricultural policy which will really help farmers.
§ 6.37 p.m.
§ The Earl of Selborne
My Lords, the Select Committee report and many of the speeches this afternoon have referred to the changing face of agriculture. One of the problems is that we do not really know to what extent agriculture is changing. We know that it is changing but the implications are not clear. The Select Committee report points to conflicting evidence about the acreage that will go out of production in this country.
The opportunity that a changing situation provides to influence the change in ways which are seen to be favourable to wider interests than agriculture alone also provides the opportunity to consider the objectives that government or CAP support should be trying to achieve. One of the problems is that in the past five to 10 years, since the times of surpluses, we have assumed much of the very real progress made since 1947 and the enlightened Agriculture Act. We have tended to underestimate the great advantages and take them for granted. As a result, there have been criticisms of the technological advances which have made that possible. It reminds me of the analogy of the internal combustion engine: we see it as something that we could not manage without and yet we are all too quick to criticise its implications for our society at large.
Clearly the technological developments which have made that dramatic improvement in the ability not just of this country or of Western Europe but of the world as a whole to feed itself have also resulted in damage to the environment and landscape which we now have the opportunity to address. I regard that as almost fine tuning compared with the great objectives of the Agriculture Act 1947 and of the common agricultural policy, of which the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, spoke.
Damage to wildlife habitats, pollution of waterways, overgrazing of uplands and the appearance of prairies are some of the subjects mentioned in the evidence to the Select Committee. I believe that the Government's attempts to give such support as remains—clearly there will be much less support than we have been used to—to achieve some environmental advantage in these respects are wholly to be welcomed. But there is a danger that we may be carried away by what I consider to be peripheral issues. Extensification is no doubt highly desirable for a number of farms. Management agreements for conservation for leisure will also be desirable in many instances to help meet and redress the balance of demands on the countryside.
Nevertheless, agriculture, which in many areas may not employ a great number of people, has the largest influence on the appearance of the landscape. The core business of agriculture is food production. It must not be forgotten that if one is to have the landscape and a rural community which is reasonably balanced, one simply cannot afford to allow the core business of food production to be put dramatically at risk.
From these Benches at least it is clear that we must accept that in the future we shall not receive the 500 generous support given by the Agriculture Act 1947 nor that of the common agricultural policy. The intervention of my noble friend Lady Trumpington, when she asked the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, whether he had taken note of Australia and New Zealand, reminds us that those are countries which, for better or worse, have experienced dramatic withdrawal of support from their agricultural producers. They have to manage, sometimes better and sometimes worse, in a very harsh economic climate. I fear that we shall be expected to live in that climate if we are to continue with agriculture in this country. We shall not like it but we shall not receive a very sympathetic response from either the Government or much of urban society if we bleat too loudly about it.
I do not think that the implications for the countryside are entirely understood by society as a whole. But it must at least be understood that if this country is to have a dynamic agricultural industry which can continue to do its core business of providing safe food at economic cost and agricultural systems which are environmentally friendly, as well as take due account of the landscape and animal welfare considerations, it will all amount to a new definition of efficient farming, which presupposes that the food can be produced in competition with other sources of supply.
If the hypothesis is accepted that we shall not receive the support for which we might otherwise have hoped, we shall have to implement new technology, exactly as we have done in the past. Our industry is technology driven. It is extremely responsive to new technology. I emphatically deny that new technology implies desecration of the landscape or the submersion of valid rural interests at the price of unacceptable farming practices. Indeed, much new technology is seen to be extremely friendly and clean; for example, the implementation of biotechnology to reduce the use of chemical pesticides and nitrogen fixing plants for reducing nitrates which leach into the water supplies.
Society, which has such a large say in planning regulation, should understand that if it requires a well-balanced rural economy, in which balance food production will remain an important part, that industry cannot be fossilised. One cannot do as the commission suggested in one part of its support system; namely, to give income aid to the family farm because it consists of family farmers. That is simply to deny the basis of dynamic growth in the industry and competitive agriculture. I do not say that family farms are not desirable. Indeed they are; but I find unacceptable the basis of giving income support to the family as opposed to giving income support to food production.
I turn to a subject that has been widely touched upon by other speakers in this debate; namely, rural housing. I participated in a rural housing scheme in our village of Selborne in Hampshire. No doubt the House will accept that both reports recognise that low-cost housing in rural areas is in many ways the key to achieving the balance for which we all strive. I have experience of a village which has a very high 501 proportion of expensive houses and a population which feels that the next generation will find it extremely difficult to remain in the area. We were able to identify a piece of land which was on the edge of the village but outside the village structure plan and therefore had agricultural value and little else. By use of the Section 52 agreement restricting use of any housing on that site to people who lived or worked in the parish, or failing that in the neighbouring parishes, and by canvassing widely (a poll was conducted by the parish council), we were able to obtain support from the very people who otherwise might have been expected to be hostile to the proposal. I must add that there was strong support from the district and parish councils, which in many ways led the project.
We took a brief from the National Agriculture Centre Housing Trust. The pioneering work of the Rank Foundation in starting that organisation at Stoneleigh and nursing it through to the present day deserves some recognition. East Hampshire District Council was extremely supportive, not just in its role as planning authority but also, when it came to the rented accommodation which consisted of about half the houses provided, by making the funding possible. Accepting that this is one method of helping—and clearly rented accommodation is something which will always need funding support from some source—I add my plea to those of others to the effect that where there are balances held by housing authorities, those housing authorities should be allowed to spend a larger proportion of them on social housing.
I leave that subject aside and turn to owner-occupier shared ownership housing. I should like to point out that it is not necessary to have any government support at all in financial terms. Obviously it does not provide the cheapest low income family support. Nevertheless, it provides support for families who might have a joint income of, say, £10,000. On such an income one can raise a mortgage of £35,000 to £40,000. That is the cost in the South East of building a house when the land comes in at either a low or nil value. It is possible to find such land. It is already held within the community by local authorities, landowners (who will perhaps accept nomination rights as a contribution rather than funding), charities and other organisations.
Perhaps we may all agree that the key to so many problems in rural communities may be found by identifying the way in which one can provide low-cost housing. Very often the key may already be in those communities. I believe that if each parish council took upon itself first of all to canvass for need and then to try to identify the simple pieces of land, it might itself be able to solve the problem.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ Lord John-Mackie
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to speak after the noble Earl, Lord Selborne. We all know his contribution to agriculture over the years. There is no point in labouring the points that he made, which I had intended to raise as well. This is the first time that he has spoken in this House since he recently received his nice award. I am sure that the House will 502 want to congratulate him on it. I am sorry that an accident prevented me from being present at the award.
Like other noble Lords, I must compliment the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, and his committee as well as the staff who produced this report. If the size of it is anything to go by, they deserve tremendous praise.
When I consider a report that is to be debated I pick out one or two of a small number of conclusions and speak on those. However, I met the noble Earl, Lord Radnor, in the corridor late last night. We discussed the report for a minute or two. We both agreed that with 33 conclusions there were a little too many for us to speak on them all.
I must apologise to the Church. I did not know —I somehow missed the reference in the Order Paper —that we are also discussing the report of the Archbishops' commission. The noble Earl, Lord Radnor, reminded me of that. I obtained the report and found that there were 47 conclusions. I have thumbed through the report. It is first class. It contains a tremendous amount of information. I believe that it is worthy of a debate on its own, not taken together with the other report, a point that I believe my noble kinsman made earlier.
I wish to deal with three aspects: housing, diversification and taking land out of production. I refer to housing first. I should like to continue the quotation from Rural Voice, to which the noble Duke referred. It states:in which people with roots, and in particular with jobs, in their locality can find housing there whatever their income".That is very true. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, has emphasised the point, as have many other speakers. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop also emphasised housing.
Over a long period I have lived or worked in five different areas of the country—in two parishes in my native county of Aberdeenshire, in Kincardineshire, in Lincolnshire, where I now live which is 20 miles from where we sit in this House. In the first four areas the picture is roughly the same. The mobility of the population by car, bus, train and so on, has made surrounding villages and small towns available to live in. In some cases new and different populations have taken over, much to the detriment of the local people with regard to housing.
The village of Tarves, 16 miles from Aberdeen, is now three to four times bigger than it was when I was a boy some 70 years ago. That is a tremendous difference. It is due to the development of the oil industry at Aberdeen. The village has become accessible for those working in Aberdeen, although it is 16 miles away. There is a good road to travel back and forth to work in Aberdeen. In addition, the amalgamation of farms and the selling off of farm cottages and farm houses means that one has a totally different community than the original rural set-up.
I farm in Lincolnshire. People are moving into houses at prices way beyond the rural population's income. I was interested in what the noble Earl, Lord 503 Selborne, said about housing associations and the obtaining of land at an agricultural price. I am sure that we shall hear from the noble Lord, Lord Prior, on that subject. In some areas, in particular where I live now, the price of the land is almost equal to the price of the cost of building a house on it.
Nazeing, where I live, is a different story. Nazeing was a village straggling along the border of Hertfordshire almost up to the new town of Harlow. The area next to Hertfordshire has developed into a small town with well over 5,000 inhabitants in the past 35 years since I came down here. However, it has left a rural area to the east with a small hamlet at its centre. It rejoices in the name of Bumble's Green. (I suggested to the gentleman who deals with titles that I should rather like to be the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Bumble's Green, but he did not think it suitable. However, that is by the way). In this area there is no question of farms being amalgamated. Any land with a reasonable house, or a house that can be developed, which comes on to the market, is bought by the yuppies, about whom we spoke a little yesterday.
Council houses are bought, done up and sold at ridiculous prices. That is happening too much. Other than the few remaining council houses, there is hardly any low-cost housing in the village. The demand is quite extraordinary. At the bottom of our farm road, well off the public main road, is an old house in a very nice position, facing west. It is far enough off the road to be private. An elderly widow lives there. She is nearly 100. One would hardly believe the number of people who make inquiries about the house. It is a nice house for someone like that lady. Without a shadow of doubt it will be bought for some ridiculous price.
To illustrate the point about the increase in the value of houses, my two neighbouring farmers have managed to raise £3 million and are building a golf course. I am not against that, but nonetheless I am not sure that many farmers could attain such diversification.
Before my farming career, I built 16 new houses and renovated 17. I counted those from memory a few moments ago; I believe the figures are about right. I should be very annoyed if I saw many of those houses being knocked together to make a four-bedroomed, two-bathroomed detached house—as someone described earlier—completely out of the reach of ordinary people.
Like other noble Lords, I can see no solution to the problem. I prefer the building of council housing. I cannot envisage ordinary developers coming into the market and producing low-cost houses, as I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, mentioned. I very much agree with the noble Duke, the Duke of Somerset, that 1,500 houses is a fleabite when considering the demand. I believe that we should stop selling council houses. Far too many such arrangements are being made. I know of two families who have bought houses for their parents. I do not like to say that they are waiting for their parents to die, but there is no question that, as soon as the parents go, the houses will be renovated to a standard beyond council housing and sold at a fantastic price. I know others 504 who have done that. A house that was bought for less then £10,000 fetched £120,000 to £130,000 the other day. The selling of council houses should cease.
I turn to diversification. That can bye done only by people who live in areas which are largely populated. We have diversified into a riding school and, as we are in a green belt area, after much persuasion we have been allowed by the council to let buildings to small industries. We have two sets of joiners and one set of gardeners occupying buildings that we no longer need. Diversification must be watched carefully and too good a gloss should not be put on it because farmers may enter into projects which will lose money. Frankly, there is a good deal of money to be made in merely letting buildings to small businesses, as we have done, rather than diversifying into something when you know nothing about the job.
I wish to raise the issue of taking land out of production; that is set-aside, and so forth. Today there are 1,000 million people out of the world's population of 6,000 million who have a very poor diet. According to FAO figures, about 400 million people are starving. I have seen reliable figures which show that population control has failed, and it is estimated that by 2030 the world's population will be between 8,000 million and 10,000 million. Those people must be fed properly. Sir Kenneth Blaxter, Director of the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, wrote an article which I have quoted to the House previously. It was published in The Lancet. He pointed out that in order to feed that number of people properly, every present unit of agricultural production must be increased two and a half times. That should make the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, think about what he will do in the future in order to achieve that figure. We must be careful not to take too much land out of agriculture because the future may hold different needs, and in any event the surpluses are a flea bite.
At present we have the RDC, the HIDB and the DBRW. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, read a long list of committees, and so forth, and some form of co-ordination is necessary if we are to save the countryside. I cannot say how it should be done; but there are far too many bodies and some form of co-ordination should be tried.
I wish to comment upon what was said by my two friends on the Liberal Benches, the noble Lords, Lord Hooson and Lord Walston. The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, made a strong plea for agriculture, and I think he overdid it a little. The noble Lord, Lord Walston, went the other way, and he overdid it a little, too. On the whole, I favour the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, and I hope that the Government will take note of his comments.
§ 7.4 p.m.
§ The Earl of Swinton
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Middleton and the right reverend Primate for introducing these two interesting reports. Perhaps I may wear my Countryside Commission hat in order to thank my noble friend Lady Blatch for repeating the announcement made by her right 505 honourable and honourable friends about the extra expenditure being allowed for the Countryside Commission. That has been most gratefully received.
Having listened to the debate, I come down on the side of a prosperous agriculture. I do not say that it is the only activity in the country but a great deal in rural areas depends on the prosperity of agriculture. Of course we must have various forms of industry and diversification, but perhaps there is one issue about which we can all agree: have we not reached saturation point with craft shops?
A great deal of comment has been made this afternoon about rural housing. Some of the people who must take the blame are the planners. I recently had some land which was available for housing. I decided that I did not want maximum profits but wanted the land to be made available for low-cost starter housing. The matter went before the planning committee, and the next thing I saw were headlines in the local paper stating, "Greedy Earl wishes to build maximum number of houses on acreage"; and "Lord out to screw maximum profits by putting up jerry-built houses". Quite honestly, that is a bit annoying. Perhaps I feel a little bitter but even before then I believed that some of the restrictions which the planners put on areas that were right for development were unnecessary. I am sure that some areas of the country could be opened up for low-cost housing.
I wish to comment on education. That has hardly been mentioned in the debate. I was glad to see that Faith in the Countryside does not fall into what I see as a trap by stating that the decline in the English village is due to the fact that the school has been closed. We hear a great deal of that. The report made some good points about the size of a school not necessarily influencing the quality of education. I agree with that. However, a great deal has been said about village society collapsing because the primary school has been closed.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s I was involved with the old North Riding County Council in a plan to try to improve village schools by closing some, enlarging others and combining schools. After about five years we carried out a survey to discover the effect that had had on village populations. We found that there had been no effect whatever. We found that in some villages where we had closed the primary school numbers had increased. We found that often where we had erected a newer and better primary school numbers had dropped. We found that in villages which allegedly had good primary schools numbers had not increased. In one village where we closed the primary school there was later so much housing development that after five years we had to build a brand new school. Therefore, the suggestion is a red herring, and I was glad to see that it had been avoided in the report.
I shall be brief because virtually everything I wished to say has been mentioned. However, there is a point I wish to make because I could find no reference to it in Faith in the Countryside. It is the part which is played in the countryside by traditional field sports. I 506 hope that the reason why the issue was not dealt with in the report was because there was no room for it. I hope that the Church of England is not following the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Salisbury down the road of banning hunting in National Trust areas. If the Church of England were to take that line, it would find that already dwindling populations in truly rural areas would trickle away virtually to nothing. I hope that is not the reason why the issue was not dealt with in the report.
Traditional field sports play an enormous part in agricultural areas. At home we found that whereas the children of our tenant farmers used to come out beating for pocket money, now the farmers and their wives are doing so because they rely on the income. I found no reference to the matter in the report of the EC committee, although I found an excellent written submission by the Game Conservancy on page 366. In dealing with tourism it stated:We are encouraged to think that the Commission would recognise within this context the value of (properly conducted) game shooting and other field sports, particularly in view of their additional benefit as a stimulus to conservation.In Brussels on 20th November 1989, staff of DGVI told us that shooting game was to be recognised in the interpretation of Regulation 2052 of 24/6/88, in the less favoured rural areas. Game shooting was specifically favoured as promoting employment, additional farm income, the hotel industry, etc.What encouraged me most was the final paragraph:Rather than providing game shooting simply by releasing reared birds, as envisaged in Spain and parts of France, we would prefer inducements to habitat management and a relaxation of the CAP policies which have reduced wild game populations to the point where they cannot realistically be harvested. The end results would be the same economically but with our approach the environment would benefit".I thought that that was most encouraging and I was sorry to see that the committee of my noble friend came up with no references on that.
I was delighted that the Government have sent back to the European Commission their ridiculous ideas that wood pigeons and corvidae should have a protected season. This discouraged me a bit because, if that is the sort of nonsense that they send over in the first place, I do not have a lot of faith in them doing very well for our rural areas.
§ 7.11 p.m.
§ The Earl of Radnor
My Lords, I sat on the committee and, as others did, I should like to compliment my noble friend Lord Middleton on the careful way he steered us through an immensely complex subject. I should also like to congratulate the Church on, I would almost say, its novel. It is a complex subject. That is borne out, as the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, said, by the immense amount of conclusions there are when you add the two reports together, although there is a tremendous cross-over. It shows clearly that there is no straight answer to any of the problems that are upon us. It also shows, as my noble friend Lord Selborne said, that there is no way of quantifying matters such as how much land will go out of cultivation and what effect that will have.
Having said that, I must take to task the noble Baroness, Lady White—I am sorry that she is not in 507 her place—who I think treated my noble friend a little unfairly by suggesting that we did not take too much notice of Wales. Now that she knows that I am not Welsh I am sure that she would not mind my saying this. In point of fact we had a mass of written evidence. I remember particularly that the Welsh idea for dealing with these mountainous areas which are obviously going to be in trouble, the sheep farming areas, was different from the Scots idea. The Welsh had this theory of sub-poles, whereby everyone was within distance of somewhere where work might be found. Of course I say all this advisedly.
I felt at the time, and I still feel, that it is immensely important that some of these smaller farmers should become part-time farmers, and in this might lie some of the answers for Wales. Because of the way they are thinking of doing it, I can see farmers finding work off the farm, perhaps getting less favoured area grants and keeping their farms in their ownership at the same time.
I was also immensely pleased to see in the first words of the preface of the Church's document a suggestion made of what Cobbett would see if he came down to earth again. It happens that Cobbett, though a radical, was a great friend of one of my forebears. In my garden and park there are still the trees that Cobbett brought back from America and gave to him because he preferred the American trees and thought them much more beautiful than the English ones.
This is not just a passing remark, as my noble friend Lady Trumpington will realise. I am not sure of Cobbett's dates, but it will impress upon her once more that it takes an extraordinarily long time to grow a tree. As a number of people have said already, it will take a long time to get the money. Therefore, as an alternative to farming—and I have always felt that it would be the best alternative—there must be more funding than there is now, notwithstanding the maintenance grants that come in in 1992 and notwithstanding the prolificacy of grants, which confuses a number of us, that are in force now. Actually the funding is not quite enough. If more is not forthcoming a great opportunity to employ people in the country and to help to deal with this downturn in farming will be missed, and that would be a pity.
I should like to touch on the GATT round. It puts the fear of God into everyone. Whether that is because it apparently takes place in Uruguay or not I do not know. But from the point of view of farming, if they accept what has been agreed within the Community I think that a large number of farmers will not find unattainable what they are expected to do. The feeling that I get in the country, admittedly among the larger and better farmers—and I am not talking about Wales or the Highlands: I am talking about what I call more orthodox farming land—is that if it does not get much worse than that, then a surprising number of people will be able to go on farming probably more extensively. I see nothing wrong in that, and the priority of my noble friend Lord Swinton might in a large part be satisfied throughout the country.
On the other hand, as my noble friend Lord Young of Graffham insinuated yesterday in the economics 508 debate, it is quite probable that what we have accomplished and are so proud of in Europe at the moment, this 30 per cent. over 10 years, some of which has been eroded already, will certainly not please the Cairns group and will not please America, although they have a lot of subsidies hidden away themselves.
If things go against the farming world there will be two major surpluses. One will be land and the other will be unemployed people—not a huge number, but people who will probably be quite difficult to relocate. It is worth thinking for a moment or two of what would happen to those two resources if they were, so to speak, shot out onto the market.
I have covered diversification. I do not think that anything except trees is of vast importance. I would not think that tourism could be taken any further than it has been, and certainly I agree that we do not want any more farm shops. There is one thing that has not been mentioned a great deal, and that is that farmers, either through the ELMS idea of the Country Landowners' Association or from Government, should be paid to keep the countryside beautiful. I think that is probably the right way to put it.
Here, may I be allowed to be the Devil's advocate and tell a tale? Who in the world is going to decide on the priorities, and who in the world is going to decide on what is beautiful, let alone what the payment for it should be? A farmer who is paid to beautify his farm will probably do it in a year. If you plant a tree you do not do any more than just watch it grow up inside its arbour-guard, and a lot of nature is most beautiful if you just leave it alone.
I have a fear too that, if it is not the ELMS idea but is essentially funded as grants or funded from the Community, it might well become a bureaucratic nightmare, and I have two anecdotes to recount. The first is connected with planting trees. They are personal experiences. I should probably declare my interest, as should many other noble Lords; we all have a stake in the countryside in some way or other.
I felled some oak trees which were useless. They were what we call shaken, and were unsaleable and no good. I cleared it with the powers-that-be to be allowed to plant a species that were suitable for the soil. That species was Scots pine, because the land is silver sand. That set the cat among the pigeons. A number of quite highly paid people from the Forestry Commission came down and we discussed the matter in the office. There were three of them. We then went to the site and looked at it. The answer came back, "No. You must go on as we said before". We objected and that was passed on to some other committee. That committee met on the site and no doubt off the site. I expect letters have been flying to and fro, but nothing whatever has happened.
That bit of wood is three acres in size. It is sunk in the middle of another bit of wood. Almost nobody goes by or sees it. If that scenario can happen on that small scale, what will happen when grants are given to people to beautify their farms and keep them nice? I believe it will be an absolute nightmare.
509 Before I conclude I should like to mention the people. I live in Salisbury, in the South of England. The people in the village are now quite different from those who were there even just after the war. The so-called incomers have come in and settled. Agricultural workers are also there, but in much smaller numbers. The noble Lord, Lord Walston, has had to leave. He pointed out why people came from the towns to the country. The only point on which I disagree with him is that he said it was to avoid the smell. In my experience, when they arrive in the country—I live in a district where stock rearing is common—they do not much like the smell there either.
When one tries to organise alternative employment —workshops, small factories, and so on—there tends to be considerable resistance. That is precisely what those people left the towns to avoid. My noble kinsman, Lord Shuttleworth, who spoke so ably and whose offices are in Salisbury, must work tremendously hard. He has not yet knocked on my door and asked for lunch or anything like that.
I sold, subject to planning permission, a small workshop which could probably accommodate only three people. The sale fell through. It was to be a fishing-rod maker, a nice rural pastime. As far as I know, the Rural Development Commission was delighted with the purchase. I felt I was to receive my pound of flesh. But the planners said, "That cannot be". The reason they said no was that people who were not concerned with agriculture, who went to Salisbury, Bournemouth and Southampton to work, had organised a petition. They delivered it to the planners and the planners capitulated, as they did with the trees. We appealed, and we hope for the best.
I have spoken long enough. My sincere hope is that agriculture will persist. If it does not, we shall be in trouble. We shall be left behind in every way. In the event, people who feel that farmers are ruining the country will regret that feeling. They will see that, perhaps by accident or because they want to make money, farmers have enhanced it vastly more than they have spoilt it.
§ Baroness Masham of Ilton
My Lords, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury most kindly asked me to serve on the Commission on Rural Areas. Sadly, I had to decline. At that time I was helping with a member of my family who was seriously ill, and who has since died. Also, I was very involved with the health service and other commitments. I should have been most interested, and if I had been able to accept there would perhaps have been more mention of some of the needs of disabled people living in the countryside.
On page 110 the report Faith in the Countryside, when discussing transport, says:For those who are physically handicapped the problem of mobility is a double burden".The report states that 11 per cent. of the population has some form of immobilising disability. However, a 510 very high percentage has some form of arthritis—nearly half the population. There is no doubt that Dial-a-Ride schemes would be of great help to disabled people living in the country. That is just one of the many problems facing disabled people.
In the report The Future of Rural Society, I do not believe disability is mentioned at all. I shall therefore take the opportunity in this important debate to mention a few of the needs. I was born and spent a great deal of my childhood in the beautiful countryside of Caithness in the far north of Scotland. There was an abundance of wild flowers such as harebells, scabious and wild orchids. The hedgerows were full of birds such as yellow-hammers. One did not see the use of sprays and artificial fertilisers in those days. When I married and went to live in North Yorkshire I noticed the difference. Farming was far more intense and there was a lack of wild flowers in the hedgerows.
The countryside is not always the peaceful safe haven that people believe it to be. Around Mashamshire, the area where I live, there is a high incidence of leukaemia. No one appears to know the reason. Often one hears a suspicion that it may come from sprays used for weeds, and artificial fertilisers. Also, with the recent mild winters there has been an increase in the rat population, and Weil's disease —which is caught from rats' urine—is a risk to farmers and vets, and perhaps anyone living in the countryside. The recent death of a farmer in North Yorkshire was attributed to Weil's disease, and farmers are advised to carry cards so that doctors recognise the risk. The disease starts with symptoms like flu.
Living as a disabled person in a rural area involves without doubt additional costs. Costs to the general population in the countryside increase the more isolated people are. The main reasons are the long distance people must travel to shops, doctors, hospitals, schools, entertainment and railway stations, and the limited choice. A disabled person who does not own a car and may not have good family support can become extremely isolated. For one who owns a car and has problems getting in and out, opening and shutting the gates on gated roads is a great difficulty. In recent years shops which once had a delivery service no longer provide that, making even the essentials of life such as food difficult to obtain. It may not be possible to obtain a daily newspaper if there is no delivery service.
There are many severely disabled people who only receive one visit per week from the district nurse and one visit from a home help if they are lucky. In some towns there are wonderful schemes such as the Cross Roads care attendant scheme. These do not exist in rural areas. People from towns may go to the country for a peaceful retirement but one of the partners may die, leaving the other disabled and still a newcomer not knowing the locals. It can take a long time to be accepted in a country area.
It is a great pity that we do not have legislation making access to public buildings for disabled people compulsory. Such countries as New Zealand, 511 Australia, Canada and some states of America have such legislation, making life so much easier for disabled people. I live in a rural district and many elderly and disabled people come down from the hill farms to live in the small country town of Masham. Access is very bad. The library is on the first floor, with no lift. The post office is up several steps with no ramp. The bank has steps. The Anglican church, which I sometimes attend with my noble kinsman on ecumenical occasions, is only accessible when there is a funeral and a ramp is put down for the coffin to be brought in. The town hall, where nearly all the entertainment takes place, is on the first floor and there is no lift.
Later this evening we are to have a debate on hospices, which deal with the care of the dying. Why should not there be some quality of life for the living in rural areas? With two important reports before us, I hope that some of your Lordships who are interested in rural matters will realise how easy it is to leave out and forget the needs of the growing population of disabled people.
Both reports mention housing. I have at home many letters that I have received over the years from people who live in rural areas and who have become disabled but who have been refused permission to build extensions to their houses, perhaps because they are in a green belt or a national park. I ask your Lordships to place yourselves in that position for a moment. What would you do if your house was not suitable, having broken your back in an accident on your farm, or had multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, severe arthritis, a stroke, or any other disabling condition? It is frustrating to know how many people suffer when they come up against red tape and such opposition when they need suitable housing, because they are disabled and live in a rural area.
The position can also be difficult for children who have a disability and have to choose a secondary school. Again, in a city such as Leeds there are integrated secondary schools. That is not so in a rural setting. Children might have to travel a long distance or go to a special school.
Faith in the Countryside took on board the arguments about the dispensing services. The report reached the conclusion that doctors in rural practices would normally be permitted to dispense medicines. I appreciate the concern of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. On the whole, pharmacists give a very important service, especially with their independence and ability to check prescriptions to ensure that there are no errors. That is a safeguard for the public. Further, they often give advice to patients on the side effects of drugs. In rural areas, where distances can be great, both the doctor and the pharmacist should be able to cover this service for patients. I serve on the Family Health Service Authority for North Yorkshire and I expect this important matter will be watched with care.
In my home village both doctors and pharmacists dispense and they seem to have a good working 512 relationship. I hope that co-operation will be worked out in other parts of rural Britain so that the best possible solution for patients is found, I was pleased to read in The Times yesterday the headline:Rural GPs will get pay boost".They have to travel great distances if some areas if they are to visit patients in their own homes. I hope the pay boost will give them the incentive to carry out such visits. For ill, disabled patients it is difficult to make long journeys, or sometimes even short journeys. I am pleased that Mrs. Virginia Bottomley has recognised the needs of rural GPs because they are most important to rural patients.
I now move on to another topic altogether. Here I declare an interest. It is important to give the growing number of people who visit the country something constructive to do which will enable them to enjoy the countryside and learn about it. I have a stud of highland ponies. These ponies are very versatile and adaptable. Because of their delightful temperaments they are ideal for beginners and disabled people. They are strong, with substantial bones, so they can carry adults or young people. As well as stud I run a trekking centre. This gives a service to people who are visiting or living in the countryside.
The breeders of native ponies are trying hard to preserve part of our heritage—the national breeds. It is impossible to make money out of such an activity but our native breeds should be preserved at all costs. On page 20 of The Future of Rural Society, the Countryside Commission sums up its major concerns:We are all aware that the changing face of agriculture has led to questions about the future of agriculture, and the future use of rural land".The commission says that we must move to some new mix of activities in rural areas which sustains the correct level of agricultural production. On page 25, in discussing environmental objectives, the report states that care should be taken to ensure that most land-use changes in the countryside are not irreversible. To give help to pony breeders who run riding establishments for the community's benefit would, I suggest, be a beneficial use of land not now needed for other types of farming.
All people in the country who love and respect horses and ponies have been horrified by the thought that in 1992 the present regulations on equines going to Europe for slaughter may be lifted. Existing regulations are frequently flouted and animals, not only equines but sheep and cattle, may suffer terrible cruelty. If we are to be part of Europe, as we are, we must protect all animals in the community. The best solution would be for live animals not to travel overseas at all but to be killed as near home as possible. We have some cruel people in this country as well as in Europe and there should be very strict regulations in all European countries, overseen by the RSPCA inspectors. The regulations should be so foolproof that they cannot be flouted.
I end on what I hope is a positive note. Recently there have been some good projects in the countryside 513 to make country trails accessible for disabled people. A short while ago I opened one organised by the Countryside Commission. When developing projects everyone should ask the question, "Can disabled people go where you go?" Perhaps more could be done to make the countryside accessible for disabled people by using community orders as an alternative to prison. That would benefit all concerned in many different ways.
§ 7.40 p.m.
§ Lord Prior
My Lords, it can certainly be said that your Lordships' House is an oasis of calm discussing rural society at a time when the Lower House might be discussing more frenetic activities. I do not wish to disturb that oasis of calm, but I wish to thank those noble Lords who have been kind enough to say that the commission's report, Faith in the Countryside, was a useful document. I shall leave to the end of my speech my riposte to the noble Lord, Lord Wrenbury.
On the whole these are two excellent documents. I can say that about my own document. I cannot really claim parentage of it because a great many other people did a lot of work and they should take credit for it. The document produced by the Select Committee is very good. There is an abundance of information which I hope that the departments will look at carefully. I always get the impression in your Lordships' House that on the whole the departments tend to fob us off with a lot of waffle. It is time that they took these reports seriously. There is a great deal of good sense talked in this House and I do not think that the departments pay anything like enough attention to it. I hope that that message will get through.
I have one or two other critical remarks to make later on. They will not be addressed to my noble friend on the Front Bench, who I think does a remarkably good job with very little help from the departments. I know that because in the Lower House we always regarded noble Lords who had to speak from the Front Bench as lesser beings who were left until last in the pecking order of the departments. We all know that that has happened. I do not like to see it happen. I want to give my noble friends on the Front Bench some support. They can do with it on occasions.
Both these reports bring out the fact that there are remarkable changes taking place in the countryside. Of recent years there has been a very considerable change in the make-up of the rural population. That has undoubtedly resulted in a number of tensions between those who regard the countryside as their place of work and their farms as places to make their living and those who believe that they have just as much right to the countryside as a place of leisure where they can enjoy its beauty in all its forms. There is that tension and it is well documented in these reports.
I shall take two items from the report. There is no need to go through all of them, but they are worth reading. Housing has been touched on by my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth in what I thought was an 514 excellent contribution. We much admire the work that the Rural Development Commission is doing. Undoubtedly there is an absolute need for low-cost rented accommodation and low-cost housing for sale in the countryside. That need has been there for some while. It is not a matter about which my Government have done enough. Even now they are not doing enough though we very much welcome the infusion of capital announced on Friday.
The Housing Corporation intended to fund a programme this year of 1,100 units against an estimated requirement of at least 5,000 which the ACORA report mentions. ACRE has mentioned 25,000 units. We shall get nothing like 1,100 units this year. It is all very well to say that by 1992 the figure will have been made up. It has never been made up yet as far as I am aware. Some really tough talking needs to be done now in order to make certain that this situation is put right. It is no longer good enough to have a great number of excuses to the effect that the money is not there. The money must be put there, and kept there this time. I hope that it will be.
Everything hangs on this. All the debate this afternoon has been about the need for employment, small industries in the countryside, better transport, the pub, the village shop and the church. All that ties in with the needs of young people and others who at the moment are being forced out of their homes either because they are too expensive or because there are no longer houses to rent. They cannot be housed in their villages. That situation is changing the whole social structure of rural England. It is a very important matter.
I now turn to the subject of agriculture, which was mentioned by my noble friends Lord Plumb and Lord Selborne. They both have enormous experience and recognise, as we all do, that agriculture is only one of a number of pursuits now being followed in the countryside. But it is a very important pursuit. If agriculture were not there not only would we be very short of food but we would have a countryside that looked pretty dreadful. Agriculture is still practised on about 90 per cent. of rural land. In my noble friend's own words, it is a core business in rural England and a very important one.
There is deep despondency in the agriculture industry. There always is. I declare an interest as a farmer. I know to my cost over the years that there has always been deep despondency. It is prominent at the moment. We should not be in any doubt at all that agriculture is about to go through, if it is not doing so already, perhaps the most serious problems that it has faced since the mid-1930s. This may be a tragedy because an impoverished countryside would be dreadful. It is no answer to the problems of rural England.
Since the war governments have invested vast sums of money in British agriculture. It would be a tragedy and a total waste of that investment if it were now allowed to decay. Therefore, even on the economic side there is a strong case to be made. As my noble friend Lord Plumb pointed out, the problem with the common agricultural policy is that such a large 515 proportion of the subsidy goes to fund the surpluses which are stored and which then have to be sold at knockdown prices and thereby heavily subsidised at the same time. Very little of that money actually goes into the pockets of the agricultural community. That is what the Uruguay round is all about. It is the objection that the Cairns group and the United States have. These subsidies enable the surplus production to be sold on world markets at a very cheap price and therefore very largely destroy the normal patterns of world trade.
Somehow or other we have to get over the problem. One of the ways to do that involves the arable side. We shall have to move to what I should like to call quotas, but perhaps "standard quantities" would be another way of expressing it. I urge the Ministry of Agriculture to take this matter seriously. I have a feeling that in Brussels they are already beginning to look at quotas. They will never dare to say anything about them because the moment one talks about quotas there is trouble. People start to grow more in order to get a bigger quota. But it is important that we should take this position seriously.
I so much agree with what the committee said on the subject. The report states at paragraph 192:What is important, however, is to ensure that the entirely legitimate social aims of minimising hardship do not become reasons for inhibiting the development of more efficient agricultural structures; and that reductions in price support are not undermined by alternative agricultural subsidies of ever-increasing complexity and economic dubiety".I do not want to see that happen either but I can see it happening already. There is a great move at the moment to grow linseed. If one cannot grow anything else one grows linseed. There is an enormous subsidy on linseed. It is no answer to the agricultural problems of this country or of the Community. If it is not a total waste of money, it is almost a total waste of money. On the arable side we shall have to move quotas. Farmers will get a better price for a smaller quantity. That is a better way of dealing with the matter.
I consider the small upland farm to be a marvellous asset to this country. The people are first-class and the beauty of upland farms and upland countryside is unrivalled practically anywhere in the world. We must keep them going. But we shall make an enormous mistake if we think we can do so through agricultural methods alone. If we do so through agricultural support we shall find that the Bavarian Alps, the south of Italy and other places within the Community will eat up the money far quicker than we can. We have the best farm structure in Europe, and we should regard the social problems as something different from the agricultural problems. I beg my noble friends to look very carefully at those points.
I shall conclude on the subject of the Church itself. I am very grateful to the most reverend Primates the Archbishops of Canterbury and of York for staying so long in this debate to hear me speak. They have stayed, I know, only out of politeness, but I am very grateful to them for all that. The Church is immensely important in rural England. If I had not thought so I would not have chaired this commission. It has an enormous part to play in the countryside in terms of 516 social welfare, leadership and cohesion. I hope that we are not going to be defeatist about asking in the report for more money to be raised. I believe that the Church can raise more money if it says what it is raising the money for. We want more and better clergy and we must have better paid clergy. They will never be well paid—we know that —but they need to be better paid and better looked after. That can be done only by a certain decentralisation away from the Church Commissioners and by an absolute determination to push responsibility down to the parish and to get the parishes to provide more money. We can raise money for many things in this country. I believe that we could raise it to provide additional clergy and better facilities for them.
Whether or not the Church is right to become involved in these affairs—the noble Lord, Lord Wrenbury, believes that it is not—I feel that the Church has rendered a useful service by setting up the commission and producing this report. But it is more than that. I should like to quote a little passage from Sir Laurens van der Post when he came to give evidence to the commission. He said:That feeling of 'wholeness' and 'healing' bestowed by contact with nature in the countryside is for many close to religious experience and is frequently expressed in religious language".I believe that one cannot separate what is best practice in rural England, with all its beauty, character and history, from what a modern Church is seeking to do.
§ 7.58 p.m.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to speak after the noble Lord, Lord Prior. I received the report Faith in the Countryside only yesterday morning. I foolishly thought that it would be a 20-page booklet that I could read in the aeroplane on the way here. I ought to have known better. Knowing the assiduity of the noble Lord, Lord Prior, when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I should have known that it would be 400 pages long and that I would not get them read. But what I have seen of it so far is extremely interesting.
What I have heard of this debate so far has been more about the countryside than about faith. I am extremely glad to see his Grace the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York in his place at the moment. There is much to be said about faith not only in the countryside but in the urban situation as well. I salute his Grace for his forthright manner in dealing with rather difficult passages of scripture. Perhaps his language has been a little more cautious than that of right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham whom I salute also. We have to accept that Faith in the Countryside or Faith in the City to an educated, literate and fairly sophisticated society is not easily assimilable in the way that it is presented. We have to face up to the fact that many people have not moved on from 18th century theology—the unquestioning theology. They have not even moved on to the questioning that took place in the 19th century, let alone to Karl Barth and, more recently, to Tillich, Bultmann and Bonhoeffer. If faith is to be intellectually acceptable and assimilable to a 517 sophisticated and educated society, these difficult matters must be addressed. I salute his Grace for being sufficiently courageous to have done that.
The trouble is that many of us have reached middle age. We have perhaps matured in our political attitude, in our attitude towards society and in our attitude towards the arts and the sciences; but theologically we have not matured to the same extent. Until such time as we can present people, irrespective of whether they are from the countryside or from the cities, with a theology which is intellectually acceptable and of integrity to their level of education, I do not think that the Christian faith will be credible. That may be a hard thing to say, but it must be said.
In the light of that, it is not surprising that society has become more secular and that support for the Churches has declined. I believe that the onus is on the leaders of the Churches, especially as regards the Anglican Church, to make the message real and relevant to present day life as people see it. That may not be comfortable. But our Lord Jesus Christ and Saint Paul never pretended that their message would be comfortable, relaxing or soothing; it was going to be disturbing and challenging. That is what the message of the Church must be today so as to alert people to what it is all about.
The age of reason was not confined to the 18th century; in my view, this is also the age of reason. People must have a reasonable belief such as that expressed in the book written by the Rev. Dr. R. P. C. Hanson from Nottingham, whom the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York probably remembers. It is a most convincing book. As I said, a reasonable belief is what is needed; otherwise we shall be faced with a secular society which does not regard the Christian faith as credible. Faith in the countryside, faith in the City, yes, but we must make it reasonable and credible.
§ 8.2 p.m.
§ Lord Wade of Chorlton
My Lords, I should first like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, and the Select Committee for producing a most excellent report. I very much support all the recommendations. A similar report was made by the Board of Agriculture in 1790. It appointed two gentlemen, Mr. Marshall and Mr. Wedge, to travel the country and report on the state of agriculture. They produced a report which was called The Report on the Rural Economy. The part covering Cheshire deals with horticultural crops, cows and milk production, beef cattle, cheese making, pig feeding, mineral extraction, salt extraction and mining, the chemical industry, implement making, woodland management, reclaiming lands, road canals and canal construction and fuel production of wood and coal. Therefore, 200 years ago it was accepted that the rural economy covered a whole range of activities.
There are now many people who advocate returning to what they see as some rural idyll, where they look over the field gate and see nothing but a few cows. It was not like that in the past. Those who 518 advocate that we should return to the sort of agricultural system which we had a long time ago would actually be doing a great disservice to the environment that they say they want to see.
Many people are very concerned with the environment, and concerned with it in a practical and sensible way. They wish to see a retention of our wildlife, our flowers, our plants and our various crops. However, there is another group of people within our society which I see as trying to prevent the development of opportunities in the countryside from a purely selfish point of view. To an extent they are the face of apartheid in this country. They have the view that they should be protected and deny others the very advantages which they have sought for themselves. Those points are clearly made in Faith in the Countryside. I very much support the most reverend Primates in what is put forward in that respect.
In the report reference is made to the pressure groups which seek to prevent the development which is needed in the countryside. I should have thought that the Church could take a very much more positive and practical role in combating those points when they are presented in respect of planning decisions before planning committees. The view of the Church, which far outnumbers in membership many of those pressure groups, should have a much wider and more practical voice in such decisions.
The report clearly shows that a decline will take place in agriculture. There are those this afternoon who have said that we should do all we can to avoid that outcome. However, it will happen. The agricultural economy of this country will decline over the next few years. It will probably recover as we move into the next century, but the next 10 years will be a very difficult time for all of us. We must appreciate that that is not necessarily a problem; it is in fact a great opportunity. It could mean that 5 million hectares over the next 10 years may become available for other purposes and another 150,000 people who are now employed in agriculture may become available for other employment. On many occasions in your Lordships' House I have heard people complain about the crowding in urban communities and the problems of health because of pressures in such communities. Why should we not see the opportunity to make much more land available for the whole of the population as an advantage and not as a restriction on what we do?
Surely the key is to see the rural economy in the same way as it was seen 200 years ago; that is, with a whole range of economic activities taking place throughout the country. I strongly commend the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, on its decision to support the idea of off-farm economic activity. It is not a solution to expect farming activities, however diverse they may become, to generate more wealth in the countryside. There must be a much greater range of all kinds of economic activity within the rural community, and that means that planning applications must be dealt with in a much more relaxed manner. We must help and support those counties which are now developing a 519 rural policy. Certainly my county of Cheshire recently put forward a very sound and positive rural policy which will go a long way towards stimulating the whole economy in the area. However, at present it is being more hindered than encouraged in putting it into effect. In that regard, I believe that much could still be done.
Mention was made of the new technologies which are available. I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that in Denmark recently considerable difficulties were experienced because of the pollution caused by fish farming. As a result, two or three years ago many restrictions were placed upon fish farmers which would have virtually cut their businesses in half and put many people out of work. However, the matter was considered by a leading technology company in the fish farming area. In two years it came forward with a solution which meant that the pollution problem was solved and the environmental difficulties reduced by well over half. It also meant that the fish farming activities continued to be profitable at the same level as before and that there was employment. Therefore, the problem was solved. We know from our own experience that it is better when such a problem is looked at not from the point of view of the only way to solve it is to stop it, but from the point of view of, "Well, what we must do with this particular exercise which is seen as environmentally unacceptable is to make it environmentally acceptable".
Farming has cleaned up its act, as it were, enormously in the years that I have been farming. The economic pressures that force people to take such decisions can be effective. When tackling the problems we must ensure that we solve them in a practical way. We should not take the view that if we do not like something we should stop it. I again thank the committee for producing what is undoubtedly an excellent report.
I have been a farmer all my life. My family has farmed in Cheshire for several generations. During that time the changes in methods and systems have been enormous. We are now going through another period of change. When given the freedom to do so, the agricultural community can change dramatically. Its ability to move its businesses from one system to another is always effective. The key is to give farmers the freedom and opportunity to do so. We will then see the vast changes in the countryside which will allow more people to use it. It can then be a benefit to the whole of society, which is what it should be.
I hope we do not see extensification techniques, something with which I completely disagree. I should prefer to see less land farmed, but the land that is farmed must be farmed efficiently because our business is competitively to produce good quality food, from the farm to the table. That cannot be done if everything is being run at an uneconomic level. If we must cut production, the answer is to farm less land but to farm that land efficiently. The land that then becomes available can be used to increase facilities and amenities for the rest of society.
520 My little bit of the rural economy needs my attention tomorrow morning urgently. If I leave now to catch the train I hope that your Lordships will forgive me.
§ 8.12 p.m.
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, I too should like to thank the most reverend Primate and my noble friend Lord Prior for producing their report and also my noble friend Lord Middleton and all the Members of the Select Committee for producing such a comprehensive and enlightening report. It has been said—I must say that I agree—that it is a pity that the two reports are being discussed together. Since they are being so discussed, perhaps I may suggest that a better term for the debate would be "The future of rural society, and do we have faith in the countryside?". That may be one of the major points with which we shall have to come to terms over the next decade or so.
I am ashamed to say that I have not looked at the report produced by my noble friend Lord Prior, but I have looked comprehensively at that produced by my noble friend Lord Middleton. That is not to say that I in any way under-estimate the role of the clergy in the countryside. Far from it. I regard the role of the local vicar very much the same as that of the local policeman. He is an integral part of society and a man who can do a great deal of good.
As has already been said, rural society covers a magnitude of extremes. Many people's idea of the countryside is that those who make their lives there should be able to seek employment in any way that is available to them. There are those who believe that the countryside should be cocooned and preserved for posterity. As has been said, the rural economy and environment have always been, and always will be, dynamic, responding to the conditions of the free market and direct and indirect government grants. The rural population, while changing in character, is in many regions no longer declining.
Whereas many of us would like to see the survival of the traditional communities with their histories and skills, I am afraid that we must accept that changes will continue to take place. I am sure that farm amalgamations will continue, but we may also see an increase in part-time farmers. I do not regard that as bad, because if it helps to keep people on the land, then so be it. The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, described his trip to Germany and talked about a prosperous rural economy. I suspect that many of the people to whom he referred were part-time farmers.
I applaud the efforts that are being made to mitigate the demise of traditional communities, but those efforts must be kept within sensible economic limits. They must be for sound environmental or social reasons. It is important to sustain employment because, as has again been pointed out by many noble Lords, that is what bonds the fabric of rural society. If there is no fabric, there is no service; if there is no service, there are no standards, and everything will fall about. On that point I should like to join with other noble Lords in applauding the efforts of my noble 521 friend Lord Shuttleworth and the Rural Development Commission. His contribution to the debate was outstanding. I very much enjoyed what he had to say.
Whatever society we shall see in the countryside in the future, what interests many of us is how that countryside will be managed. It is likely to be managed by a smaller population, and, I suspect, by a population that, in many cases will not have had its roots in the land. The present recession makes it impossible for many farmers to consider their environmental responsibilities. There are many farmers who have never considered their environmental responsibilities, but there are many who would like to but who cannot at the moment because of the financial difficulties they face.
Against the difficulties of over-production, there are enormous opportunities to redress the imbalance between what I call hard farming and environmental care. I go so far as to say that we may never have a better chance of devising a policy of sustainable methods of food production and land management for the wellbeing of nature and for ourselves.
I in no way wish to undermine the need to farm profitably and efficiently. That is fundamental. Nor would I wish to cast any doubts—I now declare my interest as a member of the NCC—on our system of site designations, SSSIs, NNRs and the work of the county nature trusts in maintaining their reserves. They are core features of nature conservation both in themselves and as a means of monitoring change in the countryside, which is of course of equal importance.
We must move towards the greater integration of farming and conservation in the wider countryside. Above all, we must resolve the problem where agricultural support mechanisms are promoting damaging countryside management. That, I am sorry to say, continues. It is something to which we must address ourselves as quickly as possible. That is not to say that support and incentives of a kind are not important. Without support many farming communities would not survive. The ill-effect on the infrastructure and wellbeing of the countryside would be profound, with severe social consequences.
As again has been said, the incomes of hill farms have dropped by 50 per cent. in the past two years. I had a meeting the other day with a number of my hill farming tenants. There is no doubt that their plight is serious as the noble Baroness, Lady White, said. I believe that she said there is now real fear. She is not exaggerating the situation. Urgent action is undoubtedly needed.
Production-related subsidies are a nonsense at this time and support must relate more closely to specific environmental aims and objectives or where good reason can be shown that without that community or that system the countryside would suffer. I appreciate that, as has already been said, there is enormous diversity within the economic community and this again stresses the need for decisions to be made at a 522 local level. To illustrate this, I simply draw noble Lords' attention to page 198 of volume II of the report of my noble friend Lord Middleton. It says:Dr. Berkeley Hill's recent report shows that the bulk of public support for the countryside comes through agricultural support and, in particular, through market regulation of agricultural commodities under the Common Agricultural Policy. In contrast, only about 2 per cent. of the total goes to meet objectives which are specific to conservation of wildlife or landscape and only about 1 per cent. on rural services".I believe that those statistics are extremely important. I wish to see them redressed as soon as possible. To this end I believe that the wider use of the ESA principle is desirable, though I believe it is important to link the visual attractions of an area with the nature conservation objectives and to ensure where possible that rural development policies are based on properly researched conclusions. I think particularly now of set-aside. I am bound to say that I do not find it a particularly attractive way forward. I do not believe that it is good for farming and I know that it is not good for conservation.
Positive management payments and not simply payments for profits forgone must be the right way forward. I am much attracted to the idea of the environmental menu proposed by the Countryside Commission where farmers can choose from a range of items which would benefit the environment. I see no reason at all why that could not be worked in conjunction with ELMS. My noble friend Lord Radnor was to some degree sceptical about how that would work. I agree that it would take some thought, but I believe that as a principle we should consider it more than we have. There could be great opportunities in this direction. Furthermore, it would help in establishing a market value for environmental management. That again is perhaps taken too much for granted at the moment and we should be able to see it in financial terms.
I wish to add a word of caution on the Countryside Commission proposals. Whereas public access objectives are desirable and opportunities to expand access are considerable, they should not become an obsession. When that access threatens the management of wildlife, I believe it obviously becomes counter-productive. When it adversely affects the management of land, occupiers will be less inclined to take up those environmental payments.
However, among all the discussions and deliberations on means of securing incentives for a better environment, one activity has been given scant attention. My noble friend Lord Swinton mentioned it. I am talking about the effect of field sports on the countryside. Statistics have been given to show us the effects of farming, forestry, etc. Forestry itself covers 10 per cent. of the land surface in Great Britain. Field sports are carried out in one way or another on approximately 60 per cent. of the land. That means that the habitat of that land is being managed to a greater or lesser extent for the benefit of wildlife.
It has been shown on numerous occasions that that management is not only beneficial to the quarry species but to a wealth of other species besides. Recently, the BASC, in conjunction with the Scottish 523 Development Agency, produced a report which estimated that £78 million was spent by field sports interests in Scotland alone. It is fair to say that much of that money went into the less favoured areas where, as we know, it is sorely needed.
From the maintenance and management of the heather moorland to the retention of small copses and the creation of hardwoods and to the establishment and conservation of wetlands, I believe that field sports have been responsible more than any other single factor for the well-being of the countryside, largely without any form of subsidy. The grey partridge, once so prolific in the English countryside, has now been reduced to dramatically small numbers by modern agriculture. It can only be found in reasonable numbers where the shooting interests encourage it.
My noble friend Lord Swinton referred to the Game Conservancy. Again, I have to declare an interest. I am chairman of the research planning committee and a vice-chairman. I believe that the research that the Game Conservancy has done into determining the best method of creating and managing habitats and food supply for game birds and the advice that it offers is of national importance. In fact, I go so far as to say that it is of international importance, bearing in mind the number of requests now being received from European countries. The specialist knowledge that the conservancy has built up over the years should never be underestimated. I believe that it is of huge importance to the countryside.
Anything which will undermine field sports threatens the well-being of the countryside itself. That is why I wish to take this opportunity of thanking my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment for his recent decision not to implement the 1979 bird directive. It was a bold move which will undoubtedly benefit our countryside greatly.
We have great opportunities for the future of the countryside. We must take them now while we have the chance. Above all, the objectives must be clear and those owning and managing the land must know what is expected of them. Equally important, they must know what is available to them.
I end on a note of sadness, if I may use that word. I am disappointed that my noble friend's committee did not accept the principle of a ministry of rural affairs. I personally believe that we must draw together in a way that has not been done all the various interests in the countryside. I believe that is one action that would go some way towards achieving that aim.
§ 8.28 p.m.
§ The Earl of Lytton
My Lords, I add my voice to those who have heaped praise on the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, for his excellent and learned committee's report on this matter. It has an enormous breadth of common sense and statistical information and I warmly welcome it. I wish to associate myself with the views of the noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, who gave 524 us an insight into the role of the Rural Development Commission. From personal experience perhaps I may say what an excellent organisation it is.
I shall concentrate principally on the report of the Select Committee but I wish also to say how much I appreciated and was touched by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Prior, in his dissertation on the religious dimension applied to rural affairs. I agreed with everything he said.
I must declare an interest. Not only am I a chartered surveyor dealing with a commercial activity in a rural base; I am also a farmer. My wife and I farm in West Somerset on Exmoor. I wish to dwell for a moment on the problems of the severely less favoured upland areas. There are problems of infrastructure. One is a very poor road system. There is the problem of the vast seasonal increase of visitors every summer. That produces a peculiarly awkward imbalance in the management of that rural environment and a corresponding over-dependency on tourism as an alternative economy, if it is not the main economy before agriculture. There are the climatic and geographic disadvantages that make agriculture particularly difficult in certain parts of the national park. Those factors also make the tourist season perilously short.
As with all national parks, there is a fixation of the collective mind on environmental matters. It is right that that should exist, but not to the total exclusion of all other aspects as seems to have been the case in the past. There is the imbalance in the population and few opportunities for young people to start on the farming ladder and to have any prospect of conducting a business in the area where they have been brought up. There is the problem of an ageing population and the presence of a large number of retired people. Exmoor has problems which make it in many ways a microcosm of the rest of the country. However, Exmoor also contains acute examples of the problems that occur elsewhere in the country.
I echo the comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Peel, when he said that there has been a lack of cohesive policy and a lack of a cohesive body to guide policy in rural areas. I shall give noble Lords a few examples of the kind of official bodies that I have to deal with. There is the Exmoor National Park; the Somerset County Council; the West Somerset District Council; the Nature Conservancy Council and the various offshoots funded by that council; the Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Agriculture, English Heritage and the National Rivers Authority. There are also innumerable semi-official or unofficial bodies that all have a say in rural affairs. It is extremely difficult for an individual to perform his functions of stewardship on the land when he has to deal with so many different organisations, not all of which agree with the policies of the others.
Some noble Lords touched earlier in the debate on particular economic problems such as the inherent unprofitability of the agricultural industry for upland farmers. I echo the comment that was made that there are serious problems as regards the financial future of many of the traditional farmers who have been the 525 warp and weft of Exmoor society. Great difficulties abound as regards opportunities for diversification. Those difficulties arise through planning constraints, the nature of the landscape, the geography and the remoteness of the region. There are also pressures from all kinds of bodies for designations which severely impair the opportunities for growth and expansion of rural businesses on agricultural and forestry land.
Further, there are climatic problems which affect forestry and the type of crop and husbandry which can be conducted in the area. As I have said, the tourist season is extremely short and there is little opportunity for spreading that season over a longer period when the weather is heavily against such a course of action. In addition, there are pressures to formulate policies for environmentally acceptable approaches to land management. However, that approach costs something. Present returns on the kind of arrangements that are commonly offered by way of management agreements generally represent no more than an average income expectancy as applied to a wide basket of different holdings. I should add that not all of those options are particularly attractive in terms of the perceived loss of control and the fact that they may tie up the use of land for long periods of time.
Nevertheless, I envisage a real opportunity arising from the fact that we need to consider the public interest element in land use. I pick up again on a point made by the noble Earl, Lord Peel, in that connection. We need to look at the public interest element as another crop. That concept must be farmed as a crop, and we must view it as that nature of animal rather than something which is wholly different from the rest of the agricultural operation.
I wish to say a few words about the Government's policy. I must refer to a perceived discrepancy between the real anxieties that are apparent in the Select Committee's report and the comments made by the Minister earlier in the debate. I am not sure that I agree that the Government are doing all they can to support the rural economy. That is certainly not the case through the medium of agriculture. I could refer to many examples of contorted and difficult forms that need to be completed and the instances where arbitrary cash limits seem to have been introduced on grant aid. I could mention scheme revisions and scheme duration and the exclusivity of the schemes that qualify for agricultural grant aid as opposed to other schemes.
I wish to point my finger slightly at forestry policy. I believe it is generally accepted that the Government's policy has successfully got rid of a number of pop stars who wish to invest in large tracts of forestry land in order to obtain tax breaks for doing so. However, at the same time the policy has severely prejudiced many other people who do not make a profit out of forestry but who try to do it because they feel that is their public duty. The present level of grant aid, particularly for hardwoods, goes nowhere near recognising the public interest element of forestry.
526 Particular problems exist for hill farmers who are heavily dependent on cattle and sheep rearing. I shall have to wait to see what final decision is reached in this matter and whether we shall have to suffer a one-third cut in the sheep premium. If that is the case, what will replace the premium, if anything? When will an alternative measure be introduced?
Reforms on rural policies generally are long overdue. It was said earlier in the debate that too much of an urban view is being taken. It is quite proper that urban society and those who dwell in towns should have and express a view on rural affairs. Nevertheless, I feel that there is an imbalance now between urban and rural prosperity. That imbalance runs against rural prosperity and has certainly not been arrested. Meanwhile, urban congestion and deprivation continue apace.
I should like to see more of an effort made to secure adequate sources of funding. If that means decoupling agriculture from other rural operations, then so be it. I am not worried at the concept of supporting operations other than agricultural operations. Collectively the nation's commitment to rural affairs is not self-evident. In spite of intense public interest, I see no evidence of forward planning or other necessary resources being put into this extremely important matter. Indeed I see public interest being chiefly aimed at green issues. They butter no parsnips. At the end of the day it is rather like someone standing on the touchline cheering but not getting his hands dirty. Many supporters of green policies are quite happy to see lots of things being done provided that it is always at someone else's expense. That is an unsustainable method of going about things.
The specific needs of the rural area that I know best are as follows. There is a need for a unified body to deal with the many issues. It may well be that a national park is an exceptional case and not typical of other rural areas. There certainly needs to be forward planning and a cohesive strategy. There should be a concept of the value-added element of land use. Whether or not that value-added element takes the form of recognition in financial terms of the public interest is not for me to say.
I believe that the special interest groups and those who lobby so hard against farmers and others who have responsibility for the stewardship of our countryside would do better if they did not simply stand by and tell everybody else what to do but put their hands in their pockets and started making a contribution. If more of those groups contributed in the same way as organisations such as Greenpeace and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers a great deal more could be achieved. There must be a partnership. We cannot do it alone and we cannot do it without those groups. They should have a say, but let us formulate a solution that is fair to all parties. There is an economic solution and a balance to be drawn.
I warmly welcome the report of the Select Committee. I should like to echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Prior, who referred to the fact that in creating the environment that we all want in the 527 countryside we shall in some way draw the spiritual element out of the closet and into the open. We can build a better world, but we cannot do so on an adversarial basis. The reports of the Select Committee and the Archbishops' Commission could well have been debated separately to greater effect, but they provide a valuable touchstone. It would be well if both reports were much more widely publicised.
§ 8.42 p.m.
§ Lord Norrie
My Lords, I welcome the Select Committee's report. There can be no doubt that the issues it addresses are important and need urgent action, not least from the Government. Both agriculture and planning policies for the countryside are coming under active review. New initiatives are needed to protect the landscape and the social balance of our rural areas from the threat of excessive or unbalanced development. The report covers many important aspects but, like many other speakers, I shall concentrate on the vital issue of affordable rural housing.
We do not need research to identify the problems of rural housing. The urgent need for a substantial increase in the supply of homes for those unable to compete in the open market ought not to be questionable. It is one of the most serious social problems facing rural areas. By whatever method we employ to measure rural housing needs, the Select Committee is right in concluding that the available supply falls far short of demand.
We hear a great deal about the importance of having a living countryside—a countryside with a balanced population which spans the social spectrum and through its different activities helps to retain social cohesion and the landscape of our rural areas. An adequate supply of housing to meet the needs of the young, the elderly, the retiring farm worker and others whose families by tradition have lived in villages for generations is essential if any sense of rural community is to be retained. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York emphasised the vital need for affordable housing to retain that sense of rural community.
Much attention has focused on the financial difficulties being faced by housing associations and local authorities in providing affordable houses in the countryside. Both the Select Committee and the Archbishops' Commission on Rural Areas have implored the Government to increase substantially the allocation of public money for the construction of affordable homes and to ensure that the houses provided are not sold on but are retained at an affordable price in perpetuity.
Too many affordable houses are being built only for them to be sold on at full market price by the first occupier—a transaction now known as "staircasing". I can give the example of my own county of Berkshire, where the West Berkshire Housing Association has expressed great concern that over 55 per cent. of its social housing stock in the Newbury area has been or 528 is about to be sold. In some areas of Berkshire such as Aldermaston and Welford over 80 per cent. of the stock has gone.
A permanent pool of affordable rural houses must be retained in the countryside to meet the needs of future generations without allowing unnecessary additional development. Placing a ceiling on shared ownership schemes to prevent staircasing beyond a 50 per cent. equity would also ensure better use of the limited resources available for building affordable homes, thereby allowing housing associations and others to concentrate on building new houses instead of on the expensive repurchase of the old ones.
I also urge the House to recognise the continuing role of local authorities as providers of affordable rural housing. The undoubted success of the right-to-buy policy in rural areas has had an unfortunate side effect in reducing the supply of affordable local authority homes available to new generations. The houses sold have not been replaced by local authorities, housing associations or the private sector. I hope that ways can be found to enable local authorities to use more of the income they receive from the sale of their own affordable housing stock to replace it elsewhere and meet the housing needs of the future. That was a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher.
I now turn to the thorny issue of housing land supply and the planning system. Many commentators have suggested that the land issue lies at the heart of the rural housing problem. I suggest that the problem is not one of land itself but one of land capable of being developed for affordable houses.
Let us examine the facts. In reality there is no shortage of land for house building as a result of planning controls. Even in the South East where development pressures have been at their highest the capacity of land identified for new housing development over the next five years stands at the record level of nearly 300,000 dwellings, no less than 58 per cent. above the requirements of the county structure plans approved by the Secretary of State. The problem is that little of that land is used for building affordable homes.
Even more worrying is the paradox that sees high and accelerating amounts of development in all parts of the country coinciding with record levels of homelessness and the problems of access to housing. Between 1981 and 1988 over 1,140,000 houses were built in the shire counties of England and there was an accelerating rate of growth in every region. Yet in the same period there was a disturbing 64 per cent. increase in homelessness. The increase was 179 per cent. in Buckinghamshire. Last year fewer than one in three households could afford to purchase a three-bedroomed house on the open market in England. The equation is a simple one. There is a great deal of development going on and a great deal of land being made available by the planning system but neither the development nor the land is going to the people who most need it.
529 I must express grave reservations about the Select Committee's criticism of the planning system and its plea for a relaxation of controls to provide more land. I do not believe that that would provide the answers. Relaxing the planning controls would not reduce house prices or provide many new affordable homes. It would place the countryside under even more pressure, turning a social problem into an environmental one.
The Government have already gone down the relaxation road with their policy of releasing land on the village edge as an exception to normal planning restraints. I share the reservations of the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the local authorities about that approach. Only 60 schemes are thought to have started under the exception policy, while it has been estimated that about 185,000 affordable houses are needed by 1994. The major flaw in that approach is that it steers development to the sensitive boundary between villages and the countryside which for decades has frequently been protected by the planning system.
We have a duty to protect the countryside, and the public expect us to uphold it. What is needed is a mechanism to safeguard some of the land that is to be developed in any case to make sure that some of it is used to meet social housing needs. By adjusting planning policy we could tackle rural housing shortages as part of the normal process of development.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, told us this afternoon that the Government will shortly issue a new policy planning guidance note to local authorities on the release of land for low cost housing. That covers small sites which would not ordinarily be released for housing. That may be reasonable in the short term but I believe that in the long term the guidance should go further. Local authorities could be given limited powers to specify in development plans a proportion of the land that was to be developed specifically for affordable housing.
We should want to consider carefully the conditions under which councils could exercise those powers and consider the level and type of lower-cost housing which would be reasonable. I have reservations about the extent to which the housing market should be interfered with. We need to avoid any measures which effectively would give councils wide powers to dictate the levels of house prices.
I welcome the Government's recent announcement of an extra £50 million to support a low-cost housing programme in rural areas of most need. Together with a different planning emphasis, this boost in public funding will provide the beginnings of an answer to what has become an urgent social problem.
§ 8.50 p.m.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, I am sure we all agree that we have had a wide ranging debate over the whole field of rural policy. Like other noble Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, on his expert chairmanship of the Select Committee and 530 presentation of the report. His skill in the chair ensured that what might have become a rather discursive and ill-targeted study has in fact resulted in an authoritative and tightly argued report. I should also like to congratulate the Archbishops' Commission on its Report. The noble Lord, Lord Prior, and his commissioners have produced an invaluable report which both supplements and underlines a number of the recommendations of the Select Committee's report. Indeed, it is significant that two reports which come from different standpoints—one of them is secular and the other theological—have reached broadly the same conclusions.
There are many strands of argument which have developed in what has been a fascinating debate. In the time available it obviously will not be possible to cover them all. I should like to concentrate on agricultural policy and some aspects of rural services, particularly housing.
The reports of the Select Committee and the Archbishops' Commission emphasise the central importance of a prosperous agriculture in a prosperous countryside. The noble Lord, Lord Walston, pointed out that we could not rely on a prosperous agriculture alone. It is certainly a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition.
The report of the Archbishops' Commission points out that agriculture provides some 15 per cent. of direct employment in the rural areas and up to 30 per cent. in some areas. The Select Committee report bears that out, and we should not overlook the wide range of industries and services ancillary to agriculture which are not included in those figures. With an output of some £12.5 billion, agriculture is and will remain a major economic interest of the countryside. That is why the prosperity of the industry is so crucially important in securing a prosperous countryside.
But the reality is that it is an industry whose net income has more than halved in real terms in the 1980s. The number of those engaged in the industry—both farmers and farm workers—has decreased by nearly 100,000 (some 12 per cent.) in the same period. It is an industry where low morale and deep uncertainty about the future are now endemic. That point was made most strongly by the noble Lord, Lord Prior.
The problem is that agriculture, as a major industry and as an essential component of rural policy, does not know what is required of it. I am not at all sure that the policy makers know either. Indeed, considering the present confusion over policy one is reminded of Lloyd George's famous dictum that it is very hard to cross a chasm in two leaps.
Only 10 years ago a book entitled Britain's Future in Farming, which had 14 expert contributors, concluded that:Britain now needs to increase agricultural production".A reasoned case for agricultural expansion must continue to be pressed widely and with vigour. White 531 Papers and exhortations from successive governments, which the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, will remember very well, said much the same thing.
Ten years is quite a short time in farming. It is perhaps only a couple of rotations for those who continue to use such old-fashioned practices. But now we are told that there is a surplus of land. Estimates range from 6 million hectares to 16 million hectares. I have no wish to fall out with the terminology of the chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, but there is no such thing as a surplus of land. The phrase is a logical nonsense. We know that surpluses can be burnt, tipped into the sea, given away or dumped overseas with or without export restitution. So far as I am aware, there is no possibility of land being made available for any of those activities.
What does exist from time to time in some parts of the world is a surplus of agricultural production accompanied by severe shortages (in some cases amounting to famine), in other parts of the world, with no effective economic mechanism to match the surpluses and shortages. That is a point that was very well made by my noble friend Lord John-Mackie.
If effective demand is defined as need accompanied by the ability to pay, there is clearly a major deficit in demand but certainly not in need. We have to consider whether we wish to produce the same amount of food from a smaller area or less food production from the same area when we talk—I think incorrectly—about a surplus of land.
The direction of agricultural policy in the European Community now seems to be based on a gradual move away from price support towards direct income aid, with payments to farmers progressively decoupled from the quantities which they produce, and towards dealing with their perceived impoverishment. The policy is further confused by the imponderables of the GATT Round and its implications.
We must remember that such a shift in policy has major implications, which are mostly unfavourable, for British agriculture and thereby the prosperity of the British countryside. The Select Committee could find nobody prepared to define the family farm but everybody agreed that the United Kingdom has fewer of them than anybody else. We have already seen the first signs of a shift in policy: limitations of headage payments which will be based on flock or herd size; extra help for small cereal producers; and the reallocation of milk quotas towards smaller farms. None of those policies is necessarily wrong in itself but they all result in a comparative disadvantage for UK agriculture. The same thing may well happen when we come to renegotiate the operation of milk quotas after 1992.
Our efficient farming structure (incidentally, advanced as one of our strengths when we joined the Community) now puts us at a serious disadvantage compared with most other members of the European Community. The Select Committee report deals briskly but effectively with the European Commission's proposed mechanisms: the modulation of prices support; direct income aids; special 532 payments to farmers in the least favoured areas and support for diversification. But both the Select Committee report and the Archbishops' Commission report mention another policy mechanism—support for less intensive farming. The argument is summarised very well at the end of paragraph 228 of the Select Committee report:If farming in a certain way produces environmental goods which the public wants the Committee consider that farmers should be paid for providing them".It seems to me that the benefit of such an approach to policy for UK agriculture and the British countryside is not just its obvious environmental attractions. It is a policy which, of its nature, if it is to be effective, must be implemented irrespective of farm size. Indeed, it could be argued that it would be most effective in terms of reducing agricultural surpluses if it were applied particularly generously to the 30 per cent. of farms which produce three-quarters of the total output.
When we think about the possibilities of less intensive farming we have to consider the social effect. It has been calculated that every 750 acres in set-aside means one job lost. That is a prospect, incidentally, which I am not sure the National Farmers Union has taken fully into account in its proposals for compulsory set-aside.
The potential redundancy of farm workers is expressed extremely well in the report of the Archbishops' Commission at page 50 when comparing the closure of a coalmine or steel works. Nonetheless, no attempt has been made to increase the compensation to help redundant farm workers to reach a training centre to prepare for other employment. Because they have been scattered they have been unable to bring political pressure to bear. However, they have a case which we feel needs closer examination and an imaginative response.
An agricultural policy which improves the physical environment of the countryside and reduces surplus production but which is easily reversible if extra production is needed, and which keeps people—farmers, farm workers and those in the ancillary industries—employed in the countryside must be worthy of serious consideration.
The facile comment is sometimes made: why are farmers or farm workers any different from coalminers, steel workers or any other people who have been made redundant in the past 11 years? It is possible to close a coalmine, a steel works or a factory. It is very hard to close down half a county.
I believe that the environmental approach to agricultural policy is clearly a concept whose time has arrived. In the opening speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, we heard that the Government intend to maintain and develop their environmental policies. The Labour Party has worked out the idea of a green premium for environmental management. The Country Landowners' Association has the environmental land management (ELM) scheme. In the past few days we have had the joint report of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and the World 533 Wildlife Fund, entitled Future Harvests. They also refer to the idea of payments for environmental management.
Those are all different approaches but they have a common theme. I do not suggest that support should be based wholly on environmental payments. Indeed, any successful agricultural policy in the future will be based on a sophisticated mix of tariff protection, supply management, some price support, environmental payments and direct income aids. However, if we consider that 65 per cent. of the cost of the CAP does not go to farmers but into the cost of storage and export restitutions, it appears that a sensible policy could see a substantial reduction in cost but increase the amount that ends up in farmers' pockets.
The reports of the Select Committee and of the Archbishops' Commission deal with the importance of rural services, with transport, education, shops, post offices, health provision and above all housing. I do not apologise for concentrating on housing. The reports state in terms that the lack of affordable homes to rent or buy is the single most serious social problem in the countryside. The Select Committee report states at paragraph 217:The Committee were struck by the weight of evidence suggesting that the largest, and in some ways the most intractable problem affecting rural areas in the United Kingdom is the provision of adequate affordable housing for local communities".The report of the Archbishops' Commission says almost exactly the same at page 95. It states:One issue above all others—housing—has been at the centre of the evidence which we have received, especially on our regional and diocesan visits".A report produced for the Rural Development Commission by Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) which has been mentioned reveals that there are approximately 377,000 households in rural England in need of housing, either immediately or over the next five years. Perhaps the Minister will respond to this question when she replies: what is the Government's estimate of the total housing need in the rural areas? Do the Government agree with the estimate that has been made in the ACRE report?
Every member of the Select Committee received a letter from the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, which gave the response of the Department of the Environment to the report of the Select Committee. The letter contains a long paragraph which summarises various government initiatives in rural housing. They were mentioned again today in the speech with which the noble Baroness opened the debate. However, in both the letter and the speech there was a significant omission. There was not a single figure in either for the number of housing units in rural areas which the Government expect to result from those initiatives. Will the Minister tell the House how many houses it is expected will be built in rural areas as a result of all the plans which were set out in the letter received from the noble Baroness and in her speech today? I advised her before the debate that I should be asking that question.
534 We know that the Housing Corporation, before its current financial problem, devoted only 2 per cent. of its funds to the rural areas, although we know that 20 per cent. of the population live in the rural areas. The report of the Archbishops' Commission refers at page 99 to the work of the Wiltshire Rural Housing Association. I was pleased to see that reference because I had the pleasure of opening some of the units only a few weeks ago. The work of the Wiltshire Rural Housing Association meets only 1 per cent. of the known need for housing for local people in Wiltshire villages.
It is no exaggeration to say that we are facing a major crisis in rural housing. In my view, and in that of my party, there is only one way to meet the need quickly. It is to use the local authorities as the main providers, either directly or indirectly. I know that the Government will have to swallow their ideology to accept that, but the main cause of the crisis is the direct result of government policy: the introduction of the right to buy policy for local authority housing and refusing the local authorities permission to use the receipts from the right to buy sales to replace stocks. That was a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, the noble Duke, the Duke of Somerset, and the noble Lord, Lord Norrie.
Now that the days of government by prime ministerial obsession seem to be drawing somewhat less than peacefully to their close, perhaps I may urge the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, and the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, to impress on their ministerial colleagues the urgency of the situation. We know that the local authorities have received billions from council house sales. Surely they should now be required to replace the stock that they have lost. Those houses are virtually the only source of affordable homes to rent in the countryside. I know that the Government place great reliance on the housing association movement and the voluntary sector. They certainly have an important part to play. However, for the past four years I have tried to put up low-cost housing on farmland, and I know exactly how long that takes.
As regards the provision for low-cost rural housing we know that a number of schemes are based on landowners virtually giving away the land. The planners grant permission for low-cost housing where permission would not be given for full-price housing. In other words, the planners decide to allocate housing according to income. I find it a little ironic that this Government, which believe so strongly in the free market, seem to be relying on a combination of private philanthropy and quasi-Marxist social engineering to solve the rural housing problem. Indeed, it is nice to know that Ebenezer Howard and Karl Marx are apparently alive and well and helping to formulate the Government's rural housing policy.
Of course we welcome the recent announcement of £50 million allocated to councils where the rural housing need is greatest. Can the Minister confirm that that is not new money added to the housing investment programme but an expression of the higher priority to be given to rural housing in the programme 535 compared with other demands on it? It is a one-off shift in one year's programme. What is the Government's estimate of the number of houses that will result from the £50 million allocation?
The rural housing association movement finds it difficult to plan properly when it does not know from one year to the next what priority the Government intend to give to rural housing. Frankly, the stop-go attitude to funding is causing nothing less than chaos to small rural housing associations. What is needed is a proper, rolling five-year rural housing plan setting out targets for local authorities and the voluntary sector. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell the House whether the Government intend to have such a plan.
We have had a fascinating debate on a vitally important topic. The two reports that we have considered make an invaluable contribution to policy making. We must hope that their conclusions and recommendations are heeded in Westminster and in Brussels.
§ 9.10 p.m.
§ Baroness Trumpington
My Lords, having listened with interest—the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, please note—to Monday's debate on the environment and transport, I have listened with even greater interest to today's deliberations. I am delighted to be playing a part at the end of the day. I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Middleton and the most reverend Primate for the two reports.
Before I reply to specific points made by your Lordships perhaps you would bear with me while I make some general points which I believe are relevant to the matters in hand. Agriculture may account for only 1.4 per cent. of GDP and 2.2 per cent. of the national workforce but it is much more important than those figures suggest to the rural economy. Agricultural policies are, therefore, of vital importance to rural areas. I believe that the Select Committee and the Archbishops' Commission recognise this.
I was delighted to hear the stress laid by my noble friend Lord Selborne on the importance of food production. Farmers have always had two jobs—producing food, thereby forming the landscape, and looking after the countryside. After the war it was as food producers that the nation looked to them and they responded to great effect. But no one in this life is allowed to rest on their laurels. Farmers' very success brought with it the seeds of the current difficulties—surplus production and the need to restrain it and concern about some of the effects of farming on the environment.
Farmers are well aware that people expect them to balance and reduce their output as against spending more time on the needs of the environment. At the same time, they must earn enough to provide for their daily bread. That is a difficult dichotomy and one which the Government well understand. Of course I agree with my noble friends Lord Plumb and Lord 536 Swinton, and let me make one thing crystal clear—we remain committed to supporting efficient and productive farming.
The new balance that farmers have to strike is mirrored in government. Agriculture Ministers have a statutory duty to seek a reasonable balance between the needs of agriculture and other interests in the countryside, including conservation. I should, therefore, like to underline our commitment to integrating environmental objectives fully into agricultural support measures. The White Paper This Common Inheritance describes both past achievements and the future approach to agricultural support. We are doing a great deal. We have been pioneers in Europe on this. Increasingly our approach is featuring in community measures.
The most reverend Primate picked up the point that I am about to make. As my right honourable friend the Minister said at the General Synod yesterday, our agriculture is interlocked with Europe: 80 per cent. of the decisions are made in Brussels. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, that the GATT round will no doubt bring forth new developments. The GATT round is indeed moving into its final phase. The concluding ministerial meeting is due to open on 3rd December. The EC agriculture proposal is a major challenge for our agricultural industry and the rural economy. That is of course why the internal EC negotiations were so difficult. It is not clear what the final outcome in GATT will be. However, it will be vital to get agreement. All parties will need to compromise. All stand to benefit from a wide-ranging agreement.
I know that the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, is not here, but following his remarks—I am paraphrasing—that France and Germany were right to oppose the Community offer on GATT, I must reply and get on the record that if the EC had not been able to agree a negotiating position on agriculture, the whole GATT round would have been put at risk. That would have been highly irresponsible. The EC and the UK economies stand to benefit greatly from a GATT agreement on freer trade.
I must assure the noble Baroness, Lady White, that there is no question of agreement on agriculture at any price; and no question of dismantling the CAP or of completely abandoning particular policies. Freer market conditions will not mean complete exposure to market forces. As my noble friend Lady Blatch made clear, one important element which is of particular relevance to your Lordships' debate today is that we are seeking to maintain and develop environmental and conservation policies which are likely to play an increasingly important role in the years ahead.
The scene is a fast-changing one, and inevitably hand in hand with the actual farming of the land rural housing is an important part of that scene. My noble friend Lady Blatch devoted much of her excellent speech to that aspect. Let me pick up further queries raised by your Lordships. So many noble Lords spoke on the question of low-cost housing, starting with my noble friend Lord Middleton, that I really cannot name them all. However, I must begin by saying on 537 this subject that we share noble Lords' concern that affordable housing needs to be available for those who live and work in rural areas if we are to maintain the viability of rural communities.
We are determined to boost the supply of low-cost homes in rural areas, and we have introduced a number of measures since we announced our rural housing initiative in July 1988. As my right honourable friend explained, these include, first, changes to the planning rules allowing local authorities exceptionally to release small sites not previously designated for housing to meet local needs for low-cost housing; secondly, increased investment for housing associations in rural areas; and thirdly a new scheme announced last week to promote low-cost rural housing through local authorities.
The Housing Corporation's capital investment programme is set to double between 1989–90 and 1993–94, topping the £2 billion mark for the first time, providing for a sustained increase in output of new subsidised housing for rent by housing associations. A big and increasing slice of this programme is going to rural areas.
The £50 million of local authority credit approvals available next year will be targeted on the rural areas with the greatest needs to support a new programme for low-cost housing for rent. We would expect councils to use these resources mainly to support housing association activity in rural areas. This programme will act as a welcome spur to this urgently needed type of housing provision.
May I just say that I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for giving me one of his questions before. As a matter of fact the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, also mentioned the number of rural houses. It is only just over two years since the special rural house building programme in England was announced. Housing corporation provision is building up steadily from modest beginnings to reach 1,500 per annum by 1992–93. We have no means of measuring the number of houses that might be in the pipeline under the off plan land concession but we are hearing encouraging reports. We have also heard of a number of shared ownership schemes being delivered without public subsidy.
The Rural Development Commission suggests that a fixed equity shared ownership scheme should be allowed in rural areas. We understand its view, but on balance we disagree. Most people want eventually to become full owners. We believe that people who have taken the first step into shared ownership should not be obliged to move in order to own their own home. We recognise that especially in small villages there is a need to preserve the limited stock of houses available for shared ownership. Therefore we have introduced the scheme enabling housing associations to buy those houses back when the first owner moves on.
The noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, asked whether money from council house sales could be used for low-cost housing. That plea, which comes from all quarters, to allow local authorities to use more of their 538 capital receipts is based on a complete misunderstanding. The new capital finance system allows us to distribute resources much more sensibly among authorities according to their needs. Under the old system spending powers concentrated in the areas which had high receipts because they had sold large numbers of council houses. The new system, by requiring authorities to repay debts, enables us to give more money to authorities in need. Many of those will be in inner cities. But some will be in rural areas. That is surely fairer. We are able to allocate two-thirds of the total housing capital spending on the basis of assessed need compared with one-third previously. We make exceptions to the debt redemption rules where a good case exists, including help for low-cost home ownership.
My noble friend Lord Shuttleworth suggested new initiatives on rural housing and housing corporation funding. As I said, the housing corporation capital investment programme is set to double between 1989–90 and 1993–94, topping the £2 billion mark for the first time and providing for a sustained increase in output of newly subsidised housing for rent by housing associations. A large and increasing slice of that programme will go to rural areas.
The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked about the assessment of rural housing needs. Earlier this month Housing for Wales published results of two research projects on the nature of need for housing in rural Wales. We shall shortly be commissioning research into the need for housing in rural areas in England.
My noble friend Lord Selborne mentioned house building on land not previously designated for housing. I was delighted to hear that he has made good use of the change to the planning rules to encourage the construction of houses to meet local needs. I was also delighted that he found that the National Agricultural Centre Rural Trust, which is funded by the Rural Development Commission, gave him good and useful advice.
My noble friend Lord Middleton spoke of the extension of environmentally sensitive areas and bringing LFA payments closer to the environment. My noble friend Lady Blatch referred to the shift taking place within the CAP. In 1991 we shall be reviewing the ESA scheme when the results for the initial environmental and economic monitoring are available. That review will be important in guiding us on the approach we should build on for ESAs in future. Regarding payments in LFAs and what my noble friend Lord Prior said, we are examining whether existing environmental benefits afforded by HLCAs should be made more specific.
The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York and others referred to health service access. I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Masharn, for her recognition that special arrangements are made to encourage general practitioner doctors and pharmacists to provide services in rural areas. On 13th November the Government announced that rural GPs are to be better paid in recognition of the special demands of general practice in country areas. Small pharmacies in England which are at least 2 kilometres 539 from the next pharmacy have special support arrangements which guarantee a minimum level of income.
Several noble Lords also mentioned post offices and village shops. The Government and the Post Office remain committed to the maintenance of the network of rural post offices. To meet part of that commitment the Post Office has introduced a new type of office—the community office, which is a part-time office often run from a local residence. A recent report on village shops prepared for the Rural Development Commission suggests that in England the rate of loss of village shops and rural sub-post offices has slowed down in recent years. The commission provides advice and training for village shopkeepers.
The noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, referred to county councils being responsible for rural areas. County structure plans take account of the rural economy. My noble friend Lady Blatch also referred to the proposed new guidance on the countryside and the rural economy. Both the noble Lords, Lord Gallacher and Lord John-Mackie, spoke about the need to keep agricultural land available in case there is need for extra food production. I agree that there is still a need to protect the best agricultural land from development. That is a clear part of our objectives and we look to planning authorities to provide that protection.
My noble friend Lord Radnor referred to the difficulties involved in paying farmers to keep the countryside beautiful, but our ESA scheme has been extremely successful. I appreciate the points that he made and we continue to make efforts to minimise the bureaucracy of such schemes.
The most reverend Primate, the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, and my noble friend Lord Swinton all mentioned schools. The Government recognise the degree of support that rural schools may command in the local community. Many small schools continue to be retained because of the geographical isolation of the communities that they serve and their value to those communities. In England and Wales where the closure of a school is proposed because, for example, its disproportionate level of resources cannot compensate sufficiently for the small size of the school, the proposal is treated on its individual merits. Factors such as the length of journey to the new school are taken into account.
The noble Lord, Lord Wrenbury, confined his remarks to the report, Faith in the Countryside and it must be for the Church to respond to what he said. However, I am sure that those associated with the Church have followed with interest what has been said by your Lordships today. It is clear that the noble Lord sees a vital role for the Church in our rural communities, both now and into the foreseeable future.
My noble friend Lord Plumb spoke about the difficulties of tracing pollution in water in some farms. I agree with my noble friend that the problems related to water are complex. That is why the Government place great emphasis on sound scientific research. For 540 example, on nitrate we have introduced our pilot nitrate-sensitive area scheme with compensation to farmers in order to begin tackling the problem and apply our research results in real conditions.
My noble friend Lord Plumb also spoke about the sympathetic conversion of redundant farm buildings. I certainly recognise the anxiety that has been expressed about some of the conversions of redundant farm buildings. Our old farm buildings are a familiar part of the countryside heritage and they add much to what we know and love of our rural areas. The Government are keen to ensure that the environment is taken into consideration when development takes place, be it new buildings or the conversion of old ones.
My noble friend Lord Shuttleworth spoke about the upland sheep farmers, identified in both reports as an endangered species. I was sorry to hear that my noble friend regards himself as an endangered species. I do not think the noble Baroness, Lady White, associated herself with those remarks; but perhaps I can reassure them both, and also my noble friend Lord Prior, that we recognise the difficulties facing sheep farmers in the hills and uplands. These problems will be taken into account in the current review of the HLCAs. The Government remain fully committed to supporting the livestock industry in less favoured areas. That is demonstrated by the expected payment of £125 million in HLCAs alone in 1990.
The noble Baroness, Lady White, spoke of her anxiety about livestock farming in Wales. With my recent change of responsibilities, I shall be taking even greater interest in Welsh affairs. I can understand the anxiety which she expressed. I pay tribute to the work of the development agencies and particularly that of the Welsh Development Agency which was mentioned by the noble Baroness. It is responsible for the development of rural areas other than those in mid-Wales which is the responsibility of the Development Board for Rural Wales. The schemes take the form of workshop development programmes and other enterprise promotion activities, including the promotion and marketing of Welsh foods and crafts. I am sure that there are not enough craft shops in Wales.
The noble Duke, the Duke of Somerset, asked whether set-aside will reduce cereal production. The set-aside scheme was introduced in 1988 as part of a package of measures designed to curb overproduction and to bring the costs of the common agricultural policy under better control. The main aim of the scheme is to complement the overal1 price policy—in particular, the operation of the agricultural stabiliser mechanism. It offers farmers most affected by support reductions an alternative income and also an opportunity to rethink their current farming practices as well as diversifying into new uses for their land. It was not designed to be a panacea for all the problems of cereal overproduction.
My noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood said that diversification would have a limited impact in less favoured areas. The Government have never pretended that on-farm diversification will solve all 541 farmers' problems or those of rural society more generally. Some farmers will not have the resources or the ability to diversify. Some will be too remote from markets though many will have the opportunity. It is important that they should be encouraged. More farmers have diversified than might have been thought likely. A recent study conducted by Exeter University has shown that nearly 23 per cent. of farmers in England and Wales have already diversified into non-agricultural businesses.
My noble friends Lord Swinton and Lord Peel spoke about the importance of habitat management for game. I endorse my noble friend's views. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the Game Conservancy. It is work that we commend and support. My noble friend Lord Peel referred to ELMS. That is a very worthwhile initiative. It follows a theme which is part of the Government's own thinking—that is to say, that farmers should go out and look for markets for their environmental goods. I wish the CLA very well with it. We shall also look with interest at the development of the Countryside Commission's national countryside initiative.
I found the speech made by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, very moving. I do not have a great deal to say on the problems of the disabled in the countryside. She will know that indirectly I have understood and been part of them in a way. One or two of the points she raised worry me very much. Grants for livery enterprises are available under the farm diversification grant scheme. Livery enterprises have proved to be among the most numerous recipients of these grants. I am not at all sure that she knew about that. It is about time that she did!
The noble Baroness referred to the minimum value scheme now operating in this country with regard to the non-exportation of live horses and ponies. I can assure her that I am entirely on her side. What we all have to do is to convince our partners in Europe that our present scheme is the right one.
I could make a great many other points but I hope that I have given everyone at least one bite of the cherry. I shall write to anyone who feels left out or aggrieved. It has been a great pleasure to take part in this debate. It has given me the chance to underline the importance the Government attach to a healthy rural economy. After three years in MAFF I know of the enormous willingness of farmers to play their part and to get right the balance about which I spoke at the beginning of my speech. I know how difficult the situation is for them. It is a hell of a thing to see one's world turned upside down. Of course farming is not the only industry to have faced major upheavals, but the situation is made no easier by saying that. The future of the industry is bound to be different from the past but fossilisation is not a recipe for the health and vitality we seek in the rural economy.
My noble friend Lady Elliot spoke of the need to protect the countryside for people's entertainment and enjoyment. The Government are fully committed to protecting the countryside for its own sake. They remain committed to upholding the policies on 542 national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. There will be opportunities to make things better than they were and we must all look for those opportunities and exploit them for all they are worth.
§ 9.36 p.m.
§ Lord Middleton
My Lords, I thank those noble Lords and noble Baronesses who have spoken in the debate and I am grateful to them for their general acceptance of the recommendations in the report. If the report has merit then, as I have said when moving debates on similar reports in the past, it is due in great part to the assiduity of members of Sub-Committee D in obtaining relevant information from our excellent witnesses; it is due to the many individuals and bodies who tendered written evidence; and it is due, as I said earlier, to the skill and hard work of our clerk, his specialist assistant and our specialist adviser.
I should like to thank the Government for their response to the report which was embodied in the most helpful speeches of the two noble Baronesses. I listened to what they said about the Government's policy in regard to rural housing, a matter of great concern to nearly every speaker. I shall read with enormous attention what they have said.
Finally, I thank my noble friend Lady Trumpington for the great trouble she has taken to answer the many points raised. I should like to say how grateful I am to her for confirming that the prime objective of rural policy is to maintain the potential of the countryside to produce food and to ensure that that production is effective.
On Question, Motion agreed to.