§ 3.11 p.m.
§ Lord Middleton rose to call attention to changes in the countryside and to the part played by organisations connected with the countryside; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, perhaps I may begin by saying how pleased I am to see that the noble Earl, Lord Spencer, and the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, are taking part in the debate, and how much I look forward to hearing them speak for the first time in the House.
§ Rather more than two years ago, I presented to your Lordships the report of the European Communities Committee entitled The Future of Rural Society. That followed our inquiry into a European Commission paper with the same title. The subsequent debate concentrated on identifying policies for sustaining the economies of the rural areas, especially in the UK. Because little has changed since then —if anything the problems have become worse—I shall try to avoid covering the same ground, and to focus on administration of the countryside.
In the foreword to the consultation document Agriculture and England's Environment which the Minister of Agriculture issued this spring he wrote this:
The English countryside is one of our great national treasures. Its character, landscape and wildlife have been shaped by farmers who have for generations cared for the land.
Today farming still accounts for over three-quarters of England's total area and farming practices are crucial to the well-being of the rural environment, our countryside.
I could add that farming practices are also crucial to the economical production and marketing of food.
§ I suppose that techniques have evolved more rapidly during the 47 years in which I have been involved in farming than in any comparable period, and those have changed the face of the countryside in a way not seen since the planting of hedges under the Enclosure Acts 150 to 200 years ago—hedges that, in some cases, have been removed again to make bigger fields to accommodate modern machinery.
§ If, however, one travels anywhere west of a line from, say, Scarborough to Southampton, the 1571 countryside is very much the same as it was 50 years ago except for urban and motorway encroachment. The public, however, perceive farmers as destroyers of the countryside and of nature; so it has become politically necessary in the European Community as well as in the UK to exert more and more control over farming practices. The use of stick and carrot to regulate farming practices is not new—stick in the form of legislation, regulation, by-laws, restrictions, guidelines and so on; carrot in the shape of grants and payments of various kinds.
§ What I should like to suggest to your Lordships is that while every measure (whether it be a constraint or an incentive) can on its own be amply justified, yet the sheer number of them, issuing from a diversity of local government, central government and government-funded bodies, is creating a very complicated bureaucratic system which is beginning to divert farmers away from their primary role as food producers.
§ There is legislation which applies to all businesses. In addition, for agriculture there is legislation, accepted by farmers as necessary, to prevent mischief of all kinds arising from new technology. There are strict health and safety rules covering the use and construction of farm buildings, plant and machinery, chemicals, the handling of livestock and the working conditions of farm staff. Those are enforced by the Health and Safety Commission and its officers. There are regulations for the composition of feedstuffs and of chemicals. There are rigorous regulations for the disposal of dead stock. There are anti-pollution measures, and rightly so, designed mainly to keep out of our watercourses the residues from intensive livestock farming. These are monitored and enforced by the NRA. Farmers may not pollute the air by burning straw.
§ Local authorities exert planning control over farm buildings and those are very much tighter in national parks. Local authorities too are responsible for public rights of way over farm land and for enforcing footpath legislation. Long distance footpaths are set up, however, by the Countryside Commission which has an overall responsibility over public access. The successor bodies to what was the NCC, create and enforce the protection of 3,700 SSSIs and 140 nature reserves in England alone. Most wild animals and birds are protected by law, including badgers which have more protective legislation than do our children. The DOE has designated 23 per cent. of the land of England as areas of outstanding natural beauty. That imposes certain constraints on farming activity in those areas.
§ The DOE is the parent ministry for English Heritage, which designates and supervises the protection of ancient monuments and archaeological sites. The estate which I and my son manage has no fewer than 43 scheduled ancient monuments. Many of those can only be detected from the air, but woe betide us if we interfere with one, even if we are unable to see it. DOE sees to the listing of some 800,000 buildings for their better protection but, with only a few exceptions, at the expense of, and with little regard to the financial imposition on their owners. No one can 1572 quarrel with the principle of preserving our architectural heritage, but there are anomalies and there is no system of appeal when they occur.
§ The NRA supervises the quality of the water supplied by the many private water supplies, mostly spring fed, which exist in the remoter areas. It is right that the public should be protected from pollution in water, but what constitutes pollution is a matter not wholly agreed between the Commission and the UK. We now have the EC nitrate directive. Sub-committee "D" inquired into nitrates in water in 1989 and reported to this House. I shall not repeat the European Select Committee's strong reservations and criticism of EC water policy, but farming practice in many areas of England is likely to be constrained to comply with European legislation. Moreover, that was based on inadequate scientific advice that in some respects is not endorsed by our own scientists who are expert in this field.
§ You may not cut down trees in the countryside without permission; neither can you plant them. I shall return shortly to the question of forestry. The camel's back was thus well-loaded before the huge amount of paperwork required to be done this spring for MAFF to ensure that CAP support and subsidies are correctly allocated. Every piece of land, if it is to get CAP support has had to be recorded and mapped to an accuracy of two decimal points of a hectare. This is an exercise which has had no equivalent in depth and complexity since the compiling of the Doomsday Book. It has been extremely time-consuming for farmers.
§ In addition to the recording of arable land, a similar exercise is required for land to be grazed by beef cattle. Furthermore, in order to receive the not particularly generous beef support payments, every male beef animal has to have a cattle identification document which comes in three different colours and follows the animal for the rest of its life. The enormity of the task of checking hundreds of animals and hundreds of forms at a busy cattle market can be imagined. What happens to all the bits of paper when the animal is dead I cannot guess.
§ I doubt whether any backs will be broken by this additional load except perhaps those of the unfortunate MAFF officials who have to administer it. British farmers see it as necessary if taxpayers' money is not to be misapplied or, indeed, misappropriated. They do, however, have grave doubts about any comparable administrative rigour in some member states. Are they to believe that equally demanding procedures and documentation will be performed in Greece, Portugal, France, and Italy?
§ I have an Italian friend; a landowner and a benevolent one at that. Even for him to visit some of his estates in Italy and Sicily in person would be extremely hazardous. One can imagine the fate of a zealous Italian bureaucrat attempting to record the details of land-holdings required by the Commission, let alone enforce the new CAP rules. I am told, though I do not know whether it is true, that Spanish farmers are not allowed maps lest the security of the state be endangered.1573
§ Those, then, are some of the restrictive measures and some of the procedures now imposed upon farmers. One might perhaps be led to conclude that, while land nationalisation may now be off the political agenda, the nationalisation of land use has taken its place. The incentives—welcome as they are—are multifarious and from diverse sources. MAFF makes payments to farmers in environmentally sensitive areas and in nitrate sensitive areas. It operates a farm woodland premium scheme. English Nature makes payments to farmers for SSSI management. The Countryside Commission operates a countryside stewardship scheme, which I believe to be wholly beneficial, and it pays out incentives towards tree planting and new hedgerows. MAFF also operates the HLCAs, which supplement the incomes of hill farmers, without which the uplands, much of which are of great natural beauty, would be abandoned and uncared for. The Rural Development Commission makes grants towards conversion of redundant farm buildings. I look forward to hearing what my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth has to say.
§ I can applaud the policy objectives behind all these incentive schemes; including the seven new ones recently announced by MAFF in response to the EC Agri-Environmental Directive. Yet taken together with all the controls and restraints, some of which I have described, the whole package must warrant close examination so that some kind of order can be produced from what seems to me to be a growing administrative ragbag.
§ I return to forestry to illustrate my point. If nothing else is done we must have a sensible forestry policy in this country. The Government's fiscal policy is working directly against their countryside policy so far as trees are concerned. I believe that a reversal of the last Administration's changes in tax treatment for woodlands would do far more to encourage planting and the maintenance of trees—at any rate in lowland Britain—than the meagre grant aid now available through the Forestry Commission.
§ From neither a policy nor an administrative point of view can it be efficient to have five different bodies trying to control forestry activity. I refer to the Forestry Commission, the Countryside Commission, MAFF, local authorities, and to a lesser extent English Nature and its equivalent bodies in Wales and Scotland. To add to the confusion, the efforts of all these bodies are being criticised by the pressure groups such as the CPRE, the RSPB, the ramblers, the Royal Forestry Society, the Timber Growers Association and the CLA.
§ There is great ignorance about forestry. It is expensive and difficult to establish and maintain woodlands—especially hardwoods. Forestry is a very skilled occupation. Too often we hear about schemes to plant up land and even to establish whole new forests in England. We are not told who is to carry out the demanding and skilled tasks required to maintain them after they have been planted. There is no clear thinking even about what trees are for. Are they to 1574 provide timber to close the enormous trade gaps in forest products, or are they just there for the public to look at?
§ These points are made ad nauseam whenever your Lordships debate forestry but I believe that whatever strategy is devised for woodlands their administration must be simplified and rationalised under one instead of five separate bodies. If I could afford to do so in Ascot week I would place my bet on the forestry authority as being the one best able to do it.
§ Forestry provides just one example of administrative problems which beset the countryside but the problem goes much wider. There is a need for much better integration in the development of policies for the countryside. Too many government departments and agencies currently have a finger in the pie, often pulling in rather different directions. Too often the competition engendered is confusing rather than constructive.
§ With the need for integrated rural policies first championed by the Country Landowners' Association 10 years ago and now well and truly accepted, the time has come to consider pulling together countryside management under one Ministry —a real Ministry of Rural Affairs. Some who have gone down this road have thought in terms of a third Ministry separate from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of the Environment. I believe that that would be a recipe for disaster. Not only would such a fledgling Ministry be squeezed in the nutcracker of the two older departments of state but the need is for a combination of the expertise in MAFF and the Department of the Environment to form a department truly capable of understanding and promoting the interests of the countryside as a whole. To the agricultural expertise and regional delivery mechanism of MAFF should be added—could be added—those parts of DoE dealing with the environment and, possibly, water. No doubt some would see difficulties in such an approach but I put it to your Lordships as something to ponder over and perhaps to debate.
§ Finally, the countryside can only thrive if farming prospers. Farmers will be harder and harder pressed as the present CAP structure crumbles, as crumble it will. The danger lies in this: that, in trying with the most laudable of motives to control and encourage environmentally benign farming, we may be creating a hydra; a many-headed bureaucratic monster that will obstruct and divert the farmer from pursuing his primary task of satisfying our home market for food and of finding and capturing markets overseas.
§ My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.29 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Strathclyde)
My Lords, I am delighted to open the debate on behalf of Her Majesty's Government. I thank my noble friend Lord Middleton for initiating it. It is a subject about which this House has a great deal of knowledge. That is why I particularly welcome the two maiden speakers; namely, the noble Earl, Lord Spencer, and my noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard. I very much look forward to the remainder of the debate and 1575 I know that both myself and my noble friend Lord Howe and our respective departments will have a great deal to discuss when it is over.
We sometimes caricature the contrasts between urban and rural life like the town mouse and the country mouse: the former cosmopolitan, hectic, ever-changing; the latter relaxed, stable, perhaps a little stick in the mud. Many of us might subscribe to the truth of much of that comparison but, on reflection, we would concede that none of our national myths is stronger than that of the unchanging rural idyll. Yet almost 200 years ago Cobbett wandered irascibly across southern England fulminating at the decay of traditional rural society and the spread of urban influences. A century ago, Hardy was lamenting a Dorset more in his memory than reality. Change has always been a part of the countryside and we delude ourselves if we think otherwise. But if there is something which has not changed through the ages, it is the manner in which successive generations have contributed to the natural beauty and diversity of Britain's countryside. The cornerstone of this Government's policy is to ensure that those who come after us recognise our contribution to maintaining that priceless inheritance.
In striving towards that aim, this Government recognise two equal, indeed complementary, objectives—the continuing development of the rural economy and thriving rural communities and the conservation and enhancement of the scenic beauty and wildlife of the countryside. I refute any claim that those objectives are not compatible. Only a prosperous countryside will provide the resources to protect the natural inheritance, and we must strike a sensible balance between encouraging the rural economy while protecting that which we most value and which gives the countryside its irreplaceable character. In meeting those objectives this Government have been remarkably successful.
A characteristic which has distinguished our countryside in recent years from that of many of our European partners is the desire of so many people to live and to work there. Rural depopulation hardly exists any longer in Britain. Between 1981 and 1991 rural areas grew more rapidly in population than the country as a whole. Even so-called "remote" rural areas experienced an increase in the numbers of people moving into them—sometimes reversing trends over a century old.
Inevitably, new people bring new ideas and new opportunities. Rural areas are already one of the most dynamic sectors of the economy and recent years have seen a growing diversification in the structure of the rural economy. High-tech businesses have grown rapidly and service industries are now the main employers in the countryside. Prosperity is reflected in the fact that only four of the Rural Development Commission's priority rural development areas have unemployment above the national average.
Rural areas are especially well placed to take advantage of many of the developments in the economy as a whole. Modern telecommunications can overcome traditional problems of isolation, and we have already seen the emergence of so-called 1576 "teleworking" as working from home becomes a possibility for more and more people. The increasing consumer interest in "green" products, too, should give some rural firms a competitive edge as the market for goods with a distinctive "local flavour"—in every sense—widens.
The demands to use the countryside for recreation have never been greater. A walk in the country remains the most popular of outdoor pursuits, but recently we have seen a multitude of new activities—orienteering, hang gliding, wargaming—as well as the expansion of many older ones. There are new pressures, of course, but tourism is the main industry in a number of rural areas. If there is a common theme to these successes it must be the importance which all those who come to live, work and play in the countryside attach to the rural environment.
I believe that no country has a better claim than ours to the effectiveness with which we have conserved the attractiveness of our countryside. Some 30 per cent. of England and Wales, for example, now lies within at least one national designation affording protection for its landscape or wildlife qualities. Over the last decade, since the passing of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, we can point to a significant strengthening in the protection of our wildlife and their habitats.
We have also had some significant successes in discharging our international obligations, as for example under the EC Birds Directive and under the Ramsar Convention governing wetlands of international importance. In the last 12 months we have designated 24 special protection areas under the Birds Directive and listed 12 Ramsar sites. On 8th June my honourable friend the Minister of State announced the designation of two SPAs—at Hamford Water in Essex and at Lower Derwent Valley—thereby bringing the running total to 72. Both the latter are also Ramsar sites, and with the further site in Wales, Crymlyn Bog, also announced on 8th June, our listings under the convention now total 66, more than any other contracting party. Nor shall we rest on our laurels. More announcements will follow from our accelerated programme of designations.
I know that the protection of birds is dear to the hearts of many noble Lords. Many British species which in the past have shown alarming declines in their range and populations are now recovering. The red kite, widespread in the 19th century, was almost reduced to near extinction by persecution. At one time there were only five breeding pairs in mid-Wales. Now the Welsh breeding population has risen to about 80 pairs and thanks to the reintroduction programme run by the RSPB and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, are breeding in England and Scotland for the first time in a century.
Many other species are due to benefit from English Nature's species recovery programme launched in 1991 with strong support from the Government. Some 20 species of native plants and animals—including the lady's slipper orchid, the dormouse, the red squirrel and the natterjack toad—are to be targeted to save them from extinction and achieve their long-term sustainable survival. We have already seen how the 1577 large blue butterfly, extinct in the UK in 1979, has been successfully reintroduced, while our protection of bats is an example which we now hope will be adopted by other countries through the new European Bat Agreement.
Species recovery is closely related to the removal of pollution, and here, too, we have had other successes which my noble friend Lord Middleton mentioned. Between 1990 and 1991 the National Rivers Authority reported a very significant drop—some 60 per cent.—in the number of major water pollution incidents from agriculture. Overall, pesticide use has fallen by some 20 per cent. between 1980 and 1990 and one result has been a significant contribution to the increase in the range and number of otters throughout Scotland, Wales and South-West England.
Inevitably there are problems. Change is rarely to the benefit of all. Traditional industries are in decline and some may feel under threat when the needs of local groups can seem to take second place to the demands of increasing numbers of people seeking to use the countryside as a place where they can relax, away from the pressures and cares of urban lives. In some villages there is a shortage of affordable housing for people on low incomes; in others those without access to a car may find it difficult to get to schools or shops, which are increasingly concentrated in the towns. Sometimes we forget, however, how many of these problems and pressures are the results of success—the very pressures of demand on the countryside.
We shall continue to address those problems and others as they arise. We will strike the right balance between development and conservation; meeting the demand for housing for long-standing rural residents as well as those new to the countryside; and building roads to make rural businesses more accessible to markets while respecting the environment through which they pass. There are many ways of dealing with the problems of the countryside; legislation is only one of them. What our policies have proved over the past 14 years is that working closely with local people, within the legislative framework, has created the successful environment which we all desire.
There are many ways to carry forward our policies in the countryside—local authorities, the countryside agencies, the great range of voluntary bodies at both national and local level and, most importantly, all those who live and work in the countryside. The Government have always emphasised their belief that the best stewards of the countryside are those who live and work there and especially those who own and manage the land. So much of what we love best about our countryside can be traced to the long-established and continuing tradition of care passed down through successive generations.
Government set the framework of policy and this Government will continue to build their policies on a framework which ensures that the economy of rural areas will thrive, that our most beautiful landscapes will be protected, that the abundance and variety of our wildlife and their habitats will be conserved and that responsible public participation in caring for the rural environment will be promoted. We will 1578 continually keep those policies under review and we will take further action when and where necessary to secure the delivery of those objectives.
§ 3.42 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, for tabling the Motion and, indeed, for the eloquent way in which he introduced it. Together with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, I, too, look forward to hearing the maiden speeches of the noble Earl, Lord Spencer, and the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard.
At the outset of the debate, I should perhaps declare a personal interest. I am president of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales. Although that is an honorary position, and although CPRW is a purely non-party political body, nevertheless I thought it best to make clear to the House that I hold the position. However, what I say from this Dispatch Box does not necessarily reflect CPRW policy; it reflects the policy of the Labour Party.
The debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, follows two previous debates in the House this year: one on the social and economic needs of rural areas on the 3rd March; and, the other, on an Unstarred Question tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, on the CAP's agri-environment legislation. I have little to add to what my noble friends Lord Carter and Lord Gallagher said on the first occasion and to what my noble friend Lord Carter said on the second occasion.
As the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, pointed out, the subject that we are dealing with is very wide. Indeed, there were times—and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, will excuse me if I say so—when I thought that he was, perhaps, concentrating rather less on the Motion that he put before the House than on general complaints about the European Community or the Government. I should like to address myself to the Motion before the House which was moved by the noble Lord.
There is, of course, a difficulty of definition. Perhaps I may just note that difficulty by saying that the expression "countryside" has an environmental flavour to it, but the expression "rural areas" has a slightly economic flavour to it. I propose not to follow my noble friend Lord Carter on the economic and social needs of rural areas which he discussed with your Lordships on the 3rd March; I propose to adopt the environmental approach. I shall not follow the Minister entirely down the road of the natterjack toad, but, nevertheless, I shall join him in trying to speak a little about the environmental side of the countryside and how we should be dealing with it.
We must admit that there is a difficulty. That difficulty was clearly put by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in his opening address for the Government. Inevitably, the countryside changes over the years; indeed, it has changed and will change over the years. Intensive farming methods, increased tourism and people who want to enjoy the facilities of the countryside—and with rising incomes will want 1579 continually to do so—represent what I would call "creeping suburbanisation". In other words, as the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, said, more and more the home counties are becoming a refuge for people who want to get out of the towns and live in the suburbs. Therefore, they have to occupy land. As we know, in that sense, it is an overpopulated area of the country. To a certain extent I would say that there are some defects in our planning regulations. That is particularly so in Wales (where I come from) where some of our district planning committees are, in my view, simply not up to the job of organising and properly undertaking a development plan.
Having put that difficulty before your Lordships, I must point out that it is not our policy to want to preserve a countryside in aspic. The countryside must develop. The rural areas have their own requirements. Therefore, I accept that difficulty. Having accepted it, I then pass to the question of how we should manage the countryside—and here I join with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde—in the best interests of all those who are in the countryside and those who wish to visit the countryside, given that there is a serious and possibly unmanageable conflict between the two.
In the debate of 3rd March, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, referred (Hansard col. 702) to Planning Policy Guidance Note 7. That set the tone for the development of government policy. I hope to hear from the noble Earl when he responds to the debate how the monitoring facilities which the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, indicated were in place are in fact working on PPG7. I am sure that the noble Earl will want to give your Lordships the benefit of that guidance.
Thus far we agree with what the Minister said: there is a need to keep the countryside as a living organism; it will change but, nevertheless, there is a contrary and necessary confrontational need to keep it environmentally safe and proper for people who wish to enjoy its benefits.
In practice, where are we now? I believe that we are still working out the consequences of the reform of the common agricultural policy in 1992. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships of the words of Mr. John Gummer. At the time he said:I am especially glad that the agreement"—that is, the agreement to reform the CAP—makes significant steps towards bringing environmental issues into the heart of the CAP".I shall return to those words as I move on. Then, as your Lordships will remember, we had EC regulation 20/78/92 (known in Euro-jargon as the "agri-environment regulation") which has been translated by MAFF into a proposal document on how to implement that regulation. It contains a variety of different initiatives which are allowed; for example, aid to farmers undertaking actions that are environmentally positive and particularly measures to improve the training of farmers. So far I can say so good, but we have to note that the funding that is available to put into practice the requirements of that regulation is, frankly, inadequate. As I understand the position—perhaps the noble Earl will correct me when 1580 he replies if I am wrong—in the United Kingdom there is £30 million available over three years for new measures up to 1995–96.
Then there is set aside. We understand that £150 million this year will be used to pay farmers for set aside. I do not want to go into all the arguments for or against set aside because I am sure noble Lords will discuss that matter during the debate. However, I would say that in our view set aside does not tackle the major problem. Europe's major problem is not that there is too much agricultural land but that farming is too intensive on the land that is in agriculture. In other words, too much food is produced from agricultural land. If we could, in the context of the common agricultural policy, design a system which would reduce the amount of food which is produced from agricultural land, the need for set aside would be correspondingly reduced.
In environmental terms set aside—environmental bodies will confirm this—is not a happy event in terms of the management of land. Rotational set aside is an even worse measure as a wildlife habitat will not emerge and birds and plants—the Minister referred to this—will not stay on the set aside land if that land is farmed the following year or the year after. There seems to be a problem with the set aside both in terms of the environment and in terms of the agricultural community.
What needs to be done? I suppose there is a case for a fundamental review of land use policies. I believe that there is always a case for a fundamental review of land use policies. Any noble Lord can ask for a fundamental review of almost anything. I shall not pursue that route. There is, as the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, pointed out, a number of different organisations that run a number of different programmes. A rather substantial bureaucracy has grown up around them. I accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, that there may well be a good case for rationalising what is going on.
I speak from my experience in mid-Wales. My neighbouring farmer had absolutely no idea how to fill in the forms that he was required to fill in by 15th May. He asked me about the relationship between a hectare and an acre. I consulted my Economist diary and calculated that relationship for him. My neighbour is a hill farmer in mid-Wales who farms 170 acres. How is he to be expected to fill in these forms? I accept that there is a need for rationalisation in this matter and the forms that I have mentioned should be more farmer friendly.
If the Government are serious in their commitment to environmental matters, we need to move forward with a number of pieces of legislation which have been promised and which apparently will not now be introduced in the immediate future. It is rumoured that the environment Bill will not be introduced in the next Session of Parliament. There was a Bill to deal with the protection of hedgerows but that has now fallen. Apparently no Bill on that matter will be introduced by the Government in the foreseeable future. I hear that the implementation of the habitats directive will be carried out by order rather than by 1581 primary legislation. Orders are, of course, unamendable. No doubt the noble Earl will wish to comment on that matter when he replies to the debate.
National parks legislation has been promised in the 1987 Conservative Party manifesto and in the 1992 manifesto. If the Secretary of State for Wales has his way, Wales will find itself next year implementing a local government organisation which will throw the whole of the national parks in Wales into confusion. In the 1987 Conservative Party manifesto there was an assurance that legislation would be introduced on the matter of common land on the basis of the recommendations of the Common Land Forum. We are now in 1993 and we are still waiting for that legislation.
We are told time and time again that there will be legislation when legislative time permits. However, I must ask noble Lords on the Government Front Bench whether they are really serious about environmental legislation. I have referred to five measures which have been promised, or which are obligatory, and which apparently are to be postponed.
The noble Lord, Lord Middleton, has referred to organisations in the Motion. I have no further comments to make on the European Economic Community in this context. I have a few comments to make on the United Kingdom Government but I shall make them in a moment. As regards the statutory bodies, I can only speak with any experience of the Countryside Council for Wales. I am bound to say that I believe that that body has got off to a good start. I initially had my doubts about whether the body would in any sense be effective. However, I believe that it is a robust and expert body which is prepared, when necessary, to approach the Secretary of State and inform him that it disagrees with what the Government are doing.
As regards voluntary bodies, I do not wish to speak about the CPRW or its sister organisation, the CPRE. I accept, however, that there may be too many voluntary bodies. There is a plethora of voluntary bodies. I was pleased to note that the CPRW had made a submission to the Secretary of State for Wales which consisted of a joint effort between the CPRW, the RSPB, the Farmers Union for Wales and the Welsh branch of the National Farmers' Union. That was an example of bodies coming together to make a submission. The prime example of that principle is the Wildlife and Countryside Link which brings together a number of bodies which may have different approaches to problems but which speak in the end with one voice. I hope that process will continue.
It is necessary for voluntary organisations to accept—this is a prime principle—that we cannot any longer simply concentrate on the environment without having regard to the agricultural community. As the Minister said, farmers and environmentalists must work together. I believe that they have interests in common.
Finally, I come back to the question of commitment on the part of the Government. Five legislative measures for environmental reform have been promised by the Government. None of those 1582 measures will be introduced, unless the noble Earl can say otherwise when he replies to the debate. The Minister may have commented on the natterjack toad but one has to question the Government's commitment to this issue when it is a matter of introducing legislation in your Lordships' House. Unless that commitment is honest and sincere no amount of silver words will do. Action is what is required.
The Government have to choose whether they are prepared to follow their own proclaimed environmental convictions or are going to cop out when it comes to legislation to promote them. In my view the Government must make that choice. They should be seen to be not merely in office but in power.
§ 4 p.m.
§ Lord Geraint
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, for initiating this important debate on the countryside. The timing of the debate is perfect. Here we are in the last week of spring, and it has rained a great deal. Summer starts next Monday: let us hope that we shall have good weather for the next few months.
Many years ago I had the privilege of being a member of a panel in Merionethshire. There were four of us—one from each political party in Wales. We were asked questions on the countryside, Welsh language, culture and agricultural policy. Every one of us answered the questions to the best of our ability. As many politicians do during a campaign, we promised them everything. However, I remember that at the end of the session, when the chairman was about to propose a vote of thanks, an elderly gentleman at the back of the hall got up. He was well into his 80s. He had listened all evening. He said: "I have listened with interest to every one of you. You have all promised to do the best that you can for the countryside, for the language and the culture. But I am going to ask you one question before you leave. I don't want you to answer tonight. The simple question is: who owns Wales?" Perhaps before the end of the debate someone will give me the answer. Perhaps the Minister will say who owns England and who owns Scotland. I remember that we were all clean bowled when we were asked who owns Wales.
As a practical farmer myself I shall pay tribute to my fellow farmers. They deserve a great deal of praise for what they have achieved over the years. Farmers have been the custodians of the countryside. They are the custodians of the countryside, and I am convinced that they will continue to be the custodians of the countryside in decades to come. We are very few when one considers the enormous task in front of us. Less than 2 per cent. of the population looks after that vast area, which is so green these days. In the past 50 years I have never seen so much growth as I have seen this year. We are the custodians.
There are two matters that I should like to raise at the very beginning. The noble Lord, Lord Middleton, said that we have a forestry policy. I agree with him entirely. I believe that unless the government of the day do something soon about the future of the 1583 Forestry Commission and forestry policies there will be an acute shortage of timber in this country within 20 years.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, said that the set-aside policy is not working well. I agree with him. However, I do not disagree that in the short term it was the only alternative. But I believe that Ministers here in Britain, and in Europe, should look once again at the policy of set-aside in this country.
Before I turn to the question of Europe I should like to say a little about the planning regulations. We are talking about the countryside and we want young people to be able to settle down and live there. However, the planning regulations are causing a great deal of concern to many people. Many of us believe that local planning authorities are concentrating their efforts on building too many houses in the towns and large villages and that more people should be allowed to build homes in the countryside in the truly rural areas in the heartland of Wales. We need people to look after those areas. Unfortunately many applications to reinstate old farmhouses which have been there for generations but have fallen into disrepair have been turned down. It is a great pity that the authorities do not give permission for those houses to be rebuilt. I live on the edge of a national park and I believe that national parks have too much power in relation to planning matters. I should like the Government to consider that matter urgently.
We also need many other things in rural areas. I urge the Minister to persuade his colleagues in the Cabinet that we must retain the train services in rural Wales whatever happens. We are very fortunate that we still have a few railways in Wales, although not many. There is one in the heartland of Wales. The other goes from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth and up the Cambrian coast. If we lost those railway lines it would be a retrograde step for those living in rural areas. We also need buses for the benefit of those who are not as fortunate as many of us who have cars to travel to the towns.
I should like to make a plea in your Lordships' House, as I did so often in the other place. The Secretary of State for Wales and the Secretary of State for Scotland have full responsibility for agriculture in those two countries. Their record in attending meetings in Brussels on behalf of the farmers they represent is well known. I do not believe that they have gone there more than once in five or 10 years. The Minister is shaking his head, but I know that on this occasion I am right. I know that the Secretary of State for Wales—not the present one, because he has been in office only a week and we must have fair play, but his predecessor—went to Brussels only once, if at all, on behalf of the Welsh agriculture industry. I beg the Minister to persuade his colleagues to do what I have suggested and go to Brussels on behalf of farmers in Wales and Scotland.
There is another matter which is causing a great deal of anxiety. It has not been raised by speakers in the debate as yet but I am sure that it will be. It concerns the coming tenancy agreement. There are many tenant farmers in Wales and in various other parts of Britain. Perhaps I disagree with the views of 1584 many people in relation to the tenancy agreement between a landlord and a tenant. I have always held the view that that is a matter between two people—the landlord and the tenant. It is up to them to decide whether the landlord will let his property for three years, five years, 10 years, 20 years or 100 years, as the case may be. When legislation is introduced we should make sure that it is a matter between two people—the landlord and the tenant.
As many of your Lordships are aware, I am a sheep farmer. There are quite a few sheep in Wales—millions of them. I am proud to be a hill farmer. I believe that it is one of the best occupations in the land, especially when one is also a part-time politician. However, the past few years have been difficult for the agriculture industry. We have come to terms with radical changes in the whole structure of farming. It is the end of an era. It is the end of 50 years of steady growth and guaranteed prices.
Some noble Lords may remember that 50 years ago there was a well-known Englishman in Aberystwyth looking after the Welsh plant breeding station. His name was Dr. George Stapledon. He made this statement during the war:It is our duty at the Welsh plant breeding station to produce two blades of grass where there is now one".Over the years we have achieved that. In many parts of Britain farmers have tilled the land and developed the hill areas. We have produced for the needs of others.
I do not know what is wrong, but with the best will in the world we should be producing food for people who are less fortunate than ourselves throughout the world. We can argue for a long time the merits and demerits of the case. But for those of us who confess that we are Christians, I believe that there is a will and a way to produce food for those who are less fortunate than ourselves.
Our future lies with Europe. Indeed, it is Europe which has saved our agricultural industry from disaster and will continue to give us the impetus to survive and develop. It is as well that many among us are dedicated Europeans who have encouraged enlightened discussions about the way ahead rather than inventing bogeymen and creating difficulties.
It is my strong belief that we now need to concentrate on our export market. We should be developing the live trade with continental Europe where our product is highly regarded. I applaud the way in which Welsh Lamb Enterprise is encouraging that trend in Wales; and it deserves every support.
As a sheep farmer I should like to pay tribute to another organisation—the Meat and Livestock Commission. Not only has it invested heavily to encourage the meat-eating habit at home, spending some £1.9 million on the (M)eat to Live campaign; it has also spearheaded the export of British meat. Current figures indicate that exports in 1992 were 22.8 per cent. up in value and 16.9 per cent. in tonnage over 1991. As noble Lords may know, 50 per cent. of our excellent Welsh lamb is now being exported. Some may say that that is a pity. An estimated 380,000 sheep are exported alive. It is a wonderful achievement in a short period of time in a free market economy.
1585 The Meat and Livestock Commission also offers excellent and expert independent advice and assessment regarding lambs in the livestock auctions, at which some 70 per cent. of lambs are sold. I would advise any sheep farmer to sell his sheep in those auctions. That is where they can learn and compare their own produce with the best available. Such auctions, too, have excellent auctioneers up and down the land. Those people have made a significant contribution to the development of the meat and livestock trade over the years.
All the members of the Meat and Livestock Commission are farmers and involved with the meat trade. However, I make a plea to the Government on behalf of the auctioneers in this country who have been responsible for marketing the produce from the land. Will the Minister seriously consider ensuring that one of the leading auctioneers in this country is elected to serve on the Meat and Livestock Commission within the next year or so?
Noble Lords will have gathered from my remarks that I do not believe that we should be pessimistic about the future of sheep farming in this country. In fact, the reverse. I make a plea to young farmers. They should not on any account be despondent in 1993. If they really wish to go into sheep farming I say this to them: they can have a great future. But as one who is probably old enough to be allowed to give a little advice to his juniors—I do not include Ministers—perhaps I may make four points to those young sheep farmers and other young farmers in the country. When you have secured your piece of land you should first learn how to be a shepherd, a cowman or a tractor driver. Secondly, school yourself in the discipline of specialist sheep breeding, always aiming for quality. Thirdly, learn the discipline of management. No modern farmer can afford not to understand the principles of good management. Finally, learn the value of good marketing. It is no use having an excellent product if you do not know when to sell it.
I am glad that your Lordships have listened because I am a sheep farmer and I have always said that the backbone of the hill areas of Scotland, Wales and England is the sheep farmers who live on those hills. May they stay there for generations to come. I beg the government of the day to look after their interests because they are important people in society.
§ 4.16 p.m.
My Lords, it seems a pity to punctuate a good debate with a maiden speech. I therefore ask for your tolerance and patience while I seek to get through it.
I feel slightly qualified to talk on the countryside, not because I am directly involved but because my family have been dependent on the countryside for 600 years. In fact, in this House in 1620 my ancestor, the newly ennobled Lord Spencer, was taking on King James I for abuse of royal prerogative. The Lord Arundel of the day decided to put the young whippersnapper in his place. He stood up and said, "My Lord Spencer, when these things were going on, your family were rearing sheep", to which my ancestor 1586 replied, "Indeed, my Lord. At the same time your family were committing treason". Lord Arundel ended up in the tower so that he could cool off. I doubt that I shall raise any such passions today.
However, perhaps I may say a few words on public access, bringing to bear a few experiences that I and my family may have in that area. My family's estate lies three miles from Northampton, at a place called Althorp. We are fortunate in having a block of coniferous woodland between us and the town. The town has grown from 130,000 inhabitants to, I believe, 180,000 in the past 20 years. People in the town of course want access to the countryside. If one goes to that woodland on a Saturday or Sunday one will see thousands of people exercising their children, their dogs or their more basic instincts in the woodland. Often they will be using the public footpaths or bridleways. But we do not make them keep to the paths because we wish them to use the area as an amenity. As a family or as a farming unit, it does not affect us to have people using that piece of land. It does not invade our privacy; it does not affect our income. Therefore they are welcome to use it.
Of course, with thousands of people using one piece of land one has damage and vandalism. We have experienced everything from fences being pulled down and burned to animals being killed, devil worshipping, motor-bike racing and anything else that people might do in any area. However, we prefer to condense such activity in one easily reached area just outside a major town.
It works well for us to encourage people to go to one particular place. I am fortunate in having an area that I can almost hand over for public use and abuse in such a way. I appreciate that hill farmers and landowners with medium-sized or lesser-sized holdings may not have such an amenity to hand over. However, I believe that there is a lesson to be learnt from the example that I have given. If one allows and encourages people to use the bridleways and pathways to which they are entitled, one has them where one wants them and where they are legally entitled to be and not where one does not want them, which is everywhere. No one wants to be a park keeper, whether unpaid or receiving a few subsidies, but I think this arrangement is an effective compromise. I also think that, to make it more attractive to them so that their income and their privacy do not suffer, landowners should be encouraged, through grants, to make over more land in this way.
A final point I should like to make is that I believe that people who act in this responsible way are depriving the more politically zealous organisations—which sometimes seem to be more engrossed in pushing forwards their rights and powers than in doing anything for the delicate balance of the countryside—of their foot soldiers and adding respect for good stewards of the land. Thank you.
§ 4.20 p.m.
§ Lord Shuttleworth
My Lords, it falls to me to have the privilege of congratulating the noble Earl, Lord Spencer, on his speech, not just from these Benches but, I suspect, on behalf of the whole House. In 1587 addition to informing us, he made us laugh with the skills of an experienced broadcaster. The House will benefit from hearing from him on many occasions to come.
Also, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Middleton for initiating the debate. Again, at the outset, I have to declare an interest as chairman of the Rural Development Commission, one of those organisations which, in the words of the Motion, is "connected with the countryside". It is not, though, I am proud to say, concerned in the slightest with imposing any regulations upon it. We are primarily concerned with the people who live and work in the countryside of England. That is now a far-from-insignificant one-fifth—20 per cent. of our population.
Having heard a bit about Wales already today, though I never resent any grant going to the countryside, I cannot help feeling a little jealous that my opposite number there receives grant-in-aid per head of rural population, a very great deal more than I do.
The commission is encouraged by the continuing attention being shown to rural areas—including such examples as the debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, in your Lordships' House earlier this year—recent expressions of anxiety about the future of rural post offices (happily assuaged by the Government) concern about rural crime; and last week of course the "Open Space" TV programme about the difficulties faced by small farmers, presented by the noble Duke, the Duke of Westminster.
With a statutory duty to advise government on all matters affecting the economic and social development of rural England and to take action to further such development, the Rural Development Commission very much characterises itself as the agency for the people in the countryside. I have to say that without recognising the value of those people, the people who care for the countryside, no amount of care for the landscape, flora or fauna will be worth while.
But today, I do not want to dwell over-long on the commission's executive role, but to draw on its advisory role, to offer your Lordships some analysis of recent and prospective changes in the countryside and to speculate a little about their implications. I shall therefore speak briefly about the rural economy and then about rural communities, before indicating how the commission sees its own role developing.
Despite some frequent changes of personnel—for example, during three years as chairman of the Rural Development Commission, I have been answerable to three different countryside Ministers, and indeed no fewer than four Secretaries of State at the Department of the Environment—government policy has stated consistently in the White Paper, This Common Inheritance, in 1990 and in the Action for the Countryside programme announced in 1992, that the best way to care for the countryside is to have a healthy and broadly based rural economy. But we do have to set that constant theme against changing circumstances, and that is what I wish to refer to today.
1588 As the Minister reminded us, during the 1980s there were many favourable developments in the rural economy. Employment in rural areas grew much faster than in urban areas: by 15 per cent. as against 8 per cent. This growth was not in traditional rural industries, such as farming, quarrying or mining, but in manufacturing and services. The decade saw a startling shift of manufacturing from urban areas to the countryside. For example, high technology firms grew by 12 per cent. in the rural counties compared with a fall of 16 per cent. in the urban areas.
The shift of manufacturing employment from urban to rural areas has been mirrored by greater employment growth in rural small businesses than has been happening in the towns. The countryside has shown a higher propensity to generate new firms. The research has also shown a higher level of innovative activity by rural firms. It is clear, too, that many people set up small businesses in the country for environmental and lifestyle reasons. More interestingly, there is evidence that the majority of new rural businesses are founded not by local people but by incomers to the area.
As a result of these trends, the economic structure of the countryside is now much more similar to that of urban areas. Rural areas now have the same proportion of activity in manufacturing industry as do urban areas, so we should no longer talk of a rural economy as something different, but as just that part of the national economy which happens to be located in the countryside. Perhaps we shall even reach the ultimate recognition of that truth—when those Members of your Lordships' House who wish to debate the rural economy are in future advised to do so, not during an environment or a countryside debate, but during a debate on the national economy.
However, significant problems remain. The broad picture of success conceals wide variations at a local level in the dynamism and success of rural areas. Mainly south of a line from Bristol to the Wash, some areas are dynamic and will continue to prosper in the years ahead. Others, particularly those affected by remoteness, poor communications and a heavy dependence on declining industries, such as farming, fishing, defence related activities and mining and quarrying, are not so dynamic. They will need assistance to adjust to changing circumstances. The commission designated many of these as rural development areas in 1984 and is currently reviewing the designations in the light of the changing circumstances.
Looking at the recent research for the commission and others, it appears that the main economic trends in the 1990s which will be relevant to policy are likely to be as follows. First, economic growth will resume, but at a significantly lower rate than in the 1980s. This may check the rate of dispersal of economic activity from urban to rural areas. Secondly, there will be further convergence in economic structure between urban and rural firms; but those in the more accessible rural areas will benefit the most.
1589 Apart from existing assistance with matters such as workspace and finance, small firms in remoter areas will require more investment in modernising production processes and more management training.
Thirdly, growth in the service sector, including tourism and leisure activities, is likely to be slower in the future. However, changes in technology will continue to provide opportunities for further growth of manufacturing and specialist business services in rural areas, though I fear that their contribution to employment growth is likely to be small.
Fourthly, the ability of the countryside to create new businesses will continue to depend considerably upon the level of in-migration of people with business skills and capital. This has clear implications for the planning and social policies pursued in rural areas. Fifthly, some forecasts suggest that the improvement in the unemployment rates in rural areas relative to England as a whole, which we have been experiencing, may not continue through the next decade. Again, this has a bearing on the balance to be struck between urban and rural policies.
From all this, at the commission we draw the conclusion that most of the accessible rural areas will continue to be well placed to take advantage of the economic opportunities but there will still be rural areas, particularly though not exclusively the remoter ones, which will remain disadvantaged, especially where they are affected by long-term structural adjustment. It is these areas which will continue to require selective assistance in managing change and in developing their economies.
We also conclude that small firms will continue to be essential to the economic success of rural areas and the kind of assistance we and others provide will continue to be needed. There is no shortage of start-ups, but there is a high failure rate—about one-third within the first three years—and the contribution of small businesses to economic development is therefore most likely to be maximised by helping existing and expanding small firms to overcome any major restraints on their growth.
The importance of adequate housing and other services, and of local planning policies to enable the necessary economic and social developments to take place, cannot be over-estimated.
I turn now to the changes that rural communities are experiencing. For the past 30 years the population of England's larger towns has been declining, while that of smaller towns and villages has been increasing. There are important variations within that overall trend, but it is there. However, nearly all rural areas suffer from below average numbers of 16 to 24 year-olds and above average numbers of pensioners. I believe that that may explain in some degree the comparative unemployment figures to which the Minister referred.
The rural population may continue to grow at perhaps twice the rate for England as a whole. But the numbers of the very elderly will grow very rapidly, causing pressure on health and social services. There is likely to be a continuing out-migration of young adults to seek work and accommodation in urban 1590 areas. The size of households is also likely to continue to decline, putting pressure on housing and other services.
The changes in population interact with changes in the provision of housing and services. There has been in recent decades a general decline of rural services all over the countryside. The commission's survey of services in all parishes in 1991—which has been quoted by noble Lords in previous debates—has provided a benchmark against which we can assess future trends.
It therefore seems likely that financial pressures on rural services, whether public sector or private sector pressures, will continue, and demands on some of them will increase, especially those concerned with supporting and caring for the elderly. These trends and changes in population lead us to the conclusion that a further skewing of the composition of rural communities in the direction of particular age and social groups will interact with the continuing cost and organisational pressures on services with potentially adverse consequences.
The countryside needs a resident workforce to manage and staff local businesses, to provide services and to maintain the environment. Where a bias develops, facilities and services may disappear, while the capacity of communities to be self-reliant is undermined. There is a danger that communities will become increasingly polarised between those who are affluent and can obtain access to services in towns and those who have lower-paid jobs and rely more on the local services. These issues must be addressed across the countryside as part of a concerted approach to ensuring the well-being of its inhabitants.
As I said at the start of my remarks, I have concentrated on the economic and social changes affecting the countryside, and I have purposely not dwelt on the detail of what the Commission as a countryside organisation does. We shall publish soon the results of our policy review and set out a strategy for the year ahead. We shall be very much guided by the points that I have made today. Our task is to assist in the management of inevitable change in the countryside. We must ensure that the diversification and strengthening of the rural economy continues. We must give support for disadvantaged groups in the countryside, especially where their problems are compounded by the rural location. We must encourage adequate provision of and access to services for rural people. Finally, at the commission we shall strengthen our advisory role to ensure that the needs of people and small businesses in the countryside are taken fully into account in the policies of government and other organisations.
§ 4.34 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich
My Lords, perhaps I may first associate myself with the thanks expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, to the noble Earl, Lord Spencer, on his maiden speech. To speak in this House is the most enjoyable of experiences. It is the most courteous House. But a maiden speech is always daunting, and the noble Earl coped with that with great aplomb. He 1591 has many years to serve this House and to bring the benefit of his wisdom. The House will look forward with great pleasure to his many contributions.
The fact that the countryside is changing is incontrovertible. It is not of any concern in itself, for the countryside has always been changing. Anyone who has doubts about that needs only to go to some of the areas in my own county, Suffolk, which are still preserved patches of ancient woodland.
The countryside is—and I am grateful to noble Lords who have already referred to this point—principally a place where people live and work and from which they get their living. I wish to concentrate my remarks on those people, and particularly on the voluntary bodies in the countryside. There are many such bodies holding particular concerns in particular areas, and the need for them to co-operate with each other is very clear.
One of the voluntary bodies which is very considerable in the countryside is, of course, the Church. By that I mean, in these ecumenical days, the Churches; for in many country villages now there is one church, be it a Free Church chapel or a Church of England church, or in Wales or Scotland a church of another denomination. Certainly those are now ecumenical bodies in that normally there is not more than one church, and those who attend represent many denominations. That is to be welcomed.
The members of those voluntary groups very often make up more than 10 per cent. of the population, which is a very considerable membership—far greater, I believe, than any other voluntary body would seek to claim. Those good people do not only worship God, which of course is primarily what the Church exists for; they maintain the buildings for the benefit of the whole community, a task to which an enormous amount of energy is given and for which I wish to express heartfelt thanks. The work is done by a relatively small number of people on behalf of the whole community. As an aside, I should like to inform the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that in Suffolk 75 per cent. of our 500 churches now provide domicile for the bat. Those communities exist not simply for those two reasons. They turn their attention not simply to those two occupations but also to the service of the community as a whole, perhaps as a leaven within the wider community. In the countryside there is an advantage and opportunity for a sense of community to exist which is much more difficult to establish in the urban areas.
Very often the contribution that is made is hidden. The Arthur Rank centre which exists at the Royal Agricultural Show ground in Warwickshire in order to provide a nucleus for good working relationships between the Churches and the countryside, is at the moment organising a competition to discover what is going on in the Churches in terms of community service for the disabled. I have no doubt that it will discover many things.
Perhaps I may illustrate from my own experience a point which I believe is significant. Recently I launched an initiative in my own diocese (in my own county) to encourage joint co-operation between the parochial church councils, which are the church 1592 committees, and the parish councils to look at village profiles: to get a picture of how a village was, what its situation was, what were its resources and challenges, and so forth. I had two kinds of encouraging response. One was from parish council secretaries who said, "Yes, Bishop, what a good idea. We would like to operate with that. Let's get on with it". The other equally encouraging, though rather different, response, was from secretaries who wrote and said, "Bishop, thank you for the idea. There is really no need for us to co-operate because our membership is virtually the same anyway".
However, there are instances in which this voluntary community serves the wider community which I should like to illustrate in two particular examples. The first relates to the still (very sadly) high suicide rate among farmers. Noble Lords will be well aware of that. It is still twice the national average. It is still only below the suicide rate among doctors, vets and pharmacists, which speaks of course of easy access. And it is a matter of grave concern. The reasons are varied and affect farmers in some parts of the farming industry more than in others. I suspect that it is associated sometimes with massive debt and sometimes it is associated with uncertainty. It is associated very often with the loneliness of some farmers now in the farming industry, who find themselves working in tractors all day without anyone to talk to.
However, the awareness of this as a problem which has to be dealt with has led, in my own diocese, to the publication of a leaflet, which I initiated in association with the National Farmers' Union and other organisations, to draw the attention of farmers to helplines which are available, I believe, in all the rural parts of England. I cannot speak for Scotland or Wales but I know that similar helplines of one kind or another have been established in many places.
I should also like to take the opportunity to draw the attention of your Lordships and of the noble Earl the Minister to one particular problem which has emerged as a result of this. As regards the MAFF officer to whom farmers will turn for advice, now that there has been privatisation the farmers actually have to pay a fee for the advice that they are given. I have no problem with that: that is not the issue. The issue, so far as I am concerned, is that if farmers go first to their GP and then, with a GP's note, to MAFF for advice that fee is waived. On the other hand, farmers who are already burdened perhaps by massive debt or gravely troubled about the great weight that is coming down on them and perhaps are already feeling suicidal may not necessarily see the matter in the logical sequence that I have described. It is perhaps a minor factor but I think that attention could be drawn to it as it may be of help to some suicidal farmers.
The other example I would give of the Church's involvement in the community in this way relates to affordable housing. We are all aware of the need in rural communities for young people to be able to stay, if they wish, in the community in which they were born and brought up and we all know of the difficulties which have existed for a number of years now in relation to that. There was a debate in the Church of 1593 England General Synod in February 1992, calling upon us to do what we could as a Church to make affordable housing available. I am glad to say that during the months since then, in association of course with the housing associations, the local planning departments and so forth, the Church has played its part in the establishment of something like 200 housing units. That, I know, is small beer compared to the massive need, although it is still not clear what the figures of actual need are. However, it is a contribution.
I believe that the relationship of the wellbeing and future of the countryside and the wellbeing of those who live and work in it is a very complex one. There are many people and bodies who, quite rightly, have a stake in it. The Government certainly have a stake in it. I should like to make two comments as regards the Government stake, the first of which relates to sub-post offices. Reassurances have been given, for which I know many people are grateful, that the drawing of pensions will continue through sub-post offices. In country areas that is particularly significant and important for the elderly and those not able to travel. That I welcome. However, I wonder whether any thought is being given—I put this forward out of ignorance—to the diversification of sub-post offices to meet other local needs.
My second comment concerns a minor matter but, I think, a significant one relating to parish halls. Parish hall communities are already the executive committees of parish halls, serving the community not simply in terms of entertainment but helping it to cohere. They are already very stretched, and the addition of VAT to fuel bills will make a significant difference, especially on oil bills, as oil is the fuel which is most used in rural communities.
I am very grateful for this debate and for the seriousness with which it is being addressed. I would simply say that the participation of the whole community, voluntary and statutory, together with the many groups which have a stake in the countryside, is to be welcomed. They all need to be considered and heard.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Viscount Massereene and Ferrard
My Lords, before I start I should like to declare an interest. I am the owner of a West Highland deer forest with fishing and sheep ranching. It is on the island of Mull. At our family home in Kent we have a raptor centre which cares for and rehabilitates injured hawks. The Highlands of Scotland is, I believe, the largest wilderness area in Europe and, indeed, this is now widely appreciated. Various bodies are busy in the areas of conservation and research there, with active government help and assistance.
The four areas I am briefly going to touch upon are trees, deer, grouse and salmon. As we all know, a great deal of uneconomic and unsuitable planting of conifers has been done in the past but I believe that these past errors have now been recognised. The move now is towards planting the indigenous trees. There are also moves to re-establish parts of the original 1594 Caledonian forest. This is highly laudable and should be given every encouragement by this Government and succeeding governments over the very long term, as it will take several generations for our efforts to make any real impact on the devastation wrought by our forefathers.
The only slightly disturbing facet of all this is the deeply hostile attitude towards the deer by the foresters. The stag, like the grouse, has the misfortune to be regarded as a "class" animal and therefore gets a disproportionate amount of blame for the damage done to young trees. The fact that there are in the Highlands almost 10 million heavily subsidised and uneconomic sheep, compared to 300,000 deer (which everybody wants to reduce to 200,000) is conveniently forgotten. I should like to suggest that when the new plantations are reasonably mature the deer ought to be allowed access to what is, after all, their natural habitat, but the sheep should continue to be excluded, as they are such destructive and close grazers. The continual re-establishment of the Caledonian forest will hopefully eventually help the deer, which after all are our largest indigenous mammals and who are also a steady, if unspectacular, foreign currency earner.
The grouse, however, are of very considerable help in our balance of payments and to the Scottish hotel trade. This bird is found only in the British Isles and in restricted parts of Scandinavia. Sportsmen come from all over the world to shoot and, as your Lordships no doubt know, it is not cheap. The grouse have been in relentless decline over the past few years, so that foreign shooting parties have often had to be cancelled. A lot of scientific work has been done on the grouse recently to try to discover the cause of this decline.
In my opinion, one major reason is the recent reappearance of all the major raptors at full strength on the grouse moors. Now that anything with a hooked beak is protected there is nothing the hapless owners and their employees can do to prevent these various hawks causing tremendous damage to their moors. For instance, a peregrine will kill just for the pleasure of it and will quite often take several grouse from a covey but eat only part of one.
Years before the conservation lobby got going, there was a tacit agreement that the raptors would be left alone and at full strength on the West Coast of Scotland but that when they started to expand east and south and reached the grouse moors they would, quite rightly, be regarded as vermin and culled accordingly. It seems extraordinary to me that the law does not allow this and that the Scottish economy and Scottish employment prospects are being damaged accordingly.
Lastly, I should like to say a word on the next great Scottish resource, the salmon. That is also in relentless decline. I believe that each salmon caught on rod and line is worth £2,500 to the Scottish economy. The Government have recognised that to a great degree, and there is a continuing movement to buy out netting rights; long may it continue. That has largely been brought about by the extremely successful advent of the salmon farms, which have brought down the price 1595 of salmon so that it is now no longer a luxury food. The salmon farms are also a considerable source of employment in the Highlands.
I mentioned earlier that, despite the quantity of nets being taken off, the salmon and sea trout are still in decline. Why is that? The fact that the grey seal population has grown from around 20,000 before protection to the current 100,000 odd has a great deal to do with it. Dr. Rae of the Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen shot three seals to inspect the contents of their stomachs and found up to 12 pounds of salmon in each. That would be the intake on a single day. On the other hand, Scottish National Heritage did an analysis of seal droppings and concluded that they lived exclusively on sand eels. However, that research was fatally flawed in as much as the droppings were taken from dry land just before the moult, when the animals are in general decline and not hunting. Even if the seals lived on sand eels, which they do not, they would still be competing with the sea trout, which are also in decline. It is therefore my contention that some proper and serious scientific research should be done into the damage that seals are doing to the salmon and sea trout stocks and the damage that raptors are doing to the grouse stocks.
With regard to grouse, the very presence of hawks circling above a moor will prevent the birds being driven properly and ruin the day. Likewise, the presence of seals in a river will panic the salmon and spoil any chance of fishing. I realise that the idea of culling raptors and seals could be abhorrent to urban man, but everything has its place, not only in nature but also in the financial scheme of things. Raptors are glamourous but murderous, and seals, which are regarded as aquatic labradors by the conservationists, are in fact successful and ruthless predators which are costing jobs throughout Scotland.
In conclusion, the interaction, both as regards the balance of nature and the legitimate aspirations of the Highland economy, should be seriously considered. It is no good being sentimental about attractive animals; they all have their place. To take the argument to England, why are there not packs of wolves living off our sheep and cattle? After all, the wolf is one of our oldest indigenous predators. We all know the answer—common sense and economic considerations have won the day. Perhaps the grouse and salmon of Scotland should also be given the same considerations. After all, they are considerable foreign currency earners and employers of labour in an area of wilderness where there are no other alternatives.
§ 4.53 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, it is my pleasant task on behalf of the Whole House to congratulate the noble Viscount on his speech. I am not sure that it is uncontroversial in some terms, especially when there are conservationists in the House this afternoon. But perhaps we can take issue on another occasion. I remember with particular pleasure the contributions which his father made to many environmental debates. We miss him very much and it is a special pleasure to welcome the noble Viscount in his place.
1596 The noble Lord, Lord Middleton, has given us an excellent opportunity to speak on almost anything that concerns the countryside. We have recently had debates on the economy and I therefore propose to limit myself to the environmental aspects. Your Lordships will remember that the present statutory framework for farming still largely reflects the perceptions that existed in the wake of the Second World War —the need to strive for national self-sufficiency in food production and the presumption that farming was an essentially benign and natural use of land in the countryside, needing only minimal control by mechanisms such as town and country planning. In more recent years we have had to adapt that statutory framework to deal with surpluses and with the recognition that modern farming methods can sometimes be environmentally destructive. Farmers can be pardoned therefore if they now have some sense of bewilderment about what is required of them.
I understand the economic problems facing farmers today. The noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, tended to suggest that in future the difference between the town and the country would be blurred. I wonder whether, even in the present economic climate, farmers would wish that to happen. My feeling is that if they had wanted to be urban dwellers, then they would be, but in fact they wish to keep the difference.
The present problems, which have grown so much in recent years, require a degree of co-operation between farmers, conservationists and planners which we have perhaps not had to achieve before. The growth of problems in the countryside is matched only by the growth in the number of organisations and agencies attempting to deal with them, as the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, said. I made a search of government publications in advance of the debate and found at least 10 statutory agencies in the United Kingdom, not including the advisory services. There is an equally bewildering array of designations for various sites. It is perhaps worth listing them. They include, areas of natural beauty; environmentally sensitive areas; special protection areas; national heritage areas; sites of special scientific interest; national nature reserves; marine nature reserves; marine conservation areas; national scenic areas; heritage coast and green belt. The latest addition from English Nature—only last week—is natural areas. That is a new designation with which farmers will have to come to terms. At this stage I can only give it a cautious welcome. It is a purely voluntary approach and crosses local authority boundaries. However, I have doubts about how effective it can be in the long run.
The United Kingdom is signatory to a number of international conventions—Bonn, Berne and Ramsar—all of which require a positive approach to the protection of internationally important wildlife sites. We have shortly to implement the habitats directive but have not yet embarked on the legislation. I was a little disturbed to hear from my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel that no legislation is intended; that 1597 it is felt that regulations will suffice. I hope not. I hope that we will have a proper opportunity to discuss the legislation and amend it if necessary.
We are fortunate in having a large number of non-governmental organisations which make an enormous contribution to the protection of our environment. Many of your Lordships are actively involved with those organisations, as I am. Perhaps I can say at this stage that the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, deeply regrets his absence this afternoon. However, he wishes to be associated with this part of my speech, which we have discussed.
Many voluntary bodies contribute in a practical way to helping countryside protection. The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers, of which the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, is president, is approaching the planting of its 2 millionth tree. It has 63,000 volunteer work days a year. That is a formidable achievement. BTCV volunteers plant trees, manage precious habitats and keep open public rights of way. It is inconceivable that that work could be done if a commercial value was attached to it.
Another practical body is the Tree Council. Its warden scheme is a link between volunteers and local authorities and every year its "national tree week" raises the profile of the importance of trees and woodlands in our environment. The Woodland Trust, another voluntary body, buys and manages woodlands on the public's behalf.
The Royal Society for Nature Conservation/Wildlife Trusts Partnership, through its county-based wildlife trusts, is leading the way in local nature conservation management throughout the country. An excellent example of community environmental action is its new magazine Grassroots which details more than 30 examples of superb local activities by local people, supported by their local Wildlife Trust or urban group. The aim of Grassroots is one we should all aspire to—and I am sure that it has inspired and will continue to inspire many thousands of people.
The RSPB, with its membership of 850,000—I should declare that I am a council member of the RSPB though I have no financial interest; quite the contrary—combines practical management of important bird habitats with an effective policy function. It enjoys a reputation for sound research and is the lead organisation in this country for Birdlife International.
That brings me to those bodies which do not own or manage land or carry out practical conservation on the ground but whose function is just as important. The Council for the Protection of Rural England and the Council for National Parks are both good examples of bodies which have achieved much positive change in the countryside through influencing policy. I was disappointed to hear the noble Lord, Lord Geraint, say that national parks had too much power. I hope that that is not the view of other noble Lords on those Benches. I understand that many of them are working actively to give even more power to the national parks.
The Council for National Parks never fails to remind us of the importance of our national parks, which now cover around 10 per cent. of our 1598 countryside. It is only weeks ago that we were regretting the fact that there is unlikely to be legislation this autumn to strengthen national parks. I hope we can, with CNP's help, still persuade the Government of the importance of this legislation, which has the backing of, among many others, the Association of County Councils. It is vital to get the timing right on the legislation so that the independent parks authorities, to which the Government are committed, are ready to operate as soon as the new local authority structures are announced.
Finally, I should like to mention, as my noble friend Lord Williams mentioned, the Wildlife and Countryside Link, which plays a valuable role in helping to co-ordinate the activities of the many bodies involved in the countryside. The task of co-ordination is too great on many occasions even for Wildlife Link. With so many elements working in different ways on countryside affairs it is no wonder that farmers and landowners sometimes feel confused, overwhelmed and often irritated at having to thread their way through the crowd. As I said at the beginning, it is essential that we achieve co-ordination and co-operation. Above all—I make a special plea for this—we need a strategy to guide the different agencies involved so that time, effort, money and good will are not dissipated in needless conflict or on projects without a viable future.
Only the Government can provide this strategy. It may be by way of a single ministry, which the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, suggested, or there may be another way of doing it. But we have to achieve that single strategy. I beg the Government to get on with it before it is too late.
§ 5.4 p.m.
§ Lord Barber of Tewkesbury
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, for initiating a debate of such wide interest. I should like to use the debate as an opportunity to draw attention to what I see as the absence of some important national perspectives in our countryside use and the effect that it has on change in the countryside.
In the present state of play I find myself, in company with some others, with a rather peculiar and anguished attitude. Having spent most of the past 25 years, first of all trying to create the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, then chairing the governing body of the RSPB and going on to chair what was then the Countryside Commission for England and Wales for 10 years in the 1980s, I am now uneasy about the balance of the environmental arguments on the farmland scene.
It is not that we want to hear less from the conservation side; perish the thought. It is simply that, in the interests of fairness and the facts, there is a requirement to present better the commercial face of farming and to influence widely held—yes, widely held—segments of public opinion which regards farmers as tiresomely expensive creatures, polluting the good earth, and that if it were not for them, the foresters and the politicians, we could all wander happily in Arcadian fields at will at the weekends.
1599 I believe that there is an enormous amount of honest confusion apparent on every hand about countryside policy. And I make the suggestion that before we can consider with any realism the changes taking place and the role of all those bodies which operate in a variety of ways in the countryside, it is essential to pose and answer a number of questions.
The most fundamental question of all—because of the farming industry's place as prime user—is: do we want a cost-effective, competitive UK agriculture, environmentally benign—or perhaps environmentally inoffensive is a better, more practical term—geared to beat the opposition in our home market, in Europe and in some world markets? If the answer is yes, then many things fall naturally into place.
First, we cannot have a competitive industry if we continue to impose more and more supply management measures such as "extensification", "lower intensity" and the rest of the panaceas being proposed by people who want to improve the farmland environment and farming stability. It comes from both sides.
Farming, like every other industry, is concerned with the most efficient use of resources and there is always an optimum point where the input and output relationship provides the highest return. Moreover, as we all know, there is a very direct relationship between yield and profit. If we meddle too far along the route of imposing yet further interference through artificial funding in the shape of more and more grants for going against the commercial grain, we will end up not with a competitive agriculture but with an emasculated one.
The second question is: how should we be trying to fashion a policy which provides us with a farming industry which does compete and at the same time provides a full range of environmental benefits? Alas, it is difficult to avoid the impression that set-aside is now firmly embedded in tablets of stone within the Berlaymont building in Brussels. How could it be otherwise? Given the social objectives of the common agricultural policy, the ease with which set-aside can be imposed and manipulated and the much greater political tensions which would arise from freeing market forces, we are living in Alice in Wonderland if we assume that set-aside's days are numbered.
Yet supply management in any form is bad for the commercial purpose, and particularly bad for the most efficient producers. For it is manifest that in the long run it can only undermine competitiveness, reduce market share and erode the commercial sustainability of the industry. If this great multi-billion pound industry is to survive as economically viable in a post-GATT world there is one policy which should be promoted night and day. That is to move away steadily from supply management, over a period, and to replace it with progressive price reduction; and at the same time to decouple—to separate entirely—environmental care policies and social and rural economy needs from all farm support mechanisms. Thus you would remove what is best described as fudge and encourage the most efficient producers to compete.
1600 It is perhaps worth mentioning that these basic policy points are derived from a report published in November 1991 by the Royal Agricultural Society of England which was the work of a study group that I had the honour of chairing. During our labours it was a considerable comfort to find that the sixteenth report of the Select Committee on the European Communities, derived from Sub-Committee D, then chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, came precisely to those same major conclusions. It is pie in the sky for the moment but surely these are points that we should be proposing and pushing on the public scene.
A further question for clarification is to ask whether protecting the incomes of existing members of the farming community is a prime policy objective. It may be a brutal question and, to some, an offensive one, but it must be answered if we are to be clear on what we are talking about. A good example of the dilemma arose in the recent discussions on potato policy in your Lordships' House and elsewhere. Do you sweep away quotas and frameworks of regulation so that the most efficient producers have a better chance of stemming the rising import tide; or do you continue to regulate so that some 7,000 producers who might be squeezed out in an open market remain in business? Or do you look to the retirement bond options to ease the reduction in the number of farmers? Those are questions which we have not faced up to and answered with any degree of detail and purpose.
There are many issues arising from these and similar questions, the answers to which have profound influence on countryside change. If, as an illustration, we had enunciated more clearly some years ago that we did need to cherish a front-line farming industry, that of necessity we needed to recognise that we were in exactly the same position as Denmark and Holland and had to export or retract, that we should be talking wholeheartedly of dominating the European food market, then we might have attacked more vigorously those straitjackets of dubious, non-scientific origin, dressed up thinly in health-care clothes but in reality food surplus controls.
A paragraph from a recent and little discussed report of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology says what scientists have been saying for years. The noble Lord, Lord Middleton, referred to it. In view of the likely departure of large areas of some of our most productive land from food production through the nitrate sensitive areas scheme, it is worth quoting:At the very least it appears that the priority given by the current regulations to remove nitrates and pesticides is misplaced and the given expenditure would have much greater potential benefit to health if devoted to reducing the exposure to lead".To say the very least, what an interesting set of challenging perspectives are conjured up by those few words of authority.
In addition, I wish to quote two other people. The first is Professor Ames of Berkeley, California. We got him over here to give a paper in London last November. I now quote from that paper: 1601there are more carcinogens in a cup of coffee than pesticides ingested in a year. Pesticides just cannot be important, the amounts are too tiny. Spending enormous amounts of money to try and get rid of that last little bit will make fruits and vegetables more expensive and so [with less healthy food eaten] you are going to increase cancer rates".I now refer to one of our own internationally-known agricultural scientists who is at the moment the senior person undertaking biological control of insects and pests. He wrote quite recently in one of the scientific journals:A recent report of the Health and Safety Executive … demonstrates the largely trivial nature of pesticide misuse.In addition, we have introduced into agriculture an enormous drain on resources because of the new legal requirements, and all this based on misconceptions regarding hazards of insecticides. This in the long term is bad economics".Health and safety are paramount and nobody is talking about that. But when one reads these quotations, it is difficult to believe that we have not become a little too emotional and a little less practical and scientific over the whole question of agrochemicals in agriculture.
How, given the acceptance of a viable industry, do we cater for wildlife and landscape needs in a practical fashion on our farmland? The first problem is one of terminology. What do we mean by a "green" agriculture? To some it means giving overall priority to "greenness" by emphasising less intensive farming systems everywhere. To others, it means sophisticated, high-class farming through which are threaded all kinds of environmental benefits, landscape and wildlife features and sympathetic farm practices.
I bow to no one in the degree of active support I would wish to give to those conservation bodies who cry out for a greater proportion of public money flowing into the countryside to be channelled into direct environmental benefits as far as physical features are concerned. I support them wholeheartedly in making better set-aside rules. But I find it impossible to accept those proposals which seek to turn the industry on its head by interfering with commercial realities to an even more fundamental extent than the common agricultural policy does. That has the appearance to me of a step down the road of all Britain becoming a large park, financed by the taxpayer, to portray unreality in the form of rural timewarps.
Moreover, there is a connected and perhaps subtle point. By such action one inevitably blunts the cutting edge of science and technology development on which we and the whole world ultimately depend.
Perhaps I may make a comment or two about the voluntary bodies and the public agencies. When, in 1987, three of us laid down the first seeds of what was to become the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, now flourishing 26 years later and most happily supported by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment, our concept was that wildlife and landscape could be catered for within successful commercial farming provided the techniques could be explored and put into practice. The group has never wavered in this concept and has had enormous influence throughout Britain. It has wrought miracles of blending high-class 1602 production with green features of every kind. It deserves a permanent place in the pantheon of good rural influences. We should hear more about it. It is doing absolutely magnificent work without turning the industry on its head.
There are two intimate points which I feel are important and I hope that the conservation bodies will take them kindly. I believe that the first lesson they have learnt in recent years is that government Ministers can be very good allies and that the skills of diplomacy need cultivating to that end. The confrontations of the 1970s and early 1980s have served their purpose. The second is still being learnt: that they must fully acknowledge the practical interests of the farming and forestry industries and the needs and aspirations of the local rural communities. That can only come about as a result of the staffs—many of them bred in urban situations—of the voluntary bodies striving to obtain a subtle "feel" for husbandry and a proper understanding of commercial imperatives.
When they came to me I always used to tell them what they really needed to do when they came fresh to our kind of work at the RSPB from the town: "You must get to appreciate the smell of the good earth being turned over by cultivation in the spring". I believe that it did some good.
There is an addendum to this point: many workers in the voluntary bodies do not believe that a free market economy can deliver environmental objectives. Hence some obvious political stresses and strains arise which might be better relieved if exposed.
And so to the public agencies; and perhaps I may follow some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Middleton. When I was a quango chairman and people from overseas came to see me, that was a great privilege and I enjoyed it very much. But I learnt that, when I tried to set out the intricacies of how we looked after the countryside, their eyes began to glaze after about two minutes. If they did not glaze after two minutes I knew that they were not understanding English and I had to go back to the beginning. But we had an extraordinary situation there as regards all the public agencies with which I was concerned.
The Countryside Commission—which at that time was for England and Wales—looked after landscape and access in the two countries. Scotland had its own similar commission. The Nature Conservancy Council, with its wildlife remit, had all Great Britain. The Rural Development Commission had different boundaries to its sister body, COSIRA—small industries in rural areas. The Forestry Commission was an entirely different beast, being a department of government without a Whitehall base. There was the Sports Council and so on.
But I am bound to say that it all worked rather well. The mosaic of responsibilities was discharged more effectively than might have appeared likely on paper. When changes came, they came because of the political realities of the time arising from the need for better national identities. Thus, Scotland and Wales have their own combined wildlife, landscape and access bodies, but England not so.
1603 And now questions are raised about the cavalcade of grants, some apparently overlapping, emanating from different bodies and attracting comment about the need for a simply tidying-up job and a consequent rationalising of the operations. If Scotland and Wales have weathered satisfactorily the amalgamation, why not England too?
But it would be a pity if zeal to tidy overcame the findings of a really close analysis. For England is different in terms of geography, the scale of urban and suburban pressure and density of population. Moreover, though I acknowledge happily that Wales has settled down with success under the new combined regime, there are considerable differences in the cultures of the two bodies. English Nature is a group of scientists with a crystal clear remit: the Countryside Commission is a much more free-wheeling organisation with very wide-ranging terms of reference. As far as staff are concerned, the two bodies are very different creatures. Unless there are significant housekeeping savings available under a marrying together, which one begs leave to doubt, let there be much thought, please, before one English cart is constructed for two horses of diverse outlook and background.
If, indeed, a tidying-up were to be contemplated, there may well be other partners on the scene than English Heritage for the commission. It was a thought which surfaced briefly in Whitehall in 1986. Some found it more attractive the longer they ruminated on the idea.
Finally, whatever we do in engineering change in the countryside there must be one thought uppermost in mind: the potential wealth generation through efficient resource use of agriculture and forestry, particularly in balance of trade terms, where the food and timber deficit is now around £12 billion annually and will rise—it is impossible that it will do other than rise—in the short term at least.
In a world of increasing economic instability, pressing buttons and anticipating economic cycles in capital cities around the globe does not seem to work quite as well as it once did. And as vast manufacturing giants arise out of the Pacific and elsewhere, and Europe's old joints tend to stiffen a trifle with age, we may have more need of these two industries—the one export-oriented, the other import-saving—to help fatten a slim public purse.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ The Earl of Swinton
My Lords, I too should like to thank my noble friend Lord Middleton for instigating this debate. With all his experience, I do not think that any Member of your Lordships' House is more appropriate than he to do so.
In the past few years, there have been two great changes in the countryside. The first and foremost is so obvious that I hardly need mention it. I refer to the change in agriculture caused by the political decision to switch from maximum food production. I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Geraint—I am sorry that he is no longer in his place—that the farmers did a marvellous job when they were called upon to produce extra food. They deserve full credit for that. However, we now have a different policy with 1604 much emphasis on limiting food production. All that, with the resulting changes in livestock payments, set-aside, the system of quotas and all the accompanying form-filling which is required, means, as my noble friend Lord Middleton said, that bureaucracy has almost run amok.
I was not going to mention hill sheep quotas. My noble friend Lord Howe on the Front Bench might breathe a sigh of delight about that because I have given him a bit of stick about it recently. Unfortunately for him, however, I was handed a copy of today's Scotsman as I came in. The headline is:Changes at ministry delay sheep quota legislation".The article states:There is still uncertainty and confusion about sheep quotas, in spite of Government claims that clarification is on the way.The recent changes at the Ministry of Agriculture"—under this paragraph appears a large photograph of the Minister's right honourable friend the new Minister—mean that legislation has been postponed and a quota specialist gave warning yesterday that time may be running out for farmers without quota".Perhaps my noble friend will be able to tell me whether that is true because, if it is, it certainly sounds bad news. I apologise for having digressed a bit.
The second change in the countryside, and one which very much ties in with the decline in agriculture, is the change in population in rural areas. One need only look around to see the number of second homes, holiday cottages, the blossoming of craft jobs and the number of townspeople commuting from or retiring to the country. Sadly, many of those people have a somewhat idealised vision of living in the countryside before they actually experience it. This can lead to a certain amount of conflict between them and the natives. They seem totally unprepared for the lovely smells of silage and farmyard manure which drift across the country from time to time. They also seem to become frustrated when they are held up on a country road by a herd of cattle or sheep being herded in. Not for them the pleasure of following a herd of milking cows when they are going to milk, with the steady plop, plop, plop as they go along the road. That seems to horrify the incomers. Very often also, they are not prepared for the cockerel which wakes them up at dawn, and complain bitterly about it.
Too often, they also suffer from what I describe as a "Beatrix Potter/Walt Disney syndrome", which appears to give them the idea that all wild animals are large, cuddly toys which talk to themselves and walk across the countryside, discoursing with each other and having almost human feelings. That tends to lead to a complete misunderstanding of some of the traditional country sports which are so important to many people who have lived in the countryside for generations. I shall not say very much about what I consider to be the very dangerous threats posed by the hunt, shoot and now, I hear, fishing saboteurs. Anyone who lives in the countryside is quite happy to have other people putting forward their point of view if they disapprove of some perfectly lawful form of entertainment, but when it leads to violence and in 1605 some cases to death it is an extremely worrying change and one to which I hope that the Government will pay attention.
All too often, those who move into the countryside also have a very NIMBY attitude. They seem to feel that they have bought their little bit of peace and quiet in the countryside (even if they complain about everything that goes on there) but they are damned if they see why somebody else should do the same thing.
So much for the changes in the countryside; I turn now to the organisations connected with them. Obviously, we have MAFF and the DoE. In addition, hovering somewhere like a huge black thundercloud —with respect to the right reverend Prelate, I sometimes think of it as a completely wicked and diabolical holy spirit coming down—is the CAP, which seems enormously to influence what happens in the countryside. After them, we have all the other various organisations about which we have heard a little today, including the Countryside Commission, English Nature, English Heritage, the National Rivers Authority, the Rural Development Commission and the Forestry Commission.
We then have local government. At the moment, there are three levels of local government in England: the county, district and parish councils. But even that is in the process of being changed by the Boundary Commission and may not last much longer. If one lives in the countryside, one may be in a national park, so that is yet another tier of authority that can influence one's life. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Geraint, who is in his place and to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, who is not, for talking about England. The various bodies are, of course, different in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But that is what happens in England—and those are only the statutory bodies.
We have also heard about some of the voluntary bodies which have a great deal of influence on people who live in the countryside. I should like to get in a plug for two which probably no other noble Lord will mention in this debate. I refer to two very longstanding country bodies: the Women's Institute and the Young Farmers' Clubs. I think that both do a marvellous job in the countryside. I understand that Women's Institute members no longer spend their whole time singing "Jerusalem" and making jam. I do not have any firsthand experience of what they actually do, but I am told that it is extremely good. I have been involved with the Young Farmers' Clubs at various levels for a number of years and although occasionally a number of their members go slightly over the rails—as do most young people from time to time—on the whole they do a marvellous job, producing a youth body which works in very isolated areas and provides a marvellous service.
Then we come to the plethora of designated areas. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, mentioned some. I am not sure whether my list agrees completely with hers, but there are the national parks, the AONBs, the SSSIs, and the ESAs. Now we have a new one, the nitrate sensitive areas, which are soon to become 1606 known as nitrate vulnerable zones, which sound terrifying. There are also the conservation areas, and many more.
All those bodies and designations are so very important in this age of grant-aided farming as farmers and landowners have to know whom to apply to for what grant. It must be puzzling. As the right reverend Prelate said, the suicide rate among farmers is high. A recent survey in North Yorkshire (where there is a high level of such suicides) showed that bureaucracy was one of the main worries facing farmers.
However, not all is gloom and doom. I should like to finish on a more positive note. As my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth said, there are advantages, and the incomers often produce many very welcome financial benefits for rural areas. They may also produce some useful new ideas, a great deal of enthusiasm and often new industry which helps a lot. Many of them go on to the local councils to represent the areas. They can be useful there, so long as they are sympathetic and tactful towards the locals and their needs.
With the accent no longer on maximum food production, there has been far more emphasis on what the countryside looks like. I do not want to use the term "agri-environmental" which is appalling, but the general greening of the countryside has been much to the fore in the past few years. A great deal of money has been paid under various schemes to farmers and landowners to care for the countryside. There has been more co-operation between MAFF and the DoE than there used to be, something which I welcome strongly.
One scheme that I like particularly—I must declare an interest here as a countryside commissioner, but for only the next fortnight after which my time comes to an end—is the Countryside Commission's countryside stewardship scheme. It is voluntary. It is open to farmers, tenant farmers, estate owners, voluntary bodies and local authorities. They can enter voluntarily into a tenure agreement applying to land in one or more of the following English landscapes: chalk and limestone grasslands; lowland heath; waterside landscapes; coastal land; uplands; historic landscapes; old orchards; old meadows and pastures; and the culm in Devon and Cornwall and Hereford and Worcester.
Needless to say, I am interested especially in the uplands where one can now obtain good grants for the restoration of heather moorland, the building of stone walls and that type of thing. If we have to subsidise non-farming—if I may call it such—I am sure that that is the right direction to follow. Set-aside has been a disaster, or, at any rate from the conservation aspect it has.
I was talking to an American lady last night. She is from an academic background. She told me that her father was a college lecturer, but that she grew up in one of the farming states of the US. She said that the trouble there when they followed the line of paying farmers not to produce things was that the farmers soon acquired the habit of thinking that the Government should subsidise them and owed them a living, and that they were not going to work. While the 1607 Government are looking seriously into some of the grants and benefits in other fields for people who may have become used to living in a society which relies upon them, it is not a good idea to encourage farmers to fall into the same situation. I am all for giving grants and subsidies for farmers and landowners to do something, but not for giving them grants not to do something.
§ 5.33 p.m.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
My Lords, in an article in The Times today on the fall of Dr. Banda in Malawi, it was said of him that among various disagreeable traits, such as feeding his political enemies to crocodiles he had the virtue of not letting his country's rural economy disintegrate as had happened in many other African states, and that there was no mass influx into the towns with the resulting problem of shanties and public disintegration, as happened in many African states, many other states, and in the United Kingdom in the last century.
I do not claim that God's blueprint for the fertile parts of his world was identical to the state of Europe as it was between the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution, but I do say that, as a balance of living between town and country, it seems never to have been bettered. A land in which there are towns and cities which are not allowed to grow too large and which are fed, more or less, by the surrounding countryside—a pattern which I believe, for instance, is still true of Wales—seems to be a pattern in which human beings can lead a prosperous and satisfying life. It is that, surely, towards which we should be striving. I believe that it is far from being an impossible aim on the European scale. It would have been seen as impossible some 10 or 20 years ago, but today, as we begin to see the inevitability of ecological economics, we begin also to see a dawn of hope for that kind of living.
No longer will the world be able to afford the wasteful economics of free trade. Free trade is efficient only when the bottom line is measured in pounds and pence. When it is measured in renewable resources and human happiness, free trade can be, and often is, a disaster. The noble Lord, Lord Middleton, when he opened the debate, for which we all are extremely grateful—I certainly am—said that a healthy countryside is a countryside that has a healthy agriculture. I agree. I go on to say that we can only have a healthy agriculture if agriculture, in this country or Europe as a whole—I should prefer Europe as a whole—is protected.
There can be, and there undoubtedly will be, an objection that such a state of affairs is unfair to the rest of the world. I do not believe that to be true. The whole world would be better off if countries were to concentrate on feeding themselves and to stop using their land to grow cash crops at bottom prices to export all over the world to pay for imports that they more or less do not need.
If it is to be said that I am looking back towards an unattainable past, I disagree with that also. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams, who said that a healthy countryside is a developing countryside. We 1608 should be moving towards a countryside with much smaller farm units, with a much larger rural population, living in a rural society which does not need specially subsidised buses and post offices because it is prosperous in its own right; a farming community in which farmers do not hang themselves every week because they are lonely, bankrupt and despairing, and where one is not offered, instead of bread, or the ability to provide bread, "a survey of rural stress" by the Government, which means filling in even more forms than those described by the noble Lord, Lord Middleton. We should be moving towards a countryside where the obscenity of set-aside—it is very obscene—is got rid of in the interests of an extensive (as opposed to an intensive) agriculture; a countryside where the dangers of herbicides and pesticides are kept under control; and a countryside where natural treasures are absolutely preserved, because they are irreplaceable, and are not allowed to slip away, as they do today despite all our efforts, at a rate of 5 per cent. every year as is happening with the SSSIs.
Twenty years ago I should have said that what I am saying in my speech was impossible. I might even, God help me! have said that it was undesirable, so brainwashed was I in those days by the false certainties of free trade. I believe now that one can begin to see that it is not just desirable, which it clearly is, but that it is also possible. I would go further than that: I believe that it is not just possible, but that in many ways it is inevitable, and that all we have to do is to co-operate with the way that the world is turning.
§ 5.40 p.m.
§ Lord Kimball
My Lords, those of you who have recently been struggling with the IACS form, trying to fill it in and obtain the appropriate maps, will realise that we have reached a most important stage in the common agriculture policy. There will be a major change in the countryside during the next two years. I believe that it is a very worrying change because in the countryside we are returning to a kind of deficiency payment system for supporting agriculture. That system was found to be unacceptable to the taxpayers as long ago as 1964. I believe that as regards the system which the new forms herald we may be lucky to have a run of about two years of prosperous agriculture in the countryside before the majority of taxpayers demand a rethink of the system, as they did in 1964.
Some people may believe that Europe is moving closer to world prices for its food products. However, a totally free market in agricultural products will cause an unacceptable degree of social and economic dislocation. To the parts of Britain which cannot compete with near-world prices, financial help must be given to maintain and look after the rural communities. That help must be given for social and environmental reasons and for the encouragement of positive land use.
Many noble Lords will agree that the set-aside scheme needs substantial adjustment so that it can be more useful and environmentally helpful. The land 1609 should be allowed to grow crops for longer, to reproduce itself and to have a better future. It is not as bad a scheme as many people believe.
There has been much talk today of the need for a national strategy for the countryside against which the policy of all United Kingdom bodies can be judged. Many noble Lords have said that one government department should be charged with the lead task of defining an overall strategy for the countryside. I have no doubt that that department must be the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I was sorry to see in today's Daily Telegraph an article suggesting that for some time the Cabinet has been considering a Ministry for the countryside. I hate to disagree with my noble friend Lord Middleton, who suggested that we needed some overall department. I remind him that we were at Cambridge together in the days when Julian Slade produced his "Salad Days". We do not want a Minister for Parks and Pleasure. The environmental side of the countryside must remain with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
My noble friend Lord Swinton was right about the civil servants who believe that they have the right to tell landowners what to do. In listing the organisations and paying tribute to the Women's Institute I am sorry that my noble friend did not mention the Young Farmers' Club, of which he is president and which is the best marriage bureau in the country. He might have put that on the record.
We must take note of an article by Matt Ridley which appeared in the Daily Telegraph. It was headed "The Liquidation of the Landowners and Farmers". It dealt with the vast body of civil servants who are accountable to no one except the taxpayers. They believe that they have a right to override the existing knowledge and responsibility of landowners and farmers who have looked after this countryside for many years and who know a great deal more about it than many of the civil servants.
We must also look at some of the organisations and their effect on the countryside. I wish to refer in particular to English Heritage. The time has come when we must admit to the fact that English Heritage is embarrassed by its success in certain of its fields. We must draw the conclusion that a proper scientific policy must be worked out. There should be grounds and reasons for the control of some of the areas in which it has had such success.
The English countryside has evolved as a managed countryside which is rich and full of variety. However, we cannot continue with the current policy which is so favoured by today's "green" scientists of laissez-faire by way of a conservation policy. One cannot merely let nature take its course in a managed countryside and say that control and even killing has no place in those areas.
I wish to refer to three issues, two of which were so well dealt with by my noble friend Lord Massereene in his excellent maiden speech. I refer to his rampaging raptors; and they are rampaging. In 1960 there were 300 pairs of golden eagles and today there are 425. In 1960 there were 200 pairs of hen harriers and today there are more than 500 pairs in Scotland alone. The 1610 sparrow hawk was thought to be rare in 1960, but there are now 25,000 in England alone. There are 70,000 kestrels and more than 2,000 peregrines. There has been an explosion in the raptor population. As your Lordships know, one pair of sparrow hawks will eat 110 pigeons, 60 blackbirds and 2,000 sparrows in order to stay alive.
We must face up to an agreement on the density of avian predation in this country. We must look forward to a change of attitude in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. We must face up to the fact that among most people in the countryside the RSPB is rapidly gaining the reputation as the most arrogant and intrusive of all the countryside bodies. We have the incredible case of a particular colony of terns whose breeding future was at the end of its tether. Some 80 pairs of terns had only five surviving young last year because of predation by kestrels. What did the species protection officer of the RSPB suggest should be done this year? He suggested the artificial introduction into the reserve of vast numbers of mice so that the kestrels will not kill the baby terns. That is a chaotic policy. We must face up to a difficult position and we must have an agreement on avian predation densities.
My noble friend Lord Massereene was so right about the seals. The map recently published by the sea mammal research unit at Cambridge shows that out of the population of 93,500 grey seals, 87,000 are sitting right across the run of salmon coming from Iceland to this country. We cannot complain about the Northumberland drift nets unless we face up to the necessity for proper scientific management of the seal population.
What about the saw bill ducks, cormorants and mergansers? They are predating heavily on all our inland fisheries. Cormorants and mergansers are sea birds and have no need to come inland and take fish from the inland fisheries. They should be protected only within three miles of the coastline. One begins to have little confidence in some of the bodies which issue licences for the control of saw bill ducks. Every year when fishery boards apply for a licence to kill mergansers and goosanders, the period for which the licence is issued is reduced because of "green" conservation pressures on the Ministry.
The countryside needs a review of the whole of its conservation policy. It is most important that such a review is carried out by the lead Minister. The Minister who should be in the lead is the Minister responsible for production in and viability of the countryside, and the livelihood and welfare of all those who live there.
§ 5.50 p.m.
§ Baroness Masham of Ilton
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, for giving us the opportunity to bring to your Lordships' notice some changes that have taken place in the countryside.
I had the good fortune to be born in the north of Scotland in Caithness and I grew up appreciating the marvels of the countryside; for example, the wild orchid, scabias, harebells, the primula scottica—a rare primula which grows on the sand dunes—and the 1611 different kinds of heather, gorse, wild broom and pinks. It was hard work making hay in the short summer. The fields were ploughed by Clydesdale horses. Cows were milked by hand. The pace of life in the countryside was slow and the work hard but pride in good stock and the satisfaction of the harvest gathered in gave the farmer the sense of achievement that he needed at the end of his hard work.
With mechanisation the whole pace of farming changed. Increased use of chemicals and production increased but so did the pressures of modern-day competition and stress. Living in the Yorkshire Dales as I do now, I have seen a great change in the past few years. That has been due mainly to the increase of tourists and the movement of people from the towns, which is not always to the benefit of the local population.
On our estate in North Yorkshire we have a folly known as the Druid's Temple. It is a replica of Stonehenge and many people are drawn to it. It has been a favourite picnic spot and many people enjoy visiting it. But on several occasions there have been orgies when the gates have been torn off and used for bonfires. The police and the local keepers try to keep control but violence has been known with fights and stabbings. On one occasion my nephew went up to inspect the scene the day after one such incident had occurred and he found the remains of burnt court orders and probation orders. The troublemakers had come from Manchester on their motorbikes.
On a recent occasion my secretary, who had not visited before and was new to the area, went for a walk at the Druid's Temple taking a friend who was staying with her. To their horror they found sitting on the sacrificial altar a pig's head. Their peaceful weekend walk was abruptly interrupted. There seems to be an increase in devil worship and cults. What is it that people are looking for? Is that not connected with child abuse and all kinds of sexual perversion?
Last year my noble kinsman had twice to take out an injunction to try to stop new age travellers descending on some of our land which could in no way cope with so many people. They would have been a menace to local farmers who have sheep and a health hazard to the local population. I ask the Minister what legislation is to be introduced to protect the countryside from those problems.
Word had got around that there was to be a rave—a kind of party—to be held to celebrate a festival on a certain date. The police managed to divert the new age travellers but many young people arrived on the scene hoping to join the rave. The police found many of those young people with drugs. Cannabis, ecstasy and amphetamine seemed to be the most popular drugs. The increase in drug abuse is extremely evident in the North and the growth of the magic mushrooms around the area is abundant.
The ever growing use of drugs is no doubt a contributor to the growing problem of rural crime. The headline in the Darlington and Stockton Times last week on an article on crime was:Concern at country crime, with no village bobbies to block off the motorway rat run".The article says: 1612Joining the thousands of holidaymakers heading for Spain this year will be some unlikely cargoes—tractors and combine harvesters stolen from northern farms".Stone roof slates are stolen in the middle of the night as are fences, gates, garden ornaments, wrought iron gates, chainsaws and trailers. Some time ago I had 17 saddles stolen from a double-locked tackroom at our trekking centre. We now have lights and alarm bells. I ask the Government whether they have put into operation a think-tank with the Country Landowners' Association, the police and other responsible bodies. Something must be done.
Some years ago when I was speaking to a group of prisoners in prison they quite plainly told me, "We will go on committing crime so long as it pays us". When I meekly asked them whether they felt that they were wasting their lives in prison, it was evident that they did not believe that the punishment that they were receiving would stop their future criminal activities. I went away wondering what on earth could be done. Perhaps the prisoners meant that they should have their hands cut off.
One suggestion which came from a meeting with the CLA was to spray the underside of slates with indelible paint to prevent their resale. We should mark everything. If there were tolls on motorways that might slow down the escaping criminals. There is no doubt that people in the countryside have a great fear of crime as well as experiencing it. If asked, the local villagers and country people will say, "We want to see the restoration of village constables and the reopening of police stations in our smaller country towns". The police will say that roving police cars cover more ground and are more cost effective.
It is an immense problem as a county like North Yorkshire and other rural counties cover such large acreages. It takes a long time to travel from one part of the county to another. The North Yorkshire Police will say that they need more police personnel. It all gets back to money. Rising crime is, it seems, out of control.
We need a strengthening of farm watch schemes and more training and co-operation between the police and local people. Organised crime seems to be on top of the situation. The present laws do not really help. There have to be legal ways in which farmers and villagers can protect their own property which do not land them in trouble. As a humble Cross-Bench Peer, perhaps I may suggest to the Government that if they wish to win a few more votes, they must take steps to get the crime problem under control in rural areas.
Nothing that I can say can illustrate the full feeling of revulsion felt by horse-loving people as regards the unbelievable and sadistic acts to horses which have been carried out in rural areas in England. I ask the Minister what is being done to find the sick and debased culprit or culprits concerned in those acts of cruelty and mutilation which are beyond belief. They seem to have sexual connotations. How low can society fall? The added anxiety is that although there are watch schemes and people on the alert, those crimes continue.
In the countryside I have noticed ever growing crops of thistles and docks. Is that increase because of set-aside and because the grass verges on the sides of 1613 motorways are no longer cut? Or is it because farmers can no longer afford sprays? I am concerned also about ragwort which is poisonous to horses. Will the Minister give some advice about that? With horse crime, grass sickness and the new EVA virus which has come in from Poland, I should like to suggest on behalf of equine owners that there should be a debate on those worrying conditions. Should not EVA be a notifiable disease? One has to ask, what disaster will happen next? There seems to be so many of them.
Perhaps it was because of a personal involvement that I felt it necessary to add my name to the long list of speakers in today's debate. Some time ago, a tenant farmer on our estate committed suicide. He was the son of a devout Roman Catholic farmer. He was found hanging in a tree. I was asked to give the address in our little village Roman Catholic chapel. That was, perhaps, one of the most difficult things that I have ever had to do. A united family had to suffer one of their members, a fit young man, taking his own life.
It is well documented that farmers have one of the highest rates of suicide compared with people in other professions. In the Yorkshire Dales there is increasing concern that the quality of farmers' lives is being eroded by continual stress. Last autumn, the Farming Under Stress Working Party was set up to study stress among farmers in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale with representatives of the Yorkshire Rural Community Council, the Samaritans, the citizens advice bureaux, the National Farmers' Union, as well as a local doctor and minister.
The group sent out questionnaires to 96 hill farmers and recently published a report based on the answers that it received. The report shows that the main causes of stress are inclement weather, poor quality of land, loneliness and isolation. Their incomes are declining. Changes in government and EC policy have changed the sheep farmers' incomes. They live in fear of withdrawal of subsidies. Such problems of stress are caused by bureaucracy generated by the EC, national government, and the National Parks Authority. The report says that the influx of tourists, attracted by the beautiful scenery and the Herriot country label have left farmers unsure of their real role in the future of the Yorkshire Dales.
Farmers feel that there is a "them and us" attitude with the national park which should be talking to the farmers instead of just telling them what to do. Farmers feel threatened. The Minister who is to respond to the debate, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, is a welcome visitor to North Yorkshire. Perhaps he and the Secretary of State for Agriculture will come to the Dales and discuss the findings of the report, along with MAFF and the NFU.
I serve on the FHSA (the family health service authority) for north Yorkshire. When I asked the question about rural suicides at a talk given by a doctor on public health, some of my fellow members looked rather surprised. I agree with Professor Fred Harper from the faculty of agriculture of the University of Seal-Hayne who said: 1614Rural health is a major national issue which has not been addressed seriously enough in the past".However, not all is gloom and doom in our lovely countryside. I am happy to tell your Lordships that I have had the pleasure recently of opening some trails designed for disabled people. One was near a Cheshire Home in Yorkshire and was organised by the Countryside Commission. The other was at the Kielder dam in Northumberland which I think was organised by the Forestry Commission. Moreover, at Rievaulx Abbey, the National Trust has provided electric wheelchairs so that disabled people can be more mobile. It is good that those organisations are providing facilities to enable disabled people to enjoy the countryside more easily.
On the 8th June a Question was tabled in your Lordships' House asking:Whether people living in the Yorkshire Dales will be unable to receive BBC Radio 4 when, shortly, it is broadcast only on FM".In his Answer the Minister said:There are always likely to be some small communities which, for reasons of topography and shortage of suitable frequencies, will be unable to receive particular services" —[Official Report, 8/6/93; col. 707.]Radio 4 is the most important radio station. It gives farming news and excellent programmes. In this day and age, I think it wrong not to give that service to the whole country. That applies particularly to rural areas which are often cut off with no public transport. Moreover, some disabled people who live in rural areas do not even have helpful schemes like Dial-a-ride to enable them to get out and about. They will become even more cut off if they are unable to hear reports from Parliament and the programmes that bring them up to date with current affairs. The Government cannot wash their hands of their responsibilities. The BBC must, and should, cover the whole country.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, for letting us remind different organisations that they have a duty to protect the interests of people who are living in the countryside and who need their support and help.
I should like to conclude on a happy note. In recent years there has been great growth and interest in crafts. There are now many craft sales and there is great interest in rare breeds of sheep; for example, there is a growing interest in the breeding of Shetland sheep which have a lovely selection of natural colours of wool. For the first time this year, there are classes for Shetland sheep at some of the local shows in Yorkshire. People are, once again, spinning their own wool. Moreover, the Japanese, who appreciate good quality, are interested in Shetland wool. All our native breeds of animals are part of our heritage; they are worth protecting and improving.
§ 6.8 p.m.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Middleton for tabling today's Motion. He made me ask myself two questions. First, has the countryside changed? My view is, not as much as most people suggest, thank God. Secondly, has the plethora of non-agricultural voluntary organisations connected with it been constructive? Apart from the welfare ones such as the WI, the Church and 1615 Crossroads, my answer again must be no. I have to say that, otherwise I would disappoint the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol.
The reason why the countryside has not fossilised as much as many would like is because the major industry is, and will continue to be, agriculture. Certainly agricultural practices have changed and should be allowed to change, but they have always done so. My complaint is against those who try to stop that change, be it the removal of useless hedgerows or suggesting diversification as the overall cure for our countryside. Unless farmers are allowed to farm efficiently, the countryside will suffer socially, economically and, lastly, in beauty.
Farmers are not park keepers. That point was made by the noble Earl, Lord Spencer, in his excellent maiden speech. Their creed has been, and always will be, to farm efficiently. I was delighted to listen to the address of the noble Lord, Lord Barber, on that point. I personally hate the demoralisation caused by set-aside. Such a policy can only be temporary.
How have the countryside and farmers been helped or hindered by the many organisations that have been mentioned today by your Lordships? In my view, not very much at all. Many have deliberately denigrated the essential role farmers have played and will continue to play, to the point of persecution. Most, if not all, of them fail to understand the farmer's dedication to his farm. It always comes first in a farmer's family. That is the reason I find it difficult to pester my noble friend Lord Howe during lambing time. I would also receive very severe criticism from my wife for such behaviour. Perhaps I should alter that in deference to my noble friend Lord Massereene, whose maiden speech I much enjoyed.
Which, therefore, are these organisations that pester farmers, or should I be honest and say "me"? My noble friend Lord Howe may be surprised to hear me say that, at local level, MAFF is helpful and understanding. The Government have done a better deal in the European Community than I had expected. I am, however, concerned about the lack of practical experience in Whitehall, which, in my opinion, has resulted in such schemes as the beef special premium scheme. However, MAFF does not seem to go out of its way to persecute me. I hope I am not giving my noble friend Lord Howe the kiss of death because I cannot give the same accolade to the Department of the Environment and local authorities. Those bodies might start by looking at their planning departments. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, seemed to have similar concerns about that. Perhaps he will agree with me that planning departments delay and frustrate people. If they make decisions, at least 50 per cent. of them are wrong. The Government could make real savings if they adopted the premise of no planners at all. If that achieved nothing else, it would certainly cut down on corruption.
Such august bodies as English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales also come under the wing of the Department of the Environment. They try hard to achieve good results and they are sincere. Their staff are academically very knowledgeable. They try hard to get the various parties in this squabble 1616 —if I can call it that—to see each other's point of view. I was pleased to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, refer to this point. However, I am concerned that the temptation is for the various organisations to empire build. Is it really in the brief of the Countryside Council for Wales to spend money on publicising an energy policy for Wales? What will it do next? Will it publish a defence and foreign policy for Wales? I do not think that is its job.
There is a myriad of voluntary bodies telling farmers and landowners how to manage their land. The great majority of people on those bodies wish to preserve the countryside as they consider it to have been when they were children. They do not earn their living in the country or off the land. They are NIMBYs. My noble friend Lord Swinton made that point. The people on those bodies have, I believe, taken on Lord Curzon's role of being very superior people. I was therefore pleased to hear the noble Lord, Lord Williams, accept the fact that these bodies should be rather less vicious in their criticism of farmers. I must tell my noble friend Lord Strathclyde that these are the people who have taken over the countryside and given it an appearance of prosperity.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, I did not say that the CPRW or any other voluntary organisation has been less vicious. I said—I hope the noble Lord will accept this—that I thought voluntary organisations such as CPRW should co-operate with farmers' organisations such as the Farmers Union for Wales and the NFU and should not be vicious in any sense. Will the noble Lord confirm, as he said earlier in his speech, that he is speaking for himself?
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
My Lords, I have never spoken in this House other than by myself, for myself and with myself. Every noble Lord who knows me knows that that is the case. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, said that the bodies we are discussing should be more co-operative. If he reads my speech he will see I said that. If that is not the case, I apologise. I return to my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, who I believe I was having words with. It goes without saying that I would very much welcome in the countryside those business entrepreneurs that my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth mentioned. I could not understand why my noble friend Lord Strathclyde eulogised the birds and the bees. There were times when I wondered whether the countryside he envisages is the countryside I live in.
I accept that I have painted a sad picture of a persecuted farmer and therefore of a persecuted countryside. That is perhaps in line with the report of the noble Duke, the Duke of Westminster. I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, understands that we feel somewhat persecuted. As so many noble Lords are so closely connected with the land, I hope they will understand why I have painted this sad picture. As the noble Lord, Lord Geraint, said, people connected with the land are in a minority in both central and local government. The majority of our urban or suburban population has no connection with the land.
My noble friend Lord Middleton proposed the establishment of a department of rural affairs. I do not 1617 know whether or not such a department would solve the problems. Like my noble friend Lord Kimball, I conclude that unless the bodies concerned with the countryside, including any future department of rural affairs, accept that the farmer and the landowner are the mainstay of a prosperous and therefore a beautiful countryside, they will not achieve any worthwhile objective. Indeed if they continue to denigrate and persecute both farmers and landowners, their efforts will be counter-productive.
§ 6.16 p.m.
§ Lord Taylor of Gryfe
My Lords, your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that I intend to talk about forestry. I apologise to noble Lords who have heard me preach the gospel of forestry in the House for repeating some of the arguments which I have used on previous occasions. We are discussing changes in the countryside, and the development and expansion of forestry has been a major factor in changing the appearance of the countryside.
It was discovered in 1918 that we were so short of timber in this country—having fought wars over the centuries and having been engaged in major timber-consuming new industries during the Industrial Revolution—that some of the coal mines could not produce coal during the First World War because there were no pit props available for the mines. Therefore the Government decided that there should be an active forestry policy to regenerate some of our woodlands. The Forestry Commission was created long before the nationalised industries and the Morrisonian doctrine had evolved. In fact the Church Commissioners were sent for and their constitution was examined. The Forestry Commission was modelled on the Church Commissioners.
The Forestry Commission was instructed to go out and plant trees. It buckled to and planted many trees. It has suffered a great deal of criticism because it carried out that mandate with great vigour. As a result, some of the earlier planting of trees was not sensitive to the need to maintain a diverse landscape. However, the Forestry Commission could only buy marginal land on which to plant trees. The Department of Agriculture would not allow forestry to be developed on land unless that land was rather useless and certainly marginal. The only tree crop that could be grown on marginal land was conifers. Hardwood trees could not be grown on exposed sites. The Forestry Commission acquired a bad name for being insensitive to good landscape planning.
The Forestry Commission performed its duty as a state agency but it also worked in close partnership with the private sector in developing forestry. It provided the research and training and helped the development of private forestry. An excellent partnership evolved, not as competitors but as co-operating elements in the development of our woodlands. I regret to say that in the current climate of privatisation that partnership is being destroyed. That is very sad.
The new forests that were created by the commission, and sometimes by the private sector, had 1618 a fairly uniform age profile. Young trees of the same species growing on a hillside are not always attractive. It is only when the woodlands begin to mature that some of the beauty, even of conifer forests, becomes apparent. People became alarmed and said that forestry was growing up all over the place and was making too great a change in the countryside. They failed to recognise that this country had been denuded of its woodlands. Even now only 10 per cent. of the surface of the countryside is under woodlands. The comparable figure for Germany is 30 per cent.; and for France it is 27 per cent. Therefore, people should not be alarmed about the growth and development of forestry and feel that it invades and covers the land.
Unfortunately, in the past few years the incentive for the development of this renewable resource has been severely curtailed as part of government policy, whether deliberately or not. Twenty years ago when I was chairman of the Forestry Commission, the commission planted 23,000 hectares and the private sector planted a similar number. Last year the Forestry Commission planted 5,000 hectares, and I see from its corporate plan for next year that only 1,000 hectares of new woodland will be planted by the Forestry Commission. That is a very serious matter from a number of points of view.
Forestry is not simply a device for producing uniform standard conifers. It has tremendous social implications and advantages for our countryside. Last year Forestry Commission woodlands welcomed 50 million day visitors, who took advantage of the forest trails and picnic sites. Nothing is more encouraging than to see families with knapsacks on their backs going into the forest at weekends and enjoying the access which Forestry Commission forests provide. Picnic sites, wildlife protection, bird hides and other facilities are all provided.
Indeed, mention has been made in this debate of the importance of national parks. The Forestry Commission has been running 14 national parks since 1936. The first national park is in Argyll. The Forestry Commission has considerable experience in catering sensitively for recreation and conservation.
I mentioned that there has been a dramatic drop in the forestry planting programmes. That is a very serious matter because we are only 13 per cent. self-sufficient in timber in this country. Every year we import more than £6 billion of timber and timber products. I should have thought that it was a matter of some concern for a country which is so deeply in deficit in its overseas trade balance that we are allowing the industry to decline before our very eyes while at the same time encouraging inward investment into the wood processing industries. In the past eight years wood processing industries have invested £1 billion in this country—in Wales and Scotland and areas of high unemployment.
However, we are not planting trees now to maintain adequate supplies of native timber for those new enterprises. That is not immediately noticeable, because forestry is a long-term industry. One starts thinning conifers in 10, 12, 15 or 20 years; and 1619 hardwoods have a 100-year rotation. Conifers are required for the wood processing industry; and we are allowing the planting programme to collapse.
I regard that as bad for the countryside. It is bad for the countryside because the countryside should be a living countryside. It is all very well for people to talk about the importance of wilderness areas, as the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard, did; but the countryside is also beautiful when it is alive, when it is active and people have the opportunity to earn their living. Therefore, I suggest to the Government that they should become more worried about the rapid decline in opportunities for rural employment in forestry.
Incidentally, perhaps I may encourage the conservationists among your Lordships by pointing out that in the past year 45 per cent. of the new timber planted by the private sector was hardwoods. Because new and better land is becoming available to it, the Forestry Commission programme also offers greater diversity and greater opportunities for conserving areas of great ecological importance, such as in the restoration of the Caledonian forest.
What is happening in forestry? I have already mentioned the decline in planting by the Forestry Commission, which may or may not be deliberate government policy. Some 172,000 hectares of land have been sold off to the private sector. A creeping and deliberate privatisation by stealth seems to be taking place in forestry. If one denies the Forestry Commission resources it will die. It will still be an administrative government department authorising tree planting and felling, and so on; but the decline in the Forestry Commission is not being compensated for by any growth in private sector planting. Therefore, there is a total paralysis of the industry.
That industry is important to a living countryside, economically and ecologically, in the provision of recreation. Therefore, I beg the Minister to think again about making a serious contribution to the revival of this important industry.
§ 6.28 p.m.
§ Viscount De L'Isle
My Lords, I too should like to thank my noble friend Lord Middleton for instigating the debate. I should like to express my regret at not having been able to take part in the debate of the noble Lord, Lord Carver, on 3rd March. I was chairing a conference about the countryside on that day and therefore was unable to be in the House.
I should also like to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Spencer, and my noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard, who is a neighbour of mine.
Planning law was introduced in the 1930s to prevent the spread of haphazard development and to protect the landscape, or to place a cordon sanitaire around the great conurbations—the so-called green belt. While there is no doubt that there must be some control of development, planning authorities often fail and, statutorily, do not have to take into account the economic needs of the rural community. It is safer to take a negative view rather than support an innovative scheme.
The countryside as we know it today has evolved 1620 because of the way our forebears shaped and used it, not only to produce food and raw materials, but sport and leisure as well. The engine which has driven that has been the landed estate, farms and rural businesses. Over the past 48 years, since the last war, we have seen agricultural production increase while the numbers employed in the industry have declined and a further 80,000 people are likely to have left the land by the end of the decade.
I support my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth by saying that the countryside is about people. Without people there would be no countryside. Therefore they have made it. Unless action is taken now, the countryside as we know it will be dead by the end of the next millenium. Nothing will be accomplished by merely paying lip service to the need for change. The decline of agriculture looks set to continue. One must hope that we do not experience the dereliction of the 1930s' agricultural depression. New life must be breathed into the countryside if a viable rural economy is to support the population and thus in turn the countryside. Evolution not revolution has always been the countryman's way of dealing with challenges.
In his opening remarks, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, referred to new technology and communications. Telematics —the use of computers with telecommunications—will enable a multitude of tasks to be undertaken in villages. The advantages stemming from the reduced need for travel to work and the bringing of services to the village are enormous. The larger indigenous population will benefit existing businesses such as the shop, sub-post office, garage and public house, and, I suggest, will increase the congregation in the parish church.
New businesses need a work place. Often redundant buildings can be converted into suitable class B1-use premises, conserving the past while creating the future. In many cases there is little difficulty in obtaining planning permission. However, some planning authorities regard such development with suspicion. Their angst is fuelled by the braying pack of vocal protesters—the so-called NIMBYs, about whom we heard earlier, and in addition, the NODAMs who continue to say, "No development after mine". Those two species of man use the village as a dormitory, enjoy the view over others' rolling acres, while voicing uninformed criticism, and walk their uncontrollable dogs off the lead through flocks of sheep, stifling any positive steps which might be made to improve the village economy. Having been a breeder of large white pigs, the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, will know, that in Yorkshire farmers say that one cannot educate pork; one can only cure it.
Planning decisions are often arrived at in isolation and measured against the narrow criteria within the local development plan. Those noble Lords who live in listed buildings surrounded by conservation zones and green belts or national parks will know the difficulties of obtaining permission for change of land use. Recently the Rural Development Commission, under the able chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth, has been promoting whole estate and whole farm plans. In effect, it is a management plan for the relevant property. The resources and 1621 enterprises on the estate are studied by a management plan team with the aim of identifying their importance and managing them appropriately for their retention and enhancement. Those will include topography, geology, soils, land quality, landscape, nature conservation and archaeology, coupled with existing farming, tourism and recreation, forestry, fishing, diversified enterprises, and housing and commercial uses. The role of the whole estate management plan should be similar to that of the local development plan. Both are seeking to convert and control land usage for a particular defined area for a period of 10 years.
The plan should be directed towards, first, the landowner so that investment and management decisions can be made in the full knowledge of the physical and financial consequences. Secondly, it should be directed towards the planning authority so that it is fully aware of the constraints on and opportunities for the estate and of any likely proposals for the change of land use over the next 10 years.
Discussions between the estate management plan team and the planning authority during the formulation of the plan will enable planners to have an early input. The advantages to both parties are clear: the owner can plan his business in the knowledge that his proposals for change of land use or diversification will be favourably viewed. The planning authority is able to have an input at an early stage. It will have a fuller knowledge of the background and will be able to take an overall view. The concept could or should be taken a step further and the estate management plan deposited with the authority as a background paper to the local development plan.
I would not wish to impose a statutory need for a whole estate management plan, but such a scheme would save much of the time, effort and resources which are currently being wasted by the combative approach in the making of and opposition to planning applications. A more proactive strategy by all parties would save resources, help to speed the much needed change of direction in the rural economy and allow our well loved countryside to continue its evolution unscathed.
§ 6.36 p.m.
§ The Earl of Lytton
My Lords, I must apologise for the fact that I came to the House late today and therefore was not present to hear the opening speech of the noble Lord, Lord Middleton. That is a matter of great regret because from all that I have heard from others it was an extremely good opening speech. However, I express my thanks to him for giving us the opportunity to debate this important matter relating to our countryside.
I have various declarations of interest to make. First, I am a chartered surveyor. I am also a member of the Country Landowners' Association and of the NFU. I am a hill farmer. I farm jointly with my wife 950 acres on Exmoor, almost all of it over 1,000 feet above sea level. We are custodians of some seven listed buildings and a number of ancient monuments. I say 1622 straight away that we regard ourselves as stewards of those resources for our lifetime only and see all that as something to hand on to the next generation. Also, by virtue of the fact that a large amount of our property is in a national park, we hope that it will be appreciated by a wider public.
However, I speak from experience when I say that our countryside is overlaid thickly with designations of every kind. I relate closely to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol. I could add several items to her list, even as amended by the noble Earl, Lord Swinton.
In addition to the large number of statutory and official bodies associated with the countryside, there are a considerable number of non-statutory bodies and a number of non-statutory land designations. I refer to such matters as special landscape areas, strategic gaps and sites of nature conservation interest, all of which have relevance in local plan terms and none of which has a statutory framework under which to work.
Many of the larger public agency bodies concerned with the countryside have unchallengeable powers. They have some fairly crude and bureaucratic approaches in a number of instances, although not all, and although their individual officers are well meaning and entirely honourable, the approach to countryside policy tends to be based on preconceived expediency and a preconceived idea of how the regulations are to be enacted.
The ever larger number of non-governmental organisations holds sway in many areas of our countryside with single issue objectives. Many are accorded a status as consultees in the planning process. I have experience of a number which assume rights to interfere covertly without any discussion with the owner or occupier of land in the decision-making process. That type of activity damages the valuable input made by many non-governmental organisations which carry out extremely valuable work. I should like to give credit to them, despite the examples set by some of their fellow organisations. However, there are too many agencies involved and the consultation process that takes place slows to a crawl many legitimate business activities that require some kind of notification or consent.
Grant aid is frequently mentioned as the carrot by which all the various regulations are rendered reasonable and satisfactory. But, as has already been pointed out, they distort the real economic picture. It is increasingly difficult to obtain grants for manifestly desirable objectives because of either misfunding or underfunding. There are no proper interrelationships between schemes and even within schemes, let alone between one scheme and another. There are glaring gaps in coverage. I also have the strong feeling that there is a degree of duplication in administration, and that is a matter of concern.
As the economy of the countryside has slipped, so the level of bureaucracy which attends countryside matters, has increased. A huge environmental business has grown up over recent years, particularly during the past 10 years. I feel that the countryside simply cannot support that overhead. Even if it could, I do 1623 not think that it could survive with what are often policies interpreted in an entirely negative fashion. Nor can it prosper with the uncertainty that is engendered by what can only be described as the creeping cancer of unnecessary and constantly changing regulation. That frustrates long-term development and investment and damages the confidence of the businessman in the business that he conducts in the countryside.
As a landowner, I should like to think that I could command total transparency and frankness from those bodies with which I have to deal in the countryside. Frequently, I do not get it. However, I give credit to the Country Landowners' Association and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. I am a member of both organisations, and in each case they have attempted to foster what I believe is a thoroughly pragmatic and common sense approach, without trying to push overtly the specific interests of their members. Of course, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has no axe to grind, representing, as it does, the professional body of the chartered surveyors rather than a particular interest.
This may all sound rather pessimistic, but I am not pessimistic about the future of the countryside. On the whole, I am optimistic because we have now reached the stage where something simply has to be done about how we organise our affairs in the countryside and particularly formulate policies for the future. However, so long as there is an imbalance in our trade whereby we constantly import billions of pounds worth of temperate foodstuffs which could be grown in this country—and as has already been mentioned, timber products could equally be produced here—we deny our countryside an economic base. If we do that and do not replace it with something else, we have a recipe for nothing short of disaster over time.
I believe that the United Kingdom is still a green and pleasant land, and I have particular reason for saying so, having recently come back from Formentera. The rain here obviously adds to the atmosphere. It seems like a tropical rain forest by comparison with that Mediterranean island. That is something to be cherished. However, the countryside needs a long-term strategy, free from wasteful interference. It needs a future for the younger generation to retain an interest in the management techniques that are handed down from one generation to another in a countryside without which those skills will be lost. They cannot be learnt in a university or a college of further education. It does not happen that way.
We need to look towards an integrated analysis of the issues and a properly formulated rural policy for the long term. By the long term I mean 15 years plus because I believe that that is the kind of timescale over which the most minimal scheme has to be unfolded. For forestry, it is much longer.
We need better communication between those involved in countryside matters and less divisive activity by the reduction of opportunities for misunderstanding. I particularly point to the occasional misuse of statutory powers which takes place. There needs to be a better education of the 1624 urban public as to what they can do rather than what they simply cannot do in the countryside. There should be a concerted effort to free up the log jam which surrounds our public rights of way system in the countryside.
We need a clear rural economic policy and a related planning policy. We need to see whether growing foodstuffs and agricultural products or forestry products is the long-term future or whether it has to be something else. We need to plan for it and to make a decision to that end. We certainly need to end the use of non-recourse powers exercised by many statutory bodies, where there is no effective right of appeal or compensation for losses. That type of activity encourages evasion of the legal provisions and unlawful activities in the countryside. The onerous nature of some of those provisions should be addressed. I also point to the need for awareness that bureaucracies tend to feed themselves before they feed the needs of those aspects of the countryside with which they are charged to deal. We need to realise that public enjoyment of the countryside at the moment adds little to the income of those involved with the management and maintenance of the rural scene. Good management is a derivative of confident business activity and nothing more nor less than that.
We must accept that the countryside has a bundle of existing uses, as opposed to the rather hazy idea of a non-use which is known in planning terms as "white land". We have to recognise that those uses may change over time, both in their nature and in the quantity of the basket of uses within the same holding to a considerable degree. It is a matter of natural rotation. We need to recognise that there should be an end to the ideological argument between Planning Policy Guidance Note No. 7 and the earlier Planning Policy Guidance Note No. 2 which is long overdue for revision.
As was said earlier, we must accept that farmers and landowners have a great deal of knowledge which is daily taken to the grave and not passed on to the next generation. That such people are dictated to by those who, no doubt, have excellent academic knowledge is offensive.
My strong fear is that if we are not careful, we shall lose the good experienced management and particularly managerial commitment in the countryside. I should like to think that that loss could be arrested. Like the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, I believe that there is a considerable level of agreement as to the objectives. We simply disagree in places on the way in which one might achieve them. There should be a much greater getting together by way of a forum to try to think the policies through.
In view of the time and the number of speakers, I feel that I have said enough. That is the gist of what I had to say and I am very grateful to noble Lords for listening.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ Lord Annaly
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Middleton for instigating the debate this afternoon. It is a wide-ranging debate and many different aspects have been covered by the noble Lords 1625 who have spoken so far. I shall focus my contribution on the seemingly escalating disruption, not to mention violence, which is occurring to legal country pursuits, and which has already been referred to briefly by my noble friend Lord Swinton.
First, however, I must congratulate my noble kinsman Lord Spencer and my noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard on their excellent maiden speeches. I hope that it will not be too long before we hear from both of them again in this House.
I should also declare some interests, in that I am on the Oxfordshire committee of the British Field Sports Society and have in the past been a master of foxhounds and beagles. In addition, I am a member of the Country Landowners' Association; I also undertook a three-year estate management course at Cirencester.
Field sports are enjoyed and participated in by many thousands of people. Field sportsmen, be they hunters on horseback, on foot, in a car or on a bicycle, shooting people or fishermen, not to mention other sorts of field sportsmen, are now having their liberty limited by the activities of a few hundred extremists. Week after week these saboteurs set out to interfere with the recreation of those who choose to hunt, fish or shoot.
We live in a democracy, one of the strengths of which is that people have a right to protest. That right is not in question. What is in question, however, is where the line should be drawn between protest, demonstration and disruption.
To illustrate the growing seriousness of the situation I shall briefly mention some examples of what has occurred in the last year. Noble Lords will see from these examples that the saboteurs are now creating a real public order problem in the countryside. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I quote the examples from the speech which the director of the British Field Sports Society gave to the Standing Conference on Countryside Sports in April this year. It reads:Over 600 incidents or disruption to hunting and shooting took place last season. Saboteurs organised much larger "hits" against hunts, with the clear aim of overwhelming hunt supporters and the police. More and more, they came armed with weapons such as staves, wearing balaclavas, and openly showed real hostility, even towards animals involved in the sports—horses and hounds. All the indications are that well-meaning, if misguided animal lovers have been displaced by ruthless, extremist, professional agitators who care as little about animals as they do about attacking policemen…In September, a Cambridgeshire gamekeeper was attacked, receiving a serious head wound which required stitches. A hunt kennelman was assaulted and put in hospital for twenty-four hours.In October, a Hertfordshire farmer was taken to hospital after being beaten up. Ask trespassing saboteurs to leave your land and this is what happens.In November, a North Yorkshire Hunt Master was taken to hospital with broken ribs after he had been beaten up and kicked.In December, letter bombs were sent to a Cheshire Hunt Master and to the offices of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation.In January, in one of the worst incidents yet, 250 saboteurs descended on a pack of foxhounds in Essex and, unprovoked, attacked hunt staff and stewards with staves. A 1626 hunt steward was flown to hospital by police helicopter with serious eye injuries after a saboteur threw ammonia—not Antimate, or scented water, but ammonia—into his face.In February, 150 saboteurs hurled bricks, stones and bottles in an attack on a kennels in Sussex—after hunting had stopped. Hunt supporters were trapped and vehicles damaged.In March, 400 saboteurs forced the Hampshire Hunt to stop hunting in the biggest "hit" yet, despite the presence of 240 police.In only about half of these cases will criminal prosecutions arise.Attacks on shooting bring in new factors, not least a serious risk to safety, since guns are involved. During extensive disruption of grouse shooting last Autumn, saboteurs stood in front of and even grabbed guns. The damage to the rural economy which will be caused if investment in shooting declines because of saboteur attacks is another real concern.In December 1991 ten foxhounds in Norfolk needed veterinary treatment when saboteurs sprayed substances into their eyes".Where does this leave those who wish to pursue their legal pursuits and recreations? It is apparent that the present law is totally inadequate to stop the ongoing campaign of disruption and violence. Trespass is a civil, and not a criminal, offence. Thus, when saboteurs invade private land it is not a matter for the police. Hunts and shoots have been forced to use trained stewards to remove trespassing saboteurs —a policy which is endorsed by the Association of Chief Police Officers. That should not be necessary and it is not without its drawbacks, causing saboteurs to respond with increased violence. We have seen in the papers only this week what can happen: prolonged disruption by saboteurs led to a hunt saboteur getting hurt and two hunt officials being charged.
Country people are mostly naturally law-abiding, and wish for nothing more than to be allowed to pursue their lives. They deeply resent being portrayed as the cause of trouble. A few country sports supporters have been driven to retaliation after a relentless campaign of provocation by saboteurs. This is understandable, but wrong. At the beginning of last season the Masters of Foxhounds Association issued a code of good hunting practice to all supporters. It states quite explicitly that hunt followers must resist the temptation to retaliate, whatever the provocation. That indeed is a firm commitment to the rule of law.
Section 5 of the Public Order Act makes it an offence to use,threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour",which is likely to cause someone "harassment, alarm or distress". While that should be effective in stopping the saboteurs from insulting and harassing field sports supporters, in practice the provision is increasingly falling into disuse. Convictions are difficult to obtain and, when achieved, generally result in very low fines. The time has come to reform public order legislation so that it protects peaceful demonstrations but outlaws disruptive trespass on private land. As the director of the British Field Sports Society has declared,We do not seek the simple criminalisation of trespass, but a carefully drawn offence which prevents trespass where a group of people intend to disrupt a lawful activity.In case there is any doubt that a change in the law is necessary, I quote from the speech given to the 1627 conference on countryside sports to which I have just referred by the chief police officer responsible to the Chief Constable of Essex for all operational policing in that county. It reads:On 23 January  my Force experienced serious public disorder between over 250 antis and the hunt. Two years ago a protest in Cheshire resulted in a fatality and this month a 15 year old boy died under the wheels of a horse box at a Cambridgeshire hunt—the safety of all concerned is our paramount concern".He goes on to say, at a later stage in his speech:While the Police Service will not intervene it would, in my view, be extremely helpful from the policing point of view, for the law to be re-examined and clarified. It is one thing for lawyers to argue the finer points of law in a court room or disagree on television and quite another for an officer to make instant judgements 'in the heat of battle' between opposing factions deep in the countryside".To conclude, the Government have already acknowledged the seriousness of the situation which I have outlined. I should like to know from my noble friend Lord Howe how soon we can expect to see legislation to improve this position, bearing in mind that a proposal has already been submitted to the Government aimed at introducing a new offence of failing to obey a police direction to leave land when people have entered the land as trespassers with the intention of disrupting a lawful activity.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Lord Walpole
My Lords, I also am extremely grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, for giving anyone who lives in the country or who is involved with country pursuits of any sort the opportunity to ride their own hobby-horses this afternoon. I am terribly biased. I come from Norfolk. That is an area that people do not go to and the BBC call it the top end of "Ea Stanglia". I also wish to declare other interests but I am not going to at this stage. I am talking very specifically about Norfolk, so if your Lordships do not recognise the place I am talking about or if it is not like yours, I am sorry.
Employment in agriculture in Norfolk inevitably, like everywhere else, went down steadily. The numbers decreased until about 10 or 15 years ago, when I felt they had probably bottomed out. At that stage those people who had become redundant in agriculture in any way or who were not recruited into agriculture, managed to find jobs in the relevant service industries, whether they went into selling seeds, fertilisers or working for Ross, British Sugar, Bird's Eye or whatever. So up to about 10 years ago the number of people actually involved in agriculture or agriculture service industries remained fairly constant. But with the present decline of farming and farmers, mainly I think due to the common agricultural policy and other uncertainties, there are definitely fewer people involved in the full range of agricultural activities.
This has led to higher unemployment. I am afraid that I do not recognise the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, about rural industries, high-tech industries and all the rest of it. I know that the Development Commission has put factories in such places as Fakenham and North Walsham. Those people who now live in the country work in Norwich. So far as concerns rural housing, of course fewer houses are needed and therefore, as fewer people live 1628 in each house, houses become occupied by people who are not involved in the agricultural industry. What has happened is that those people who have moved in seem to require a slightly different standard, for some unknown reason, because the idyllic country cottage, as has already been pointed out, is subject to various smells and things.
There is of course development in the county: indeed, there has been very considerable development there. When I was chairman of planning and transportation some years ago, over half the housing stock in the county had been built since the war, which gives some idea of the development that had taken place. But, like the noble Lord, Lord Williams, in Wales, we are very definitely experiencing creeping urbanisation. Those people who have come to live in the country from the towns expect to see street lights, 'phone wires or telephone lines, and place names written up on every street in every village, with Warboys-type signs on every corner and other totally inappropriate street furniture, which fits in with the lifestyle of the two-car family.
I am not saying that those people do not contribute to the life of the village: of course they do. But one of my main hobby-horses is that if we get any more development in Norfolk we will run out of water. We have a bore-hole at the end of our garden, which is monitored constantly by the AWA and the university. I believe that at the moment the level is some six feet lower than it has ever been, and that is after last winter's rain. There is simply not enough water in Norfolk to sustain the population growth that is taking place.
We like these people, but they also want road improvements for their two-car families, so by-passes get built round villages—not a bad thing at all—but as soon as you get a by-pass round a village suddenly it becomes essential to infill between the village and the by-pass with undesirable development. I think that is very sad. The other thing that happens is that roads get improved. I can tell your Lordships that the A.140, between Norwich and Cromer, has now been finished. It has been improved; and last year the accident rate went up by 65 per cent. It is a better, safer and more expensive road, and more people kill themselves on it. I would suggest—and I address the DoE at this particular moment—that all unclassified roads in the countryside should have a speed limit on them. There would be fewer accidents and it is hoped that there would be less appalling visibility splays every time any road joins another road.
The other hobby-horse I would like to talk about concerns roadside verges. On unclassified roads verges are a haven for wildlife. About 20 years ago it appears to have been the policy—presumably it is government policy—that these roadside verges should be cut. So mowers are produced at the right time of year to slaughter—I would not be biased and say partridges and pheasants—all ground-nesting birds. They are slaughtered during the first week in May, because that is the time the contractor moves in. We must find a compromise so that unclassified roads, especially those in conservation areas, are not cut. There is a delicate balance between safety and wildlife, I know. I 1629 do not mind visibility splays being cut, but cutting roadside verges for the sheer sake of doing it is vandalism. I shall publish a paper fairly soon, because I have been taking photographs of vandalism carried out by county council contractors in villages, in rural conservation areas and elsewhere. It is quite appalling, and an appalling waste of money.
Also there is a marvellous anomaly, which I can remember quite clearly from the time it went through your Lordships' House. It concerns rubbish. The county council or its contractors cut the verges and there are areas where it may have to do so. That is the moment when everything from Coca Cola cans to the packaging that McDonald's wraps its food in appears on the surface. It then blows around for days until the district council—someone quite different—collects it, if someone has told them that it is there. Surely there needs to be a little co-operation when it comes to tidying up the countryside especially when verge cutting—some of which is essential—is done.
A lot of people discussed designations and I am sure that we all understand them, so I will just read them out rather quickly. We all know words like SSSI, C sites, RSNC, AONB, ESA, NSA (which is about to change to something else), listed, scheduled, curtilage, conservation area and rural conservation area. Do we all understand all these things? I suspect that most of us here do, but do planning committees? Do parish councillors understand them when asked to take decisions? And why do Ministers so easily ignore them when the matter comes to appeal? Surely, if a designation is made we must be firm about it.
The other problem with designation is that if you designate somewhere as an AONB or a conservation area, it is almost like living down a by-pass, because next to it you must get everything—everything must be clustered right next to the AONB: not in it, but just out of it. I am not going to discuss wind farms because they are rather too topical for me at the moment. No one has mentioned them. Perhaps the Minister would like to tell us what he thinks about wind farms later.
Regarding those areas that I have just listed, we all know what they have in common. They are what the Countryside Commission will concentrate on once the national park legislation has been set up. There are about 40 bodies involved in the countryside in one way or another. There are 29 speakers on the list, and so I expected each one to mention about 1.6. I think that we are about par for the course. I have received grants from several of them. I will not name them all. It must be realised from my earlier remarks that I am involved with the CPRE and my wife is county chairman, but of course Norfolk, as they say there, "do different", and we call it the "Norfolk Society".
I had a shopping list for the Minister of various questions that I wanted to ask. Being the 21st speaker I am doing very well because most of them have already been asked. I shall therefore listen with great attention to his remarks. However, I should like to ask one question which has not yet been asked. In relation to set-aside payments, would the Minister care to 1630 comment on the suggestion that set-aside payments should not be made unless set-aside is managed in an environmentally friendly way?
I was deeply encouraged by my noble friend Lord Barber. Anyone of my age will have read his excellent book, Farming for Profits, which came out when I was a student. I do not think that he has changed a great deal and I do not think farming for profit has changed. The essential point about farming is to have a profitable farming enterprise and to decouple the rest, as the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, said.
My noble friend Lady Masham asked many questions in regard to rural crime. That matter has arisen twice since and I shall listen with interest to the Minister's response. I conclude by warning the House that we have a new Secretary of State for Agriculture who, unfortunately for your Lordships, comes from the same county as I do. Rumour in the local paper that she comes from a long line of cattle dealers and smallholders is not strictly true. But I know that she is extremely sympathetic to conservation. It was in fact on an interpretation course that we first met some 25 years ago.
I am a passionate believer in the countryside. I am a firm believer in sustainable, safe agriculture. I believe in landscape conservation, not fossilisation. I believe that the countryside should be a place that is a joy to live in and to share with others.
§ 7.12 p.m.
§ Lord Mancroft
My Lords, I too should like to join in thanking my noble friend Lord Middleton for tabling the debate today. The full list of speakers shows how important the subject is to the House. I shall confine my remarks to calling attention to one organisation that fulfils the criteria of playing its part in the countryside to the full—from the preservation of England as it should be to the conservation of the countryside as we would like it to be. That organisation is the National Trust. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, was unable to speak in today's debate, as I am sure he was.
The National Trust tries to fulfil the important criteria of a search for balance in the way in which it conducts its affairs. It protects and looks after its buildings and their contents by public donation, among other things, and attempts to conserve the countryside for which it is responsible by sympathetic farming. I believe that the National Trust demonstrates that it recognises farming practices as being what my noble friend Lord Middleton described as "crucial". That is an important feature, if not the most important feature, to come out of today's debate.
I should also like to draw the attention of the Government and your Lordships to the excellent National Trust report on Conservation and Management of the Red Deer in the West Country, which came out in March this year. It is a major contribution to our knowledge of deer. My noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard, in a fine maiden speech, discussed the problems of deer management in Scotland. There is no doubt that they are slightly 1631 different. But there is no doubt also that much of the research in the recent report would be of tremendous benefit in Scotland as well as in the West Country.
The report highlights the need to integrate the needs of wildlife with the economic realities of farming and forestry, along with the social cohesion in any one area of the countryside. It is a considerable report—well over 150 pages—and comes in three parts. The first part, written by Southampton University, is a remarkable piece of research into the red deer. It talks about numbers, and like any piece of research, probably raises more questions than it answers. There will be long discussions on the amount of deer and the numbers that need to be culled. But it also contains fascinating research on the damage that deer do to pasture land, fencing and crops, which would be as relevant to Scotland as it is to the West Country.
The second part of the report is a paper on the economic and social aspects of deer hunting on Exmoor and the Quantocks by the Centre for Rural Studies and the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester. It is a unique report and well worth reading. I hope that the Government will take careful note of it. The third part is the main report and its conclusions.
Although the report did not consider any of the moral aspects towards deer hunting, it comes to exactly the same conclusion as the Scott Henderson Report of 1949 and indeed the Porchester Report of March 1977, which was submitted to the Secretary of State at that time by the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon. They both came to the same result as this report; that is, that stag hunting is a vital part of the way of life in that area. The report of the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, and Lord Porchester stated that,Whilst it may come as a surprise to some and prompt the wrath of others, it is undeniable that stag hunting on Exmoor operates as a force for conservation".As he said, that may be unacceptable to some people; but it is nevertheless the truth.
I hope too that the Government will note the suggestions in the report that, first, the legislation on deer poaching and licences for game dealers need to be looked at once again. Secondly, that the legal status of deer management groups should be examined more closely by the Ministry of Agriculture.
I hope your Lordships will appreciate that one of the report's recommendations is to set up a deer management group in Exmoor. I am delighted to be able to tell the House that before the report came out there was an Exmoor and District Deer Management Group already operational. Those who live in the West Country are keen to implement the report to the best of their ability.
The only real criticism of the report came from another organisation—the League Against Cruel Sports—which condemned the report's findings within three hours of its being published. I find that of itself interesting because the report took me a whole weekend to read, yet that organisation managed to condemn it in three hours. It could be simply because the conclusion was against its policy. Of course, the League against Cruel Sports is a different kind of organisation. Although it claims to be in touch with the countryside, it does not welcome the hounds on its 1632 land, unlike 92 per cent. of the landowners in the West Country. It is also the only landowner that actively encourages deer to come onto its land by feeding them.
The organisation owns around 40 pieces of land, the largest of which is 200 acres, amounting altogether to 2,000 acres. They are advertised in league brochures as "sanctuaries", but in reality they are concentration camps for deer. Their purpose is to concentrate the deer in unnatural numbers. I should like to know what view my noble friend on the Front Bench has in relation to those sanctuaries, those areas where deer are concentrated by feeding them artificially. Are there any rules about the keeping of wildlife or encouraging it to settle in large quantities on land, particularly on land that has no water? It is an odd place to build a sanctuary where the deer each day have to cross and recross an "A" road to reach water. The result, as anyone who has been involved with deer will know, is a large increase in injured deer with a responsibility on the landowner to make sure that they are put out of their misery —a responsibility which is not at present being met.
A possible reason for the organisation being able to behave in that way—this is an important point—is that it is the only landowner which is not in the business of commercial farming. It makes no attempt to farm its land. Otherwise, it would realise that it is impossible to behave in that way, a way that is very distressing for the neighbouring farmers who are trying to earn a living on difficult pasture land—many of them sheep farmers, as the noble Lord, Lord Geraint, mentioned at the beginning of the debate. It would not be possible for them to allow deer on their land in the numbers that this organisation allows. For a commercial farmer it would be commercial death. Therefore these people are promoting what I think we can describe as a completely alien way of life.
Unlike the National Trust, and as my noble friend Lord Middleton pointed out, they do not see farming practices as crucial. That is fine. If an organisation wishes to behave in that way, there is no reason why it should not promote its ideas. But it should then allow and indeed encourage a general debate on the subject. It should allow a general debate on culling. If you allow large numbers of animals, which can cause considerable damage, on to the land, you must discuss and make public your policy on whether or not you are going to cull those animals.
Last year a deer was found dead which was later proved to have died of lungworm infestation, which, as your Lordships will know, only exists where large numbers of grazing animals get closely up together. We were unable to have any discussion to see whether the situation could be improved upon because the League Against Cruel Sports immediately issued writs to prevent this being discussed. This year we have had a tremendous controversy over injured deer which have not been put out of their misery as they should have been. Indeed, the league was obliged on two occasions to allow the stag hounds in to hunt those deer and bring them to bay, which they did very efficiently in a matter of hours.
1633 However, when the story got into the Sunday newspapers our stag hounds were immediately banned for political reasons—with a small "p"—the result being that at least two injured deer wandered around that land for weeks, which is a degree of incompetence and cruelty that no farmer would possibly tolerate. In other words, the League Against Cruel Sports, which portrays, in the words of my noble friend Lord Middleton, farmers as destroyers, is in many ways a destroyer itself. It panders to what my noble friend Lord Swinton described as the Beatrix Potter and Walt Disney school of wildlife management.
It is true to say that one of the big problems, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Swinton, is the enormous change in population. As the noble Earl, Lord Spencer, said in his excellent maiden speech, the subject of access to the countryside is very important. But if large numbers of people who do not know a great deal about the countryside wish, first, to have access to it, and, secondly, to live there, the people who really do know about the countryside, the real countrymen, must be allowed to have sway with their opinions. It must be accepted or understood that the traditional English countryside is one of our greatest assets and is indeed the envy of our European neighbours and the millions of tourists who come every year to enjoy our countryside. But they will only enjoy it if it is protected by real countrymen and not by those who do not know and do not understand it and are educated in a politically correct way which is damaging to the English countryside. That must not be allowed and must be guarded against.
I too noticed the article in the Daily Telegraph this morning about a potential Minister for the Countryside. I share the view of my noble friend Lord Kimball. It is vital that the countryside and its protection be left in the hands of the Minister of Agriculture. It is agriculture that must hold sway in the countryside and not green issues, which are really red issues.
§ 7.24 p.m.
§ The Earl of Macclesfield
My Lords, I feel that I should start my speech by apologising to your Lordships' House for somewhat extending my maiden speech last month. Your Lordships will be pleased to know that I was sent for by the "headmistress" this morning and duly carpeted. For my speech this evening, I should like to deal with the subject of law and disorder in the countryside, and therefore I think that it would be wise if I showed some discipline, stuck to the point and got on with it.
When I first saw the subject of this welcome debate what first came to mind was, "I remember, I remember". Then earlier today we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, the words "rural idyll". That was summarily dispatched by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, when the words were added, "the rogues, vagabonds, thieves, didicois and new age travellers", who have a far greater share of the level playing field than we do.
To come back to the level playing field, it would be nice to hear at the end of the debate a suggestion that 1634 we will go back to the kind of level playing field that I consider existed in times gone by when a local farmer had a certain difficulty with trespassers in a house. He merely put his men around the house, went off and found a local bobby—we had local bobbies in those days—and brought him back. PC 49 walked quietly up the path and tapped on the door. When the door was opened he simply said, "I am a busy man. I shall be going in 10 minutes. Shall you be coming?" That is my idea of a level playing field.
At the moment I think that we have something totally different, biased entirely in favour of those who do all the wrong things. It costs the countryside dear. When we had new age travellers at home, it cost us the little matter of around £750 plus VAT to evict them lawfully, all due to incompetent legislation on the part of the Government which I am very pleased to see is going quietly out of the window. I should like to join the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, in asking whether we are going to get fair play legislation to take the place of what we have had up to now.
The other main problems that we face are litter and general vandalism. What is to be done about those problems? The first problem is a countryside matter; the second is a general matter. I do not feel that it is appropriate in this debate to go on about it. But the only way of putting right what is wrong in the countryside by way of a general disturbance is to re-educate the general public not in the ways of the countryside but in the ways of responsibility, discipline, good manners, good behaviour, respect for property and respect for elders and betters. Until those days come we shall find ourselves in the countryside with all these problems of ever-increasing magnitude as more people wish to come out into the countryside.
We have heard examples of vandalism. Some of them defy belief. We have had sugar put in the diesel tank of a tractor. Why? Someone had to find the tractor out in the woods, go home, get the sugar and put it in the tractor. It is mindless. Society has to do something about this. It is not for the Minister to say on behalf of the countryside what he is going to do about it, but it is a matter to take back to Government and say, "We are in real trouble—not just in the countryside but in the whole of the country. We will not put this country right until we start from that grass root". I have certain views on that but I do not propose to start on them now because those are matters for a different debate.
A subject that has not been mentioned which is to the detriment, in my opinion, of the countryside, is supermarkets. It is quite appalling that they are allowed to spring up in the countryside. They do immense harm. They break the local communities because they take out the local shops, which cannot compete. At the end of the day I do not believe that they are cheaper for a lot of people. They are more expensive in certain areas. There is, of course, the transport factor—people have to get to them. All right, those who have cars go to them. But those who go to them end up breaking the local shops and 1635 leaving a lot of people in the countryside, on low incomes and without transport, to fend for themselves to a large extent, all of which is very sad.
It will be very hard to do anything about that. It will not be possible to go backwards. But I should like to leave the House with this thought. Perhaps the stopping of planning applications for supermarkets in the countryside in future is one item which would help overall.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Lord Marlesford
My Lords, over 30 years ago my first employers sent me on a selling course organised by Messrs George and Alfred Tack who operated near Victoria Station. The course lasted three days. My goodness it was effective! I learned more in those three days than I have learned in any other three days in my life. Basically, what one was learning was how to turn people's needs into wants as a salesman. I had no problem doing that because I knew that if there were not enough of a product to meet the wants which I had created the price system and the market forces would ration it.
The scope and the extent of the countryside, and thus its capacity, is limited. The risk is that people think that it is not. That is a particular risk with growing prosperity. In one way the shortage of countryside as regards what people might want to do with it, to it or in it, is recognised by the planning system and the elaborate system of designation; of the hierarchy of quality of landscape about which we have heard something this afternoon.
It has been a highly successful system which has lasted since the late 1940s. It is one of the great achievements of the Labour Government of that period. It has made us, as the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, pointed out, the envy of many European countries. It is something which I believe we have to teach other countries in Europe; namely, how we do our planning. They have done a great deal of damage to much of their countryside and to their coasts.
I wish to raise one point on the dreaded Maastricht. Perhaps my noble friend will be able to reassure noble Lords that subsidiarity will be a full protection for us being able to maintain our planning controls as we want them in this country and that there is no way in which Brussels may decide to draw up new rules concerning planning which will be set to the most acceptable standard of the rest of the Community. That would be a very bad thing indeed.
As I see it, the real problem for the countryside is not to turn needs into wants, but to relate wants to needs. It is really the opposite of what Mr. Tack was teaching me. If we are to retain our countryside the Government cannot seek to meet all the demands on it. The "predict and provide" approach to planning is unsustainable. I wish to take three areas by way of example. There are many others.
The first is housing. It is accepted that not everyone can have a cottage in the Lake District. But the Government seem to feel that they have an obligation to meet all demands for rural housing. Housing itself is responsible for half of the green fields which are lost each year. In my view we must balance more carefully 1636 the resources which we put into new settlements and housing in rural areas with the needs of inner cities. I believe that had we not built all those new towns after the war and those resources had been put into our inner cities, they would now be in a healthier and happier state.
Urban regeneration is one of the Government's policies. I hope that they will meet that particular dimension in their planning forecasts. The problem is that at the moment forecasts are generally top-down rather than bottom-up. One should start with the parishes. The right reverend Prelate referred to the importance of parish councils and of parishes knowing what they need. I believe that one would then find that the demographic changes which there have been and which are continuing, will show that there is an increasing need for small, single-person dwellings which are close to services and facilities. As my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth reminded us, there is a special need for affordable housing.
The Government's target of 855,000 houses required in the South East alone up to the year 2006, is going to put too much pressure on that area, particularly in counties like Hampshire which have done an enormous amount for rural conservation. I was speaking at a conference there last week and I was very impressed with what they are doing. They are very apprehensive that the Government have got the target wrong.
I wish to move to a second area where there is very real constraint. I refer to water which the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, spoke about. I so much agree with him. Again, the "predict and provide" approach is not sustainable; it is dangerous. It will lead to a fall in the water-table measured in the noble Lord's well. That is serious to trees and other vegetation. The loss of trees is increasing in the South East due to the synergistic effect of a falling water-table and the hurricanes which pulled out a lot of the roots, plus the effects of acid rain. That can have a very serious long-term effect on our landscape perhaps comparable to the loss of the elms. Luckily, the droughts of 1988–92 have made people think again. It is a particular problem in the South East and also in East Anglia.
My third example is transport. We know that we cannot meet all the wants for transport on the roads. It is simply not going to be possible. It is quite interesting that the Government's own predictions for the increase in road traffic is plus 126 per cent. by the year 2025, but the extra road space available under the Government's road programme will be only 2 per cent. so that problem is implicitly recognised already. But I do not believe that in all cases the policies are being carried out. Some noble Lords know that I regard the extra lane on the M.25 as being a great mistake. In a Written Question the other day I suggested tolls and particular rates of tolls.
The Answer which my noble friend Lord Caithness gave me was that the rates which I had suggested would divert a great deal of traffic from the M.25 to local roads. That is exactly what I was proposing. It is extremely expensive to spend £1 billion and to disrupt 1637 a very well planned road. The opportunity cost of that is very great in other areas totally outside the road areas. That is dangerous.
I recognise the need for by-passes for rural areas where there has been real deterioration in the local communities through the growth of traffic. We should certainly hesitate as regards the improvement of rural roads so that traffic can go faster. On the whole, I believe that that is more dangerous and causes a further deterioration in the quality of life.
I wish to emphasise how important it is that we focus not only on conserving the countryside, but on enhancing it. Perhaps I may give two examples about that. In some strange way which I do not understand, in practice garages seem to have escaped all the planning laws. However careful people are as to where buildings are put and so forth, the most hideous garages exist all over the place. It is about time that we started improving them and to require standards for the design of garages with limitations on the banners and advertisements which can be shown outside them. The standards should be comparable to those which apply to other buildings.
I have one other idea which is a pet desire of mine, as the noble Lord, Lord Barber, will know. It is the improvement of the landscape which can come from undergrounding low-voltage wires. As a member of the Eastern Electricity board, I managed to persuade it to put aside £200,000 a year. It has been undergrounding wires in conservation areas. That cannot be done with the high voltage wires because it is too expensive. But one can make an enormous difference with undergrounding the low voltage wires.
It has been very helpful to us all to be given this opportunity to speak this afternoon by the noble Lord, Lord Middleton. The Motion mentions the various advisory bodies concerned with the countryside. I wish to make two points which are crucial for bodies such as the Countryside Commission, English Nature and the others. They themselves must never become pressure groups. They are not pressure groups; they are not intended to be pressure groups. They are a source, if one likes, of civilian rather than civil servant advice to Ministers. If they did not exist, Ministers would have to depend on civil servants to advise them in all these matters. They provide an added dimension of advice which I believe leads to better government.
However, we should not talk too glibly about amalgamating such bodies because the amount of time that people can give to serve on them is limited. If the organisations are responsible for too wide a range of matters, they will not fulfil those responsibilities properly. English Nature, for example, is quite different from the Countryside Commission. I know that there have been special reasons for amalgamating such bodies in Wales and Scotland, but I can talk only about the examples of which I have personal knowledge. For the reasons that I have mentioned, I think that it would be a great mistake to try to amalgamate such bodies.
Another reason is that, to some extent, such bodies will often have contrary views—and justifiably so. 1638 Until recently, I was a member of the Rural Development Commission under my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth. It has responsibility for the rural economy. I also served on the Countryside Commission under the noble Lord, Lord Barber, and its responsibilities were different. It is not necessary or always possible to reconcile such conflicts at either official or commissioner level. That is the function of Ministers because it is ultimately a political decision.
I should like to say something about the crucial role of the private people of the realm who have to look after the land, who work on it, and who farm it. I agree with much of what has been said about the crazy set-aside system which I think will enervate and give bad habits to farmers.
The noble Lord, Lord Geraint, is not in his place, but he asked the interesting question: who owns the land? In one sense, the answer must be those who have a legal title to it. However, there is another dimension to land: the landscape. I believe that the landscape belongs to the community and that Ministers are responsible for it on behalf of the community. I should like to take this opportunity of saying how very glad and delighted I am that my own Member of Parliament, Mr. Gummer, has become the new Secretary of State for the Environment because I think that he will do a very good job in fulfilling that obligation.
§ 7.42 p.m.
§ Viscount Hampden
My Lords, I should like first to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, on allowing us to speak on this wide-ranging subject. When I first became involved in rural affairs, the noble Lord was doing his stint as president of the Country Landowners' Association and I remember how impressed I was when he brought his team of officers down to the South-East on an officers' tour. Whether the noble Lord was quite so impressed with me is another matter because I got lost in Tunbridge Wells and kept him from his dinner. This evening I shall try not to keep him from his dinner for too long.
Everything that has been said this afternoon impinges on what I do. For the past nine years I have been my own land agent on my family estate of between 5,000 and 6,000 acres in the South-East of England. Two-thirds of the estate is situated on the South Downs and, with other people, I have fought to prevent the Sussex South Downs from becoming a national park, so far successfully. I was interested to hear the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Geraint, about the national park in Wales. A South Downs Board of Conservation has now been set up. It is full of people from the area and is working well so far.
I also have a management agreement with the Nature Conservancy Council for SSSI status. The area does not have any fascinating toads, but at the last count it had a colony of 6,000 burnt orchids. That is another aspect of the countryside with which I am involved.
I was interested in the comments about set-aside that were made just now by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford. I put my home farm into set-aside some three years ago. On the 100-acre site, which everyone 1639 can see, there was the most wonderful display of poppies in the first summer—a new cash crop rivalling oilseed rape and linseed. It was so beautiful that many people came to photograph it. East Sussex County Council and the Nature Conservancy Council used photographs of those lovely poppies in their annual reports, claiming credit for what they were doing in the countryside. Sadly, after one annus mirabilis, the poppies have disappeared and I am afraid that the burdocks and the thistles now on that field are not so photogenic.
I turn now to another aspect of the countryside which has not been mentioned so far. I have a chalk pit which is about to finish its useful life. The local authority has been looking at it as a possible waste disposal dump. That is a great problem in the South-East of England. I am sure that the other inhabitants of the village will try to stop East Sussex County Council dumping waste on that site.
The estate is divided by the south coast railway from London to the Eastbourne and Sussex areas. Its unmanned station is of paramount importance to local people. I am glad that other noble Lords have mentioned local transport. It is particularly important in my village in that for many decades we have had a policy of providing reasonably priced accommodation for what used to be called the "agricultural working class". At the last count, only five people (including myself) from about 100 cottages put on a tie in the morning to go to work. Those people need local transport. They also need the local shop. Again, that belongs to me. It is an asset, but not an income-producing asset. The noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, also mentioned this point.
The noble Earl, Lord Spencer, in his excellent maiden speech, spoke about people. We welcome people because they bring money into the countryside, but too many of them are a menace—and some of them do not behave all that well. I lost a whole field of silage bales last summer. They were bounced down the hill because someone wanted to drive his Land-rover, with a paraglider behind it, across the field. One of the bullocks in the area was beaten to death. It is a "hobby"—if I can use that word—for some people to come out at night and to drive across the downs in their cars chasing the cattle.
Finally on that subject, in late August last year I came round a bend in the road in my Land-rover and found an open van with two men inside and a third man with a rifle trying to take pot shots at young pheasants in the stubble field. I do not know how many laws that man was breaking, but it is extraordinary that it never occurred to me to go anywhere near the police because I thought that I would be wasting their time as well as mine. I thought that the best thing that I could do would be to give the gamekeeper the registration and description of the vehicle so that he could keep an eye out for it. Other noble Lords have talked about the law and policing, and I am sure that the Minister will reply on that point.
From what I have said, it sounds as though the countryside has nothing but problems. I do not think that that is quite the case. Yesterday afternoon I made 1640 a farm visit to the Sussex Weald where I have other farms. Leaning on a five-bar gate, talking to an 86 year-old farmer who took out an agricultural tenancy with my family at Michaelmas 1944, I discussed old farming methods and watched his Guernsey cows chewing away at the buttercups—we still have buttercups in East Sussex. He said to me, "You get a good view of your estate from here, don't you?". He was dead right.
§ 7.48 p.m.
My Lords, first, I too should like to thank my noble friend Lord Middleton for initiating this debate. Secondly, perhaps I may say that I have farmed and been involved in the countryside for most of my life.
As the Government seek to address the myriad problems of the countryside, their policies and mechanisms for doing it grow ever more complex. There are now at least 100 different schemes aimed at farmers and others in the countryside. Their range and diversity are now so great that there is an overwhelming need for clearer national direction and co-ordination in order to ensure that funds are used more efficiently and bureaucracy is reduced; that all schemes are evolved within a set of clearly defined national objectives; that the range of schemes is more intelligible to farmers and others, and that contradictions and overlaps are eliminated as much as possible. Achieving the direction and co-ordination that is needed demands the establishment of a clearer, and published, national strategy.
Several different departments and numerous agencies are involved in the formulation of countryside policy. The countryside is a complex place, and the involvement of so many different organisations and government departments is, perhaps, inevitable. But where is the lead? A useful parallel is the position on inner cities, an area in which eight government departments are involved. To ensure co-ordination there is a lead inner city Minister. In the same way, there is a need for a lead Minister for countryside policy.
There is also a need to rationalise the enormous range of countryside schemes and grants now available. It is perhaps instructive that Switzerland, which previously had 24 different schemes, has now simplified them into just two. That may not be feasible in the UK, but we should be exploring how we can arrive at a simplified structure which most people can understand.
Around the world, governments are increasingly recognising the economic and environmental importance of forests. Here, funding of incentives for forestry remains inadequate. In 1992, the total sum paid in England in grant aid for private forestry was £11 million. That contrasts starkly with the £12 million which Birmingham City Council spent in 1992 on cutting its grass. Or compare investment in forestry with a recent decision by BR's InterCity service to spend £12 million on an airline-style ticket system which has, besides other factors, caused concern about the future of through travel via the Tube.
1641 What is needed is a common rural policy that reflects the reality of what is happening on the ground and what needs to happen in the future. Such a policy must be characterised, above all, by flexibility. The needs of farmers in the UK and the pressures on the countryside in the UK are different from those in, say, Greece. The concept of subsidiarity must be followed through in the rural sphere to allow policies to be evolved that respect the diversity and differing requirements of member states.
With your Lordships' permission, perhaps I may put forward an idea as an example of possible policy change through flexibility. Let us take three important and topical aspects of the countryside; namely, forestry, conservation and tourism, and recreation and public access, which I group together. In forestry, we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, that Britain is one of the least afforested countries in Europe, where, because of a shortfall in production, the cost of importing timber and timber products in 1991 was £6.3 billion. It is fair to say that that may well provide much needed revenue to many developing countries, but we must look to ourselves.
Secondly, let us take conservation, where greater recognition of the importance of nature and landscape conservation is essential. Thirdly, let us take tourism, recreation and public access. Tourism is a leading growth industry in Britain, and the countryside has a vital part to play in its development. Let us take those three together and produce a package that has incentives for the farmer and landowner and for the landlord and tenant, and, at the same time provides benefits to the public and reduces the shamed face of visual rotational set aside, of which there were some 383,000 acres in the United Kingdom in 1992. That can also be fully supported by Brussels and the CAP.
Under the scheme the farmer or landowner would opt for a package that I will call long-time co-operative set aside, whereby a group of farmers in the same district would place collectively several parcels of land which would otherwise be separate into a block of land suitable for afforestation, conservation or an amenity park, especially when within striking distance of a town or city. They would be called zonal plans, which the European Commission seems to regard as optional. And all that could be done under a 20- or 30-year all-embracing management agreement which would qualify for grants towards costs incurred in the preparation of the plan and qualify landowners for capital and Schedule D tax relief, thus taking a percentage of the 15 per cent. rotational set aside, or surplus agricultural land, to provide major new opportunities for the expansion of forestry and amenity woodlands.
Small parcels of land on their own do not represent a viable proposition for the landowner or farmer, but collectively the package is immediately enhanced. I say that with respect to the woodland grant scheme and the woodland grant premium scheme. Those important opportunities must be reflected in the reallocation of funds from support for food production to schemes designed to produce environmental benefits.
1642 In conclusion, when one considers how beneficial it was to be able to move milk quota around but still maintain a production ceiling, should it not be possible in many cases to group together a certain percentage of set aside land for the benefit of all? As long-term co-operative set aside land could be supported by the CAP, the United Kingdom and the county concerned, we would all benefit. Existing resources dedicated to the countryside must be redistributed from agricultural price support to a range of broader objectives. Is not that socially and environmentally correct?
§ 7.56 p.m.
§ Baroness Robson of Kiddington
My Lords, we are all deeply grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, for raising this subject for debate. I cannot remember a Motion in which the terms were so wide that every aspect of rural life has been able to be raised. That is a great benefit, because all the aspects of rural life are interrelated when one looks at the countryside.
Some Members of your Lordships' House concentrated on the CAP and the reforms. A great deal has been said about the set-aside scheme. We all agree that the set-aside scheme will reduce employment in rural areas. Job losses in the next 10 years are predicted to be as high as 60,000 to 100,000. Set-aside, in particular, rotational set-aside, is unlikely to help with employment in rural and vulnerable areas. A possible 20-year set-aside scheme is now being discussed. I believe that it is much more likely to deliver long-term environmental benefits. It is important that that scheme should be designed essentially for environmental purposes, and not used solely as a measure of production control.
However, farmers must live. I do not know whether your Lordships are aware of the system that has been introduced in Germany of creating compensation payments linked to environmental benefits. The objective of the system is to give compensation to the farming community, which is tied to essential environmental objectives. It is similar to our countryside management agreements.
It is an interesting scheme. By awarding points for maintaining or adopting specific farming practices it enables farmers to participate. For instance, if one abandons the use of pesticides or takes other steps of environmental interest one receives so many points. Each point is worth a certain sum of money per hectare. We might look at such a scheme for this country.
There is another aspect which I greatly welcome in the latest announcements from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It recently announced an increase in the number of environmentally sensitive areas. I strongly support that. An area recently put out to consultation is the upper Thames tributaries. As I live in the area I was invited to attend the consultation process. The area covers the rivers feeding into the Thames, one of which is the River Glyme on which I happen to live. Everyone living along that tributary is in favour of it being made an environmentally sensitive area.
1643 I was then involved in a public inquiry into a bypass as regards Woodstock. I am sorry to be personal but I believe that the matter is of interest. Woodstock is sited in the Glyme Valley. There were public meetings and a great deal of opposition to the bypass but many local people were in favour of it. After the public inquiry the matter went to the Department of Transport and it was recommended that the bypass should be built. The department's letter stated:In consideration of the effects of the bypass upon the countryside and upon footpaths and bridleways, the Inspector concluded that whilst the value of the Glyme Valley to local residents is clear, it is a matter of recognition that neither the Valley nor any other part of the countryside which would be crossed by the bypass is of such merit as to require protection".Does the Ministry of Transport ever talk to MAFF or to the Department of the Environment? I believe that it is contradictory and wrong that those two documents were issued within 10 days of each other.
We have agreed today that agricultural decline has had and will have a serious effect on most rural communities. While the number of villages, the majority of whose population is in agriculture, is small they tend to be in rural and remote areas. The remaining village population is likely to be elderly and therefore there will be heavy calls on health and social services and transport. What have we done during the past few years about rural communities and village life? Village services have declined frighteningly. There are no longer many village shops and post offices, and local village schools have closed. Furthermore, there are tremendous problems with public transport. Until we put those things right the village communities will not thrive. It is a sad indictment of our society that we have neglected those aspects of life in the countryside.
Probably by far the greatest problem in the countryside is the lack of affordable housing for the young people of the villages. It is estimated that during the next four years there will be a need for 80,000 affordable homes in rural areas. As noble Lords have said, to a large extent the problem has been created by the invasion of an affluent, long-distance commuter society which is fleeing from the noisy and polluted environment of urban areas, in particular in the south. The invasion of such people has also brought increased opposition to the production of alternative employment. Those people have moved to the countryside to avoid development, and at planning inquiries they have created a powerful local lobby against planning applications. That lobby is vocal and affluent and it can afford to object. Frequently it carries the day at public inquiries.
I am not against people wanting to live in the countryside. However, if one moves into a village one must accept that village life is different from life in the urban development from where one has come. One must accept that the villages must thrive, but there is an enormous clash of interest between local people and those who have moved in.
As regards the future of village life and rural communities, I am also worried about the present county structure plans which are out for consultation—at least in the part of the world in which I live. There 1644 are 60 days to oppose the plans but it is expensive for ordinary people to do so. What worries me even more is how the changes in the boundaries of the local authorities and the move towards unitary authorities will affect those plans. As there will be changes to the local authorities' district boundaries, is it worth our while to concentrate on the proposed structure plans? It is difficult to take them seriously. There have never been so many problems facing us and because of the changes that are taking place we do not know how to tackle them.
The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, asked who the countryside and the land belongs to. He suggested that it was the person who had the legal tender. I suggest that whoever has the legal tender—and I have some—is not the owner but the custodian of the future of Britain.
§ 8.10 p.m.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, I join with other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, for tabling this Motion on an extremely important subject. It is a subject on which Members of this House speak with a wide range of expertise and knowledge. We have had some notable speeches but none more notable than the maiden speeches of the noble Earl, Lord Spencer, and the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard. I know that I speak for all your Lordships when I say that we are looking forward to hearing from them in the future on this and many other subjects.
The Motion refers to changes in the countryside and the organisations connected with it. My noble friend Lord Williams asked what we mean by "the countryside". We know that 80 per cent. of the UK landmass is rural. It is cared for by rather less than 3 per cent. of the population—those engaged in agriculture who are responsible for producing more than 70 per cent. of the temperate agricultural products that we consume. We know that about one-fifth of the population lives and works in the countryside. A recent report showed that 13 million people now living in urban areas would like to live in the country and that no less than 4 million people expect to move to a more rural area in the next five years.
What will those people find when they move to the countryside? They will find a countryside where 25 per cent. or more of rural households are living on or near the margins of poverty. They will find substantial housing problems. Only 60 per cent. of rural parishes have a shop; only 3 per cent. have a public nursery; only 6 per cent. have day care groups for the elderly and only 40 per cent. have a primary school. They will find a countryside which receives 1,640 million visits per year involving three-quarters of the population. A car is used on 80 per cent. of those visits.
As my noble friend Lord Williams said, we must beware of the dangers of setting a countryside in aspic. The countryside, its population and activities are not static phenomena. Considerable changes in occupation and social structure are taking place. Some are good and some are bad. To go from the macro to the micro level of changes in the countryside, I give one 1645 example of the kind of change with which we shall have to cope; namely, the development of the telecottage. Telecottages are buildings in rural areas which allow local people to work on communications equipment; for example, computers and faxes.
This week in a former milking parlour in Wiltshire a third telecottage is opening. It will contain 10 computers as well as faxes and photocopiers. Some argue that the telecottage will eventually be as common as the village post office, although it is not clear whether that will be due to the growth of the number of telecottages or to the closure of the rural post offices. There are already 250 telecottages spread around the country from the Orkneys to Cornwall and from Wales to Northern Ireland. One of the cottages in Wiltshire is used by 70 people working from home as well as by people running their own small firms. I mention that as one example of change in the countryside in order to emphasis the point that I made earlier; namely, that the countryside is not a static place. "Distance working" as it is called is likely to become an increasingly important factor in rural development and will bring with it its own problems and successes.
More households in the UK have personal computers than have cats or dogs as pets. Therefore, "technology fear" should not be a problem. Indeed, we may be entering the era of the rural "telescab" with distance working moving from the richer rural areas in the United Kingdom to the poorer areas where wage rates are lower and then from the UK to the poorer countries in Europe. For example, Ireland has substantial telecentre connections to the eastern seaboard of America providing cheap electronically based labour. That is one of the substantial changes in rural working patterns mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, with concomitant effects on housing, education and transport.
The problems of rural poverty, unemployment and housing are very closely linked. Extensive research indicates that there is a need for 20,000 social housing units in rural areas each year. When we consider that last year's entire national rural allocation of social housing units was less than the total need in one county, it is hardly surprising that in the four years up to 1992 the incidence of homelessness has tripled in rural areas.
That is a direct result of the Government's policy as regards the right to buy council houses while refusing the local authorities approval to replace the stocks sold off. That is a classic example of an extremely successful policy in terms of votes, accompanied by the most harmful social results. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said that the problems of housing in the countryside result from the pressures of demand. They certainly do if the Government block the supply.
Rural unemployment results from a combination of factors in small areas—the reduction of agricultural employment, the closure of small firms, the closure of defence bases and of pits, to mention just a few examples. In the area concerned the scale may be relatively small in terms of numbers but the impact on the local community can be extremely severe. We are 1646 well used to hearing about the 100,000 jobs that have been lost for farmers and farm workers in the past decade. We do not often hear about the 38,000 jobs that have been lost in rural areas in the seven years from 1984 to 1991 as a result of pit closures. Of their nature, job losses from pit closures are much more concentrated in their effect than job losses in agriculture.
My noble friend Lord Williams remarked on the lack of environmental benefit of the set aside scheme. It has been calculated also that one job will be lost for every 400 acres of set aside. I believe that when we are looking at all the various schemes for less intensive farming, diversification and the development of rural industries, we should ask for a clear statement of the employment effects and the schemes should be accepted only if it is clear that they will result in more jobs than would otherwise be the case.
I should now like to mention a few points that have been raised during the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Middleton, referred to the IACS—the Integrated Administration Control Scheme. We are all familiar with that in agriculture. I am already on record in this House as pointing out that in introducing the scheme the Ministry's performance made Group 4 look like the SAS.
We are told by the Minister that we must have this scheme because of fraud and because a vast amount of public money is involved. That is nonsense on stilts. For almost 30 years from the late 1940s to the mid 1970s there was a subsidy system in this country. I do not refer to the value or merits of the subsidy scheme. I refer only to its administration. There was a barley subsidy that was based on acreage; there was a wheat subsidy that was based on tonnage; there were three fatstock subsidies for cattle, pigs and sheep; there was a fertiliser subsidy; there was a lime subsidy; there was a calf subsidy; there was a grassland subsidy; there were a whole range of hill livestock subsidies. They were all managed effectively, efficiently and cheaply with virtually no fraud and certainly without the IAC scheme.
Of course there is fraud. We are really talking about—and I understand that the Government cannot say this—fraud in other member states, particularly in the southern member states. The noble Lord, Lord Middleton, referred to the influence of the mafia.
I was very taken by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, as he waxed lyrical with allusions to Cobbett, Hardy, the red kite and the blue butterfly. He proved what some people had begun to doubt; namely, that the Department of the Environment really does have a soul.
The noble Lord, Lord Geraint, asked the profound question: who owns Britain? I believe that he has forgotten that it was Lloyd George who said that the land belongs to the people. It appears that the Liberal Democrats may now be having some second thoughts about the intentions of the Almighty in that respect.
The noble Lord referred also to Sir George Stapledon, one of the great postwar agricultural scientists who said, the noble Lord reminded us, that 1647 his task was to grow two blades of grass where one grew before. I suppose that, with surpluses, he would be trying to grow half a blade now instead of two.
I was taken also with the thought-provoking speech of the noble Lord, Lord Barber, who discussed a subject on which he has spoken on many times in the past. I do not have time to deal with his arguments in detail but I argue that there should be a great deal more research into low input farming. I have been involved for nearly 40 years with the preparation of extremely detailed management accounts of a large number of farms. It is not always the case that the most profitable farms are those with the highest output. I believe that not very much research has been carried out in that area, although further research is now being undertaken. The whole area of low input farming should be looked into. It is not the case that we always have to go for the highest output to achieve the highest profit.
As I said, the second part of the Motion refers to agencies "connected with the countryside". We all know that there are certainly plenty of them. It is, perhaps, one of the few really successful growth industries in recent years. Virtually every agency—that is, both public and voluntary —which is involved in rural problems mentions overlapping functions and the lack of comprehensive and coherent policies in rural areas.
However, before deciding on the right mix of agencies required, there are a number of steps that have to be taken. Obviously, and first, the broad objectives of policy must be clearly formulated, with guidelines for arbitrating the inevitable conflicts that will arise. Let us take an extreme example. There would be little point in setting up a special government agency for, say, rural housing if the Government did not take the policy decision to shift substantial resources into rural housing. If they did decide to do so, there would probably be no need for the agency in any event. But, once the objectives of policy have been defined, those objectives must be converted into specific programmes with targets. The right mix of agencies will develop if coherent policy objectives and programmes are clearly set out. However, if they are not, just having a plethora of agencies—as we have now—would merely confuse the issue. That is certainly what is happening at present.
I have felt for a long time—and I should emphasise from the Dispatch Box that this is a purely personal view; it does not represent my party's policy—that there is perhaps a need for a department of the rural environment or a department of rural affairs which would bring together MAFF and the various government agencies concerned with the rural environment—for example, the Countryside Commission, the Rural Development Commission, English Nature and so on. We are continually told that it is farmers who look after the countryside. It would, therefore, seem to be sensible for their sponsoring department to have an involvement in the care of the countryside.
I should say at once that correct organisation building is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition. All the organisational structures in the world will not 1648 help if the policies are not right in the first place. It was more than six years ago that I worked with the late Brynmor John, who was the Opposition spokesman on agriculture in another place. We produced a fairly substantial discussion document entitled, Towards a New Agriculture: A Labour View. I should emphasise that that was not a party document; it was intended to stimulate discussion. However, we carried out a good deal of work at that time on the idea of a department of rural affairs. We came to the conclusion that if we are to solve the deeply embedded problems of the rural economy and sustain in being the rural communities where people both live and work, our policies must be coherent in all those respects. The present structure of government, far from fostering a coherent approach to rural policy, leads, at best, to piecemeal tinkering and at worst to an exacerbation of conflict.
Of the many changes that are needed in the longer term there is one that we singled out—namely, the creation at national level of a department of rural affairs. Only if government can match the right administrative structure at national and local level with the right policies and the right resources will the future of our rural communities be assured. But it will take more than that; it will take the creativity and the energies of rural people. They have the clearest sense of their needs and problems. It is through their active involvement that a solution to those problems will be found.
§ 8.23 p.m.
My Lords, we have had a fascinating and wide-ranging debate; indeed, that is what one would expect in this House on a subject as dear to all our hearts as the well-being of the countryside. Like other noble Lords, I would like to express my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Middleton for enabling us to paint a picture of those important issues with the benefit of such a broad canvas.
It is, I think, appropriate that I should focus my closing remarks on the major influence which agriculture has on the countryside. Farmers are surely the starting point in any such debate. The policies which the Government have in place to support the farming industry are of critical importance when we consider the impact which agricultural practices can have on our landscapes, on the wildlife interest of our countryside and on the state of our rural economy.
The agreement reached this time last year on reform of the CAP represented a major step forward in its development. The significant cuts agreed in support prices should bring internal prices closer to those of the world market, thus helping to improve trade relations, while reduced access to intervention will help to improve the market orientation of the CAP. The recognition, for the first time, of the importance of environmental considerations in formulating agricultural policy was a particularly welcome development, and one for which the UK had long argued.
The support payments to farmers under the CAP do, of course, play an important part in enabling them to care for the countryside. I believe that one could argue that a high proportion of farm subsidies benefit 1649 the environment either directly or indirectly. We should always remember that farmers are responsible for the management of the great majority of our countryside: some 80 per cent. of the land is farmed and a further 10 per cent. is under forestry. I cannot help thinking of the words of Rudyard Kipling:Our England is a garden and such gardens are not made by singing '0 how beautiful' and sitting in the shade".Today's countryside is very much the creation of generations of farmers working and caring for the land. It is the responsibility of the current generation to reconcile the demand for efficiently produced food with the sometimes opposing demand for the countryside to be protected and cared for.
It is also the responsibility of the Government to balance the encouragement of efficient agriculture with the interests of those who live in the countryside, who enjoy it and who wish to see it conserved. I should tell the noble Lord, Lord Williams, that primary legislation is simply one tool; there are others. We have successfully pressed in Brussels for environmental objectives to be made integral to the CAP. We have already made progress with the hill livestock compensatory allowances (HLCA) scheme in which environmentally damaging overgrazing is discouraged. The recent agreement on the 1993 price package takes us a stage further along that road. We plan to follow up the "greening" of the HLCAs by incorporating similar measures of environmental protection into other livestock support payments. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, also mentioned set-aside. We have included a range of environmental safeguards in the set-aside management rules. Moreover, to answer the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, set-aside payments are conditional upon those management rules being adhered to. Set-aside is certainly not our idea of an ideal policy but we have to make the most of it. We have, therefore, been very encouraged by the wide support that we have had for our proposals for exploiting its potential, and particularly its environmental potential.
The noble Baroness, Lady Robson, said that 20-year set-aside should be shaped by environmental considerations. I entirely agree. We have issued proposals to use 20-year set-aside to create or improve a range of important wildlife habitats. It is an environmentally led scheme. The Government will continue to press for the incorporation of appropriate measures of environmental protection into agricultural support schemes.
§ Lord Williams of Elvel
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Earl so early in his speech. However, as it is an untimed debate we are not restricted by time. Has the noble Earl now left the set-aside problem, or will he return to it? I believe that he said that set-aside was environmentally driven. It seems to me that the arguments of the CPRE and others that set-aside is actually environmentally destructive should be taken account of in the noble Earl's response.
My Lords, I said that the 20-year set-aside scheme under the agri-environment programme is environmentally led. We are targeting that particular scheme—and of course that is quite distinct from rotational and non-rotational set-aside —on potential wetland habitats and river fringes which have particular environmental value.
The Government also offer economic incentives to encourage farmers to manage their land in a way that delivers particular environmental benefits. We have just completed a wide-ranging consultation on proposals to extend our environmental management payments more widely, including, as the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, mentioned, the expansion of the environmentally sensitive areas scheme to cover additional areas. ESAs have been acclaimed by farmers and environmentalists alike and are an excellent example of how environmental benefits can be achieved by working with farmers. From the Lake District, to the South Downs and to Exmoor, the scheme currently covers some 800,000 hectares in England alone and we propose to extend it to over 1.1 million hectares. The Government also propose major increases in the area covered by environmentally sensitive areas in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Four weeks ago I explained to the House that we also wish to introduce some entirely new schemes. We have issued proposals for a moorland scheme and habitat improvement scheme which are aimed respectively at enhancing the nature conservation value of moorland and, as I have just mentioned, creating and extending valuable wildlife resources such as saltmarsh. Environmental requirements are also included in our proposed new organic aid scheme, while our proposals to create new opportunities for public access on land in environmentally sensitive areas and in set-aside offer an important new element which will encourage public enjoyment of the countryside. This is a major package of new voluntary measures which has been designed to protect and enhance wildlife, habitats and natural resources; to conserve and enhance our most attractive landscapes and to promote new opportunities for enjoyment of the countryside by the public.
The importance that the Government attach to such environmental incentives is reflected in our sharply increasing expenditure on them. In all, annual expenditure on environmental incentive schemes sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture and Department of the Environment is planned to rise to over £120 million by 1995–96—and that is in England alone.
My noble friend Lord Middleton and other noble Lords have suggested that there is a case for rationalisation of the measures designed to encourage environmentally benign farming. There are several aspects to this question. First, the number of national environmental schemes quite simply reflects the fact that we have a number of environmental objectives. Minimising nitrate leaching requires a different approach and different incentives from improving the conditions of heather moorland. Of course we could merge the main schemes into one jumbo scheme and 1651 produce a jumbo application form, but I doubt if anyone would thank us for that. What we have done instead is to ensure that advice is available to guide farmers and landowners on the options open to them, and we have published free material which describes the main schemes and grants in a convenient way for farmers. In particular, we have issued a booklet entitled Conservation Grants for Farmers. I have a copy with me.
Secondly, we need to remind ourselves that this is an area where policy is developing, and it is important to be able to try out new approaches—for which I make no apology. I should also like to stress that we have been at great pains to ensure that all government schemes are complementary. The Government work very closely with their statutory conservation agencies, such as the Countryside Commission and English Nature, to achieve this. I know the picture can be complicated for farmers faced with local authority or National Park schemes in addition to the national ones, but this, I suggest, is a necessary element of diversity. Local schemes can and do usefully supplement national provisions with grants geared to more local concerns. However, I can assure noble Lords that the Government will continue to be alert to opportunities for rationalisation and simplification, particularly in the way that schemes are delivered.
As the noble Lord, Lord Williams, rightly said, the Government's role is not to stop change or to seek to preserve a particular pattern of production regardless of economic forces but to ensure that change takes place in a way which minimises the negative effects but allows society as a whole to benefit from the improvements. That is what we have been striving to achieve in this country. In 1988 we introduced the ALURE (Alternative Land Use and Rural Enterprise) package which provides assistance for farm-based forestry and pump priming finance to encourage farmers to look beyond agricultural production and diversify their businesses.
Diversification is not a realistic option for every farmer, but it has been a great success and now nearly half of all the farmers in the country have some form of diversified business. We were therefore able to withdraw the special support of grant aid for farm diversification this year while continuing to support farmers in their efforts to diversify by working with local authorities and other countryside agencies to ensure that strategies are in place to support diversification and that planners are fully aware of the need for appropriate economic development to take place in the countryside. In particular, my department has been working closely with the Rural Development Commission in England in its countryside employment programme areas which are specifically targeted at integrated development in three pilot areas which are particularly susceptible to problems arising out of agricultural restructuring. In this context, I wish to associate myself with many of the points made by my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth.
My noble friend Lord Middleton and other noble Lords commended the idea of a department of rural affairs. Ultimately, the creation of any new department is a matter for my right honourable friend 1652 the Prime Minister. My noble friend's proposal for a Ministry of rural affairs could cover a wide range of subjects which are currently the responsibility of several departments. His suggestion is one which the Government have examined from time to time over the past few years; but our view continues to be that the present arrangements are working satisfactorily.
The noble Earl, Lord Spencer, gave us a sparkling maiden speech full of wisdom and good sense. I join other noble Lords in congratulating him upon it. I share his enthusiasm for encouraging landowners to open up parts of the countryside for public enjoyment. I hope we shall hear him and see him often in this House. I express the same hope to my noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard who spoke with obvious authority on issues which are close to the hearts of many of your Lordships.
The noble Lord, Lord Geraint, gave us a thoughtful speech drawn from personal experience. If he is as good a farmer as he is a politician, he must indeed be a successful man. I shall be glad to look into his suggestion that an auctioneer should sit on the Meat and Livestock Commission. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked about government plans on promised legislation. We are keen to legislate in several areas as soon as possible. However, as I said earlier, legislation is not the only way in which our policies can be furthered. The noble Lord mentioned the implementation of the habitats directive, as indeed did the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol. I can assure them that the Government will be issuing proposals for implementing the directive shortly, and there will be widespread consultation before regulations are introduced.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, asked about the monitoring arrangements for development plans in the Government's guidance document PPG7. Both the Department of the Environment and the Welsh Office scrutinise local authorities' development plans to ensure that government guidance on planning policies is properly reflected in them. Several noble Lords including the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, spoke about designations of land with no statutory basis. I recognise the anxiety over the proliferation of non-statutory designations by local planning authorities. Such designations enable local planning authorities to take account of local landscape, wildlife and archaeological benefits in taking planning decisions. However, PPG7 makes clear that planning authorities must encourage rural development and in doing so they must strike a proper balance between conservation and economic interests.
It is important therefore that excessive and unjustified use is not made of non-statutory designations in order to place unnecessary barriers in the way of rural development proposals. We will be looking for opportunities to emphasise this point with planning authorities. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, suggested that the natural areas recently launched by English Nature are a new designation with which farmers will have to grapple, and that they may not succeed. These are an English Nature initiative 1653 intended to help it develop its nature conservation work. They are not statutory designations which constrain farmers in any way.
The noble Baroness also asked about the possibility of a framework or strategy for environmental policies. The Government have set down the policy framework in the 1990 White Paper This Common Inheritance. The responsible government departments and agencies work closely together to achieve a co-ordinated approach. I would reassure the noble Baroness that our policies and the framework are kept under review.
The noble Lord, Lord Barber of Tewkesbury, referred to the work of English Nature and the Countryside Commission as separate agencies. If I understood him aright, he expressed the wish that they be kept separate. The Government explained in their White Paper This Common Inheritance that the greater size and complexity of agencies in England would make an effective merger more difficult to achieve than in Scotland and Wales. Moreover, the more sparsely populated areas of Scotland and Wales lend themselves more readily to an integrated approach. In England the relatively intense pressures make it more appropriate, for the time being at least, to retain separate organisations, collaborating with each other where necessary.
My noble friend Lord Kimball, while making some important points, also sounded a somewhat individual note. He referred to a laissez-faire conservation policy. The Government's conservation policy is not laissez-faire; it is both carefully tailored and prescriptive. We need both regulation and incentives to encourage beneficial management to protect wildlife. The fact is that there is great concern among naturalists and the general public that intensive farming methods are putting diversity of flora and fauna at risk. There have been significant losses of wildlife habitats and species, and the steps that the Government have taken to restore such losses, where practicable, and to encourage sympathetic management of those which remain have been widely welcomed by landowners, conservationists and the general public.
The bureaucracy to which my noble friend referred is accountable. MAFF and the DoE consult widely on their initiatives, not just with environmental groups, and Parliament debates them.
My noble friend Lord Kimball referred in particular to avian predation. Although the populations of certain birds of prey have recovered, I am not aware of any evidence that populations have reached the levels where there is a significant problem for agricultural production which would require the Government to consider exceptional action. On the other hand, if my noble friend has any such evidence I would be happy to consider the case.
The noble Lord, Lord Barber, argued cogently against supply controls. I take issue with him in so far as he referred to purely voluntary schemes. It is no secret that the UK has consistently argued for gradual price cuts and against compulsory supply controls as a means of containing the CAP and bringing agriculture nearer to the free market. However, I 1654 suggest that that does not cut across our belief in soundly based and carefully tailored voluntary schemes to encourage the enhancement of wildlife habitats, the conservation of landscape features and floral diversity. I was heartened by the comments of my noble friend Lord Swinton in that vein.
The noble Lord, Lord Barber, also referred to pesticides. The Government's policy is not unnecessarily to discourage all use of pesticides but to ensure that pesticide use is limited to the minimum necessary for the effective control of pests compatible with the protection of health and the environment.
The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, raised the subject of rural crime, as did the noble Earl, Lord Macclesfield. The incidence of rural crime appears to be rising. However, rural areas still have the lowest levels of crime per capita. I recognise the specific problems faced by rural communities—hare coursing, vandalism and new age travellers have been mentioned. The police response to rural crime focuses on a partnership approach, liaising with the community by means of multi-agency schemes. In addition, the Government announced in March their intention to bring forward measures which will extend the range of criminal offences for aggravated trespass and illegal camping. Those will help to combat the raves of which my noble friend spoke. That will undoubtedly also be welcomed by my noble friend Lord Annaly.
My noble friend specifically asked about legislation to deal with hunt saboteurs. The Home Office is taking a further look at the legislation in that area to see whether any more can be done to reduce the hindrance of lawful activities.
My noble friend Lord Mancroft referred to the National Trust report on Exmoor and in particular to deer management. I am aware that deer in the Exmoor area, and indeed in other parts of the country, can and do cause serious damage to farmland by breaching stock-proof fences, allowing livestock to stray, and by grazing early bite grass intended for sheep. The Deer Act 1991 permits the daylight shooting of deer outside a close season in order to prevent or reduce damage. Recommendation 1a of the report to which my noble friend referred calls for legislative action to underpin the formation of management groups. That would require landowners to take action against deer as part of a group initiative. Further legislation on deer would not, I believe, sit well with the current climate of deregulation and would put us in the very difficult position of forcing animal welfare agencies to cull deer on their land, with all that that would entail. The Ministry's policy is to encourage the formation of deer management groups on a voluntary basis.
My noble friend asked what was the Government's view on deer sanctuaries. The Government have long recognised the need for careful intervention in specially designated areas to safeguard endangered species. Without such action the diversity of our wildlife would be diminished, possibly irreversibly. If possible, nature should be enabled to maintain its own balance between species, but an unnatural intervention as described by my noble friend can do more harm than good to wildlife in the areas.
1655 My noble friend Lord Marlesford made a wide-ranging speech. I apologise to him for not answering all the points that he made: I am running out of time. He referred to new housing developments in the countryside. Since the mid-1980s we have gained considerable experience of planning proposals for new settlements, by which I mean substantial stand-alone villages and small towns. Those proposals have almost invariably been deeply controversial. In the light of experience my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has taken the view that a proposal for such a settlement should normally be contemplated only in very particular circumstances, including adherence to local wishes, the prospect of positive environmental improvements and the requirement that it does not fall within a green belt, national park, SSSI etc.
My noble friend Lord Marlesford asked about the EC and town and country planning. Town and country planning is specifically recognised by the Community as a matter of national concern, but member states are required so to order their planning policies as to fulfil the requirements of EC law.
The noble Baroness, Lady Robson, referred to the need for affordable housing in rural communities, with which I fully concur. The Housing Corporation has a special rural programme for villages of below 3,000 in population, with 60 per cent. of funds for villages of fewer than 1,000 inhabitants. That programme is running very successfully and we are monitoring it closely.
The noble Baroness also asked about the reorganisation of local government and strategic planning. Strategic (structure) planning is a matter to which the Local Government Commission has been asked to give specific attention in making its recommendations. The Government will ensure that strategic planning is properly catered for in the pattern of reorganised authorities.
The right reverend Prelate and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, raised the matter of suicides. The question of farmer suicides is a very sad one but, sadder still, it is not a new problem. Farmer suicide rates have been high for a long time, as have rates for other rural occupational groups such as forestry workers or veterinarians, who have suicide rates twice as high as farmers. My department and the Department of Health are co-operating closely on this issue, and the Government have given £20,000 to a project aimed at identifying needs and dealing with the special problems of delivering mental health services in rural areas. The Department of Health is supporting a campaign called Rural Outreach run by the Samaritans. My own department is providing free business advice through ADAS to farmers on referral from the Samaritans or social services.
If the House will allow me, it is right that, like my noble friends Lord Middleton and Lord Addison and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, I should also mention that other major land use in the countryside, forestry. Forestry can play an important role in meeting a wide range of environmental, economic and rural objectives in rural areas. There is widespread agreement on the need to achieve increased woodland cover. Cover in 1656 England is just 7 per cent. of the total land area, far less than that of almost all our European partners, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, pointed out.
In September 1991 a statement published by the Forestry Commission on behalf of forestry Ministers set out the broad policy framework for afforestation. We want to achieve a steady expansion in the nation's tree cover and a sustainable management of our forestry plantations for multipurpose use. That policy is one which the Government stand by firmly. Yesterday saw a further important statement when the Government published the Command Paper, Forestry and the Environment, giving their response to a report on the topic in another place.
In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, perhaps I may say this. Since 1979 we have seen nearly ⅓ million hectares of new planting in Great Britain. In relation to our land area we have done more to build up our forestry area than almost any other country in the world. The Forestry Commission, and private sector planting, including restocking, was well over 30,000 hectares for the year to 31st March 1992. That was close to the average of the previous 20 years. I see no need to be pessimistic about future prospects for forestry.
The British countryside is one of our great national treasures and we owe a duty to future generations to care for it as our predecessors cared for it. The Government's commitment is clear: through guidance, through environmental protection measures and through financial incentives we assist farmers and other land managers to care for the countryside for the benefit of those who live and work there as well as for the benefit of those who visit it. The money spent on our environmental schemes is money well spent. I have been heartened by what I have heard today, and while time has prevented me from responding to every point made, a great deal of what has been said will undoubtedly be helpful in informing our policy-making over the months ahead as our countryside schemes are developed and refined.
§ 8.52 p.m.
§ Lord Middleton
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and add my congratulations to the two noble Lords who made their maiden speeches. I was grateful for the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, for the idea of a single strategy for the countryside. It was reinforced by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. He referred to the idea—to which I referred—for a ministry of rural affairs. Not wholly unexpectedly, my noble friend Lord Howe was not keen on it.
The noble Lord, Lord Williams, chided me gently for taking a rather narrow view. However, it is a wide subject. In opening I indicated that I would leave others to discuss the economy of the countryside. That has been done by noble Lords, notably by my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth and by the noble Lord, Lord Carter.
I am grateful for what has been said by the two Ministers. If he will forgive me for saying so—I believe that my noble friend Lord Stanley agrees with me—I thought that my noble friend Lord Strathclyde 1657 painted a rather over-optimistic picture of rural prosperity. He spoke in glowing terms of the well-being of certain bats, birds and flowers; and what countryman can fail to rejoice in that? However, I fear that that happy state of nature is not matched by the well-being of some humans who have to earn their living in the countryside.
The noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, spoke of improvement in rural job opportunities. There is certainly room for improvement. There remains a 1658 great shortage of affordable rural houses. That was referred to by my noble friend Lord Marlesford. However, no one who saw the television film made by the noble Duke, the Duke of Westminster—it was shown last week—could fail to contrast that with the rosy view which appears to illuminate the DoE. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
§ House adjourned at six minutes before nine o'clock.