Agricultural Land

– in the House of Commons at 11:39 pm on 1st July 1981.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Boscawen.]

Photo of Mr Nicholas Baker Mr Nicholas Baker , North Dorset 11:55 pm, 1st July 1981

I am grateful for the opportunity to draw to the attention of this full House the serious way in which the fundamental nature of the United Kingdom is being changed. The change is taking place without any consideration in the House, without any deliberate decisions to that end being taken by Ministers or local authorities, and without any notice being taken of the change. If asked about it I am sure that the majority of people would deplore the change.

If it were allowed to continue, the changed state of our country would be lamented by all. I expect that future Governments would drive parliamentary draftsmen to concoct batteries of laws to reverse the process. They would, of course, be too late. The damage would have been done.

I refer to the continuing loss of agricultural land in the United Kingdom. It has been disappearing at an alarming rate. No one living in the county of Dorset could be unaware of the pressures upon farmers to increase production from their land, of the pressures upon nature and wildlife, and of the continuing movement of people from urban to rural areas to live and to work. That is marked this week by the 1981 census returns. There is increasing conflict between those who work and those who would enjoy oar countryside. The cost of such pressures is the disappearance of our countryside itself and the steady and irreversible loss of agricultural land.

I therefore tabled a parliamentary question. The reply was disturbing. I was told: precise figures are not available. We are talking of the disappearance of the major ingredient of our precious environment and yet neither my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary nor the Minister of Agriculture have precise figures.

I put it to my hon. Friend that the lack of information will not do. I urged the Minister to take steps to obtain and maintain an accurate account of our disappearing environment. Such figures as have been published suggest a picture that is alarming. In the reply I was told: It is estimated…that in the five years to 1979 the average annual loss was about 100,000 acres, of which 30,000 acres a year were taken for urban development."—[Official Report, 4 March 1981; Vol. 1000, c. 143.] That is a staggering figure. On that basis a chunk of agricultural land the size of Dorset disappears every six and a half years. If that continues our grandchildren will be lucky to see green fields, let alone walk around them.

I shall describe the effects of this process before putting forward some points for action. The loss, of course, directly affects agriculture itself. Our farmers are forced to use concentrated farming methods and to develop factory methods for food production. The shrinkage of the main natural asset, the land on which to farm, makes competition from larger and less heavily populated countries of the EEC and the United States fiercer year by year. The scarcity of land pushes the price higher, and the difficulties of financing and purchasing a valuable asset radically change the ability of small and, by international standards, efficient farmers to continue in business, much less to enter into farming from outside.

As a result, farmers are pressed to cultivate land that would not be so used in other Western industrial countries. The effect of that process is only too apparent on the nature and wildlife of our countryside. The need to maximise profitable cultivation to the last square inch is directly responsible for the loss of hedgerows, the use of chemicals to attack vermin and encourage crops, and the ploughing up of heathland and areas of importance in the natural life of the countryside.

In my constituency precious hedgerows have been lost, although we boast of a farm that has set a national example of how efficient farming and conservation can go hand in hand.

My hon. Friend hardly needs me to explain to him the pressures on our countryside to which the passage of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill bears witness. The Government have shown their concern for the countryside in introducing the Bill, and some important steps forward in protecting both wildlife and the countryside are embodied in it. It is also true that expectations on the part of conservationists have been aroused by the Bill—expectations that were in no one's power to satisfy without a massive injection of public finance. I do not seek to extend that debate now.

The disappearance of agricultural land has brought the farming community into direct conflict with the interests of those who enjoy the countryside. Now that each corner is harrowed and tilled into greater productivity, the old easy relationship between farmer and rambler has gone. Long wrangles over rights of way and footpaths are now commonplace. The fertilised countryside is not the peaceful area that it once was.

The countryside provides three-quarters of our food and a way of life for those who work on the land, but it is, or ought to be, the open and untramelled space that balances the congested environment of city life, in which 90 per cent. of the population live. Yet in the South of England—other than on the moors of the South-West—there is now no longer any countryside that could be described as wild and remote.

Given that there is a serious problem, I wish to put several matters to my hon. Friend. First, the Government's policies set out in the White Paper "Farming and the Nation" to protect agricultural land and to give high priority to protecting the countryside are excellent. However, I doubt that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food takes that matter as seriously as it should. The Ministry has a close and important responsibility to the farming community and for the production of food, but it should concern itself with the nature and quality of agriculture and of its prime raw material and capital base—itself.

There is more at stake. The Ministry should interest itself in the diminishing of our land base as well as the wild, rough and marginal land that is also disappearing.

Secondly, our planning will have to be more determined in its approach. The Secretary of State's strong words about the defence of green belt land are reassuring, but that line is not always held. As long as developers feel that eventually they will be able to develop green belt land they will buy and keep the land against the day when the local authority acts with too little faith, ministerial resolve gives way, and one more breach of the principle turns back the land in the face on oncoming concrete. I am not arguing in favour of land management as an instrument of planning legislation. I am arguing for resolution and the will to defend our countryside.

I have already discussed with my hon. Friend the use of areas of outstanding natural beauty. As he knows, I am unimpressed by the added bureaucracy and toothless designation that attaches to that planning feature. I am more concerned that the 75 per cent. of the land area not covered by this or any similar designation may be undervalued, demoted or regarded as expendable by comparison. In other words, I feel that all agricultural land should be regarded as special for planning purposes.

Thirdly, we must see that development, both industrial and residential, takes place in future to a much greater degree within developed areas. No one looking at the wasted areas of Peckham, in South London, and the abysmal under-use and misuse of precious acres there and in too many parts of inner cities throughout the country, could seriously query that opportunities for housing, factories and offices in city centres and developed areas existed right in front of our eyes. For it is the despoliation of the inner city that ultimately promotes the disappearance of agricultural land.

I welcome the business enterprise zones of my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I applaud the registers of wasted and unused land in cities, of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. My right hon. Friend has announced already that there are no fewer than 15,000 acres of this wasted land in 27 sites. It is clear that the Government now realise the importance of regenerating inner city areas, and I welcome that. I hope, too, that the cult of the hypermarket in rural areas will receive no support from the Department.

Fourthly, I hope that the passion for more and larger roads is now abated. There is a good case for developing our rail system and encouraging it to unshackle itself from the overmanned, inefficient and uncompetitive past. Motorways and spaghetti junctions are the spoilers of agricultural land.

Fifthly, I should like to see the House take great cognisance of this important matter. It seems to me so often that, through weight and population, hon. Members speak as though Britain consisted already of cities, suburbs and parkland. This is not the case, and I dare to hope that it will never be. I have suggested before that Acts of Parliament and statutory instruments should show in their explanatory memoranda the numbers of acres of agricultural land or countryside likely to be recovered or lost— more likely—as a result of the provisions of the Bill or regulations. This is a small matter, but one way in which the Department could concentrate the. parliamentary mind upon the consequences of legislation brought before the House.

I am asking for a new attitude in the country as a whole towards the protection of agricultural land. I make no secret of the fact that I want to have my environmental cake and to eat it, too. We want a sophisticated and efficient economy, and we want to retain our priceless invironment. I applaud the decision of the Secretary of State about the Belvoir land. What we want means that our industry and commerce have to be more than normally efficient and more than usually productive.

I do not shrink from the conclusion that there is a price to be paid for restricting development and costs involved in saving agricultural land. I shall listen with interest to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine):

Has the hon. Member the permission of the Minister and of the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker)?

Photo of Viscount  Cranborne Viscount Cranborne , South Dorset

I have, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour, the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) for a brief moment of the time allocated to him. The House owes him a great debt of gratitude for raising this important topic, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will realise that there are many right hon. and hon. Members who feel strongly that my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North has raised a matter which has been far too much neglected in our debates over past years.

I look forward to the possibility of the Under-Secretary being able to give the House more specific figures about the derelict land lying within our developed areas up and down the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North referred to a figure of 15,000 acres. I am informed that it is much greater than that.

My hon. Friend asked for a number of assurances. I hope that they will be forthcoming and that we shall be able to rely on the Government to apply the planning laws rigorously, so that we can expect those derelict acres to be developed before there is any further despoliation of land of the kind to which my hon. Friend drew attention.

Photo of Mr Giles Shaw Mr Giles Shaw , Pudsey

I have no doubt that the matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker), and endorsed by his neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Cranborne), is of great importance. I hope to be able to persuade him that the Department in which I have the honour to serve takes a considerable interest in this problem and seeks to do its best to ensure that we are not just wholesale despoilers of what he rightly records as our natural and national heritage.

I take issue with my hon. Friend's opening remarks, in which he suggested that the landscape of the United Kingdom was being changed without anyone really being aware of the extent of the change. On reflection, he will recall that the degree to which the public are involved in the planning process means that the opportunity is given for examination, objection and counter-proposal. If it is any encouragement to my hon. Friend, I can tell him that those of us who work in the Department are well aware of the frequent lashings upon our backs by our colleagues and friends in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

My hon. Friend rightly asks what are the policies, figures and facts of the consumption of land for development. Our planning policy for agricultural land is clear. Our objective must be to guard against all unnecessary losses of agricultural land. First, we have to ensure that only the minimum amount of agricultural land is taken for development. The most effective way of doing that is to bring unused land in urban areas back into circulation. I have coined the phrase recently that we must recycle our cities. That is what we are now embarked upon, so I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks.

The answer to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South is that our estimate of derelict, waste or dormant land in urban areas is about 250,000 acres. That represents the target, the challenge. We shall see what we can do to respond to that challenge in the way that my hon. Friend wishes.

We must also make sure that the amount of land taken is no greater than is reasonably required to carry out to the proper standards the development that may be permitted. We should never take better quality agricultural land when land of lesser quality would he just as effective.

Those may be regarded as the right policies. However, we should remember that we live on a small land mass. Land is scarce, and we must avoid using it prodigally, without sufficient regard to the future. The loss of agricultural land can he placed in perspective. Over three-quarters of the land in the United Kingdom is in agricultural use, with nearly one-sixth in forestry, woodland or similar use. Less than one-tenth is urban land, and that includes the network of transport and small villages which, as both my hon. Friends suggested, are the sinews of rural life. We must remember that less than one-tenth of our land mass is in the urban areas.

I come to the statistics. My hon. Friend was rightly critical of us for failing to provide, in answer to his question on 8 March, as detailed an answer as he would have wished. However, there is some background to the matter that I hope that he will find of interest.

The most reliable source of information on the loss of agricultural land is the annual census conducted by Agriculture Departments. Even this is not considered reliable on a yearly basis, but averages over five years are thought to give reasonably accurate assessments.

Farmers return both the total amounts of land in agricultural use and the amounts of land disposed of for urban or other development. The first gives estimates of the overall net loss of land to agriculture. The second includes disposal of land for housing, roads, industry, mineral working and recreation and all the other uses to which my hon. Friend referred. The figures have been found to be reasonably consistent with other less regular sources of information.

Estimates of agricultural land going to forestry and private woodlands and of movements to and from Government land holdings in those industries are also available. Nevertheless, even when those changes are taken into account, there remains a residual figure of loss of land that cannot be accounted for at present. There are several explanations. There have been changes in the definition of agricultural land holdings included in the census, and the nature of the land uses farmers have been asked to include in their returns. Other explanations include the growth of uses such as temporary grazing for riding ponies—popularly known as "horseyculture"—and land which simply goes out of agricultural use, either because it is marginal—my hon. Friend rightly referred to that—or in anticipation of another use, possibly development.

My hon. Friend referred to the answer that I gave him in March. I said that the loss was about 100,000 acres, with 30,000 acres of that being taken for urban development. Forestry and private woodlands took about 50,000 acres, mainly on marginal agricultural land in Scotland. and 20,000 acres were the residual not accounted for—not because we did not wish to find out about them but simply because the mechanisms that we employed could not pick up the loss of land.

I have the latest estimates for the five years up to 1980. My hon. Friend suggested that we were involved in a never-ending process of digestion of good agricultural land which somehow would eventually submerge what was left of the agriculture industry—of which he is so formidable a representative. The estimates show a similar pattern, with slight reductions in both the overall loss of agricultural land and in the land lost to urban development. I can give my hon. Friend some encouragement. Recent estimates seem to reflect a downward trend in the loss of agricultural land.

The average annual loss to urban development in the post-war period, following the introduction of the present town and country planning system, has been only 60 per cent. of that experienced before the war. I can illustrate that by reference to estimates in England and Wales, where the effect of the use of marginal land for forestry and woodland is less marked. The loss of agricultural land to urban development in England and Wales peaked in the post-war period in the five years between 1963 and 1968, when 45,000 acres were lost annually to urban development alone.

That compares with about 53,000 acres lost each year to agriculture for all purposes. Since that time the land lost to urban development has declined steadily, to an annual average loss of 40,000 acres in the five years up to 1976, and 23,000 acres in the five years up to 1980. The most recent single-year figures are well below that level, suggesting that the annual average loss over the five-year period can be expected to continue to fall. Those estimates indicate that the recent losses of agricultural land for urban development have been at their lowest level in the postwar period.

That is the background to the statistical performance. I accept that any loss of high quality agricultural land can be entertained only if the policies for it are fully argued and found to be persuasive. The absolute figure and the absolute take of land for development show a steady decline, which I hope will be encouraging to my hon. Friend.

The figures suggest that the town and country planning system may have had some success in dampening down some of the less essential demands on agricultural land. I am hound to say, however, that economic forces will also have played their part in reducing demand at the present time.

It would be unrealistic to think that we could put a stop to all losses of agricultural land. There is no possibility of meeting all our needs for new factories, new houses and other essential developments without taking some land from agriculture. The structure plans that we have put in hand in most areas set the pattern for the future use of land. I suggest that they are an important guide in setting out area by area the way in which land should be used and the purposes for which it should be used.

These plans include policies for landscape and nature conservation. My hon. Friend referred, for example, to areas of natural beauty where some restraint on development is expected. In England and Wales, 9 per cent., or about 3·5 million arcres, of the land surface is designated as national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty—green belts cover a similar area—adding up to 28 per cent. of the total area. High-quality agricultural land in grades 1 and 2 account for 15 per cent. of England and Wales, or over 5 million acres. Grade 3 land, which is also afforded protection where lower quality land can reasonably be made available for development, is more extensive, for obvious reasons, covering about 40 per cent. of the area, or about 15 million acres. These figures provide the broad gradations of agricultural land and indicate how they relate to the total land mass taken for development.

General policies and plans, no matter how clear and firm, are not in themselves enough. My hon. Friend has rightly said that we need to see an attitude of mind that will seek to alter the view that land is available for the taking, whatever class of development might be involved. Many fundamental planning policies are now available and they themselves quite often potentially conflict with one another. For instance, planning is concerned with the conservation of habitats and protection from the pressure of agricultural use. My hon. Friend referred to agricultural practices such as the use of pesticides and the rooting up of hedgerows. Equally, there is a conflict between preserving good-quality agricultural land and the pressures of urban development. That must be conceded. There is also a conflict in terms of promoting industrial, commercial, housing and other development important to the economic and social life of the country, some of which must occur in rural areas, too.

These objectives cannot always be simultaneously achieved by any general rule. Each site is to some extent unique and each example of pressure on the use of a site is also unique. Therefore, each case has to be considered on its merits.

Most proposals for development are resolved locally without undue difficulty. I have already referred to the planning system, which is designed to bring out the arguments in favour of or against the development of certain parcels of land. There is no doubt that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is extremely vigilant in observing the planning scene and in stating its case when it has the opportunity to do so. When the proposed development of agricultural land, or former agricultural land, of 10 acres or more is not in accordance with the provisions of a development plan, the local planning authority is obliged to seek the views of the Ministry of Agriculture and to take those views into account in reaching a decision.

Only the most difficult cases, presenting borderline judgments or clear conflicts between national and local interests, will be called in for the Secretary of State to determine. This filtering of cases, in which the Ministry of Agriculture is an active participant, is a particular strength of our planning system. I commend the Ministry to my hon. Friends for its vigilance and for the degree to which it seeks to protect the loss of agricultural land, which so clearly concerns my hon. Friends.

The key to reducing the loss of agricultural land does not necessarily lie in putting further obstacles in the path of essential development. The key has to be in the effort to ensure that we use the land already in our urban areas more effectively. On that my hon. Friends and I clearly agree. I have already given my hon. Friend estimates of urban land which is waste. We do not need to have precise statistics to know that the amount available demands action. We have taken action at the root of the problem. As my hon. Friends know, urban development corporations have been established. Indeed, we were discussing one earlier this evening. We have also established enterprise zones and land registers. Land registers are one of the most potent weapons that we shall use.

The root of the problem with unused land in our cities is to ensure that it comes forward for development. We know that firms search locally for such sites before they are forced by a lack of suitable land to look elsewhere. Where suitable land has been put on the market it has been taken up. For example, land that has been made available in Birmingham and Liverpool has been successfully developed for private housing.

A first step towards getting unused or under-used sites into productive use is to identify them. That is why we have designated 33 districts in England as areas where registers of land of this sort are to be prepared and made public. I understand that 27 have already published their returns. The returns reveal 1,640 sites, representing 15,249 acres, as a start. However, this must be set against the background of 250,000 acres, which, as I said, is the total availability of land of this sort. A preliminary examination of the first land registers suggests that about one-third of this acreage is suitable for development. This is an encouraging start.

There is another element that my hon. Friends must accept, and that is that mineral working has a major claim upon agricultural land, and frequently that is a rural activity. It is important that where it is possible to do so the land that is taken should be restored to agricultural use. I trust that my hon. Friend will recall that the Town and Country Planning (Minerals) Bill, which received its Third Reading a fortnight ago, gives local authorities the power to impose new and existing—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-five minutes past Twelve o'clock.