I beg to move,
That this House congratulates the Government on bringing forward its Action for the Countryside package of measures to provide for a thriving, living countryside; especially welcomes the extension of Countryside Stewardship to include historic landscapes and meadow and pasture, the new Parish Paths initiative to encourage local action to assist in bringing the rights of way network into good order by the year 2000, the Rural Action scheme to take action on a wide range of local environmental issues and the Hedgerow Incentive scheme to promote improved management of hedgerows; and believes that, together with measures to stimulate the rural economy, and give greater protection to the landscape and wildlife, these initiatives demonstrate the importance the Government attaches to integrating development to sustain rural communities with the conservation of the countryside.
I have had the privilege of winning the ballot for the first time since becoming a Member of the House. Also this week, I have been awarded the great honour and extraordinary privilege of being asked to chair the Opposed Private Bill Committee on the Greater Nottingham Light Rapid Transit Bill. And in the same week my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has announced that the Isle of Wight is to be the very first local authority area in the country to be considered by the Local Government Commission.
Precisely. It can truly be said, not only for the constituents of the Isle of Wight but for their Member, that the time has come.
The choice of subject for this debate for me, with a name such as mine, was obvious. But like all hon. Members, I faced a dilemma. I also had to decide whether to honour a constituency engagement, an invitation from Chale parish council to attend, and speak at, the unveiling ceremony of the refurbished Hoy monument which was erected by Michael Hoy to commemorate the visit of Tsar Alexander I to this country in 1814. Hoy made his fortune trading with St. Petersburg, now thankfully renamed from its previous name of Leningrad. He was a merchant from London who not only erected the 72 ft high monument on St. Catherine's down but who owned the nearby country house known as the Hermitage.
Among the assembled dignitaries at today's ceremony will be His Excellency the Russian ambassador, Mr. Boris Pankin, and I hope that he and the Chale parish councillors, who have worked hard with the National Trust to restore the monument, will forgive me for the dilemma that I faced, which was whether to address His Excellency the Russian ambassador, whose fellow countrymen have realised that socialism has none of the answers and that only free enterprise and capitalism can truly create freedom, choice and prosperity in the countryside, or come to the House today and address the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), an unreconstructed socialist of such principle that even now he has no intention of ameliorating his views or becoming an apologist for the outdated ideologies of state and trade union corporatism.
I wrestled with my conscience: would it be His Excellency Boris Pankin or the last of the commissars from Bolsover? I mean no discourtesy to the Russian people or their ambassador when I say that the genuine article, the hon. Member for Bolsover, won the day.
If the hon. Gentleman will finish his speech and let me get onto the second motion on the Order Paper—"Classless Society"—I will talk about the hypocrisy of the Tory Government and how they have ruined the lives of millions of people by chucking them on the dole queue, about people living in cardboard boxes while the Queen pays no taxes, and about the Prime Minister drawing up citizens charters while three farmers in my constituency have been put out of work because of dioxin, and some go trotting off to Rio. If we can talk about those subjects—the need to build houses, how to end waiting lists in hospitals and stop queue-jumping with tax relief money, how to deal with the spivs in the City and all the rest of it—we shall have one great debate.
Had the hon. Gentleman contained himself for a moment longer, he would have heard me paying a small tribute to him. His presence here today evokes a poignant memory for me.
The last time I attended a debate on a Friday, it was to listen to Ian Gow. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) has chosen this debate to make his maiden speech—pleased because the people of the Isle of Wight share a common cause with the people of Eastbourne. We too were savagely deprived of a much-loved public figure when the IRA murdered our island governor, Lord Louis Mountbatten. It will not escape our attention today that it was this very week that the security services could reveal that Colonel Gaddafi had supplied and trained the very terrorists who assassinated Lord Louis.
It was the Liberal Democrats who mounted such a vociferous protest about the use of American bases in the United Kingdom to bomb Libya. My hon. Friends will realise that it is a special pleasure, particularly as, later on that Friday, Ian Gow spoke at a dinner on the Isle of Wight, to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne how pleased we are that what the bastards and their bombing undid, the ballot box and the burghers of Eastbourne put right in their inestimable wisdom. We look forward to his maiden speech.
You have been most generous, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I have strayed from the motion before us. The Hoy monument stands at the end of one of my favourite walks on the island. From the Pepperpot, which was erected as a penance by Walter Goderton, Lord of the Manor for Chale, for having had a hand in disposing of a shipload of His Holiness the Pope's port—one has a job saying that after the second bottle—which was shipwrecked in Chale bay in 1314, lies one of the most breathtaking views in the kingdom. Here, truly, it is possible to get the impression, in the words of the song, that one is "looking down on creation". The whole of the Isle of Wight is laid out below from the Needles to the Nab tower. That brings me to the island's motto, which is simply, "All this beauty is of God."
Forty per cent. of the Isle of Wight is designated an area of outstanding beauty. Our structure plan tells us that 70 per cent. is used for agriculture. Twenty-seven miles of our coastline are designated heritage coast. We have sites of special scientific interest, including nature reserves, cliffs and the Brading marsh. Other areas are designated as of great landscape value. The Isle of Wight county council and South Wight borough council jointly support the Countryside Recreational Management Commission. That means that expert advice is given on land conservation, such as at Brading down, Bembridge and Culver downs.
I am pleased to note that the newly privatised electricity company is already honouring its commitment to the environment by placing the present overhead cables underground on the top of the down, thereby removing a nasty eyesore that has plagued the skyline for so long. The commission provides advice and help to parish and town councils on managing land in their ownership, such as Afton marsh, and it has built up a good relationship with the National Trust, which owns such a substantial area of the island.
Footpaths and bridleways on the island are probably better signposted than in most areas, and definitely feature as a principal tourist incentive. More recently, routes have been identified as suitable for mountain bikes, and maps have been published, with sponsorship from the retailers of those bicycles.
Schemes already in place include sponsorship for the routine maintenance of lengths of footpath from interested groups and individuals, such as my old school, Bembridge school, which looks after the lengths of coastal path adjacent to the school and those passing through its grounds. Help is already given for the upkeep of footpaths by parishes.
Although the Isle of Wight county council will not participate in the parish paths scheme in its first year, there is already co-operation with some of the parishes with the greatest number of rights of way in their areas. A problem is that the ones with the lowest population, and thus the smallest precepts, cannot always contribute so much, but the larger, older parishes have always accepted some responsibility.
Other work is carried out by conservation volunteers. It includes expertise in fence laying and stone wall rebuilding as well as hedgerow planting. The Isle of Wight has a wealth of heritage and includes the remains of two Roman villas at Brading and Newport. English Heritage is responsible for buildings such as Carisbrooke castle, Appledercombe house and Osborne house. The National Trust is in Mottistone manor, the Needles battery, Newtown town hall—one of the rotten boroughs—plus the surrounding area, and Bembridge windmill.
In the 1970s, the Isle of Wight suffered its first major loss of mature trees through Dutch elm disease. That was followed, shortly after my election, by the hurricane of October 1987. I remember so well receiving a letter from a constituent, the contents of which will ring a bell with many hon. Members. It commenced, "Dear Mr. Field, What are you going to do about the disgusting state of Shanklin pier?" Two nights later, the hurricane came and the pier went. My reputation as a man of action has never looked back. In January 1990, there were subsequent storms. Although there have been on-going replanting programmes, it will be many years before the damaged trees are fully replaced and the native species return, particularly our much-loved English oaks.
Also lost was an unusual species for Great Britain, mimosa trees. They grew locally in streets and private gardens, and flowered delightfully in early spring. Indeed, we lost the one in our front garden. The Isle of Wight is rich in rare species of butterfly and moth. One of my great campaigns has been for the Glanville fritillary, named after Lady Glanville, whose will was disputed by her relatives on the basis that anybody who chased butterflies was clearly not sane enough to have made a will. It is found only on the Isle of Wight.
That is a textbook campaign which shows my new hon. Friends how to ensure that the Department of the Environment sees the error of its ways. That butterfly was missing from the protected species list—a remarkable omission when one considers that the Glanville fritillary is found only on the Isle of Wight.
Is my hon. Friend aware that, for every 100 butterflies found 50 years ago, there is probably only one today? That is a damning indictment of the agricultural and environmental policies of successive Governments over that half-century.
I was at one time on the point of damning the Department of the Environment and English Nature, the successor of the Nature Conservancy Council, for not including the Glanville fritillary on the protected species list. I fought a hard battle, not only against the Department, but against one or two local natural history societies. I tabled a number of questions and entered into correspondence about the Government's policy on licensing the removal of butterflies from their natural habitat. The replies that I received were unsatisfactory, but I managed to persuade ministerial colleagues that the Glanville fritillary should be protected.
On the Isle of Wight the countryside management service has recently commenced an initiative to restore the ancient chalk downlands to their natural state. That will inevitably have a marked effect on the butterfly population which, as my hon. Friend rightly said, is such an important part of the English countryside.
The National Rivers Authority recently recognised the need for the preservation and conservation of wetland regions. When the new sluice gates are constructed between the River Yar and Bembridge harbour, they will ensure that the wetlands, which are the breeding grounds of many rare species of wading birds, will be better protected. I pay tribute to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for the helpful way in which it has assisted both the National Rivers Authority and Isle of Wight county council in the design of the sluices and in the protection of the birds' habitat. I have learnt from the National Rivers Authority that soon—it is even now advertising the post—it will appoint to the island a flood defence superintendent who will live on the island and manage such issues.
Although there are complaints about the lack of verge cutting, conservation has been taken into account in recent years. Many wild flowers are now re-emerging and returning to natural sites.
I know that the motion pertains to the countryside of the United Kingdom, but I hope that I may be allowed to mention the Ventnor botanic gardens and the temperate house, which were opened in 1987. The curator is an interesting man who trained at Kew, where he met his wife. He recently made a point to me that I am sure will ling a bell with my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside, who is fresh from Rio.
The curator said that the politics of botany transcends international politics. He once found himself being taken to one of the islands that was in dispute between Russia and China some years ago when it was a closed military zone. According to the Chinese authorities, it was in order for him to be there as he was in search of a rare plant. Generally, although much divides the House, our knowledge and care of the environment, endangered species, and the future of our globe and countryside brings us together.
I wish to highlight a number of successes as well as pressures relating to the countryside. I can do no better than commence with a quotation from a speech made by Lord Shuttleworth, the chairman of the Rural Development Commission, which was referred to in a recent speech of the president of the Country Landowners Association. He said:
one prospect that I cannot accept is the abandonment of a long-standing tradition of a countryside that works in every sense. To settle for a passive countryside, used only like a carpet on the floor, or a painting on the wall, would be to fail to realise the potential of a national resource. Rural England requires a broadly based economic and social vitality of its own".
I doubt whether any hon. Member present today could put the argument more succinctly.
The entire island is a rural development area, and has been since 1984. I cannot speak highly enough of the Rural Development Commission. When I addressed its conference on the island at the Savoy country club some years ago, I said that never had so few done so much for the countryside with so little. If our civil service were as stuffed full of as much common sense and "can do" mentality as the Rural Development Commission and its island chairman, David Guy, and Robin Cook and his staff, Members of Parliament would want for nothing.
The commission has been of great assistance to me in finding some seedcorn money for the establishment of a survey on a vegetable co-operative in co-operation with the National Farmers Union. The Isle of Wight has a successful salad group, a good potato group and its grain group probably had one of the shortest journeys into intervention in the country as a result of its foresight in establishing a grain intervention store on the island. I am sad that we have not yet succeeded in establishing a vegetable co-operative on the island to enable our excellent produce to be packaged so that it could be sold in local supermarkets, thus enhancing our appeal.
The Rural Development Commission has done sterling work in relation to the use of redundant farm buildings. I pay tribute to the island's joint planning unit, which has recognised the need to turn redundant buildings into economic units to provide employment in the countryside. Its policy of flexibility has been widely welcomed.
The commission has been most supportive of the island's fine food initiative, which ranges from sweets to venison. We believe that that is a way to get added value out of agriculture and is all part of the island's attempts to encourage tourism. We hope that tourists will buy some of our excellent produce.
The major issue facing the countryside must be the reform of the common agricultural policy. No debate on the countryside of the United Kingdom would be complete without a tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, especially for the pressure that he successfully exerted against non-rotation on set-aside. In order to improve the landscape, it is necessary to withdraw some fields from cereal production for long periods to allow other plants to grow.
Unfortunately, the European Community Commission and Agriculture Ministers had opposite concerns. They feared that farmers would withdraw only the least productive land from production, which would not do much to reduce production. Therefore, they proposed that set-aside should be done in rotation, with the field that is set aside one year being returned to production the following year. In fact, that policy has little environmental benefit except to offer more food to the birds.
The Government successfully pressed for non-rotational set-aside to be accepted as an alternative to rotational set-aside, but non-rotational set-aside is to be at a higher rate. The farmer will have to set aside more than 15 per cent. of his total land in non-rotational set-aside. In other words, the Government were pushing in an environmental direction, but were unable to achieve more than a marginal change to a major policy, which was clearly adopted to support cereal prices. I cannot help but feel that the EC as a whole has missed a great environmental opportunity.
The second point relates to planning pressures. The reduction in hectares for a viable unit and the fact that MAFF has now established a new professional planning unit to provide advice to planning authorities on all matters in which it has an interest are to be welcomed. However, I suspect that I shall still strike a chord with all hon. Members when I say that those who represent rural areas are only too familiar with the sight of the derelict caravan that arrives and settles on a few parcels of land —and out come the polythene tunnels.
The council's planning authority is told that the land is not viable unless somebody lives on site to manage it. Then, of course, electricity, water and sewage disposal are connected to the caravan. Before we know where we are, the son or the son-in-law also lives there—so a request is put in for permission for a replacement building. The application is appealed against; the people say it will be an extremely modest bungalow, but of course once permission is granted it turns out to be a very large house —which the original caravan dwellers have no intention of occupying.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell me that the new policy planning guidelines and the lower hectare provisions are designed to restrain such nibbling fragmentation of the countryside. I very much hope that my hon. Friend, who comes fresh to his post from MAFF, will bear the problems in mind.
My hon. Friend's last point will find an echo in the Chamber, but at least the sort of developer that he has just mentioned would meet some resistance during the various stages of the planning application. If a gipsy were to come along and try to establish the right to build a dwelling, the planning system would discriminate in favour of him. Should not the Government deal with that problem urgently? I believe that there are plans to do so, but they must move more quickly.
I apologise to my hon. Friend, but I shall give him the same answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Bolsover. My hon. Friend is a most sterling and stalwart defender of the countryside. No one has spoken up more than he for the sports that stand in my name. Had he waited just a moment longer, he would have heard me say something on the issue that he raised.
I have written to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister about a particular pressure on the countryside. I am obliged to the Isle of Wight county branch of the National Farmers Union for its help. I simply cannot resist making a claim to fame, because I am the only Member who represents an entire county branch of the NFU all on his own. It is a real pleasure.
The particular pressure to which I referred is the problem of mass trespass. The individuals involved are invariably non-tax-paying, DSS recipients who damage property, abuse landlords and intimidate walkers and their families. That, together with the nuisance of squatting, must be dealt with urgently. They always leave behind them a trail of destruction and rubbish and they are a blot on the landscape wherever they set up their broken-down encampments. They are not true diddicoys or travelling people—they are usually anarchists or just plain layabouts. They detract from people's peaceful enjoyment of the countryside.
I am pleased to note that my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth) has also chosen this debate for his maiden speech. He is to promote a private Member's Bill on hedgerow protection. I hope that later today we shall hear that the Government will give that Bill their full support. Sadly, the Isle of Wight county council is hellbent not only on destroying hedgerows by the extension of a rubbish tip at Standen heath, but, according to some recent press reports, that will include the destruction of an ancient boundary hedgerow of archaeological interest and some mature trees.
My hon. Friend the Minister—who I am delighted to see in his place—knows how very angry I am about the rubbish tip. When I was a county councillor, I was given positive and unequivocal assurances that the waste-derived fuel plant would consume more than 60 per cent. of the contents of our dustbins. That figure has now shrunk to between 10 and 20 per cent., which means that every assurance that I was given about no further land sites being needed for rubbish disposal once the waste-derived fuel plant was up and running have proved to be little more than worthless.
I am angry that I have been deliberately misled over the whole matter. I therefore hope that the Bill to be promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East will speed on its way to the statute book and that it will be in time to save the Standen heath hedgerow.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely important point. Even allowing for the appalling reputation of the Isle of Wight county council in environmental matters, it is disgraceful that it is not taking a lead in this matter instead of waiting for Government legislation to protect hedgerows.
My hon. Friend is right. However, later I shall cite a number of matters in which I believe the county council does take some excellent initiatives and plays a leading part in the countryside. I am sure that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members know that I was the only member of the county council who voted against the waste-derived fuel plant. A number of similar plants have been constructed throughout the county, some of which have shut. I am not aware of any that has proved to be financially viable. Quite frankly, the plant on the Isle of Wight has become exactly what I said it would—a white elephant.
Next door to that plant is Dixon's, the postcard printers. Only this morning I learned that its employees have been medically screened and found to be prone to Q fever resulting from the emissions from the plant. That is a serious matter.
Unfortunately, the county council has played a major part in another ecological disaster at Wootton creek. I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Minister can help me, but I shall briefly state the facts.
The council designed a plan to build a footpath over Wootton bridge. The lower half of Wootton creek is tidal. The upper half used to have sluice gates, so that the lower part, which is above the bridge, had a diurnal rhythm, but it was controlled by the sluice gates, which retained a substantial amount of salt and brackish water between the tides. Because of the alterations in the sluice gates and the archways underneath Wootton bridge, the amount of water that can now get into the upper creek during the flood tide is limited.
The whole of this delightful area, which was one of the principal heronries on the island, is now a sun-baked Saharan desert with a small trickle of water through the centre. The wading birds and the delightful aqua tic life that once existed there have almost totally disappeared.
I have a letter from Dr. Clarke, the RSPB's regional officer for the Isle of Wight, who resides at Shoreham-by-Sea. He has been in touch with the various parties as a result of pressure exerted by Medina borough councillors over this serious problem. I understand that Dr. Clarke has been in touch with English Nature and the Isle of Wight county council. There has been a meeting between officers from the authorities concerned, and we can expect decisions about how this matter can be better mananged in future. I understand that, for the time being, one of the obstacles to a solution is that the authorities are waiting for a response from the owners of the lake side, Wembley plc, which is considering its legal position.
The walk through Firestone copse along the side of the upper reaches of lakeside Wootton creek was once lovely, especially for those of us who like to observe bird life. Sadly, there is now hardly any bird life there at all. It was once soft mudland, but it is now almost possible to walk across the lake. The National Rivers Authority has assured me that the new floods officer will be able to manage the situation a little better, but I doubt whether that is possible without substantial alterations to the bridge archways and by allowing more water into the area.
The Minister knows a great deal about the environment and this week the Secretary of State announced a list of green Ministers. The RSPB booklet "Action for Birds and the Environment" welcomes the appointment of green Ministers as an important part of Government machinery in furthering the protection of the environment. One of the great success stories of the Government has been improving access to the countryside. The excellent pamphlet published by the Countryside Commission entitled "Parish Paths Partnership" is an excellent manifestation of the way these policies are being disseminated and encouraged right down to the grass roots of our rural communities. But—there is always a "but" —there is still a problem that needs some ministerial intervention.
I have been critical of the island's county council, but I praise its policy on the maintenance and signposting of footpaths, which are probably the best in the United Kingdom. However, there is still a problem with the Crown estate. Two weeks ago, at my invitation, the Crown estate with a commissioner held its first public meeting in the United Kingdom on the Isle of Wight. Its presentation made much of its commitment to the heritage coastline and the fact of recently increased access to the coastline between Yarmouth and the Hampstead lodge.
For many years, the island's Ramblers Association, the Medina borough council and the county council and I have been campaigning to join up a coastal footpath so that it is possible to walk around the island. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to that is the Crown estate, with its landholdings around Osbourne house and the deteriorating condition of the sea wall around the shore which forms the boundary of Norris castle. I hope that, as a result of this debate, I can enlist the Minister's support in campaigning for the opening up of what will be one of the most delightful walks on the island.
My hon. Friends will not be surprised to learn that my final problem involves the French—or, to be exact, the fear of French invasion. In 1813, the House passed an Act for amending the roads and highways in the Isle of Wight because of the fear of invasion from France. The fact that this legislation may not have been repealed was a great comfort to my constituents in the light of recent events. The passage of the Act required a definitive map, which was produced to the other place in 1812. It detailed all the vehicular rights of way on the island.
Section 54 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 requires that those rights of way be reclassified as a BOAT —that is, a byway open to all traffic—or as a bridleway or footpath. An Appeal Court decision in 1989 places the Isle of Wight in an invidious position, so much so that the Isle of Wight Association of Parish and Town Councils passed a resolution which stated:
this Association regrets the consequences of Section 54 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which requires a public right of way used in the past, but not for many years by vehicular traffic to be reclassified as a byway open to all traffic. It fully supports the efforts being made by the Island M.P. and the County Council to have the law changed and considers that where it can be shown there has been no use for vehicular traffic for at least 20 years (apart from farm vehicles) it should be possible for such rights of way to be reclassified as either bridleways or footpaths.
I was on the Committee which spent 100 hours considering the Bill leading to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and I recollect the arguments on clause 54. Plainly, the final Act did not have the good will of all the members of that Committee. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a case for some kind of monitoring mechanism to ensure that the Act works in the way it should?
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman, because knowledge of the way in which the Bill progressed is helpful. The Act affected the nation's road systems, but the Isle of Wight was especially disadvantaged because every right of way was set down in the 1812 map and there was no room for doubt or manoeuvre. However, most of the other counties affected by the legislation have considerably fewer rights of way over which there can be no doubt. When Ministers are pressed on that issue, they invariably suggest that the Haselhurst committee will take care of that problem. Not only does it not do so, but it tends to miss the point, because it concentrates on footpaths and bridleways. It does not get down to addressing the serious problem, to which I shall come in some detail, of the modern use of motorised vehicles. Nobody is suggesting that a horse-drawn vehicle should not continue to exercise these rights—most farmers I know would welcome that. The problem has been created by the infernal internal combustion engine.
I know that the Country Landowners Association, the National Farmers Union and the National Trust branches from the Isle of Wight are looking forward to meeting a Minister in the Department of the Environment later next month to discuss these serious problems. While we understand the principle that once a road always a road, the fact is that, apart from the farmers' vehicles, these rights of way were never intended for motor vehicles, two-wheeled or four-wheeled. They were, and should be, for horse-drawn vehicles.
The previous county chairman of the National Farmers Union, Isle of Wight branch, David Jones, was woken up one night at 1 am—
I do not think so.
Mr. Jones was woken up at I am by people in a convoy of vehicles who demanded to exercise their rights by driving through the centre of his farm. His reply was unprintable. The wear that such traffic puts on the fabric of the countryside is intolerable, and the law must be changed.
This year, we are celebrating the Tennyson centenary, and we can already see the harm being done to the Tennyson downs by this legal nightmare. It is true that the countryside can be turned into a series of motorway signposts by traffic regulation orders but these are slow and not very effective mechanisms, and are intrusive visually.
No mention of the French is complete without my recounting the problems that the island's fishermen are having off the Needles with Elf Aquitaine, which is searching for oil. I have sought the assistance of my hon. Friend the Minister responsible for energy and, sadly, I have even told the company that, if it does not come up with a serious offer of compensation for the island's fishermen while it carries out its survey, which is disrupting the fishing grounds, I shall have to take my boat from Cowes and join them in the blockade. If necessary, I shall make Elf seek my imprisonment, so strongly do I feel that this company has played fast and loose with the island's fishermen, some of whom are the fourth generation to fish this area. I am very angry. I hope that the action of this French oil company will not deprive the Government of at least one of their majority.
I should have liked to debate the £2.5 billion trade gap in temperate foods and the part that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is playing in trying to get British supermarkets to use United Kingdom farmers as their principal source, but I fear that time is against me. We have—when I say "we", I mean the Rural Development Commission, the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and myself—achieved some notable successes in getting Safeway, Tesco and Gateway to backload their lorries with island produce so that, in our small way, we are exporting to England. That must be good action for the English countryside and for the Isle of Wight.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) introduced his motion with charm and spiced his speech with humour. I was amused by the story of what happened to the pier. He had had complaints, including a letter saying, "Dear Mr. Field, what are you going to do about the pier?" and two days later, a hurricane came along and the problem of the pier was resolved.
The hon. Gentleman raised an interesting issue of principle about the relationship between the Ministry of Defence and other Departments when dealing with ecologically valuable Ministry of Defence land. As ex-tank crew, national service, I got to know the Lulworth area pretty well and Luneburg heath in Germany. As they come out of defence requirements, after 40 years without agriculture, these areas are ecologically valuable treasures which must be preserved. Following what the hon. Gentleman said about the Isle of Wight, I must ask whether a policy on this has been agreed between the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Defence which, incidentally, issued a good policy document two years ago on this important problem.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, particularly in relation to section 54. The Act has many other controversial sections, such as 28 and 29, the so-called Sandford amendments. Eleven years later, it would be valuable to have a systematic examination of how the Act has worked. Often, the House passes legislation that we do not follow up with proper monitoring of how what we have done in good faith has worked out. I should welcome any comments from the Minister about that.
Does the hon. Gentleman recollect that the Select Committee on the Environment carried out a review of the operation of part of that legislation and, as a result, made some recommendations, most of which were acted on? Perhaps it would be appropriate if the Committee examined this matter again —after all, this was a few years ago. That might be one of the best ways to deal with the situation.
That strikes me as a sensible solution. Where Select Committees are prepared to do this kind of monitoring, that is a valuable aspect of parliamentary work.
These debates are not always the most popular subjects for those who report Parliament. I just put it on the record, although I am not prone to criticising the BBC, that I thought that it was a sign of its sense of values that, in the half-hour report on Parliament last night, there was only one reference to our major debate on Rio yesterday. That reference was to the four maiden speeches. There was not a word about the important speech from the Secretary of State for the Environment or to either of the Labour Front-Bench speeches. The rest of us may not be able to complain, but it is extraordinary, when the BBC spends half an hour purporting to report the House of Commons and the Secretary of State for the Environment, a senior member of Cabinet, has made a speech of some significance—whether one agrees with it or not is neither here nor there—lo and behold, the BBC mentions not a word of it.
Exactly! The BBC should understand that if it is to report, it has some obligation to report serious speeches rather than what it may see as "highlights".
There are some experiences in life that remain with us for all time. I shall introduce what I am going to say now by recollecting my visit to the office of the Minister of the North in Brazil in 1989 after the Altimira conference and rally of the Amerindians on the issue of the Amazonian rain forest. Cesar Fernando Mesquita said: "Senator Gore from the United States came to see me last month and you have come to see me this month. Tell me, what have the Americans done with their forests and their countryside in Colorado and Alaska, and what are you doing about your European woods, hedgerows and countryside?" My theme is that in the light of Rio we must get our own house in order. It is no good having the Darwin initiative, which incidentally I am enthusiastic about, and arrangements through the global environment facility and lecturing Malays, people from Zaire or anywhere else, whether it be about rain forests or the savanna, unless we are able to do a great deal better in our own backyard.
At the end of my speech I shall make particular reference to the case of Mar Lodge. I do not know how anyone representing the British Government can look others in the face, including their colleagues in other countries, and say, "Let us combine to help you." How can anyone do that when we have not been able to do anything about the south side of the Cairngorms?
Rio was a staging post on an onward journey. It must be considered as an ongoing process and not an event. We shall be judged by what we do in Britain for our own countryside and not only by our actions in respect of tropical forests in other people's countries. It is a case of, "By their deeds ye shall know them." It should not be thought that those whose Ministers will meet at international conferences are uninterested in what is happening here. Those who tell others what they should be doing should have scrutinised what they themselves are doing in their backyard. That applies particularly to the 25 per cent. of the western world that are rich countries. We use 70 per cent. of the fossil fuels, 85 per cent. of chemical products and 85 per cent. of military expenditure and produce nearly 100 per cent. of space waste. There is much else that is attributable to the rich countries.
I shall this morning ask questions about what we in Britain propose to do with our countryside and how we shall give flesh to what we have promised to do at Rio and have asked others to do. I shall also make what I hope will be constructive suggestions.
First, I wish to put on record my personal enthusiasm for the Darwin initiative, though, to put it bluntly, it was not thought out. Those who perhaps should have been consulted, both at the royal botanic gardens and at Kew, were not. Their attitude is, "Give us the tools. We welcome what has been done so far and we shall do the work."
To be candid, as a Labour politician of the 1960s I have no right to criticise the Government for putting forward initiatives without thinking them through properly. The most important initiative, in retrospect, of the Wilson Government arrived precisely in that way. Harold Wilson had to think of something concrete to say when he was addressing a rally at Green's playhouse in Glasgow in 1963. He produced the idea that became the Open university. He had not consulted anyone else. He produced the idea to give flesh to his speech at the rally. The Open university grew and grew, and I hope that the Darwin initiative will go the same way.
There is nothing dishonourable in taking that approach. It is a fact, however, that Harold Wilson had not thought through his idea, any more than I think the Government have thought through the Darwin initiative. That does not mean that the initiative is wrong. We can latch on to these ideas and help them to grow, provided that we have the resources to water them. I was disappointed last night to be told by Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs that he was not sure whether £5 million or £2 million was available for the Darwin initiative. I ask the Minister this morning, in the cold light of day, whether he can say anything about the money that is available for the initiative.
At Rio there was talk about reporting. I shall quote from the article written by Fred Pearce that appeared in the New Scientist. He had returned from Rio on 20 June. He wrote:
A central feature of the commission was intended to be a system of regular national reports on progress in conservation and sustainable development. Britain's environment minister, David Maclean, said confidently, early in the summit: 'The commission will have a total picture of follow-up and implementation of Agenda 21 through national reports.' He added that there was 'still some limited resistance to satisfactory language in this'. That resistance turned into a rout, leaving a final text which simply invites nations to submit reports if they wish.
I consider this to be such an important matter that I wrote to the Minister, who courteously and promptly replied. I hope that he will excuse me if I quote his letter to put it on the record. I consider it to be a matter of considerable importance for those who read Hansard. On 25 June, the Minister wrote:
Thank you for your letter of 21 June about reporting to the UN Sustainable Development Commission on the implementation of Agenda 21 and other relevant environment and development issues.
The result which we achieved on the institutional arrangements for follow-up to the Earth Summit were generally highly satisfactory. The Governments agreed to establish a Sustainable Development Commission which would meet at a high level to review progress on the implementation of Agenda 21 and new developments in the area of environment and development.
The UK attaches importance to regular reporting by states and by UN agencies to the Sustainable Development Commission. The institutional chapter of Agenda 21, which describes the functions of the Commission, says that the Commission should consider information provided by governments 'including … in the form of periodic communications or national reports'.
I should like to know what the Minister has in mind for our own national reports. As I have said, it is a matter of setting an example for others. We shall not get very far
with Brazilians and Malays in asking them to produce national reports if we do not make clear the example that we are setting.
Perhaps it will help the hon. Gentleman if I indicate now what we have in mind. We are working on the second update of the White Paper "This Common Inheritance". We intend to take into account some of the decisions that were taken at Rio. We are well advanced on the route of writing what will be the White Paper and publishing it. We see the annual White Paper return that we shall make, together with the new statistical digest that we shall publish, as forming the basis of our national report for the Sustainable Development Commission.
When I was discussing these matters with Kamal Nath and Saifullah Khan of India and Pakistan last week, they were interested in our annual report and they had copies of "This Common Inheritance". We shall see whether we can further turn that report into a model that other countries can follow, with clear targets and honest admissions when we have not met our targets, while bringing in new targets and keeping the process rolling forward year after year.
That answer is not only courteous, but helpful. It means that I can spare the House the rest of the letter. I thank the Minister for his reply, which takes us rather further, on first hearing, on this important subject.
What will be done about the people-to-people networks? The Minister will know of the contribution of Christoph Imboden of the International Council for Bird Preservation to the conference the day before yesterday. I shall read one paragraph from the document "From research … to action, From birds … to people" produced by the ICBP. It says:
once local people and communities have been made aware of the close connection between their own welfare and the sustainable use of resources, between quality of life and diversity of the environment, they must be mobilised to become advocates for environmental conservation. They must carry the message into all parts of society and, above all, seek to influence decision-makers in Governments and the private sector. All around the world, in developed and developing countries alike, non-governmental grassroots movements have been the prime driving force that has advanced conservation awareness and concern.
The argument is put extremely succinctly.
How do we set up benefit-sharing arrangements between countries providing potentially valuable biological resources and between those who develop ideas? perhaps the Minister will intervene on this point if he has the answer on top of his head. What was meant by the references of the Secretary of State at the natural history museum and in the House yesterday to regional networks? What is meant in that context by the word "network"? It may be the germ of an attractive idea. Would the Minister like to enlarge on the point, or would he not like to very much?
Not at this stage. I have a further question which follows the Minister's answer on 24 June. I asked the Minister
in what ways he proposes that the Darwin initiative will help the developing countries to attain compensation for the commercial exploitation of their genetic resources.
The Minister replied:
The Darwin initiative aims to support the implementation of the bio-diversity convention. That convention facilitates the setting up of benefit sharing arrangements between countries providing potentially valuable biological resources and those who develop them.
Perhaps more properly in his speech than now, the Minister may like to explain how the mechanism of the benefit-sharing arrangements will work. I asked the Minister
what relationship he proposes between the Darwin initiative and the work of the consultative group for international agricultural research.
We are still considering how to involve existing scientific and environmental groups in the Darwin initiative. However, the work of the consultative group for international agricultural research, which includes the development of higher yield crop varieties and the study of sustainable agricultural practices, shares the same long-term goal of the sustainable use of the world's resources promoted by the Darwin initiative."—[Official Report, 24 June 1992; Vol. 210, c. 201.]
Is there an idea of community-to-community sustained relationships? In the view of many at the natural history museum who devote their lives to these issues, it is the community-to-community, sustained and continuing relationship, to which I referred last night in my speech on Rio, that matters.
My next question applies to our countryside as much as it does abroad. What is being done about the establishment of an inventory of ecosystems? I am told that there is a strong argument for the establishment of inventories of species as a priority. We greatly value the work of Robin Pellew, Mark Collins and others at the monitoring centre in Cambridge on global diversity in our country and abroad. The status of the earth's living resources compiled by the World Conservation Monitoring Centre gives the information baseline on the status, threats, utilisation and management of the planet's biological wealth.
The global diversity strategy compiled by the world resources unit, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the United Nations Environment Programme provides guidelines for actions to save, study and use the Earth's biotic wealth sustainably and equitably. We are trying to put biodiversity on the map. That is one of the things that Rio achieved and for which the Brazilian hosts should properly be thanked. They have done something miraculous in providing a conference of that size without incident. Once again, the Brazilian state deserves our thanks.
We must learn to live in harmony with nature. The human impact on the biosphere is producing environmental stress and endangering the planet's capacity for sustained life. Depleting our ecological capital means that we are getting an amber warning. Soon it will turn to a red alert.
I want to use this debate as an opportunity to talk succinctly and quietly to the Minister about the example of Mar Lodge. As a former Scottish Whip and a highlander, the Minister may be tempted to say, "That is a matter for the Scottish Office. Leave it to the highlanders. Leave it to the people in Edinburgh." I am afraid that that will not do, because Mar Lodge is a potential world heritage site. We are talking about the conservation of the whole south side of the Cairngorms.
Just as the hon. Member for Isle of Wight, quite legitimately, talked about the Isle of Wight, I shall talk briefly about the part of Scotland that was the subject of an Adjournment debate I initiated, not only with the good will of, but at the request of, my late friend, Alick Buchanan-Smith, when he knew that he was terminally ill.
The background is that the best part of the ancient Caledonian forest and the best part of the ancient European forest will be destroyed within one or, at the most, two decades if action is not taken. In the past, very rich people would take the Mar Lodge estate for a season and go stalking when it suited them, but stalking has now become an industry. To justify the enormous sums—thousands of pounds—paid by stalkers for one or two days of stalking, one must have a huge quantity of deer. I have never seen so many deer as on the Mar Lodge estate. The does are not culled as they perhaps should be, because it is necessary to keep them in such numbers to satisfy the stalkers.
As the Minister knows, when that number of young deer are involved, the young trees do not have a chance, and nor does natural reseeding. Adam Watson and Dick Balharrie of the Nature Conservancy Council compare the trees in that area with 80-year-old men. Now is the last chance of natural reseeding, yet there is no possibility of that happening with the number of deer that are now on the Mar estate.
The Government reply that they hope to achieve a management agreement at some time. The estate is in the ownership of Mr. Kluge, who is an octogenarian and a millionaire several times over. You will not hear from me any personal criticism of Mr. Kluge. Rather, the reverse —for two reasons. He has been a very good landlord compared with previous landlords, and has been infinitely patient while the consortium led by Simon Pepper and others of the World Wide Fund for Nature prepare a proper bid for the Mar estate. Mr. Kluge has shown great patience—but sooner or later, he will want to sell and his patience will run out.
If we are serious about preserving Mar, something must be done. I know of no potential owner on the horizon. Any owner that agreed to carry the responsibility of Mar would have to be enormously wealthy—but that might be one answer from the Government's point of view.
I would respect a very rich owner if he agreed to the desiderata set down by most ecologists. They include reducing the number of deer, but that would make the estate unprofitable. In fact, it would incur an enormous loss, because of the diminished stalking fees. In those circumstances, one must question the role of the state. I understand, having had friendly personal interviews with the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro)—who is full of goodwill in this matter, but who I suspect has difficulties with the Treasury—that there is no possibility of the Treasury's releasing the amount of money that would satisfy Mr. Kluge's present demands.
What is to be done? I want to propose for the first time on the Floor of the House one constructive route that the Government ought to try. I suggest that they go to see Mr. Kluge personally. So far, negotiations have been conducted through his agent, and he has received no direct approach from the Government, When I suggested that the former president of the National Trust, the distinguished Earl of Wemyss and March—who is acknowledged to have a considerable background in such matters—should go to see Mr. Kluge, he agreed. However, a spanner was dropped in that particular works. No one will have much of a chance of pursuing the matter without Government backing.
When the hon. Gentleman and I served on the Committee that considered the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Bill, there was debate on the Red Deer Commission and the powers that it has to intervene compulsorily to cull a herd of deer that has grown too big. Is there not a role for the commission in the case that the hon. Gentleman cites? If the herd at Mar has grown completely out of control, does not the commission have the power to cull some of the deer?
The commission does not have the power to reduce for ecological reasons the herd to the extent needed, because it would then risk making the Mar estate unprofitable. That is where huge amounts of money are involved.
The Government ought to suggest formally to Mr. Kluge that they would be willing to accept the establishment of a Kluge memorial park in that area of the Cairngorms, provided that Mr. Kluge was prepared to contribute a sum of money towards the establishment, for ever and ever in the ancient forest of Caledon, of something approaching a world heritage site.
I do not think that that is fanciful. I do not know whether the Minister has visited Jerusalem. On the road to the Hebrew university, one sees huge faculties bearing memorial tablets that say they are in memory of Rachel and Rubin Goldstein, of Ezra Erlichman, and so on. It is an American tradition—particularly an American-Jewish tradition—to donate money on a memorial basis. There is nothing dishonourable about that—it is an accepted practice.
It ought to be put without delay to Mr. Kluge, who has been a good landlord of the Mar estate, that he might like to think in terms of a Kluge memorial park. Failing that, and having immersed myself in the subject, I do not see any other constructive solution.
This matter is one for the Minister's Department and not only for the Scottish Office. In fact, it is a matter for the British Government. The Cairngorms are a potential major world heritage site, and Mar is the jewel in that crown. I thank the House for its patience.
I am delighted to support the motion, and I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech. The debate concerns issue of great interest not only to those who work and live in the countryside but to those who visit it. It touches on issues of some profundity, because the well-being, appearance and size of the countryside have been entrusted to our generation—as to every generation —for a relatively short time.
The countryside that we hold in trust now evolved gradually over thousands of years. With the pace of change in our rural communities faster than ever before, and given that they are confronted by new threats as well as new opportunities, it is vital that we nurture what is ours today, so that we may have pride in the countryside that we pass on to our children and to future generations.
The constituency that I have the privilege of representing stretches from the southern tip of Greater London in the north to Kent in the east, and to Sussex in the south. It has one foot in the countryside and one foot in the town, so straddling the north downs—which have for so long served as a natural barrier against the southward spread of London.
The area was represented in the House in one way or another, and in whole or in part, by Sir Geoffrey Howe for 24 years. Following a boundary change in 1971, the constituency took its present shape, which is coterminous with the area covered by Tandridge district council.
I am sure that the House and the whole country acknowledges the debt that we all owe to Sir Geoffrey for his remarkable record of public service over many years —notably as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary. He managed to combine his high office with an extraordinary commitment to local people and local issues. His sometimes avuncular and always perspicacious attention to the latter has alone set his successor a formidable and exciting challenge.
I know that all hon. Members will join me in congratulating Sir Geoffrey on his recent elevation to another place, where no doubt he will continue to exercise his commitment to public service for many years to come.
Sir Geoffrey was not the first Member of Parliament for the area to achieve great distinction. Lord Melbourne and Lord Palmerston were both briefly Members of Parliament for Bletchingley, which was once a rotten borough close to the Pilgrims' way, and is now an attractive village close to the M25.
There is still much glorious countryside, and there are still many buildings and villages to celebrate in Surrey—but there is no mistaking the fact that they lead a fragile existence today. I am happy to say that that has been recognised, and much of the area is now covered by the green belt. I applaud the Government's outstanding record on enlarging and reinforcing the green belt in recent years.
The Secretary of State for Transport's announcement yesterday on link roads has ensured that the M25 remains a controversial issue. There is no denying that its advent did much to remove traffic from the towns and villages along the main roads in my constituency—but there is also no denying that it cuts a noisy and unsightly swathe through the green belt countryside. No doubt the Minister for the Environment and Countryside is aware of the local concern about the plan for widening the motorway to eight lanes along its entire length, and yesterday's announcement that there was in effect to be a 14-lane highway a few miles to the north-west does not diminish that concern.
I do not wish to dwell on the matter now, although it has some relevance—but if I say that, as well as being bisected by the M25, my constituency is flanked on its western border by the M23 and in the south by Gatwick airport, and is traversed by a railway line which appears to be decreasingly available for passenger transport and is shortly to be used for freight traffic from the Channel tunnel, hon. Members will understand my anxiety and that of my constituents about the impact of transport demands on the countryside.
There is clearly a need for balance. Just as it would be unwise to ignore the pressing need for a first-rate transport infrastructure in the south-east of England, and the importance of that to the economy as a whole, so nobody should underestimate the profound, sudden and irreversible consequences of change in a landscape which until recently had changed little for centuries. The promised environmental studies on the M25, with the likely public inquiry, will no doubt give such matters, and the question of pollution, the most serious consideration.
The need for balance extends to housing and business development. The Minister and his predecessors are to be congratulated on their sensible and imaginative approach. The countryside, and the villages which are an integral part of it, are not museum pieces. Great care must be taken to balance the need for conservation with the need to foster a thriving rural economy. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) dwelt on that topic.
The task is difficult, I know, and with the recent changes affecting agriculture, notwithstanding the recent success of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the discussions on the common agricultural policy, it is becoming no easier.
I must apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House, if I have to leave the Chamber before the end of the debate, but I hope that you will agree that I have good reason to do so. I hope this afternoon to celebrate the renovation of some near-derelict farm buildings in my constituency. Those buildings now house three separate businesses—one in the 200-year-old barn, one in the cowshed and one in the old milking shed. Such development represents the best of what can be done with imagination, flexibility and, of course, restraint.
In that connection, I welcome planning policy guidance note 7, which, along with the rural action initiative, emphasises the development of the social programmes, the pilot countryside employment programmes and a host of other new initiatives which show the Government's commitment to fostering both the rural environment and the rural economy—in truth, those interests are indivisible.
Finally, I must mention hedgerows, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight also referred. Hedgerows form an essential part of our countryside heritage, clearly contributing to the familiar pattern of the landscape. They are also a vital natural habitat for all forms of wildlife, including butterflies. Despite the Government's recent success in fostering new hedgerow plantings, figures produced last year by the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, in a report jointly sponsored by the Department of the Environment, suggest a net loss of hedgerows in England and Wales of about 65,000 miles —21 per cent. of the total—since 1984.
Neglect is the principal culprit, and I look forward with interest to the scheme that I believe that the Minister will soon introduce to promote better hedgerow management. However, about 2,000 miles of hedgerows a year are lost through active destruction, and it is to prevent such unjustifiable destruction that I have presented to the House for a First Reading a private Member's Bill to protect hedgerows. I look forward to consulting all interested parties to reach an acceptable, workable and enforceable set of proposals, which I trust will at the appropriate time command the support of all hon. Members.
Mr. Alex Carlisle:
What a pleasure it is to follow the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth). The clarity of his thought and the way in which he delivered his speech promise us much from him in the years to come. The hon. Gentleman has many choices to make about the examples that he may wish to follow—whether he is to be a Melbourne, a Palmerston or a Howe. That may be a difficult choice to make; having heard him, I hope that he will simply be himself.
We in Wales are extremely proud of the hon. Gentleman's predecessor, Sir Geoffrey Howe. It is not to be forgotten that Surrey, East was represented for so many years by a Llanelli boy, who was one of the most distinguished members of my circuit of the Bar—the Wales and Chester circuit—and who has been for many years an honorary member of that circuit.
If it is Port Talbot rather than Llanelli, I stand corrected. I was speaking from memory. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right.
Although on one occasion Sir Geoffrey Howe was compared in the House to a dead sheep, those of us who were there will recall one of the most dramatic moments of recent years when Sir Geoffrey made the very short speech in the House that ended the reign of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. To sit 30 or so feet away from him as he delivered that speech was certainly one of the greatest dramatic moments that I have experienced, A similar auspicious occasion may arise at some point in the career of the hon. Member for Surrey, East. If so, I hope that he rises to it with the skill and dignity of his predecessor.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) on choosing this subject for debate. It is not often that those of us who represent rural constituencies have the opportunity to talk directly about matters affecting the countryside. My constituency of Montgomery is, I believe, the most rural of all constituencies. It certainly has the highest percentage of its population employed directly in agriculture—something like 15 times the national average. It will not surprise hon. Members, therefore, to know that the future of the rural environment, particularly of the rural communities, is of prime concern to me.
There is a great difference between the view of the countryside and the view from the countryside. That difference is not always articulated clearly in the House, despite the best efforts of those Members with rural constituencies. I should like to dwell for a few moments on that difference.
We who live and work in and represent the countryside welcome the view of the countryside that is taken by others. We welcome the arrival of tourists, for they bring interest and great economic advantage to rural areas such as Montgomeryshire, an area—soon, I hope, to be a county once again—which has invested wisely in its tourist potential and has produced many high-value tourist attractions.
However, the Government are sometimes extremely unimaginative in their approach to tourist attractions. Recently I visited the bird sanctuary and butterfly house at Llanfyllin in my constituency. It is a beautiful tourist attraction, of much interest and run scientifically, but the owners are not allowed to put a sign on the nearest trunk road saying that their tourist attraction exists, because, says the Welsh Office, they do not have 25,000 visitors a year. Quite apart from the fact that it would be difficult to bring 25,000 tourists every year up the road leading to the site, it is difficult to understand how they can attract even half that number—which they probably could accommodate comfortably—if they are unable to tell people of their existence by putting up a sign on the nearest trunk road.
The A-road on which the present sign is displayed carries a very small amount of traffic. In inclement weather only brave drivers travel over the Berwyn between Welshpool and Bala. The fainthearts, who are the majority —and probably sensibly so, in the view of the police—go the long way round along the A5 where my constituents are not allowed to erect a sign. Much more could be done, without damaging the environment, to allow for the signposting of tourist attractions.
We welcome the view of the countryside taken even by people who move into Montgomeryshire to live. There has never been xenophobia in Montgomeryshire about people—even, dare I say it, the English—moving into our part of rural Wales. It is an interesting part of rural Wales because it embraces the features of a border county, English speaking, and the features of a Welsh rural county, Welsh speaking and as Welsh as anywhere else in Wales. I fear, however, that we may begin to become a little xenophobic if current planning legislation remains unchanged.
I wish to raise two connected points in this context, both of which are of great importance, cause weekly concern and feature regularly in my constituency surgeries. The first relates to the absence of any need for planning consent for the occupation of a property as a second home. As the Minister knows, this concern applies throughout many rural areas. It certainly applies throughout rural Wales. It is not that we wish to stop people having second homes—there are many properties that, being realistic, probably have no other use—but we wish to ensure that our villages remain part of the community and are not turned into very pretty and prettified, but rather sterile, museum pieces. There is need for some planning control, albeit relatively loose, to be exercised over the proliferation of second homes.
In some counties in Wales, notably in the old county of Meirionnydd, there are villages where second homes dominate and where the local community has been virtually excluded by price. The fact that people are able to come in and buy cheaply old properties as second homes causes great irritation to local builders, for when they develop small estates of houses they are often faced with section 106 agreements that restrict the clientele who can buy those properties.
There is no doubt that section 106 agreements have their place and I am not suggesting that they should be removed—quite the opposite. I believe, however, that the section 106 agreement, which causes problems for builders, would be far more acceptable if builders felt that some control was exercised over the purchase of cheap, old properties by outsiders, particularly as second homes. A balance has not quite been reached.
The view from the countryside is very different from the idea of "The Good Life". As the Minister, who now has great and valuable experience of the countryside and its concerns and who is much respected throughout the farming community, knows, living and working in the countryside can be as harsh and as heavy as living and working anywhere else.
I make not a political point but a factual statement when I say that living on and from agriculture is becoming increasingly difficult. The small farm of 100 acres, or less, in the hills of Montgomeryshire which 30 years ago employed perhaps a dozen people can now barely sustain one family at the poverty line. Farmers often bring their accounts to me to show what is really going on. Those accounts frequently show profits of well under £5,000 a year to keep a whole family.
Nor is it easy to diversify. If one is farming in Llanbrynmair, Trefeglwys or Llangynog, there is not too much passing trade for the love spoons that some may think can be made there and then sold at the farm gate. We do not have the tradition, the land or the weather to sell cider at a farm gate, as happens in Normandy. Would that we could: life would be more pleasant on a summer's evening.
Village shops are closing. In my village of Berriew—which many times has been the jewel in Wales's crown and has repeatedly been voted the best-kept village in Wales—to our great regret the village bakery closed earlier this year, not because the family that owned it did not want to continue to run it, but because the cost of meeting European regulations would prove prohibitive and out of proportion to the bakery's turnover. We see many such examples being replicated, with village shops closing and village pubs becoming unviable.
The Minister will know of the tremendous network of chapels in Wales that have been the back-bone of the local community certainly since the 19th century, some of which grew when people decided that there must be some way of resisting the wicked Tory landlords. Through the chapels, there was built up a tradition of community and self-help, which sustained not only the Welsh language and culture but the communities themselves. People helped one another in times of difficulty, provided work for one another and inter-married, which is one reason why many people in Wales are related.
Much of that community strength is going. Even the most basic of village institutions—the school—is threatened by difficulties that now beset governors, because formula funding seems not to recognise peripherality as it should. This week, I received two letters which I can describe only as manic from depressed school governors who simply do not know how they can go on doing the job. They will probably resign in despair. I saw the Secretary of State for Wales yesterday and, while he was sympathetic to my view of village schools, he did not appear to have anything remedial to offer.
We have seen welcome economic development in rural mid-Wales. The Development Board for Rural Wales has been extremely successful. People change and companies grow up. Commercial attitudes change. I was recently given the honour of being elected chairman of the special share trust of Wynnstay and Clwyd Farmers plc—a farming co-operative which recently turned itself into a plc, dramatically facing the modern world, taking over other businesses and profitably turning over about £30 million a year in a very disadvantageous agricultural environment. That is an example of the best that happens. Such initiative needs as much help as Government can give. I hope, therefore, that the commitment to the Development Board for Rural Wales will continue and that similar commitments may be given in other parts of the country.
Perhaps the greatest crisis that we face in rural mid-Wales is connected not with agriculture or poor wages but with the lack of somewhere for young people to live. When I first became Member of Parliament for Montgomery in 1983, there was no difficulty when young couples came along wanting council houses because they were getting married or setting up home together. Montgomeryshire district council was able to provide them, and the Development Board for Rural Wales was able to provide homes for new workers moving into the county. That is not so any more. Many local young people, who are in work, are now homeless. That is not acceptable.
We are told that Tai Cymru—Housing for Wales—is providing, or at least facilitating the provision of, the houses that are needed through housing associations, but I am afraid that that is not true. Every week, I receive letters and at every constituency surgery decent young people come in and tell me their situation.
I believe that we shall do great damage to our rural areas if we do not provide homes at least for our own indigenous population, for they will be forced to leave. The gain of places such as Telford, Birmingham and Wolverhampton will be our loss. It will be an irreparable loss, because there will be no young people left to do the skilled jobs for which they have been educated by what has been an excellent education system.
My final point—there is much that I should like to say, but many other Members wish to speak—is about the relationship between agriculture and the environment. In their publication, "Action for the Countryside", the Government emphasised some manifesto commitments that were welcome, one of which is the countryside stewardship scheme. The amount that has been allocated to the scheme—£2.9 million, I believe, over three years —is small indeed when set alongside the agriculture budget. The future of farming—and if there are no sheep on the hills in my area, there will be nothing on the hills but dereliction—depends on seizing the money that is rightly available for the future of the environment and marrying it to agriculture in a constructive partnership.
There was a time when hill farmers in mid-Wales perhaps did not see much sense in restoring hedgerows that had been removed years before, in leaving fields fallow, in planting wild flowers, in creating countryside trails, in reducing the stocking density and in clearing footpaths, but they see the sense of all those measures now and will take them not only because it will put money into their pockets but because they recognise truly the interests of environmental and countryside management. They are surviving on a shoestring. I therefore urge the Government to consider—this may be a happy consequence for the environment of subsidiarity perhaps—ways of spending money on the environment that would benefit the agriculture industry. If that produced real achievements, perhaps there would be less of a difference between the view of the countryside and the view from the countryside.
It is always a pleasure to speak following the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile), and I enjoyed his summary of some of the traditions and history of the land of my ancestors.
I begin by declaring an interest—I am not sure that it is relevant to my remarks today, but for the sake of order I will declare it—in that I own a few acres in Lincolnshire and have a small flock of sheep there. I have declared that in the Register of Members' Interests.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) on being successful in the ballot and on ably presenting his motion. I began increasingly to regret, as he presented his constituency in such an attractive way, that I had spent only a few brief hours on his island. I resolved, as I listened to him, to return there with my family and to stay rather longer.
Today's debate has already been distinguished by a particularly able maiden speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth). He set out succinctly and ably the differing interests of his constituency. I am sure that Members in all parts of the House greatly appreciated his obviously sincere tribute to his great predecessor, Lord Howe.
The motion presents us with a good opportunity to congratulate the Government on achievements for which they have not received sufficient credit. Without doubt, this has been the most environmentally conscious and sensitive Government we have ever had in our history. That applies to previous Conservative, and to Labour and Liberal Administrations.
I endorse the motion and everything that my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight said, and I congratulate the Government on a series of environmental initiatives. Many of them have been, or are in the process of being, copied by other countries, and that must be the greatest form of flattery. One thinks of the environmentally sensitive areas scheme and the farm woodland scheme, in which I participated in a small way.
We must recognise that, if we care for the conservation of the countryside, we must have a viable and prosperous agriculture. Without that, there is no chance of our having the attractive, neat, well cared for countryside that those who are concerned for the environment wish to maintain. The resource costs for the rest of the community of keeping the countryside pretty and environmentally healthy, so that people may appreciate it, without there being a farming community with the resources to work it would be horrific and out of the question. So we must ask whether we are willing to ensure that we have the conditions to maintain a viable and prosperous agriculture.
Agriculture is the most significant industry i n my constituency. I know whereof I speak when I say that agriculture is going through a crisis of confidence in the future, and that crisis is shared by every other major developed country. Essentially, it is a crisis of over-production brought about not by the malfunctioning of markets but by the subversion of markets through governmental action over the last 50 years.
I am not targeting in particular the European Community or British Governments who, before we entered the Community and since the beginning of the last war, decided to subsidise agriculture. The level of agricultural support in the United States has always been comparable with that in the EC. The level in other OECD countries has been greater than in the EC or in the United States, and probably the greatest offenders have been Sweden, Switzerland and, worst of all, Japan. That has brought about a crisis of over-production analogous to over-production crises in other sectors of economic activity, such as in steel and shipbuilding in the 1960s and 1970s, brought about by Government subsidies and similar action in many parts of the world.
The crisis of over-production in agriculture is the cloud overhanging every investment decision taken by every farmer in Britain today, particularly as he ponders the future, wondering whether he will be able to continue farming to retirement and have a worthwhile business to hand on to his children.
The action that farmers must take to overcome that crisis is twofold. One way to ensure survival against that background is to be a lowest-cost producer, producing goods more efficiently than any competitor, so that, so long as there is a demand for one's commodities, one will have a market share. The alternative is to decide that one does not have the necessary competitive economic advantages to become a lowest-cost producer. In that situation, one must specialise, looking for new niches and products with which to attract the consumer. In other words, one must find a new way of using one's capital resources—for a farmer, land is the most important—and change one's business mix to develop a new market.
The same applies to shipbuilding, steel production or the manufacture of shoe buttons, should there be a crisis of over-production in the shoe button market. Many farmers believe that they can become lowest-cost producers and that, so long as there is a market for their production—for example, for cereals—they will survive, provided that they are not inhibited by governmental or other external action from bringing those advantages fully to bear. Many farmers, perhaps not consciously, are adopting the other route and are becoming niche players, going in for new products and using their skills and land to develop them.
However, I am often depressed when I visit the workshops and storerooms in my constituency of Geest, the largest fresh food distributor in Britain, and see piles of new vegetables. I call them new not because they have recently been invented but because they have only recently appeared regularly in the shopping baskets of British housewives—food such as aubergines, asparagus and artichokes.
Such vegetables are produced in temperate time zones. They look attractive as they wait to be distributed throughout the country. When I ask where they come from, the answer is usually Holland, France or Germany. Generally, they come from some other country in Europe, probably in the same climate zone as ours. It is sad that our farmers have not always been enterprising enough to go in for such new products, which do not have a Community support regime for producing and selling them.
There are various reasons for that state of affairs, which I will not go into at this stage. Suffice it to say that marketing co-operatives on the continent seem to be better organised. We in Britain have many lessons to learn from their activities.
We must ask to what extent governmental action, at the national or Community level, will ensure for the future a viable basis for agriculture in Britain. We have debated the recent agreement at the Agriculture Council on the modified MacSharry proposals. To what extent will that lay the basis for a viable and prosperous agriculture in the United Kingdom and enable farmers to take one of the decisions to which I referred—to become a lowest-cost producer or to go for new products?
There is no question but that the achievements of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food at the Agriculture Council were memorable. Practically all the farmers in my constituency and many others said that it was impossible for the Minister to go to Brussels and successfully resist and remove from the MacSharry proposals all the elements that appeared to have the support of the other 11 member states and would discriminate against large farmers—which in practice means British farmers as opposed to those in the rest of the Community. Yet my right hon. Friend returned having completely got rid of the pernicious discriminatory proposals. It was an exceedingly fine negotiating achievement and there was a great sigh of relief. More generously than that—farmers are capable of being generous—a great well of congratulation met my right hon. Friend on his return when he announced what he had achieved.
Nevertheless, one must consider the medium and long term, and ask whether the new agreement establishes a new basis for the CAP that will give us some stability for the foreseeable future. The jury is out. If the new agreement is to provide a stable, and at least relatively permanent, basis for agriculture in the Community, it must meet three criteria. First, it must give some assurance that the continually increasing burden of the CAP on the Community budget will be to some extent limited. The judgment on that must be slightly ambiguous, because in the near future the CAP budget will increase as a result of the proposals. The Commission calculates that after three or four years agricultural expenditure will fall. That calculation must depend on several assumptions about international agricultural prices, so is hypothetical. Therefore, the jury is out on that one.
The second criterion is whether the new regime will allow us to reach accord in the general agreement on tariffs and trade negotiations. Clearly, that is necessary. If it does not, we shall have to reconsider the matter. Again, the jury is out. We have some complicated, difficult negotiations afoot. We have unquestionably thrown the Americans on the defensive with the agreement, but let us see what happens. It is too early to predict the result.
Thirdly, and precisely for all the reasons that I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, if the proposals become the basis of a new stable regime in the Community, what will be their impact on the viability and profitability of agriculture? I must admit to a number of fundamental reservations here. The agreement is unquestionably far and away the best that we could conceivably have achieved in present circumstances. We must all be very happy with that. However, that does not necessarily mean that we should all pretend that that will be the basis of the CAP for the next five to 25 years. The agreement includes some fundamental shortcomings and contracdictions which were not inserted at British instigation but remain a fundamental part of the proposals.
One of those is compulsory set-aside. If a farmer is to qualify for compensation under the scheme, 15 per cent. of all cereal land or of all land down to combinable crops, to use the jargon in the proposals, will have to be set aside. Let us think about that for a second or two. If you came from Mars, and I know that you do not, Mr. Deputy Speaker, without any particular prejudices, preconceived notions or habits of mind, to look at how the human race organises its agricultural affairs in this country or the European Community, and you discovered that there was a crisis of over-production, particularly in the cereal and livestock sectors, and that it was proposed to take 15 per cent. of that land out of production, irrespective of whether it was the most or least productive land, of whether it yielded 5 or even 6 tonnes of grain an acre in a good year or only 2 or 3 tonnes and of the profitability and technical and economic efficiency of cultivating it, you would say that something had gone peculiarly wrong with the financial sense and economic logic of the human race.
It cannot make any economic sense over the long haul to take out of production 15 per cent. of grade 1 land in Lincolnshire and, at the same time, to grow cereals on grade 3 or 4 land in the Cotswolds or Scotland. For the medium term, it would be impossible to make the fundamental readjustments that economic logic might suggest, but we should not deceive ourselves: what we have is an anomaly, not to say an economically contradictory state of affairs, which will increase and not reduce the average cost of production.
Another shortcoming is the "quota system" for the livestock sector. If we are to have a viable, competitive agriculture and if we are to encourage our farmers to respond to new market stimuli, to develop new products, to switch their mix of production as the market changes and to do what every business must do if we are to have a prosperous economy, the last thing we want is to freeze the existing mix of production by a system of quotas establishing crippling financial penalties if people do switch their mix of production in that way. That cannot be a rational or viable basis for agriculture in the long term.
Perhaps the most anomalous and curious aspect of the proposals and the one we should reflect on longest is the concept of compensation on the basis of average yields. The new proposals provide that, for the 85 per cent. of combinable land that remains in production, the 15 per cent. having been set aside, the support prices available will fall, but that farmers will be compensated for the shortfall on the basis of average yields.
What does that mean? It means that, if previously the yield was below average, the farmer will be better off—he will receive a windfall—but if previously the farmer was more efficient than average and his yield was higher, he will suffer. In other words, we are back to the bad old business that the Labour Government used to specialise in, of penalising success and rewarding failure. That cannot be the basis of a sound, efficient, profitable agriculture any more than it can possibly be the basis of a sound and profitable sector of economic activity in any other area.
Is not the hon. Gentleman being unfair to farmers with his analogy on crop yields? A farmer on poor soil may have a below-average crop yield, but be extremely effective compared with a farmer with a high average crop yield on fertile soil.
The hon. Gentleman has not entirely followed the logic of my remarks. Resources are always scarce: capital resources are scarce, as are good farmers. In a rational world—we are far from that in agriculture—those resources would be concentrated on the most fertile soils. We would not use them on grade 3 or 4 soils to produce cereals. It is one thing to say that that would be a sensible arrangement in a rational world, but we cannot achieve that tomorrow—I am not suggesting that we should. But we should have no illusions about the anomalies that exist in our present arrangements.
What is the solution? It cannot be to repatriate agricultural policy from the European Community. That would be disastrous as other member states would be prepared to subsidise their agriculture to a greater extent than we would. As long as there is a single market, it would be impossible to prevent the sale here of agricultural produce from abroad, which would be subject to greater subsidies. When sold in this country, it would effectively put our farmers out of business, without any gain to us. Therefore, repatriation is not an option.
Within the context of the European Community, we need to continue with the policies we have been pursuing for the past 10 years or so. We should continue to try and introduce an increasing element of economic rationality and to work towards a free market. Where it is necessary to introduce artificialities or subsidies for sound social or environmental reasons, we should call such policies and budgets social and environmental, because that is what they are. We should try to create an environment in which farmers—who are as enterprising and hard working a group of entrepreneurs as exist anywhere in the world—have the same scope as other sections of our community to achieve prosperity.
The hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies) spoke articulately, as usual, about the importance of agriculture in our countryside. As I had a rural upbringing, I am well aware of that. However, I wish to move the debate on to other activities in the countryside whose importance we must recognise: recreation and leisure.
Figures produced by the Countryside Commission show how many people visit the countryside each year and how much money that generates for the countryside. They show that about £12 billion is spent in rural districts, and an estimated £1.76 billion of that—almost £2 billion—stays in the countryside in the form of wages, rents and profits, and supports up to 500,000 full-time and part-time jobs in the countryside. That is as many as, if not more than, the number of people currently employed in agriculture. More people have been employed in the countryside over the past decade as we have turned to the countryside for leisure and recreation.
We need to set priorities and get the balance right so that we use the countryside for peaceful activities and, sometimes, for sports and recreation which, if not controlled properly with the support of the governing bodies, can lead to disruption. It is important to get that balance right.
I should like the Government to give greater priority to the public's interest in visiting the countryside by allowing greater representation of countryside sport and recreation on agencies such as the Countryside Commission, the Sports Council, the National Parks Authority, the National Rivers Authority and the Forestry Commission. People with an interest in sport and recreation must have their say in the co-ordinating organisations set up to promote and protect the countryside.
I am also interested in young people from our inner cities making use of the countryside. With the increasing cuts in local education authority expenditure, a number of outdoor recreational centres are at risk. The Central Council of Physical Recreation has drawn attention to 45 outdoor education centres that have been placed in jeopardy and will have to close unless they receive help.
Outdoor education is recognised as part of the national curriculum for physical education. I firmly believe that it should be part of the national curriculum. There is no point its being included in the national curriculum without the necessary resources and residential centres to enable young people to enjoy it. My experience of working with young people from inner cities and joining them for outdoor pursuit weeks has shown me the benefits to be gained for those children from just one week, or even less, spent in the countryside. We must try to promote and increase such outdoor activities for young people, who would not otherwise have the opportunity.
Either before the hon. Lady came to the House or since she has been a Member of Parliament, has she come across an organisation called Country Childrens Holiday? It is an old London charity. Many of us who enjoy living in the countryside have had the pleasure of having children from London to stay for a holiday of a week or two. Without that initiative, those children would not have a holiday in the countryside or possibly have any experience of it. I believe that the organisation is still functioning and is widely patronised. I am sure that some of the hon. Lady's constituents have used it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention—of course, I have heard of that organisation, and have worked with it. It does sterling work for those living in inner cities. However, I was talking about young people enjoying the countryside, not just to walk and witness nature conservation, but to participate in outdoor pursuits such as canoeing on waterways, rock climbing and caving. All those activities can be undertaken safely if they are properly organised. It would be a shame if our outdoor pursuit centres were unable to survive because local authorities had to take difficult decisions and choose to cut those centres due to economic pressure.
If we are to ensure that people from inner cities visit our rural regions we must consider transport and the way in which rural districts are served by public transport. We must make it much easier for those who want to pursue leisure and recreation activities to take the necessary equipment to the locations. We need to ensure that there are the necessary facilities to carry the equipment such as bicycles and canoes on trains and other forms of public transport. If we do not, the high cost of the limited service available will inhibit people from participating in sporting and recreational activities.
I firmly believe that we must have a commitment to common use and access to common land. Ironically, the Ramblers Association has its headquarters in my constituency at what is probably one of the most heavily congested transport systems, at Vauxhall, which its staff overlook. The association has produced a good document this week drawing attention to the fact that in 1976 the Government introduced conditional exemption from inheritance tax, previously known as capital transfer tax and death duty, for land and other property. To be eligible an estate had to be managed in such a way as to benefit the public, including in many cases allowing public access to outstanding areas of countryside. That conditional exemption from inheritance tax was retained in the Inheritance Tax Act 1984.
Both I and the Ramblers Association support the principle of conditional exemption from taxation, but on the basis that there is a real, tangible benefit to the public. That has not been proved to be the case. Those who have studied the matter carefully are not satisfied that the system is working properly. A large number of conditionally exempt transfers have been made, but, with just one or two exceptions, there has been no publicity and the transactions have remained confidential. Public funds have been used to purchase public access to the countryside, but the public have not been told where the land is that they can use.
The landowners who have taken advantage of the conditional exemption have offered very little in return. Indeed, in some cases they have placed restrictions on what was previously on offer. They have offered no new access or rights of way in return for tax exemption. The public should know who those landlords are, what they have been given in tax exemption and what they are giving in return. Otherwise, those landlords will get away with evading tax for no public benefit. As ordinary taxpayers, they would not be allowed to get away with that.
I hope that the secrecy that surrounds the matter will be removed and that it will be brought into the open. Those people are ripping off not just the Government but the public. They are not allowing the public reasonable access to their lands or estates. There must be some quantifiable public gain. I know that this matter will be discussed in the Finance Bill Committee. If the Government are to abolish inheritance tax, how can we ensure that the promised public benefit from those large estates will accrue to the people?
Will the Minister refer to that matter when he replies? Will he try to ensure that all of the Government's policies, plans and actions make generous and positive provision for sport and recreation in the countryside? That is not incompatible with other uses, but it is an important factor which must be considered.
I am grateful to be called to make my maiden speech. I am naturally delighted to be in this House, but even more so to be representing Eastbourne. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) on introducing this important motion.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth) on an excellent maiden speech—in so far as I am qualified to judge such a matter. I am pleased to be one of the sponsors of his Bill on hedgerows. It is an important Bill which I hope will have a speedy and painless progress through the House. He and I have shared many years of friendly co-operation in the Bow Group, so I am delighted to make my maiden speech on the same day as he has made his.
Eastbourne's beauty is matched only by its charm. It has been a site of continuous settlement since the iron age and the downs have been a major trading route from time immemorial. In AD 410 Saxon invaders established a base by a stream—or burne—and by the time of the Domesday book the "burne" had turned into "bourne". By 1555, the manor was named East Bourne. In later years, it developed as a prosperous seaside town, especially once it was served by the railway. In those days, sea water bathing was less significant than the drinking of large quantities of sea water, which was thought to have therapeutic value.
A medical gentleman from Lewes prescribed one pint doses from 25 gallons of sea water to be imbibed by anyone seeking the cure. It is, therefore, a mystery to me why the town then developed as a popular seaside resort, but develop it did. For many years its fate has been inextricably linked with successive Dukes of Devonshire. During the second world war it was the most bombed town on the south coast, but it came through that experience with pride and a strong community spirit—qualities which endure today in the town's people.
Eastbourne is well known as a delightful spot for holidaymakers and visitors of all sorts and it was voted top resort in 1990. However, we should not forget that tourism is only part of Eastbourne's local economy. Service industries and light industries are well represented, including various high-tech companies. The pharmaceuticals giant Rhône-Poulenc Rorer recently moved its European headquarters to Eastbourne.
The town is deservedly well known as a popular spot for retirement—about one third of the population are of retirement age—but that is far from being the whole story. The population and the birth rate are both rising rapidly. By the year 2001, the school population will have grown by a staggering 54 per cent., no less than 30 per cent. of the population will be aged 25 to 44, and the proportion of retired people will have fallen to less than a quarter.
There is much work being done, and still to be done, on the local transport infrastructure. Improvements are afoot or being planned to such routes as the A22 and the A27–A259. The rail network also needs to be upgraded if Eastbourne is to reap the benefits of the single European market and the channel tunnel.
The Eastbourne park and Sovereign Harbour developments will improve the already impressive amenities of the town. A significantly upgraded waste water treatment works is planned, albeit its location is currently the subject of some controversy. I am delighted to report that, as of 1 April this year, our excellent local hospitals acquired trust status. I have no doubt that the combination of good management, committed staff and increased funding will raise the standards of our local national health service even higher.
I believe that it is traditional on these occasions to say something about one's predecessors. Since its inception in 1885, the parliamentary constituency of Eastbourne has almost always been represented by a Conservative Member. Currently, the constituency takes in the borough of Eastbourne and the outlying areas of Willingdon and Polegate, both of which retain their own distinctive charm. In 1885, there were a mere 8,504 electors producing, I am pleased to say, a Tory majority of 64. However, there have been two lapses during the century. Between 1906 and 1910 Eastbourne had a Liberal Member. Again, my immediate predecessor, David Bellotti, was a Liberal Democrat. He won a famous by-election in 1990 and held the seat for 17 months. He did his best for the town during what was perforce a temporary tenancy. This House has a special feeling for hon. Members who lose their seats and David Bellotti has all our best wishes in his future career.
I know that David Bellotti and the House will understand if I dwell at greater length on his predecessor, the late Ian Gow. He was elected in February 1974 and served Eastbourne and this House well and faithfully for more than 16 years until he was cruelly cut down in his political prime. It is difficult to convey the depth of affection felt for Ian Gow in Eastbourne. When he was murdered by the IRA in a characteristically cowardly and callous fashion on 30 July 1990, the town lost a true friend. I am especially grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight for his generous remarks. Our thoughts also go out to Ian Gow's loyal widow Jane and their two sons. She has borne her suffering with courage and dignity. I was pleased to be present last Friday at the moving ceremony at which Dame Jane, as she now is, was granted the freedom of the town.
Ian Gow was a popular and effective Member of Parliament. Many hon. Members will remember his outstanding and witty speech on the Loyal Address in 1989. He resigned from Government office on a point of principle, but remained a fierce advocate of what he thought was right and an ardent defender of our parliamentary democracy and its traditions. I know that he is still sorely missed in all parts of the House. Many hon. Members will recall his deft piloting of the Eastbourne Harbour Bill, in the teeth of opposition from some Members led keenly but ultimately unsuccessfully by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) who graced us with his presence earlier.
A few days ago, The Times said that Labour was perceived to be in such disarray that on occasions it was difficult to believe that the hon. Member for Bolsover was not the Leader of the Opposition. Be that as it may, the official Opposition continues to drift on, rudderless and leaderless. To borrow an illustration used in a different context recently, one is sometimes led to wonder whether Labour is holed below the water line.
I associate myself with the positive comments about the publication, "Action for the Countryside". It is an imaginative and forward-looking document and I am especially interested in the importance that it attaches to tourism in the countryside. I shall deal with that aspect in the remainder of my speech. I am naturally concerned about tourism. which provides a livelihood for many of my constituents and makes a major contribution to the prosperity of the town as a whole. I was recently privileged to be elected joint secretary of the Conservative Back-Bench tourism committee and, in due course, I shall speak to my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department of the Environment about the peculiarly disadvantageous way in which the standard spending assessments seem to be calculated in so far as they impact on coastal resort towns such as Eastbourne.
The jewel in the crown of our local scenery is, of course, Beachy Head. It is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain and forms part of about 4,000 acres of downland purchased by the borough council in the 1920s. It is rightly designated an area of outstanding natural beauty, and much of it is a site of special scientific interest. The chalk grassland is home to some of Britain's richest wildlife. It supports 30 species of plant life, including aromatic herbs and rare orchids, as well as 25 species of butterfly—a subject on which the debate touched earlier. Ground nesting birds such as the skylark and meadow pipit are also found there.
It is hardly surprising that Beachy Head attracts about 1 million visitors a year, and nothing could more graphically illustrate the potential conflict between the growth of tourism and the preservation of our countryside. Our downland is a precious resource and major effects are needed to protect and preserve it. One of the themes that "Action for the Countryside" rightly stresses is that in local areas the best action is that which is taken locally. Therefore, I applaud the recent establishment of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board, which is supported by the Countryside Commission, the two county councils and 11 borough and district councils. Recently, the Liberal Democrat-controlled borough council—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that comment.
The council recently granted outline planning permission for redevelopment of the tourist facilities at Beachy Head. That permission was granted in the face of considerable opposition from local residents and groups such as the Society of Sussex Downsmen. I played my part in that campaign. There is considerable scope to reduce the scale of those proposals and I am pleased to say that the developers have already made significant concessions. No one could argue that the current facilities at Beachy Head did not need some upgrading, but perhaps this is a textbook example of how a sensible balance must be struck between the needs of visitors and the imperative need to preserve our national heritage. Hon. Members can readily imagine the erosive effects on this sensitive landscape of 1 million pairs of feet tramping over it each year.
For those reasons I welcome the Government's proposals in "Action for the Countryside". The countryside stewardship scheme is a welcome idea to conserve key landscapes and habitats and enhance public enjoyment of them. The extra funding which has been promised to bring rights of way into good repair is also a bonus. The document is spot on when it states:
Landscape and nature conservation require positive management as well as protection.
The document is also right to stress that at the same time as removing unnecessary restraints on the tourism market a proper balance must be struck
between the needs of the industry, its customers, the environment and the communities within which tourism takes place".
I heartily endorse the stress placed on the role of the English tourist board in this endeavour. I look forward to the conference on the theme of tourism and the environment which is to be held later this year to coincide with the United Kingdom's presidency of the European Community. I am sure that the Minister will do all that he can to ensure that Britain gives a lead in this important area.
These are vital issues for me and for my constituents. I hope and expect that the Government will address them with the resources and the political will that they deserve.
My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) said that this was a good week for him and that he had had considerable good fortune. So have I. This is the third or fourth debate in which I have participated in the past couple of weeks and on each occasion I have had a chance to comment on some excellent maiden speeches. I am delighted to say that today is no exception. It gave me particular pleasure to listen to the speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth) and for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson).
We all had considerable affection for Sir Geoffrey Howe, who is now in the other place. My hon. Friends would agree that if it had not been for his period of chancellorship we would not have secured victories in 1983 and 1987. He put our economy on a sound footing and grappled with economic problems that had been ducked for about 30 years.
The House likes maiden speakers who follow the tradition of speaking well of their predecessors and affectionately of their constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne spoke in that way about both his predecessors. He spoke courteously about David Bellotti who was in the House for a short time.
The House, and especially Conservative Members, had considerable affection for Ian Gow. I suspect that all hon. Members in the last Parliament who knew Ian could tell some story of how their lives had been made that little bit better because they had met Ian Gow and had learnt something from him or had had their lives enriched, even on a short acquaintanceship, by some of his stories.
My last meeting with Ian Gow was very pleasant and memorable. He gave me a coloured picture of his two terrier dogs. I know that many of my hon. Friends have pictures of Ian in their houses. I have, in a prominent place in mine, that picture of his two dogs. Like me, he was a great dog lover and we exchanged stories of how much our sofas and chairs had been torn apart by our dogs.
I know that it is also traditional to say that I expect to hear from my hon. Friends again, but I am sure that the House will. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East is to introduce a Bill to protect hedgerows and I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne is a sponsor of it. I shall be saying something about it a little later, but I know that the House will hear from my hon. Friends again, not least in the debates on that Bill. Constituents in both those constituencies can be proud that the notable and worthy Members who represented them in the past have been succeeded by equally notable and worthy Members.
I welcome the motion, because the debate gives me the opportunity to set out the Government's view. Of all my myriad responsibilities—I seem to discover a new one every day in my new job—that for the English countryside I consider among the most important. To look after our countryside and to make sure that the people in it are looked after, that it develops and thrives and at the same time protects its wildlife, is an onerous responsibility. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight tabled the motion and gave us the opportunity to debate this important subject.
At the start of my hon. Friend's speech, it seemed as though he, too, was making a traditional maiden speech because of the obvious affection that he has for his constituency and the elegant way in which he spoke of all its aspects. It is also traditional that, when Ministers are bounced at the Dispatch Box by an hon. Member urging us to visit his constituency, we have a good excuse for refusing—that is, if our civil servants have handed us such an excuse. I want to reverse that tradition. My hon. Friend did not ask me to visit his constituency, but he described it so pleasantly and elegantly that I am minded to visit it, and I hope that he will ask me to do so.
I am remiss. It is probably the first time that I have made a speech and not asked the Minister to visit. However, I know that my hon. Friend not only shares with me a love of dogs and the countryside but has, in private conversation, said that he hoped soon to visit the Isle of Wight and see its beauty for himself.
I certainly intend to do that as soon as I can, or perhaps in the best possible season so that I can see the Isle of Wight in all its beauty.
My hon. Friend spoke about "Action for the Countryside" which is a major policy document. It includes a £45 million package of new, improved and extended initiatives to promote rural development, to conserve and enhance landscapes and wildlife, and to promote access to, and public appreciation of, the countryside.
At the heart of our policies for the countryside lies a concern to achieve a successful marriage between the development of the rural economy and the protection of the countryside environment. The Government want to see a thriving countryside, based on a sensible balance between conservation and encouraging the development necessary to sustain rural communities.
A diverse, healthy rural economy will not only secure the prosperity of all those who live in the countryside, but is an essential safeguard for the rural environment. The principal guardians of our countryside are those who live and work there and only when country people share in the growth of prosperity to which we are committed for the country as a whole, can we be sure that development and conservation will go hand in hand. Because we need to provide investment and other resources to maintain the environment, a prosperous rural economy must be the best guarantee that the countryside will be properly tended and in good heart. We therefore see no conflict between promoting measures to stimulate jobs, housing and services in rural areas and strengthening the protection of those qualities of the countryside that we all value so much.
Those who believe that we can protect the countryside by turning it into a rural theme park are wrong. The countryside is changing. Too many people are unaware of these facts or choose to ignore them. They still want to believe in a chocolate box image of the village with its thatched cottages, pub and smithy, populated by yokels dozing in the sunshine. For an increasing number of our villages, it is as likely that the thatched cottage will house an information technology system analyst working from home, that the pub will cater mainly for evening and weekend trade from the nearest town and that the smithy specialises in fancy wrought iron gates for commuters.
To hope that everyone will welcome change may be over-optimistic, but the least sensible approach is to ignore change in the unlikely hope that it will somehow go away. A changing countryside produces changing needs and the Government will ensure that our policies for the countryside fully meet those needs. "Action for the Countryside" demonstrates how we are doing so. As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East said, the countryside is not a museum. I hope that his presence this afternoon at the renovated barns and cowsheds will encourage others to redevelop their old farm buildings, provided that this is done in a way that is sympathetic to the needs of the countryside.
The Government have emphasised their commitment to the environment. We have set out our policies fully and clearly. Our 1990 White Paper "This Common Inheritance" laid down principles which we intended should apply to all our environmental policies. We reaffirmed those policies in "The First Year Report" published last September while incorporating fresh initiatives mounted in response to new information. I am confident that when we publish our second annual progress report later this year the principles will be seen still to be relevant and that we shall demonstrate the further progress we have made.
The White Paper principles are, first, that we must base our policies on fact not fantasy and use the best evidence and analysis available; secondly, that given the environmental risks, we must act reasonably and be prepared to take precautionary action where it is justified; thirdly, that we must inform public debate and public concern by ensuring publication of the facts; fourthly, that we must work for progress just as hard in the international arena as we do at home; and fifthly, that we must take care to choose the best instruments to achieve our environmental goals. Chapters 6 and 7 of "This Common Inheritance" illustrated how we intend to apply those principles to the Government's policies for the countryside. It demonstrated how existing initiatives delivered these principles and made a number of new proposals for action. "The First Year Report" set out the progress made and emphasised the Government's continuing commitment to keep their policies under review. "Action for the Countryside" demonstrates the strength of that commitment to positive action.
As for Labour, I look forward to hearing the contribution of its Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths). It appears that the Labour party has no strategy for agriculture or the countryside. Indeed, an agriculture spokesman, the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), said,
and we won't have until after the general election.
That was said in June 1990. Some time has passed since the general election and I hope that today we shall hear announced Labour's policy or strategy for the countryside.
I have several points to make in response to the hon. Gentleman's speech, but they are quite a way into my speech. I assure him that I shall not miss them out.
The Labour party has, of course, some familiar strategies, usually more bureaucracy and controls. Its solution for any problem, from inner-city deprivation to space travel—I have examined their policy documents—is to say that it will introduce an independent commission of experts. It seems that it will introduce one
to ensure that agricultural practices reflect nutrition.
That comes from "Opportunity Britain". In addition, farmers would presumably have to qualify for Labour's system of green premiums for farming in an environmentally sound manner. That is a system about which Labour avoids giving any details or making any attempt to cost.
I remember Labour's other proposals. It said that farmers who wished to carry out substantial agricultural practices had to consult gay and lesbian committees. I should like to know whether that proposal is still part of Labour party policy or whether it has been dropped.
The fact is that Labour has always been an entirely urban party. It has no coherent policy on agriculture or the countryside. If it has one, I look forward to hearing it today.
The hon. Gentleman takes one example from Wales. I invite him to consider the countryside generally. There are 651 Members of this place and, even if we take the seats to which he has referred—constituencies in rural areas that are held by the Labour party—it is disappointing that agriculture does not feature strongly in Labour party annual conference debates. The Opposition have used none of their Supply days in past years to talk about agriculture and the rural economy. I believe that I am right in saying that the Leader of the Opposition has never taken any opportunity to make any pronouncements on agriculture—a vital industry—or on the countryside, which covers 97 per cent. of the country's land mass. However, I shall not provoke the hon. Gentleman further. I hope that he did not mind my provoking him in the nicest possible way.
If my hon. Friend is to be as gallant as that, I am not. I want to underline what he says about the Labour party's lack of appeal to, and lack of interest in, rural areas. Virtually no seat in England with a significant rural population is represented by a Labour Member. Most of the rural constituencies that Labour Members represented throughout the 1950s now have Conservative Members with substantial majorities. Even in Wales the Labour party has been sent packing from plenty of rural seats that were represented by Labour Members for the same good reason as in England.
My hon. Friend made several valid points in his characteristically robust style.
I welcome the motion's specific recognition of some of the most important elements of "Action for the Countryside"—in particular, the extension of the countryside stewardship scheme, the parish paths partnership, rural action and the new hedgerow incentives scheme. But, important though these four initiatives are, they must be seen in the context of the package as a whole. In particular, I should like to draw the House's attention to the range of measures we are taking to stimulate the rural economy, to protect landscape and wildlife and to promote access to, and public appreciation of, the countryside.
The healthy and thriving rural economy that we want can be sustained only if communities have access to job opportunities and the necessary range of services and facilities. The Rural Development Commission—RDC—is our main agency in this. It provides workspace directly or in partnership with local authorities and the private sector, grants for the conversion of redundant buildings, and technical and financial advice to small rural businesses.
Increasingly and with our encouragement, the RDC is targeting its activities on the areas with the greatest needs. It has, for example, been tackling the problems of the rural coalfields of the east midlands as well as those of remote areas such as west Cumbria and west Cornwall. It recently relaunched its ACCORD—assistance for co-ordinated rural development—scheme to provide finance for large commercial ventures in rural areas, which would not otherwise proceed.
The Rural Development Commission's countryside employment programme, which we announced recently, provides additional resources to boost the rural economy. A series of pilot projects will see the RDC form partnerships with other statutory and voluntary bodies to formulate programmes of economic, social and environmental action to diversify the local economy and to strengthen local communities. We asked the RDC to monitor the pilots carefully and we will decide in the light of progress whether to launch a wider scheme.
A revised and extended version of the commission's redundant building grant scheme has also been approved. The existing scheme has already created 10,500 job opportunities in rural areas at the reasonable cost of less than £1,300 per job. New features added to the scheme include making grants available in areas of demonstrable economic need and within national parks—even where they lie outside rural development areas—extending the scheme to the provision of high-quality overnight accommodation for tourists and providing higher grant rates where they may be justified to fund the conversion of larger buildings, such as mills.
We recognise that a living and working countryside can be sustained only when people there have access to a reasonable range of services and facilities. The Government have, therefore, approved the expansion of the RDC's social programmes to provide for an increase in expenditure from £5.5 million this year to £7.7 million in 1994–95.
We are providing resources to enable the Housing Corporation to boost its special rural programme, targeted to boost the supply of low-cost housing in the smallest villages. The corporation's programme covers settlements with a population of up to 3,000, but in addition we have made available this year to rural local authorities credit approvals worth £50 million specifically aimed at the provision of low-cost housing, with a further £30 million next year. That will complement the Housing Corporation's programme.
A planning framework for the provision of affordable housing in rural areas is also important. We advise all local planning authorities that the need for affordable housing is a material planning consideration, and that they may negotiate with developers for the provision of an element of affordable housing on new sites to meet local needs.
However, there are also particular difficulties in securing an adequate supply of affordable housing in rural areas where an adequate supply is sometimes needed to secure the viability of local communities. We have, therefore, advised planning authorities in rural areas that they may exceptionally grant planning permission for affordable housing on sites not allocated for housing in the development plan and on which general housing would not normally be allowed, if there is an overriding need. That so-called "exceptions" policy does not override green belt policy; nor does it mean that planning authorities can ignore normal design considerations. Affordable housing should not be shoddy housing. Instead, it represents a small but significant initiative to provide housing for young people growing up in rural communities.
I have noted the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight about creeping housing development by stealth—he gave the example of the old caravan parked in the middle of the field. Our insistence on district plans being provided by the district councils by 1996 should effectively deal with such problems. I will mention that again later in my speech.
The initiatives that my hon. Friend announced are very welcome—particularly the emphasis on afforable housing, for which a number of my hon. Friends and, indeed, hon. Members in all parts of the House have pressed. Does he acknowledge the importance of ensuring that exceptional affordable housing, which can bypass normal planning arrangements, is sympathetically designed? It should have regard to the size of rooms and to the size of the houses themselves. If new homes are to be built in villages, should they not be on the same scale as, say, 400-year-old cottages there, and not always adhere to present-day Parker Morris standards?
I have considerable sympathy with my hon. Friend's point. The book published by HRH the Prince of Wales on architecture in Britain gives examples of public buildings and private dwellings that are sympathetic to the existing surroundings. One can have infill in villages and houses built on the edges of villages and even in national parks, provided that the right materials, designs and sizes are chosen. In that way, one can actually enhance the countryside. But no matter how ideal the site, an inappropriately designed house built of the wrong materials is an eyesore and a disgrace to the countryside.
The Government consider it equally important to protect and enhance the landscape and to conserve the abundance, variety and regional distribution of its wildlife and wealth of importance features of geology and landform. In England our finest landscapes are designated as national parks by the Countryside Commission and confirmed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. In January, we published our positive response to the national parks review panel indicating our intention to bring the purposes of the parks up to date, strengthen the planning protection afforded to them and make all national park authorities independent boards—thereby better fitting them to carry out their tasks into the next century. We also announced our intention to give the New forest a statutory status which will afford it as great a level of protection as any national park.
Although parliamentary time has not been found for national parks legislation during this Session. I reaffirm in the strongest terms the Government's commitment to the parks and our intention to introduce our proposed measures as soon as possible. We are working with the park authorities and others to ensure that we are ready to bring forward that essential measure at the earliest opportunity.
Protection of the landscape is vital, but we recognise that we need also to provide the means to encourage the management of land in the most environmentally responsible manner.
The Isle of Wight considered making an application to become a national park, but it was put off the idea because it would have meant that the island had to surrender all its planning powers to the commission. That matter is of considerable concern to the local community, who do not want to lose their democratic control over planning matters.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. When we introduce the new national parks legislation to which we are committed, we will not deal with the New forest, for example, in the same way as we would under the existing legislation. In the case of the New forest, we accepted all the local advice that the existing machinery and committees should be maintained. Theoretically, it would be possible for the Isle of Wight—if the commission recommended that it become a national park—to ensure that its planning functions were dealt with by XYZ means. it would not automatically have to follow the model of existing national parks.
If, in due course, the Countryside Commission recommends other areas as national parks, I should be very interested in principle to learn of the commission's guidance on how the parks ought to be governed and planning issues should be dealt with.
Some of us are very concerned that there are no national parks in Northern Ireland. The mountains of Mourne and the Fermanagh lake district are surely prime candidates. Furthermore, in rural Northern Ireland there is still a presumption in favour of development, not against it, which leads to bungalow mania throughout parts of the Province. Bearing in mind that this is a United Kingdom debate, not an English debate, I hope that my hon. Friend will address those issues, or at least discuss them with his ministerial colleagues after the debate.
I can give my hon. Friend one assurance which he seeks. I shall not address those issues directly, except to say that in all my visits to Northern Ireland I have regarded the whole Province as one beautiful national park—but I shall certainly draw the attention of my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office to what my hon. Friend has said, and no doubt they will correspond with him.
The countryside stewardship scheme identifies environmental features which are of the highest priority in terms of their landscape, wildlife and historic value, and offers incentives to landowners and managers to maintain those features. Although the scheme has been in operation for only a year, already about 900 agreements have been made covering about 30,000 hectares of land—I do not know what size that is in real acreages. We especially welcome the fact that nearly a quarter of that land involves new provision for public access.
The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) made a characteristically good and interesting speech, and I must tell him that the £2.9 million to which he referred represents merely the additional new resources that we are putting into the Countryside Commission for the countryside stewardship scheme. Of course, £25 million has also been allocated for the stewardship scheme over the next three years—and that is only the Countryside Commission's share. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food runs similar schemes—for example, those involving environmentally sensitive areas, which do very similar things. I believe that the funding there has increased to £55 million.
We were enthusiastic about the modest expansion now proposed by the Countryside Commission, to add historic landscapes and meadow and pasture to the original prescriptions of chalk and limestone grassland, waterside landscapes, the uplands, lowland heath and the coast. Additional resources for that expansion have been provided, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment will launch the extended scheme early next week.
The proposed hedgerow incentive scheme addresses an especially important issue about which I know there is public concern, shared by many in the House. Our countryside survey 1990 showed that a substantial number of hedgerows were being lost through lack of management. The new scheme, which I hope to launch next month, will counter this problem and encourage farmers and landowners to manage their hedgerows in ways that will ensure their long-term survival. The scheme will be administered by the Countryside Commission in close co-ordination with existing MAFF grants and payments will be made for a range of environmentally beneficial works such as laying and gapping up. Hedgerows are a key element of our landscape and the scheme will target hedgerows of particular historic, landscape or wildlife importance.
The Government also recognise that hedgerows are being lost through removal, and I know that there has been much disappointment that, owing to pressure on the parliamentary timetable, we have not been able to promise the introduction of our proposed Bill on hedgerow notification during this Session. However, we have noted with considerable interest the declared intention of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East to take the opportunity of his good fortune in the ballot for private Members' Bill to introduce a measure with similar objectives. I assure him and the House that the Government welcome his intention, and will afford him every support.
We have also taken steps to secure the further protection of wildlife. English Nature is our agency in England for nature conservation. With the Joint Nature Conservation Committee it advises the Government on all aspects of nature conservation. It establishes and maintains nature reserves and identifies and conserves sites of special scientific interest.
We have welcomed and approved proposals by English Nature to secure better management of sites of special scientific interest. The new wildlife enhancement scheme will secure valuable benefits for conservation through paying owners of SSSIs for positive management schemes, while the species recovery programme will improve the status of particular endangered species. Both schemes will work in tandem with countryside stewardship and with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's expanding programme of environmentally sensitive areas.
The Government played an active and constructive role to secure the European Community habitats directive which aims to conserve wildlife diversity throughout the Community. Central to the objectives of the directive will be the establishment of a network of protected sites, known as Natura 2000. The network will be made up of special areas of conservation, comprising rare and endangered wildlife habitats and flora and fauna types of Community importance. We are well placed to respond to the directive through our existing statutory framework and conservation programmes, but we are considering what more would be appropriate for us to do fully to meet our obligations.
If I remember rightly, it was perceived that it would fit in extremely well with the convention that was signed at Rio and that, therefore, there was no need to discuss it. Natura 2000 is up and running. There is no disagreement on it. We all think that it is excellent. It is just one other piece of the jigsaw that we have to fit in.
On the question of access and enjoyment of the countryside, the Government's commitment to the protection of the countryside is matched by our recognition of the need to provide for its appropriate enjoyment. The English countryside has long been a source of spiritual as well as active recreation and its value to those who live in our towns and cities is well proven. We want to improve the quality of that experience for visitors, but not at the expense of those who live in the country.
I was much taken by the remarks of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery. He drew what I believe to be a correct distinction between the view of the countryside and the view from the countryside. I shall probably pinch those two phrases for my own use, which is not unusual in politics. The phraseology that I have used constantly is how to reconcile the different views and needs of those who live in the countryside with those who earn a living from the countryside. His views and mine are compatible. One of the biggest problems that we shall have to face in the remainder of this decade is the reconciliation of those two points of view.
Recent years have seen the development of new recreational pursuits which are drawn to the open spaces of the countryside, not all of which are compatible with the concept of quiet enjoyment. Some, such as motorised sports, are, frankly, inappropriate in many rural areas. Although other sports may not offend the ear, they draw large numbers of people to participate, or as spectators. Therefore, they can be just as great a source of disturbance. Our recent planning policy guidance note on sport and recreation emphasised the need to protect sensitive rural areas from inappropriate recreational development.
I sympathise with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight regarding new forms of motorised traffic on byways open to all traffic. As he says, that was never their original purpose. I know that his concern over vehicular rights on rights of way are shared by other hon. Members. My hon. Friend referred to the rights of way review committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst). He was, however, slightly incorrect, in that its remit does not run to this matter. However, a sub-committee of the review committee is looking at the problem. I await its recommendations with considerable interest. This is a complex issue. I recognise that we must look closely and urgently at what the rights of way review committee proposes. However, I can tell my hon. Friend that I understand that the highways authority of the Isle of Wight council has the power, through traffic regulation orders, to restrict inappropriate or damaging use. Furthermore, vehicular use of byways is illegal and highway authorities should take action against any misuse. I am concerned about the matter. Someone should do something, and I shall look into it.
We have become much more aware in recent years of the possible conflict between recreation and conservation. For that reason, last year we took steps to withdraw certain permitted development rights—for example, for some motor sport events or for war gaming—in sites of special scientific interest. We have recently reconfirmed our view that where there is conflict between the conservation and recreation objectives in the national parks, the former must take precedence. We shall need to look carefully at our obligations under the EC habitats directive and ensure that our most valuable habitats can be properly protected from potentially damaging recreational uses.
Let me make it clear, however, that the Government accept that the countryside can play an important role in suitable recreational provision. I recognise that provision for recreation has become an important factor in the diversification of our rural economy. We welcome that and we want to encourage it, but the provision for recreation has to be for appropriate pursuits, carried on in the right place and under the right conditions. The activities carried out must cause no harm to the countryside. Indeed, I would go further and say that not only should they cause no harm but they should be compatible with the ethos of the countryside and all that it stands for.
Walking remains the most popular form of rural recreation. Our extensive network of 120,000 miles of public rights of way in England is a unique legacy of the past which provides a present means of enjoying the huge variety of our landscape and the settlements within it. "This Common Inheritance" gave the Government's endorsement to the commission's target to bring the rights of way network into good order by the end of the century. Ensuring that all rights of way are open for use, well maintained and properly signposted will allow for access without damaging other interests, including those of the landowner and villager.
We have previously said that an important element in the additional resources that we have provided for the Countryside Commission in the past two years should be directed towards the target for the rights of way network. We recognise that that is a difficult task which will require the effort of all those involved, including the Government. To this end, we gave full support to the Rights of Way Act 1990, which was steered so capably through the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh). It clarified and strengthened the law on the restoration of public paths after ploughing.
We have also welcomed the commission's new parish paths partnership, which aims to stimulate local improvement schemes through parish councils and other local groups. The new scheme will capitalise on local interest, experience and knowledge. It will help to use to better effect the resources already available to improve rights of way and will free highway authorities to concentrate on their statutory responsibilities. We have made £900,000 available during the current year and the commission has already announced the first 15 highway authorities which have been invited to participate. It is hoped that the scheme will operate on a national basis within three years. I shall draw to the attention of the Countryside Commission the problems identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight of completing the coastal path round the island.
We are encouraging landowners to provide access off rights of way by agreement. I have mentioned the success of countryside stewardship in providing such access. We are clear, however, that a right of general access to open land, as some have demanded, would not be appropriate in this small and crowded island. I have no doubt that it would multiply and exacerbate disputes. The key to minimising conflict between landowners and walkers must be careful management. Anyone who saw BBC breakfast television this morning would have been appalled at the damage that we are facing on some of our rights of way, particularly on the peak lands in the Pennines crossed by the Pennine way.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) referred to tank training on Luneburg heath. I have seen a few tank training grounds in my time. They were paradise compared with parts of the Pennine Way, which have been widened in places to something resembling a knee-deep in mud 14-lane motorway.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne expressed concern about Beachy Head. We must try to ensure that all of our best landscapes and prime sites do not suffer undue damage because of demands for ever more access.
I agree with everything that the Minister said about the need for the rights of owners to privacy on their land to be balanced against properly signed footpaths and access ways. Will he bear in mind the grave concern now felt in some parts of the country about hippy convoys and festivals? Will he also bear in mind the extreme difficulty which even local authorities face in excluding those dreadful and intrusive louts from privately owned land?
I assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that I take that on board, and I will draw his remarks to the attention of the Home Secretary, who I know is also concerned about that. Hon. Members have sympathy for the genuine homeless and genuine gipsies, if there are any left nowadays, but there is no sympathy for people who could do better and who have places to live but who decide to wander the countryside in a hippy convoy and crowd on to someone's land.
There may be the impression in some parts of the House that they are moving on to the land of multi-billionaire landlords. That is not so. Would that there were more billionaire landlords, for they would solve the Mar Lodge problem about which the hon. Member for Linlithgow spoke.
Growing pressures on the countryside from urban visitors are probably inevitable, but we must recognise that the capacity of the countryside is limited and that the demands of visitors must be weighed against the proper needs of those who own and work the land. Those who come to enjoy the countryside must recognise that their playground is another's workplace.
Indeed, I do not like the term "enjoy the countryside." The countryside is there to be appreciated on its terms, not on ours. If we appreciate its wonders—its wealth of wildlife, the miracle of the seasons, the abundance of wild and farmed food it produces, the majesty of its mountains, the joy of its rivers and streams, the peace and quiet of its woods and valleys and even the blackness of its nights—and simultaneously get enjoyment from that appreciation, that is an added bonus, but it is not the purpose of the countryside to give us enjoyment.
Our countryside is not a museum or a giant green Alton Towers or sports stadium to be used for our titillation. If we cannot accept its needs, its constraints and its demands, we should scurry back to our cities and leave it alone. Just as agriculture is now beginning to come back into harmony with nature, as it was for centuries, so the rest of us will have to adapt our lifestyles to live in harmony with the countryside, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow said. I would go so far as to say that even if there were no human beings on earth, I would still defend the right of the countryside to exist for its own sake.
We hear much clamour for rights; I should like to see greater recognition of responsibilities. The countryside we value today has been created by generations of responsible stewardship. Those who come to enjoy the countryside must behave with respect for the benefits of that stewardship to ensure its survival.
A key to the success of all our initiatives will be mobilising local resources and local action. That theme runs through our booklet, "Action for the Countryside." We have a fine tradition of voluntary bodies which play a vital part in helping to protect wildlife, in carrying out practical conservation work and in managing land in an environmentally sensitive way. We support those bodies and shall continue to encourage their growth and effectiveness.
Safeguarding the local character of an area is best tackled at the local level. Parish councils and the wealth of voluntary groups have the initiative which can help to build community spirit and make their area more attractive for new business enterprise as well as achieving environmental improvements for their own sake.
The commitment to local action is at the core of the new rural action initiative. This scheme, proposed jointly by the RDC, English Nature and the Countryside Commission, in partnership with Action with Communities in Rural England, ACRE, and other bodies such as the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers and the Royal Society for Nature Conservation, will offer financial assistance, advice and training to the best schemes of local environmental improvement selected in any area. Grants will be provided of up to £2,000 per project and we have made £800,000 available for the first year of the scheme.
There are, of course, wider issues in the countryside which the Government are actively seeking to resolve. Not least of those is the reform of the common agricultural policy and the impact that that will have on the future of farming. Farming makes use of about 73 per cent. of the land surface in England and much of our most valued landscape has been shaped by farmers who for generations have worked the land. However, farming has changed as rapidly as many of the newer, high-technology industries.
Technical advance, be it through new techniques, new crops or new strains of livestock, has successfully expanded production to the point where we are now able to re-order our priorities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies) highlighted the problems in agriculture and pointed the way in which farming could proceed by developing and marketing more novel crops. The farmer's role in caring for the countryside has become much more important to a more prosperous society less concerned with food shortages. But there need be no conflict between the production of food and the conservation of the countryside. Environmentally sensitive farming has always been concerned to sustain the resources of the natural environment for the use and enjoyment of future generations.
The recent agreement secured in Brussels has made significant progress towards ensuring that agricultural markets are more responsive to changing consumer needs, that the environment is maintained and enhanced, and that a balance is kept between providing a fair standard of living for agricultural communities and affordable food for consumers. We especially welcome the agri-environment measure, which means that all member states will now operate programmes to encourage environmentally sensitive farming. The United Kingdom was successful in getting a statement into the agreement affirming the Commission's commitment to making environmental protection an integral part of the CAP. We will be pressing during our forthcoming presidency for direct payments to be dependent on the observance of environmental conditions.
We have been especially pleased at the way in which other Community states have begun to adopt the approach pioneered by the United Kingdom through the concept of environmentally sensitive areas. ESAs set out to encourage farming systems and farming practices which are especially beneficial in areas of landscape or wildlife value. They are welcomed both by farmers and environmentalists. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food recently announced extensions to the ESA scheme which will add a further 12 areas in England and which will, with additions to existing areas, bring the total area covered by the scheme to more than I million hectares, and bring considerable new financial resources into the countryside.
Forestry is another vital element in the rural economy. Forests and woodlands cover only 10 per cent. of Britain's land surface, compared with an average 25 per cent. in the European Community, and there is clearly scope to increase our level of tree cover for both environmental and economic reasons. At the same time, we need to protect our remaining ancient and semi-natural woodlands for their beauty and wildlife value. The Government remain determined to ensure that forestry plays a fuller part in the future of the countryside, not just for its economic worth in terms of timber production, but for its social and environmental values. I shall discuss all the issues that the hon. Member for Linlithgow raised on Mar Lodge with my hon. Friends in the Scottish Office.
It was because the Government wanted to encourage timber production for social and environmental value that they issued guidance to local authorities throughout England and Wales on the preparation of indicative forestry strategies, which had already proved their value in Scotland. That is a case where we have learnt from north of the border. The aim of the new strategies will be to indicate the opportunities for creating new woodlands and forests, while taking particular account of areas sensitive to tree planting.
In order to encourage planting on a wider scale to meet both economic and environmental objectives, the Government have introduced substantial changes to their support for forestry. The farm woodland premium scheme, introduced on 1 April, offers improved financial incentives for encouraging farmers to convert land in agricultural use to woodland with the aim of improving the farmed landscape and environment, and encouraging a productive land use alternative to agriculture.
The woodland grant scheme is now targeted towards increasing amounts of broadleaf and mixed planting, with a shift towards better-quality land in the lowlands encouraged by the better land supplement. The introduction this April of management grants under the scheme will ensure that grant support is now available beyond the planting and establishment phase, particularly in the case of woodlands of special environmental value.
In the particular context of encouraging multi-purpose forestry, we have announced our support for proposals to create a new national forest in the midlands and to develop community forests near major towns and cities. The new national forest, as proposed by the Countryside Commission and supported by the Forestry Commission, covers an area of 50,000 hectares in Leicestershire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire, and that exciting concept promises a modern counterpart of the New forest in Hampshire which was established in Norman times. The Government have funded the establishment of a project team and are now awaiting its proposed forest strategy and business plan as a basis for future decisions on the forest.
Twelve community forests are currently planned—in Staffordshire, Tyne and Wear, east London, Bedford, Bristol, Cleveland, Manchester, Merseyside, Nottingham, south Hertfordshire, south Yorkshire and Swindon. Each forest will each cover an area of 8,000 to 20,000 hectares and special emphasis will be placed on enhancing the environment of the urban fringe and providing new opportunities for leisure close to major conurbations. Local support and commitment will be crucial to the success of the community forests, but the Government believe that the Forestry Commission's introduction of a new community woodland supplement will be especially helpful in creating the right conditions for their development.
All those initiatives may be placed within the framework of the Government's objectives to achieve the proper balance between a thriving rural economy and conservation of the countryside environment. The planning system lies at the heart of that aim of integrating the development necessary to sustain the rural economy and communities with protection of the countryside for the sake of its beauty, the diversity of its landscape and the wealth and value of natural and historical resources.
New guidance for local planning authorities on the countryside and the rural economy is contained in planning policy guidance note 7 which my Department issued in January. The PPG7 recognises the substantial changes that are taking place in the countryside and emphasises the importance that the Government place on sustaining the process of rural diversification and accommodating change, while conserving the full and varied countryside for the benefit of residents and visitors alike. The PPG7 should reduce the abuse of the agricultural dwellings concession, which worried my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight. Rural areas can accommodate many forms of development without detriment, if location and design are handled with sensitivity. Such sensitivity means relating new development to the existing form, character and pattern of settlements and having due regard to the distribution of historic, wildlife and landscape resources and the quality of the land. Special care is needed to protect our remaining landscape features and wildlife habitats, replacement of which is rarely possible and usually expensive. In the open countryside, development needs to be strictly controlled. In designated areas, such as national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest, still greater restraint is appropriate.
The new guidance recognises that a shift in emphasis is necessary—away from retaining as much agricultural land as possible in production towards protecting our wildlife habitats and landscape features and developing the rural economy. We must of course continue to protect the best of our agricultural land, but for land of lower quality protecting landscape and wildlife interests will need to be given more weight.
Opportunities exist for land to move from agricultural use to forestry, leisure and other developments and to uses that will be focused on environmental benefit. The guidance restates and clarifies advice on housing in the countryside, on the reuse and adaptation of rural buildings and on the operation of new controls over the development, extension and alteration of farm buildings and the construction of farm and forestry roads.
The Government firmly believe that we now have the right planning guidance for our rural areas, which strikes an appropriate balance between development opportunities and the need for conservation in all its forms. We now look to local planning authorities to implement that guidance in their development plans and day-to-day planning decisions.
I noted the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight about the Glanville fritillary. I shall pass on his comments to our colleagues in English Nature.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow asked me about Rio. This debate is intended to be more about the countryside and all the matters that I have already discussed. The hon. Gentleman asked me many questions, and in particular about the Darwin initiative. Some of those points were also raised in yesterday's debate. The hon. Gentleman's questions deserve proper consideration and I assure him that I will write to him in detail on all his points, including the one about regional networks. They are intended as an aid to building up capacity in developing countries by improving links between centres of expertise. The whole objective of the Darwin initiative is to support the implementation of the biodiversity convention by deploying the strengths of the United Kingdom in assisting the conservation and sustainable use of the world's resources of biodiversity and natural habitats.
I shall list five things that the initiative will assist—the five golden rules. First, it will assist in carrying out preliminary country studies of natural resources and biodiversity in other countries and helping, where appropriate, in the preparation of the conservation and development strategies required by the convention. Secondly, it will assist in clarifying goals for scientific, economic and legal research and in monitoring the development of inventories of the most important species and habitats.
Thirdly, the initiative will help to promote international co-operation on technology and techniques for conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, as specified by the convention. Fourthly, it will promote benefit-sharing arrangements between countries that provide biological resources and those who exploit them commercially. Fifthly, it will assist in capacity building in other countries and in the United Kingdom through training and exchange programmes.
The hon. Gentleman asked who would be involved in all of that—
My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) made a good and eloquent point in his customary courteous manner. I was about to conclude my remarks on biodiversity in answer to points raised by the hon. Member for Linlithgow. All of his speech was relevant to the debate and he was, as usual, very well informed. I wanted to give as full a reply as I could. I need just a couple more minutes.
Neither Kew nor the royal botanic gardens in Edinburgh, when I rang them this morning, knew whether they were dealing with £5 million or £2 million. Can they be enlightened on the crucial question of costs?
Not at this moment. We are considering the administration of the Darwin initiative, who will be involved and what it will entail. It is too early to predict what financial resources will be available. We can capitalise on the tremendous amount of work that has already been done. We want to involve all the organisations working in this field which think that they have something to contribute. That includes public and private research institutes, museums and non-government organisations.
Where do we go from Rio? The Government will establish a small action team from the relevant Departments to develop the framework for the initiative. Interested organisations in the private and public sector will be invited to join the appropriate organisational structures further to develop the Darwin initiative. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman supplying all the details that he requested.
"Action for the Countryside" is a comprehensive package of policies aimed specifically at the changing needs of our rural areas. It addresses the most significant current issues in an effective way, but it cannot be the last word. We shall continue to monitor changes and will ensure that our policies are kept up to date.
The four key themes that run throughout "Action for the Countryside" must remain the core of our countryside policies. these themes are, first, to take a balanced approach; secondly, to target resources on areas of greatest need; thirdly, to remember the key role of the rural economy in creating both a wealthy and a healthy countryside; and finally, to build on the skills and resources of all those who live and work in the countryside. All four are important, but perhaps the most vital is the maximum use that we must make of the skills, enthusiasm and good will of country people. They are in the best position to decide what needs to be done and how to deliver the necessary action most effectively. They are the key to the future of our countryside.
I shall conclude by pinching a quote from my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight. It was said by Lord Shuttleworth and deserves repetition. He said:
one prospect that I cannot accept is the abandonment of a long-standing tradition of a countryside that works in every sense. To settle for a passive countryside, used only like a carpet on the floor, or a painting on the wall, would be to fail to realise the potential of a national resource. Rural England"—
I say rural Britain—
requires a broadly based economic and social vitality of its own.
I agree, and commend my hon. Friend's motion to the House.
I thank the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) for introducing the debate. I am pleased to take part in it. The hon. Gentleman was motivated by obvious pressures and difficulties faced by the Isle of Wight because it is such a beautiful and popular place. It was pleasant and refreshing to listen to the maiden speech of the hon. Members for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth) and for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). Both speeches were exceedingly clear and both hon. Members paid tribute to outstanding predecessors, although the Eastbourne constituency is slightly different from that of Surrey, East in view of the interregnum, so to speak, of the Liberal Member David Bellotti. Both hon. Members appeared extremely confident, but they must have addressed the House with a certain amount of trepidation. I am sure that they will strive to walk in the footsteps of the great people who went before them.
We have been challenged about our concerns for rural areas. Apart from my four years as a student in Cardiff and the weekly sojourn that I have to undertake in London, I have always lived within a short stone's throw of the countryside. As a child, I was fortunate enough to spend holidays on the farm of an uncle and aunt. I remember the times I spent there as very happy. I therefore assure all hon. Members that the countryside and the rural economy are concerns which I keep close to my heart. Where I currently live, in the village of Cefn Cribwr, my back garden runs into a field although—I shall refer to this later—the next field contains a recently closed opencast mine on which we are awaiting the inspector's report on a public inquiry into whether it should be extended further down the valley.
The debate has been extremely interesting and enlivened by contributions from both sides of the House sharing a real concern for the future of the countryside and the balance, to which all referred, between the need for a thriving rural economy and the need to conserve the best features of the countryside. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) managed, with characteristic ease, to relate the countryside in Britain to that of the whole world and the recent Rio conference. I am particularly pleased that the Minister promised to have consultations and correspondence with the Scottish Office about the future of Mar Lodge and the important Caledonian forest.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Ms. Hoey) spoke of the important issue of recreation in the countryside, which again involves the great difficulty, referred to by the Minister and the hon. Member for Eastbourne, when he spoke about tourism, of striking the right balance between interests. In many areas, an imbalance has been caused by the large numbers of people who want to enjoy and appreciate the countryside, because such large-scale access causes damage.
The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile), in welcoming tourists, was concerned about housing problems, which are particularly acute in his constituency. He said that the problem has been stimulated by the past decade, and particularly the past five years, of Conservative Government. He said that when he first became a Member of Parliament in 1983 there was not a real housing problem, but today there are serious problems of homelessness in his constituency, which in other respects is a rural idyll.
The hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies) alarmed and concerned me, because the logic of what he said was that farming should take place only on the richer soils, and nothing much should be done elsewhere to help farmers improve productiveness. He felt that social and environmental schemes should be separate from schemes to improve productiveness, but I see improvements in productiveness tied in explicitly with the need to ensure that that is achieved in an environmentally sensitive way which will help to conserve the best that we have left of our countryside.
"Action for the Countryside" and the schemes associated with it are an attempt—faltering and, thus far, nervous and unambitious—to bring together the issues of productiveness, a thriving rural economy, conservation and enhancement of the countryside. We welcome everything that the Minister has said about "Action for the Countryside" and the schemes that are under way, but it still seems—perhaps the Minister will be able to be more explicit when he replies—that the moneys being used on programmes designed to promote environmentally sensitive farming are equivalent to less than 1 per cent. of what is spent in the United Kingdom on other aspects of farming. I have in mind especially the common agricultural policy. We give a cautious welcome to all that is being done, but we feel that the present cautious steps should be a springboard for further action. Labour's policies on green premiums and an extension of environmentally sensitive areas, which he characterised in a pejorative way—are those that the Government are likely to end up with at the end of their period of office. I hope that that will happen.
There has been talk about planning and I think that a word of caution needs to be urged. Policy planning guidance note 7 has been referred to in, I believe, rather overglowing terms. Many groups, such as the Council for the Protection of Rural England, are rather hesitant about the many claims of overall advantageous attributes that are made for that piece of guidance by the Government and their supporters. Development control is still a worry. Mineral extraction policy still presents severe threats to the countryside and to sites of special scientific interest. Certain agricultural activities are also endangering such sites. Transport policy, which the hon. Member for Surrey, East referred when he talked about the M25 extension, is also extremely worrying in the context of the conservation of the countryside.
Let us consider some aspects of the Government policies contained in "Action for the Countryside". First, the hedgerow incentive scheme is a step in the right direction, but from what I can gather the amount of money available for the scheme is not likely to be able to save more than about 5 per cent. of the hedgerow that has been threatened and is likely to be threatened each year from now on. Perhaps the Minister will be able to con/firm that that is the position.
The Minister will recall the debates that took place during consideration of what is now the Planning and Compensation Act 1991. Despite his carping criticism of the Labour party's position on rural policy and its position in rural areas, in Wales the Labour party holds seats in which reside twice or even three times as many farmers as in Conservative areas. Nevertheless, I pay tribute to him for the amendment that he introduced to the planning and compensation measure in his earnest desire to set up a hedgerow protection scheme.
The Minister can be assured that the hedgerows Bill, promoted by the hon. Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth), will receive support from the Opposition. As it is No. 17 on the list, and given what the Minister has said, it is likely that the Bill will be enacted by the end of this parliamentary year. There is a great need For the Hedgerows Bill. The Minister half accepted with a nod and a wink that although the Government have had commitments to a hedgerow protection scheme, they have failed to introduce a suitable Bill because of lack a time. I am pleased, therefore, that a Conservative Member has been able to introduce a private Member's Bill on the subject.
When we debated the Planning and Compensation Bill on Report on 19 June 1991, there was a commitment by the Government, which was repeated in July and again in December, that they would introduce legislation. It is a pity that they were not able to do so. Not enough finance is being allocated to the incentive scheme to make a real contribution to saving hedgerows and to ensure that existing hedgerows are properly managed.
Sites of special scientific interest are another serious problem area. They cover about 8 per cent. of the United Kingdom, but unfortunately many of them are under severe threat. It is reckoned that 5 per cent. a year are damaged in some way, some of them seriously. Some of the damage is caused by the granting of planning permission and some is caused by agricultural activity.
The World Wide Fund for Nature is so concerned that it has developed a 10-point action plan to save SSSIs. In our debates on the Planning and Compensation Bill, we raised issues relating to the way in which the SSSIs might be protected. Some of the proposals from the World Wide Fund for Nature could make a real contribution to the protection and enhancement of SSSIs.
The fund suggests that there should be a presumption against development on SSSIs. Such a presumption would have saved Oxleas wood. Even if it were applied at this stage, it would save the ancient Welsh woodland of Carmel woods from depredation by quarrying over 250 acres, provided that Dyfed county council is prepared to accept the compromise agreement by which McAlpine would quarry the other 200 acres or so.
Severe problems are created by old interim development orders and long-standing planning permissions. The fund's other positive and helpful proposals include mandatory environmental assessments in respect of any development proposal affecting an SSSI. There should be public inquiries in cases where a statutory country conservation agency objects to a development. That proposal was also debated during the progress of the Planning Compensation Act 1991, but was rejected by the Government.
There should be a review also of all outstanding permissions for mineral extraction affecting SSSIs. The Government could follow the example set by West Germany in 1972. It revoked every planning permission, saying that environmental considerations were such that new applications would have to be lodged, and that they would be subject to new tests of whether planning permission ought to be granted.
My hon. Friend will be aware that in 1984 the Government introduced circular 3/84, which allowed opencast mining. No longer were the beauty and characteristics of the countryside a consideration, but only whether coal was needed. Today, 18 million tonnes of coal are being extracted from British fields, and the figure is growing apace. Surely now is the time to withdraw that circular. We have no need for opencast because we have plenty of deep-mined coal.
It is crazy for the Government to allow opencast mining to continue. That matter affects the countryside. I attended a tribunal appeal hearing the other day—
I thank my hon. Friend for his helpful intervention. I agree with him entirely. The guidance on quarrying and opencast mining is a disgrace to any Government who claim to be protecting and enhancing the countryside. An opencast area behind my back garden was closed recently, pending the inspector's report on a public inquiry into whether an extension to that activity should be granted. That would create havoc in the countryside behind my own back garden. My hon. Friend raises a serious point.
Improvements could also be made to the identification and notification of marine biology SSSIs. The World Wide Fund for Nature also points out that there ought to be comprehensive monitoring of SSSIs and publication of data, to prevent the decline of SSSIs. The fund cites the Basingstoke canal, which is threatened with an increase in motorised boating. The notification of SSSIs should be scientific decision—not encumbered or threatened because planning permission exists that might discourage a Minister to approve an SSSI, however scientifically merited such a decision might be.
It would also be good to see strong and effective penalties for damaging or destroying SSSIs. After all, that happens with listed buildings, and there is a good comparison to be made between listed buildings of great historic interest and the countryside and landscapes of equal historic interest. I hope that the Minister will consider the case for introducing legislation similar to that which prevents the destruction of listed buildings so as to prevent the destruction of the countryside and especially SSSIs.
The last of the 10 points from the World Wide Fund for Nature concerns a system of positive incentives for SSSI management to replace the existing "profits forgone" system, and the unreasonable headline-catching compensatory claims, such as that made not long ago for Glen Feshie in Scotland.
There is an overwhelming nature conservation case for SSSIs to receive special protection, and it would be good if the Government had the target of ensuring that at least 10 per cent. of the best wildlife habitat was protected in that way. If the Minister did that, he would certainly have the support of the 25 organisations with conservation interests, such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the many others which produced the health check of SSSIs.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds did a similar health check on United Kingdom sites affecting migratory and wading birds, and found that about 60 per cent. of those sites were threatened by one development or another. So there is a strong case for the Government to take action.
I believe that the Minister was thinking of SSSIs when he referred to the EC habitats directive—an important measure designed to protect important conservation areas, which will come fully into effect in 1994. Article 3 of the directive requires the United Kingdom to restore habitats of Community importance. I wonder whether the Government have yet made any decision or given any thought to which SSSIs to designate as of Community importance—perhaps even all of them.
Has the hon. Gentleman seen the parliamentary questions that I have tabled as part of a campaign to move the Government forward on the Ramsar convention, in connection with the wetland habitats in the Solent? The most recent reply that I received from the Minister was that a programme had been announced for the consideration of sites under that convention.
Yes. I was talking to the RSPB about that aspect of SSSIs only yesterday. Clearly, such important international conventions must be adhered to. The Secretary of State for the Environment emphasised the need to adhere to them as part of the reason for the Government's exceeding caution at Rio. Before signing conventions, they wanted to be sure that they could adhere to them.
Under article 6 of the EC directive, sites of Community importance are to be protected. That raises an important question that I have been trying to persuade the Minister to address with some questions that I have recently tabled about SSSIs. I have been trying to find out whether the Government are prepared to make it their policy to give SSSIs complete protection. Unfortunately, the answers that I received made it clear that the Government were not prepared to give complete protection to those sites.
Article 6 of the EC directive could be interpreted as meaning that protection means just that—complete protection and no development at all. Article 8 provides for the conservation of the wider countryside and landscape outside the designated areas. The Government will have to pay greater attention to areas beyond those that have been designated as sites of special scientific interest.
As my hon. Friend points out, the Pennine Way is very important and suffers severely from overuse.
It would be interesting to know whether the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has taken legal advice on the issue. If the EC habitats directive is to be properly implemented in the United Kingdom, additional legislation will be required, or significant amendments will have to be made to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Does the Minister intend to introduce new legislation to implement the EC habitats directive? What measure does he intend to introduce to honour EC obligations to avoid the deterioration of important conservation areas? Does he intend to extend planning controls to the 12-mile limit of our territorial waters to deal with the significant problems that face marine conservation?
A number of important issues relating to SSSIs will have to be dealt with, not least because of some aspects of our planning law and other issues relating to agricultural development. Farmers are permitted to erect buildings and lay down agricultural tracks. The Planning and Compensation Act 1991 has provided local authorities with additional powers to monitor those developments. It requires landowners and farmers to notify the local planning authority of their intentions. Local authorities now have the power to intervene in order to obtain agreement about what exactly a farmer wishes to do. Unlike the rest of the planning law relating to non-agricultural and non-forestry development, there is no power under our planning laws that allows the local planning authority to monitor exactly what is happening in the countryside, with the result that from time to time farmers give rise to consternation among the communities who live in the countryside because of the mayhem they have caused.
I have a specific example of that in my constituency. This evening, I shall attend a meeting at Bryntirion comprehensive school in the Cefnglas area of Bridgend, where it is predicted that between 300 and 500 people will attend because of works undertaken by a local farmer. Last summer, under the guise of laying down some agricultural tracks, he began work on the edge of a dual carriageway for which he did not have proper planning permission. Anyone passing would have imagined that it was a new trunk road entry and exit on to the dual carriageway.
The House may not be surprised to learn that, although the farmer has appealed against the local authority's enforcement order to comply properly with the regulations on laying agricultural track, he has made a planning application for a 75-hectare housing development alongside the purported agricultural roads. I wanted my local authority to issue a stop order immediately, because the scale of the work was such that anybody could see that it was not an agricultural track, but it made a conservative interpretation of the law, arguing that because he had the right to construct an agricultural track it could issue only an enforcement notice to make him turn it into a proper agricultural track. The application has now been overtaken by events.
Such incidents are widespread, so proper planning procedures should apply at least to some aspects of agricultural development. That is the strong feeling of many of my constituents who live on the outskirts of Bridgend and in nearby villages such as Pen-y-fai.
I do not know. I would hesitate to say anything about an association with the Tory party because an independent councillor in the north of England got libel damages from a Labour candidate who had alleged that he had supported the Tories on the local council. I should not want to stray on to such dangerous ground.
A strong case can be made for certain agricultural developments coming properly under planning law. I appreciate that often farmers are pushed into such developments because of the difficulties that they experience in making a living. That is why it is so important that the Government's "Action for the Countryside" should not just be a bit of window dressing for their overall agriculture policies, as it is at the moment, but should become the main focus for consideration of agriculture in the United Kingdom.
We have been told in the debate that some farmers cannot make a living. Some hon. Members will be aware of three farmers in my constituency who have been prevented from making a living because of the amount of dioxin in the milk in Bolsover. That has been going on for a year, yet this lousy rotten Minister of Agriculture knows that those farmers were not paid after last May, with the result that they do not have anything to do. They have been sent a booklet about alternative farming systems, and I suppose that they might finish up being pushed into doing some of the jobs to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) referred.
In that case, the action should be the same as is taken in Holland. The Government should make sure that those farmers are compensated for the dioxin that is pouring out of Coalite in the area. The Government should then take Coalite on—why not, if they could take on the Falklands campaign?—and get the money back. That is what they do in Holland, and it should be done in Bolsover, instead of expecting those three farmers to live on fresh air. It is a scandal. Twelve months have gone by and still the dioxin is going into the milk—
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is right to speak about the way in which those farmers have been treated. It is a disgrace and, as he rightly points out, they take a far more sympathetic and positive attitude in the Netherlands to such problems. There, those farmers would have been properly and thoroughly compensated. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the issue, now that he represents a different Department, and will concede the real importance of conserving the environment and having discussions about the matter with his colleagues concerned with agriculture to see whether more positive action can be taken to help those farmers.
A worrying topic is quarrying in the countryside. I have mentioned that there is an opencast operation outside my back door. One that closed recently was extremely well managed, because of the way it went over an area where there had previously been half a dozen drift mines. Indeed, nobody in the village could tell that there was an opencast mine there because a huge bund of earth had been erected around the site. Apart from seeing a few train movements to and from the site, one hardly knew that coal was being taken from the ground by opencast methods.
Beyond that site, however, is the subject of a part-slip that is currently awaiting the inspector's report. The Opencast Executive has said that it cannot operate the site in the same way; nor is it a site of old coal workings. In fact, it is a beautiful piece of countryside. So my village of Cefn Cribwr and people living in farms in the surrounding area would face, if permission were given, the complete destruction of a large area of countryside. They would have to live with a hole in the ground, which one could describe as a huge crater, for between five and 10 years. Given the amount of coal available from other sources, the conservation of the countryside should take precedence in such cases of opencast mining and quarrying. We throw away into waste tips far too much builders' waste and rubble which could be ground down and used instead of the aggregates that are quarried from many sites, including SSSIs. As the Government become more green, I should like to think that they will look seriously at the depredation caused by opencast mining and quarrying, not just on SSSIs but in the countryside at large.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the peripatetic workers in opencast mines follow the constructions around and just when one site comes to an end, suddenly another one is made available? What do the managers do then? They make a small fortune from digging out the coal and putting miners out of work. Then they dump toxic waste into the big hole. We are becoming the dustbin of Europe.
My hon. Friend's reference to dumping toxic waste into old opencast workings is a serious one. I should like to think that that could not take place. I hope that the Minister will investigate that thoroughly as soon as he leaves the Chamber this afternoon.
I hope that the Government will look into the whole issue of quarrying, because we quarry far more aggregate than we need. Far too much builders' rubble and associated waste could be used instead of aggregate, which would be extremely helpful in conserving the countryside.
Great play has been made about the Government's efforts to ensure proper access to the countryside and the Minister mentioned the schemes that they are trying to promote. In 1987 the Conservative party manifesto included a commitment to introduce legislation on the policies of the Common Land Forum. It did not appear in the last manifesto and seems to have disappeared from sight. It would have done a great deal to improve access to the countryside.
The Ramblers Association has raised with me the issue of the sale of Forestry Commission land and the loss of public access involved in that. Between 1981 and 1989, 140,000 hectares of land were sold and access was lost to many rights of way which had previously been open to the general public. In 1989 it was announced that the Forestry Commission should aim to sell a further 100,000 hectares by the year 2000.
The Government recognised the need to do something about the loss of access, so they set up a scheme which allowed local authorities to negotiate access agreements with the Forestry Commission before it sold land. Unfortunately, it is not a statutory requirement on local authorities. Because of the extra financial costs involved at a time of acute financial difficulties for councils, such as poll tax and council tax capping, few agreements have been brought to fruition. I believe that there is one access agreement now and a further 14 being negotiated. In Wales, for example, 40 access agreements have been offered on Forestry Commission land, but only three taken up. That is a serious problem which my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) tried to put right in the previous Parliament by introducing a private Member's Bill. In doing so, he said that many of the commission's forests were popular recreation areas. He specified the Gwydwr forests around Betws-y-Coed in Snowdonia, Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, Thetford forest in East Anglia, Dalby forest in North Yorkshire and the Queen Elizabeth forest park near Loch Lomond. In addition, the Forestry Commission manages the New forest in Hampshire.
My hon. Friend said that there were examples of woods that had been sold by the commission and had resulted in a loss of public access. Pen wood, south of Yeovil in Somerset was sold in 1983, since when the car park and picnic sites have been closed, the entrance to the wood locked, and notices erected forbidding the public to enter.
Unfortunately, the Government did not agree with my hon. Friend's attempts to allow freedom of access to forests. Given the Minister's keenness to provide access, I hope that he will be prepared to reconsider the matter. He should be particularly eager, bearing in mind the problems of access that exist in other parts of the country, such as the Peak district and my home territory of Brecon Beacons national park where from a distance one can see huge brown swathes of the countryside where people, anxious to enjoy the environment, have gone for walks and simply walked away the grass. I believe that if there were more access points to the countryside, the pressure would be taken off the most popular districts. I hope that the Minister will reconsider.
Surely, increasing access, particularly to upland commons as the Common Land Forum recommended, would cause even more damage. The hon. Gentleman must accept that all the scientific evidence shows that unrestricted access to and rights to roam on uplands causes considerable damage to wildlife and the enviornment. Therefore, access must be controlled.
I agree that access should be managed, but in many districts access is entirely prohibited. I am sure that, with a bit of good will on all sides—ramblers, country land owners, the Government, the Open Spaces Society—we could reach an agreement over more open, but managed, access. I am only sorry that the Government reneged on their commitment to try to take up some of the ideas of the Common Land Forum.
The Government's recent announcement on the M25 will have serious consequences for the conservation of the countryside if the Government intend to solve transport problems around London by extending the M25 to 14 lanes. The recently announced scheme will damage 81 important wildlife sites, including 10 sites of special scientific interest and nine sites of nature conservation interest. The M25 extension scheme also threatens 47 ancient woodlands. Let us not even begin to think about the pollution problems that will be caused to the surrounding district from the increased volume of traffic on the M25.
Friends of the Earth has been considering the announcement and has estimated that 60 per cent. of the works needed to extend the M25 and the associated distributor road network will erode the green belt. That is very serious in view of the Government's commitment to conservation in the countryside.
Hundreds of homes will be destroyed, as will large numbers of sites of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty in the Chilterns, the Surrey hills and the Kent downs. Five National Trust properties are within a stone's throw of the proposed works. Who knows what damage they could suffer? There will be a huge increase in pollution. At Addlestone on the M25 it has been recorded that nitrogen dioxide deposits have risen by 92 per cent. since the motorway opened. A large number of serious problems are associated with the proposed extension and all the good things that the Minister claims he wants to achieve will be damaged.
The Minister referred to his indicative forestry strategy. Most of the voluntary organisations involved in conservation believe that that strategy will not deal with many of the problems because it is concerned mainly with creating new woodland—which is desperately needed—and includes nothing for the management of existing woodland, where more resources need to be concentrated.
I wish to conclude, but I am not sure how long it will take. I want to make an important point on a matter that the Minister also raised. There is a need to promote the rural economy. There is no doubt that rural deprivation is a serious problem. Whole areas and communities in England, Wales and Scotland are now without a bus service. There are villages with no shops, no post offices, no youth clubs, no doctors' surgeries, no banks, no community centres and, in too many places, no schools. The quality of life for those who are used to living in the countryside is being severely threatened. For many people who come to the countryside because they can afford to live there, the threats may not appear to be so serious, but they are serious indeed for the resident communities.
As the Minister said, employment is the key. Unfortunately, his planning policy guidance note 7 has caused some consternation among conservation bodies because it appears to imply that in certain circumstances development might take precedence over important conservation points. If he were to extend schemes such as the environmentally sensitive area scheme and the wildlife enhancement scheme and put them on a more general footing, that would revive traditional countryside skills for the conservation of our countryside. Environmentally sensitive agricultural practices would provide more employment. That would begin to tackle the problems associated with the loss of services in the countryside.
The woodland scheme could be beefed up. Perhaps the farm diversification scheme, with which the Minister will be familiar from his time in MAFF, could be beefed up for rural businesses. Provided that it is interpreted fairly closely, we could get the sort of development in the countryside that would be extremely helpful to it.
The Government's countryside action plan is for England and does not extend to Wales. However, most of the initiatives are present in one form or another although they have not been brought together. The Tir Cymen initiative is more general than the Government's countryside stewardship scheme because it is not targeted at specific types of landscape. The pilot project has been undertaken in three quite different rural areas of Wales—in Meirionnydd, which has a large upland area, in Dinefwr, which is in a beautiful lowland area, and in Swansea which takes in the Gower peninsula where there is a rural area with tremendous tourist pressures. It covers all types of habitat and landscape.
More needs to be done to promote environmentally sensitive agriculture, which could lead to a return of many traditional countryside skills and provide needed employment. That will lead to the return of shops, post offices and schools and other services. While we endorse all that the Government are doing, we plead for a wider and more general application of their schemes and the provision of more resources from and diversification of the CAP budget to environmentally sensitive practices. That is where the future prosperity of the rural economy lies.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) on initiating the debate. This is one of the few occasions during the year on which Back Benchers have a chance to initiate discussion on important subjects. Therefore, it is all the more deplorable that the two Front-Bench spokesmen between them spoke for over two hours.
My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight justly has a reputation for being concerned with environmental issues. I have seen that at first hand through his diligent work on the Select Committee on the Environment. Therefore, I was not at all surprised at his choosing this important subject for debate. I was also pleased that my hon. Friends the Members for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) and for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth) had the opportunity to make their maiden speeches on this subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East is to introduce a private Member's Bill following the lines of an amendment that I once tabled. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) graciously spoke about that, but I warn him that he should not hold out too much hope, because I tried a private Member's Bill before I tried the amendment and it was blocked by the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen).
The Minister for the Environment and Countryside gave a detailed exposition of the Government's approach to countryside issues. I am sure that he would be the first to agree that much of the work in that sphere was carried out by his predecessor Sir David Trippier, who was a distinguished Minister in the Department of the Environment. He was one of those largely responsible for bringing a rather greener view to Government policies.
One of the problems that we face is that the countryside is approached as a monolith by almost everybody who brings a policy to bear on it. We have heard about some of the issues that affect the countryside. Hon. Members have spoken about rural poverty, problems with schools, the disappearance of shops, unemployment, farm incomes and access. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight spoke about the problems of coastal management and coastal erosion.
The trouble is that not all these problems occur in every rural area. Those of us who represent the rural areas surrounding big cities experience wholly different problems from those who represent remote and inaccessible rural areas. I sometimes think, when I see the circulars that are prepared about diversification in farming suggesting schemes such as bed and breakfast, farm shops and caravan sites, that they may be all very well in Montgomeryshire, but they are inappropriate to the rural fringe of London.
To someone living in inner London, the countryside may be Richmond park or Epping forest. The rural area in my part of the world will be the sort of area that we have to defend from the large numbers of people who want to live there and the even larger numbers who want to visit. In remote rural areas, the countryside undoubtedly is a place where incomes have been depressed over recent years as a result of agricultural policy.
I shall deal now with some of the environmental background. I have been associated with the campaign to preserve hedgerows, but other issues concern me, such as the loss of old pasture and hay meadows. In 1932, there were 5.48 million hectares used for such a purpose, but the latest estimate is that it is down to 0.12 million hectares—a decline of 98 per cent. over 60 years. There has been a tremendous drainage of fens and wetlands and many of the close-planted conifer plantatations have been responsible for major environmental problems.
Butterflies have been mentioned today and if I may quote a distinguished constituent of mine, Gordon Beningfield the wildlife artist:
Butterflies more than any other living thing sum up for me the spirit of the British countryside in summer, but the land of quiet glades and flower-filled meadows has all but disappeared.
That is true, and that is why the Government are, at long last, taking appropriate action, although I for one wish that they would take more action, and quicker. Their policies on hedgerows are extremely welcome, but when one compares the expenditure on the CAP with what is being spent on the environment, one wonders who is responsible for achieving that balance. After all, people are prepared to support farm incomes through their taxation because they see what farmers do in managing the countryside as preserving the rural environment of which they are proud.
Even in Britain, most people can trace their ancestry to rural roots within a few generations and we all have an interest in the countryside. That is why the quid pro quo of support for farming incomes, of which I thoroughly approve, must be the greater direction of resources to ensuring that farmers gain out of our growing environmental concern.
Planning has rightly been mentioned today. At half-past four on Sunday morning, when I dare say my hon. Friend the Minister was still dealing with his red boxes, I got up to walk from Ivinghoe beacon along the Ridgeway—a beautiful summer's day walk. Part of the way along that walk, on which we were accompanied by the "Heart of the Country" television programme, we saw a five-bedroomed house that had been built originally as a shepherd's cottage. The Conservative Government have achieved great things in spreading wealth among our people, but even they have not succeeded to the extent that five-bedroomed "shepherd's cottages" are what they purport to be.
We have had severe problems with the sub-division of farms, described in some detail by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight. We have also had problems with barns, which need to be preserved. They are beautiful buildings that have outlived their purpose because they are not suitable for modern farm machinery. However, they are best used for some purposes in some areas and other purposes in others. In my constituency I would rather see them as residential units easing the pressure on urban land, but in other areas it may be appropriate to relate them to jobs.
It seems that we should not lay down a rule for the countryside generally. That is why in the short time that is left to me in this debate I plead with my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that countryside policy is not monolithic but something that represents and takes into account the problems of every individual part of the countryside, whether those problems are overcrowding and urban pressures, rural poverty or a declining national asset in terms of the wetlands, our butterflies and our hedgerows.