Action for the Countryside

Part of Prayers – in the House of Commons at 11:07 am on 26th June 1992.

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Mr. Carlisle:

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.