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Agricultural Tenancies: Annual Report

Part of Orders of the Day — Agricultural Tenancies Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 4:29 pm on 19th April 1995.

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Photo of Dr Alan Williams Dr Alan Williams , Carmarthen 4:29 pm, 19th April 1995

I support new clause 1, which asks for an annual report of the type of lettings made under the Bill. That will not entail an enormous amount of work or bureaucracy. The questionnaire involved could be brief, simply asking for the length of a tenancy, its terms, what parcels of land are involved, and so on.

During the Bill's passage, we have heard several times about the amount of land being let having dropped from 90 per cent. at the turn of the century to just 35 per cent. of our land today. I am not sure that that is a bad thing. In a sense, it reflects the rise of owner-occupation. One would be delighted with those figures if they were for housing. Similarly, I am happy to see them for land.

However, I am concerned that the number of holdings, the number of farms and the number of people working on the land are in decline year by year. That has terrific social consequences in the areas that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and I represent. It has consequences for the Welsh language and generally for rural areas. There is a real problem in the amalgamation of smallholdings. When farms come on to the market, they are gobbled up by their neighbours, and jobs disappear from the countryside. I am concerned that the Bill allows for that possibility.

The new clause asks for the amount and type of let agricultural land to be recorded. One of our concerns is the period of let—whether it is a three-year, five-year, 10–year, 15–year or lifetime let. In Committee, we argued for lifetime lets. The statistical exercise requested could tell us the average period of let. The Bill introduces short-termism into agriculture, and agriculture, by its nature, requires long-term investment.

Such a survey would also show us the extent of fragmentation of holdings, about which we are also concerned. It is more beneficial for a landlord to let a 100–acre holding in two or three parcels and to let the farmhouse, and even the farm buildings, separately. Once destroyed, that holding will never return. In rural areas such as the one I represent, retirement, second and holiday homes are popular, and, by definition, many farmhouses are in extremely attractive situations. If a lot of farms are split up as a result of the Bill, we need to know the environmental and social consequences.

The Minister keeps telling us that the Bill will make more land available for new entrants into agriculture. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones), however, I fear that not new entrants but existing farmers will take up the farm business contracts, and 15 or 20 acres of neighbouring farms.

The annual survey for which the new clause asks is a perfectly reasonable statistical exercise, reflecting the extent of the Bill's success and the possible deleterious effects about which we are more concerned.