Farm Diversification

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Fisheries and Food – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st December 2000.

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Photo of Mr Bill Michie Mr Bill Michie Labour, Sheffield, Heeley 12:00 am, 21st December 2000

What steps the Government are taking to encourage farmers to take up options for farm diversification available under the England rural development programme. [142336]

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Secretary (Fisheries and the Countryside), Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

We have publicised the England rural development programme extensively, including writing to all farmers, placing articles and advertisements in the press and attending local farmers meetings. In addition, free planning advice is available to farmers wishing to pursue projects under the rural enterprise scheme; we will publish a free guide to farm diversification over the next few weeks; and the Government are consulting on proposals to provide time-limited rate relief for farmers wishing to diversify into non-farming activities.

Photo of Mr Bill Michie Mr Bill Michie Labour, Sheffield, Heeley

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. While it is welcome that rural communities and farmers are getting help and consideration, there are many rumours that a lot of open space, good farmland and green belt could be used for other purposes, which will close access and, of course, change the whole character of such areas. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that that is not the case and that the claims being made are exaggerated?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Secretary (Fisheries and the Countryside), Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. He makes an important point about the pressure on greenbelt and greenfield land, but many farm buildings and sites lend themselves to a variety of conversions for various businesses and for diversification. We want to help farmers to do that—and, of course, we are not talking about cutting through the planning law. Issues such as vehicular access, noise and smells will all be taken into account by local planning authorities, but we want to make it clear that just because a building is a farm or part of a farm development, it does not mean that it cannot be developed into all sorts of different businesses that are good for farmers and the rural economy.

Photo of Tim Boswell Tim Boswell Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

Does the Minister acknowledge that the farmer's share of the capital development necessary for diversification depends on an adequate level of profitability on that farm? Given the present disastrous situation for farm incomes and the modulation of European agricultural payments, is not there a real risk that the good intentions of the plan may be frustrated?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Secretary (Fisheries and the Countryside), Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

It is certainly true that farmers' incomes have been under pressure in recent years. No one denies that, but the measures are designed to help farmers to extend, develop and adapt their own businesses. Many farmers have taken up those opportunities. MAFF is encouraging the creation of demonstration farms so that people can see what can be achieved and how they can diversify their businesses.

Photo of Mr Peter Pike Mr Peter Pike Labour, Burnley

Does my hon. Friend agree that many of these who farm in the Pennine chain do so in extremely difficult farming conditions, where there are few options to diversify, yet if they are to maintain the potential for tourism and other attractions in that area we want to ensure that those farms maintain the present balance with nature and, therefore, we need to ensure that they can survive economically?

Photo of Elliot Morley Elliot Morley Parliamentary Secretary (Fisheries and the Countryside), Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food

I agree with my hon. Friend. We provide extensive financial support for upland farming because we recognise that it brings social and environmental benefits to our uplands, and grazing in the uplands is needed as part of environmental management.