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I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the minimum prices payable to dairy farmers for the production of milk;
to establish minimum distances between intensive dairy farming operations and the nearest settlements;
and for connected purposes.
I am grateful for the opportunity to further the debate on an issue that is fundamental to the way of life of many in my constituency and, indeed, people in rural areas throughout the country. That issue is, of course, the future of the British dairy farming industry, which, as hon. Members in all parts of the House will know, has been in crisis for well over a decade-partly because central Government previously showed no real interest in either the dairy farming industry or the farming industry generally, but also because of the huge power of supermarkets and other bulk purchasers to drive down the prices of not just milk but many of the staples of our diet, a power that they have used vigorously and persistently for far too long without having their wings clipped by the House. The power of the supermarkets and other large purchasers may have been good for consumers in the short term, but it has not been good for farmers, and I suspect that it will be beneficial in the longer term neither for consumers nor for those purchasers themselves. The simple fact of the matter is that what has gone on has driven down the price of milk and other commodities to levels where it has become extremely difficult for British farmers to make an acceptable living.
Dairy farming has been part of this country's agricultural economy for many hundreds of years, and it is also part of our rural heritage. That is, or at least was, particularly so in rural areas such as the one that I represent, and it is partly why the reduction in the number of British dairy farmers is of such concern to so many of us. I alluded to the numbers in an earlier Westminster Hall debate, and they are alarming. In 2000, there were 23,286 registered dairy production holdings in England and Wales. Today, that number stands at 11,233.
The factors that I have identified have led directly to the other issue with which this Bill seeks to grapple, which is that we are now beginning to see proposals for the sort of dairy farming industry that I know fills many ordinary people in this country and in my constituency-and, indeed, many traditional dairy farmers-with horror. As many hon. Members will be aware, developers in my constituency are currently seeking planning permission for a so-called super-dairy-in reality, an industrialised milk production facility-at Nocton fen, a beautiful site in the heart of a number of long-established rural communities, which, I must inform the House, are almost universally united in their opposition to the development.
The combination of the downturn in the economy and continued pressure on prices is forcing the farming community to consider intensive production mechanisms like those proposed at Nocton. Those mechanisms give rise to real concerns for animal welfare, and there is real opposition in respect of their effect on local communities and the environment more generally.
It is often said by those who live in towns who have no real knowledge of how we live our lives in rural Britain that farmers do not care about the environment or their animals. That argument is as wrong as it is offensive. In my experience, farmers care more about the environment and their animals than any other section of society, but they also have families for whom they have to provide and whom they need to support, and we therefore need to recognise that, whatever measures are introduced in this House and whatever decisions are taken, farmers have to be paid a proper price for the food they produce. If that were already happening in the dairy industry, I would not be introducing this Bill because there would be no need for it. If consumers paid just a few extra pence for their milk, the British dairy industry would not need to consider undergoing the form of fundamental change that proposals such as those for the super-dairy at Nocton involve. This Bill is not primarily about the specific proposals for Nocton, but one aspect of it does deal with intensive dairy farming, which will always affect local communities in various ways.
As I have implied, the contents of my postbag show me that the ongoing application at Nocton is almost universally opposed by the communities in which the development would be sited, and the opposition comes from those who live in settled farming communities and have done so all their lives. This is not nimbyism, therefore; instead, it is a legitimate and entirely understandable desire to maintain a recognisable rural way of life away from the hurly-burly of the industrial practices that have come to be associated with much of the modern world.
Opposition to these types of super-dairies is grounded on a number of rational bases, and I shall mention just two of them. First, there is the question of slurry. I must inform hon. Members that cows produce slurry, which must then be disposed of. Technology can, of course, provide part of the answer, but significant quantities of dirty water will always remain to be disposed of, either through environmentally unfriendly tankering operations or through discharge, which, unless carefully managed, runs the risk of polluting aquifers. This issue is not just about odour-an odour which many of us who live in the countryside are used to, and, indeed, are rather fond of. The fact of the matter is that effluent contains pathogens and other harmful substances, including residues of pesticides and veterinary medicines. The use of anaerobic digestion to process slurry cannot mitigate the entire problem, particularly when dealing with waste from a large numbers of cows.
A second reason for opposition, and another reason why local communities are right to be concerned about proposals for these large-scale dairy operations, is the issue associated with traffic, which comes with any form of industrialised process, whether in farming or any other industry. Large numbers of cows milked for high yields produce naturally large quantities of milk, which needs to be transported, and they also require deliveries of all manner of feed and other products associated with their maintenance and support. In areas where traffic is already an issue, such as Nocton, the strain placed on the existing infrastructure would be, at best, undesirable. In areas where traffic is sometimes thought not to be an issue, perhaps because of their rural nature, the position is worse. Additional movements of heavy and slow-moving vehicles contribute to accidents. Not only are communities in rural areas not used to this type of traffic, but they lack the infrastructure to deal with it. That is certainly the position at Nocton, where such issues have rightly been raised with me by a large number of local people.
Those issues and the others associated with these super-dairies-if they are indeed the route down which the British dairy industry is to go-can be solved by introducing a required minimum distance between such operations and the nearest settlements, as is already the case in many other jurisdictions, including many states in the United States. For that reason, and for all the others that I have given, I respectfully submit that this Bill is timely and I commend it to the House accordingly.
Question put and agreed to .
Stephen Phillips accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on