The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:38 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of Lord Mackie of Benshie Lord Mackie of Benshie Liberal Democrat 3:38 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for introducing the debate. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, that the body that elected the noble Earl perhaps was not exactly a democratic one, but they were persons who showed good choice. They put at the top of the list the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, which shows an electorate with very good sense. I did not care for some of the others, but the first choice was good.

I was interested in the noble Earl's criticism of the Milk Marketing Board, which was abolished by the Tory government. It held up the price of milk to a reasonable extent. Farmers prospered and the price of milk to the consumer was lower. But it was abolished. I wish the Government would think again about an organisation of that sort.

Again, one must congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, on finding the £1 million given to the Labour Party from an unpopular source. That is a brilliant reaction to the terrible trouble the Tories are in at the moment. I enjoyed his speech greatly.

My only criticism is that the debate relates to "the countryside" and the noble Earl dwelt, as I will, rather too much on agriculture. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, treated agriculture with the normal contempt associated with the urban dwellers of this country. They have been urban dwellers for more generations than most of the urban dwellers of Europe and are therefore not very sympathetic to poor farmers like me and others.

As the Minister knows well--she will, however, understand why I must press the case--the countryside is in extremely poor shape at the moment. Agriculture and its associated industries are the mainstay of the countryside and the people in it. We must accept that. Of course, far fewer people are now directly employed in agriculture. But the countryside should be populated by people who have some interest in it rather than those who treat it purely as a place to stay while their money and leisure is taken in the city.

The countryside is inhabited and shaped by people. The environmentalists are keen on biodiversity, as am I. I practise it on my farm. But people are more important than peewits. The shape of agriculture is what matters. We look after biodiversity but we cannot shape a major industry in the interests of the lesser inhabitants; in other words, the peewit. It must be shaped for the economic benefits of the country. The noble Earl produced the figures relating to population; they will soon impact very hard on this country.

We view the countryside as a base and where our friends live. We must also consider the needs of our areas. We have an interesting situation in Angus. It is a beautiful county. We have all sorts of scenery and all sorts of biodiversity. But we have some extremely bad planners. And planning needs to be considered when we talk about the shape of the countryside. I can point to appalling private building sites which look like Toytown and cannot be pleasant to live in. I can point to nice houses--farmhouses--ruined by the taking out of beautiful astragal windows and the putting in throughout of one sort of double glazing.

Some of our planners are good. The planners in Fife, for example, have done good work. In Angus some good work has been done. But the best work in Angus was done at Dyke Head in the parish of Cortachy. Nine houses were built in a group. They were built in traditional style. They were spaced out and were affordable by local people in the country who cannot pay second-house prices. At first it was said that they would not be let to local people; that terrible people would come in with the rents paid by the DSS. Sure enough, some of the houses were let and the rents paid by the DSS. But there has been no trouble. It is a delightful, rural group of houses. The people who live there like them, whether or not the rents are paid by the DSS. It is astonishing what a good community it is and how it has affected the people therein. How did all that happen? Because the Earl of Airlie insisted, when he sold the land, that the houses be built in traditional form and in good taste. So there are some good-hearted, traditional landlords after all.

Socially, we must look at what happens when people are not of the countryside but are living there. If they are not members of the local church and local community in some way or other, they cannot be good for the area. If we are going to make anything of the countryside, people must have the chance to make a living there. There are all kinds of examples of how to do it and how to spread it. But the Government must give encouragement and help with the establishment of small businesses in order that the people who live there will really be "of" the country.

The Government must also look properly at marketing. Denmark has a massive, competent co-op which has been running for years. It markets, manufactures and advertises with enormous success. It is an enormous organisation whereas Milk Marque in England is being broken up. The Danes are trying to form a giant co-op with the Swedes, which will be an enormously influential body able to help--not dictate--the price given to farmers. It is important that the Government realise that and give some encouragement. They must help to reverse the process of the break-up of Milk Marque or help the bodies into which it is to be split. Either way, marketing and exploiting the virtues are absolutely essential for the future prosperity of farming.

That is the lesson we want the Government to learn. At the same time they must give attention to the fact that people are leaving farming without a penny. In the north of Scotland, where the college of agriculture works with the financial accounts of farms, it is apparent that farmers are leaving the industry without a penny to take with them. A decent retirement scheme is essential. The countryside and farming will survive; it will prosper in an entirely different way. But there must be opportunities for the small farmer to survive, whether with outside employment or with niche employment on the farm. We cannot have an agricultural industry consisting wholly of large farms.