The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:56 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of The Bishop of Lichfield The Bishop of Lichfield Bishop 3:56 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for initiating this debate. I should also like to thank the previous speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for introducing and holding to this note of urgency about the situation.

It so happens that my own diocese has a population of over 2.5 million people dispersed across a considerable area of the West Midlands. The countryside in this region is among the most diverse in Britain, with patterns of life created by mixed and varied farming over many generations. We can grow anything that can be grown in Britain. We have an equable climate; we have good rainfall; and we have a profusion of habitats for our native species of wildlife. In addition, and importantly, our countryside is a green lung for communities such as Stoke-on-Trent, Wolverhampton and the Black Country, which is also within our diocesan borders.

However, additionally and crucially, as the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, said, the economy of the countryside is an integral part of the West Midlands economy as a whole. The countryside accounts for a quarter of our population, while agriculture generates nearly 30 per cent of the region's gross domestic product and provides 30 per cent of its jobs. Our countryside matters to the future of the whole West Midlands region. And yet, and yet, in too many places I have to report a depressed rural economy and countryside population. Indeed, in some places, we may even be looking at the abandonment of farmland, such is the seriousness of the situation.

It is the opinion of one informed observer that this last year of the present century, 1999, could be a serious watershed for the agricultural industry in the West Midlands, for the shape of our landscape, and for our rural communities, particularly in the lowland areas of our western side of England. Staffordshire, for example, has 4,643 farm businesses and there are 4,733 farm businesses in Shropshire, mainly family farms. Only 24 per cent of those farms--this is important--are of over 50 hectares, and most of these are in the livestock business. But, critically, just one-third of these larger farms account for 80 per cent of the total farm production of the region. We surely hope that these larger farms will continue to expand into the 21st century, providing a bedrock of downstream employment and competing with world markets both in quality and production.

However, I must stress that for the other two-thirds farming is bleak and stress levels are at an all-time high. My own diocese, along with the NFU, has been active in setting up rural helplines to help people in our countryside who are in great distress. Farm incomes are plummeting. Families are staring at the following bleak possibilities: the possibility of loss of business and loss of income; the possibility of defaulting on pension policies and insurance policies; the loss of the family home; the dispersal of magnificent herds and flocks bred with pride over many generations; and the necessity to move away, probably to a nearby town, because of the relentless planning system and big house prices which often conspire against any chance of a family staying within their own community.

I declare an interest here because many of the families I describe support, and are the backbone of, our rural churches. At the moment many families suffer a sense of deep failure through no fault of their own. If they stay in the community, this group of farmers will join the hidden poor of the countryside which, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, rightly emphasised, can lead ultimately to social exclusion.

It is critical that this Government take the lead and make an open and intellectual commitment to our farmers in order to restore pride, morale and confidence in this industry. How can the Government encourage young people to see agriculture and land-related industries as a good career? Why are our agricultural colleges having to fill their places with so many non-mainstream courses to survive? Why are so many fewer young people applying to such colleges in my region as Rodbastan, Walford and Harper Adams? Like many others I look forward to the forthcoming rural White Paper and to the new countryside Bill mentioned in the Queen's Speech. We watch with interest the submission this month to the European Community of the EC rural development plan.

I conclude with three questions to which I hope that the Minister may be able to respond. First, can the Government stake their claim with Europe to ensure that reformed CAP schemes for rural development will rechannel agri-environmental funding into the agricultural sector in order both to assist specialist markets and to manage the countryside? Can the Government co-fund any such funding from Europe?

Secondly, in the coming White Paper, can the Government focus on helping us to breathe new life into our historic market towns? For example, in east Shropshire a partnership of the Countryside Agency, of local and parish government and the chamber of commerce is co-operating to revitalise Wellington, Shifnal, Albrighton and Newport. The aim is to fulfil the real potential of these towns, to make them lived-in communities and hubs of the rural economy and to give them pride in themselves as places in which to live.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, can the Government's next Comprehensive Spending Review tackle the inequities resulting from the higher cost of delivering public services in rural areas? Can they do something about the distortion in the calculation of grant caused by inappropriate yardsticks of need and the lack of consideration of the kind of services, for example, recreation, which rural authorities want?

I must emphasise that these factors are having a serious impact in Shropshire and Staffordshire where police force budgets are the lowest in the country and where children in our rural schools receive hundreds of pounds less per child than any others in the United Kingdom as a result of the nonsensical formulas involved.

There are others in your Lordships' House who understand much better than I the mechanisms needed for the revitalisation of this vital part of our national life. However, may we please first put in place not only the Government's, but also the country's, firm and visible support for all those who live and work in the countryside, along with rightful pride in their contribution to our economy, to our environment and to our leisure?