The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:41 pm on 1st December 1999.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 4:41 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, I am not certain for which inner city election the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, is standing. His speech was good tub-thumping stuff but I do not think it was very relevant to the debate or very accurate.

I commend my noble friend Lord Ferrers on introducing this important debate, which some of us will take seriously. If one flies over Britain today, one is often reminded of William Blake's words of "England's pleasant pastures", with its copses, hedges and stone walls. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, was right to remind us that those were all created by human beings, who have manicured nature to produce the beautiful countryside that we can see from the air. The only mess that has been made of the countryside is that one state institution, the Forestry Commission.

When one comes down from the air to ground level, one finds, as we have heard today, a very different story. It is a story of a people who have been told how to run their lives by city people who have failed to run their own lives satisfactorily. My noble friend Lord Ferrers mentioned farm incomes. Under the present Labour Government farm incomes have been cut by half. Under the previous Labour government farm incomes were cut by half. The only difference is that this Government have done it in half the time their predecessors took to do it. My noble friend Lord Jopling reminded us that farm incomes today are £2,000 per farm, which is not a very satisfactory state of affairs. But in Scotland last year farm incomes were £416 per farm. That contrasts with £4,615 per farm in 1997-98 and £20,546 in 1996-97. My noble friend Lord Jopling was right to take this to its logical conclusion. If farm incomes drop at the present rate, one will have job losses. The countryside cannot afford further job losses. Yet between June 1998 and June 1999 we lost more than 20,000 farming jobs, and those jobs, I hazard a guess, will never come back to the industry. They will never return. They have not historically and they will not in the future.

The noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, mentioned a good deal of what I wanted to say about access to the countryside. I do not have his expertise and I therefore listened to him with great attention. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said how much he appreciates the countryside. He said that he could go there when he wants to and come away when he wants to. But where were the ramblers after last year's storms? Who cleared the footpaths after the gales blew down the trees? Who opened up the bridle ways? It was not the ramblers; it was the farmers; it was the people who earn their everyday crust out of farming. By the time the people from the towns decided that the weather was warm enough and that the footpaths would be dry enough to walk on again, the work had been done by those who live there. I wish to add only one point to what was said by the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon. What really worries me about the right to roam is that it has a higher priority for some of those who wish to do it than actually understanding the countryside and the people who live there and over whose land they want to walk.

I turn to an aspect of the subject that has not so far been mentioned. I know that my noble friend Lord Peel will say more about it. I refer to crime in the countryside. A survey of farmers for BBC1's "Countryfile" showed that 55 per cent had been burgled; 45 per cent had suffered vandalism; 33 per cent had suffered verbal abuse; 20 per cent had suffered arson; 10 per cent had suffered physical abuse; and 40 per cent thought that crime was on the increase. Those are horrifying statistics. Sue Rhodes, the wildlife crime analyst for Humberside Police, commenting on the gangs of hare poachers who cause havoc in her area, said:

"Nowadays if an officer sees a transit van parked down a dark lane he dare not open the door".

She went on:

"People in the area are frightened to death of them".

Those poachers will not pay any respect to a government Bill that seeks to outlaw the hunting of hares by hounds and dogs. They are beyond the law. Unless more resources can be given to the police in rural areas, crime will continue to increase and people's lives will be threatened on a regular basis.

I hoped that the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, would say something about houses because he is an acknowledged expert in the south east. The Government's proposed housing policy for the south east will lead to a trail of destruction. No wonder the press had to tell us that the Prime Minister has yet again had to come to the rescue of his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Mr Prescott, when he suddenly realised that what Mr Prescott had said was in fact what he wanted to do. Mr Prescott had said:

"The green belt is a Labour achievement and we mean to build on it".

Where will the Government put these houses? Do they know how many houses they will put in the south east? How much of the green belt will be destroyed in the process? I hope that the noble Baroness who is to reply will give me answers to those points.