The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:51 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop 4:51 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, I am afraid that I must begin my contribution with an apology. It may be necessary for me to leave a little before the end of the debate in order to return to the north east before milking time. Of course I feel privileged to be sharing in the debate when so many experts and practitioners--those who live and work in the countryside--are taking part. So far it has been an inspiration.

I am particularly grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for introducing such an informative debate. I was interested in the distinction he was attempting to draw between animal rights and human rights. I heard a tale the other day of a lady walking down the street wearing a fur coat. She was accosted by animal rights protestors with the words, "What poor creature has had to die so that you can wear that coat?", to which she replied, "My mother-in-law". That may serve as a lesson to all of us in public speaking. We must ask the appropriate question if we want to get the appropriate answer.

It was heartwarming to hear the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, especially when he referred to safety on the A.1. I am so glad that he did that. Some noble Lords will have heard of the tragedy we experienced in the diocese of Durham recently when three priests died in a road accident on the same stretch of road. I was also pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Prior, sitting in his place earlier in the debate. Many noble Lords will know that he chaired a famous commission that resulted in the Church of England report entitled Faith in the Countryside. Although that report is almost 10 years old, it still serves as a bible on countryside matters and sits on many of our shelves. Indeed, it has reinvigorated and inspired a good deal of activity by the Church in the countryside. We are planning to hold a special 10-year celebration within the next few months.

I should like to reaffirm the Church's continued commitment to the countryside at a time when we have seen the post office, the school and other community amenities closing down. The parish church and indeed the chapel are determined to maintain their presence in an increasingly ecumenical way. In spite of a reduction in the total number of the clergy, we are still committed to manning the countryside, and of course the vast majority of parish churches are still active. Church buildings continue to be widely used. That is a tribute to those loyal local people--readers, churchwardens and many other volunteers--who keep our churches open, presentable and beautiful places that evoke contemplation. The focus for those people is of course the Creator God, but their beacon is the parish church which is used by the whole village community and is admired and visited by so many from outside.

Those communities are not helped by the imposition of VAT on repairs to church buildings. Often a few church people bear the responsibility for maintaining a medieval historic building that stands at the heart of a rural community and to which the whole community--of any faith or none--looks to represent the very core of that community. However, to those few people who strive to maintain the church, it presents a dilemma of priorities: should they spend all their time raising money in order to maintain the building on behalf of all the rest, or should they spend some of their resources of time and money carrying out many other activities for the church--not least in service to the community and the provision of good worship? For the moment, the Church of England continues to maintain those churches and does so gladly, but it may not always be possible for it to do that as costs rise and rural populations decline. For that reason, I ask the Government once again whether they intend to retain VAT on historic church building repairs, or do they propose, at some point in the future, to look at this again and perhaps seek to amend the law so that parish churches, which represent the heart of our countryside, may remain part of the glory of it?

The Church of England is in the countryside because it embraces a theology of creation which has at its heart the concept of a countryside that is living, is working and is responsible. It will be a living countryside by demonstrating life in all its diversity. In other words, it will continue to live if it remains a balanced community and is not distorted by age, wealth or skills. Much of our countryside is in danger of losing that balance because of the migration of young families. For example, fewer than 20 years ago the small and delightful village of St John's Chapel near the head of Weardale up in my part of the world had a population of 103 children. Now it has only 38.

That example underlines the importance of schools. I affirm again the Church of England's commitment to the continued provision of schools, many of which serve our rural communities. Twenty-five per cent of the nation's primary school children attend Church of England primary schools. However, the closing of village schools has a particularly disastrous effect on the provision for learning. For St John's Chapel a library of any kind is 22 miles away, while a swimming pool is 14 miles away. Public transport is at a premium for many young people. Family life in rural areas is under threat, as many clergy can testify from their pastoral work, and to which my noble friend the Bishop of Lichfield has already referred. We must seek to reverse the trend towards fragmentation. Families are held together when social relationships integrate them into the community. Buying, selling, growing, employing and enjoying social life together are essential elements of living. They provide the historic continuity and loyal mutual commitment which are of the essence in many village communities.

The Churches wish to continue playing their role in keeping living communities right at the heart of the countryside. If we fail, then much else of the living countryside will be under threat. However, to sustain such a living community, it must also be a working community. I cannot stress too strongly the plight of farmers in the north east, especially hill farmers in the Pennines. Other noble Lords have testified to similar concerns in other parts of the country. Today stories abound of farm sales and of the deeply sad personal circumstances of many farmers and the consequent effect on their families.

That has happened in the main because of the decline in sheep markets and pig farming. In 1955, 80 lambs would have purchased a tractor. In 1997, 80 lambs will purchase one-quarter of a tractor. A farmer told me recently that he had just had his hair cut. The cut cost him £4.50 and he thought that was good value. But he pointed out that he would have to cut the hair of 150 sheep to pay for his one haircut.

If hill farming collapses, not only a way of life but an environment will be under threat. That leads me to saying that a living and working countryside must also be a highly responsible one. Diversification and the welcoming of tourists are options that are taken up in many areas. But tourism and second homes must not be allowed to develop at the expense of the living rural community, or indeed of ecological and other environmental balances. Those depend on sustaining good farming practices and a full-time resident population aware of, and in partnership with, the benefits that nature in creation has given us. Without that element of responsibility, there will be no recognisable countryside for visitors to enjoy.