The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:28 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Coity Lord Davies of Coity Labour 5:28 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for introducing this debate on the countryside. When introducing the debate the noble Earl referred to the fur trade and fox-hunting. I understood him to say that there were only three noble Lords on these Benches who stood up for bans. He will be relieved to know that I have no intention of making any reference whatever to bans.

Perhaps not surprisingly, out of 14 speakers in the debate, 11 have emphasised agriculture. Therefore the debate could equally have been to call attention to agriculture. I am conscious of the difficulties that the agricultural industry is facing. I have a great deal of sympathy for the industry. But, as the debate is on the countryside, perhaps I shall be forgiven for dealing with countryside circumstances other than agriculture.

It is not my intention to speak for long, and essentially I shall be focusing on one specific point: that everyone, whether living in an urban or rural environment, should as far as possible be afforded the advantages provided by both nature and man. However, it seems to me that, when we debate the countryside, too often there is a tendency to drift away from the differences in urban and rural environments and somehow to conjure up perceived and often exaggerated differences between those who live in one area and those who live in another. If that is not always overtly expressed, it is certainly an underlying feeling.

Of course I concede that at one time, in particular during the Industrial Revolution, there would have been a greater difference between the two groups. Those living and working closely together in urban developments--for example, in areas of mines and mills--identified closely with one another in such communities. However, those living and working in the countryside, and spread out, identified more with the elements--the weather, the seasons and the land--than with one another.

But we have moved on. Ever increasing means of communication have seen to that. Trains, buses and, even more so, the motor car with a network of motorways, draw people and communities ever closer together. The radio, telephone, now mobiles, and the television, now satellite, bring instant experiences into every parlour, not only from this country but from the world over. So to talk in terms of two societies, one urban and one rural, defies the reality of our one integrated society. Of course there are differences. But those differences are not necessarily demonstrably greater between exclusively urban and exclusively countryside dwellers. No longer can we draw a clear distinction between urban and rural dwellers.

Some people work in our towns and cities and live in the countryside. Many people move from the countryside to urban areas and never return. Some who have been born and brought up in towns and cities move to the countryside to live and work. Many of those born and brought up in the countryside come to the cities for university education. Some return, and some do not. So when lines are drawn between one group and another, let us be cautious that those lines reflect reality.

The world in which we live is often called a global village. That being so, let us imagine what we in the United Kingdom are by comparison. Let us see how we compare geographically with countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas as well as some in Europe. We are one nation, one people, and, although we are all different, those differences do not essentially stem from whether we live and work in the countryside or in our towns and cities.

We must not neglect the fact that the countryside itself is different. In East Anglia, where I lived for 10 years, we have a wide expanse of flat land and the uniqueness of the Norfolk Broads, whereas in Wales we have the mountains and the valleys; and in the north of Scotland we are inspired by its mystery and remoteness. We describe Kent as the garden of England and I was told a long time ago that Wiltshire was the pantry of England. So when we refer to the countryside we must remember that our countryside is not uniform but is itself different.

The Labour Government have a manifesto commitment to provide greater access to open countryside. This will give those who choose greater opportunity to enjoy the benefit of what nature has created. That is not to abuse or damage, but to enjoy the wide open spaces, the landscape and the wildlife that nature provides in our countryside. By the same token, those who live and work in the countryside must always be able to enjoy the benefits that man has created in our towns and cities, such as theatres, museums, art galleries and universities.

I welcome the countryside amenity and conservation Bill because it recognises that such measures improve the quality of life for all of us. It removes perceived and exaggerated differences between respective sections of our society, and it is another step towards drawing all our people together in a one nation society.