The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:06 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of Lord Rotherwick Lord Rotherwick Conservative 6:06 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, the countryside, as we comprehend it, is the product of centuries of development and dedication. In medieval times England and large tracts of Scotland and Wales were heavily forested. In order to see for miles one had to find a clear day and get above the tree line. In succeeding centuries trees were chopped down both for housing and for ocean going ships, particularly oaks for fighting ships, pasture land was enclosed with hedges and walls and the spaces between the trees became larger and more frequent.

In this century we have seen an extraordinary increase in the building of houses. A questionable 1 million new houses are now sought in the south east by the Government. On top of that, today I read that this year there has been an influx of around 400,000 migrant workers and a larger increase in the number of asylum seekers than before. Coupled with the number of refugees, that figure rises to half a million people. I question where they will all find their houses. Along with the building of factories and industrial units and enormous road-building programmes to allow for a tenfold increase in car numbers, the demands on the countryside have been enormous, resulting in an irreversible erosion of farmland hectares.

As a farmer and land manager I have studied the words of some of the great and the good of our time. First, Richard Wakeford, chief executive of the Countryside Agency, said:

"A countryside without farming is unthinkable; farms need to provide good incomes, which in turn sustain many secondary businesses".

His boss, Ewen Cameron, Chairman of the Countryside Agency, said:

"Agriculture amounts to less than one tenth of the rural economy and an even smaller percentage of rural employment. But its true significance is much greater because farmers are the stewards of four fifths of our landscape".

Those 50,000 rural businesses are involved in farming, forestry, water resource management, environment land management, and so on. This year agricultural incomes in the UK are expected to total less than £2 billion compared with £4.8 billion in 1996.

That dramatic fall has been caused in part by the beef ban, the strong pound hitting other exports, the collapse in the price for pigs, milk, beef, lambs, arable produce and so forth. Government influence many of those factors. This government influence could have been more beneficial to farming. For example, the beef ban was an unnecessary ban to appease our European Union partners that could have been lifted a month or so ago. But we had to wait for Scotland and Wales to agree. This Government enabled the tail to wag the farming industry.

The reliance on imported products is alarming both from the point of view of the continuation of our own agriculture industry and from that of the advisability of handing the feeding of our people to overseas countries. As our farming industry's competitiveness is eroded by the EU and government laws, much of our imported food is produced under regulations less stringent than our own high standards. Many of our imported meat products are produced in ways less kind than under our own higher welfare and environmental standards. This year has seen a 23.5 per cent increase in pig meat imports. That means that 23.5 per cent of pigs eaten in this country now are reared under less favourable conditions.

Unfortunately, many of the countries in the world are busy reducing their growing medium by covering it in buildings, by exhausting its goodness, by spoiling it with chemicals and so on. As recently as spring 1998 the chief executive of Britain's Natural Environment Research Council, Professor John Krebs, talking of the effects of global warming and climate change wrote that,

"In the case of food supply, a predictive model might show that past gains (that is, in agricultural productivity) had been made at a price that could not be paid at an increasing level into the future".

We must take the long view. Our countryside is the result of hundreds of years of change and more recently of the care and commitment of generations of farmers and land managers. They have planted and tended the hedgerows; built and repaired walls; dug the ditches; ploughed and harvested the fields and filled the pastures with livestock, producing that outstanding countryside that has encouraged people to visit it. The farmers recouped their costs from the price commanded by their arable and livestock products. But for how long can they continue to subsidise the beauty of the landscape when the money they earn is falling steadily and the costs heaped upon them by a series of British and European laws and government stealth taxes are rising just as steadily?

The British countryside is a huge national asset but it is a fragile asset. We must take our time in deciding what, if anything, to do with it to meet the aspirations of those who maintain that, because it is a national asset, it should be suitably accessible to all those who wish access to it. It must not be used as a political football to advance the careers of would-be or nearly has-been politicians, as my noble friend Lord Peel said.

Farming is in crisis and the Government must not talk rhetoric but take action to influence the rebuilding of this great industry and its return to profit. If the countryside is to remain a desirable, attractive and viable part of our heritage, the caretakers of that countryside must have the bureaucratic fetters loosened and their industry must be allowed to prosper. Profitable farming is the key to the maintenance of our countryside.

What steps are the Government taking to rebuild our farming industry and its profitability? What steps are they taking to reduce red tape and produce a fair market place such as that in which the farming industry has historically competed so brilliantly?