The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:14 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of The Countess of Mar The Countess of Mar Crossbench 6:14 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, I too, thank the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for tabling this debate today. I must declare an interest as a specialist cheese maker, a farmer's wife and a member of the Countryside Alliance.

We need to decide what we mean by the term "countryside" and, once we have that definition, what we expect of those who are its custodians. Is the countryside the landscape that we now know and love--a backdrop for our leisure and recreation, a haven for wildlife, a green lung for our urban population and a reminder of who we are as people? Alternatively, is it the workplace for a steadily diminishing minority, evolving as the demands of consumers and governments change? Opinions seem to have become polarised, though I believe the countryside is a bit of both.

The majority, who comprise our urban population, rightly regard the countryside as part of their heritage. However, too many of them seem to have lost touch with their ancestral origins. In their imaginations they see chocolate box villages surrounded by wild tracts of hillside and meadow over which they and their dogs can roam freely. They perceive the farmer as a feather-bedded sponger who must do their bidding because it is they who pay him through their taxes. Their rural counterparts, who must earn a living from and in the countryside, feel beleaguered in the face of rapidly diminishing incomes, a loss of markets for their products and erosion of their freedom by bureaucrats and pressure groups who appear to have no concept of the real world of farming.

As other noble Lords have said, our landscape is our heritage. It is of real value to our economy, and a vital--in the sense that it is living--part of our nation, though it appears on no balance sheet. If we want to retain our countryside, there is a price to pay. Farmers do not, by any means, capture all the economic benefits of their stewardship. The whole population is not well served by attempts to turn our agriculture into a production machine, striving to compete in an unequal world market encouraged by production-based subsidies. How can we compete with ranches in Australia and South America or with hog farmers in America? We must look at other methods.

The barley barons of East Anglia rule over a hinterland devoid of people, employment opportunities, affordable housing, schools and public transport. Upland communities have disappeared because the previously mixed economy, which once supported a small community, has been replaced by sheep and suckler cows. The net effect of production-linked subsidies is that they distance the producer from the consumer and encourage single product concentration. They blur the self-correcting mechanism of market distortions and force farmers to ask for more, much as the drug addict begs for another fix to ease his pain. Ultimately they are pernicious and damaging to those they were intended to protect.

British farmers are currently paying the price for a quarter of a century of dependency upon EU attempts to control agricultural production. Older farmers knew about market cycles and hedged against them with mixed farming; hence the adage, "Never put all your eggs in one basket". They kept a range of farm animals and poultry and they understood the value of rotating arable crops with grassland to maintain the structure and fertility of the soil.

The parish in which I live is interesting in that we have examples of both cultures. There is a farm shop that sells a combination of home-grown vegetables and soft fruits with goods bought in from further afield. There is an enterprising family who diversified from milk production alone into asparagus and pick-your-own soft fruits for the summer and free-range geese and turkeys for the winter. One couple has orchards from which they sell apples and pears; another sells the meat from their own Aberdeen Angus cattle as well as home-grown dried flowers, and my husband and I produce goats' milk and cheese as well as home-produced black Welsh mountain lamb. We all sell directly to the consumer either from our farms or through farmers' markets and, while we are not making our fortunes, we are managing to survive and maintain our little bits of landscape. Interestingly, we do not depend upon subsidies.

The rest of the land in the parish--several hundred acres--is either owned or rented by two very successful brothers. We always know which crops are in the high subsidy bracket because those are the ones they grow. When sheep and cattle were receiving high subsidies and high market prices, they had sheep and cattle--despite the fact that they would be the first to admit that they are not stockmen. Everything they do is on a grand scale. It will be interesting to see, in the coming years, who are the survivors.

If we want our rural landscape to remain, we must, first, accept that it will never be static. Secondly, we must support the rural economy as an integrated entity. We need to recognise that, while agriculture is the heart of our countryside, there is inter-dependency between farming and other businesses. The survival of rural society as a whole depends upon a mixed economy. This includes the village shop and post office, the local pub, the garage, the church and schools, as other noble Lords have said. Above all, it includes people; indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, will be interested to hear me say that.

If people are driven away because of the lack of facilities or employment opportunities, there will be no community and no one to conserve our landscape. What tourist or town dweller will want to visit the countryside in order to admire a tangle of bramble, gorse and bracken, I wonder? I am pleased that moves are now in train to divert subsidies away from production. The knock-on effect this should have is that rural workers and businesses remain local, a broader economic base should encourage diversification and local producers will be able satisfy many of the needs of the local community by adding value to their products. I think very much along the same lines as the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, as regards this point of view.

But, and this is a very big "but", we also need to be aware of the dangers posed by over-prescription and a heavy-handed bureaucracy, both of which stifle innovation and growth. I recognise that public health, food safety and animal welfare should be given priority. However, as the Minister is only too well aware, I believe that regulation should be fair, reasonable and based on sound scientific knowledge--not upon ideas plucked out of the air by officials who have probably never set foot in a farmyard, or the results of pressure from vociferous and sentimental minority groups.

A former Prime Minister once said:

"There is no such thing as society".

Unfortunately, we have been reaping the harvest of her philosophy at the cost of the bonds we used to have with our fellow citizens. I am pleased to see that the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Coity, has now returned to his seat because I believe that this is what he was saying. The unlimited pursuit of private gain leads to bankruptcy of the body public. Its unpleasant manifestations are growing daily more acute--a lack of concern for the rights of others, declining moral and spiritual values, emotional stress and sociopathic crime, for example.

The countryside is an essential safety valve for the urban population for it enables them to recharge their batteries, to widen their horizons and to find their identities as people. Thus, the welfare of those who live and work in the countryside should be a matter of concern to the whole population. It makes economic sense. In the last analysis, the countryside shapes the kind of society we wish to bequeath to our children. As John Winthrop said in his City Hill speech:

"We must delight in each other, make each other's conditions our own, rejoice together, labor and suffer together, always having the community as members of the same body".