The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:44 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat 6:44 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for bringing this debate to the House this afternoon. It has been very informative, not least in the way that some noble Lords have fallen into the trap of polarising the countryside debate. I believe that we have failed to recognise that a time of change for the countryside is difficult. We have turned from blaming the European Union, the last government and this one, civil servants for not going about in their wellies enough and Belgium and France. Everyone carries some blame, but this afternoon we have been somewhat short on solutions.

I particularly appreciated the speeches of the right reverend Prelates because they looked more for solutions than blame. I particularly regret that we appear to be blaming the urban population for not understanding the countryside. The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, made the point that we need to educate people. That is right. I do not believe that the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, appreciated the role that some people have played. For instance, he quoted the clearing of footpaths after a storm. In fact, many people from towns and villages and conservation volunteers, often from urban areas, go to the countryside to offer their time and services for badly needed conservation work and footpath clearing. Although there is much further to go in educating us as to the future for the countryside, I do not believe that we should simply blame our urban population for its ills.

This debate has quite rightly been about the state of agriculture. Many noble Lords have quoted statistics which I shall not rehearse except for one example. Agriculture is in a dire state this year. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and a number of other noble Lords said that 20,000 farmers and farm workers left the industry over the past year. That leads to the point made by noble Lords as to what should be done with land if it becomes derelict and a wilderness. Will it revert to horsey-culture perhaps, which we see developing more widely? Many noble Lords have contributed to the debate on the basis that horses provide a pleasant leisure activity. I agree. However, I do not believe that a countryside populated simply by horses would be desirable.

We need to address the fact that some areas of our agriculture can remain competitive on the world stage. But the Government must take a firm line on how that is to be achieved. I cannot better the example of the ducks given by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, and the red tape review that needs to take place. We on these Benches are glad that the Government have made a start on reviewing red tape and regulations with a view to cutting and simplifying the system. For instance, the Government need to address the meat hygiene service charges in order to enable farmers to compete on the world stage, if that is what they seek.

I am surprised this afternoon that we have not heard more about what we hope the Government will do in Seattle as regards upholding the requirements that the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, outlined for labelling. That is a crucial area. Perhaps we could have the right to label food so that consumers can make a choice by buying British food that has been produced to high animal welfare standards. I am sure that the Government would be pleased to do that. I would like the Minister to comment on what the Government will say in Seattle on the subject.

Agenda 2000 CAP reforms will be an opportunity for our countryside, but we must define what we are looking for. MAFF still regards agriculture as one package. In its consultation document Agriculture: The Way Forward, it states that it wants farming to be,

"Competitive, diverse, flexible, responsive to consumer wishes, environmentally responsible and an integral part of the rural and wider economy".

I believe that that is too wide. The demands that are being made need to be rethought.

As many noble Lords have outlined, competition and diversity sit uncomfortably together. The Government want the industry to be competitive--the industry wants to be competitive--but we as a nation want the countryside to be diverse. We should allow the industry to be competitive, but diversity comes at a price. Until now, neither the Government nor the public have been willing to pay the price for the number of other benefits that they have had on the cheap--a well cared for countryside, with hedgerows, dry stone walls, biodiversity and so on. There is never enough money to go round in schemes such as the Countryside Stewardship scheme or the organic scheme; they are permanently oversubscribed.

The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham mentioned particularly the situation in our upland areas. I make no apology for going into this matter in a little detail. Noble Lords will appreciate that at the moment it is of particular concern.

The upland areas are frequently our most beautiful landscapes--they bring in tourists--and they are areas to which the new access legislation will apply. To farm there is very hard because of the physical constraints. But farming in upland areas has created the very landscapes that people enjoy. In the past the balance between environmental concerns and viable farms led to the hill farmers compensatory allowance scheme. That was based on headage and so drove up the stocking rates. It is right that MAFF should be making an effort to introduce a scheme which is less environmentally detrimental.

The aims of the scheme are to contribute to the maintenance of the social fabric in upland rural communities through support for continued agricultural land use and to help preserve the farmed upland environment by ensuring that land in less favoured areas is managed sustainably. Those are worthy aims. The scheme is out to consultation and I should like to mention some details. There is still an opportunity for some thoughts about the scheme to be considered. The way it is drafted now, it seems that in some regions hill farmers will suffer a considerable drop in income. At a time of crisis for hill farmers, that seems a strange way to go.

Can the Minister tell me whether I am correct in understanding that, for example, in the south west, if livestock numbers from the 1998 less favoured areas are used, when the new scheme is implemented by 2003, the HFA payments will have fallen by some £500,000, which would be about 12 per cent?

Interestingly, the scheme makes no links with the fact that there will soon be another added complication and cost for farmers who farm open access areas. When the legislation comes in, undoubtedly they will have to put more time and effort into farming those areas. I wonder whether we should not have a scheme which aims to promote the farmed upland environment and which links the fact that there will be access to those areas, rather than the complicated enhancement schemes proposed.

If the main aim of the scheme is to help small family farms to go on farming in their traditional way in difficult places, the enhancement offered under the scheme should be kept simple, perhaps a fixed amount per hectare, with a higher rate for the first 50 hectares to favour the small family farms. It is apparent from the consultation and the responses that at the moment the enhancement criteria are complicated. I am short of time and I cannot go into the way the stocking rates are looked at; but, quite frankly, it is another bureaucratic nightmare. We should not be getting into another bureaucratic nightmare at a time when we are trying to get out of them.

Lastly, perhaps the Minister can say what will happen to the many farms that straddle lowland and less favoured area boundaries? What of the stock on those farms. Farmers will have a nightmare working through the paperwork about which animals are kept on which bit of land and when.

Before moving to some of the other crucial issues concerning the countryside, I should like to recommend to your Lordships a book I have been reading which is in the Library. It contains the selected writings of Richard Mabey, with whom many of your Lordships will be familiar. He has been writing about the countryside for many years. These are his writings over the past 30 years, defining the views and politics of the countryside and so on. I found it inspirational.

As to post offices, at the moment the Post Office is spending substantial sums on automating its systems. It is regrettable that at this point the DSS is bringing in the automatic credit transfer which may well threaten rural post offices, not necessarily because people will not be using them to collect their benefit, as in the past, but because people used to do their shopping in the rural post office when they collected their benefit. That has not been sufficiently appreciated.

Can the Minister comment on whether the small business service will include agricultural businesses? How small is small? The small business service in rural communities will need to offer services to very small businesses, particularly to a large number of businesses which employ fewer than five people.

The right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Lichfield and the Bishop of Durham and the noble Earl, Lord Peel, mentioned the sparsity factor in local government settlements. That is a long-term and unjust burden that local authorities in country areas have had to bear. They have had to deliver services. They want to deliver services to the same standards as elsewhere--they are being judged on those standards--but they have not had the money to do so. I believe that the settlement this time for other services--which include tourism, economic development and supporting projects such as farmers' markets--has been reduced because the Government have focused extra money on specific service areas.

Finally, I urge the Minister to consider the Government's commitment to providing adequate match funding for the rural development regulation. I do not expect her to comment on the point made by many noble Lords--including the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, and the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool--about the reorganisation of MAFF into a rural affairs ministry. But I have asked the question a number of times and I have been told that it is a matter for the Prime Minister. That is a matter of regret. It would be interesting to debate how and in what way MAFF should be reorganised.

I thank the noble Earl for introducing the debate. I have found it very interesting. Although there are a number of areas that we have not covered, it has moved the arguments forward.