rose to call attention to the situation in the British countryside; and to move for Papers.
My Lords, I am most grateful to my fellow Cross-Bench Peers and especially to my noble friend Lord Tenby for persuading them to allow me this Wednesday slot to call attention to the state of the British countryside. I know how much we are all looking forward to the maiden speech of my noble friend the Earl Marshal and looking at the list of speakers I feel certain that we are going to have a full and wide-ranging debate on all aspects of the British countryside.
I have to declare an interest as a farmer with a small acreage of forestry. I also open my home and gardens to the public which in turn generates a small amount of income into a very sparsely populated corner of the United Kingdom. I also remind your Lordships that I am president of the British Association of Biofuels and Oils.
In September last year over 407,000 people, at great inconvenience and cost to themselves, joined the countryside march through the streets of London to try to persuade the Government to listen to their worries and concerns about rural Britain. It was the biggest civil liberties protest in British history and the vast majority of those taking part were non-political. When non-political people feel that those ruling them are out of touch, that is when politicians have to start worrying. To quote the Sun on September 23rd:
"The countryside marchers were not 'toffs'—they were real people, hard-working people, genuine people".
The powerhouse of the countryside has to be a healthy, sustainable and profitable agricultural industry. This is why root and branch reform of the CAP is so urgently needed and why the current MTR review must deliver, as it is a constant worry to all of us engaged in agriculture. What one must not forget is that farmers are a complete hostage to so many factors outside their control. They are out in all weathers and they cannot farm from nine-to-five, whether they are arable, livestock or dairy farmers. The right weather at the right time is all-important to yields and to quality.
It is impossible to prepare accurate budgets for agricultural products without knowing what costs are to grow, harvest, dry and, more importantly, what at the end of the day they will be worth. No other business has to operate under such uncertain conditions. It discourages investment, especially bearing in mind the long turn-around period between investment and yield in the farming world. To change or expand an agricultural enterprise takes careful long-term planning. When I used to make biscuits, we could produce a new product and market it within weeks. In farming, new products can take years to introduce.
I quote some statistics which I hope will emphasise the real and perilous plight of the farming community. In 1982 I received £114 per tonne for my wheat; last year, 20 years later, the gross figure I received was £62—a drop of 52 per cent. The farm gate price of malting barley has dropped 38 per cent and yet the price of a nip has increased by 116 per cent in the past 15 years. Wages in the agricultural sector have risen by 179 per cent while the basic hours worked have decreased by 3 per cent.
I am aware of the introduction of the IACS payments, but in reality they fall very far short of giving farmers a decent return. Pre-IACS, my cereal income 20 years ago was £314,000 and last year my cereal income along with my IACS payment was £176,000, which is a drop in income of £182 per acre. Milk is perhaps the only bright star on the horizon. The price paid to the producer has increased by 2.6 per cent over the past 20 years. Yet most producers are losing two pence per litre. To think that bottled water is more expensive than milk is a classic example of the mess, muddle and confusion that we are in.
I turn to potatoes. Last year the current producer's price of top quality white potatoes was £60 per tonne. That is £13 per tonne less than it was two years ago. And how much does that tonne cost to produce? £73 per tonne. Yet those same potatoes were retailing at just under £1,000 per tonne. Farmers cannot and will not be allowed by the banks to struggle on in such a crazy financial climate. Borrowings by the agriculture industry currently stand at £3 billion, compared with £600 million 30 years ago.
GM crops offer enormous advantages but there are still serious public concerns about their safety. The Government are facing a major challenge over the public debate. I believe that the Government must ensure we have a system in place whereby the location of GM crops is strictly registered, interested parties are notified well in advance of planting and the media and public have full access to information. This would allay many of the concerns felt about GM crops and lead to a more rational debate about their potential benefits, which could be considerable.
There is, however, good news. One solution to many of the problems faced in the British countryside would be overcome by the implementation of EC Directive 1003/30/EC. This requires member states to set targets for biofuel use. The guideline is 2 per cent by December 2005; 5.75 per cent by 2010. If those targets were met in the UK, it would give a powerful boost to the rural economy. It would also help the Government meet their own targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases and cutting local air pollution. Two per cent of UK road fuel usage is about 750,000 tonnes. This could easily come from 400,000 to 500,000 hectares, a figure not dissimilar to the amount of land lying idle in the UK under set aside.
Since ARBRE has gone into liquidation, the Government must accept biomass is neither a financially nor environmentally viable alternative. However, unless the Chancellor changes his present stance there is no chance whatever of that target being achieved. Again I ask: why does all my oilseed rape go from Scotland to Austria and Germany and get turned into biodiesel? This country is being left behind—a tragic wasted opportunity.
I turn now to forestry. Britain uses about 50 million cubic metres of timber, paper, boards and other wood products each year. Around 85 per cent of this has to be imported at a cost of about £8 billion, our fourth largest single import commodity. In 1992 the total returns of forestry producers were somewhere in the region of 4.4 per cent; by 1996 it had dropped into the red at minus 3 per cent; and in the last year for which statistics were available that minus figure had almost doubled. I hope that the Minister will be able to provide encouragement for all commercial forestry producers.
Many countryside dwellers have been encouraged to diversify into tourism. Hard-working farmers' wives offer bed and breakfast the length and breadth of Britain. However, for many it is not a viable alternative and their plight was highlighted during the foot and mouth crisis. So often these tiny businesses are strangled in their infancy by red tape bureaucracy and curious tax anomalies. For instance, income from holiday cottages is taxed separately— as are the profits—while the farmer, however, is facing huge losses on his mainline farming business. Not only does this fly in the face of government pleas for farm diversification; it is simply unjust. The Government must encourage small rural businesses to do all they can, not stifle them in infancy.
In 2002 tourism in the United Kingdom was worth £76 billion and employed 7 per cent of the working population. It is a growing industry which is good for Britain, its people and the countryside. Tourism needs every possible encouragement to continue playing a growing role in our national prosperity. Yesterday's royal visits to the four corners of the United Kingdom to promote tourism were extremely well received, as widely reported in the press today.
I turn to crime, which appears to be the one area flourishing in the countryside. Some of your Lordships may have seen an article which my brother recently wrote in the Spectator. It was entitled, "We do not do burglary". His motor-bike was stolen. A passer-by had seen it being stolen and went immediately to the nearest police station where he discovered from the officer on duty that they were not interested. I fear that this scenario is repeated throughout the countryside. In remote rural valleys a policeman is seen only once every six months; perhaps three miles away they are busy stopping people for speeding. In rural areas a driving licence is a vital ingredient to everyday life. I feel I must ask whether police rural priorities are correctly focused.
Many of us living in the countryside are concerned about transport. While my local authority subsidises the local bus company, it is disheartening that almost every time I see a bus it is empty. Would not a subsidised taxi service based on the successful Swedish model be worth considering? It would be particularly welcomed by the elderly and would be far more cost effective, particularly where visits to hospitals, the doctor or dentist are involved.
There have been 194 closures of rural post offices in the past year alone. To many this is the loss of a vital lifeline, a factor I hope the Government will take on board.
Whether you own a postage stamp size area of ground or 50,000 acres, in a just society the principle of ownership should be the same. Our rural estates underpin the rural economy and preserve the landscape of our countryside. They are not the preserve of a vested elite but provide a framework for rural diversity in terms of services and jobs. We often read in the press of some of the great estates having to sell pictures or other assets to keep the infrastructure of their estates intact. Many of us believe that this infrastructure is vitally important to British rural life.
People are the countryside's most vital ingredient. I took on 17 people when I started farming 25 years ago; I am now farming a bigger acreage with only four. Our family has always paid the council tax for our workers and it is interesting to note that 15 years ago 50 tonnes of barley covered the bill. Today it takes 107 tonnes.
In 1984 there were nearly 7 million hectares under the plough. Last year that figure was well below 6 million. I am aware of the constant need for housing, particularly in the South East, and I hope that the Government will do all they can to encourage further development on brownfield sites. No two areas of the United Kingdom are the same, as revealed in a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report. It found that alongside Westminster and Islington, North Devon and Purbeck were among the least affordable areas in England. Knowing what people are able to charge for rented accommodation in the south makes me green with envy. I am lucky to get £45 a week for a two-bedroom cottage.
If a ban on hunting with hounds becomes law, three things will happen. First, the life of not one single fox will be preserved—the situation in Scotland is proof of that. It must not be forgotten that foxes are vermin and have to be controlled. Secondly, many thousands of rural jobs will be lost. Thirdly, the rural environment, the countryside that so many love, will not be conserved in the way it is today. Surely the Government have more important matters on which to legislate or, indeed, to afford parliamentary time. After the countryside march the Daily Star editorial stated,
"Let's have a bill to ban banning".
The noble Lord, Lord Haskins, has proposed a reorganisation of "delivery" agencies in the countryside distinguishing between programme planning, policy and delivery. That could be a massive change for existing agencies such as Defra, English Nature and the Countryside Agency. The challenge for the Government is to demonstrate how the environment will retain its importance at a local level.
The implementation of the water framework directive will also be a challenge to the Government. If we are to implement the requirements of the WFD we will have to reform the way we use the land. Equally, this will have an influence on agricultural planning and transport policy. How do the Government intend to implement this?
I have not time to mention so many other important aspects of the countryside such as schools, hospitals, churches and broadband. The British countryside is in dire straits. It needs help and encouragement now before it is too late.
We must develop a long-term strategy—not one that will simply paper over the cracks. It must involve landowners, farmers, growers, the entire food industry, all government agencies and the Government so that British agriculture and the British countryside can flourish once again. Our great nation surely deserves nothing less.
The Prime Minister has said that he wants to govern for the whole nation. I believe him and I hope that the Minister will give us that reassurance today. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for choosing this debate and for introducing it in the way that he did. I suspect that all noble Lords in the Chamber have one thing in common; namely, our love and appreciation of, and concern for, the British countryside.
I was born, brought up, studied, worked and now live in the countryside. I declare an interest as chair of the Forestry Commission. That allows me the opportunity to travel the length and breadth of Great Britain talking to people and discussing the undoubted problems of the countryside.
In debating the countryside, my greatest concern relates to those who seek to distinguish and divide the town from the country. In a small island we are very much interdependent on each other. In my native Cumbria, I am conscious that when we are sick we may go to Carlisle or to Kendal, but if we are very sick we are taken to Newcastle or Manchester. The visitor who walks around hills one day may well be the theatre nurse at Christie Hospital the next day. We should never forget our interdependence on each other.
The same problems affect the citizens whether they live in the town or the country; they are simply of a different dimension. If you are sick, you are sick in the country as well as the town. If you are unemployed you have the same problems, but of a different dimension, whether in a city or a rural area. If we become too divisive, we do not serve the purpose that we seek: to ensure that our countryside is vibrant; that it has economic confidence; and that we can see a way forward in the future.
The noble Lord stated this point clearly. We all agree that agriculture is in a state of deep turmoil. He quoted the figures. I know that they are the right figures. We pour £3 billion into British agriculture every year. Yet we have farmers living on a knife edge who have meagre returns. The figure I have used was that under the CAP only £1 in £3 got through to farmers. The rest was used in export restitution and support for middle men. Little money got through to the producers of our food, or the people who look after our countryside. I hope that through the mid-term review, to which the noble Lord referred, we shall have a fundamental change.
We should not short-sell those who live in the countryside. The educational standards of our young people in rural areas are higher than in urban areas. Equally, economic activity in the rural areas, difficult though it may seem to be, is higher than in the urban areas and is increasing at a faster rate.
If we are seeing a reorganisation of agriculture—as, clearly, we are—we need another driver for the rural economy. In many areas that may well be IT. But, as the noble Lord suggested, it is certainly tourism. I commend his activity in this field. Perhaps I may give a couple of examples from my sphere of forestry. We seek to apply lateral thinking in the countryside which will provide an economic opportunity for regeneration. The noble Lord made the point that timber prices in Britain are at their lowest ever in real terms. It is hardly worth while chopping down trees. That applies to state forestry as well as to private forestry. We have sought to look at other ways of utilising estate. Clearly, forestry is about more than trees: it is also about the spaces between the trees. We need to think laterally.
I cite the classic example. With a stroke of luck and some good planning, we have ospreys in my native county of Cumbria. We put flat tops on trees. The ospreys came back. Last year, 110,000 people came to see the ospreys. We estimate that with capital spending that brought £2 million into the local economy. Very little went to the Forestry Commission because all we charge for is the odd car. But all the rest of the money has gone into the local economy. Equally, in north Wales, at Coed y Brenin, we spent about £100,000 putting in cycle paths. Two years later, the consultants estimated that that had brought £4 million into the local economy.
We must start thinking laterally. If we do, we can start another way of economically regenerating the countryside.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for initiating the debate and for putting the case so brilliantly for the countryside. I, too, declare an interest as a farmer and a member of numerous organisations connected with the countryside.
It is a coincidence that this debate occurs while on the Continent the mid-term review of the CAP is being discussed. I am filled with concern that inevitably farming, which is already depressed, will be worse off after those deliberations than it is now. With the notable exception of our noble friend Lord Whitty who is always present and in good humour, Ministers disappoint me by showing so little enthusiasm for farming and rural life. They seem to wish that problems would go away. I fear that they will get worse and worse.
I followed yesterday's debate with increasing worry about the future. Cannot everyone involved see that the retention of the beauty of our landscape, the habitat, wildlife and food production depends on profitable farming? Without that, we shall have run-down buildings, derelict land and abandoned rural communities. I have seen all that in the US. But we, too, are on the same slope. We see abandoned rural schools, abandoned churches, many abandoned post offices and shops, and communities following suit.
Council tax in rural areas is bearing highly and heavily on the population. In Scotland, those who follow the Scottish press will know that the water industry is out of control. Water charges have increased between 25 per cent and 500 per cent. Much of that bears heavily on the farming industry and rural industries. It is all desperately serious. But at the same time the Government are supporting policies which will reduce farm income. Decoupling and cross-compliance will have that effect. Can anyone present who has studied the mid-term CAP and read the report of the noble Lord, Lord Selborne, explain how incomes will be retained if grants are taken from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2? Any major reform of the CAP will mean less income for agriculture.
How can the average farmer, who is playing his part in enhancing the environment, obtain a reasonable income from the CAP proposals. Modulation is already biting, but where is the money taken from farmers going into the environment? I have yet to see it. Most importantly, it is essential that grants and agricultural support are attached to the land in future, and not to the farmers; otherwise we shall have immense problems in buying and selling land.
It is interesting that while we say that we must do all this because of the enlargement of the Community and the World Trade Organisation, the US, which is vociferous about world trade, has given huge new grants to farming in America.
Who is really looking after the countryside in the United Kingdom? I hoped that the Countryside Agency would take a much more prominent position on behalf of the agricultural industry. It must give much more leadership. It seems far too tied up with rights of way and the right to roam and its budget has been swallowed up arranging maps and answering complaints and appeals. The Minister must free the agency from being a government department and allow it to be the agency it was set up to be.
It is disappointing that in The State of the Countryside 2020, published not long ago, there was no word about the value of country sports to the countryside and to tourism. Will the Minister affirm to the House what the Prime Minister has said elsewhere—that shooting and fishing have nothing to worry about from a Labour government in future?
I am concerned about planning, as wind farms go up everywhere and there are radio masts on the top of every hill. The Government seem to be turning over every appeal and giving approval for these unsightly monstrosities.
As the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, so rightly said, the Minister should give us some long-term ideas for the future. At the moment, we are sunk in jargon from the market such as modulation, de-coupling, cost compliance and degressivity. That is double Dutch to the average farmer. It is high time the Government brought together all the reports done by distinguished people in the past year or two. A long-term view should be drawn from those reports of where we ought to go in practical terms. That is what farmers want to know.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for introducing the subject. I shall refer to other subjects that affect the rural community.
Will the Minister give us some assurance that the vast sums of money being spent and, I believe, partly wasted on the mainline railway are not at the expense of the peripheral railway? I hope that we shall not see the lines that are less used being sacrificed for the sake of the West Coast Main Line.
Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, I do see people on rural buses. The cost inflation indicators for the bus industry are quite different from those for ordinary cost inflation. Costs are going up very quickly—wage and insurance costs particularly—as the no-win-no-fee culture takes hold. The effect of the working time directive on the bus industry will be huge. Should not subsidies be tied to some new inflation indicator? Oxfordshire, my own county, is offering something over 1 per cent when inflation is running at something like 10 per cent in the industry. In addition, the rural bus grant has been woefully misdirected; it is being spent on what I would call "no hope" services, when the true marginal services are dropping out of the net for lack of support.
I turn to housing. Although it may be possible to rent a house for £45 a week in the area where the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, lives, that would be a laughable figure in Oxfordshire. A special effort is needed to house the indigenous population of rural areas. Parish councils should be allowed to specially designate areas for housing for indigenous people, and those houses should be protected from the right-to-buy legislation. In that way, permanent housing in the countryside would remain available for countryside people, not retired or even practising accountants.
The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, also referred to the issue of law and order. I have two issues to put to the Minister. First, hare coursing is a particularly troublesome issue—a very rural issue—as are unlicensed raves. Could the law be updated so that, instead of seizing equipment and dogs, the police are empowered to seize the vehicles of people who care nothing for the law and take up very large amounts of police time, which is then unfortunately not spent on catching motorists? Those people believe themselves to be above the law.
Secondly, the issue of access is important. I refer not to the access talked about under the right to roam but access to national trails and bridleways, which are consistently being ruined in many parts of rural England by the activities of people using quad bikes, motorcycles and four-wheel-drive vehicles. As with heavy lorries using country roads, it is not good enough to rely on the effectiveness of traffic orders. They are expensive for county councils to promote and are thoroughly ineffective and slow, they require huge police resources in order to prosecute and the fines are derisory. We need a proper prohibition of certain types of vehicles in certain places, and the presence of such a vehicle, once noted, should be sufficient ground for proper prosecution.
Lastly, I refer to road safety. My noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market referred to this matter in Committee on the Railways and Transport Safety Bill last week. About half the casualties on our roads happen in rural areas; excessive speed in rural areas is no doubt a large factor, coupled with the fact that the roads are not very well maintained. Will the Minister say something about the review of the road hierarchy that is being undertaken, and when we can expect to see some results?
My Lords, I must start by saying how honoured and humbled I am to be making my maiden speech. I admit to a touch of nervousness, but I cannot tell your Lordships what a relief it is to enter this House today walking forwards not backwards.
In the Countryside Agency's latest annual report, a recent survey shows that over 90 per cent of people living in England consider it important to keep the English countryside the way it is now. For those of us who love and cherish our British countryside, that is heartening news indeed. The problem is that beneath the surface the countryside is suffering, and farming in particular is in real crisis.
Farming is no longer the largest industry in the countryside, as it contributes only £7 billion to the national economy as against rural tourism, which contributes at least £12 billion. Farmers manage over 75 per cent of the land area of the UK, and they are the linchpin of the tourist industry. Last year, the average UK farmer earned just £11,000 for a 50-hour week; that figure has been in decline for the past six years. In 2002, another 18,000 farmers and farmworkers lost their jobs, bringing total job losses since 1996 to more than 65,000. Many UK farmers are now among the poorest in Europe, and they need our continued assistance to survive.
The majority of farmers accept that global restructuring is taking place in their industry and that they must embrace change. They are willing to diversify whenever possible and, increasingly, they are entering into agri-environment schemes. They acknowledge their role as managers of the countryside, but at the same time they must be able to make a living out of food production if they are to have a future in the long term.
One of the main problems facing the farming industry is over-regulation, and every farmer I speak to believes that we are now more regulated in this country than anywhere else in Europe. Bureaucrats in Brussels dream up new regulations and then hand them down to our civil servants in Whitehall, who are expert at re-drafting them, and often adding to them, so that they are as water-tight as possible for the UK. There is a commendable quality in the British nature that then makes us abide by new regulation to the letter, in a way that does not seem to happen in the rest of Europe.
Our dairy farmers, for instance, have complied with the milk quota regulations from the moment they were introduced in 1984. In Italy, they are still arguing about what the base year level should be 19 years on, and in practice they have avoided milk quotas.
In this country the IACS form which our arable farmers have to fill in runs to 13 pages. In Ireland, it runs to two. In the livestock sector our regulatory controls are now so severe that it is estimated that compliance costs our farmers 30 per cent more than in other parts of the world. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that our home market is flooded with beef from South America and Ireland, and with lamb from New Zealand.
A recent example of even more red tape from Brussels is the Animal By-Products Regulation, which, from 1st May, requires all farmers to dispose of their dead animals by taking them to a licensed incinerator or rendering plant. For a sheep farmer in the Yorkshire Dales who loses some of his stock on the open moorland, very often half a mile or more from the nearest road, that is going to be extremely difficult to comply with. Is the scientific evidence behind this latest regulation really robust? Would it not have been just as beneficial simply to regulate that all carcasses buried on a farm must not pollute a water course? Has anyone done an estimate of the extra pollution to the environment of all these farm animal carcass movements and the effects of incinerating them? What about the dead carcasses on our roads? Are councils going to pick them up? What about dead pets?
If farming in this country is to have a future, we must reduce unnecessary red tape instead of constantly adding to it. We must remove regulation where the benefit is disproportionate to the costs of implementing it. We must get away from the current system of central government trying to micro-manage the farming industry from Whitehall, gold-plating everything that comes out of Brussels. We must find new ways of letting the farming industry regulate itself through farmer assurance schemes, allowing it to produce good-quality food safely, to comply with the high standards demanded by supermarkets and other retail outlets. Somehow we must give the farming industry back to itself and get central government out of it.
There are many examples in the world where deregulation in an industry has been made to work very successfully. In New Zealand, in 1984, the government decided to deregulate the trucking, shipping and airline industries, with remarkable results. They moved the bias of their transport safety regulations from one of operator compliance to operator accountability. Instead of central government writing the safety rules, and then ensuring that they were being complied with, they made the industry accountable for safety outcomes. The result was that the number of Ministry of Transport regulators in New Zealand was reduced from 4,500 employees to just 57. Safety in the transport industry improved across the board, and prices either stabilised or fell as the industry discovered innovation.
Deregulating the UK farming industry will not be easy, and it will take time; but somehow we must start this process. The British countryside is one of our national treasures, and farming is its backbone. I believe that Her Majesty's Government must ensure that farming has a future in this country.
My Lords, it is a great privilege and pleasure to congratulate the noble Duke the Earl Marshal on his excellent maiden speech. It was a valuable, expert, well-directed and robust contribution to this important debate.
Your Lordships will all have reasons to remember with great gratitude the immense contribution to this House and to the nation made by the noble Duke's father. It is good to be able to welcome the noble Duke as an active Member of this House. We look forward with enthusiasm to his future contributions to our debates. On a personal note, perhaps I may say what happy childhood memories I have of visits to Arundel—to that wonderful cricket ground and that beautiful part of West Sussex farmed by the noble Duke.
I, too, must declare an interest as bishop of the most rural diocese in England. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for securing this debate, for enabling us to range over the enormous canvas of rural life in Britain, and for his outstanding speech in introducing the debate.
I have been asked to speak specifically about the role of the Church in rural areas. I gladly do so—based on more than 30 years of hands-on rural experience. But, first, perhaps I may make three brief points about farming.
Our thoughts and prayers are with those negotiating on our behalf in Luxembourg—today, tonight, tomorrow and tomorrow night, or however long it may take—to sort out the outstanding current issues of CAP reform. I hope that they will support Commissioner Fischler with real determination— that they will achieve far-reaching reform; full decoupling; a much strengthened second pillar; and well-directed environmental and rural infrastructure proposals that will create a proper living for farmers. That modulation money must come back into farmers' pockets.
I want to refer, secondly, to the recommendation by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, for a significant transfer of rural funding to rural development agencies. I hope that the Minister will think long and hard about that. We do not need further upheaval and change. We need the continuing reform and improvement of Defra and of the Countryside Agency. Many people in rural England doubt whether RDAs are the right bodies to be making decisions about financial support.
Thirdly, and rather more cheerfully, I want to offer a warm welcome to the recommendations of the Tenancy Reform Industry Group. They will bring real hope and help to beleaguered tenant farmers. The Minister has said that he believes that they are in the right ballpark. I hope that the Government will implement them swiftly.
I turn to the role of the Church. The parish church has been at the heart of rural communities for 1,000 years—for longer in many cases. Huge social change, social mobility and social fragmentation have radically altered the character of rural community life. But it remains true to say that the Church has a central role in rural communities—ranging in population from hamlets of less than 100 people who still have their own parish church to market towns of several thousand.
Last Sunday, I had two wonderfully encouraging experiences which proved how true it is that the Church is at the heart of community. The first was in a small market town. The church was full—there were 500 people of all ages from all walks of life—for a civic service to welcome the new mayor and to set the tone to his mayoral year. There were children, young people, representatives of business, farming, the professions and the arts, music of various kinds and morris dancers. There was participation by Christians of five different traditions. There was an air of unity, purpose and commitment which was inspiring. On the same day, in the evening, I was in a very remote church where we celebrated the centenary of the church's rebuilding. The population of that hamlet is 70. There were 65 people in church—not all of them, I have to admit, from the hamlet itself, but wanting to come together to give thanks, to re-commit themselves, with God's help, to being a good, outward-looking, mutually supportive community.
Mutual support is critical. The foot and mouth outbreak showed what a vital role the Church had in supporting farmers and their families under very great stress. It was extremely well done and greatly valued. But many deep anxieties remain in rural life. The critical level of product prices for farmers has been pointed out. How will decoupling affect farmers in unsupported areas of agriculture?
Farm borrowing is at record levels. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, referred to a figure £3 billion. The Bank of England figures I have indicate that it is £7.9 billion—6 per cent up on last year. Social exclusion is a real problem in the deep country where struggling family farmers often resent the arrival next door of a well-heeled hobby farmer who brings city money and a very different lifestyle. The Church has a vital role in pastoral care for everyone, and in encouraging mutual understanding.
I am not simply talking about the Church of England. In many rural areas, the Anglican parish church may be the only building but its congregation will include Roman Catholics and Free Church people who are more than welcome, and many rural churches incorporate in their worship elements from traditions other than the Church of England.
However, we need—we desperately need—more realistic help from society at large towards the maintenance of our historic built heritage. The Church of England is the least well-supported Church in Europe from that point of view. Our congregations have gladly maintained their historic buildings for many centuries but the strain is acute and radical change is needed. Communities are much more important than buildings but the buildings matter and are a precious inheritance and a national treasure. More public recognition and financial help are essential if the Church's contribution to rural life is to continue to be strengthened and to grow, freed from what can be a preoccupying concern with maintenance. We would rather be in the business of mission and community building.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, along with every other noble Lord who is taking part in this debate. Without entering upon the slippery slope of everyone congratulating the maiden speaker—that is much deplored in your Lordships' House—I must say how much I welcome the arrival in the House of another Baron Beaumont. In my rather prejudiced view, we cannot have too many Baron Beaumonts in this House. The arrival of the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, as Baron Beaumont is more than welcome.
Any serious discussion of the countryside is about agriculture. We have now had the opportunity to talk about it on two separate days in the past three days. I take it that few of us want to see a countryside of theme parks and second homes.
The Green Party is not a party of yokels, in spite of its name. Indeed, one of my problems as its spokesman for agriculture is finding enough people with agricultural knowledge. However, we care passionately about the countryside. Today, I received an e-mail from a very rural part of Derbyshire—from a Conservative constituency—where a rather distinguished gentleman wishes to start a branch of the Green Party, having discovered that most of the people in his village voted Labour in the past but no longer wish to do so.
The real bugbear to the whole question of agriculture is free trade. Free trade is a con trick imposed by politicians who want to buy urban votes for cheap food at the expense of agricultural incomes and the environment. It has succeeded as a con trick. As the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said on Tuesday, perhaps food is so cheap now that we cannot be bothered to think about the problems it causes. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, said in the same debate that the objectives of the CAP are to provide a decent living for those in the country and food security but it fails to do either.
We appear to have abandoned the idea of food security. That is a grave error. Many noble Lords, like me, remember when that mattered. Looking around the world today, I am far from betting heavily on its not being needed again. If we have protection for agriculture, we could have a decent, populous, environmentally secure countryside. We would also have, I admit, more expensive food, but that expense would have preserved the British countryside. Against that, we will be told that we would be harming the poor. Governments always use the fact that they refuse to introduce policies to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor to avoid doing other desirable things. They go on to say that what I am suggesting would hurt the third world. I categorically deny that. It is not true; if I had sufficient time, which I have not, I could prove that.
Meanwhile, once again, I urge a real determination to tackle the World Trade Organisation. Until then, I look forward with gloom to the continuing decline of the countryside because I do not believe that the suggestions that will be and have been made in your Lordships' House today will really do much good at all. We need a revival of agriculture. The suggestions being made about the improvement of the countryside do not go far enough to do anything serious about that.
My Lords, I must declare an interest as the son of a farmer, as a retired farmer and as the father of two farmers: one in Yorkshire and one in County Wicklow. Both of them, I am rather hesitant to say, are making a profit, and both of them are rather keen to expand their businesses.
I have spent much of the past two years wandering around the British and European countryside, examining how we recovered from foot and mouth disease, how European farming can deal with CAP reform and how that great department, DEFRA, supplies its customers. My reflection is that, generally, the countryside is adapting much better than it thinks to rapid changes in farming, to the growing environmental agenda and to the overall challenges of a dynamic modern society.
The British countryside is much more economically diverse and successful than it is prepared to admit. Most farms—more than half—now benefit substantially from non-farming income. Wives and children, better educated than their parents, find alternative jobs in nearby towns. Many of today's liberated farmers' wives prefer to do another job, rather than be stuck alongside their husbands at the back end of a cow for all their lives.
Rural tourism is booming. The "half-term, four-day break" phenomenon is doing wonders for tourism in the countryside. Farm buildings are being increasingly adapted for other business purposes, despite the planners. The Yorkshire farmer's wife who has built a big business flogging knickers on the Internet is not on her own. All of those initiatives are welcome and need to be encouraged. The planners and romantic dinosaurs must not unnecessarily resist progress.
Farming itself is now recovering well after several difficult years. The doomsters who forecast that foot and mouth disease would be a death blow have been proven totally wrong. The massive—probably excessive—compensation that was handed out by the Government clearly helped, as did the strength of livestock prices, which was a consequence of the disease.
Farm prices have recovered substantially in most sections, thanks to the weaker pound against the euro and stronger global prices, although the strong euro against the dollar is creating problems. The dairy industry is also experiencing its own problems. Lower interest rates have helped a heavily borrowed industry. British farming has greatly improved its competitiveness. At last, British farmers are learning to co-operate with each other. They are joining together to strengthen their buying power and making much better use of their assets through sharing and contracting. They are also managing their businesses better. There is more intelligent and more sparing use of chemicals and pesticides. They are concentrating on profit rather than yield; learning that good animal welfare is also good business; and managing bigger herds and more hectares in a responsible way.
When British wheat—Yorkshire wheat—is exported to New York and New South Wales, as happened last winter, one realises how much more competitive many British farmers have now become. Labour shortage is one of the greatest problems facing the industry if one is a dairy person, or growing fruit and vegetables, or trying to pick flowers. Finally, land prices remain strong, enabling those farmers who want to retire in comfort, to make selective disposals for development and to borrow with confidence. However, that does not of course apply to tenant farmers.
British farmers, however, like the rest of British industry, will benefit from the stability of participation in the European single currency. I believe that the Chancellor's positive Statement on that matter in another place on Monday will take us some way closer to that aspiration.
I have one final farming point. The capacity to grow niche markets, such as organic and local food markets, is limited. When, as in the case of organic milk, supply runs ahead of demand, the consequences are disastrous for those involved.
The non-farming rural society continues to thrive. There are rising numbers of urban commuters, who admittedly create problems for others. There has been the remarkable expansion of rural small businesses benefiting from better access to markets through the Web and also from the increasing number of visitors to the countryside.
Rural public services are in my view also exaggerated. Why are the rural buses so empty? It is because over 90 per cent of the rural population owns cars and most of the rest have obliging car-owning neighbours. Why are rural shops closing down? That is because people in the countryside will not use them. They rather like the once-weekly visit to the nearby town and the supermarket. Why are local pubs in decline? The reason is that drink/drive laws rightly stop people in an inebriated state from driving to and from them.
My impression is that there are three real problems in the countryside: the lack of affordable housing for young people, which is also an urban problem; the lack of access to entertainment for rural teenagers; and people in remote areas—in what the French call "rural rural areas"—continue to experience problems of social and economic isolation as in the past.
The Countryside Alliance is, I am afraid, something of a myth. The countryside is as divided as the towns are about hunting; environmentalists clash with farmers; pragmatic environmentalists argue with the evangelists; organic and conventional farmers have their differences; competitive and hobby farmers are at odds with each other; and small farmers resent their larger neighbours. Cowboys and farmers—since the days of Oklahoma—have never got on. There is endless tension between the full-time countryside folk and the commuters and second-homers.
I say a final word about the Defra review. The Government have created a new department with a radically different and much more complicated remit. It has to apply an agricultural policy in which it itself does not believe; to cope with an avalanche of controversial environmental regulations; to anticipate radical changes in agro-environmental policies; and to handle a remit for rural affairs without really defining what "rural" means.
My priorities in this review are: first, to improve accountability; to draw clear lines between policy making and delivery. Secondly, as much as possible to devolve delivery to the regions; to get away from top down. Thirdly, to get ready for a huge increase in the environmental agenda. Finally, to provide a better service to the countryside and better value to the taxpayers.
My Lords, as a farmer I take a somewhat dispassionate view of the countryside. In my boyhood agriculture was recovering from the deep depression of the 1920s and the 1930s. In those days there was a great deal of derelict land. It may not have looked very beautiful but the birds, the bees and the butterflies were having a wonderful time. Today, we are again—despite the noble Lord, Lord Haskins—seeing a period with agriculture descending into depression.
Set-aside is planned dereliction. I am bound to say that, by observation, rotational set-aside at any rate is not as green as derelict land. In my youth, when I was studying agriculture, the Rothamstead Research Station—I am not sure whether that has survived all the changes in agricultural research and education in the intervening 50 years—used to have a plot of land which it had deliberately neglected for more than 100 years. It finished up as oak forest. If allowed, nature will take care of itself without too much help from us.
During the in-between period, for the first 30 years when policy was dominated by the need for the security of food supply and for the past 20 years, through advances in communications, we have seen the need for the drive of government policy. As an agricultural industry, we now find ourselves in the position perhaps of a drug addict: we wish we could work without the support of government. The Government are addicted to the same problem and wish they could stop supporting the agricultural industry.
We have a community of interest but, in a world where support for the agricultural community is general and the environment is so artificial, in fact we cannot escape from it and have to work within those dreadful parameters.
Agriculture and the countryside are indistinguishable. Strictly, we should not confine our remarks to agriculture today. The problem, however, is the same as that which we faced in the 1930s. That is, there is now insufficient income in the agricultural community to support the countryside in the way we wish to see it kept—in the rather beautiful state in which it is.
Of course the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, has a point when he talks about the countryside and includes within it all the small rural communities, which are, generally speaking, quite dynamic and include a great deal of small business and so on. However, during the foot and mouth outbreak we saw how quickly they can become damaged when agriculture goes into crisis. That outbreak damaged hugely the agricultural industry, but it damaged quite remarkably the economy of the whole country because of the damage done to all the peripheral industries to which our countryside relates.
The real question we need to ask ourselves today is: if we cannot rely on agriculture as we know it at present to maintain the country, can we find additional income streams to the rural environment? Tourism is all very well, but there is a limit to the number of bed and breakfasts one can put in the countryside. Letting surplus agricultural cottages is all very well, but one cannot get permission to build any more. So that is also limited.
The fact is that while tourism brings a great deal of income into the rural community, it does not actually benefit agriculture on which it depends. I am bound to say that the tourist industry would be very reluctant to start to take responsibility for maintenance of the countryside.
The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, has always been a strong and powerful advocate of biofuels, and particularly bio-diesel. He is right in principle but I have always argued that he is wrong in detail. The brutal fact is that plants are very inefficient converters of the sun's energy. If we are serious about producing green energy from the countryside—and I think we should be, in view of all the concern about global warming—then why not opt for photo-electrics? From the same area of ground we could produce at least 10, possibly 15, times as much energy. With current technical developments one could probably further increase that figure. That green energy would come from nothing.
However, for that to happen one would need a very different approach to the planning regime because one would effectively be putting land to industrial use. That is one method. Unlike my noble friend Lord Monro of Langholm, I do not think that wind farms are impossible. This is another possible source of income that could be brought to rural areas. I have to inform my noble friend that there is a wind farm within 50 miles of my home that is a tourist attraction. Certainly, the large wind farms that exist in parts of mainland Europe are not that unattractive.
We have to look for these additional ways to make use of the countryside. If that means a change in the planning regime and a changed psychological approach to the way we view the countryside, so be it; but society is moving on and the countryside must move on with it.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, has done well in introducing the debate. He has also done well in the assembling of an enormous number of facts and figures, which must have been a most laborious process—one that I hate but one which he must obviously love.
I want only to make one point. In introducing it, I must say that the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, is right about what is happening in the countryside. He was perhaps a little too enthusiastic in support of the Government, but, nevertheless, what he said was true: great efforts are going on; new marketing organisations are being set up; new plants are being developed; new machinery is being used; and great efficiency is being shown in many cases.
It is true that, given a reasonable level of support, farming can advance and thrive, but there are all sorts of snags. The primary producer needs some help because, where free trade has run riot, enormous misery has resulted in the farming population of the central American prairies and of this country. So we have a chance to move on, but the common agricultural policy is all-important.
More than 25 years ago, I was rapporteur of an agriculture committee considering the problem of olive oil. It was obvious that an enormous amount of money was being wasted and acquired corruptly—especially in Italy. In fact, we worked out that, given that it was made for home consumption as well, every Italian was consuming about a quart of olive oil every day. So a great deal can be accomplished with the CAP.
Decoupling payment from production is without doubt the answer. That is the only simple solution. Does that decoupling apply to the farmer or the land? There seems to be some doubt. If it applies only to the farmer and is not tied to the land, that is absolute nonsense. I trust and hope that the Minister will assure us that that is not so; and that if it is, he will go to Brussels to try to get that put right.
There is some hope if we sweep away all those regulations and really decouple to a single payment. On the olive oil, people said, "Ah, but if you pay farmers simply by the tree, they won't pick the olives". As there was a great surplus, I said that that would solve the problem. It will also solve the problem in farming if people receive a single payment. They will look for a simpler, easier way in which to farm, or develop a highly technical advance.
So I urge the Minister, as soon as we release him from the House, to proceed to Brussels to do his best to get the policy of decoupling pushed through.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, on introducing the debate. Issues relating to the countryside are often not addressed in sufficient depth, and I hope that the debate will highlight some of the serious issues presently affecting the rural community. I cannot declare an interest in farming, but I have an interest in farming. Perhaps I may especially draw attention to what is happening in rural Northern Ireland and, in doing so, make a number of points.
The past few years have been a time of transition in the rural community, with many factors contributing to changing circumstances. Perhaps the most prominent catalyst behind rural change has been the decline of farming throughout the Kingdom. That is nowhere more apparent than in Northern Ireland, because of the Province's traditional and heavy reliance on agriculture and the fact that farms in the Province are on average much smaller than in mainland Britain.
Despite the decline in the farming industry, it is still the largest single contributor to Northern Ireland's gross domestic product. Nevertheless, some of our problems are similar to those in other parts of the United Kingdom and thus the same solutions can and should be applied. However, on many occasions the problems are different and require local answers in conjunction with communities.
It is also true that even in Northern Ireland, which is a relatively small region, there is not one type of rural area. There are different areas with different problems requiring different solutions and responses. One suggestion that I very much support is that of a rural White Paper. England had such a paper some years back and I have heard various organisations, such as the Countryside Alliance, calling for the Government again to set the wheels in motion. Any rural White Paper would need to be as inclusive as possible and bring together a wide range of governmental and non-governmental organisations.
There are many difficulties in rural Northern Ireland similar to those alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer: problems with crime in the countryside; the closure of rural post offices; the pressure on rural schools to close; and accessibility of cash machines. That is to name but a few of the issues and factors that collectively put the sustainability of rural communities in grave doubt.
With the decline in agricultural employment, new initiatives to encourage new business and enterprises have never been more important. Increasingly, Internet access through broadband is becoming an issue that needs serious attention in rural areas of Northern Ireland. The absence of broadband prevents the progress and development of many rural businesses. More government assistance is needed, both practically and financially.
For instance, I note that earlier this year, Lincolnshire County Council received a grant from the European Union to subsidise broadband services for 3,000 rural businesses in the county. Without such assistance, companies will be understandably both reluctant and financially unable to invest further. Opportunities to create wealth and employment will thus inevitably be lost in rural communities.
The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, mentioned many transportation matters. In Northern Ireland, there is a growing trend for young people to live in urban areas, while the rural areas become more middle-aged. One factor influencing that is access to transport. Still, today, significant numbers of rural dwellers have no access to private transport, despite the fact that the availability of alternative public transport is limited.
Organisations such as the Countryside Alliance are playing an increasingly important role in lobbying politicians at the heart of government on issues affecting those who live or work in the countryside, or who enjoy what it has to offer us all. The Rural Development Council will soon be launching its 2003 rural baseline document in Westminster. No doubt it will reveal issues that the Government need to take into account.
I shall finish with a simple point. Rural people have as much right to equitable access to services as those who live in urban areas. The Government throughout the United Kingdom must continually remind themselves of that, and aim to deliver. The best way to assess the present condition of the countryside is for the Government to produce a White Paper. From knowing exactly how deep are the problems, we can develop and set in place solutions effectively to deal with the wide range of problems.
There needs to be joined-up government. At present, there is a rural gap between government departments in their work together. A rural White Paper would help government departments to co-operate more effectively and bring rural groups into the equation. I hope that the Government will recognise the existing need and that, as pressure grows for such a government process, they will initiate its development.
My Lords, I must declare an interest, first as president of the Countryside Alliance and, secondly, as what is sometimes pejoratively referred to as a hobby farmer. I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for his superb introduction to the debate. I also much enjoyed listening to my noble friend Lord Haskins.
The picture that he painted of a land of milk and honey has some resonance with my own experiences. His description of increasing co-operation of people using innovation, particularly in agriculture, and of a growing diversification of non-agricultural jobs in the countryside, is a pattern that I can see.
However, what was missing from his speech—and I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I take a moment to say a little about it—was the sense of deep unease, which was fundamentally what brought people in such huge numbers on to the streets of London last year. Most of us recognise that the countryside is undergoing enormous and rapid change. Our concern is that a great national asset will be lost in our generation. There are bound to be changes, but we want to see the retention of things that are precious.
The countryside is two things. First, it is landscape. Very little of our countryside is true wilderness. The majority of it is managed landscape, which means that its pattern, which most people want to see retained, is dictated by our farming patterns. If our agriculture fails, if it dwindles and dies, that pattern changes and the countryside as we know it goes. So the crisis in agriculture to which many others have referred and which I shall not go into in depth, is far more of a threat to many of us who have no income and no job dependent on agriculture. That affects the essence of the countryside that we care about.
Beyond that, perhaps even more, the countryside is about people. It is about communities throughout the country and a way of life which, in 2003, is still different, quite separate and distinct from that in the towns. There is a sense of belonging, a sense of having roots, of stability, of continuity, a responsibility for the place in which one lives. They are essentially law-abiding communities that like to work at a different pace and enjoy being part of a community in which people care about their surroundings and their neighbours and look after them when they are needed. In all the changes, that continues to exist in many places—some of them unexpected.
In the past 20 years one and a half million people have moved into the countryside. Over the same period there has been a rapid decline in rural amenities and services. The family farms of our nation have for generations been the cornerstones of those rural communities. There is no question that their decline is causing a crumbling effect. We have seen the loss of council housing and tied cottages. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, that the top priority if we are to retain those communities is to tackle local and affordable housing. I have seen the decline in the area where I grew up in Buckinghamshire, and am seeing that now in even more remote places such as Exmoor, where I live part of the time.
More and more people cannot afford to live in those areas, particularly the young, who move out because the only places they can afford to buy are in the town. Those families that dominated the villages for generations have gone within the space of the past five to 10 years. The small family farms are sold. The houses go to people from outside who can afford to pay the prices, and the agriculture units become larger. Planning regulations can and must be altered to allow for more affordable housing where it will improve the sustainability of those rural communities and benefit those areas. Powerful incentives or legislation to that effect should be at the top of Defra's agenda, as should the removal of restrictions that inhibit the creation of small jobs and enterprises, many of them non-agricultural.
I echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. If rural areas are left behind in the provision of broadband radio, that will be a blight from which those areas will never recover. The Government have the power to ensure that the telecommunications industry makes proper provision. Do the Government have the will to do so or are they going to wash their hands of it?
Finally, there is limited legislative time for any government department—and that applies to Defra. Many of us were pleased when that new government department was created and we had high hopes. The department has used its government legislative time so far to bring in an Animal Health Bill, which many of us thought was profoundly insulting, adding insult to injury for many farmers who had suffered during the course of foot and mouth. In another place the Hunting Bill is a travesty of the promise of fair legislation based on evidence and principle. We have seen animal by-products regulations that are impossible for people to abide by. While Ministers are urging an end to hunts, out in the sticks their officials are urging the hunts to keep going, because there are 377 outlets for fallen stock, of which 295 are hunt kennels. The officials are saying "we cannot do without you".
I beg that in the forthcoming months and years Defra will use its legislative opportunities not to impose more restrictions and regulations on the countryside, but to do things for the countryside that give people from the towns and the country an opportunity to continue to enjoy what is, and we hope will continue to be, a jewel in our nation.
My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for introducing the debate, I join with others in welcoming and congratulating the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, on his maiden speech. Having had the pleasure of knowing him for a long time and being a neighbour of his in Yorkshire—here I declare an interest as an owner of land—it came as no surprise that his first contribution in your Lordships' House was impressive and erudite.
Agriculture and rural Britain are undergoing a revolution. The high profile disasters of BSE and foot and mouth may have disappeared from our television screens, but profound and long-term changes are taking place and there are huge uncertainties and much hardship. Equally, there is much debate over what the Government could and should be doing to ease the crisis. There is no easy solution. I welcome the report of Sir Don Curry, which has made a considerable contribution to the debate. I also acknowledge that there is a plethora of schemes and initiatives flowing from all the different agencies that exist. However, most lack direction and co-ordination and end up leaving most rural dwellers confused, with a sense that large sums of public money are being wasted. Indeed, many of us are unsure of the direction of DEFRA.
I was surprised the other day when I saw a letter from Alun Michael describing himself as the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life. Perhaps, the noble Lord, the Minister, can tell us whether he is responsible for the urban quality of life in this House. So it is not surprising that I welcome the review that has been awarded to the noble Lord, Lord Haskins. He has an interesting job to do.
However, my real concern is that there appears to be a growing tendency to assume that farming is likely to become an irrelevance to the countryside as it will in time be substituted by other means of employment. That is a highly dangerous notion. Of course there will be fewer farmers, but I cannot accept that in this country we are not capable of producing the majority of food for our own population at a good quality and a fair price, from an agricultural sector charged with the responsibility of developing and maintaining an environment of which we can be proud. I accept that the latter part will continue to require some form of public support.
However, only farmers can deliver those goals, through working the land, as farming is the bedrock of the rural economy and the vital link between food, the environment and tourism. As my noble friend Lord Monro rightly said, farming has to be profitable.
So what can the Government do towards ensuring that that objective is met? First, I believe that there is a misconception in some quarters that the majority of consumers would automatically support home-produced products out of loyalty. The truth is that the larger retailers will continue to source their food from the cheapest suppliers, often from abroad. It therefore seems farcical that our farmers are being subjected to a range of rigorous animal welfare and environmental regulations, admirable though those may be, only to see imports flooding into this country which are not subjected to the same conditions as those placed on our producers, who are then being undercut. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that the Government should seek at the very least to ensure that no new legislation on production standards is introduced unless it is implemented throughout the whole of the European Union.
So, accepting that profound changes are taking place, clearly there is a need to create alternative jobs. That must remain an essential part of any change. It is to that end that I was immensely impressed when I was recently introduced to the Rural Revival Initiative. Conceived by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and implemented by his Prince's Trust, there are three strands to the scheme. The one I looked at is called Dale and is supported largely by the Countryside Agency and Yorkshire Forward, which is our local regional development agency. It is designed to create employment in the Yorkshire Dales region. Managed by the admirable Jill Robinson and started in 1999, it has created 70 new businesses. It is, I believe, a model of what can be achieved given the right structure, advice and, above all, motivation. However, I was particularly struck by one thing: despite an 87 per cent success rate, the local banks had shown a hugely disappointing reluctance to participate through the provision of loans or borrowing facilities.
That unhappy state of affairs is heard of far too often as the traditional role of a local bank manager—and his close personal link with his clientele—diminishes to a point where in many cases he no longer appears to have even a name. As banks close, the vital link between the customer and local financial services becomes ever weaker. Rigid systems governed by electronic programmes appear to make no allowance for personal circumstances and the banks are now seen by many as more interested in selling pensions and life assurance schemes than in producing the vital services that have served local communities so admirably in the past. I believe that it is incumbent on the banking sector as well as the public sector to take forward this entrepreneurial spirit and to play their part once again in rural Britain.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Palmer for giving your Lordships the opportunity to speak on some of the vital issues surrounding the countryside. My noble friend has spoken with passion. I hope that the Minister will be able to give some hope on matters that must have an answer. I must declare an interest. I live in the countryside. I was brought up in the countryside. I have a farm with sheep and ponies and a small riding centre.
I revert to the debate on horse passports which we had on Monday 2nd June, when the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said that there may be a particular problem with elderly horses. Does he agree that it is possible that some people might turn old horses out and leave them on common ground rather than get a passport? Would it not be possible to exempt old horses above, say, 20 years if the owners signed a declaration stating that they were not being moved from home? If the horses were sold, they would then require a passport.
Will the Minister also give an answer about fallen stock? Some hunt kennels will not collect. Others do not take sheep because hounds could get a taste for it. So, with no disposal unit or collection service in the vicinity, what are we to do in the rural areas? I agreed to support a scheme but have heard nothing to date. Will the Minister extend on-farm burial until at least September? Something workable might be in place by then—otherwise what is going to happen? What is to happen to dogs and cats? Until now we have buried them in a woodland garden that is nowhere near water. There has been a dog cemetery there for years. What is to happen to deer, foxes and badgers and the endless rabbits which die of myxomatosis by the hundreds?
A few weeks ago I had a debate on human tuberculosis. There is a global partnership to battle against the growing, deadly international public health threat of multi-drug resistant TB. The Farmers Guardian of 6th June stated:
"The Government must bite the bullet and get on with the job of fighting TB in Britain to protect the welfare of cattle and badgers".
May I ask the Minister what is the progress of the bovine TB vaccine? If dead badgers are found and cannot be buried, they could be dumped on other farms, with the risk of spreading TB.
It is true that the perception and fear of crime in rural areas is very real and is growing. There has been much concern about the lack of visibility of the police and a feeling of remoteness from police services as traditional stations have been closed. The police station at Masham, where I live, is going to be taken over by local veterinarians. A few weeks ago, 19 saddles were stolen from the riding centre on my farm. The tack room was doubled-locked and alarmed. It happened at lunchtime in the middle of the day. Several other people's tack was stolen around the same time. The crimes never seem to be solved and the tack is not found. The thieves are very skilful and quick and know just what they want. Small rural riding schools really do have their problems—if it is not crime, it is the cost exacerbated by rates, which livery stables do not have to pay. I wonder whether the Minister can explain that inequality.
Over the years I have heard of several people living in the country who have become disabled and have not been able to get planning permission to build housing suitable for their disability. The headlines in this week's Darlington & Stockton Times have highlighted the difficulties of a lady with multiple sclerosis who tried to get planning permission for a bungalow on the edge of Gunnerside in the Yorkshire Dales. Disability can strike at any time in many different ways. It is very difficult if country people and their families cannot remain in their home villages because there is no suitable housing. Special consideration should be given to disabled people as long as their new home fits into local surroundings.
In Yorkshire many people feel that the administrative burden of government regulations on farmers and the low returns that farming is generating are driving away the next generation of farmers needed to maintain viable and environmentally important areas which are best managed by individuals rather than by government bodies. Therefore, government should aim to reduce those burdens and increase incentives.
My Lords, I, too, add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Palmer for initiating this debate so knowledgeably and comprehensively. The long speakers' list is testimony to its importance.
I should like to make two rather different points, the first of which has to do with the rate at which we are using up our countryside by building on it. The second concerns our upland areas which lie on the margin of cultivation, but which have recreational and nature conservation importance.
My starting point is the recent Countryside Agency's report, The State of the Countryside 2020 and its remarks that
"at least 4.2 million new homes will be needed in England over the next two decades—equivalent to building a city the size of greater London".
The report asks:
"Where will these houses be built, and how many will be in the countryside?".
It refers to Government policy to encourage 60 per cent of new build to be on brownfield sites. My noble friend Lord Palmer referred to that. So far the Government have managed to achieve that figure—indeed, to exceed it. That is good, but 60 per cent is not enough. We cannot go on using up our incomparable countryside in this profligate way. Surely we should set the target at least at 75 per cent. That is particularly relevant in the South-East.
It puzzles me that in England and Wales we have one of the highest population densities in Europe. Yet, we have the lowest housing densities. I do not know why this should be, but if we cannot cure ourselves we will eventually turn the South-East into a vast housing estate. Do I exaggerate? No. One need only look at a map of the south-east of England 100 years ago to see what an awful mess we have made.
The future of our countryside must in the first instance lie in the renaissance of our cities. We need policies that mean that people will want to live in our cities. We have been shown the way forward. I refer, of course, to the 1998 report of the Rogers Committee, which showed us with real expertise and authority the way forward. The question is whether we are doing enough to carry forward his vision.
I turn now to my second theme—from suburban England to our wild uplands. My remarks are in some measure derived from a seminar organised by the Royal Geographical Society on "Sustainable Futures for the British Uplands". The key theme is the inter-dependence of upland agriculture, tourism and landscape conservation—a point that has already been made. The okay phrase is, I understand, "multi-functional landscapes".
That inter-dependence was starkly emphasised by the FMD disaster, which for a period of months brought tourism in the Lake District to its knees. In short, the wider economies of those uplands—tourism employs far more people than farming—depend on the well-being of farming. As is well known, upland farming is barely economic and it is widely accepted that the production-based subsidy systems were seriously damaging our landscapes through overstocking. Other support systems were required.
Some years ago the National Trust, whose chairman I then was, started experimenting in north Wales with whole farm management plans. Subsequently the Curry report and one by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution set out the ingredients for this sort of environmental farm management.
More recently the trust gave evidence to the European Sub-Committee of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, as did others, on that approach. So it is gratifying to read of their enthusiastic endorsement, and to see that in a wider sense a new approach is bit by bit getting under way in the CAP reforms—although I keep my fingers crossed. In that Connection, I listened with interest to the debate yesterday.
We have come quite a long way in the past 10 years. But we still have a long way to go. The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, in that connection was very interesting. My information from the Lake District bears out much of what he says. We have to think on a wider canvass than just agriculture. The excellent Curry report showed us the way forward.
I shall end by mentioning briefly some practical examples from the Lake District. First, I refer to the promotion of Herdwick wool—the traditional background to Lake District farming. In recent years farmers have been burning the fleeces because it is more costly to transport the fleece to the Wool Board than the price they receive. By attacking the wool supply chain the trust's project office is now able to get a price of 50p a kilo—still less than the shearing cost—for the members of the Herdwick farmers' co-operative. That added value has different sources, including a local Kendal firm that makes Herdwick carpets. We have one in our flat, and it is very hard-wearing.
Another project is the development of high quality Herdwick meat products. Again, these are projects to diversify from tourism and agriculture by converting redundant farm buildings into light industrial or service uses. I could go on, but, as my time is up, I shall stop at this point.
My Lords, I, too, express my appreciation to my noble friend Lord Palmer on his impressive and knowledgeable introduction to this important debate.
I am fortunate to live just one mile away from the Ridgeway national trail. I wish to draw the attention of the House to recent and disturbing developments on this ancient path. The noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, has already touched on the protection of nature trails. I support what he said, but wish to expand on it.
As your Lordships may be aware, the Ridgeway is regarded as the oldest path in Britain, with a history of use by man going book more than 6,000 years. This makes it older than any building in this country—indeed much older than the Pyramids. It links numerous sites, such as a fine series of iron age hill forts, the great stone circles of Avebury, the oldest white horse in the country at Uffington and the huge and mysterious Silbury Hill. It crosses some of the best scenery in the south of England. It is rich in flora and fauna, and it should provide a wonderful and easily accessible leisure amenity for millions of people. It is one of only 12 national trails in Britain, and it runs through two areas of outstanding natural beauty.
However, the Ridgeway is currently facing the biggest threat in its long history. The threat comes from the rapidly increasing number of 4x4 motor vehicles and off-road motor bikes that are using it as a playground. They are disturbing the quiet enjoyment of the countryside for the walkers, cyclists and horse riders who make up 95 per cent of the users of the Ridgeway. They are destroying the surface of this ancient path, turning it into a deep and unpleasant sea of mud in wet weather. In the summer this sets into a series of ankle-twisting ruts, which are dangerous to anyone on foot, pedal cycle or horse. They create pollution and are driving away the local wildlife for what should be a precious bio-diversity reservoir in this intensely farmed part of the country.
If this threat continues, there will not be a Ridgeway for future generations of country lovers to enjoy. Your Lordships may ask why motor vehicles are allowed on this national trail. The reason is that until recently our law provided that if it could be proved that horse-drawn traffic once used a particular route, it could now be used by motor vehicles. Until about 20 years ago, this did not matter too much as few motor vehicles ever used it. However, with the recent explosion in the numbers of off-road vehicles, there is now an enthusiastic sport of "green laning"—driving such vehicles down the ancient green lanes of Britain. At a time when we are quite rightly to curb motor vehicles in our major urban areas, we appear to be encouraging them to drive deeper and deeper into our countryside.
The problem is not confined to the Ridgeway. It is manifesting itself all over the country, with areas of the Lake District, Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales being badly affected. We live in a small island and it is vital that we take steps to protect our countryside from the ravages of the internal combustion engine before it is too late.
It is ironic that the websites of 4x4 clubs in mainland Europe are exhorting their members to come and drive the Ridgeway and other British green lanes—something that they are not allowed to do in their own countries.
A good parallel might be the action that has been taken to protect the centres of some of our ancient towns and cities from the ravages of motor traffic. For example, the rights of drivers to use roads near York Minster have been removed to preserve and protect that magnificent building for the benefit of future generations. What is the difference in the case of the Ridgeway, which is an even older part of our heritage?
The Government are to be congratulated on passing the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. The Act introduces the new category of a restricted byway, which is not accessible to motor vehicles. When the final parts of that Act come into effect, it is hoped later this year, some parts of the Ridgeway will become restricted byways.
I hope that the Minister will not mind if I ask him three questions on this single issue. Can he confirm that from that date motor vehicles will be banned from those sections of the Ridgeway? Will the Minister consider urging local authorities to use their new powers under the Act to ban motor vehicles from the whole of the Ridgeway on the grounds of conserving natural beauty and protecting the geological features of the trail? Will he consider using his powers under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 to ban motor vehicles from the Ridgeway?
It is clear that the legal means are in place to protect the Ridgeway and other precious green lanes in our country from this increasing threat. We need to act quickly and I urge the Minister to take the lead before it is too late.
My Lords, as on previous occasions when the countryside has been debated in your Lordships' House, it is right that I declare an interest as chairman of a number of family companies concerned with land ownership, forestry, farming, construction, mineral extraction, tourism and National Hunt racing. I have a personal stake in these enterprises whose assets for the most part are in Cumbria. Like other noble Lords who have spoken, I, too, express my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for his elegant and informed introduction to this debate.
Some months ago at a public hearing in a committee room upstairs, I asked the Europe Minister, Mr Denis MacShane, whether we could look to the Government for a more robust approach to CAP reform. In his reply, Mr MacShane said,
"I was very interested in the Countryside Alliance march which was an extraordinary manifestation on the streets of London and one of the very clear demands, it seemed to me, was for more agricultural support in a bigger CAP rather than a smaller one".
It had crossed my mind to taunt the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, with his colleague's gross misinterpretation of the countryside march. I decided against it, having chanced to hear him wind up for the Government in yesterday's debate introduced by my noble friend Lord Selborne on the mid-term review. The Minister in his speech, as I remember it, said that nearly everyone now, including leaders of farming organisations, understood the compelling need for change. Indeed, I felt that the Minister, without underestimating the problems, conveyed an unambiguous commitment to support the proposed fiscal reforms. If I have understood him correctly, I warmly congratulate him; and if I have misunderstood him, I congratulate him on having so comprehensively fooled me.
Hugely important as agriculture is, I shall concentrate today on the non-agricultural aspect of the countryside. The twin obstacles to growth and investment in Britain's countryside are taxation and regulation. In their different ways, both of them bear down disproportionately in rural areas. Council taxes are high as a direct result, we are told, of the Government's nakedly political decision to boost rate support in urban areas at the expense of the shire counties. In Cumbria, our latest rise is 13.5 per cent. Fuel tax is, for obvious reasons, disproportionately high in the countryside and the latest hike in national insurance is, of course, simply a tax on jobs.
On regulation, I do not give up on the Better Regulation Task Force. It appears to be approaching its job with some vigour. However, the sheer scale of its task is awesome. One worries also that the minute such beasts become effective to the point of discomforting the Government, devices are found to bring them to heel. I wish that task force well.
The trouble with regulation is that there appears to be a built-in increment: the old problem of enforcers needing to justify their existence. I want to illustrate my position based on my own experience. I employ 250 people, rising to almost one third again in the summer. In this financial year and last, we spent £30,000 in bringing up to date systems to comply with human resources and health and safety statutory requirements and best practice. The annual cost, I estimate at today's prices, will be between £15,000 and £20,000. In the past two years, production managers have had to devote on average 12 per cent of their time to handling new regulation, which is a damaging distraction from their productive time. Reflecting the abject condition of public services, I have concluded that the people I employ need health protection that the state should offer but manifestly fails to provide. Accordingly, at our own cost, we have felt compelled to buy in medical advice and back-up.
If I try to measure improvements in our duty of care to our workforce since the arrival of this avalanche of regulation, I would be bound to admit some gains. It would be extraordinary if there were not. Such gains, I have to say, could have been achieved at a fraction of the cost. And there are losses. In the slate quarries that we run, it is my judgment that the HSE requirements have a tendency to impose huge costs and actually reduce levels of safety. This is partly because safety inspectors cannot possibly be expected to understand the geological complexities of something unusual like a slate quarry, especially as no two are remotely alike. Furthermore, the hugely bureaucratic nature of the new world of health and safety has gone a long way to destroy the safety culture which has traditionally been such a feature among workforces operating in naturally hazardous environments.
The remedy, it seems to me, is that I, the employer, should take greater responsibility for the people I employ. I should submit safety cases for the inspector's approval and then be held to account for their delivery. How can the agencies of the state pretend to understand how to make a quarry safe? The trouble with my solution is, of course, that armies of inspectors would find themselves without a job. The way we are going is ever more safety regulation and an ever diminishing culture of common-sense safety in the workplace. And it is that common-sense element, I contend, which to a large extent prevents accidents at work and, in turn, saves lives.
In the past few weeks, my companies have marketed, organised and run six days of events in Cumbria which have attracted some 80,000 visitors. They come from town and country and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, that it is dangerous to distinguish between the two. Trade stands took business—much of it local—I am told into the many hundreds of thousands of pounds and the economic activity generated runs into millions.
Although these are high-risk, weather-dependent activities, I do not pretend to be doing this for the public good. My trustees, however, have increasing grounds for saying that that is exactly what we are doing—and here is the rub. We are currently having to review what amounts locally to substantial capital projects, and if we feel compelled to cancel or defer investments it will be because, and only because, margins are continuously eroded and risks increased through this Government's attrition of tax and regulation.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for initiating this timely debate on the British countryside. I want also to say how much I enjoyed the speech of the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk. I agreed wholeheartedly with everything he had to say. I know that I speak for the whole House in saying how much we look forward to hearing from him on many future occasions.
The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, covered many important topics in his opening speech. This is proving to be a wide-ranging debate. One of the subjects he raised was biofuels. In the time available to me, I want to concentrate on that subject and speak briefly about sustainable development. As the noble Lord reminded us, he is president of British Biofuels and Oils, so I hope that he will approve.
The world's resources of fossil fuels are fast depleting. Oil reserves will have been largely exhausted within a generation. Quite apart from anything else, this makes us too dependent on other parts of the world and potentially a hostage to fortune. I am not saying that the whole answer to this lies in biofuels, but surely part of it does. Obvious benefits could accrue from such fuels. They could reinvigorate the farming industry and, importantly, the farming communities. They would be a sustainable crop and there is an almost infinite continuum of resources from which biofuels can be generated.
For example, if 1 million-odd acres of set-aside land was planted with Miscanthus Sacchariflorus, and assuming that produced a median-dry matter production of six tonnes per acre per year, that could be converted to approximately 3 million tonnes of oil equivalent biofuel. That is equivalent to nearly 4 per cent of UK annual oil demand. As set-aside land represents only 3 per cent of this country's land within agricultural holdings, we begin to see what an enormous contribution biofuels could make. Another enormous advantage of these fuels is that, unlike fossil fuels, they have a negligible effect on climate change.
Therefore, there are any number of good reasons for increasing research funding in this area. But, sadly, investment by the Government is at a very low ebb. Research funded by Defra has yet again been cut. I should like to quote briefly from the introduction of the Institute of Biology's paper of January this year entitled Fuelling the future 3, in which Jonathan Cowie, head of science policy, stated:
"if the Government has a policy to develop greenhouse friendly energy resources as well as a policy to develop alternative crops to food crops to invigorate the rural economy, then R&D investment for such policy-driven research is required. Furthermore cuts to DEFRA R&D undermine recent increases in investment in BBSRC research."
There is an urgent need to set in place demonstration projects which show that the use of existing technology can forge a market in which potential users are assured of a reliable and timely supply of bioenergy. I hope that the Minister can give the House some encouragement that things are about to change for the better.
Sustainable development can apply as much in the country as in the towns. What I mean by sustainable development is looking at ways of making the buildings we put up as independent of conventional resources as possible. Solar power can now be retrieved from special slates which to all intents and purposes look almost indistinguishable from Welsh slates. The capture of grey water is easily achieved, and there are companies now making systems to hold this water from road surfaces.
Wind power is a controversial subject, because of the size and scale of wind turbines seen on hills in various parts of the country, but much smaller and more discreet—in both size and noise—wind generators, some with contra-rotating blades, can be used to good effect by individual households.
I hope that the Government can assure me that they are seized of the importance of these and other technologies, and that they can give encouragement to developers to adopt as many eco-friendly systems as possible. This would greatly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels over time. Not only would that help with our commitment under the Kyoto summit agreement, but, with luck, it should reduce the need to build more nuclear power stations, which, because of their build and running costs and the nuclear waste problems they create, will for ever be dangerous white elephants.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I am deeply grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for the opportunity to debate these issues this evening. We were all very impressed by his introduction to the debate.
I should declare an interest. I live in the countryside, in the Lake District National Park. I am a vice-president of the Council of National Parks, and I am a member of the North-West Regional Committee of the National Trust.
In his introduction, the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, dwelt mainly on agriculture, as have other noble Lords. If we are concerned with agriculture, what is happening in Brussels at the moment is of crucial significance. We have heard in the debate that the majority of people in Britain want to see the countryside preserved. Farmers and farming are central to the preservation of the countryside. If the countryside is to be preserved, there has to be an income for the farmers, as has been made very clear in the debate. Part of that income, I have become convinced, will come from giving farmers a distinguished and important role in managing the environment. That should receive positive and practical support from what comes out of Brussels in the next few days.
My noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere spoke of the interdependence of urban and rural communities. I totally endorse what he said. I would only add to his illustrations the very basic reality that the urban communities want the recreation of the countryside, but those in the countryside want the wealth produced in urban areas to sustain that countryside. That is a very basic economic interdependence.
I was worried two years ago when it seemed to me that we were drifting into a dangerous and stupid confrontation between urban and countryside communities. That must be resisted at all costs.
The Countryside Agency is to be commended on some useful analysis which it has put at our disposal in recent times. Let us just look at some of the facts of which it has reminded us.
First, 28.5 per cent of the population live in England's rural districts. Between 1981 and 2000 there was a 12 per cent growth in that population, compared with only a 2 per cent growth in urban areas.
Next, if we look at the quality of life, we see that 46 per cent of the population in rural areas are involved in local organisations, compared with only 32 per cent in urban areas. Forty two per cent of people living in the countryside are highly interactive with their neighbours, compared with only 28 per cent in urban society.
The health record of the rural communities is better than that of urban communities. The educational achievements of children in education in rural areas are significantly better than those of children in urban areas taken as a whole.
Whatever the difficulties—and I was very sorry to hear about them—encountered by the brother of the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, in retrieving his motor cycle with the assistance of the police, it must be recognised that for those living in the countryside there is an approximately 50 per cent smaller likelihood of burglary or violent crime than for those living in urban areas.
But there are, of course, big challenges. We have heard again in this debate about the need for affordable housing, the high cost of housing, the impact of all this on the young and the less well-off. I have seen in the valley in which I live, the Lorton valley in North Cumbria, some very imaginative work by a housing association. Far from damaging the environment, the building of a small number of affordable houses enhanced the environment, because it was done in keeping with the whole style and atmosphere of the valley.
There is a need for support for rural businesses and greater access to information technology and broadband. If my noble friend Lord Haskins will forgive me, I wish that in his lively journeys through Britain and Europe he had been able to spend more time with the elderly and infirm, because one of the big challenges in the rural areas is the disappearance of post offices, banks, cashpoints, transport and other services for the elderly, infirm and vulnerable. Of course, that is not an issue limited to the countryside; it exists in urban areas too. But we should face the fact that it is an issue in the countryside.
I commend my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport, because he has asked us very bluntly whether we want to disappear under a sea of asphalt or whether we want to have a quality of life which resists the advance of asphalt. In the rural areas, as much as in urban areas, we have to look at road pricing. Already in the national parks we see in the targeted road programme that the Department for Transport has produced road schemes which strike at the very purposes of the national parks. I should like to be reassured by my noble friend the Minister this evening that there is greater liaison between Defra and the Department for Transport on the issue of the national parks and the countryside in general with regard to road building and its adverse effects.
My noble friend Lord Haskins referred to "romantic dinosaurs". I urge my noble friend, who is also a personal friend and for whom I have great regard, to be a little careful with his language in this respect.
I ask this: where would civilisation have been without imaginative romanticism? It is the ability to think, to imagine and to have vision that carries society forward. As we come up to the review of national parks, let us not tinker in management terms with it. Let us use our vision to ask: what do we want our children to inherit? Do we want them to be able to enjoy open spaces, to see the Milky Way by curbing the intrusion of light pollution? Or do we want to surrender ourselves to the mercenary, materialist advance of a rather dull suburbia across the whole land?
Let us bring back some vision, commitment and passion to our fight for the kind of decent, balanced, British society we want to see. In that, the countryside will have an absolutely invaluable and irreplaceable place.
My Lords, although what I am about to say bears some similarity to the maiden speech of the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk—perhaps I may say that it was an excellent speech—I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I do not scrub my remarks. I wish to continue with my few words because I return to the subject of agriculture, but particularly and specifically agriculture in the West Country.
The countryside is so many things to so many people and used in a myriad of different ways, all of which ought to exist in harmony. But in spite of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, and my noble friend Lord Cavendish of Furness, there seems to be a division between people who make their living from farming and animals and those who do not. So many new houses in villages are suburban in type and their owners have little connection with the working countryside around them. They work mostly in towns and are better off than their farming neighbours. But those who work with animals, whether farm animals or horses, are on the receiving end of an increasing amount of hostility, both in terms of general tolerance and new legislation. They are not alone in facing an extraordinary raft of petty bureaucracy and obstructive legislation and, given their low incomes and attacks on traditional pursuits, it is not surprising that some believe that society is out to get them.
I intend to concentrate on farming in the South West, from whence I come, where my wife is the farmer and, indeed, where the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford married us. The farmers there are pulling their industry up by their bootstraps, thanks to a combination of the weakening of the pound against the euro and their own resilience and initiative.
Farm incomes have improved, albeit from the disastrous to the merely diabolical, and confidence has been seeping back. But that confidence is fragile and springs from the strong support which the farming community has received from consumers in the region, manifested in the remarkable growth in demand for high quality local food rather than from any perceived change in the Government's policy for, or attitude towards, the countryside.
The recovery, modest as it is, is being taken forward despite the perceived role of the Government, not because of it. That may seem a harsh thing to say in the light of the sustainable farming and food strategy, born of Sir Donald Curry's report, which contains many good things. Nevertheless, I am afraid to say that it is true. The level not merely of confidence in this Government among the farming community, but also that of trust, remains at rock bottom.
For that, Ministers have only themselves to blame. This all goes back to the formation of Defra two years ago. The omission of any reference to agriculture in the name of the department came across to the farming community as a calculated snub, and everything that has happened subsequently has served to confirm that initial impression.
Other than the usual cheap shots at the common agricultural policy, Ministers never talk about agriculture if they can possibly avoid it. They will talk about diversification, or local food, or access, or the environment or farm tourism until the cows come home. But never, never do you hear them even acknowledging, let alone championing, the core function of agriculture, which is to produce over two-thirds of the nation's food. It is almost as if they are ashamed of being responsible for food production, that they would rather that we allowed our food markets to be captured by imports so that the countryside could be spared the dirty business of growing food and turned over entirely to butterflies, birds, tourists and urban refugees.
That may be an unfair characterisation of ministerial attitudes, but I can assure noble Lords that that is how it comes across to the farmers in my part of north Devon, who feel themselves and the food which they produce regarded as a rather inconvenient by-product of countryside management programmes.
Far too much of the funds desperately needed for the revitalisation of the rural economy is instead being wasted in what I am told is the tortuous and infinitely frustrating process of applying for grants of one kind or another. Even ventures that are launched with the full blessing of Defra and the RDA, such as our regional food industry development agency, South West Food and Drink, are having to devote weeks of time and thousands of pounds to jumping through bureaucratic hoops and being bounced from one government agency to another like a ball-bearing in a pinball machine.
If the Government really want to facilitate and encourage the development of the rural economy—and I have no reason to suppose that they do not—then they need to smooth the way for industry-led projects which can contribute to that process rather than putting endless bureaucratic obstacles in its path. If Ministers want to encourage the recovery in farming, they could do no better than to start at least to recognise the importance and value of food production, both in its own right as a vital economic activity and in the way it underpins so much else of the rural economy, rural society and the rural environment.
I thank my noble friend Lord Palmer for introducing this debate and for his admirable speech. I want to say a brief word, not about farming, but about the look of the countryside. Thirty years ago, one of our leading poets wrote:
"I thought it would last my time—
The sense that, beyond the town,
There would always be fields and farms . . .
For the first time I feel somehow
That it isn't going to last,
That before I snuff it, the whole
Boiling will be bricked in . . .
And that will be England gone".
Is the outlook today still as sombre as it then appeared to Philip Larkin and if so, is there anything we can do about it?
We all know that large tracts of the country have been obliterated by expanding towns, motorways, factories and the cutting down of woodlands in both world wars. We see the inexorable spread of housing, driven by the exceptional density of our population and our record number of divorces, each of which usually results in two households in the place of one. But it is sad to see the Government bullying reluctant local authorities to build hundreds of thousands of houses in unspoilt country.
Amazingly, a fair amount of unspoilt country survives. If you look down from an aircraft, it is surprising how much is still green and yet to be built over. In a small, overcrowded island like ours, we ought to try to pass on at least some of it unspoilt for future generations.
In three or four minutes I can make only a few specific suggestions. Could we not levy a tax on housing built on green fields and offer tax advantages to those who build factories and houses on brownfield sites in cities and towns? Could we press on with research to discover truly cost-effective white street and road lights, and then replace all the glaring yellow sodium lights? Even if it is impracticable to do much about high-voltage lines, could we not bury intermediate voltage and telephone lines, especially in areas of high landscape value?
Could we bring an end to the siting of heavily subsidised wind turbines standing up to 400 feet high in unspoilt hill areas where they can be seen for miles, destroying the sense of remoteness and giving an industrial aspect to parts of the country where it has no place? We already have over 1,000 turbines, one third of them in Wales, but the amount of electricity they produce is insignificant and their output is unreliable and unpredictable. Should we not face the fact that wind power is neither economic nor effective and abandon it?
Can we press the Government and local authorities to get rid of excessive road signs, advertisements and telecommunications masts; the rural clutter, described by the CPRE as the,
"often ugly and sometimes unnecessary paraphernalia of an apparently uncaring modern society"?
Lastly, could we persuade local authorities to clear roadside trees of the ivy that now smothers so many of them?
Too many of us take for granted the incomparable beauty of our countryside—or what remains of it. We forget just how fragile it is. It has been the inspiration of Shakespeare and Hardy, Constable and Turner. A passionate feeling about the countryside is not confined to a few middle-class enthusiasts. The large numbers who volunteer to do back-breaking physical work on bird reserves, canals or woodlands show how strong this feeling is among the young. Polls have shown that a large majority of our people believe that the countryside is in danger and are dissatisfied with the Government's efforts to protect it.
What then can we do to preserve what is left? Much has been achieved by voluntary bodies—the National Trust, which saved the Lake District and much of our coasts; the CPRE and CPRW, although, sadly, the RSPB takes little interest in landscape. But only the Government can take really effective action on a national scale. To do this they must give the preservation of our countryside a higher priority. This area of policy has been downgraded. There used to be a Secretary of State for the Environment—and only the environment—sitting in the Cabinet, but no longer. Mr Meacher does his utmost, but he is not a Cabinet Minister. The Government pay lip service to environmental objectives, but in practice do not give them much weight. Great care needs to be taken to ensure that essential development does not damage or destroy too much of our uniquely beautiful countryside and the old cities, towns and villages that have come down to us. This House should use its influence to persuade the Government to do much more to preserve our heritage.
My Lords, in these farming debates we now rightly recognise the diversity of the countryside and the urgency of finding alternative sources of income. We acknowledge the growing importance of tourism and attractions which add value. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, has generously allowed me to put in a word for gardens, both public gardens and those open to the public. I declare an interest, since my wife and I are responsible for a garden open to the public in West Dorset. Apart from managing this garden and a lot else, my wife was until recently gardens and parks chairman of the Historic Houses Association.
Heritage and tourism are high on the Government's agenda, and various grants through English Heritage and local RDAs are now available to attractions in private ownership provided they meet the criteria for public access. Defra's successful Countryside Stewardship Scheme now extends to historic parks and designed landscape of historic properties, thus enhancing the quality of these attractions.
However, such grants are not directly available to gardens. Gardens are Cinderellas as regards public funding, perhaps because of their dynamic and changing character. Yet every year an estimated 13 million people visit houses and gardens in private ownership nationwide, of whom the number of garden visitors is on the increase, with all the maintenance and wear and tear that such numbers involve.
The Government might like to consider one or two of the problems facing the owners of these historic gardens. One is that when matching grants are made available, it is the built heritage to which the owners have to give priority. Roofs must come before summer houses or garden features. Whenever capital has to be spent on a leaking roof, the last thing to be repaired will be outdoor paving, stone steps, walls, fountains or grottoes. Yet visitors enjoy these features and soon notice any decay. They are increasingly conscious of standards, thanks in part to the higher levels of maintenance in National Trust gardens.
According to English Heritage,
"what makes a site of interest is the survival, quality and interest of its historic structure".
Yet grants even for gardens on the English Heritage register are hard to come by, and unless some way can be found to protect them, dilapidation is inevitable.
There is a further problem for owners of gardens, like many other attractions, and that is the securing of alternative sources of revenue, such as a gift shop, plant sales or a cafe besides admissions. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, touched on that. If a private owner derives any benefit which, according to rating law need not be financial benefit, the income from these sources is liable for non-domestic rate assessment even if there are trading losses on the combined hereditament, as there invariably are because of steep maintenance costs. If an owner appeals, quite apart from legal costs there may be an accumulated deficit over a period of months, even years, until the appeal is determined. To my knowledge, there is no redress through local government or the various countryside agencies. In this situation, government, far from supporting gardens and tourist attractions, is effectively penalising them. I sympathise with much that was said by the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish.
There can be very few private owners of gardens open to the public who can sustain this level without selling their own assets unless they enjoy very substantial private incomes. It may be fairly argued that some derive some personal benefit; but for many owners these gardens are not private at all. They may be extensive, far from the house, covering many acres; they may be steep and difficult to manage; and they may demand a high level of public service rather than private profit. Very few gardens indeed make a profit.
As regards maintenance, there is another difference. While major capital repairs come, say, every 10 years, gardens require the same level of expenditure year in and year out. Higher salaries, better equipment and new investment in planting all add to increased running costs and may require additional capital.
At this time of year there is nothing more breathtaking than the beauty and colour of our English gardens. We take a lot of pride in them, and the gardening industry itself is flourishing. Yet the HHA has warned that without proper support, many future owners of these gardens may allow them to revert to wilderness. The HHA says that that,
"would be a loss to the heritage of historic gardens, to the community and to tourism in the area, with all the spin-off benefits, not forgetting that it is the accumulation of specific attractions, many of which are loss-making, which draw visitors".
I know that the Government are well aware of the importance of gardens—I include municipal gardens—and their place in the rural economy; yet not a lot is known about their contribution. Perhaps more could be done through the HHA and other bodies to carry out the necessary research. Meanwhile, I urge the Government to give more consideration to this vital sector of our valuable countryside.
My Lords, perhaps I may also join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for introducing this debate. It has been invaluable to all of us. It is important for me to say when I speak in this House that I have always lived in the countryside. Perhaps I may be slightly critical of your Lordships: it always appears to me that when we have a debate on the countryside all the emphasis is put on agriculture. The noble Baroness shakes her head. A lot of the emphasis is placed on agriculture.
My Lords, one might say that they have not concentrated as much on agriculture. It is important to the countryside, but there are many other jobs and occupations there. Many people who live in the countryside travel to nearby towns to work.
The total spent on agriculture of £3.2 billion by the Government is far more than is spent on the whole of manufacturing industry. That is an important point to make. That is not to say that agriculture does not deserve our support. I believe that it needs our help in standing up to the power and actions of the supermarkets. They could buy more British produce and label it far better because it is still very difficult in most supermarkets to find food which has been grown in this country. When he replies to the debate, I should like to hear my noble friend the Minister say that government departments now buy British produce for their canteens and restaurants. The Armed Forces, in particular, should do the same. While the Armed Forces buy quite a lot of beef, what are they doing about buying British lamb, for instance? A good deal more could be done in that direction.
It is true that most villages need help in relation to post offices, which are still closing. We need to find other ways of attracting people into village post offices. I know that the Government have given this issue a great deal of consideration. Perhaps my noble friend can tell the House what is the current situation. I know from personal experience the difficulty of persuading national banks to remain in villages. Despite making a profit, they seem to ignore the needs of the elderly, the disabled and those who do not have cars. Even though they are making a profit, as I said, they continue to close.
As to shops and pubs, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, that in many cases closures are the fault of the people who live in the villages because, first, they do not use the pubs as much as they did in the past and do not make them the centre of the village; and, secondly, they generally do their shopping in supermarkets. The shops need more help from the villagers themselves if they are to be kept from closing.
We must put pressure on the telecommunication companies to ensure that they take broadband to rural areas as well as to urban areas. In the discussions I have had with them, the emphasis has always been on urban areas—the easy target—rather than on rural areas.
Affordable housing is essential for people who live in villages. I should like to see more done in that regard. I hope that my noble friend is able to update the House on the Government's plans on that issue.
Tourism is one of the growth areas in the countryside. In my area, the Commonwealth Games helped to make a wider audience aware of the lovely countryside that surrounds us. The cycling events took place in the Bolton and Chorley rural areas and drew attention to Rivington and other places. This has enabled us to attract many more tourists.
On the down side, however, many people who come to walk there find that their cars, having been left unattended, are broken into. There is a need to consider the issue of law and order and the policing of rural areas, which in itself is very important.
The countryside is a haven to both country and town dwellers alike. For all of us—country and town—it is a cause worth preserving
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for introducing the debate. I echo the closing words of the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle: the countryside is important and we all need to work together to preserve it. It has been an excellent debate so far and will continue to be so as there is a long list of speakers.
I wish to focus on two points. The crisis in the countryside, about which we have heard a great deal, exists and is important. To a certain extent it is a hidden crisis. The countryside is full of new businesses and has a vibrant housing market and a great deal of new wealth is coming into it. The new businesses and the new wealth are marvellous, but beneath that a crisis exists in local communities which is sometimes unseen. They have problems with housing, as the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, said, they have severe employment problems and they worry immensely about poor public services.
Of course the world moves on—we cannot stop that, nor should we try to—and the countryside cannot expect to remain in aspic. In his excellent maiden speech, the noble Duke drew attention to the survey which found that 90 per cent of the British people wanted to keep the countryside as it is. That may be a slightly romantic view but it is, nevertheless, what most people in this country want. We therefore must strive for progress and, at the same time, preserve the best of the past. That is the difficulty we face.
Agriculture is important. This is not specifically an agricultural debate—perhaps we talk about it rather too much in rural debates, as the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, said—but we need to understand that agriculture is the canvas on which every other activity in the countryside is painted. If we do not look after the canvas it will be impossible to paint on it.
The Government are quite rightly keen to promote diversity for farmers and others. Tourism is probably the most important area of diversity. It takes many forms but is probably centred—again as the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, said—around the beauty of the natural countryside, which is of course preserved by farmers. The fells, the dales, Exmoor, Dartmoor, the Cotswolds, the Norfolk Broads, stately homes—every part of the country has its beauty spots. Indeed, I suspect that the Government's right-to-roam Bill was a rather clumsy attempt to encourage people to enjoy these areas rather more.
That is all right up to a point, but we must not fall into the trap that London fell into in the 1970s when over-exposure led to a fall in quality and almost killed the goose that laid the golden egg. We need sympathetic management, not too much of it.
One of the reasons for the success of rural tourism is the natural beauty of the countryside and its wildlife. The noble Lord, Lord Clark, referred to the marvellous reintroduction of ospreys. That is a great example of the kind of work that can be done in the countryside to encourage people to come and see its wildlife.
But the countryside—both its habitats and the wildlife that lives within it—needs to be conserved. That requires skill and knowledge. Those skills and that knowledge reside mainly within the traditional rural communities—and those communities are in crisis. While the customers must be given what they want, they must not be given it at the risk of destroying that which the customer has come to enjoy. The moorland is a favourite destination of walkers, particularly managed moorland. Such moorland is managed by land owners and keepers for sports. If those land owners cannot manage their moors, the moors will deteriorate, there will be no wildlife and no one will want to visit them.
The recent report by the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent on habitat conservation in lowland agricultural England made clear that most existing conservation work in lowland areas will vanish without the incentives of field sports, and that those cannot be replaced by subsidies.
In the recent dry spell at Easter, a number of land owners wanted to close their moorland, as they have a right to do under the access rules. But they needed the permission of the Peak District National Park Authority and the authority refused to close the moors. Two moors were substantially burnt as a result of the hot, dry weather. Who is going to visit a burnt moor?
The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, referred to wildlife. Unfortunately, not so many people in England understand that wildlife cannot be left alone; it must be managed very carefully. Many people from the towns and country want to see wildlife but they will not want to go on seeing it if it is not managed properly.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will be delighted to hear that I do not want to rehearse the hunting debate today, but there are some examples worth considering. Where deerhunting has been stopped on National Trust land, more deer have to be shot. The concentrations of deer are heavier; there are more injured deer; and, because of shooting, they are less visible and the tourists cannot see them. That is to no one's advantage.
At the other end of the moor, I understand that in the sanctuaries of the League Against Cruel Sports deer have died of tuberculosis. The animals in the red deer herd have been over-concentrated for their welfare, but it has severely affected their management. We must avoid doing that. It is incredibly important that we remind ourselves and the Government that conservation must be the governing factor. If we have to manage populations—and we shall have to do so—we should look after their welfare in the most humane way possible; otherwise there will be nothing left to conserve and look after.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Palmer for initiating the debate although I am not sure that the subject he has asked me to speak on is quite the one I enjoy. I congratulate the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, on his maiden speech. It is a pity that his country house in Norfolk belongs to Norwich Union pension fund. His city house in Norwich is a car park but I have an over-mantel from that house which I use as a bedhead.
I like the British countryside, but I am biased. I have lived in it for most of my life and for the past 40 years have endeavoured to make my little bit more beautiful and environmentally friendly. However, I have noticed that not only in Britain but in large parts of continental Europe the state of the countryside is deteriorating and in many areas has become very scruffy. I think that that is partly due to the lower income in the agricultural and allied sector which has led to less painting and tidying up of premises and less time and labour to keep the countryside clear of rubbish. Fly-tipping is a major problem.
Motor tyres are a special problem. Under the landfill directive it is no longer possible to put motor tyres, (even, I believe, shredded), into landfill and there are millions of used tyres to dispose of each year. If they are dumped on the roadside verges, it is the responsibility of the local authority to remove them. If they are dumped on private land, it is the responsibility of the landowner to remove them. They cannot be burnt and reputable contractors are very expensive. At Sculthorpe in Norfolk, where thousands of tyres were illegally dumped on an industrial estate, at last the authorities decided that they were not only illegal but also dangerous—a fire hazard. Steps were taken to remove some and divide them into smaller heaps to lessen the serious fire risk. A special grab was brought in to deal with the problem. The first night someone broke into the site to try to steal the grab. However, it was too secure so they set fire to it. Luckily, the tyres did not go up as well.
We all know about the refrigerator problem, which is now gradually being dealt with. But that does not stop the odd old refrigerator being dumped around the countryside. There is about to be a problem with small electrical and electronic equipment, which under the WEEE Directive will have to be disposed of in a special way. I hope that the Government will foresee the problem before old irons and computers join the fridges in our woods.
Motor cars, both whole and burnt out, are again a major problem in certain areas. The vehicle end of life directive will cause more problems unless we are fully prepared to deal with those vehicles before they are dumped.
Then there is a whole range of small garden, domestic and builders' rubbish which appears overnight. If it appears on the verge, it is for the local authority to deal with. Bottles are a particular problem if thrown into a crop of grass or peas. If at harvest time a bottle is smashed by a flail harvester or pea viner, the whole load will have to be discarded. Several tonnes of peas with one smashed bottle in them are themselves a disposal problem—what on earth do you do with them?—and, of course, a financial loss.
I should like to draw to your Lordships' attention two other small problems. The first is road management, widening and providing passing spaces. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, does not want us to put notices on parking spaces. However, by far the greatest mileage of roads in this country were designed for the horse and cart or for driving cattle along. If you live in the West Country, it is not quite so much of a problem as you cannot drive your car into a hedge because the hedges are full of stones; it is a foolish thing to do. However, in the eastern counties, driving into hedges merely brings the verge down and ultimately the hedge on to the road. Great lengths of road are "widened" by large vehicles, agricultural tractors and articulated lorries, and are bare, scarred and ugly when dry and muddy and stony when wet. Can the road authorities look carefully at providing proper passing places with no parking notices?
The second problem is vandalism. By that I mean particularly the removal of tiles, stones, bricks, slates and coping stones from walls. I believe that in one national park one whole building disappeared—presumably to make rockeries somewhere.
In conclusion, I ask the Government to encourage the local authorities to be even more vigilant in their responsibilities, to consider some form of help to landowners—private, public, National Trust or Forestry Commission—in clearing away fly-tipping on their land; and to try to pre-judge correctly the effects of the various rubbish-related directives coming out of Brussels. In that way, perhaps we could have a tidier and more acceptable British countryside.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Palmer for initiating this debate. By rural standards, we are almost near neighbours. I commend his opening speech which seemed to me to bring knowledge, understanding of the issues, and a commitment to face them positively. It is also a pleasure to take part in a debate with a fine maiden speech that opens up further dimensions of the issue.
I take two starting points for my few remarks, both, surprisingly perhaps, press announcements from the DTI. On 22nd May there was an announcement of government commitment to provide broadband access for remote areas of the UK. On 6th June a further press release marked a meeting or conference bringing together three agencies, including the DTI, with the aim of promoting support for small businesses in rural areas. I pause at this point. Noble Lords may wonder who this strange man is who reads from any DTI press releases. I have to confess I ask the question occasionally myself.
The two press releases incorporate some fine language and rhetoric. Indeed, I spotted what I believe to be now a fairly rare sighting of what was once a commonplace of government press releases—the phrase "joined-up Government". I also spotted an ever rarer event: an example of inter-departmental coupling that justifies the use of that expression. There was, commendably, reference to an interaction between DTI and Defra over the issue of helping small business in rural areas. I commend the Government and the relevant departments for that. I hope that the progeny of that coupling will be liberating rather than regulatory.
In the press release of 22nd May there was reference to the government commitment, which I commend to your Lordships, to bring broadband access to every school by 2006. That will include rural schools. Let us give credit where credit is due. As I suggested, there is in those press releases some fine words. Equally, in the rural areas there are also fairly harsh realities against which fine words will be tested.
I make two points. First, others have spoken of the need for infrastructure in terms of transport, postal services, banking support, and so on. I wish to focus my remarks specifically on telecommunications. I was pleased to hear the word "diversity" used well and properly in the debate. Two other words not used which I commend to noble Lords—they underlie almost everything that my noble friend Lord Palmer, said—are "development" and "adaption". As my noble friend's speech indicated, in our rural communities, in particular among those who farm in those communities, there is huge evidence of the capacity of the farming community to develop and adapt to new circumstances about which we should be very pleased indeed. There is a balance to be made.
If the farming community is to continue to adapt and develop, it will need adequate telecommunications infrastructure. Any business today requires that, including the business of farming. I sometimes buy supplies of fresh fish and meat on the Internet. If the capacity to provide such a service is not in our rural communities, a sale has gone. Equally, we have heard mention of the importance of tourism. Again, many of us book holidays, flights, hotels and guesthouses through the Internet. If that capacity is not there, the infrastructure cannot cope with the demands that modern users of the facilities will make and, again, business will be lost.
Alongside the word "diversify", I put the words "development" and "adaption". However, the reality is that the quality of current telecommunication provision in some rural areas is appalling. As many noble Lords do, I move between rural areas and London, and have noticed the difference in quality of service that a single telephone link gives us in this city compared to the quality in the rural areas where some of your Lordships live. Certainly, when a train passes my home a mile away, I lose my Internet connection, if I have it, or the conversation goes. That is not the noise of the train, it is the electronic noise created by the lack of suppressers on the line. If one talks to the telecommunications provider, it is the fault of the railways, and vice versa.
The point that I am making is that there has already been a lack of attention to telecommunications. We hear fine words about providing broadband. I know that that will introduce a new technology, but the standard attitudes to which reference has already been made will still apply. For example, there is the attitude that rural communities are not a mass market. The risk is that that one comes at the end of the queue and the previous queue and the one before that has not been cleared, let alone the queue for broadband access.
I commend the Government's commitment to supply broadband access to all schools by 2006, including rural schools. I ask the Minister for a comparable commitment to the homes to which the children return each afternoon, in which their parents may be struggling to diversify without adequate telecommunications infrastructure.
My Lords, I join in the commendation of the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for his initiative in securing the debate and maintaining his substantial record in this area. Many noble Lords have expressed anxiety about agriculture. They clearly feel that the echoes of policy documents, such as the one on food from our own resources, should not ebb away entirely or speedily. There is clearly anxiety that agriculture might revert to a museum activity. I do not share that view. Therefore, I listened with interest to the ebullient and optimistic contribution of my noble friend Lord Haskins. My one reservation is to share the anxiety of my noble friend Lord Judd about the difficulty of enjoying the night sky because of excessive illumination. That has certainly happened in my experience over the past four or five years as houses and jobs have proliferated in the Dearne Valley.
There is an increasing awareness inside and outside agriculture of the importance of maintaining an agriculture that marries and matches the need to preserve the natural environment and protect our natural heritage. That is commendable. I know a number of farmers who are as committed as anyone to that cause.
The Government are committed, too, but they do not seem to get much credit for the good things that they do. I accept that there are areas in which Government support could be more accurately directed. Grants should be directed to the land rather than the individual, for example. That argument is as strong as the argument that support should be based on acreage rather than headage, which some of us were arguing 20 years ago.
The Government have often been unfairly criticised; they were not responsible for BSE or foot and mouth. They inherited BSE, and foot and mouth started as a result of foul and grossly unacceptable farming malpractice and spread because of rapid transportation of wildlife that bore no relation to legislation or humane practice. One hopes that the legislation since that horrible event and the experience that beset our farming communities in many parts of the island does not happen again.
However, there will be crime. My noble friend Lord Judd suggested that crime was worse in urban areas, but it is serious in rural areas. I echo the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, about the criminal tipping of waste material in rural areas. I remind the House that my noble friend Lord Whitty, with general approval, suggested that the courts should take a much more serious view of these offences. The fine should be such as to prove a proper deterrent.
One of my concerns is that, despite good television programmes and good coverage of conservation matters in our newspapers, there is a widespread and lamentable ignorance in this country on those matters. I live in the South Yorkshire forest area, and I doubt whether more than a tiny proportion of our population fully understand or know much about that commendable development—which is commendable in the way that other community forests are.
In a case that I heard about the other day, the first thing that a resident who had moved in from an urban area to live in the greenbelt did was to buy his young son an airgun, give him some pellets and send him down to the local lake where people enjoy watching the wildlife. He did not go far in that direction. I think, too, of a case of a farmer whom I know very well, who said only a few weeks ago that he would have to stop cultivating a field not far from my home because every time his tractor appeared, children were throwing stones at it. Parents should be reminded more often of their responsibilities. Perhaps the increased resources given to the police will assist with the prosecution and discouragement of crime in our rural areas, because that is needed.
I share the view that something has to be done about the housing problem in rural areas. There must be proper planning control to ensure that local people can remain. If they do, they may be more likely to use the rural post offices. We must give a much higher priority to brownfield development. I do not believe that enough attention has been given to that, but in some parts of the country a real achievement can be perceived.
I moved to such an area—it was my constituency. It had been devastated by the closure of 10 collieries in a very short time, with unemployment and the rest of it developing. A very fine example of brownfield development has led to an absolute transformation and the regeneration of the economy and of hope. That would serve very well. We are right on the edge of the greenbelt, and I would rather build away from the greenbelt and achieve that sort of thing than see more houses built—especially houses that cost a lot of money and occupy a great deal of land. Such building disfigures the rural area, injures the landscape and dashes the hopes of those who live in rural England.
My Lords, I start by declaring an interest in a hill farm in Dumfriesshire and owning a heavy electrical engineering group. I thank my noble friend Lord Palmer for instigating the debate, which has attracted a great number of excellent speakers. That is about the only advantage of coming in as tail-end Charlie—one is able to listen to those speakers and find that there is not much to say oneself. The debate has attracted a great maiden speech from my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl Marshal.
Many speeches seem to be based on the sense of belonging to an historic, local or village community, which the Government have somehow to preserve economically and protect from the baser aspects of modern urban life, of which we have heard. That is a fundamental misconception. Many rural communities, almost without exception, are no longer purely agrarian based. Most rural communities are divided between those who live there all week, mainly because of their historic landed interest, and those who work in city offices some distance away. The latter seem to be mainly weekenders, who may have no family roots in the local area. This difference in occupations, incomes and means of transport often proves to be a divisive social factor because of the differing attitudes and needs in housing, education and other pursuits within a small community. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford covered this aspect very well. I believe that the social and political implications of these divisions require a separate debate on how the Government have to face up to these important clashes of lifestyle and objectives.
The second area of disagreement extends to the Government and the Countryside Alliance because of the low priority that they have given to broadband, which, as many speakers have emphasised, is important for access to communications in rural areas. The main point of my remarks is to try to underline the importance of broadband communications, as other noble Lords have done. This is based on my experience of declared interests. There is no such thing as the countryside in electronic communications. Therefore, should we not recognise that we are now part of one huge global electronic village—a village that makes no distinction between town dweller and country dweller? Those who choose not to subscribe, or are unable to do so, to the broadband IT network will be excluded in future from a full education and an opportunity for economic and social advancement.
It is necessary in farming—for example, in stock monitoring and marketing from conception to the point of sale. It is what the market requires, and it will require broadband masts and dishes for stock tracking and for the control and prevention of outbreaks of disease among farm animals—which cannot properly be controlled and monitored without broadband and the electronic tagging of stock. It has to come, but I have heard very little about this from the Government.
What happens if a farmer wants to diversify? I refer to farm shops and to the sporting and holiday letting of cottages. Such activities will require broadband promotion if they are to be successful. Investment in derelict farm buildings, if they are to be turned into rural offices or factories, will require planning permission and broadband access for new tenants.
I speak as an engineering manufacturer. When I put inward investment into a country I cannot do it without broadband access. No company will come to the countryside without such access. The investment that we saw in Eskdalemuir in the 1960s came about through the forestry people. That transformed the area and saved the whole community. But it was based on an entirely wrong misconception—which was why I planted my trees in the 1960s; namely, that forest industries would be established with the forests so that, when it came to cutting, forest industries would be chopping the wood into small pieces and putting it on the road as finished products. At present, huge lumps of trees are being moved on articulated lorries with 20-tonne axles which are destroying the road system and affecting bridges. That is because the factories were not located in the forests. Any further forestry investment by the Forestry Commission should be dependent on the industry being located in the rural communities.
The farmer who wants to diversify needs broadband. The local post office needs to update: it needs a postmaster who is computer literate. Unless the local schools have broadband access, the children in those areas will not be able to catch up and have the same education as those in urban areas. The year 2006 is cited as the year when broadband will be available to the whole nation. Let us hope that it comes to Eskdalemuir. I want to see it there—like everyone who is concerned with the local community.
It is said that rural police are non-existent or that there is difficulty in getting to see them. With broadband a household would be able to access and talk about its problem to a major police station, with top policemen. The same is true of hospitals. Local doctors would be able to gain access to homes in outlying areas. The problem could actually be filmed, and a doctor would be able to give medical advice and deal with the situation on the spot.
It would not cost much for the Government to help and to subsidise people to gain access to broadband, but they have not done so. The communications companies have used the commercial argument that in areas of low population there is no commerciality in setting up masts and dishes. Please will the Government look into this? I cannot understand why the Government are spending money on mapping. I find it extraordinary. If ramblers are unable to find their way to the countryside, they have no business being ramblers.
In a debate on ADSL, I once quoted an ode from Horace with which I shall not bore the House. Horace complained that when he was in the country he missed the pleasures of Rome, and when in Rome he missed the pleasures of the countryside. With broadband, you are able, to a certain degree, to enjoy both.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, on his introductory speech. It was a tour de force in terms of facts and figures and experience.
It was right that we should touch on agriculture. The noble Duke gave an admirable maiden speech on the subject. We have also touched on a wide variety of other themes. I noted in particular gardens, fly-tipping, sodium lighting, broadband and the role of churches among the matters on which I shall not have time to expand. As regards agriculture, I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply to the question from my noble friend Lord Mackie of Benshie about decoupling.
I should like to dwell for a moment on the issues raised by the noble Lords, Lord Clark and Lord Mancroft, in regard to wildlife and species management. The noble Lord, Lord Clark, explained particularly well the benefits that having exciting species can bring to tourism. We ought also to worry about the species themselves.
In replying, will the Minister comment on how he feels the biodiversity action plan—as set out in the Government's document, Working with the Grain of Nature—is going? Defra states that its biodiversity policy relies heavily on the partnership with the private and voluntary sectors. That is quite right. But Defra now needs to build on the success of the countryside stewardship scheme, which has always been hampered by lack of funds. Nevertheless, between landowners, the voluntary sector and now Defra, it has achieved some critical changes. Examples are: bigger grass margins round fields, which are good for nesting birds, insects and the food chain; retaining weedy winter stubble for feeding birds; and encouraging the renovation or creation of ponds—which encourage a wide range of wildlife.
The RSPB and Defra are to be congratulated on the work of Operation Lapwing, about which I learnt much more when I went recently to the Parrett festival in Somerset. Operation Lapwing is based on work taking place on the River Parrett. Talking with some of the farmers and the RSPB, I was struck by the sheer amount of volunteer time it takes for those involved in trying to reintroduce a reasonable number of lapwings onto their land. It involves matters as basic as marking the birds' nests with poles. I did not realise that the eggs can then be moved to the edge of the field, any necessary cultivation can be done, and the eggs can then be moved back. That is acceptable. I learnt that the chicks can run as soon as they are born, which I did not know previously. As your Lordships can tell, it was a very informative session.
The Minister will remember that some time ago he told the House about some of the headline species that have been chosen by the Government. The skylark was one. But what about barn owls, whose numbers are dropping? I could quote a number of other species to illustrate the point.
The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, raised an extremely important issue regarding deer. The Hunting Bill will come before this House. Your Lordships have been very restrained; but with that Bill facing us, the issue of species management is crucial. Whatever the outcome of the Bill, hunting is not the only area that the Government will need to dwell on. The issue of deer and traffic accidents is very serious. The number of deer across the country is growing rapidly. Some worthwhile schemes are being developed through the deer initiative but there is further work to be done.
Badgers are protected but are being experimented on through the Krebs trials. We may have to address difficult issues involving badgers; for example, the fact that they undermine foundations of houses. We had to move many badgers from my home town of Yeovil, where they were undermining the foundations of almost a whole street.
Noble Lords frequently ask questions about invasive species such as knotweed and Himalayan balsam but I want to discuss biodiversity as a whole. We have not yet got cane toads from Australia but species have become a global issue to the extent that what could be called non-indigenous species create problems.
I enjoyed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, and I look forward to the recommendations of his review. However, some of his optimism was misplaced. He pointed out that small shops were closing because people did not want to use them, but I take issue with that. Small shops were also threatened by supermarkets that laid on free buses to rural areas, which people found to be more convenient because it also gave them access to the town. Supermarkets did not do that from the good of their heart; they did so because they felt that people would then shop with them, and they were quite right. They also benefit hugely in small market towns because they have free car parking, which local authorities do not usually offer to other shops, which suffer as a result. I hope that the Minister will comment on those issues.
The review of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, provoked much discussion in my neck of the woods, mainly about the streamlining of grants. I did not agree with much of what the noble Earl, Lord Arran, said, but I agreed with his comments on grants. I declare an interest as a Somerset county councillor. The council often acts as a facilitator in that process. The current system is appalling. There are now full-time jobs as grant bidders but—worse—I discovered that new jobs as advisers to grant bidders are also springing up in the private sector. Basically, there are too many bodies that must be bid to, and they all have different criteria.
Partnership is good but it now means that even small projects must assemble a vast range of partners. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford was absolutely right when he mentioned the inappropriateness of rural development agencies in that context. Their top-down approach in some of their policies in rural areas is completely inappropriate.
The Government had a good idea involving community interest companies. However, I do not believe that it has been rural-proofed, which I thought was now supposed to happen with all government policies. I give the Minister an example. Rural schools could be a centre of many things and, in some instances, could be a community interest company. However, schools are excluded from that. In a village, a school is often the only centre that is likely to fall into that category.
I also welcome some of the Countryside Agency's current work. I expect that other noble Lords also received through the post today the new questionnaire about the countryside code. I am pleased to say that we on these Benches persuaded the Government to introduce that into the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. We look forward to filling in the questionnaire and sending it back. That code should be highly promoted and used as one of the tools that the Government use to draw together what should happen when people visit the countryside.
I also praise the Government for what they have called MAGIC. The Minister will be aware of it. It is a land-based mapping system, and very exciting it is, too. I was introduced to it on the Defra stand at the Royal Bath and West Show. It is an excellent innovation and I recommend it to noble Lords.
I turn to the excellent points made by the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, on which I should like to expand. He discussed renewable energy and biomass and the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, discussed biofuels. I regret the fact that the Government have allowed the biomass plant known as Arbre, which the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, mentioned, to flounder. I realise that it is a private sector initiative. The Government found it in their heart to bale out British Energy time and again to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds. Apparently, according to one farmer among 35 who were supplying Miscanthus or willow to the plant, there has not been a single contact from the DTI about the closure of the plant so soon in its operations. The farmer felt that the DTI could have helped the farmers to look for new markets and to consider co-firing biomass with coal. That is extremely regrettable and leads me to wonder about the Government's commitment to renewables.
Finally, I want to mention two other issues. The first, that of branch lines, was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Bradshaw. If the Government want to introduce congestion charging more widely in other cities, they must consider the position of rural railways that serve the towns. I shall give two examples: the Barnstaple to Exeter line, which is very rural and very good at serving Exeter, and the Weymouth to Bath and Bristol line, which serves dozens of small market towns and goes straight to the heart of Bath and Bristol. Secondly, I turn to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, about national parks. We can expect a review of national parks to be published soon, and I hope that we will debate it in your Lordships' House. National parks should be the test-bed for sustainable development; they can be the test-bed for exciting ideas. We must debate the progress that the parks have made and the role that they should serve in future. I refer in particular to introducing children from urban communities into the most beautiful and inspiring areas of our countryside.
Finally, I again congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, on a truly inspiring debate.
My Lords, I begin by welcoming the noble Duke the Earl Marshal to the House and congratulate him on his excellent maiden speech. It gives me double pleasure because he welcomed me three years ago, I believe, to his farm in West Sussex. We had a long discussion about the crisis facing agriculture. I am very grateful to him. We look forward to hearing from him many times in the future.
I remind the House of my family's farming interests. We have an arable farm outside Lavenham in Suffolk and released land for affordable housing. Many noble Lords have touched on that. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for giving us this opportunity once again to go through many of the arguments and challenges that are faced by those who live and work in the countryside and those who come to enjoy it.
The noble Lord gave some fairly stark figures on incomes and crops and described how many tonnes he had to produce to get the money required at the end of the day. We all know that he is a great champion of the biofuel industry. He also touched on the closure of Arbre, which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, mentioned. We view it as a great sadness. He proposed the new idea of a subsidised taxi service. So often we are told by the Government, "All you do is complain; you never come up with good ideas". That is a good idea, and I hope that the Minister will respond to it.
This debate very sensibly was chosen to look at the whole of the countryside and not just at farming per se. We have touched on affordable housing, broadband, landscape, churches, communities and the support they give to each other, crime and on the whole question of the CAP reform and of the need for it to be attached to the land rather than to go with the person who farms the land. We have talked about wildlife. But most of all we have talked of—and I return to it because it underlines the whole issue—the need to have profitable and sustainable farming. Whether or not we want to talk about farming all day—and many of us in this House would be very happy to—the one thing on which we would all agree is that if we do not have a profitable farming community then the very things we want to protect, encourage and have other people enjoy will not be available because one cannot continue to sustain farming if one does not make a profit.
I agree with other noble Lords who said there should not be a divide between town and country. Whenever I speak, I try to bring the two together because we all eat food. The question is: what food do we eat? I hope it says on my back, "From UK agriculture every day if I can", because I am very anxious that we should promote our own agriculture here and not, as we heard in our debate yesterday—I have to say it was discrimination—that of the less developed countries. We have a role to play there.
Agriculture and horticulture are at the heart of what happens in the countryside. Whether we live and work there or are visitors, we love the countryside. The countryside is as it is because it is worked and farmed. It is man-made and maintained. That is something that we should never forget.
On many occasions we have talked about people moving from urban areas and going to live in villages. Some of them are perhaps a little disappointed when they arrive. Aspects they have taken for granted in towns are not accessible in villages. It is a long drive to work, to school or to visit old friends. There is often no shop within five miles. The nearest post office may be two miles away; and 194 of those closed last year. There may be only one doctor's surgery, which might be in the next village.
Sometimes children and fathers of those families complain bitterly at the loss of broadband access to the Internet. The nearest play area that allows ball games may be a mile and a quarter away and down a narrow winding lane, which is used from morning until night by large lorries trying to make up lost time. Indeed, I was grateful for the contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, who reminded us that half of all accidents occur on rural roads, and that it is a really large problem.
So, all is not as easy as it might be. Not all those who move to the countryside leave, but some stay, settle in and support what happens in their villages. However, as other noble Lords have said, broadband is one of the issues that the Government need to address. Only 1 per cent of houses in remote locations and only 7 per cent of village homes have access to broadband, compared with 95 per cent in towns. I hope the Minister received those figures because they speak for themselves. In addition, young adults or widowed pensioners wishing to remain find that there is a shortage of affordable properties to buy. There is also a lack of homes to rent at rates they can afford—a matter which has been touched on around the House.
Transport is a problem. Again we have touched on that issue. A sizeable proportion of rural dwellers are not car- owners. There may be a car in the family, but usually the wage earner takes it with him and the other person is left without adequate transport. Sometimes it is not possible to take a bus to visit a doctor, to go to the dentist or to visit a hospital because the return journey begins too soon or too late. As we have said in previous discussions, magistrates' courts have closed down in many rural areas, making it difficult for people to attend when necessary.
Many noble Lords have spoken about urban crime. It is reducing because of the installation of CCTV and the targeting of police methods. The smarter of the criminal fraternity are therefore moving to the countryside.
Fly-tipping, as we have heard—we had a debate on it last week—is on the increase, as public tips enforce charging for large quantities of waste. The beauty of rural walks is increasingly being marred by heaps of stinking household rubbish, mounds of builders' rubble and the dangerous and unsightly carcasses of burnt-out cars. In many cases the local authority moves them when that occurs on the roadside, but when it occurs on someone's private property it is the landowner's responsibility to do so at his expense.
Those who have lived and worked in the countryside for generations—and I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, for her very specific contribution today—know how it is and how it is kept. They have done so at their own expense and using their own experience, but they are being overwhelmed by costly rules and regulations.
Farmers are faced with steadily increasing costs, particularly as a result of European legislation, such as the ear-tagging of sheep and the non-burial of fallen stock. That has not only affected the disposal of animals that die on the farm; it is a great blow to our abattoirs, which now have to look at different ways of disposing of blood. So, there is an impact on small and medium-sized abattoirs.
Agriculture, tourism and rural diversification are beset by multiple incentive schemes, many of which require bids which either will not succeed or will do so after the available money is exhausted. My noble friend Lord Arran spoke about that. I give one example. The Countryside Agency runs a "vital villages" scheme, which has been hugely successful. Unfortunately, the scheme has been stopped because it has run out of money. That is not really very helpful when one is trying to plan for the future.
Perhaps I may touch on tourism. Ten members of the Royal Family, as has already been said, devoted yesterday to promoting tourist attractions throughout the UK. The main aim was to persuade our own people to spend some holiday time in our countryside rather than going abroad. I place my thanks on the record for the action they took because it really has highlighted the attractions we have within our own country, which so often we fail to realise.
Rural people are working hard to learn the modern skills of marketing, Internet selling and product development. All is not doom and gloom out there. There are many good examples of new people coming into business who actually do not look back over their shoulders but who are looking at ways to take business into the 21st century. All around the country, pubs and cafes are using locally-sourced foods. Guides and cookbooks promote county specialities. Farmers sell their produce at the farm gate and in their shops. There are box schemes for fresh produce, farmers' markets, visitor attraction centres and craft centres which incorporate wonderful home-cooked food in their restaurants. So there are good things happening out there.
However, I should like to touch briefly on the CAP reform. It should assist those who have maintained the countryside as a by-product of farming as an end in itself. However, as we have heard, large numbers are leaving the land. If CAP reform means that the amount of money able to be claimed by a farmer goes away from the land, I think it will raise great problems. What will happen, for example, when the person has moved away and a new entrant comes on to the land with no support by way of subsidies? How can he compete against another farmer who still has subsidies? That is an issue that perhaps the Government have not fully taken on board. Have they realised the environmental implications? Obviously, the new entrant will be very keen to farm in the most aggressive way he can to get the best return for his money. That will have a huge environmental impact.
Also, the Rural Payments Agency is still six months late with its payments on suckler cow premiums. What is being done about that? As a result of bovine TB, some 23,000 cows were killed last year. What are the Government going to do about that, because it is getting out of hand?
My last two points concern rights of way and the mapping exercise. First, the mapping exercise has been hugely costly. What is the cost? Secondly, what of the question of private land and gardens being included in some of the mapping exercises and the arbitrary reclassification of some private paths as public footpaths? Those are hugely important issues.
I end by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for introducing this excellent debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's response.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for initiating this wide-ranging debate—probably even more wide-ranging than he thought it would be—and in extending my thanks and congratulations to the noble Duke, the Earl Marshal, in his informative maiden speech.
I am not sure that I can reply to all the points that have been made; with some, I shall not try. Your Lordships will be glad to hear that I shall not respond to any points relating to hunting—I suspect that the House will have plenty of time to discuss those later—save to say that the references to hare coursing made by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, may also be dealt with in that context.
Nor, with apologies to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, shall I go into great detail about negotiations on CAP reform, partly because we had a detailed debate yesterday and partly because the negotiations started at 3 o'clock this afternoon, and the whole situation may have changed by now. I would not want to undermine my right honourable friend Margaret Beckett in her negotiations by saying anything about the likely outcome at this stage. We are all clear about the general direction in which Commissioner Fischler wants to go, much of which fits in with the Government's view.
I shall make two points to begin with. First, I echo the point made by several of my noble friends and others, that we must not allow ourselves to consider the countryside as being significantly different in its concerns, anxieties and prospects from the rest of the community. Of course, there are differences between rural and urban society, but the latest Countryside Agency survey highlights the key fact that, although there are significant problems in the countryside, the pattern of distribution of income, the problem of access to services and the general level of prosperity are, if anything, better in the countryside than in the town.
My noble friend Lord Judd pointed out that education, health and the prosperity of new businesses are, in general, better in rural areas than in towns. That does not mean that there are not pockets of serious disadvantage in remoter parts of the countryside or serious economic problems in parts of the agricultural sector. But it is important to say that many problems are the same, and therefore need to be addressed by general rather than specific policies—while not in any sense reneging on the Government's commitment to ensure that those general policies are positively and clearly rural-proofed. Where there are differences in both delivery and problems, we must address them.
The other point is that it is wrong to say, as, I fear, the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, said, that the countryside is in dire straits. There is significant prosperity in the countryside. My view is closer to that of my noble friend Lord Haskins than to some of the remarks that have been made in the debate. There is much vibrancy and change, new enterprise and business in the countryside; people are moving in and out of the countryside; and that of itself causes some tension and problems, which we must address. But to say that the countryside is in a state of depression is, with a few isolated exceptions, wrong.
Of course, I do not entirely go along with my noble friend Lord Haskins in his dismissal of romantics, or even of dinosaurs. As my noble friend Lord Judd said, we need a special approach and vision for the countryside—especially for the national parks and more attractive areas of our landscape. But, in general, prosperity is reasonably spread.
As ever—and, I suppose, rightly so—the debate has concentrated on agriculture although not, today, disproportionately, compared with earlier debates in which I have participated in the House. Nevertheless, that industry has been most focused on, albeit that it is no longer the biggest industry in our rural areas. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, himself emphasised the problems of agriculture. I agree with his analysis of some of them. As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, and others said, we must approach them broadly through the strategy laid down by the Curry commission, which is a strategy for the whole food chain.
Some of the economic problems of farming can be addressed not by changing the subsidy system so much as by changing the relationship between farmers and the rest of the food chain—in particular, the supermarkets and large processors—whereby farmers get back more of the value added in the food chain and of the price that consumers pay in the shops. But some of that relates to the effects of the CAP and how subsidies have distorted what farming is done, so that, as I said yesterday, farmers have been chasing subsidies, rather than the market.
The whole point about profitability in farming—which, I agree, is part of the sustainability of agriculture and the countryside as a whole—is that if farmers are freed from the burden of chasing subsidy, they will chase the market. The way to get prosperity in farming enterprises, as in any other enterprise, is to anticipate and meet the market. Yes, there is a public interest in supporting farming in general land management, because we want the country landscape as a background for other economic and social activities in the countryside—tourism and others. That is the way in which we hope that the CAP is moving, but it is also important to recognise that the way to get money back into farming is by making it more market-oriented than some sectors have been—largely, although not entirely, as a result of the CAP.
Many references were made to the problems of regulation in farming. The noble Lord, Lord Monro, the noble Duke, the Earl Marshal, the noble Earl, Lord Peel, the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, and others emphasised the problems that farmers face through regulation. I shall say only two things about that. First, it would be wrong for me to give the impression that regulation will go away. Society demands more from economic activities of all sorts, and farming has been exempt from some regulation that is now hitting it—relating to waste, water pollution, and so forth—which has hitherto been faced by other parts of industry. That is not to say that it is easy for farming to meet those regulatory requirements, but it is equitable to ask it to do so.
Also, it is true that regulation in this country is largely driven by Europe. I accept that, sometimes, European regulation can be disproportionate, clumsy or too prescriptive. The Government are trying to ensure that the European approach to regulation moves more to outcome-related regulation from prescribing exactly what farmers and other businesses do. But it is important that we have Europe-wide regulation. The single market, which exists in agriculture as in other sectors, should be subject to common rules.
It is therefore important, on the one hand, that we fulfil the Prime Minister's obligation to agriculture—that in future we do not gold-plate European legislation—but also that we recognise that European legislation sets the standards for our farming, and, frankly, stop knocking other European Union countries. Frequently, when we investigate the individual allegations about their rather lighter touch of regulation, if anything, the opposite turns out to be the case. Certainly, if we compare ourselves with France, the level of regulation and number of inspectors and checkers of the food chain and farming in France tends to be somewhat higher than ours. Therefore regulation at European level is inevitably part of agriculture.
We need to ensure that regulation is delivered in an entirely different way. Instead of forcing farmers to deal with 17 different regulators and umpteen different sets of regulation, we approach it as a total production. The whole-farm approach should apply to regulation as it should to planning and to the delivery of assurance schemes. If we can achieve the benign cycle where regulation operates on a whole-farm basis, delivers a whole farm plan and delivers the quality of goods that is appropriate for whole-farm assurance schemes, then we are out of the rut of dealing with bureaucracy on the one hand, from the subsidies on the other, from regulation and from the assurance schemes themselves. We are driving towards that end with the whole-farm strategies as laid out by the Curry commission. It will take us a little time to arrive there, but it is a top priority for Defra and its agencies.
Before moving on I shall say two things about agriculture. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, asked about the fallen stock regulation. I agree that there is some concern about whether that is appropriate, but the regulation is an important protection of our environment arising largely from the BSE experience, and it is a European obligation. I regret that the farming organisations did not consult and deal with us to set up a national disposal scheme earlier in the game. When we reached agreement with the farming organisations a few weeks ago for a viable national disposal scheme to which we would make a significant government contribution—but expected a levy from farmers—they then contacted their members and have been vigorously trying to make their members sign up. Regrettably, we are not yet at the point where we could deliver the level of participation where a national disposal scheme can operate. I wish we were. A national disposal scheme was the best solution, and could still be, but unless we receive a greater response from farmers we will not be at that point.
My Lords, no I cannot say that. We are already obliged under European law to prohibit disposal on farms. My colleague Elliot Morley has said that in the initial months as people become used to the rules, there will be a relatively light-touch enforcement. That does not mean that the legal obligation is in any way suspended. We do need the participation and the commitment of farmers to deliver a national disposal scheme. The noble Baroness asked about TB. There are substantial efforts to eradicate TB but it is a serious programme, particularly in some parts of the country. It is our highest priority for animal health at the moment.
An aspect of agriculture that is dear to the heart of the noble Lord, Lord Palmer—and was also focused on by others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool—is biofuels. We have not yet put our act fully together on biofuels but there is a strong commitment from the Government to do so, both on converting crops into liquid biofuels and on biomass. I do not believe that the noble Lord was right to say that the choice is one or the other, or that one is better than the other. We need to develop on both fronts and through caps in the fiscal regime and other support for biofuels we want to ensure that we can deliver on both the liquid fuel side and the biomass side.
I agree with those, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Miller and Lady Byford, who referred to the Arbre project. That was an unfortunate situation. It does not indicate any lack of enthusiasm from the Government. As we said in the energy White Paper, we wish to deliver 10 per cent of energy by renewables, of which biomass will be a significant part. I am glad that the liquidators have now reached an agreement for the sale of the Arbre plant to a new owner and I am hopeful that that can be brought back into commercial operation with the farmers who were supplying the plant under its previous owner. The DTI may well be at arm's length from the project, but officials from my department have certainly been in constant contact with both the farmers and the Arbre project throughout this difficult period.
I shall move on briefly from agriculture to another element of land use in the countryside—forestry. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, referred to that, and my noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere explained how forestry can be used not only for its own benefits and despite the economic difficulties of the forestry sector, but to deliver wider economic, social and environmental benefits to the countryside by delivering both ospreys and tourists into that area of Cumbria. Forestry must be an important part of the future of our landscape.
The other problems of the countryside upon which most of the debate focused are important—particularly the delivery of services to people who live there. The Government's rural White Paper published two years ago is being reviewed, as the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, requested, and we are taking stock of how far we have delivered on the strategy. A number of major government commitments have taken place in relation to support for rural transport. £239 million has been allocated over the current three-year period. There has been support for rural schools, with the creation of a formal presumption against closure. We have provided £450 million of support to at least slow down the process of closure of rural post offices, and we have supported rural businesses—particularly rural pubs, garages and shops. That is a significant and relatively new effort by the Government to deliver and retain a degree of economic activity within villages. That also needs to be put into the context of our general policy on vital villages and market towns, aimed at revitalising economic activity within those villages.
While it may be true that those who live in villages, whether incomers or ancient inhabitants, are attracted away from the village to the supermarkets and the town from time to time, it is important that that is not their only economic activity and that some of the money that is coming into those villages is spent in the villages and market towns. Our policy is directed at that.
The housing market in rural areas is the largest problem of service delivery in total. It is also the most difficult problem for our rural areas—or at least some of them. In a sense, it is a symptom of their success in that far from being depopulated, which used to be the problem, far too many people are wanting to live in the villages and small towns of our countryside and are bringing in substantial amounts of money to purchase and develop properties in a way which takes them out of the range of local people. A large number of speakers focused on that, including the noble Lords, Lord Palmer and Lord Haskins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. Throughout the debate reference was repeatedly made to affordable housing and the housing market within rural areas.
That is an important and difficult problem. The Government are looking at various moves in that respect—for example, at least to reduce the attraction of some second homes by allowing local authorities to reduce the council tax discount on second homes from 50 per cent to 10 per cent. More positively, we are delivering through the Housing Corporation affordable homes for approval in rural areas. The £250 million starter home initiative is also being designed to help rural areas where house price affordability is a serious problem both for retention of populations and for the retention and attraction of key workers.
We recognise that more needs to be done in this area by combinations of public and private sector activity and by new initiatives such as the designation of areas for affordable housing, perhaps along the lines referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. We certainly need new initiatives within rural housing. Some of that is the Government's responsibility, but some must be done in partnership with local authorities, building societies and building developers.
There is a bit of a contradiction in some of the comments made in this debate and elsewhere. If we are to cope with incomers who bring prosperity to villages and also keep people in villages with affordable housing, there will have to be new developments in countryside villages and in towns. We cannot say, "This is a closed area." As has been said, we cannot set the countryside in aspic. There will need to be more housing in country areas. They will not have to be huge developments or huge hacienda-type low-density housing, but there will have to be affordable housing in rural areas to keep local people in the area.
Transport is another serious issue. As I said, we have spent substantial sums on it. However, we also recognise that more needs to be done. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, and other noble Lords referred to taxis and more flexible forms of transport. Some rural bus services have certainly been a success, and we have certainly spent a lot of money on them. However, we need to look at more flexible bus, quasi-bus and quasi-taxi services that will meet the needs particularly of those who do not have access, or rarely have access, to a car.
Law and order is another problem to which noble Lords have alluded. It is true that crime is at a much lower level in rural areas than in the rest of the country. However, it is a growing problem in rural areas, and there is a growing fear of crime particularly in isolated areas. Noble Lords both mentioned that and cited specifics of new types of rural crime and rural vandalism. Fly-tipping is hardly new, but it has increased in frequency—an issue which we discussed in the House not long ago. The Government have taken and are contemplating taking further measures in relation to fly-tipping of all sorts. As my noble friend Lord Hardy reminded me, I was slightly critical of the courts as regards the level of sanction that should be applied to serious environmental crimes involving people tipping huge amounts of building rubbish on to prime land.
So I think that more needs to be done in rural areas. However, we have also provided significant funds for rural policing and innovative forms of support for rural crime detection.
I should say a few words about another service that many—perhaps more than expected—noble Lords mentioned: broadband. If the rural population is to participate fully in business and educational activities and developments, then broadband will need to be extended. Our aim is that every community in the UK regardless of location should have the opportunity to gain access to affordable broadband from a competitive market. We have allocated £30 million to the RDAs in England to take forward innovative schemes so that they can meet local broadband requirements.
I turn very briefly to what I have already referred to as the background to all of this—the landscape and accompanying wildlife and biodiversity to which we are all devoted and which we all recognise is the major attraction of the English rural scene. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked about the biodiversity action programmes. We have made considerable progress in that respect. However, it is true that we have stabilised or improved just under half of the action programmes which we have undertaken and vigorously pursued, whereas just over half have not yet turned the corner. That includes some of the farmland birds to which she referred. The level of farmland birds is a PSA objective for Defra. Although that does not necessarily give it priority over everything else, it symbolises the importance that my department attaches to the restoration of wildlife in determining its objectives.
It is clearly important that any change in the CAP and in other support measures for farming and land management is directed at ensuring that the landscape provides a backdrop that is attractive to those who live in the countryside and particularly to tourists of all sorts who come into the countryside. Again, that does not mean maintaining the landscape in aspic. However much people may think to the contrary, the fact is that the farmed landscape does not look the same as it did 50 years ago. It will not look the same 50 years from now. Farming patterns and land ownership patterns will change. We want to ensure that, within that process, the landscape does not deteriorate into scrub and that the wildlife and positive features of our landscape are not destroyed.
Consequently, I believe that the single payment under the proposed changes in the CAP, the detail of which is still to be worked out, will help to deliver by ensuring that farmers and other land managers meet their obligations and receive support from the rest of the community via what has hitherto been called the common agricultural policy, but which should really be a policy for the delivery of our rural landscape.
I should like to mention just one other matter—the few sideswipes taken at Defra. I am not going to be exceptionally sensitive about those. The noble Earl, Lord Arran, was probably the most extreme, but there were others. I believe that we have turned the corner in our relationship with the farming community, although there is a long way to go. I also think that Defra's new initiatives in delivering this wide range of benefits to the countryside and in influencing the rural policy of other government departments are an important change in the past two to three years. However, that needs to go further. I shall be receiving the advice of my noble friend Lord Haskins on how better to deliver that programme.
I believe that we have made a good start. I think that the methods of delivery could be better, and they will be better. As a result of that commitment I believe that we will have a better countryside, a better landscape—indeed a better agricultural sector—and a closer partnership between government and those who live and work in the countryside.
My Lords, I do hope that the noble Baroness is impressed at how we have all heeded her very strict warning at the beginning of this debate, very nearly four hours ago.
I, too, should like to add my congratulations to my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk on a truly remarkable maiden speech. I am particularly pleased for once how many Back-Bench Labour Peers were able to take part today. It is interesting that among the list of speakers there were in fact 11 elected hereditary Peers. I know how disappointed some noble Lords were not to be able to take part, most especially the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and the noble Lords, Lord Plumb, Lord Vinson, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate and Lord Carter.
I am glad that I did not succumb to the pressure to change the wording of the Motion from "British" to "English", as we have had powerful contributions from noble Lords from all over the United Kingdom.
The Minister as usual did an outstanding job in trying to reply to such a varied number of contributions. Many of us will be delighted about the whole farm plan, and it will be widely welcomed throughout the agricultural community. I was also heartened by his encouraging words about biofuels. I hope that he will forgive me for banging on about them yet again. I was also encouraged by his words about affordable rural housing and the fact that he acknowledges that this is a major problem.
I thank him for the courteous way in which he has wound up the debate, and I thank all noble Lords for their valuable contribution this afternoon. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.