Rural Communities: Prince's Countryside Fund — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:03 pm on 7th October 2010.

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Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative 1:03 pm, 7th October 2010

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble on securing this debate. I agree totally with the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, that we could have done with a five-hour debate. I remind the House of my family's farming interests and of my association with several rural charities which are on the register. This debate reflects the concerns that many of us have about the future of the countryside and is very timely. The recent launch of the Prince's Countryside Fund aims to improve the long-term viability of the British countryside and its rural communities. I refer to a project that has already been mentioned as it is hugely important: that is, the hill farming succession scheme, which will train eight young people in hill farming skills. They will gain experience from working with farmers and will have the chance to attend local agricultural colleges.

In that vein, only three weeks ago I attended the graduation ceremony at Harper Adams University College and was struck by the diversification of courses and the range of ages of those receiving their awards. I am pleased to say that the pure agriculture course attracted 26 per cent of the students, the agricultural engineering course, which is the only national one left, 13 per cent and the rural enterprise and land management course 17 per cent. Other courses included animal and veterinary nursing, food business and environmental, leisure and tourism courses. For me that underlined the variety of jobs within the countryside and the need for all of us to work together to strengthen those communities.

The NFU briefing reported that the rural economy turns over £300 billion each year, employs 5.5 million people and, most importantly, has farming at its centre. Twenty per cent of registered farm holdings produce 80 per cent of the output value, which reminds us that we have many smaller farm holdings, some of which, as we have heard, particularly those in the upland areas, struggle to make a living. The Prince's Trust offers them great opportunities. On my travels around farms one of the commonest gripes I still hear from farmers and others in business is about the amount of regulation and red tape that has dogged industry. I particularly welcome the steps this Government are taking to review regulatory burdens. The other gripe, which I am afraid is still ongoing, is about the continued failure of the Rural Payments Agency to deliver payments on time and about the maladministration and poor communication that only adds to farmers' frustration.

This short debate gives me the opportunity to pose questions, as others have done, about the long-term sustainability of the countryside, and to ask how the Government see this objective being achieved. How will we manage to feed the expected growing populations, rising from 6.5 billion to 9 billion, on less land, with increasing climate change reflected in extreme droughts and floods worldwide, and at a time when we see natural resources being depleted? Certainly, the UK may well benefit from a warmer climate, with extended growing seasons, but that carries the increased risk of pest and disease outbreaks.

For me, research and development are key to the challenges we face and I know that my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach has been doing some important work on this issue, which we will, I hope, hear more about shortly. Scientific research is expensive, be it undertaken by governments or private businesses, but surely we should encourage co-operative work projects and research findings to be shared, which would benefit our country and developing countries.

As other noble Lords have suggested, I believe that there is an urgent challenge to tell people about their food, where it comes from and how it has been produced. It is a great sadness to me that too many have become detached from basic food production. Organisations such as FACE, the NFU, WFU and LEAF, with all of which I am associated, and others regularly engage in this work but it is a huge job. Some 180,000 people visited LEAF farms in June this year. That is a start but it needs to be replicated on many occasions. I hope that people will continue to visit farms and the countryside to gain that wonderful experience of understanding where their food comes from and how it is produced. I welcome the proposed national citizen service which is due to start next year and ask the Government please not to forget the countryside in that regard. It would be an ideal place for some of the projects to take place, even perhaps working with our wildlife trusts. This is a very important opportunity for us to speak on this topic. There is much more to be said. I look forward to hearing other contributions.