Rural Communities: Prince's Countryside Fund — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:57 pm on 7th October 2010.

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Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 1:57 pm, 7th October 2010

My Lords, I start by offering my commiserations to the noble Baroness on the state of her voice. I am in much the same position but, bearing in mind that I have only 13 or 14 minutes left, I dare say my voice will hold up.

I congratulate my three noble friends on their maiden speeches. My noble friend Lady Eaton brings great experience of local government, especially in Yorkshire, and of the Local Government Association. She emphasised the need for localism, which is important to all of us in the coalition. We will be committed to localism, and I hope she will look forward to seeing the localism Bill come forward in due course. My noble friend Lord Taylor of Goss Moor brings enormous experience as chair of the Rural Coalition. We welcome the report it produced and will consider it carefully. We are grateful for the various recommendations it makes which, as my noble friend said, highlight the importance of enabling local government and empowering local communities. That is entirely in line with the coalition's thinking. The third maiden speech was by my noble friend Lord Younger. I now feel really very old in this House because he is the third Lord Younger who I have sat here with. We are grateful to him for all he had to say, and particularly for what he had to say about the big society. Recent research by my department has shown that social cohesion can be stronger in rural areas. It is therefore clear that they will be among the areas that we hope will take up the big society challenge most readily.

Like all speakers, I offer my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Gardiner on introducing this debate and on attracting such an impressive list of speakers. As many of them said, it would have been far better if we could have devoted five hours to this matter rather than the two and a half hours available for balloted debates.

I start by underlining the Government's support for the Prince's Countryside Fund and for the invaluable work that it has already started to undertake on behalf of rural communities. Defra will be fully committed to it, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State met His Royal Highness to discuss it when it was launched. As other noble Lords have done, I offer our congratulations to all those firms that have agreed to offer support to the fund and join my noble friend Lord Gardiner in encouraging others to contribute. I think that we will all take up the point made by my noble friend Lord Brooke in considering whether we can make personal donations in due course.

We believe that it is a timely boost for a vital part of our society. Agriculture plays an important part within the food chain. In 2009, agriculture had a gross value added of more than £7 billion and employed more than 500,000 people in the United Kingdom. Agriculture is notable for the area of land that it covers. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, emphasised the figure for Northern Ireland, which is considerably higher than that for England. Even in England it is 70 per cent. We also had a figure for the principality from the noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, which again was higher than that for England.

In passing, I was particularly touched by the noble Lord's remarks about the sweet lamb from the Cambrian Mountains. It reminded me of an earlier prince from Wales and a poem by Thomas Love Peacock, which included the lines:

"The mountain sheep were sweeter, But the valley sheep were fatter; We therefore deemed it meeter To carry off the latter".

It might be sweet meat that we want, but from the mountains it would be better.

Because of the limited amount of time, I should like to address some of the points that have been put to me. First, I was reminded by the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, of the issue of the Commission for Rural Communities. We have made it clear that, sadly, the commission must go. Our top priority has to be tackling the deficit that we have inherited from the party opposite. Where we can remove duplication and improve efficiency we will do so. Therefore, we will remove certain bodies. However, I want to make it clear that that is not a reflection on the commitment and quality of work undertaken by the CRC, its staff, its commissioners and, in particular, its chairman, Dr Stuart Burgess, over the past four years. We believe that we can do a lot of that work within the department. It is certainly not a reflection of the Government's lack of commitment to rural issues.

Housing was raised by a number of noble Lords. It was first raised by the noble Lord, Lord Best, who probably knows more about this issue than anyone. I do not have time to deal with all the detailed points that he put forward, but certainly within Defra and the Department for Communities and Local Government we will look carefully at what the noble Lord had to say and will continue within those departments to work closely on the policy to support the delivery of rural housing and to ensure that housing and planning policy reflects the needs of rural communities. In response to the noble Lord and to, I think, my noble friend Lord Liverpool who raised the 75 per cent, obviously we have brought that down from its original figure, but colleagues in DCLG will consider that, as appropriate, in due course.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford and the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, talked about the need, as the right reverend Prelate put it, to connect consumers with countryside issues. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, talked about the need for education. I think that she referred to the need to remove that layer of concrete between, particularly, children and the land itself. I can assure her and the right reverend Prelate that we support a number of initiatives that try to connect people with the land. She will know about Open Farm Sunday where we encourage people to go to farms and discover what they do. As she knows, it is amazing how much ignorance there is about where food comes from. Certainly, we can look at improving access for schools to farms, which can be encouraged through various environmental stewardship schemes. My understanding is that approximately 1,000 farms make themselves available for those valuable educational trips.

The abolition of the agricultural wages boards was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, and the noble Baroness, Lady Quin. The noble Baroness will remember that we made the decision to abolish the AWBs in July of last year and to bring agricultural workers within the scope of the National Minimum Wage Act. Since those agricultural wages boards were set up, we have moved on. Employment legislation and protection for workers have changed, and there is no longer the need for special, separate arrangements for one sector. We want to reduce the regulatory burdens on the industry, and to allow it to decide on its own priorities, to ensure that there can be negotiations without the intervention of the agricultural wages boards. Again, it is part of the reduction in the fairly large number of arm's-length bodies with which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is burdened. As a result of abolishing them and other bodies, we are reducing between 30 and 35 of those bodies from a total of 90, but there probably will be more to come.

Broadband was raised by my noble friend Lord Plumb and, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. They highlighted the fact that in this digital age too many rural areas still have limited access to broadband. Something like one-third of our farmers have no access at all. I believe that this is unacceptable, which is why we are committed to working with business and community groups to ensure the rollout of universal broadband with a clear focus on improving the situation in rural areas, on improving existing businesses and on kick-starting new ones. At this stage I cannot give any predictions of how fast we will be able to go in this matter, but I can assure the House that there is that firm commitment to making progress in this area.

My noble friend Lord Kimball and others stressed the importance of getting new skills into farming and encouraging new farmers. My noble friend Lady Byford also stressed the importance of succession in the smaller hill farms. I agree entirely and I appreciate the importance of providing encouragement. We will certainly continue to support the AgriSkills Forum, an industry-led project to increase skills in the farming industry and to improve the attractiveness of farming in order to recruit the best people in the future.

One is tempted to say that as most farms are small, family-run businesses, one should always remember that it is a matter for the parents in those small businesses to make the business attractive to their sons and daughters if they want them to join them. No doubt, that matter is beyond the control of the Government.

I am mindful of the time and I want to allow my noble friend at least one minute to wind up this debate. I conclude by confirming that we recognise and respect the varied, vibrant rural communities that exist throughout the country. We will do all that we can to assist those communities to prosper and improve. We believe that the Prince's Countryside Fund is an exciting and welcome initiative, which will be an important catalyst in helping to achieve this objective.