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Rural Economy (Rural Economy Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:53 pm on 8th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat 5:53 pm, 8th October 2019

My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Foster on the scale and ambition of this work, which will surely go on people’s shelves for years to come as a reference work when it comes to the economies of rural areas. Having said that, I think that some of it has a slightly old-fashioned approach, and I will explain why in a minute. The noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, talked about how much of the countryside now looks rural but, in terms of its function, is actually quite urban. This is absolutely true. I was musing, as somebody who can remember that dreadful night when Grace Archer died in the fire, that in those days “The Archers” was genuinely about countryfolk. Nowadays, a great deal of it is about middle-class people who live in the countryside. That is a symptom of the way the countryside has changed.

Much of this report seems to be based on the urban functions of the countryside and it misses out quite a lot about geography and the environment, which are different from urban areas, and the things that really make the countryside different. I was looking back on previous debates we have had on these matters in your Lordships’ House and came across the debate on agriculture, fisheries and the rural environment on 2 November 2017. I discovered that during that debate I quoted some of the things that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, had said slightly earlier in the debate. I thought, “These are very sensible. I will quote them again”. Then I discovered that he is to speak immediately after me, which makes it a very dangerous thing to do—he might stand up and say he has changed his mind since then, but I do not think so. I might be making part of his speech for him, I do not know, but what he said was that:

“Any vision for our countryside has to include agriculture, the environment and rural communities. They are all interlinked … what is our countryside for? There are services that society will want to buy from our land managers: landscape, improved access opportunities for leisure and health and greatly improved diversity of habitats and species”,

as well as farming economy and the rest. He spoke about the need to “create more diversified jobs”, including tourism, partly to help farmers,

“and their households … survive on the land”.—[Official Report, 2/11/17; col. 1447.]

I do not see a lot about this relationship in this report.

I want to speak a little about rural tourism, particularly outdoor activities and recreation. In that same debate I talked about the organisation Walkers are Welcome, which I paid tribute to and which is still going strong, I think. I talked about the detailed outdoor survey from the British Mountaineering Council—I declare an interest as a patron—in 2015-16 about just what people do in the countryside and how much more it could contribute to rural economies. In February 2017, an excellent report, Reconomics Plus: The Economic, Health and Social Value of Outdoor Recreation, from Manchester Metropolitan University set out a whole series of statistics. There are 3.2 billion visits by adults to the great outdoors, of which over half are to the countryside—plus, of course, visits by children, for whom it is so important. Some 1.31 billion went to the countryside and 456 million used pathways, cycleways and bridleways. I remind the House of the Question for Short Debate I tabled two or three months ago about the cut-off date in 2026, which is causing a great deal of worry for a lot of people who are working hard to claim historic footpaths and bridleways. It is something I shall come back to and I hope that the Government will come back to it, to put that deadline back, at least.

In 2015, £2.6 billion was spent on outdoor activities in Great Britain. Obviously, a lot of that was spent in the countryside. There were 250 million day visits in Great Britain which involved outdoor activities, of which 113 million visits had outdoor activities as their single main activity. One key issue we have talked about in various debates in your Lordships’ House is the need to work together, to integrate and to prevent the conflicts that can easily arise, some being conflicts between people going to do outdoor activities, et cetera, in the countryside and people using the land for other purposes, notably for agriculture. There are also conflicts between catering for local needs—the needs of people already living there—and the needs of people who want to go and live there.

My noble friend talked about the importance of allowing rural councils to decide whether to have right to buy or not. I remember, back in 1974, when I had become the chairman of the housing committee of the new Pendle Borough Council, that there were two rows of nearly derelict old water board houses in the village of Barley. One thing I managed to do was to persuade the old water board to transfer the houses, at midnight on 31 March, to the new council that came into being on 1 April. The clerk was the same person in each case, and I am not sure how he did it, but he did and we renovated those houses in the village as council houses, in co-operation particularly with the local WI. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to exempt them from right to buy, and I think that all of them, or perhaps all but one, have now been sold and do not provide the social housing in that village. I am still proud that they have not been pulled down, which was what was going to happen, but it is not quite what we wanted. We were not allowed to take sensible, local decisions on the basis of local circumstances at that time. Unfortunately, that is the case in too many instances.

On 16 May 2013—a long time ago—I instigated a debate on the contribution of outdoor activities to the United Kingdom economy and to the health and well-being of the population. I ended with a quote from John Muir, who, as noble Lords will know, was a founding father of the modern conservation movement. I will repeat it, because it emphasises just how important an active, well-run countryside is to everybody, not just the people who live there:

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul”.

I hope that that kind of thing will be remembered when the Government bring forward their 25-year environment plan—if that is still in existence and still going to happen, and whoever form the Government—and that we will be able to integrate the question of the geography, the landscape, the environment and value for everybody, as well as for the people who live in the countryside itself.