We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
My Lords, my remarks this afternoon are based on those I was going to give the House in the debate last week on the report by the noble Lord, Lord Foster, on the rural economy. Thanks to the slippage in the timetable, I was unable to give them. I do not wish to comment on Brexit because, in an era of socioeconomic change in rural Britain and elsewhere, it is more or less irrelevant to discussion of the issues, although it may become relevant to the framework by which the policies that are developed may be implemented.
I declare an interest: I farm in Cumbria, in quite a big way by Cumbrian standards, but not compared to many other parts of England. I have a range of interests in the register. Specifically, I chair the Cumbria local enterprise partnership. Both Cumbria’s independently commissioned research and the CBI reckon that Cumbria is one of the places in England that will be most affected by Brexit.
As your Lordships know, the post-war countryside in this country is synonymous with farming and agriculture. That goes back to the policies that were delivered through the mechanisms of the Town and Country Planning Acts from the early post-war period. This was not the way it was historically, and I believe we are going to revert to something that is more similar to what went before, albeit in a different way. We can see this happening in the evolution of the common agricultural policy from the Mansholt plan to the MacSharry proposals and then the Fischler reforms. In the context of the Mansholt plan, which gave the CAP a bad name because of the wine lakes and grain mountains, we sometimes forget that people were starving to death in mainland Europe in the late 1940s.
The question to ask is: what is the countryside for? What is its point now? How does it fit in with the wishes, aspirations and framework of the wider body politic? If we think about it, it is needed for food, the protection of the environment and landscape, access, wilding and housing—both for a general increase in the amount needed in this country and in the context of finding housing in the countryside for the essential workers who make it what it is. There are questions of carbon capture, forestry, conservation, the protection of the cultural landscape—that is why the Lake District was recently made a world heritage site—energy, flood alleviation, soil protection and water. It is sometimes forgotten that most of the water used in Manchester comes from the Lake District. We do not get a penny piece for that. The countryside is also needed for business, but it will be a 21st-century business rather than a 19th-century business . All this will have to be reconfigured in this country in the context of wider international trade. We need new markets in this country, but how will they interrelate to state aid rules, et cetera? I am sure that in dealing with the European Union, were Brexit to go ahead, not having qualified majority voting might be rather a nasty shock.
Equally, we have to be clear about the different types of rural countryside. It seems to me that they can be divided into two groups. The first is what I might describe as—I hope that I do not upset people—“outer suburbia” and the second is “deep rural”, or l’Angleterre profonde, which is the kind of area that I come from.
The mantra “public money for public goods” sounds very attractive but it is worth remembering that, even in the days of area payments, which still survive to some extent, there was a need in recent years for cross-compliance. We are already moving down that road. How are we going to decide how much money is required —presumably, the more public goods you produce, the more money you get—and who will allocate it? A very substantial bureaucracy will be needed to deal with all of this. The idea that we can reduce bureaucracy in the countryside while trying to do the kind of things that have been talked about seems fanciful.
Speaking from the perspective of a LEP chairman, how will the shared prosperity fund be delivered? Will local enterprise partnerships have a role in agricultural support, as has been suggested? On the other hand, I believe that Defra is very much against that. This is important. These questions need to be answered because the process of sorting out how it will be done needs to be put in hand.
In the summer—I apologise for talking about my holiday reading—I read The Cornkister Days which is about farm towns in Aberdeenshire in the period after the First World War. What is interesting about that is that in those days money did not leave the rural economy. If you had a blacksmith-made plough and a couple of Clydesdales, the money went back into the area when they were replaced. Now, if you have a new combine, the money leaves the countryside. One thing that we need to do is to get money back into rural Britain. If we do that, we will start to address the kinds of things that cause problems, such as rural housing. We have managed—in a way, despite ourselves and despite our contempt for paysans—to turn a group of people in rural Britain more or less into what we derogatorily call “peasants”.
It is interesting that east Cumbria, which includes most of the Lake District, has a far less good record on productivity than west Cumbria. The conclusion I have reached about that is that productivity does not mention things such as the area’s contribution to the tourist industry and looking after the world heritage site. We need to redefine it to represent the realities of the 21st century. All this is going to need money and proper infrastructure. In bringing that about, I think we need to bear in mind the old Turkish story of Hodja’s donkey. Hodja had a donkey, he fed it well and it performed for him, but then he thought, “If I give it a bit less food, I’ll have a bit more money”. The less food he gave it, the more money he kept, until suddenly it died. There is a real risk that, in thinking about rural Britain, urban Britain will be not merely not very generous but positively stingy, and then the whole thing will collapse in on itself. In that context, the Government should look at again at concepts such as the CLA’s old idea of rural business units. We need to think of a rural business person: someone who is partly working on the land or doing some work of that sort but may also be working partly in a market town. We should treat them as a single taxable entity.
I believe that the resurrection of the agriculture Bill is a good step forward—it is good to see it—but we need to be clear that that is the easy bit, and the devil will lie in the detail.