Amendment 228 (to Amendment 227)

Part of Agriculture Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:31 pm on 23rd July 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 7:31 pm, 23rd July 2020

My Lords, I was delighted to attach my name to Amendment 227, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and Amendment 228, in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Dundee. I also express my support for Amendment 228A, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, which makes an important point about the need for joined-up thinking to ensure that what is being decided and acted on at a local level is reflected in national action. I also very much put myself behind his comments on the state of our SSSIs and the issues in that whole area that desperately need to be addressed.

When I came to think about the whole idea of a land use strategy, I started by reflecting on how many invitations I have had to conferences, how many reports I have had sent to me, and how much work has been done by a whole range of civil society actors, academics and campaign groups over recent years on how land is used in the UK, and in particular in England. There is real frustration, determination and understanding of the need for change. I will refer to a couple of these.

Back in 2014, perhaps one of the most aptly and clearly named was a report on The Best Use of UK Agricultural Land, produced by the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. Look at the ongoing work from what was the Royal Society of Arts’ Food, Farming and Countryside Commission—it does a great deal of exciting work, although it has now perhaps moved more towards a local level. It asked how we should, can and must use our land. I also point to an excellent report from Dr Helen Harwatt from Harvard University, Eating Away at Climate Change with Negative Emissions, which was presented at an excellent Grow Green conference that I went to.

I will not take up too much of your Lordships’ time in making a long list, but I am sure that most noble Lords taking part in this debate would be able to add a dozen or half a dozen similar to those on that list. There is clearly a real hunger for an overview or vision of what land use should look like. If we are to say how we, as the nation of England, are to form a view of what we want our land to be used for, surely the Government have to provide the place where that is coalesced. I hope that that would be in some kind of citizens’ assembly, with a consultative process, but producing the sort of outcome that Amendment 227 refers to.

Before I comment directly on Amendment 228, I stress that what I am about to say reflects my personal views. I should be fair to the noble Earl and say that it may or may not reflect exactly his intentions in placing the amendment. When I saw this amendment and decided to put my name to it, I thought of a brilliant performance which has been described as a show, a sing-along, and a TED talk-style live event: “Three Acres and a Cow”. It draws its title from campaigns over land use and access to land in the 1880s, and which we saw again in the 1920s. We have a long-term drive in England in particular—we have already seen some fruitful developments in Scotland in these areas—for people to be able to get access to land to start their own small businesses, produce food for themselves and for others, and get together in co-operatives. I point also to the excellent The Land Magazine, which describes itself as an occasional magazine about land rights and which often explores these issues.

These two amendments aim to ensure that there is a sense of direction— something which we have heard again and again is lacking from the Bill. However, I want briefly to address the comments made in an earlier debate by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, when talking about pesticides. He said that this is not the year to make dramatic changes. Respectfully, I very strongly disagree with him. ELMS is a dramatic change from the CAP, we are seeing dramatic changes in the climate, and Covid-19 is of course imposing dramatic changes on us all. We are heading in a very different direction from what we have seen for decades. The British countryside is headed in the direction of ever-larger farms, ever-greater mechanisation, and the production of fewer and fewer crops, very often with more and more expensive inputs. We are changing direction, so it is very important that we have a sense of where we are going, which is what these amendments aim to achieve.

I see from looking at the news during the break that there are hints that, over the weekend, we will see a dramatic change in the Government’s obesity strategy. The noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, made reference to the drop in rapeseed plantings, which is a dramatic change that has come about through the ban on neonicotinoid pesticides—here I commend the Minister for her strong defence of that ban. Perhaps now, when we are seeing this big change in the Government’s obesity strategy, we will see a similar change in direction and great reductions in the planting of sugar beets, and the preservation of fields and very good soils by the planting of vegetables instead.

We are very much in a time of change and we need some kind of road map or guide, so that we do not flail around wildly. We cannot just say that we have a Secretary of State with the power to make decisions, while we have no idea where he is seeking to direct the use of our land, which is so valuable and so scarce.