Amendment 228 (to Amendment 227)

Part of Agriculture Bill - Committee (6th Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 23rd July 2020.

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Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench 7:45 pm, 23rd July 2020

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 227, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. England—not Britain, but England—is the fifth most densely populated country in the world, from a list that includes the city state of Singapore. The south-east of England, with London at its commuter heart, is obviously very crowded, but so too are the Midlands. For instance, the Peak District National Park has 21 million people within an hour’s drive of it. That is a staggering number of human beings.

The second fact to note is that, as Bill Bryson once said, the unique feature of the English countryside is that its citizens love it to death. We all feel it belongs to us. Furthermore, most of us want to live in it and to have a home there. A survey in the 1990s showed that more than 80% of those living in southern England wanted to live in the countryside, where less than 20% currently live, so there are immense pressures on our countryside, even before we start to plan our nation’s food production. There are demands for leisure, housing, transport, energy, forestry and business property, as well as our obligations in relation to biodiversity, landscape and climate change.

How do we deal with all these pressures? At the moment, the way our countryside produces all those services and goods is a matter of haphazard chance. There are, of course, myriad strategic and neighbourhood plans, guided by the national planning policy framework, but there is a difference between what people need to get planning permission for and how we actually want to use the land on the ground.

At the moment, most of the usage is dictated by the marketplace and responded to—admirably, in a way—by a new generation of young, entrepreneurial landowners and others who look for whatever possible use the land might be suitable for. But we have already decided in this Bill that the marketplace cannot and should not drive all land usage. With the powers in the Bill, the state is going to step in with large amounts of money—£3 billion per annum is promised—to buy land uses that the market does not cater for.

This brings us to the question of what we should use our land for, and where. The answer may be that we need a plan, or rather a framework or frameworks, possibly at different levels—we possibly need a national framework and a regional framework. Personally, I would avoid local frameworks as I fear they might encourage too much nimbyism, which could destroy the innovation we so badly need for our future land use. The one thing we do not need, of course, is a Soviet-style plan that knocks local enterprise on the head.

Although I think a land use strategy is a good and useful idea, I strongly support the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, in his wish to have a one-off Select Committee in this House to really examine how best we could set up and implement such a land use strategy. There are now many new variables to go into the mix, including the need to plant more trees to absorb CO2, maybe the need for more domestic tourism venues now that overseas travel has taken such a hit, and maybe even the imminent arrival of lab-produced meat and milk, which could dramatically change our farming landscape and what we want from our land. I strongly believe that this is just the sort of issue that a Lords Select Committee could get its teeth into to produce an illuminating and compelling message for government.