Amendment 79

Agriculture Bill - Report (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:10 pm on 22nd September 2020.

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The Earl of Dundee:

Moved by The Earl of Dundee

79: After Clause 34, insert the following new Clause—“Planning guidance for agricultural smallholdingsThe Secretary of State may create planning guidance for local authorities to facilitate the development of combined smallholding home and work spaces for the following purposes—(a) to encourage the construction of affordable rural houses;(b) to create employment in farming and ancillary enterprises;(c) to increase supplies of locally grown fresh food to improve food security;(d) to increase productivity and profitability through agroecological farming on smallholdings; and(e) to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, regenerate soil fertility and nurture biodiversity through smallholder farming.”Member’s explanatory statementThis new Clause would enable the Government to give guidelines to local authorities to encourage combined smallholding home and workspace development, thus promoting employment whilst also increasing local food supplies through productive and profitable agroecological smallholder farming.

Photo of The Earl of Dundee The Earl of Dundee Conservative

My Lords, this proposed new clause would enable the Government to give guidance to local authorities. Many new entrepreneurs would like to set up agricultural smallholdings and to start viable businesses connected with high-quality jobs to do with farming and local food production, but are still prevented by restrictive planning regulations. The aim instead should clearly be to encourage innovative smallholding and workplace developments, promoting employment and affordable housing as well as increasing local food supplies through more productive and profitable agroecological farming. Since such smallholdings deliver significant public goods to the environment and society, they deserve full recognition and backing within planning policy.

I moved a similar amendment in Committee, not so much in terms of planning guidelines but instead to ask the Minister, my noble friend Lord Gardiner, what his views were on the scope and benefit of these projects. He could not have been more supportive. He pointed out that the Government, as stated in Defra’s Farming for the Future: Policy and Progress Update last February,

“intend to use the powers under Clause 1 to offer funding to councils, landowners and other organisations to invest in … opportunities for new entrants to access land”.

He also mentioned the Government’s resolve to “work with local authorities” and other institutions, mentioning that

“further details will be set out in the Government’s multiannual financial assistance plan.”—[Official Report, 21/7/20; col. 2134.]

He drew our attention to how local authorities would now be able to use rural sites for the delivery of affordable housing and how the National Planning Policy Framework will help the building of homes in isolated areas.

I am very grateful to my noble friend and, regarding smallholdings, much heartened by the positive background he explained. However, there are two different kinds of smallholding under discussion: county farms controlled by local authorities and the different kind of smallholding, not owned or controlled by local authorities yet entirely dependent on permission from local authorities to be able to establish or develop at all. Perhaps these two types may not have been sufficiently distinguished from each other in Committee. That is why I have brought back a revised amendment on planning guidance.

For instance, a modern agricultural smallholding might well combine farming with other work. Residents would have two occupations: farming some land and working from home. An example could be 30 houses and 180 acres of farmland, thus six acres per unit. A typical occupant might farm vegetables in polytunnels while also working part-time as an IT consultant via high-speed internet.

Post coronavirus, two interconnected trends emerge: a greater demand for property in the countryside and the growing potential of being able to work from home. The proposals outlined therefore fit in with those new demands and facilities. At the same time, such projects would provide excellent fresh produce to local urban markets, as a result strengthening the United Kingdom’s food security while advancing government plans for the countryside by increasing opportunities for rural employment.

In connection with the Bill, the farming methods adopted by these smallholdings would qualify for financial assistance for the purposes detailed in Clause 1. In view of their relevance to the purposes of the Bill, yet taking into account the tendency of local authorities hitherto to be restrictive, does my noble friend Lady Bloomfield agree, first, that the Secretary of State might now give planning guidance to local authorities to facilitate the development of combined home and work spaces for the purposes outlined in this amendment? Secondly, even if planning permissions are now less likely to be withheld or procrastinated over than they previously have been, there would be all the more consistency if the Government were to offer such guidance as envisaged. In any case, I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour 3:15 pm, 22nd September 2020

My Lords, I briefly give my full-hearted support to the noble Earl and his proposal. Again, I draw on my own experience at both MAFF and Defra and, at one time, as the Planning Minister, when I had a predisposition to facilitate the use of what you could term redundant farm buildings for other uses, be they housing or small enterprises—sometimes start-up or incubator units. I realise that it is not easy, and I know local authorities are suspicious because there have been abuses in the past. I realise that they sometimes want to limit the footprint of redundant buildings being extended too much, but the fact is that we need a national guideline for the flexibility.

The noble Earl pointed out that there are two classes of situation here. Local authorities could be deemed to be giving planning permission to themselves— or, indeed, not giving it—where they own the county farms. It is always a problem when one has to have these separate walls in local authorities. It does not always look fair.

I give my support for all the flexibility the Minister can give, by way of encouragement to local authorities under the planning system, for more modern uses of agricultural buildings. The idea of affordable housing and issues ancillary to farming are fine; I would go much further than that, but I rest on supporting the noble Earl.

Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Labour

I first declare an interest as a member of the EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee, which has done a lot of work on agriculture. I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, on an excellent amendment. We certainly need to encourage new entrants and young farmers.

Looking at some statistics about farming apprenticeships, I was interested that they talked about a 2.7% growth in the industry as a whole and something like 137,000 people leaving the industry, so there are plenty of opportunities there. Is it currently easy for new entrants and young farmers? All the evidence we see is that you have to be very determined.

This is a really worthwhile amendment. It falls in line with our new approach to farming subsidies and the 25-year plan. It is a golden opportunity to put the emphasis, as it says, on sustainability and care of the environment. New young people coming into the industry will give it a fresh look; they are much better versed in the new technology. The point the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, made about housing is also important. We need to recognise that it is not enough just to create the opportunity; we also need to enable people to live near their place of work.

The other point I would like to emphasise is that there is, as we have heard in this debate, an awful lot of best practice out there and a lot of good farming going on. Finding the opportunity for those farmers to buddy up with new entrants to act as mentors would be really good.

The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, mentioned food security and fresh produce. In addition, there would likely be less food waste. Giving guidance to local authorities also seems a sensible part of this amendment. I welcome the amendment and give it my full support. I trust we will have a positive and constructive response from the Minister.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Young of Norwood Green, with whom I have the privilege to sit on the EU Environment Sub-Committee. I have just two questions for my noble friend the Minister. I thank the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, for providing the opportunity to ask them in the context of Amendment 79.

What I find attractive about this amendment—and I hope my noble friend will agree—is that it is currently notoriously difficult for new entrants to penetrate national parks. Would my noble friend see some merit in an amendment along these lines to ease the restrictions, allowing new entrants to enter into agriculture, particularly in national parks such as the North York Moors National Park?

Another reason to find Amendment 79 attractive is subsection (a), which seeks

“to encourage the construction of affordable rural houses.”

It is often overlooked that one of the reasons it is extremely difficult for older farmers to retire and cease to actively farm is that there is nowhere for them to go. There are large houses and executive-style houses, but there is a lack of affordable homes with one or two bedrooms in rural areas. I have seen some in Hovingham, which are part of the Hovingham estate, and they are tastefully done, but I would hope that this could be more widespread. That is why I hope my noble friend will use an opportunity such as the wording of this amendment, perhaps in a more appropriate place than the Agriculture Bill, to ensure that there is a supply of affordable rural houses for those who wish to make way for younger members of the family to take over the farming commitment. We need somewhere for them to go.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has withdrawn from this amendment, so the next speaker is the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett.

Photo of Lord Blunkett Lord Blunkett Labour

My Lords, when this Bill was in Committee, I had the privilege of contributing on really critical issues to do with the protection of the environment and landscape, proper husbandry of soil for our future, the well-being of livestock, and the importance of protecting and securing our food supply, ensuring that it is environmentally friendly and good for our health. I believe that the amendment of the noble Earl contributes to this. It is clearly beneficial for smallholdings to be able to draw together all those key elements—the protection of the countryside and the decent ways we can grow our food and husband our livestock.

The intervention by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, is an important one. A third of the land-mass of the city of Sheffield is actually in the Peak District National Park, and a co-ordinated approach between local government and the park planning board to providing smallholdings and protecting those that still exist is really important, and that applies to national parks elsewhere.

The University of Sheffield is undertaking some creative and imaginative work on food production, which is being used around the world. That could be applied—expertise goes with the willingness of people to take on opportunity.

As the noble Earl described, the ability to work from home is now greater than ever, not just because people have learned during the Covid pandemic how to use the equipment but because the equipment is now more useable. People can combine one activity with husbanding the soil, and get a great quality of life from doing so. It also helps with local procurement, which will be an important issue, and therefore with the protection of our future food supply. It also benefits major urban areas, such as my own, where allotments have historically been critical, as well as smallholdings. Edward Carpenter, many years ago, was able to combine his wider activities with husbanding the land, and many examples of that sort exist.

I entirely support the noble Earl’s intentions this afternoon, but I offer one word of warning. I pay credit to Francis Wheen’s biography of Marx for this gem. Marx was once eulogising in one of the communist cells about how they would husband the land and livestock in the morning, then be able to write and have leisure and pleasure in the afternoon. One of those listening said, “And who will clean our shoes?” The answer came as fast as you would expect from Karl Marx: “You will”. Marxists have always felt that somebody would do something that would ensure that their lives were a little easier.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and others argued that we will need to take action to promote the development of smallholdings in the variety of ways that they may manifest. The noble Earl has proposed that there should be guidance for local authorities to encourage the development, through smallholdings, of affordable rural housing, as well as to provide employment, promote biodiversity, reduce emissions, and improve soil fertility and the supply of local food. These are very ambitious and imaginative aims, and he introduced his proposals in a very compelling fashion with some very experienced supporters.

There will be areas around the country where local authorities are supportive of this sector; there are others where the sense in the farming community is that the local authorities face the town and never look to the countryside. Challenges to the latter are never addressed, even though the countryside is, at the very least, important for those in the town.

There is considerable concern about how the Government are currently reducing planning guidelines. This looks like a benign way forward, but post Brexit and post coronavirus, local authorities will be even more overstretched. They may not have the resources currently to be looking at this area effectively as well; they will need imagination and expertise. If this amendment is agreed, the Government will need to make sure that any such extra task is properly resourced, or it may mean little. I therefore look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Photo of Baroness Wilcox of Newport Baroness Wilcox of Newport Opposition Whip (Lords)

My Lords, Amendment 79 follows on from previous debates about how the Government and the devolved Administrations can support the agricultural sector and its workers in providing homes, job opportunities and so forth. Its specific focus on smallholdings is welcome and we look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. The priorities identified by the noble Earl’s amendment are perfectly legitimate, particularly the emphasis on locally grown food and steps to improve environmental performance, which arguably go hand in hand. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Rooker said, we need national guidelines so that flexibility can be given to local authorities for more modern uses.

Presumably, the amendment extends to England and Wales only, as is the case with Clause 34. It is important to recognise the doubly devolved nature of planning, whereby responsibility is split between national and local government, and for this reason it is not clear how quickly or effectively any new guidance would filter down. As a lifelong educator, I was particularly pleased to hear my noble friend Lord Young of Norwood Green’s suggestion of a buddy or mentoring scheme whereby farmers who are using new technology could be encouraged to support those in the industry who may need help in the use of those technologies. I would be grateful if the Minister identified any existing or planned schemes in this area.

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 3:30 pm, 22nd September 2020

My Lords, I detect a greater degree of consensus on this amendment than on some others we will debate this afternoon. I am grateful to my noble friend the Earl of Dundee for the amendment. For many years, local authorities and other smallholding estates have provided valuable opportunities for new entrant farmers, enhancing the rural economy and bringing new energy and skills into the sector.

Smallholdings, as we have heard, provide excellent opportunities for sustainably produced, locally sourced food, helping to deliver our environmental objectives and increasing food security, which a number of speakers have described as a priority. That is why this Government are committed to supporting local authorities to facilitate the development of smallholding estates. I assure my noble friend that the Government intend to use the financial assistance powers already provided under Clause 1(2) to deliver the kinds of outcomes he is seeking.

The Government’s future farming policy update, published in February, committed to offering financial assistance to local authorities, landowners and other organisations to invest in the development of small- holdings in order to create more opportunities for new entrant farmers in future. We believe this will provide greater incentives for local authorities and other landowners to invest in the development of more smallholdings than would providing planning guidance. We want to encourage investment that will not only create more smallholding opportunities but provide guidance and mentoring to new farmers in order to develop sustainable and profitable farming businesses.

In addition, local authorities can take advantage of rural exception sites to help the delivery of affordable housing, and the revised national planning policy framework includes new policies to support the building of homes in isolated locations where this supports farm businesses with succession. I say to my noble friend and to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who I recognise has a very relevant background in both Defra and housing, that in July 2018 the Government launched the revised national planning policy framework, which offers new support to rural areas. The rural housing chapter gives strong support for rural exception sites and the NPPF has new policies to support the building of homes in isolated locations where this supports farm succession. Indeed, the Government have increased permitted development rights for redundant farm buildings from three to five dwellings.

In April 2018, the Government amended the national permitted development right supporting rural housing and agricultural productivity. The Government recognise that work and home smallholdings are also provided by other organisations and that these require council planning approval. Guidance to councils on planning matters is led by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, with which my department works closely and will continue to engage with on these matters. My noble friend Lady McIntosh raised this issue, which we are well aware of, particularly since my noble friend the Minister has national parks within his portfolio. We recognise the importance of balancing the protection of areas of outstanding natural beauty with enabling the businesses and communities within them to flourish. I hope I have provided all noble Lords, particularly my noble friend, with enough reassurance and I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

No noble Lord has indicated to me that they wish to come in after the Minister, so I call the Earl of Dundee.

Photo of The Earl of Dundee The Earl of Dundee Conservative

My Lords, I am very grateful to noble Lords for their comments and support, as I am to my noble friend Lady Bloomfield for her positive evaluation of this amendment. As already indicated, the focus here is not upon the merits of agricultural smallholdings, which are already recognised by the Government and by your Lordships. The issue instead is whether the Government should give planning guidance for local authorities to facilitate these developments. My own view, shared perhaps by many noble Lords, is that such government guidance would not unreasonably constrain or inhibit local authorities; yet at the same time, it would help to reduce restrictions and delays. I understand that my noble friend might feel that this cannot immediately be done, but I appreciate the very positive context in which she is considering doing it. As time moves on, the Government might increasingly take a view which is translated to local authorities to good effect. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 79 withdrawn.

Amendment 80 not moved.

Schedule 3: Agricultural tenancies

Amendments 81 to 87 not moved.