It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Pritchard.
I agree with much of what my right hon. Friends the Members for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), and for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), have said. No one wants to see peat burning, but that is not what is actually on the table here. This process is about heather being managed as part of a perfectly reasonable package of measures that are taken in our uplands, including in my constituency of North West Durham. That package also includes cutting and huge amounts of re-wetting of areas.
I will pick up on a point that Olivia Blake made when she said we really need to manage the countryside effectively. I agree, but heather burning is an effective part of that management. I totally understand her concerns and those of Rachael Maskell regarding flooding, and I hope that, like me, they will welcome the Government’s recent commitment to huge amounts of tree planting in our upland areas, as part of the Government’s10-point plan.
Controlled heather burning from October to April is not the key issue. Heather moorland is vital for my local rural communities in Weardale, in neighbouring Teesdale and in Northumberland. It is vital to the local community, to my hospitality industry, to my rural pubs and to my rural jobs, including those of my rural gamekeepers, and to a huge amount of part-time employment for large numbers of local people.
What are the real issues at stake? I ask that question because when I took the Environment Secretary up to the moorland above Rookhope earlier this year, we saw what had happened in the 20th century, when huge amounts of grips were put into the ground to dry large areas of peatland. There had been mass-scale erosion. That was an attempt to overmanage the countryside from one side, which totally drained large areas of peat, causing huge amounts of erosion. It leads exactly to the problems being discussed today. I am all in favour of large areas having those grips removed, to allow blanket bog to return, but it must be part of a managed countryside where everybody is able to work and where the peat is able to return to areas that have been drained. That is part of the bigger picture.
Some of my hon. Friends mentioned the biodiversity elements. We have seen in a report from the Scottish Government how managed burning can really help the relationship between key species, even leading to some returning to our upland areas, which is a really important point.
This is not about the UK Government or the Scottish Government, and it should not be about party politics, but I believe that unfortunately that is where some of this debate is going. I really fear yet another cheap politicisation of our countryside by those who are more interested in ideological and identity politics than they are in protecting our communities, or indeed in the issues that they talk about relating to flooding and other things like that.