HC Deb 31 January 2002 vol 379 cc482-504

4.6 pm

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Environmental Impact Assessment (Uncultivated Land and Semi-natural Areas) (England) Regulations 2001 (S.I., 2001, No. 3966), dated 10th December 2001, a copy of which was laid before this House on 11th December, be annulled. This debate provides an opportunity for the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), to address a number of concerns about the new regulations raised by people who will most feel their impact. It also enables us to explore the way in which the regulations will work in practice and the Government's true intentions. There are questions about the extent to which the Government have added unnecessarily to the intentions of the original 1985 European Union directive.

When the Minister replies to the debate, will he outline the scale of the problem that the regulations are designed to address? How much evidence is there, for example, that valuable heathland, marshland and environmentally important farmland is being ploughed up or changed in a way that the regulations seek to prevent? I am aware that because some unscrupulous people have realised that regulations are in the pipeline, there has been an increase in the ploughing-up of valuable sites. The Government have used existing powers in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to prevent that.

I speak with feeling about that because a few years ago, as the Minister may recall, I introduced a private Member's Bill to protect hedgerows. As a result, I suspect that I am inadvertently the person most responsible for the destruction of hedgerows in the countryside. However, the point is that powers are in existence and can be applied. I should be grateful if the Minister addressed the scope of the problem; how, precisely, will the new regulations address the problem?

The Minister may be slightly embarrassed—indeed, there may be embarrassment on both sides of the House—because the directive behind the regulations dates back to 1985. It has taken 17 years and the threat of infraction proceedings for the Government finally to get round to introducing national regulations. The directive already applies to wide areas of industry, but agriculture is the one that got away. The problem is that, in the end, nothing gets away from EU directives, however long ago they were signed and however inappropriate or anachronistic they may turn out to be when they eventually become enforced under the threat of infraction procedures, as is happening in this case.

In the 17 years since the directive was introduced, life has moved on. As the Curry report, which was published earlier this week, has reminded us, there is now greater recognition of the interlinked relationship between farming, the environment and the whole of rural ecology and the rural economy. Good environmental practice is now much more widely recognised to be good business practice as well. That understanding is not confined to the rural economy; it applies to industry and to the economy as a whole. I think that that it is extremely welcome.

While there will always be a need to take precautions against wide boys and unscrupulous operators, it should no longer be commonplace for Government to set out to catch the entire flock when seeking the black sheep. The Curry report warns of the need to watch the cumulative effect of regulations, especially on small businesses. It recommends that the Government should publish an annual aggregate compliance cost figure for new regulations. It also urges a more streamlined and simple approach to providing information about regulations. We support those proposals and I hope that the Minister will welcome them.

What is really required, however, is a change in the culture of regulation. There is a need for the Government to change their mindset. They should challenge the assumption that they should always do more and ask instead whether they could do less and do it better. A mature relationship between Government and the governed and between the Department and farmers will be based not on rules, regulations and threats of punishment, but on trust. In agriculture more than almost anywhere else, the old command and control mentality still prevails and trust seems to have broken down utterly. Restoring and building trust between Government and the rural community is one of the greatest challenges that we face. Be that as it may, we accept that the Government have no choice but to introduce these measures in some form, even though they are based on the false assumption that they know best and that all farmers are inclined to be rapers and pillagers of the landscape if they are given half a chance.

The issue today is not the fact that the regulations are being imposed, but the way in which they are being introduced. There are a number of concerns. First, on timing, it is unfortunate to say the least that the Government are introducing new regulations on the farming industry after what has been in many ways its worst year in living memory. Foot and mouth disease has left lasting scars in the rural community. New outbreaks of bovine tuberculosis are causing serious problems. Classical swine fever, rhizomania and poor harvests have added to the problems faced by this beleaguered industry. Together with the weakness of the euro and the strangulation of red tape, those problems lie behind the fact that farm incomes are still 72 per cent. below their 1995 level. This must be one of the worst times to introduce new rules and extra costs for the farming industry, but that is exactly what the regulations entail.

I know that the Government carried out two consultations on the regulations during 2001. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for providing on 17 January some information in response to my parliamentary question about the number of responses that the Department received. The Minister might be tempted to take comfort from the fact that not many responses were submitted. The Department received 42 replies to the first consultation and 32 to the second. That is not many, given that the regulations affect every single registered agricultural holding in England. In her reply, the Secretary of State said: Respondents included statutory agencies (English Nature, English Heritage, Environment Agency and Countryside Agency) and bodies representing environmental and historical interests and the farming industry."—[Official Report,; Vol. 378, c. 482W.] It is interesting that the farming industry comes last on that list. I wonder how many farmers replied to the consultation and how much notice the Government took of what they said. I can only note that the National Farmers Union has recorded that it is dismayed that many of our key concerns have not been satisfactorily resolved. I do not know what efforts the Department made to consult individual farmers about the regulations. When I asked one farmer whether he had responded to either of the consultations, he said that he got so many questions from DEFRA these days and had so much else to worry about that he had not even noticed them. I fear that that is typical. The Minister should not assume that silence from farmers signifies consent. It is more likely these days to signify utter demoralisation and, in many cases, despair.

As a result, the regulations have taken many people by surprise. The latest edition of Farmers' Weekly, that excellent publication—I have no doubt that the Minister will agree that it is essential reading—reports: Farmers across the country were this week sent a leaflet which explains how the scheme, which comes into force in one week, aims to protect uncultivated and semi-natural land. Andrew Clark, NFU head of environment, said while it was reassuring farmers finally had some details, they had been given fewer than 10 days to get to grips with them. 'It doesn't give people enough time to figure out what it is, he said. Given the very short notice of the details of the regulations, which are due to take effect tomorrow, will the Minister confirm that he will exercise some lenience in their enforcement? After all, it is not the fault of farmers that they have been given only 10 days to assimilate the new regulations and their implications for their land holdings.

There is also the question of the regulations' cost. In replying to my question on the matter, again on 17 January, the Secretary of State admitted that the Government did not know how much the regulations would cost either the Department or the landowners. The Minister shakes his head, but the Secretary of State said that the costs to the Department of administering the scheme are put at between £100,000 and £200,000. A 100 per cent. margin of error seems pretty generous. Compared with the average farm income of £7,800 a year, the sum is considerable. As the Department cannot cope at the moment even with handling routine support payments, the Minister might wish to consider whether the money could be spent rather more productively. The costs to landowners are put at between £20,000 and £28,000 per 100 projects. Of course, that is money that they can ill afford, but it may also represent a fraction of the real cost.

The NFU has expressed concerns about the regulations' impact on the capital value of farmland. It has recorded that it is "extremely concerned" that the new regime will undermine land values by reducing the flexibility of the uses to which land can be put. It has calculated that the capital devaluation for potential arable land could be as much as £500 to £1,000 a hectare, which is about £200 to £400 an acre. Given that the capital value of agricultural land has effectively underpinned the banking sector's confidence in farming during this very difficult period, that is potentially a serious issue. Has the Minister undertaken an analysis of the regulations' possible impact on the underlying value of farmland?

Uncertainty surrounds the issue of whether set-aside land will be caught by the regulations. The pamphlet issued by the Department merely advises people to call a helpline if they have concerns about such land. I know of a farmer who telephoned the helpline earlier today. He rang 0800 028 2140 and a pleasant voice answered, saying "EIA"—[Laughter.] Not "Ee ay addy oh". The farmer said that he had a parcel of land that had been set aside since 1992 and asked whether it would be affected by the new regulations. The person at the other end answered that they did not know and that he needed to speak to the countryside stewardship scheme. They very kindly provided a phone number. He dialled the number and got through to the scheme, but he was transferred and then cut off. He dialled the number again and finally got through to somebody who said that they did not know the answer to his question and that he needed to speak to someone at the environmental impact assessment unit. At that point, he thanked them and they said that they would call back. The service that is being offered to farmers who are genuinely concerned about how the regulations will affect their livelihoods and what they can do with their land is not adequate.

The guidance notes provided by the Department are equally unclear. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that landowners get proper, timely and accurate advice when they inquire about set aside? Will set-aside land be excluded from the new regime? I would welcome the Minister's comments.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster)

This is an extremely important point. In my constituency, there are a huge number of apple growers. The booklet on the regulations mentions that orchards come under the EIA. It is essential that farmers in my constituency find out when the Minister replies what the understanding is for orchards. Currently the crops are grubbed up about every 25 years. I wonder whether my hon. Friend could press the Minister for an answer on that point.

Mr. Ainsworth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important point, which has been raised by outside concerns. It would be helpful if the Minister expressly addressed the issue of orchards, which do need to be grubbed up. The regulations should not impair normal farming practice. I hope that the Minister will confirm that that is not his intention and that it will not happen under the regulations as drafted.

There is concern about the way in which the regulations may affect existing agri-environmental agreements such as the countryside stewardship scheme. The Country Landowners Association has highlighted the fact that land managers entered voluntary agreements on the basis that their options would remain open at the end of agreement period. By potentially restricting the options open to land managers, the regulations change the basis on which the original agreements were made.

That problem could be mitigated if the Department stated that landowners will be offered the opportunity to renew their agreements on equivalent terms once they expire. Again, I would welcome the Minister's remarks on that issue. There is a danger that unless it is addressed, the regulations will act as a disincentive to farmers to enter into new agreements to protect the environment or, indeed, to engage in sensible diversification. I am sure that he would agree that that would be extremely regrettable.

I have received a letter from Mr. Michael Payne, a farmer and environmental consultant, who points out that the regulations could have a particular impact in the areas worst affected by foot and mouth disease. He says: Permanent grassland (down for more than 10 years) is one of the land types most likely to be affected by the regulations. This is particularly prevalent in the uplands, and in the wake of foot and mouth, the need for farming businesses to have the freedom to restructure without additional bureaucracy and cost may be crucial. I hope that the Minister will provide some reassurance on that point. Clearly, it would be wrong for regulations, so soon after the ending of the foot and mouth outbreak and the calamity that that spelt for the countryside, to impact particularly harshly on the people who suffered most.

Mr. Payne raises the general point about the gold-plating of EU directives. That goes to the heart of many of the concerns that have been raised about the Government's proposals. On 30 March 2000, the Government published their action plan for farming. In it, they said: The Government's policy on implementing EU obligations in relation to farming will be to avoid all 'gold plating' of the legislation, its implementation and enforcement; to regulate in the least bureaucratic and burdensome way and to avoid implementing legislation ahead of specified EU deadlines. They certainly have not implemented the regulations ahead of the EU deadline but what about the gold-plating? Will the Minister confirm that the Government have chosen to ignore the de minimis threshold allowed by the directive? Is not it the case that article 4 of the directive allows member states to set a cut-off point below which farming projects will be excluded?

Paragraph 20 of the guidelines that were issued recently says: We will not work to any specific threshold criteria. We are obviously more likely to consider large projects as significant than minor ones", but is there not a need to ask whether minor ones need to be considered at all? Will not the regulations add substantially to the administrative costs for the Department, as well as adding to the tangle of red tape that is already tying farmers in knots? Does not the provision amount to gold-plating?

I have secured a copy of the original directive. Article 1 states clearly: This directive shall apply to the assessment of the environmental effects of those public and private projects which are likely to have significant effects on the environment. Setting aside the fact that many of the schemes caught by the regulations are unlikely to be considered "significant" to any normal observer, it is clear that the directive is aimed at major, large-scale projects such as construction projects.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that very small areas of land can have a significant impact on the landscape?

Mr. Ainsworth

We are dealing with semantics but I do not think that it was the intention of the directive—if the hon. Gentleman chooses to reason, I think that he will form the same conclusion—to catch some minor change in the method of cropping in the corner of someone's field.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

An important point has been raised. Farmers do not want to be over-regulated, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, but organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds say that even a 3 ft margin on a field can have significant implications for the wildlife. The cumulative effect of a lot of very small things has a significant environmental impact. Presumably that is part of what the directive had in mind.

Mr. Ainsworth

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about the cumulative effects but I hope that he shares the concern about the cumulative effects of regulation on farmers' ability to go about their business at all. Piling regulations on the fanning sector makes it less viable, less profitable and in the long run less able to look after the environment that we all care about so much.

It seems that the directive is primarily aimed at things such as gravel pits, motorways and large-scale factory developments. Article 1.2 of the directive makes that clear: 'project' means the execution of construction works or of other installations or schemes, other interventions in the natural surroundings and landscape including those involving the extraction of mineral resources". Notwithstanding the point made by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett), it must be doubtful whether the original intention of the directive was to embrace minor alterations to the corner of a field, or the recropping of a field with a higher percentage of rye grass.

The Government's efforts to make the pill slightly less bitter than it would otherwise be give a faintly laughable tone to the leaflet that they have circulated, and indeed to the guidelines. However they are dressed up, it is impossible to escape the fact that these are new regulations. They impose new burdens on farmers. They threaten fines of up to £5,000 for non-compliance.

It is true that the regulations set up an appeals process but appeals will be made to the Secretary of State, to officials in the Department or to people appointed by the Department, which is the enforcing agency. There is no right of appeal to an independent body. I would welcome the Minister's thoughts on why that is.

There is no getting away from the fact that this is an increase in regulation. One would be hard pushed, however, to work all this out from reading the notes, pamphlets and leaflets published by the Department. I have a copy of a page from the leaflet. It says: What is EIA? EIA is a way of helping farmers, land managers and others to consider the environmental effects of changing the way they use their land. The idea that these regulations are primarily to help farmers is pure fiction. The Government might be wearing a double set of kid gloves, but the iron fist keeps poking through at the knuckles. There is no reference in the information supplied to farmers by the Government of the penalties applicable for non-compliance and there is no such reference in the leaflet.

A casual glance at the information would lead one to think that the regulations were, in some way, the answer to farmers prayers; something that they have been asking for rather than something that has caused them considerable concern.

The guidelines state that the regulations contribute significantly to a clearer understanding of good agricultural practice. So says the Department.

Has the Minister thought to consider the implication of that statement? The implication is that land managers do not have a clear understanding of good agricultural practice. Many of us wonder why the Government believe that they understand good agricultural practice better than farmers do. The Minister should justify that belief in his remarks. It is time to challenge the assumption that has characterised the relationship between agriculture and Government for too long. It is the patronising assumption that politicians and civil servants know better than farmers what is good for them.

There is no other industry in the world in which the machinery of government is so intimately involved in people's daily lives and decisions. Of course there should be penalties for those who knowingly and deliberately set out to wreck important wildlife sites or landscape features. Of course there is a need to recognise in law the public value of a sustainable and diverse environment. Of course there is a need for regulation, particularly where human health is at stake. However, on 3 January, Lord Whitty, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the other place said that the benefits from maintaining environmentally valuable areas could provide a significant source of income to farmers as land managers as well as food producers. If the Government believe that, why do they not let farmers get on with their job without the introduction of new heavy-handed, negative regulations that go beyond the original intentions of the directive?

I regret that these regulations will do nothing to foster the trust that will be central to economic recovery and vitality in the countryside and I doubt whether, in the real world, they will afford much protection to important natural sites, the majority of which are already protected under different legislation.

I look forward to hearing the Minister's answers to my questions and to those that other hon. Members will wish to put to him.

4.34 pm
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

I endorse many of the reservations raised by the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). There are legitimate concerns. I also take the view, however, that the directive requires action by the United Kingdom Government and the question should be about how to achieve the best balance between farmers being able to do their job, as the hon. Member for East Surrey pointed out, and the need adequately to protect the environment.

The nature of farming is that it consists of small and medium-sized businesses. It is difficult for an individual farmer to see the cumulative effect of his actions, and those of many others, on the environment. The genuine debate about the way that farming is changing, in which the public are engaged, involves the extent to which it has, in some areas, had a detrimental effect on the landscape. That is not necessarily because the farmers were bad managers, but because practices that were accepted in the past have subsequently been found to be detrimental. For example, nitrate use has severe implications in some parts of the country. I know of farmers' concerns. I have a 55 hectare nitrate vulnerable zone in my constituency. I understand farmers who fear the regulations, but I equally care about the environment that the nitrates are destroying. We must do something about it.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

The hon. Gentleman will know that the number of nitrate vulnerable zones is about to be increased across vast amounts of arable land. Does he accept that farmers have been driven by whatever is the thinking at the time? Is not this a question of re-educating people, particularly the next generation of farmers in agricultural colleges, away from the practice of maximum production, which has grown up throughout our lifetime? That has been driven by market forces that should perhaps be tempered, but not with heavy regulations like these.

Malcolm Bruce

That is what the debate is about. It is a fair, reasonable and constructive point. I can make the copper-bottomed statement that farmers are perfectly capable of change and adaptation. They have proved that over many years. However, right now, most of them are not making a living. Whatever the Government do, whether it is implementing the Curry report or these regulations, they must accept that the exchange rate, the fact that they did not receive the agrimoney compensation in full and the market effects mean that most farmers cannot make a living. Unless they make a living, there will be no one to manage the environment or produce the food in the quantities that we need. That is the difficulty facing the Government. The hon. Member for East Surrey was right to say that the timing is unfortunate, but because of infraction proceedings we must do something about it.

I am concerned that the regulations could be bureaucratic. The language in the guidelines is gentle, but it effectively means that every farmer in the country could be in negotiation with the Department. That is perfectly possible. We know that the Department has difficulty negotiating with itself at the moment, never mind negotiating with farmers. The Department's ability to handle this is not reassuring—I am sure that it will not be able to handle the vast amount of work. Paragraph 3 of the guidelines says: Although these procedures are based on legal requirements, with penalties for non-compliance, we will seek wherever possible to apply them in co-operation with the farmers and others who may be involved. The guidelines go on to make suggestions about agri-environment schemes.

Most farmers will want to know how the regulations will apply in practice, whether there will be a genuine partnership and whether it will be over-bureaucratic. I welcome the fact that the Government have said that there will be a review after 18 months and that there will be an opportunity to see whether the operation should be lightened, tightened or clarified. I give the Government credit for acknowledging that we are not quite there yet and that we need to apply the regulations in law and see how they work.

The Minister must understand that gentle words, which are, nevertheless, legally enforceable, give cause for concern because people do not know when they will be in breach or the costs and the detail in which they will be engaged. It will cost some money to put up schemes for consideration. The time scale is specific. Thirty-five days is not a long time to get advice and, sadly, there is no longer the free or low-cost advice that was available when the agricultural development and advisory scheme was at is height. That is a matter for concern, because it will impose significant costs. I hope that the Minister will assure us that the Department will take an approach that does not require farmers to employ expensive consultants to qualify, or to avoid refusal if they are trying to make some changes to their farm or its management.

The hon. Member for East Surrey mentioned a reduction in the value of farms—a point that has also been made by the NFU—and I noticed that the Minister shook his head. I find it hard to believe the NFU's claim that land values will be affected across the board. However, individual farms could be affected, which would be a legitimate concern for them, and I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that.

I agree with the point that it is less than satisfactory that the right of appeals should be from the Department to the Department. The Department is unlikely to change its mind on appeal if the same people are considering the issue. The right of appeal to an arm's-length, independent body is normal and what people expect. In Scotland, that was an issue in disputes over payments under the IACS scheme and an appeals process has now been established. The Minister is at arm's length and is engaged in the process only as a participant, rather than as the determinant of the appeal. Such a process would be appropriate in this instance.

We have all received representations from the NFU and the Country Landowners Association, but we have also received representations supporting the regulations from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which—as we should remember—is one of the biggest public membership organisations in the country. It far outweighs the membership of all the political parties combined and carries much clout and muscle as a result.

One farmer in my constituency has long worked with the RSPB. He will admit that he has a personal obsession with the issue and that he is not typical, but his farm provides a fantastic array of habitats and reserves for birds and other wildlife. That has significantly affected the whole area, because he provides—in some cases—the only feeding or resting places for the birds, alongside a successful arable farm. He makes the point that relatively small changes on the margins have substantial positive implications for wildlife.

Farmers ask, "Why should anyone interfere with me when I want to reorganise my fields and change the boundaries?" However, we know that although the removal of one hedge does not make much difference, the removal of all the hedges makes a huge difference. Similarly, ploughing up to the hedge leaves one habitat, but ploughing 3 ft short of the hedge has a significant impact on insects and wildlife. In that case, farmers need uniform guidelines, so that they do not have to go through an individual process. The hon. Member for East Surrey suggests that the helpline is undeveloped, but it could provide the answers. We need clear answers to straight questions, and that would greatly simplify the bureaucracy.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth

The issue of hedgerows is now covered by regulations, and the example that the hon. Gentleman has just given of minor changes to field boundaries would not fall within the scope of these regulations. The real question is what the regulations would achieve other than an increase in red tape.

Malcolm Bruce

As a Liberal Democrat, I am—not surprisingly—proposing a third way. The hon. Gentleman is right to be concerned about excessive regulations and, on the basis of what we know at the moment, so are farmers. I congratulate him on instigating the debate, because the questions need to be answered, both today and in the practice and the review in the next 18 months. The Conservatives claim that the regulations are excessive and will not achieve enough. In 18 months, they or the Government will be proved right, and then we may get the balance right.

The Minister is enacting legislation because of the threat of infraction proceedings by the EU, but his proposals are not clear. The industry does not understand them fully and nor do the environmentalists. To be honest, I am not convinced that the Department understand them fully either. However, that is not meant as a devastating criticism. If, during the next 18 months, the Government make an honest attempt to get the balance right and, at the end of that time, the review systematically deals with the issues, we may produce legislation that will work.

The Minister should listen to the concerns about excessive bureaucracy and the consequent costs. He should also make the case for the environmental benefits. He also needs to reassure farmers that he is trying to offer a simple, clear and comprehensible system that they can live with, and which is not too bureaucratic, costly or confusing. Farmers certainly should not face penalties when they did not know that their practices would incur them. I hope that the Minister will address those legitimate concerns now and during the next 18 months.

4.46 pm
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

I endorse the closing remarks of the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), but at the start I declare an interest because I own land in Norfolk that could be affected by the regulations.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) said, farming is in real crisis at the moment. In the two years before the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, 42,000 farmers left the industry. Anyone who has visited livestock-producing areas, such as that represented by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), will know of the sheer devastation in those communities. Compensation for those farmers is a big issue, but other industries—such as tourism—were affected by the foot and mouth crisis and the issue of compensation for them also arises.

Historically, the arable areas have been the most viable and prosperous farming districts. If the prices of one or two crops failed one year, another crop would have a good year. If grain prices were down, people would get a better price for potatoes. If potatoes and grain were both down, they could rely on the prices for sugar beet. Until recently, many farms in Norfolk were very diversified. For example, many had livestock, such as poultry. Now, every farm in Norfolk is making a loss and if it were not for IACS, the farmers would face a disaster on the same scale as those farmers in the livestock breeding and rearing areas.

Mr. Robathan

Will my hon. Friend confirm that not all his local farmers have yet received their IACS payments because of inefficiency and industrial action in the Department? That delay could be critical for a farmer on the cusp of bankruptcy.

Mr. Bellingham

That is absolutely right. People assume that all farmers in places such as Norfolk, Suffolk, Lincolnshire and Leicestershire farm 500 or 600 acres, but they do not. Many smallholders in those counties struggle to make a living, possibly after losing the other job that they used to do in addition to working the smallholding.

As I said, there is a silver lining. The countryside stewardship scheme and other agri-environmental schemes have meant that many farmers receive other incomes. Charles Barratt, a prominent Norfolk business man and stockbroker, recently expressed in his newsletter his gratitude that the country stewardship scheme existed. He was right to do so, as the countryside is changing. The trend to ever more intensive farming has been reversed, and the days of prairie farming are over. More emphasis is now placed on habitat, conservation and biodiversity.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey made a good point when he said that more and more farmers recognise that what is good for the environment is often also good for business. The overwhelming majority of farmers now look for every opportunity to encourage the wildlife on their farms.

I hope that the Minister will recognise the crucial importance of country sports, for example. He goes on about the need to protect jobs in the countryside, but he is part of the campaign to destroy those jobs. That goes down badly with farmers in my constituency.

Travelling around Norfolk, one is struck by the number of tubular tree guards in hedges, which show that new hedges are being laid. One also sees increased conservation headland. Last Friday, I went on an ecological walk around John Alexander's Westwick estate, and every field had a 20-metre headland. I also noticed that a number of rough field corners had recently been moved out of cultivation.

That is typical of many East Anglian farms. The landscape is being transformed by dedicated and committed farmers, in a climate of extreme economic pressure. They are acting partly in response to the incentives that have been put in place, but also out of their love for the countryside.

That is the context into which the regulations that we are discussing are being introduced. They will bring in environmental impact assessment procedures for projects to convert uncultivated land, or semi-natural land areas, to intensive agriculture. The Department's guidelines make clear the type of land that will be affected.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey noted, the regulations were published on 18 January, but they come into force tomorrow. No wonder, therefore, that there is so little awareness of what is going on.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey also said that a number of organisations have voiced considerable concern about the regulations. The Council for the Protection of Rural England supported the regulations, and even said that they did not go far enough. However, the council did not produce a briefing paper. In contrast, a number of other organisations have produced excellent briefing papers, and I have also been contacted by a number of farmers in my constituency who are concerned. Farmers involved in the countryside stewardship scheme or others like it, or those who meet the set-aside obligations, are very worried indeed.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey pointed out, the 25 to 30 per cent, rye grass guideline test is of crucial importance. The measure means that land will be considered uncultivated if it has less than the threshold 25 to 30 per cent, of rye grass—or of white clover, or of other sown grass species indicative of cultivation.

The National Farmers Union has stated clearly that the species of grass used by most farmers to ensure that they meet the requirements of the countryside stewardship scheme are such that, just three months after planting, land will be caught by the 25 to 30 per cent, rye grass guideline. I hope that the Minister will comment on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey made a good point when he said that farmers entering into the countryside stewardship scheme did so on a promise and a contract that made it very clear that new restrictions would not be imposed at the end of the agreement term. I hope that the Minister will be able to give some hint of comfort in that regard.

I hope too that the Minister will accept that there should be no disincentive for farmers to enter the countryside stewardship scheme, which everyone agrees is excellent. It would be a great pity if farmers were discouraged from joining it, for the reasons that I have given.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey also spoke about the possible reduction in land values. Everyone knows that the value of farm land is now unrelated and disconnected from its underlying productive capacity. My hon. Friend mentioned the possibility that land values could be reduced by as much as £500 per acre. If he is correct, I hope that the Minister will comment.

I hope that the Minister will also say something about the need for compensation for farmers affected by the measure. Will there be a compensation package of any sort? What is the Government's attitude to farmers who manifestly will be out of pocket as a result of the regulations?

The Country Land and Business Association, among other organisations, is seeking formal assurances from the Government on the definition of semi-improved land. It is also concerned whether IACS-registered set-aside can be excluded on the basis that it is clearly neither uncultivated nor semi-natural. I hope that the Minister will comment on that point.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) asked a moment ago, can DEFRA cope with the burdens of the new regulations? I very much doubt it, because many farmers in my constituency have complained bitterly to me that the IACS payments are well behind. They ring up Cambridge, talk to sympathetic people on the telephone and are told that the payment will arrive soon. I hope that the Minister understands that this money is crucial to cash flow. It is crucial, in many cases, to farmers being able to employ the few remaining staff they have left on their farms, if they employ anyone at all.

I hope that the Minister will also consider whether it is really necessary to have criminal penalties, with farmers breaching the regulations committing a criminal offence. I agree that there must be penalties but should we really give farmers a criminal record and fine them heavily in the criminal courts over a matter that I believe should be in the civil court domain?

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) will be concerned about orchards. In the north-western part of my constituency, there are a number of growers of hard and soft fruits in the marshland area. The environmental impact assessment regime could prevent the grubbing up and replanting of redundant orchards. That would be a disaster. It would devalue the land and do the reverse of what the Minister has said on a number of occasions that he wants.

The Minister has been down to my constituency. He came in 1998, looked around various orchards and went round a number of glasshouse complexes in the marshland. He came down to my constituency last Friday as well, but unfortunately did not tell me that he was coming. If he had told me, I would have made sure that we went round an orchard and met a number of small farmers in the marshland part of my constituency. However, perhaps he can make up for it by coming again in the future.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire)

Take him foxhunting.

Mr. Bellingham

I certainly will. It would be good for him to see what happens on a foxhunt, because I doubt whether he has ever been on one.

In his concise and excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey said that farmers are demoralised and confused. Most are doing their level best to cope in extremely difficult circumstances. He was right to quote from the Curry report, which, on page 72, says: We recommend that Government develop and publish a strategy for implementing forthcoming environmental Directives. If only they had a strategy for this particular directive. The report continues: Besides describing how progress on meeting each Directive's environmental objectives is to be achieved, monitored and reported on, the strategy should include a regulatory impact assessment based on cost-benefit analysis covering the impact on farms. That is very well said.

Of course the industry will go along with these regulations. However, it is crucial that they receive the assurances for which we have asked.

4.58 pm
Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

This is an important debate in terms not just of the regulations before us but of the wider debate about the nature and purpose of the countryside. That debate has permeated the Chamber this evening.

There has been some talk about how the regulations will affect land values. I am firmly on the side of the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) in believing that the NFU's assessment may be exaggerated. Like him, I think that there may be effects on particular farms, but in general I do not think that there will be any effect on land values.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth

The figure may be exaggerated or it may not be. I was asking the Minister to make sure that he had formed a clear impression of the likely or possible impact on land values, given that they underpin so much in rural England.

Paddy Tipping

The Minister will speak for himself, but I see no evidence of agricultural land values falling. I accept that farming is in crisis and that farm incomes are very low, but I see no sign that land values will fall. I am certainly of the view that the regulations will have no effect whatsoever, except in the smallest case.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) spoke properly and wisely about adding value to the countryside, which is what I want to discuss. The real lesson to be drawn from the foot and mouth crisis is its effect on visitors to the countryside. When the footpath network was closed and people no longer visited the countryside, the rural economy was in crisis. Farmers who are concerned about the regulations—they have a right to be—should be concerned about the need to add value to the countryside so as to create a backdrop that people will wish to visit. In principle, it must be right that we should conserve high-value landscapes. We should build on work that hon. Members have done to safeguard hedgerows, look after stone walls and ensure that land that is uncultivated and has high value is maintained. We may argue about the scale, but in principle that must be the right thing to do.

I have two questions for the Minister. First, the principle of the regulations as they stand is right, but there is a lack of clarity. It would be helpful for people who have concerns if what is meant by the high-value land that is specified and which lies behind the regulations is spelled out more clearly.

Secondly, conservation bodies have a view about how they are to be consulted. The prime interest is the landowner, but other bodies will wish to be consulted. The regulations are clear. The Countryside Agency and the Environment Agency, for example, are to be consulted, but other bodies such as the wildlife trusts and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which have already been mentioned, have enormous significance and can contribute to the debate. Those organisations have been consulted about the preparation of the regulations, but will they be consulted as a matter of course when applications are made?

We should study the regulations carefully and get the balance right—the balance to create a living and changing countryside. The countryside does not stand still; it will always be changing. The farmer and the landowner are the major stakeholders, but they know that their livelihoods and interests depend on a countryside where the landscape is lifted and the environment enhanced. If properly applied, the regulations can help them. That is why I welcome the commitment that the regulations will be reviewed in 18 months.

It is important that we get right the balance between the people who live and work in the countryside and those who want to visit it and who bring wealth and prosperity to the area. One aspect of this debate that has concerned me is the persistent and misguided argument of those who try to set urban and rural interests against each other. That argument will lead to destruction and pain. A sensible way forward is to see and work for a balanced approach, which adds value to both parties.

5.4 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

I have an interest, in that I became a farmer last year—as declared in the Register of Members' Interests. I was one of the people referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). I was extremely surprised; I had no idea that the environmental impact assessment regulations would be introduced this year until I heard about today's debate.

I use my farm as an example to illustrate the problems of other people because I am fortunate—I do not rely on farm income for my livelihood. Fortunately, the good burghers of Blaby keep voting for me to come to this place. I hope that they continue so to do. I want to farm my land in an environmentally friendly way that conserves and encourages wildlife and birdlife.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey spoke well, and I agreed with him. He and I go back a long way on this issue and have had many discussions about it in the past. I remind the House that he was an instigator of the Hedgerows Bill in 1993. It was not successful but became the basis for further measures. He has an honourable record on wildlife and countryside conservation.

When I was younger, I used to be outraged by the destruction that some farmers wrought on the countryside. They ripped out hedges wholesale. Many of us have seen how the landscape was changed by the work of farmers, but that is in the past.

Mr. Wiggin

Having seen the way the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food handled the foot and mouth crisis, does my hon. Friend agree that farmers plough up moorland and hillside because they are so frightened about the way that they will be treated? It may offer them their only route of escape.

Mr. Robathan

I agree with my hon. Friend. Unfortunately, the regulations point to that result. Farmers feel harassed by their own Department. The fact that it is called DEFRA rather than MAFF makes things seem even worse. Many people call it the Department for the End of Farming and Rural Activity.

I used to be outraged by the activities of farmers, but actually most farmers are just trying to make a living. There should be education and incentive, not over-regulation. My father-in-law was a farmer and my brother-in-law is a farmer and I know many farmers in my constituency. They are not all grain barons, riding about in Range Rovers; many of them are ordinary people who like working on the land. They are using their best endeavours to try to work the land, but they are under huge pressures to make a living—as I said earlier in an intervention on the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce). When they are going bankrupt, no one could expect them to do anything but maximise the potential of their land.

The regulations in this European directive bring a wry smile to my face because they amount to gold-plating. I do not think that the directive was intended to have that effect—although one might say that it is getting into the nooks and crannies of everyday life. The regulations are gold-plating that will make life more difficult for farmers.

The point that I want to home in on is the countryside stewardship scheme, which was mentioned by two of my hon. Friends. I want to pursue that scheme because I want to make my land more environmentally friendly. As the Minister knows, a large number of farmers throughout the country are also adopting the scheme, because almost all farmers appreciate wildlife. They appreciate hedges. They like to see the land farmed in an environmentally friendly way, but they have to make a living. The countryside stewardship scheme has allowed them to do that, and to reverse some of the destruction that has taken place in the past.

I want to pursue the scheme—as do many farmers— but I have been put on the back foot: I am concerned that if I take up the scheme, I shall end up tying my hands and the hands of farmers who farm my land in the future. The regulations mean that DEFRA will be able to interfere when anyone wants to make further changes on their land. That is a real concern.

Will the Minister tell us whether he believes that the regulations will discourage people from taking up the countryside stewardship scheme? I fear that they may. If so, what mitigation will he offer to encourage what has been a most successful scheme?

Overall, the great concern is that this further regulation will interfere with the livelihoods of people who are already on the cusp of bankruptcy. The industry is in real crisis. We are talking about ordinary people who work all the hours that God gave. I have seen the man who was ploughing my land working at 10 o'clock at night with headlights on. I, too, work at 10 o'clock at night, but not nearly as hard as a farmer does. These people work all the hours that God gave to make a livelihood, yet we are making their lives even more difficult.

I applaud the desire in Brussels and in London for greater environmental aspects to our farming. I applaud the desire for greater conservation, and greater help for wildlife in the countryside. I do not, however, want to see greater interference, and what worries me about the regulations is that they represent further interference that will—

Mr. Wiggin

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, particularly as he had not finished his sentence. I want to ask him a question about the compliance cost of this new environmental impact assessment. If we continue to farm land that is currently being cultivated, and which would otherwise have been set aside or used for other environmentally friendly purposes, we shall be putting more food into a market that is perhaps incapable of absorbing it, thus forcing prices down even further. Farmers would do that, however, because they would be frightened of getting hit by an environmental statement, which the Secretary of State estimates will cost between £2,000 and £3,000 to prepare. Would my hon. Friend care to comment on that?

Mr. Robathan

That is a rather big issue, and I do not want to go too far down the line with it at the moment. I agree with my hon. Friend entirely, though, because that is what this is all about. Farmers want to farm; that is why they go into farming. They want to get out there and work the land and work with their animals; they do not want to deal with regulations, which always take time. More and more regulations will take more and more time. A common complaint from farmers is that they are submerged in paperwork, and unable to get out and do the fanning. Candidly, many of them were not brought up in a world of form filling, and they find it very tiresome. I find it frightening when my hon. Friend talks about costs of £2,000 or £3,000.

I am sure that the Minister will say that the regulations will not put a burden on farmers. I have not read his speech, but I can guess that that is what he will say. I would just draw his attention to paragraph 6, which sums up my argument: No person shall begin or carry out a relevant project"— that covers just about any improvement to the land— without first obtaining consent from the Secretary of State. That is a fairly burdensome requirement.

5.12 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley)

I welcome the broad consensus that the regulations have benefits in relation to good agricultural practice and to the protection of our habitats. I understand the points that have been made by the hon. Members for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce), for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), and for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), and by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), and I shall try to address them.

The regulations were introduced in 1985, and amended by directive 97/62/EC. Equivalent regulations are being made in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The hon. Member for East Surrey asked about the scale of the problem, and why the measures were introduced. The countryside survey produced by the Countryside Agency estimated that acid grassland has been reduced by 10 per cent in the last 10 years, and that calciferous grassland— which is very species-rich—has been reduced by 18 per cent. It also estimated that about 10,000 hectares of land that might fall into that category are lost annually. A significant amount of damage is, therefore, being done.

The Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, whose membership included Conservative Members, produced a unanimous report which pressed DEFRA—or MAFF, as it then was—to introduce these regulations as soon as possible, because of the impact of ploughing up downland and river valley land, and because of the problem of run-off and soil erosion, and the effect that that had on flooding. Indeed, in my travels following the floods of 2000 I visited people whose homes had been swamped with mud run-off from ploughed downland that had for a long time been grassland. Turning it into downland was probably not the most appropriate use for it. There are therefore very good reasons for measures such as these.

I am pleased that hon. Members recognise that the language in the guidelines is non-confrontational. The talk is of co-operation and the aim is to make the measure work. I am pleased also that the hon. Member for Gordon and my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood recognise that within 18 months there will be a formal review of the way in which the regulations are working. The idea is to take up the points that have been raised and to ensure that the measures have bedded down. We need to learn from the experience of operating environmental impact assessments whether there is a need to change or fine-tune the regulations. We are trying to be proportionate and co-operative.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth

The fact that the regulations will be reviewed is most welcome. The Minister says that there are good reasons for introducing them. It is impossible to resist the temptation to ask why, if that is the case, he has waited to be threatened with infraction procedures by the European Union before doing so.

Mr. Morley

From my days in the old Ministry of Agriculture, I have asked for the regulations to be introduced. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there has been a great deal to do, and I point out that there has been over a year of consultation on the measure, and rightly so. It makes a big change; it is complex, and I make no apologies for the length of the consultation.

I am a little surprised at the hon. Gentleman's point, bearing in mind the fact that the measure appeared in 1985, and there was no sign of it being introduced until we began to make progress. He is right to say that there is a threat of infraction procedures, and we cannot ignore that, but I believe that the measure has an important role to play. It is important that we get it right, that it is proportionate and that we take on board the points that have been made about bureaucracy. We have been trying to do that in the consultation process.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

Will the Minister give an undertaking—I ask not so much as a constituency MP but as the secretary of the parliamentary fruit group—that as part of the review in 18 months' time he will consider horticulture in particular? Many fruit farmers in my constituency and elsewhere produce their trees over a 16 or 17-year economic period and they are very worried about the effects of the regulations.

Mr. Morley

I have not forgotten the point about orchards—I have here a note about it—and I assure the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that I shall come to it.

The directive requires an environmental assessment to be carried out on projects that are likely to have significant environmental effects. Guidelines have been sent to all farms, and more detailed guidelines are available to all farmers. That information can be found on our website, to which I hope more and more farmers have access. Agriculture projects are the sole subject of the regulations, and other parts of the EIA directive have already been implemented. Town and country planning legislation deals with projects requiring planning permission, and other measures deal with specific matters such as forestry.

We announced in the rural White Paper our intention to consult on implementation of the uncultivated land provisions of the EIA directive. As hon. Members have made clear, there is a strong general wish for farming to be environmentally responsible; indeed, our countryside stewardship schemes have been very popular and are over-subscribed. That desire to be environmentally responsible is reflected in the five-point plan for wildlife-friendly farming drawn up by the NFU and English Nature, and I pay tribute to that. The statute that we are debating forms part of a wide spectrum of measures—voluntary or enforced through regulation where necessary—to ensure a sustainable future for our countryside and our farming industry.

As I said, we have consulted widely on these measures: first on the options for implementation and then on the draft regulations and guidelines. We have been concerned throughout the process to find ways of accommodating and reconciling the need for proper environmental safeguards and the need to avoid excessive regulation and cost for farmers. We are very grateful to the statutory agencies and other organisations for their invaluable help in framing the new procedures.

In the guidelines, we emphasise in particular the Department's intention to apply the measures in co-operation with farmers, wherever possible. If problems arise in implementing the EIA regulations when the farmer is considering changing the use of the land, we will discuss the issue. It is part of the procedures and guidelines that the farmers or landowners can contact our regional offices, and we will work with them to try to find a solution and give them whatever guidance we possibly can.

I was asked whether we would be flexible in applying the guidelines and in the exact contents of the environmental statements, and I can certainly give that assurance. We will be flexible, especially in the bedding-down period when people have to get used to things. I repeat that the statements will be required only for projects that are likely to have significant environmental effects. We will use the full flexibility permitted under the directive in line with our principles of reasonable and fair legislation, so I give that assurance.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

The Minister will know that one of the points that is always made about such regulations is that there is not a level playing field. Can the Minister assure us that no significant change will be dealt with under these regulations that will not be covered by equivalent regulations on the continent? Are we covering any changes that they are not?

Mr. Morley

I made a point of finding out what other countries are doing in relation to these regulations, because it is important that we examine how they are being applied elsewhere. The problem is that various countries have different regulations in the first place, so they are not strictly comparable. For example, in many European countries, farming comes within the planning guidelines. In our country, of course, many farming activities are exempt from the planning guidelines. In many countries, these regulations are applied through the planning process, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is somewhat more onerous and restrictive than the way in which we propose to apply these regulations. It is not right to think that other countries are much more lax about these regulations and do not apply them.

I was asked about the thresholds. We consulted on them in some detail and, in the end, we did not think that specific thresholds would be appropriate because even small projects in certain situations can have significant effects. That point was made by the hon. Member for Gordon. Small areas can have significant biodiversity importance, and damaging small areas has a cumulative effect. That is why we think that we should have a threshold, but I hope that our procedures will be quick in dealing with small areas, so that farmers and landowners will not find them onerous.

We have clearly stated that the guidelines for routine farming, such as maintenance of drainage works and watercourses, are not subject to the EIA procedures.

Orchards may be subject to the EIA regulations if they contain old grassland that has not been ploughed for many years. We are thinking of ancient orchards, not modern orchards, in which intensively managed trees generally need to be replanted. They would normally not come within the scope of the EIA regulations, but there are some important orchards that have not been ploughed and contain very old trees, and they are often not commercial.

Indeed, the orchards that I saw in Norfolk had been entered into our stewardship scheme because of their biodiversity value. That is an option for their owners. In other parts of the country, I have seen commercial orchards where organic apples were grown for Bulmers. Those apples received a premium and the orchards were also in our stewardship scheme. There are options for such orchards, but they are the exception in modern fruit management, rather than the norm.

Hugh Robertson

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Morley

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me; I really must get on because I want to deal with a range of issues. I will happily answer any question that he may have if he writes to me.

Concern has been expressed about the agri-environment schemes. I understand that issue, but there is no evidence to show that it is putting people off those schemes. We will keep those schemes and the effect that they may have on other schemes under careful review. We are committing ourselves to a major review of the schemes in the light of the recommendation by the commission on farming and food that we should consider restructuring the way in which agri-environment schemes are applied. There is a great deal of sense in that recommendation and, although the construction of such schemes will be challenging, I am more than willing to address seriously the commission's recommendation.

We also intend to renew schemes for those who have entered into countryside stewardship schemes, and who may now be worried that, because of the regulations, we will not be interested in renewing the scheme. That is not our intention. We intend there to be a long-term investment in the countryside, and a long-term partnership with landowners and farmers. We will, of course, renew such schemes.

We cannot give a general undertaking to disregard the environmental impact assessment procedures if land is taken out of an agri-environment scheme. First, some of the land may have fallen within the scope of the EIA whether it was in the scheme or not. Secondly, there may have been a great deal of public investment to help to create environmental enhancements. It is not unreasonable that an assessment should be carried out when changes are proposed for the management of that land.

On set-aside, I can confirm that the directive does not define key terms such as "uncultivated". We do not intend to include generally within the scope of the EIA directive land that has been set aside for a period from arable cropping. I wanted to give that reassurance.

In relation to appeal procedures, we want to be flexible about the type of procedure to be used in each case. The appellant will always have the right to be heard at a hearing or a local inquiry, and the Secretary of State's powers to determine an appeal can be delegated to an independent appointed person. That is provided for in the regulations. We believe that the provisions are fair, and, as with all aspects of the regime, they will be reviewed to see how they operate in practice. I expect the delegated procedure to be used in many cases in reference to an independent person.

On awareness of the new procedures, I mentioned that we have sent an explanatory leaflet to all registered agricultural holdings in England and more detailed guidelines are freely available. A dedicated helpline is operating for telephone inquiries.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth

I seek clarification from the Minister. I think I heard him say that an appeal could be heard by an independently appointed person. However, page 13 of the guidance says: The Secretary of State may personally decide your appeal, or appoint someone to decide it on his or her behalf". Surely, if that person is appointed by the Secretary of State, they are not independently appointed.

Mr. Morley

The hon. Gentleman will find that that is the terminology. Those who decide appeals, throughout the range of appeals within DEFRA, are all appointed by the Secretary of State in that respect. However, the bodies are independent, and the appeal would be independent and accountable to the Secretary of State. The hon. Gentleman need not get too concerned about that—the appeal would be heard properly and professionally, and I do not see a problem with that. However, to return to the point, a review will take place in 18 months, and if people are not satisfied with the appeals procedure, and they feel that it needs to be changed, we shall consider that.

Some of the arguments are reminiscent of those used in relation to the Hedgerows Bill which the hon. Gentleman promoted. As he will know, I dealt with that Bill as an Opposition Member, and I fully supported it. It is a case of, "Now the regulations are in, they are nowhere near as difficult as people thought they were going to be." Farmers and landowners have learned to operate within the rules, and the rules have been made as flexible and realistic as possible to achieve the balance that people have talked about.

On land prices, my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood is right. There is no sign that land prices have fallen; indeed, the opposite is the case. Some fanning organisations have speculated that the measures that we are considering might devalue land. However, I do not believe that, because we are now entering a new era in which production subsidies will inevitably be scaled down. We cannot say for how long the arable area payments will exist. Much of the value of land is underpinned by such things as its IACS—integrated administration and control—value, for example. As those subsidies are scaled down, more and more money will go into agri-environment schemes; more environmental schemes will be available. Thus, we have land which in the long term will devalue in the sense of the subsidies that it attracts, and land which under countryside stewardship schemes will maintain its value by attracting maintenance and support payments. I believe—I speak personally rather than on any analysis—that the long-term value of land that has environmental value will be higher than that currently underpinned by subsidies, which is unsustainable. Although we shall have to see, I do not believe that the measures will have a long-term effect on the value of land.

The introduction of the regulations for uncultivated land and semi-natural areas plays a vital part in the agenda for sustainable development, which is very much at the heart of the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We attach central importance to it and I believe that the approach commands wide public support. I appreciate that just about everyone who has spoken in the debate supports the principles of the regulations, although not unreasonably has questions about the details. I believe that we can resolve the issues that have been raised reasonably and proportionately, and make the regulations work with the minimum of inconvenience to farmers and landowners.

In the end, the regulations will enhance the value of our countryside and the protection of important habitats, and be of value and assistance to those who are the guardians of the countryside—those who work the land and who I am sure share our desire to ensure that it is managed in a proper, sustainable way for future generations. The measure will protect the value of the landscape and the biodiversity of our countryside.

5.32 pm
Mr. Peter Ainsworth

This has been an extremely useful and helpful debate. Hon. Members have raised a number of points that are important to those on whom the regulations will bear. The Minister's concluding remarks will be read with great care by people who manage the land and by environmentalists. One lesson that we are all learning is that the interests of those two sets of people are becoming more and more intertwined. I sincerely hope that the regulations will help to advance that process and not stand in its way.

I am delighted that the regulations will be reviewed so thoroughly after 18 months. I thank my hon. Friends who have taken part in the debate, which has been a constructive afternoon's work. I am grateful to the Minister for the several assurances that he has given.

Mr. Morley

As I did not answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, I want to take the opportunity to emphasise that the review will of course be open to all interested parties, including conservation organisations and the Wildlife Trust, as well of course as farming and landowners organisations.

Mr. Ainsworth

The Minister has more velvet gloves in his pocket than I originally imagined.

Question put and negatived.

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