HL Deb 16 February 1971 vol 315 cc536-79

5.43 p.m.

VISCOUNT INGLEBY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will reconsider their decision to abolish the Northern Pennines Rural Development Board. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, my qualification for talking to your Lordships tonight is that I look after 20 hill farms on the North Yorkshire moors. These are not actually in the area of the Rural Development Board, but the problems we face there are very similar.

I should like to start by reading a few words spoken by Mr. G. Wilson, a hill farmer at a conference that we had at Harrogate last October, called The Changing Uplands, arranged jointly by the Rural Development Board and the Country Landowners' Association. Mr. Wilson is a farmer who farms at Glencoyne, near Ullswater. He told the conference: Throughout the hill areas there is concern over falling returns. Prices for lambs and for wool are now less than they were ten years ago, although costs of production have soared. Few hill farmers … can feed their stock on, and benefit, from the higher prices ruling in fatstock markets… On the smaller farms with only about 400 ewes and 15 cows the scope for ploughing some profit back into the farm has virtually disappeared and the outlook for the future is grim indeed. It seems impossible to keep costs down. … Somehow or other a way must be found to make hill farming—particularly hill sheep farming pay. Otherwise the whole future of our upland areas is at stake.

It has been estimated by Mr. Cowen, the Chairman of the Board, that the average income from farming of a hill farmer in his area is £500 a year. That is considerably less than the basic agricultural wage, which is now something over £700 a year. It has also been estimated that, of this net income, 50 per cent. derives from grants and subsidies—the most important of these being, of course, the hill sheep subsidy, the hill cow subsidy and the beef cow subsidy. If we go into the Common Market these are at risk; and if these were taken away and not replaced we might be facing depopulation of the hills on the scale that we had in Scotland a hundred years ago.

Who can help in this situation? Obviously the hill farmers themselves. They are very sturdy and independent, and they will do what they can; but their financial resources are limited. The Forestry Commission do not really aim to help in this kind of way. The big estates may do what they can, but there are not a great many of them now. So it really falls to the Government to help. The Rural Development Board were set up to help in this way, and I should like to talk for a few moments about the ways in which the Board have already been able to help. They have been able to give grants to farmers and foresters who want to provide facilities for visitors. There is an ever-increasing stream of visitors to the hill areas, and if a farmer or forester wishes to provide facilities for them—for example, by converting his farmhouse so as to provide sleeping accommodation, catering accommodation, heating, recreational or lavatory facilities—he can obtain a grant of up to 50 per cent. from the Rural Development Board. It might not be a bad idea if people travelling up the M.6 turned right instead of left, which would take a hit of the pressure off the Lake District.

The Board also have power to give grants to farmers and foresters to help with the installation of telephones, electricity, water or roads where grants from other sources are not available. One particular farmer was asked for £350 to get a telephone put in, and the Board were able to help by providing half the difference between this and the normal cost of £20. Then the Board have also been able to help rural bus services. We all know the threats that the bus companies are making at this time: that if the services are not subsidised they will be withdrawn. As your Lordships know, under the 1958 Transport Act local authorities are allowed to subsidise bus services only where the income is equivalent to not less than 50 per cent. of the cost. The Board have been able to help in several cases by bringing the figure up to this amount. They have in fact helped services in Swaledale, Weardale, Kielder and Kirkby Stephen.

On forestry, the Board have a strict power of control. Any planting of over 10 acres must have their consent, and the Board have made what is I think the first attempt to have a really co-ordiaated policy to integrate the interests of the hill farmer and the forester, the visitor and the viewer. They have realised that they are embarking on a new field here, and have tried to act as a forum for discussion among everybody who is interested in the problem of life in the hills. This has been one of their major contributions.

This, I suggest, adds up to a worthwhile experiment in trying to solve or to find some of the answers to the problems of life in the hills, and this was how the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, described the Board on July 16 last: My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has said in another place, we intend to continue the Northern Pennines Rural Development Board, which I understand has widespread local support and which we regard as a worthwhile experiment in finding solutions to the problems of the hill areas."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16/7/70; col. 729.] Six months later, on January 18 of this year, we have only 23 words in the White Paper, Proposed Changes in the Work of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food: The Northern Pennines Rural Development Board cannot be justified under the Government's philosophy and the experiment of the Board will therefore be terminated.

What one imagines the Government do not like is the Board's control over land transfers. Just to set the facts straight on this point, I may say that the Board have given consent in 493 cases, refused consent in one case, and in 233 cases—nearly half the total—have been able to use their powers to encourage sensible amalgamations of farmland. But if the Government do not like this power, why not scrap it?—scrap the power, not the Board. Why throw out the baby with the bath water? It may be said that an Amendment to the Agriculture Act would be necessary to carry this out, but could not the Board just go on rubber stamping applications in the same way as they are rubber stamping them now, until such time as an Amendment could be passed to the Agriculture Act? The baby is only 15 months old, and I hope your Lordships will agree that it is coming along quite nicely. The Board consist of eleven members, nine of whom are closely connected with the land, seven of them being actual farmers, and during the 15 months of the Board's existence their staff have built up a useful knowledge and experience of the problems of the hills. I mentioned the grants earlier. So far as they are concerned, the Board have spent £13,261 in the eight months from June to February 1. They could not start earlier than June because the grants were not agreed with the Treasury until that date. The Board expect that in the normal way these would have built up to about 50,000 a year.

The reactions to the Minister's announcement have been widespread and justify what the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, said last July, that the Board have widespread support. All the six branches of the National Farmers' Union who are concerned in the Board's area—that is to say, in Northumberland, Durham, the North and West Riding of Yorkshire, Cumberland and Westmorland—have come out strongly against the abolition of the Board. The National Farmers' Union Hill Farming Advisory Committee are entirely opposed to it, and Mr. Henry Plumb, the President, called it a tragedy. Here you have a body of men who, for the first time, are really trying to find an all-round answer to the problems of life in the hills. They were getting together their ideas and making use of other people's ideas; they had been given sufficient money to carry out their task, and I suggest that the hills need a policy of their own. If this experiment was allowed to continue it might well have acted as a pilot for the other hill areas of this country. I would appeal to the Government: do not strangle this baby after 15 months. Change its diet if you will, but do not strangle it. Let it stay alive, for it may grow into something worth while and permanent. My Lords, I ask you to support me in asking the Government to reconsider their decision on this matter.

5.55 p.m.


My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to follow the noble Viscount because I agree, with a good deal of passion, with everything he has said, but he has said it so well and so fully that I think it will enable those of us taking part in this debate to be very short. I am not a great believer in consensus politics; I always feel that noble Lords opposite would probably dislike being confused with me as much as I should dislike being confused with them. I have also advocated that agriculture should be a bipartisan topic. This evening I feel that, as somebody sitting on these Benches, I cannot entirely eschew Party criticism. It makes one very unhappy to see any action which is clearly the result of pure, unadulterated Party dogma.

The noble Viscount has dealt with the details of the Pennine Board itself. I should like to look at the whole question of rural development boards, standing back a little, and I would deal with them more as a whole. The Ministry of Agriculture, for the whole of the past half century and quite irrespective of the political colour of its Ministers, has been worried by the problem of the country's hill farms. Of Britain's 45 million acres, 14 million are hill land, and of these just over 2 million are enclosed and cultivated, the rest being rough grazing. It is impossible to make a living on such land without having very large holdings indeed, larger than are available to ordinary mortals, though some noble Lords opposite from the far North have, and make good use of, estates of a viable size: and there are no complaints about that. But in general with the size of holding which exists at the moment, particularly in the West and the North—though rather less in Scotland—it is not practicable for a man to make a living. As the noble Viscount said, the hill farmers now are earning less than the agricultural worker.

The one valuable contribution the hills can make, the raising of sheep, becomes less profitable as lowland sheep become less profitable, as they have recently. I suppose that ten years ago you could live on 500 ewes; to-day the necessary number is nearer 1,000. There are very few farmers in Wales or the Pennines, in the hills, who have a thousand ewes. Keeping store cattle is a help. The noble Viscount, referring to a farm, said that 15 cattle were a help; but anybody who has tried to live off 15 cattle knows how difficult it is, even if the cattle can live on one's land, which often they cannot. The truth is that the hill problem ditfers fundamentally from the lowland problem, and it has to be dealt with differently. It has been a headache for the past fifty years and has been steadily getting worse. Any sincere effort to deal with this problem must surely have everybody's encouragement.

It seems to me that all Governments, up to this one, have taken the view that the hills are part of our heritage and that we cannot let them drift into decay and depopulation, in spite of the fact that the lowlands could probably replace without undue strain all that is produced from the hill acres. Even so, we do not want to let them go. For the past 15 years spasmodic efforts have been made by financial grants of various kinds to make them viable as farms. By and large this has failed. In 1965 the then Minister of Agriculture, my right honourable friend Mr. Fred Peart, in a totally non-doctrinaire attempt to deal with this very intractable problem, made some suggestions in a White Paper called The Development of Agriculture. These were put into the form of law in the 1967 Act. The object was to set up rural development boards, first as pilot schemes, and later perhaps, if they worked, in all hill areas which seemed suitable, to assist in the amalgamation of smallholdings into larger holdings and in the co-ordination of forestry, agriculture and tourism, as the noble Viscount said. The first board, as he told us, started in 1969 but did not really begin doing much until early 1970. There was to have been one in Wales, but the Welsh farmers were so determined not to cooperate with the Forestry Commission, even under compulsion, and particularly under orders from England, that they killed it stone dead.

The truth is that co-ordination and balanced development cannot, and will not, just happen on their own. Small and often desperately worried farmers will find it difficult to co-operate effectively with large and impersonal bodies such as the Forestry Commission, and they will tend, in their poverty, to allow their land to be exploited by persons concerned with profit from recreation rather than with the values of amenity. The introduction of recreation, with its car parks, picnic sites and lavatories, into remote and beautiful areas cannot be left to the crude, working of supply and demand. Yet the additional income from letting farmhouse rooms and caravan sites is becoming increasingly crucial to these hill farmers; in fact, it is probably the only way the hills can remain farming at all.

Every year the need to protect the hills from spoliation has grown more acute, as recreational facilities grow and as forestry, perhaps not always of the right kind, comes in—although I do not want to say too much of that in front of my noble friend here. In spite of that, many of us thought that my right honourable friend Mr. Peart had hit on something which might deal with this problem. We were thrilled to see the first Board's start. We were interested to see the very strong Chairman, who has impressed everybody who has had anything to do with him. We have heard from the noble Viscount what the Board has done in its first ten months: it has been most impressive. The Board had established itself pretty well in the confidence of the people in the area—an area which covers the hills in six countries. Its relations with the Forestry Commission were excellent; and, as the noble Viscount said, I think, every N.F.U. committee in the area has protested against the Board's demise; every agricultural executive committee has done the same. The North-East Planning Economic Council has protested; the Northumberland Parks Committee has protested. There was a dispute over tree planting with the West Riding National Parks Planning Committee, and I have to admit that no regrets were expressed by that Committee over the demise. But it is about the only body that is not regretting the removal of this Board.

It seems to me that some Tories have an ineradicable dislike of compulsory purchase, and the fact that the Board had some powers of compulsory purchase may have influenced this decision. Yet they were extremely limited powers; they covered only two contingencies. First, if a plan for amalgamation and realignment of scattered holdings had been agreed in a certain area—say, on the outskirts of a village—and the people concerned, with the exception of one of two, were willing to go ahead, then, and only then, with the Minister's consent, the Board could acquire the land compulsorily. Secondly, land could not, under the Act, be bought or sold without the Board's consent. If this rule was breached and an unauthorised sale was made, the Board had the right, after a period of time, and subject to appeal, to annul the sale and exercise its compulsory powers.

The noble Viscount told us that there were 493 transactions which were put to this Board. They were all approved except one. And in the case of 230-odd (I think that was the figure he mentioned) the intervention of the Board produced a better deal than would have been obtained if it had not been there. The Board started certain work early last year, tentatively, because it waited until it had the confidence of the people—with country people one cannot go in front of their confidence, and it was very sensible about this. As the noble Viscount told us, the Board began to put right some of the things that were wrong. It began by giving grants towards the supply of telephones, electricity and water to farms and foresters. It gave grants for caravan sites, which had to be sited properly; for camp sites, which had to be sited properly; for farmhouse accommodation for tourists, and for bus services. The noble Viscount has pointed out the importance of these things. It seems to me that the Board has not nut a foot wrong. It began to do exactly what was needed to be done. It was admirably directed, and efficiently and economically managed.

To kill this Board stone dead can be only an act of doctrinaire faith that makes one very nervous for the future. The point of a pilot experiment is to pinpoint the difficulties and to alter conditions accordingly. As the noble Viscount said in his concluding remarks, if it had been considered, after some experience, that the Board's powers of compulsory purchase were objectionable, they could have been modified, or even abrogated. If it had been thought that the Board gave insufficient weight to, for example, amenity interests, then its weighting could have been altered. The composition of the Board could have been changed; its terms of reference could have been changed. But to suppress it altogether suggests, and I think in fact means, that the Government are so profoundly opposed to Government involvement that they would rather an area drifted into decay than that it should be redeemed by anything so odious as Government guidance.

My Lords, I have seen this happen once, and I do not want to see it happen again. Between the wars, under successive Tory Governments, the first great step in the ruin of England was taken. The speculative builder perpetrated his rashes of hideous and insecure buildings along every road out of every town in the land, free in the pursuit of quick returns, curbed by nobody. Since then there had, I thought and hoped, been a welcome change in the view of the Conservative Party towards land use and planning. But now there seems to be a new, Puritan element beginning to permeate the Party, and the abolition of this Board is in my opinion an instance of the sinister influence of that element at work.

Incidentally, it is worth noticing that the White Paper which brought in this sentence of death pays scant courtesy to the Common Market. We are to reduce our Advisory Service just when they are taking steps, under the Mansholt proposals, to increase theirs. We cut our appropriation to the co-operative movement just when they are paying more attention to theirs than ever before. And, in the context of this debate, they are elaborating the co-ordination of recreation, farming and forestry in their backward areas, through the Guidance and Guarantee Fund, when we dismantle the only machinery we have for doing anything about it. Meanwhile, the French, with their SAFERS (Societes d'Amenagement Foncier et d'Etablissements Rurals), have already in operation something uncannily like our rural development boards, which seem to be working very well.

My Lords, I care very much about the hill lands of this country. I have thought a lot about them and their problems, and I sincerely believe that the system of rural development boards might have gone some way to solving them. They approached the situation in a wise and sensible way, with a pilot scheme from which the necessary lessons could be learnt. The pilot scheme was under first-class management and was doing singularly well. Its wanton destruction, on grounds of Puritan doctrine, is perhaps the most depressing piece of disengagement the Government have done yet.

6.9 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, for asking this Question. In the first place, perhaps I should declare my own interest, in that I am an owner of hill land in the Board's area; I am also chairman of a county agriculture executive committee which is partly in the Board's area. I am grateful for the courtesy of being given the opportunity to speak before some other noble Lords. I have been abroad and have learnt of this Question only recently; I have a later engagement to-night and would wish to imply no discourtesy if I should have to leave the House before the debate is finished.

At the outset I could not share any enthusiasm for the creating of rural development boards. I felt that there would be a lack of understanding of the problems of people who live in hill farming areas and I did not find anything to commend the powers with regard to transfer of land. In the event, the Northern Pennine Rural Development Board started modestly, created good relationships with farmers and landowners and did a good job of public relations, using its powers carefully. A great deal of credit is due to the wisdom of the chairman, Mr. Cowen, and support for the Board has grown to a large extent because of the way in which the chairman and the Board have supported the hill farmers and understood their particular difficulties.

When it was announced that the Board was to go, the immediate reaction among hill farmers in Durham, the area which I know most about, was dismay. There is already a good deal of uncertainty in the minds of hill farmers. They do not know quite what will happen if we go into the European Community. They have looked upon the Board as something which has protected them, as a strong ally rather than something which might have persecuted them. The pressure from public authorities, water boards, county councils and also from private organisations who all have demands in hill areas is becoming much greater, and the Board seems to have given the right alliance between the owners and the farmers in the hills to deal with the other powers which are to some extent foreign to their normal operations. People who come into these areas are not always able to increase the economic development of the areas, nor perhaps is that the reason why they come there. The Board has shown itself increasingly interested in trying to overcome the economic difficulties of hill farmers.

My Lords, I regret, in a way, that I am not being very constructive; that I am praising the Board rather than offering an alternative. But if the objections to the Board which I have mentioned are too great, and if it is not possible to allow the Board to continue as it is, I still feel that something else must come in its place—something which will support the people who live and work in the hills. They live in this severe climate, far more severe than anyone perhaps realises, and under very considerable difficulties, and they need all the support that they possibly can get.

6.15 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, like the three noble Lords who have spoken from the Labour Bench, the Government Bench and the Cross Bench, regret the decision of the Government in this matter. There are one or two points which some of us previously felt could be improved upon. I think some noble Lords have felt from the very beginning that the powers which this new Rural Development Board was given overlapped with certain other commitments that other bodies had. That may well be so, but it is the sort of thing that in the course of an experiment could have been put right.


My Lords, will the noble Lord allow me? In dealing with these powers over land one ought not to exaggerate them. The Board have very little compulsory power at all, and certainly much less power than any local authority in this country.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord misunderstood what I was saying. I will touch upon compulsory powers in a moment. What I was saying was that there was with this particular Board an overlapping of responsibility. I know that this was the view of the Countryside Commission, for instance; they felt that the new rural development boards had been given powers which they themselves could exercise better. Nevertheless, that is a matter which could easily have been put right in the course of the experiment. All three of the noble Lords have said virtually the same: that the difficulties facing the hill areas are too great and too complex to be left entirely to the free play of market forces, and that the social and economic needs of people who live and work in the hills must be the subject of a managed state of affairs. As the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, said, they will not just happen on their own. From all sides of the agricultural industry and from county councils there has been agreement that this was a wise experiment.

The chief complaint that possibly people on the Government side had at the beginning of this experiment was that the Board had compulsory powers. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, that the powers the Board had were minimal compared with many of those of other people. Nevertheless, that was one of the criticisms that were made. My own view is that if you have a Board of this kind you must have some sort of ultimate sanction. As the noble Viscount pointed out, the amount of compulsion is of the ratio of 493 to 1. I do not think one can com- plain very seriously about that. Again, I should like to know what is the experience with regard to compulsion in the Highlands and Islands Development Board. How much compulsion have they had to exercise? I have a feeling that they have exercised none, but no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Denham, may know the answer to that question.

If the Government feel that they do not like any compulsory powers in relation to a Board of this kind, several courses are open to them. The noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, has suggested that the Board could go on merely rubber stamping for the time being until some other way is found of doing away with the compulsory powers. One might almost say that they are rubber stamping now, if it is of the order of 493 to 1; nevertheless, in the view of the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, the present Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in, as it were, his puritanical way, does not like the idea of rubber stamping. Then I should have thought that those powers could be abolished. As I said before, I should like to keep some sort of sanction, but I see no reason why those powers should not be abolished. It has been suggested, although not in this debate to-day, that there is no Parliamentary time to do that. I am rather surprised to hear that. I should have thought that if the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food were to ask his right honourable friend the Leader of the House of Commons, who is a well-known supporter of the principle of the rural development boards, the time could have been found.

Similarly, it has been suggested to me that under the Act which created the rural development boards it is possible merely to remove those powers. That, again, was rather surprising to me. It is amazing what Parliament can do, and I should have thought that a short Bill was all that was necessary. No doubt the noble Lord will tell me the answer to that question, too. It is also surprising that no Conservative Member voted against this proposal when it came forward 18 months ago. They all followed virtually the words of the noble Earl, Lord St. Aldwyn, of which the noble Viscount reminded us to-day, and I entirely agree with what he said. It is too short a time to abolish this Board. It makes a nonsense of any kind of Parliamentary arrangement, by one side or the other, if before it has really got off the ground it is abolished. I think it was an interesting experiment. It might well not have worked; it might have emerged that there were other ways of doing the job better. We would have known in a couple of years. But to throw it out when it has not done anything at all, except, as the noble Lord said, practically not put a foot wrong, seems to me to be foolish. What about the Highlands and Islands Board? Can we not look to them to see whether they are making a go of their not dissimilar problem?

I cannot help thinking that it is quite obvious to all of us here that something must be put in the place of the Rural Development Board. I admit that we are all rather annoyed that the Minister of Agriculture has shown no signs of what he proposes to put in its place. But I shall be surprised if he does not replace it with something, because something must be done; it cannot be left to itself. What about the staff who have been engaged to run a very difficult experimental operation? I should have thought that they would feel somewhat sour. Nevertheless, they will find their place in some sort of reconstituted board. At any rate, I hope so, because they must have gained some good experience already.

I think the mistake that the Government have made is to stress too much the negative side of this thing; that aspect of compulsory powers and transfer of land which they do not like. But I feel that there is so much emphasis on the positive side that the Government ought to have put. I do not want to go over the different aspects, because practically all have been mentioned by the noble Viscount—rural transport; tourist grants; the balance between agriculture and forestry, and the whole question of planning of land use and its role in National Parks—all those aspects which are not agriculture at all. Do not forget that agriculture is only part of this problem. Those are the sort of things I should have thought that the Government could have played up, rather than playing down the negative side.

I do not think I need say anything more, because virtually all these points have been made by noble Lords before me and I have no doubt that different aspects of them will be embroidered by speakers after me. But I agree with the noble Viscount that the Government ought to think about this again. In view of the kind of things that have been said by noble Lords concerned with the agricultural industry on the Government side of the House, I was amazed when they came out with this suggestion that the whole thing should be closed down. I feel it is a little discreditable in a way to close it down and re-open it under another name. If it is not too late, I would ask the Government to look again at the possibilities of keeping the experiment going, and, if they wish, to reduce some of the compulsory powers.

6.24 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to take a somewhat different view from noble Lords who have already spoken. I am consistent in taking this view, because I did in fact voice it during the earlier debates in this House; and it is worth remembering that the debates in this House greatly improved Part III of that particular Agriculture Bill, which I think was hardly debated at all in another place because those clauses came up at some hour in the early morning when Members were too tired to give them much attention. I have always thought it a mistake to represent rural development boards, as set out in Part III of the Act, as such a panacea as noble Lords have again represented this afternoon. That does not mean that I do not recognise the problem of the hills, because I have lived on the edge of the hills all my life and appreciate as much as any noble Lord here the difficulty of making farming snore intensive. I know how isolation offers little choice of occupation for those who live in the hills, and, furthermore, how that same isolation makes public services more expensive.

It really is not true for noble Lords to represent that nobody in the Ministry of Agriculture or in any other place has given real thought to this problem over a very long time. They may not have reached an easy and complete solution, but then it is very rare for any Government ever to produce complete solutions to any longstanding problems. A great deal of thought has been given over a very long time; and some of us who have perhaps taken part in such planning would agree that a small amending of much of the existing legislation—for example, the Forestry Acts, the provisions of the Price Review, many of the grant-giving powers of the Agriculture Acts, the recent Development of Tourism Act, together with a number of powers in the hands of county councils—could greatly change this picture, without the necessity of setting up an organisation which cuts right across a large number of existing authorities.

This is one of the arguments that I voiced against the rural development boards during the earlier debates, and I am going to repeat it briefly now, if I may. It is a mistake lightheartedly to set up new bodies of this kind with no local responsibilities; even if members live in the area, they are all appointed by a Minister of the Crown and receive varying emoluments for their services. They are given very wide powers which cut right across county boundaries and could cut right across National Park boundaries. They cut across the powers of the Ministry of Agriculture, and not least the advisory estate management services, which used to be called the Agricultural Land Service, but may now have a new name. They cut across the Forestry Commission's powers. The Forestry Commission has regional advisory committees as well as a central authority. And they cut across the provisions of the tourist authorities set up under the recent Act. I cannot believe that something as untidy as that can really be represented as good government.


My Lords, could I ask the noble Lord in what way the powers of the Board cut across the Forestry Commission's powers?


My Lords, the Forestry Commission is the forest authority in this country and has been since 1919, and it seems to me strange that a rural development board or any other body of this sort should in fact be given functions concerned with forestry which go beyond what the forestry authority has ever been given by Parliament.

All Governments, I think, are too ready to project themselves into the regions, and there are, of course, new opportunities for patronage here. Having said that, I am going to say that all the tributes paid to the chairman of the North Pennines Rural Development Board are very well deserved. A great deal of the credit which the Board has won for itself is due to him; he is as good an appointment as the late Governments' appointment for chairman of the Welsh Board was a bad one. I think noble Lords ought to bear all this in mind when they are considering the future of such matters.

We must beware, too, of what I would call package offers, which the central Government are always very adept at. That is to say, they put a lot of things together and include a little jam for the few, and then if you criticise too much or in fact oppose the whole scheme—which I think is the reason why there was not a Division on these clauses when this Part of the Agriculture Act was discussed—you are said to be a spoil sport. I do not look on these rural development boards as a great forward-looking experiment, or as a pilot scheme. The area is 3,000 square miles. If it were a quarter of that size I would agree that it could fairly be represented as a pilot scheme. It is no more a pilot scheme than the ground-nuts scheme, which we all knew so much about twenty years ago, was a pilot scheme. It was something launched on a full scale.

As for the support which is said to have been given, I think it is quite understandable that the National Farmers' Union should give support in various terms, not least since a number of their members, if not too many, were likely to gain something thereby, they being members living in parts of England where probably farming was under the gravest pressure. I think it is natural, too, that the C.L.A. should offer a certain measure of support in such circumstances.

With regard to the county councils, I know of a spokesman for one county council in the area who jumped in and offered the warmest welcome before the county council had ever expressed any view at all on it. I think there is divided opinion among members of the county councils, and certainly from the correspondence I have had recently on this particular subject I am sure it is fair to say that the feelings about the Rural Development Board are much more critical, and that the feeling that they are not the ideal answer to this problem is in fact growing stronger. Therefore, I would represent that the Government are right in not carrying forward this great experiment (as it has been called) but instead should themselves see how the existing powers in the hands of Government Departments and major organisations such as the Forestry Commission can be turned into something which meets the real need.

I am not worried about the control over certain transfers of land, or indeed the powers of compulsory purchase which have been referred to from the other side. I hope that, when the Government do come up with something else locally elected representation is brought more closely into their plan. Under the existing plan such people are entirely excluded.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask for a little explanation of a phrase which I did not very much like, about "jam". What was the meaning of that word? It is usually used in a very pejorative sense. I should like the noble Lord to make quite clear that he did not mean it in that sense. If by "jam" he meant that a certain number of hard-pressed farmers get some help, I would accept that; but I should like clarification.


My Lords, I was not being offensive about this at all. A small number of people are going to get some help, but a very large number of people will in fact not get any help. This seems to me to be the wrong way of achieving the objective, not least in the light of the experience of the Price Review and the grant-giving and other organisations with which we are familiar. If I used a word which, as I am afraid it did, confused the noble Lord, I can only say that I am sorry; I hope others understood.

6.34 p.m.


My Lords, I intervene modestly in this debate because I suppose I am one of the smallest landowners in the House. I have three acres in mid-Wales which I let to a sheep farmer for grazing a few sheep. I make no protestations of having first-hand knowledge of farming, but for some time I was in the Welsh Office as a Minister and I became all too familiar with the discussions which went on in Wales concerning the proposed rural development board there. I wish to say a word or two about that in a moment.

I was extremely sorry at the tone used by the noble Lord who has just sat down regarding the chairman of the proposed Welsh Rural Development Board. Some criticism may have been made that possibly the chairman was a little elderly for this particular job, but he stands very high indeed in Welsh farming circles, and of course is the greatest expert on Welsh cobs, which is important in our hill fanning areas. I think it is a great pity that the noble Lord should have used the expression which he did, in the way he did, about Dr. Phillips.

May I revert to the opening speech by the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby? I felt that he put with such moderation and yet with such persuasive skill, with such weight and intimate knowledge of the problem, the feelings which indeed are shared by so many of us. Had there been no problem, there would not have been this section of the 1967 Act. If we were all perfectly content and happy at the state of our hill farming areas, of the hill farmers and their families themselves and also of the other members of the community, then there would be no need for this experiment. But, surely, any of us who have any experience, whether as farmers or simply as residents in such areas, must know that we have not yet found satisfactory ways of meeting the balance between farming in difficult circumstances, forestry, tourism and the amenity interests, and such industrial development as we may be able to sustain in these areas.

There is this problem of balance, and one of the objectives of the proposed Rural Development Board in Wales and of the Board which was established in the North Pennines area, was to try to adjust the balance in a way most beneficial to the community as a whole. I cannot speak with any intimate knowledge of the North Pennines area, though I did inform myself from some of those who have been working directly with the Board as to their experience there. But so far as the area which was designated in Wales is concerned, I can say that over generations now we have had a continuing problem of low living standards and of depopulation. To some degree, we have managed to stem absolute depopulation in that area. But if one analyses the changes in the age structure of the population, one cannot help realising that it is an ageing population, and that one is still losing the younger and more vigorous element in the area, quite simply because they cannot find an adequate outlet for their talents; nor can their families on the hill farms accumulate sufficient capital to give them the kind of expectations which young people nowadays naturally pursue.

We were, therefore, trying to help on the questions of balance, of depopulation and, by no means least, the great work of the existing farmers who, as we know very well, are fanning on land which is poor. Inclement weather has already been mentioned. The part of Wales where I live is very wet, although perhaps not so cold as the North Pennines. But the holdings are small, and the configuration of the land, as well as being of small size, is such that there is a limit to the benefits which the farmers can obtain from intensive farming or from mechanisation. In any case, such smallholders cannot afford to carry the heavy burden of overheads or to have anything more than a limited amount of mechanisation.

We in Wales were deprived entirely of any benefit which such a scheme might have brought to the area that I have attempted to describe. There was pursued a political campaign of sustained misrepresentation such as one has hardly witnessed since the Post Office Savings scheme of nearly fifty years ago. I say this without any exaggeration, although it may surprise your Lordships that I should use such terms. But really, those of us who witnessed the kind of public campaign which was carried out against this Board, I am sorry to say to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, by the Liberal Party as well as by the Conservative Party—


My Lords, I agree, and deeply deplore what happened; but to do the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, justice, one of the reasons for this extraordinary campaign was in no small measure due to injudicious remarks which frightened the Welshmen out of their wits.


My Lords, I do not think that we are as easily frightened as all that. But there were other factors of which those of us who know something about farming in Wales are aware. There is not just one fanning organisation in Wales, but two. They are rivals. The in-fighting which went on, and the competition which went on between these two rival farming organisations, with the Rural Development Board as a football between them had to be seen to be believed. We had a public hearing of almost record-breaking length before Sir Bowen Thomas, which recommended certain boundary changes, but otherwise nothing of substance. I must say that the present Minister of State at the Welsh Office, himself a landowner in Mid-Wales, was one of the most vociferous opponents of the scheme, and I cannot pretend that I was surprised that, with the change of Government, the Welsh scheme was not carried forward. Surely our own domestic politics in the Principality are not a reason for abandoning at this stage a scheme which, in spite of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, seems to have had a very considerable measure of support, and when a considerable measure of regret has been expressed at the proposed demise of the Board.

As your Lordships will recall, it is not long since we had a debate in your Lordships' House (it was on January 27) on the Highlands and Islands Development Board, which has far more extensive powers than this comparatively moderate proposal. One did not hear in that debate—and I listened to a good deal of it—complaints about the Board's powers or its conduct. Quite the contrary: there were warm congratulations from all sides. The noble Baroness, Lady Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie, who on that occasion was speaking for the Government, did not seem to me to have any ideological difficulties, or philosophical agonies, about the Highlands and Islands Development Board. At least, she gave no voice to them, even if she harboured them in her breast. Therefore I cannot see what is the ideological or philosophical problem for the Government in this matter.

In fact, when I myself was at the Welsh Office I had the pleasure of visiting the Highlands and Islands Board in Inverness, and had very long talks with Sir Robert Grieve, the then Chairman, and his colleagues, and saw a number of their projects. At that time we were looking very carefully at the possibility of some such organisation for Wales, and we were very much attracted to the idea. On balance, we decided against it because we felt that it was possibly over-elaborate for the much smaller area of Wales to which it would have applied. There were also some problems posed by existing organisations to which the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, referred in his speech, and which I admit freely are one of the difficulties in these areas. It was with the very sincere desire to do some positive good for Mid-Wales, and particularly the hill farming areas, that the idea of the Rural Development Board was put forward.

If the Government are abandoning this proposal, I think we are entitled to hear from the noble Lord who is to speak for them what they have in mind. Various difficulties have been mentioned. I was particularly glad that the noble Viscount who opened the debate mentioned the possible difficulty we may encounter in the European Economic Community. As I understand it—and also those more expert in this matter whom I have consulted—the concept of the Rural Development Board will not be difficult to fit into—possibly with some modifications—the kind of arrangements which are acceptable to the Community. On the other hand, the hill farming subsidies may run into all kinds of difficulties.

I must say that, before I threw out this particular baby with the bath water, I should wish to be very much clearer about what our position was going to be vis-à-vis the European Economic Community. Why this haste? We are not yet certain how these negotiations will ultimately proceed, or what the end will be. I should have thought we might at least have waited a little longer to see, before we disposed entirely with what seems to be a possible instrument of assistance to farmers in these very difficult parts of the country.


My Lords, may I just assist the noble Baroness on that point of the French experience? In the Massif Central area there is a place called Auvergne, where there is a Government agency that has been set up for the purpose of improving the structure of the farmholdings there. I am told that over the years they have in fact bought 60,000 acres, of which they have now sold back 50,000 to the farmers, so improving the farm structure.


My Lords, I am much indebted to the noble Viscount. It was partly that example that I had in mind, because I have been informed that that was a particularly germane experience which, as I say, was acceptable under the arrangements of the E.E.C. I believe also chat in the Mezzogiorno, in Italy, there are some comparable experiments which would also be suitable. This is one problem on which I think we ought to have some reply from the noble Lord who is to speak for the Government.

Are we to understand that they are entirely abandoning any attempt further to improve the situation in these hill farming areas? Or are we to have some reassurances on different lines—on the lines suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood—of the strengthening or extension of powers of the existing bodies of various sorts? This may be one line of attack. But the problem remains one of co-ordination of the different interests. This is a very real problem indeed.

I must admit that in Mid-Wales we have too many organisations; we have too many fingers in a rather meagre pie. I do not pretend that in our Administration we overcame this problem, but I still think that, within its limits, the Rural Development Board was at least a step in the right direction; and if it is now to be abandoned then we should certainly be told what alternative the Government have in mind, because I can discover nothing in the White Paper which indicated that they had really alternative proposals. In the meantime, I can only say that I am sorry that the Pennines are now to be deprived of the assistance which was coming their way and that we, in Wales, never had a sixpence.

I believe that if the Welsh farmers who were so vociferous at the time, and also their wives, had realised what help might have been coining to them, they might have taken a somewhat different view. The whole question of compulsory purchase of land, which was vestigial in the total scheme as the actual experience of the Northern Pennines has shown, was exaggerated to a degree, which meant that the farmers in the area overlooked some of the other very significant benefits which they might have had. I can only hope that we shall hear from the noble Lord, Lord Denham, to-night what positive and constructive proposals the Government have to take the place of a body which, although there have been some critical voices, nevertheless received a very considerable measure of public support.

6.49 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we should all like to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, for giving us an opportunity to discuss these matters. I cannot go the whole way with him because I am not necessarily in total agreement that the Board should be reinstated. I think that the Government deserve severe censure for the very short notice they have given to the Rural Development Board of its death. It may be that in the end the sharp knife is less painful than the blunt instrument, but the sharp knife leads to more bleeding and greater trouble while it is in use.

I should also like to pay a very real tribute, as has already been done by other noble Lords, to the Chairman of the Northern Pennines Rural Development Board, Mr. Cowen, who I believe is a man of great ability and experience and in every way fitted to his task. I am certain that his particular and really expert knowledge of these matters is something which must not be lost to the country or to the Northern Pennines rural area. Furthermore, he was ably supported by his Board and by the staff of his organisation, and I feel that they have been badly let down.

Problems exist in the hill areas, and the danger is that, by removing the Rural Development Board and pushing the dust under the carpet, the problems will be thought to have ceased to exist. I hope the Government will not take that view because the fact is that the problems are getting worse day by day. The unprofitability of sheep farming is something which not even a Tory Government can do anything about overnight; nor, I suppose, will the Common Market or any of the other plans. But one must realise that not only are these hill farms, particularly in the Pennines area, unprofitable; some of them are actually losing money on a very large scale. I know of one or two farms in the Cheviot Hills where half the sheep stock, which may take years to re-establish, was abolished in one snow-storm.

The Board had begun, in a very real and practical way, to do what it was asked to do. It had set out to try to integrate all the various interests involved in the hill areas; that is to say, tourism, rural bus transport, forestry and agriculture. I believe that it made a very good start indeed on that, and that the structure planning and data accumulation which was going on must not be lost. Like other noble Lords, I trust that the Government will realise that the work which has been done must not be lost, and that other methods must be found to continue this work.

I should like to refer to a problem to which detailed reference has not been made; that is, the age-old controversy between forestry and agriculture. But before doing so I might add that I speak principally, if not entirely, about forestry in National Parks, because there are three National Parks, if not more, in the Northern Pennines area, and they are some of the most important in the North of England. The Board covered the whole of the National Park to which I wish principally to refer—that is, the Northumberland Park—and would have been responsible for a great deal of the forestry activities there if it had been allowed to continue in existence. What is happening as a result of this wholesale dereliction of the sheep farming industry in this area is that the hill farms are almost invariably all going for forestry. One after the other, they are being purchased by the Forestry Commission or by private forestry interests. I do not wish people to think that I am wholly against forestry—I am not. I believe that forestry has a very important part to play in these hill areas. But we must see that there is a compromise between forestry and the other interests, particularly those of agriculture and recreation.

Some of the most important powers that the Board had (I will not waste time on exactly what powers it had in this respect) were powers to say, after considering the various conflicting interests, that such-and-such a piece of land should be planted or should not be planted. Those were very valuable powers indeed, and I hope that the Government will seriously consider how they propose to replace these powers. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, seemed to think that planning powers would cover this point. I am sure he is aware—though it did not seem to me to be quite clear in what he said—that planning permission, in any sense or form, is not required for any forestry operation.


My Lords, the noble Lord is putting into my mind thoughts which were not there. I was thinking that this might be covered by some co-ordination between the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Agriculture, and perhaps some small amendment of their powers.


My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord for putting thoughts into his mind: I would never dream of doing such a thing. He has put what I wanted to say much better than I could say it, and I entirely agree with him. There must be some control over this aspect in everybody's interest. It seems absolutely absurd—and I speak principally, but not entirely, for a National Park—that, should the Forestry Commission require to build a garage for a farmworker in one of their villages, they require planning permission. But if they wish to convert 300,000 square miles and completely change the landscape by planting alien conifer trees, no planning permission is required.

I trust that the Government will consider some method of doing what is required. I recognise that planning authorities are not universally popular, that some members of planning authorities may have different views from mine, and that some authorities are not renowned for agreeing to any sort of forestry, particularly in the county from which the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, comes. That is history, and perhaps we need not go into it further. But there must be integration between forestry and agriculture in these hill areas. There are many examples of where one has helped the other by providing both employment and shelter for those areas which are to remain under farming.

I would press the Government to consider giving National Park planning authorities control over forestry—subject, as in all planning decisions, to appeal machinery. I believe that the appeal machinery could well be exercised by the Minister himself, and if "Environment" means anything in the name of a Department this is surely one of the tasks it could take on. Equally important—and this is another part of the machinery which exists—is the Countryside Commission. They can surely play a more important part. I believe that they would be willing, and I am certain that they would be very able to do so.

My Lords, these are matters that concern me very much, because if we are not careful we shall find that, one by one, the whole of the hill farms will be planted up without any amenity or agricultural consideration, especially as the forestry interests, whether private or public, are mostly operating with taxpayers' money. I know that the noble Lord who will reply will be told to say that we must depend upon the voluntary agreement of, I think, 1961; that there is a voluntary agreement between planning authorities and forestry authorities. That is wonderful so long as everybody agrees. But a voluntary agreement without agreement is by definition practically worthless. It is not true to say that the voluntary agreement has been universally successful. There are many cases where it has been successful and it should be tried. But I am certain that there are, equally, cases where it has not yet worked and where disagreement exists between the forestry interests who want certain land and other interests who are anxious at all costs to keep that land out of forestry.

I realise that some people will be denied the opportunity of selling their land for the highest price which may be obtainable in the open market. The price for forestry at the moment is a great deal higher than the price for hill sheep land. This is influenced by the influx of taxpayers' money. Nevertheless, we must realise that to some extent all planning involves restrictions on land use, some of which may mean that a person is not able to get the best market price obtainable. We need look no further than Green Belt legislation to see what I am talking about. It must follow inevitably that the State may itself, or through local authorities, have to buy or manage some of this land if it wishes to keep it open for recreational purposes. I trust the Government will realise that this matter is very urgent, and that some form of new Green or White Paper will come out shortly which will tell us what is going to happen in these hill areas. If we do not do something, then within a very short time we shall see that the whole of the Northern Pennines area is covered with conifer trees, and the Woolsack, when it next has to be re-stuffed, will have to be filled with pine needles and not wool.

7.0 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise to your Lordships for intervening in this debate and for the fact that my name is not on the list of speakers, due to the fact that I am never quite sure when I can be in the House. At the same time, your Lordships will recognise my interest and concern for rural life, coming from the quarter from which I do, and having seen pretty well all my life, from one side or the other, the problems which have faced farmers in general and hill farmers, marginal land farmers, in particular. I saw what happened to the farming industry after the second world war and I read what happened to the farming industry after the first world war, and I have always wished to see some element of planning and co-ordination in our agricultural sector, both in terms of the economy of the industry and in terms of its social side. Therefore, I was one who from the beginning strongly advocated the establishment of these Development Boards, believing as I did, and still do, that the enhancement of rural life, and the quality of that life and of work in the country, depends so much upon the success of such an experiment, if you wish to call it that.

My noble friend Lord Donaldson has mentioned the White Paper of 1965. I want to reiterate—and I think it is worth while—what the prime objects of these Development Boards are. They are, first of all, to try to stop or restrain the depopulation of areas like Wales—and I deplore what happened in Wales, and used what influence I had to stop it happening there. But clearly, the undue depopulation of hill areas—the Northern Pennines, in this instance—would be very damaging to the people of that area, and indeed damaging to the whole country, because if our hill-lands are allowed to go into decline, then the value of those highlands from a social point of view, from the point of view of the attraction of tourists, would in my view be entirely lost. Forestry and hill farming need to be continued to keep this part of England, and similar parts of England, contained within what has been called our national garden. The Boards had to bear in mind the restructuring of farms; the maintenance and, wherever possible, the improvement of services and ameneties in the area; and, as I understand it, they were charged with the co-ordination of agriculture and of forestry, and, indeed, with the integration of industry in the sense that one usually talks of industry, again where this is possible and where it can be done in a sensible way. This clearly would be in the interests of all those involved.

The White Paper of 1965 was the outcome of a good deal of thought and a good deal of study. It recognised that there were special areas, and in particular these hill farming areas, which require special consideration and special treatment, and it sought to provide, through the Board, the machinery whereby this special consideration could be given. This, as has been said in this debate very clearly, was recognised in Parliament by many people on both sides; and, more important, as I know from my own experience from my old contacts not only with farmers but with many thousands of workers in the industry, the concept was enthusiastically accepted and endorsed by the people in the area concerned. I know that the people I am talking about now feel that they are being abandoned to economic forces which they are in no position to meet or resist. I think that this is gravely unfortunate, and I believe that if the Government could do something, by way of thinking again, to satisfy people that their livelihood and their social lives are still the concern of the people of this country, it would be an extremely good thing.

My Lords, I have no right, I suppose, to speak on behalf of the agricultural workers: I am no longer General Secretary of that union, although of course I remain a member of it. But I can tell your Lordships, because I still keep contacts with my friends, that the N.U.A.A.W. is convinced that if the Government carry out their proposed intention to wind up the Northern Pennines Board it will prove a grave setback to all those who wish to see and hope to achieve an improvement of work and life in that area. I know—I have already emphasised this—the need for a body of this description to assist in reinvigorating the social and economic life of the more impoverished rural areas, particularly those in the hills; and I recall very vividly that at our (I say "our"; I mean my old union's) 1968 biennial conference this item was on the agenda and the whole conference unanimously supported the then Government's intention to establish these Rural Development Boards. The point was then made which has been made to-day: that it was urgently necessary for the forestry, the agricultural and the other rural interests to be further developed and further integrated, and that of course was and is the central purpose of the Rural Development Board.

That my old union still holds this view is made clear by a statement made by the present General Secretary, Mr. Reg Bottini, who has uttered a strong protest about this proposed move by the Government. After referring to depopulation as being one of the serious problems in these areas, he said—and I am quoting him: The Board has an enormous potential for doing what is, and still is, urgently required". I agree with him when he goes on to say: Too little has been heard of what, in its very short life, the Board has already achieved". Among other things, there has been the subsidisation and consequent retention of certain bus services in certain areas.

I was, if I may say so, concerned to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, had to say about the function of the Board cutting across other interests. There are, of course, interests concerned with certain aspects which the Board has to look at, but I suggest to your Lordships that the Board looks at these interests in a rather different way—if I may use the word, in a rather broader way. I do not think that the object of the Board ought to be (certainly I would oppose it) to enter into conflict with other authorities or other interests which ought to have the right to make their views known and to make decisions in their sectors. But surely the Development Board has the prime function of co-ordinating these various interests; of co-ordinating, as we have explained, forestry, agriculture and other rural industries; as my noble friend Baroness White has said, to see what can be done by introducing some degree of industry into the area, and to integrate this in order to create a general rural development in the interests of all the people.

I know, as I think every one of your Lordships knows, that there is a need for help and assistance to be given to farmers on marginal and hill land unless they are to be utterly wiped out and utterly to disappear. I do not think anyone would wish that to happen. I do not want to say anything more about that, because I think enough has been said. It is not only a question of giving financial aid where it is needed; there is a very strong social aspect appertaining to the work of the Board. We have heard of the functions—the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, mentioned them—and the social services in which the Board can assist, such as in putting in telephones, electricity, water, roads, transport and gas where gas is available. All these are adjuncts to modern civilised life, and it is important that one should not forget that the Board, in making it possible to put in these services, is enhancing and uplifting the whole of the social life of the area concerned.

Finally, the Board has also an obligation, I think, to "sell" the countryside—in the case of this particular Board, the Pennines—in all its beauty to the rest of the people of this country. It does this by giving assistance to and by developing the tourist trade by providing beds and so on. It still remains true, unfortunately, that in this country many townspeople know nothing at all about agriculture and forestry and the other rural pursuits. Sometimes I think it an even greater pity that they have not learned to appreciate the beauties of our countryside, enhanced by the farming activities and forestry activities which must go on.

I think it is significant that the National Farmers' Union, Mr. Plumb, the C.L.A.

and my old union, the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers, through its spokesman Mr. Bottini, have all protested at the proposals now made by the Government. It is also significant that highly respectable farming papers like Farming Weekly and the Farmer and Stockbreeder have also criticised the Government for this move. It may be that their criticism is a little premature. I hope so. My noble friends here have asked the Government what they intend to put in the place of the Board. I do not think that one should destroy a thing before having an alternative ready to put into operation. Frankly, I am on my feet to support the noble Viscount—not in the sense of asking the Government what alternative proposals they have, but to ask them, in view of all that has been said, in view of all the sincerity which has been quite apparent, to reconsider their decision on this matter and to revoke it.

7.14 p.m.


My Lords, I have two apologies to make: first, that my name was not on the list, and secondly, that I should have to detain your Lordships longer at this hour. But I can claim that when I saw this Question on the Order Paper I let the noble Viscount know that I should be delighted to say a word or two about this particular matter, because it was once my job in days gone by to take part not only in the passing of the 1967 Agriculture Act which made this Rural Development Board possible but in many other things as well. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, that I was a little surprised as his criticisms. I do not take the same light view of the opinions of the National Farmers' Union in that area, nor of the C.L.A. When he said that a little "jam" had been given to some members of the N.F.U. and then explained that by "jam" he meant help but inferred that this bought their support for the Development Board, and as a consequence the C.L.A.—


My Lords, I used that word and perhaps I did so wrongly. The point I wanted to make was that over this whole vast area the actual amount of financial support that any individual was going to receive was, in comparison with the very substantial support under other headings, really very small. I was trying to put the thing in the right perspective. I was not trying to be offensive. I hope that noble Lords will appreciate that.


My Lords, I am willing to accept the noble Lord's explanation, but I ant bound to tell him that in the course of his speech he used these words, and these words he tagged on to the C.L.A. as their having been impressed by this little bit of help. I am delighted to hear that he did not mean what he said.

My Lords, I want to say a little about why this Board was formed and to deal with the powers of the Board It is no good the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, saying that if there were only a slight amendment introduced by the Ministry of Agriculture, as between themselves and the Forestry Commission, then all would be well in these areas. If that were so—well, he was Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture long enough to have had that little Amendment passed. I know that we cannot do everything we want. Just as we had ground nuts, as he says, so he had his Crichel Down. These things happen in the course of normal public life. Merely to recall them does not provide a solution of the problem in this case.

If I had had time, if the hour were not so late, I had proposed to give a lot of long quotations from Hansard from the debate when this particular Board was set up. I am bound to point out to the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, that it was not done during the night. Those clauses in the Bill which made this Board possible were not discussed during the night; they were discussed in a Committee upstairs and all the sessions took place in the forenoon. I do not think we even hurried them. There are those here in this House, as Members of this House, and perhaps one or two looking on, who know that we went on endlessly, week after week, on that particular Bill. I think we had 26 or 28 sittings. So the noble Lord's argument that it was hurried has no substance at all.


My Lords, I was quite wrong in that respect; I withdraw it entirely. I was recalling the debates here and the background to them. I was honestly under the impression that that particular clause when it came here was represented as not having been discussed sufficiently. If I am wrong, then I apologise.


My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that there are those within his hearing who will tell him that we discussed it for a very long time. I will content myself with one quotation from a Conservative Party speech when this Order was before the House. The spokesman for the Party—and I am talking about the Front Bench—said: The Board has an important job to do in the upland areas, many parts of which are not thriving as they should."— I thought that that was an understatement— De-population and run down are apparent. Those were conditions as outlined not by anyone on this side but by a Conservative spokesman. It was for these reasons, whether one agreed wholeheartedly or not, that we decided to set up these development corporations to satisfy the needs of the whole area. Indeed, we thought that we could have a combination of forestry, of agriculture and of tourism, as tourism was a fairly important adjunct in these areas; because if we were to go on developing agriculture and forestry, then at the end of the day there was going to be a considerable number of people in the area who would need to have some other form of earnings, and tourism was a natural one for those areas. We have heard the figures, we have heard of even owners, farmers in their own right, whose return, as the noble Viscount said, is about £500 per annum—I think that that was the figure he used—less than an agricultural worker's minimum wage. I know this because one of my duties when at the Ministry was to look after this area; so I knew it, I think I may claim, fairly intimately and I can vouch for what was going on. We thought that if we could do these things we should be making a contribution not only to the economy of the area but also to its social life which would allow these areas to retain people who were disappearing from the counties. This was the whole objective.

It was said that everyone was frightened about the compulsory powers, but this was a complete nonsense. During the Committee stage proceedings on the Bill it was proved beyond any shadow of doubt that it was a nonsense. But in case people think this, I would say that I remember very well that Section 46 of the 1967 Act included an Amendment which we were happy to accept from the Opposition and which laid down perfectly clearly that the boards could have land for general purposes, for things like private housing and roads and other amenities, only by voluntary agreement. They had not the power of compulsion to take land: voluntary agreements had to be entered into. Any compulsory powers were the most minimal. We were giving these rural development boards much less power than any other comparable board or authority in the country. So I am certain that noble Lords will see immediately that what we did was to give the scheme the best of good will.

When the Northern Pennines Board started off there was not a single person who said that it could not work unless it had good will. It did not matter from which side of the House he spoke, not a single person said that the Board did not have the good will of the community. Everyone said it had a great deal of good will, and everyone respected the people who had been appointed to serve on it. If anyone wants further proof I would say that I recall a Member of another place who represents the area commending the Government for putting the headquarters of the Board at Appleby. He said that it was a great help; that, with the little committee that was formed, the Board had been run economically, only £20,000 being involved for the first year. Nothing had been so well done, he said. The headquarters had been admirably placed and the staff was just about the right number. The cost was economical. In view of this, we are a little surprised at the decision of the Government.

I want to ask the noble Lord, in conclusion: what is the use of the Government's coming to this House or to another place and saying that agriculture is so tremendously important—especially the hill land agriculture—in connection with our negotiations about going into the E.E.C.? "We will protect the hill lands and uplands," they said. "We will look to see what we can do for them." But to-night they are doing something which is to the detriment of the hill lands and uplands. They are committing an act which is harmful, and it is difficult to believe that they can claim to be looking after the interests of these areas in the E.E.C. negotiations when they are proposing to perpetrate this action which is outlined in the White Paper.

In the course of this debate there have been 10 or 11 speakers and, with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, every single Member of your Lordships' House has disocciated himself—some 100 per cent.; some only perhaps 90 per cent., and some 80 per cent.—from the action of the Government. Surely the lesson of this debate (I am not holding the noble Lord, Lord Denham, personally responsible: he answers for the Department; he is not of the Department) is that it is his duty in the circumstances to go back to the Minister—


My Lords, may I say to my noble friend that some of us have not spoken because we wish to have mercy on the House?


My Lords, if there are any more speakers to come, they will be on this side of the House. It reminds me a little of debates in another place, when all the speakers were on the Tory Benches and attacking a Labour Government. Never did I think that I would live to see the day when in a debate on agriculture every speaker on both sides of the House would be "going for" a Conservative Government. It is a complete reversal.

I suggest to the noble Lord who is to reply for the Government that it is not yet too late to have another look at the matter. After all, it is only six months ago that his noble friend was saying that the Government had no intention of getting rid of this Rural Development Board. So it is not too late for the Government to give this House and your Lordships that assurance. It is not too late for the noble Lord to say that they have had one more look at the matter. If they can do it with Rolls-Royce, involving millions of pounds, they can have another look at this, where only some thousands of pounds are at stake. I say most seriously to the noble Lord that he should do so. He cannot leave the matter where the White Paper has left it; he has to go much further. If the Government are going to do this to the Northern Pennines Rural Development Board, the noble Lord has to show that something has taken its place. If not, he will be condemned by every right-thinking person living in that area.


My Lords—


My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Slater, begins his speech, may I have the guidance of the Deputy Leader of the House? Can some attention be paid to what the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, said? May I, with great respect, draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that the noble Lord who introduced this debate spoke for 12 minutes and that the seven people who took the trouble to put their names down each spoke for an average of 11 minutes? We have just had two speakers who had not put their names down; one spoke for 16 minutes and the other for 12 minutes. After the guidance from his noble friend, who suggested that he might have mercy on the rest of the House, it seems to me that with an Unstarred Question like this, everything that can be said was said two hours—no my Lords, not quite that; an hour ago, and that it really is going a bit too far to give us more.


My Lords, it is not my purpose or intention to keep the House very long—a matter of two minutes. I put my name down later, and I expected it to be passed on to the Government Benches by the Messengers of the House. However, my Lords, the thing that shocked me—if anything has shocked me since I came to this House—was the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood; particularly when he said that he was objecting to forms of appointment and the payment of emoluments for services rendered. He took objection to the appointments to this particular Board by the Minister of the day. I was pleased that we had in the House to-day the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, from Northumberland, and the noble Lord, Lord Barnard, from Durham, which is the area from where I come; for we have much rural development within that county. Before I came to your Lordships' House, and when I was in another place, I used to visit the forestry areas and meet the men working on the forestry estates. We would hear what they had to say about their employment. I was delighted to listen to what the noble Lord, Lord Collison, had to say about agricultural workers, because from the three rural areas I cover and from the agricultural workers working in them I have received telephone messages over the week-end urging me to support the noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, which I am doing.

I am rather surprised at the Government. It is not so long ago that they gave their assurance that nothing was going to be done to revoke what had been done by the previous Government. Now we find that they have taken action on this occasion. I should like to direct this question to the Minister who is to reply for the Government. Why is it, when the Tory Party in another place and even in this House have a good agricultural lobby, the Government should seek to get rid of this Board? Is it because they were not the Government responsible for setting it up?

7.31 p.m.


My Lords, may I begin my reply to this very interesting debate by answering the two questions put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Slater? The answer to the first question, why the Tory Government are getting rid of this Board, I hope will emerge from my speech, which will be devoted to that subject. The answer to his second question is, No. Our debate to-day has shown considerable differences of view about the Government's decision to abolish the Northern Pennines Rural Development Board. They range from the outright hostile through the selectively critical, to the gallant but rather lonely support of my noble friend Lord Inglewood, not counting, of course, the benevolent silence of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek—that is, to the House and not to this Dispatch Box. Your Lordships' interest in this matter is a tribute to the hard work and energy of the chairman and members of the Board and of its staff, which has characterised the Board's administration. I should like therefore to pay tribute to these qualities and to emphasise that the Government's decision to end the Board's existence in no way reflects upon the way in which the chairman and members of the Board and its staff have carried out their respective responsibilities during the past 18 months. The Government's complaint is against the concept of the Board itself and its functions, which we believe to be incompatible with our general approach to the business of Government. We believe, quite simply, that there is too much government and too much intervention in the affairs of the individual which is stifling self-help and private initiative in too many fields.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has outlined in a White Paper the way in which he proposes to reduce the activity of Government in the field in which he is responsible. The decision to wind up the Board is part of this overall approach. The noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, was kind enough to give me notice of a number of questions that he proposed to raise. One concerned the sources from which my right honourable friend the Minister took advice before coming to his decision. I am sure the noble Viscount will accept that it would not be in accordance with our custom if I were to reveal in detail the full range of sources from which a Minister seeks or receives advice, but I can tell him that in the present instance the Minister had discussions with the chairman of the Board, and also had the usual range of advice from his own officials, including his regional controllers for the areas concerned. If the noble Viscount is suggesting that the Minister was not fully informed as to the state of local opinion about the Board, then I can assure him that this was not the case.


My Lords, before the noble Lord goes on to the next part of his speech, may I ask him whether the chairman was given an opportunity of defending the Board before the Minister had come to his decision?


I think so, my Lords. I do not want to state that categorically, and if I may I will write to the noble Viscount about it.


My Lords, may I also ask another question, perhaps rather more easily answered: whether the Minister consulted his own Hill Farming Advisory Committee before coming to a decision?


My Lords, as I said to the noble Viscount, it is not the general practice to give full details of the sort of advice the Minister takes before coming to his conclusions, and I think that I cannot go further than that.

The Board's functions are in three main fields: the purchase and sale of farms, the control of forestry and the promotion of tourism and local services. I should like to say a word about each. In the first field of land transactions, the Board had powers to buy up land both directly and indirectly by preventing the owner from selling to a buyer of his own choice. In fact the Board has made remarkably little use of this power. I personally believe in a free market in land, so I make no complaint about that. But the Board's failure to act in this field highlights all too clearly its essential dilemma. If the Board had chosen to intervene extensively in the land market, it would have aroused extensive antagonism among the people in its area. It would have lost their good will and then would have been unable to carry on effectively its other functions. If, on the other hand, as has been the case, it intervenes only rarely in the land market, it is never going to have a significant impact on the problems of farm structure in its area. In the meantime, the Board must carry the cost of maintaining an apparatus of control and inspection, and purchasers and sellers of land and their agents must undergo the extra expense and inconvenience of applying for the Board's consent, all for very small results. That is our major complaint about the concept of the Board.


My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves this important point, could he make some reference to the 233 cases, in which I understand the Board did use its power of persuasion? It was not obliged to use its ultimate power of purchase, but I understood my noble friend to say that in nearly half of the transactions concerned the Board did in fact intervene by persuasion.


My Lords, if the noble Baroness will forgive me, I will come to that a little later in what I have to say.

The noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, and I think other noble Lords suggested that if the Government disliked the Board's land functions they should withdraw these and leave the Board to continue with its other functions. In the first place, this could not be done without legislation. Under the Agriculture Act 1967, the Board's powers have to be operated as a whole or not at all. In any event, this solution could not be justified on a cost-effective basis. Though the Board could save perhaps a few staff, the rest of its overheads would clearly remain much the same and the cost would be disproportionate to the benefit.

The other functions of the Board cover mainly two things—the granting of licences for afforestation and the giving of loans and grants for such purposes as the improvement of rural communications or the provision of tourist accommodation. As for the Board's powers for the control of forestry, as this debate has shown, views are divided. There has been criticism of the Board's actions in licensing afforestation in places where the National Park authorities have been opposed to it. On the other hand, as my noble friend Lord Ridley has said, the Board has been praised for decisions that reflect both economic needs as well as considerations of amenity, I very much hope that for the future those concerned with forestry will take full account of both these considerations, as indeed the voluntary agreement of 1961 provides. This, as has been mentioned, was between the Forestry Commission and the National Parks Commission, whose functions have now been passed on to the Countryside Commission, on the one hand, and the Country Landowners' Association and the Timber Growers' Organisation on the other. The agreement provides for forestry maps to be prepared jointly by park planning authorities and the Forestry Commission. These designate those areas within a National Park where there is a presumption for or against afforestation. This part of the agreement has not yet been applied within the Board's area, although I understand that preliminary discussions have begun.

My Lords, I mention this agreement, as my noble friend Lord Ridley expected I might, in order to make it clear that, given good will on both sides, there exists a constructive alternative to the Board's powers. Meanwhile, until the maps have been agreed, the 1961 agreement records that the Country Landowners' Association and the Timber Growers' Organisation have recommended to their members submissions to park planning authorities of individual proposals for afforestation. I should like to assure my noble friend Lord Ridley that my information is that before the Board was set up voluntary agreement did work, and we are confident that it will work again. Nevertheless, we will keep an eye on this to make sure that we review the progress on how it does work.

As for the other powers, noble Lords have expressed their regret at the disappearance of a body with powers specifically designed to make life easier and more profitable for those who work in the hills. The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, accused the Party to which I belong of having the attitude that we would rather see an area driven into decay than to have anything so odious as Government control; and my noble friend Lord Barnard suggested that the immediate reaction over the Government's decision in the area was one of dismay. These are two views on this subject, put in rather different terms but meaning rather the same thing. I would repeat, however, what my right honourable friend has said in another place on this aspect. He made it plain that the Government were not turning their hacks on the hills, and that they would be making further proposals. Your Lordships will not expect me to make any startling announcements in this House to-night, but I can assure your Lordships that everything that has been said in this very informed debate will be taken into consideration when these proposals are considered.

Various noble Lords have made comparisons between the Rural Development Board and the Highlands and Islands Board. The Highlands and Islands Board is a body with purposes and powers quite different from those of a rural development board. For example, the Highlands and Islands Development Board is responsible for the development of a region in which many different economic activities are undertaken and where several different kinds of agriculture are practised. Those activities range from the most sophisticated industry—for example, the aluminium smelters at Invergordon—to small cottage industries, and from crofting to the arable farming on the Lowlands around the Moray Firth. The Rural Development Board, however, is concerned with a purely rural area in which hill farming predominates. The powers of the Highlands and Islands Development Board are such as it needs to develop the economy of its region. In particular, it does not have the Rural Development Board's powers to intervene in land transactions and to license forestry. But it has powers to make grants and loans for the purposes of industrial development or the fishing industry which are far more extensive, as the noble Baroness, Lady White, suggested, than the limited powers of a rural development board to help tourism or rural communications.


Would not my noble friend agree that such help to the tourist industry which the Rural Development Board can now extend could easily be done by the newly set up tourist authorities if some small amendments are made? There is no loss there.


I think my noble friend is right. I was asked, I think by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, whether the Highlands and Islands Development Board ever uses its powers to buy land compulsorily. The answer to that is that the Board has powers, but it has not used them so far.

The noble Baroness, Lady White, and also, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, mentioned this problem with regard to future membership of the European Economic Community. So far as we can judge, a rural development board would be acceptable under the rules of the E.E.C. However, the Minister of Agriculture has made it clear that agricultural help to the hills will continue to be provided. I think that is all I can say on this particular subject to-night.

In the meanwhile, we have had to consider whether the kind of support that the Board could give to the economy of its area was justified by the cost of continuing its existence. The noble Viscount, Lord Ingleby, and the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge, suggested that the Board's intervention in land transfers had resulted in 233 cases in useful amalgamations; and this was the point upon which the noble Baroness, Lady White, asked me a question a little earlier. The noble Lord's comment is misleading: the Board did not intervene in any of these cases. There is therefore nothing to show that these amalgamations would not have taken place in any event.

The latest figures about the Board are these. The Board has spent or committed about £13,000 in grants. A similar amount is in the pipeline. But to do this and to exercise its other powers it is inescapable that administrative expenses for the previous calendar year will be in the region of £50,000. I recognise the care and economy with which the Board has conducted its affairs, but the fact is that, through no fault of its own, it is an expensive administrative instrument for executing the purposes for which it was set up. Among the most important of these purposes are functions such as the buying of land and of intervening in land transactions which are completely contrary to the present Government's philsophy; and since we cannot dictate to the Board which of its functions prescribed by Parliament it should execute and which it should not, and since the individual functions that I have described bring benefits inescapably disproportionate to the Board's administrative costs, the Government were fully justified in deciding that the right course was to end the Board's existence.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, would he not agree that it might have been an alternative to have slimmed the staff of the Board a little and to have kept the Board going?


That was obviously an alternative that was before the Government, but in view of everything that I have said my own feeling is that the right decision was taken.


My Lords, before the noble Lord goes home, would he listen to my cri de coeur? Would he give an undertaking to the House that if this Rural Development Board is abandoned in the hill districts of Britain he will not let the tycoons of the timber industry go free? Otherwise we shall see the hill farms of Britain covered with Christmas trees, to be sold eternally to the Common Market as the only hope of the future hill farmer of Great Britain.