HL Deb 21 March 1979 vol 399 cc1156-201

3.15 p.m.


rose to call attention to the Strutt Report, entitled Agriculture and the Countryside; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I consider myself fortunate to be able to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. I am gratified at the number of noble Lords who wish to speak in the course of this debate. In a way it is a pity that it has to be a short debate, because noble Lords will have to be circumspect about the time they take in order to give the Minister time to reply. However, it is gratifying to see so many people interested in this subject.

The report of the Advisory Council which we are to consider, entitled Agriculture and the Countryside, is the latest in a series of reports to the Minister on subjects referred to us by him. I believe that this report is one of the most important of the many we have issued over the years. Initially, I want to pay my tribute to Sir Nigel Strutt, who has been the chairman of the Advisory Council since its inception and who has been a most admirable chairman—full of life and activity, but nevertheless kind and good to us. As noble Lords know, I also have been a member of the Council since its inception. So when I refer to "us" in the debate, that is shorthand for the Council and the panel which was set up to deal with this specific problem. In the case of the report which we are now discussing, I want also to pay tribute to my friend, Sir Gwilym Williams, who, with his wide knowledge and experience, his great background and wisdom, has perhaps been the most helpful chairman we could have had.

It was in May 1977 when we were asked: To advise on ways in which the Ministry could best contribute towards reconciling the national requirement for economic agricultural and horticultural production with the development of other national objectives in the countryside in the light of public interest in recreation and access and in conservation and amenity". It was a most timely reference. As more leisure has become available, there has been a rapidly increasing demand for access to the countryside. It is a demand which will reach explosive proportions in the very near future. That is happening at the same time as there is an ever-increasing concern about the loss of good agricultural land to development; for example, for housing, roads, sports fields and so on. Indeed, I have heard it said that it may be well nigh impossible to reconcile the various interests.

The Council does not think so. We came to that view after a year's hard study and after receiving evidence—much or all of it oral—from over 80 individuals and organisations, and after going out and seeing for ourselves the kind of problems that can arise in the countryside. We went to the national parks; we went to Snowdonia, the Lake District, the Somerset Levels and the fringe areas of London and Manchester. In the course of those visits we spoke to many farmers, quite apart from the evidence which was given to the Council. In fact, we found a real willingness to understand the needs of others, which encouraged us to believe that, with the obvious goodwill and given the opportunity to talk to other people, reconciliation of the various interests is very possible.

It was to that end that one of our major recommendations was that effective consultative machinery should be set up on a local basis to bring together the major interests. It was suggested that the answer might lie in the establishment of a Ministry of Rural Affairs, but having thought deeply about that proposal, we rejected it as being too radical and perhaps too simplistic. It is hard to believe that the various demands on the countryside can be resolved by the creation of a single department of central government.

As I said, we think that the emphasis should be on a wider and more open consultation at local level. We should like to see a local forum in each county where all those concerned—for example, the local authority, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Countryside Commission, the Nature Conservancy Council, the Forestry Commission, tourism and other interests—are brought together so that they can discuss the nature of their various problems and achieve understanding. Although we did not think that a new Ministry should be established, we did think that some collaboration at national level between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of the Environment would be helpful and might generate the push towards the creation of these consultative committees I have been talking about.

We also considered whether the Ministry itself could, and should, have a wider part to play in the field of conservation and preservation. We came to the conclusion that it should. Having come to that conclusion, we were clear that the help it could give would be through the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service—ADAS—and its officers. ADAS and its officers are well-respected in the whole farming community. Advice on farming practice is eagerly sought by farmers and it is willingly and expertly given. The ADAS official is seen as the friend of the farmer, and we believe therefore that advice on such matters as conservation, landscape preservation and other issues of that kind would be willingly accepted by the farmers from the ADAS man. Indeed, we found that the farmers' representatives and the farmers themselves were very conscious of the importance of these things and anxious to help. In passing, as a matter of equity we thought that if a farmer, for instance, loses some productive capacity in the interests of conservation then he ought to be entitled to compensation.

In relation to ADAS some suggestions were made to us by a few that the role of the ADAS officer to cover these new factors might put him in the eyes of the farmer in the place of a policeman, and the question was asked whether the role of policeman and friend were truly compatible. We felt on the contrary, that the ADAS officer would be the best source of advice. As I say, he is known and respected on the farm. He is welcome on the farm. The advice he gives has been most helpful to farmers in the past. He could help with advice on conservation matters. When it was understood by the farmers, we think it would be welcomed by them too.

We realised of course that the officers would have to acquire new knowledge; new knowledge to enable them to give useful advice to farmers and to landowners. We realised that they would need guidance, expertise, and criteria to help them make judgments and to decide priorities. To that end we believe that there is a case for the development of a degree of specialist conservation expertise within ADAS itself, perhaps located at regional headquarters. But essentially the great need mould be for ADAS to make full use of the considerable resources available in either one or another of the conservation agencies. I am thinking in this connection of both the Countryside Commission and the Nature Conservancy Council, whose work I greatly admire and applaud. We owe much to the efforts these bodies have made already.

It follows that, if such criteria are to have a bearing on farmers' improvement plans and the provision of grant aid for those plans, the question of the relaxation of the disclosure rule comes into the picture. The disclosure rule disallows details of grant-aided schemes to be given to other parties. To a degree, this rule would, I think, have to be relaxed, for the conservation agencies would have to be consulted by the ADAS officials and maybe by the farmers too. But, having suggested that, we insist that any such consultation must be on the strict understanding that private and personal information about the farm must continue, as at present, to be strictly confidential.

All in all the Council strongly recommended that such a role should be undertaken by ADAS. We found that farmers are willing to be conservation conscious, but many of them are probably unaware of the nature of the problems and the possible courses which could be taken which would satisfy both the economic needs of the farm and the amenity objective. A major matter of concern which was referred to throughout our inquiry was about the loss of good agricultural land for other purposes. A deal of criticism was directed at the different aspects of the planning process. We felt that we could not accept that the planning machinery, as we now have it, was wholly ineffective in preventing inroads into agriculture. Nevertheless, we certainly did feel that its operation often left much to be desired.

We also felt that the influence that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was able to bring to bear needed strengthening. We would wish to see the Ministry able to take a much more positive part in influencing development plans at regional, county, and local level.

We were worried indeed about what we saw for ourselves on our visits outside, both generally and in the fringe areas. The most frequent criticism was to the effect that in planning at all levels the emphasis was unduly favourable to urban interests and that agriculture was always on the defensive, fighting a rearguard action against decisions made against their interests.

Consequently, the Ministry and its officials were criticised as well as being too defensive. But I do not think that that is too difficult to understand, bearing in mind the urban interests and the urban pressures which can be brought to bear. It is my view that the Ministry officials should not be criticised as much as one should recognise that they are often forced on the defensive. Again it was felt that planning decisions were taken without the Ministry being called in early enough; early enough at the planning stage, the structure phase in particular. Although we appreciate that with the population growth we are still experiencing there will be a growth in the need for housing, for factories, for other uses for the land, we were of the opinion that the planning procedures leave much to be desired.

We therefore made the following proposals. First, that agricultural and horticultural priorities should be clearly established and they should be stated in drawing up structure plans. We were gratified that this had already been done by some planning authorities; Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Kent and Merseyside County Council. Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire designate agricultural priority areas where agricultural needs are to take precedence over other matters. The council believes that the Minister's officials in the regions and divisions, the land officers, should be able more actively to represent the general agricultural interest and we hope steps will be taken to make that possible. We also believe the Ministry's interests should not be confined to grade 1 and grade 2 land and, knowing that much grade 3 land is of good farming quality, we applaud the exercise of sub-dividing grade 3 where that is important for agriculture.

The panel noted that, up to 1971, the Ministry of Agriculture was consulted on all applications for planning consent on land of more than five acres. Subsequently, that limit was extended to 10 acres. We believe we should revert to the old five-acre definition and that the Ministry should be consulted on all applications for the use of land over that figure. We take the view that, where the Ministry finds that for good reasons it cannot agree, the call-in procedure should be operated and strengthened.

We were surprised to learn there was a shortage of agricultural information in regard to the number and type of holdings lost for agricultural purposes. We learned that, although local authorities were asked by the Department of the Environment some years ago to report land use changes, that system had not yet been properly implemented; so we believe urgent steps should be taken to ensure that we have more precise and accurate knowledge about the whole situation in regard to the use of land.

We spent a fair amount of time looking at the problem in the fringe areas, and much of what I said about planning applies to fringe areas, too. But clearly in the fringe areas there are acute problems due to the proximity of so many people to the countryside. Most townsfolk respect the land and the farmers and are careful not to disturb things, but some do not, perhaps because they do not understand, and there is the inevitable vandal. With that in mind, we noted with considerable interest and content the amount of educational work being done by, for example, the Countryside Commission and the body of which I have the honour to be president, the Association of Agriculture. Many farm visits are organised and pamphlets circulated for the use of teachers and children in school. Farmers in the urban fringe are obviously subject to these pressures, and by education and other means we must see that the use of land is profitable and healthy for the people who have a right, we think, to use it.

There is a great deal I have not had time to say and I hope other noble Lords will pick up some of the points I have missed. It is a huge report concerned with land utilisation, gravel winning, putting hack the land into proper agricultural shape, and much more. I believe it proper as my last word to express the hope that my noble friend Lord Strabolgi, When he replies to the debate, will tell us something about the Government's reaction to the report, which I commend to the House. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, noble Lords in all parts of the House and many people far from the House will wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Collison, for giving us the opportunity to debate this subject and for enabling us to hear the many expert speakers who are to follow. The theme of the Strutt Report is agriculture and the countryside and, as a result, we shall listen with great interest to noble Lords with specialised knowledge of those subjects. I shall be content to ask the Government a few questions about what are euphemistically known as urban fringe areas.

In paragraph 204 of the report it is pointed out that such areas are not and cannot be properly used either for recreation or for agriculture, and I am afraid that that is true. It is also very sad, for these are precisely the plots of land which are capable of producing not only excellent crops of grain, potatoes or mere silage, but often vegetables and fruit from the allotments which are so dear to the heart of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Coslany. There are also the acres which disappear each year for motorways, interchanges, links, spurs and other road-works.

It is estimated in the report that about 50,000 hectares are lost to agriculture each year. The figures may want for accuracy, but certainly half of such land has gone for buildings, houses, factories and roads, and the area which is taken for motorways or other road improvements will, unfortunately, tend to be of the highest quality. I know that my noble friend Lord Caithness will have some observations to make on the quality of land taken for development. I hope the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, will tell us what steps the Government can take to use more fully the derelict or unused land which is designated for development on the periphery of our great conurbations.

For me, the report strikes an especially sad note when it is proposing various measures and making recommendations; particularly we should look at paragraph 208, where we see the plea by the committee to ensure that the Ministry of Agriculture requests the Department of the Environment especially to refer to it development around the urban fringes, and not to allow such development without the closest scrutiny of all derelict, unused and underused land within city boundaries. I believe nothing is more futile than large open spaces within a huge city where the wind blows and packs of dogs roam purposefully and effectively while first-class land outside the main city area is used for such developments as may be desirable, be they factories, houses or even roads.

One can understand that the main theme of urban planning is to ensure that people do not have to move far for a job and that, where possible, factories should he as close as is reasonable to houses. I believe that the Ministry of Agriculture should take a firm line in this respect, since the supply of British agricultural land is finite, and there should be no further delay in implementing the main recommendations of the report.

Paragraph 208 goes on to say that local authorities should make management agreements with any developer or farmer who wishes to develop arable land. Such agreement should ensure that land is farmed prudently and correctly, though, speaking as a farmer, I must say that such recommendations are tingedwith sadness because any person who has spent a lifetime or whose family may have been farming the same hectares, as we must now call them, for a hundred years or more will be very upset to see his life's work reduced or even destroyed bit by bit. Far more likely, the farmer will take his price for the land and hurry off to farm elsewhere, and that land will quickly become run down and unproductive and will become precisely the type of land which offends our conservationist friends: it will become an eyesore. This is a problem that cannot easily be solved, as farmland must have someone farming it, and that person must care. He must know the land, and he, or she, must have a stake in its wellbeing. As for urban fringe agricultural land there is no necessity, nor logical reason, to find a person who could, or would, farm the land as well as the previous owner, and I certainly consider that local authorities would have considerable difficulty in finding someone of such a calibre to farm the land as effectively and as prudently as the former owner.

The take of agricultural land each year from its normal use is about 50,000 hectares, but we are told that half of this loss is turned into woodland or upland forest. That loss is not so grievous, and in this respect we look forward particularly to the remarks of my noble friend Lord Dulverton, who I hope will be speaking later in the debate.

I was delighted to read in the report, as well as in a very valuable White Paper entitled, Farming and the Nation, of the great contribution to agriculture made by hill land and upland areas. Paragraph 17 of the section of the White Paper referring to land points out that upland areas provide 25 per cent. of the cattle and half of the sheep in the United Kingdom, and that these areas convert otherwise unusable feed into high quality products. Comments of that kind encourage farmers, and so I think there is all the more reason to preserve our grade 1 and grade 2 land, which unfortunately is often around towns in the areas which need to be developed.

I have touched briefly upon three subjects: upland areas and hill land, derelict and unused sites within cities, and the urban fringe areas, which I believe are the saddest of all. I hope that the Ministry will take careful note of the comments we make in the debate today. The deepest gratitude of those within the House, as well as those outside, is due to the noble Lord, Lord Collison, for giving us the opportunity to debate the Strutt Report. A lengthy list of speakers is to follow me, most of them more expert than I, but none care more than I for the wellbeing of our stock of arable and grazing land. I look forward to hearing their remarks as well as the reply of the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi.

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to join in the welcome being given to the report and to the opportunity which the noble Lord, Lord Collison, has given us to debate it here this afternoon. When it comes to considering this matter I, like the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, belong to the non-experts in your Lordships' House, but I have a deep love of the countryside and, I must admit, a personal interest in the agricultural industry. I welcome the report because it is most comprehensive and deals with almost all the problems that face us in trying to reconcile the quite often opposing demands of the farming community as such and the people living in the urban areas, who have a complete right to the countryside on an equal basis with the agricultural community.

Therefore, I particularly welcome the recommendations in the report to extend the scope of the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service. I am absolutely convinced that this is the right way in which to take the farming community with us when we want to extend and expand their interest in conservation and amenity. A considerable proportion of the agricultural community has a resistance to what they call "the mad conservationists", and I believe that in this respect ADAS is the appropriate agency to use, though of course in consultation with the Nature Conservancy and the Countryside Commission.

At this stage in my speech I wish to apologise for the absence of my noble friend Lord Winstanley, who is chairman of the Countryside Commission. He has asked me to enter a caveat on his behalf, to the effect that he is nervous about the extension of ADAS's interest in conservation and amenity because he is concerned about the duplication of effort. However, I personally believe that what I have mentioned is the right way to go about the matter.

The chapter of the report dealing with management agreements in critical areas appeals to me enormously. The suggestion here is that further assistance should be given to the farmer for conserving the land that belongs to us all. However, there is one point which I cannot understand, and 1 very much hope the Government will look into it. I wonder why a management agreement which is entered into by a farm or an estate should not be an ongoing arrangement extending to the next generation, in much the same way that listed buildings are dealt with. Why should the agreement not be carried over where the land is sold to or is inherited by another person? I find it difficult to understand why it is not possible to work out a way to enable the arrangement to be carried over to the next generation, because I believe that this is the only way in which the agricultural community can be persuaded to help in the conservation of especially difficult areas.

The statutory planning process is, rightly, given much prominence in the report. I welcome the demand that structure plans should have to take account not only of top grade land, but also land of lower grade. In particular, I welcome the demand that land scheduled for development should be farmed in the interim if the development is not to take place immediately. That would go a long way towards removing some of the eyesores in the countryside.

I am a little disturbed about the reversion to an area of five acres in connection with the requirement that the Ministry of Agriculture has to be consulted by the planning authorities. I should have thought that an enormous amount of development takes place within much smaller areas, particularly in the countryside. I was going to say "acres", but I ought to say "hectares", though I cannot get used to the term. I have in mind here areas of one or two acres, or hectares. Over a period of time small developments of this kind can drastically change the countryside from an agricultural point of view, and I should have preferred to see the figure lowered to below five acres.

Finally, I want to refer to what I believe to be an omission from the report. I hope that the issuing of the report will ensure that the additional problem which I am about to mention will be looked at by both the Government and the advisory bodies. I have in mind the point that there is nothing in the report to question the agricultural policy which we have followed ever since the end of the war. This has been aimed at promoting food production and enlarging holdings to make food production more economic, which in many ways has resulted in the depopulation of the countryside is an integral part of the problem of agriculture and conservation, and has in many instances involved enormous State expenditure in trying to finance communities which in themselves are no longer viable. It may be that we should look at our policies in this regard.

I also believe that this matter is important to the agricultural industry itself, because so often in this country there is a lack of a starting point for a young man who enters agriculture. It is very difficult for him to find a farm of the size that he can take on as he is starting out in life. We should consider whether in this country we have gone too far in enlarging agricultural enterprises, which has contributed to the depopulation of the rural areas. Apart from that, I would once again very much welcome the report and thank the noble Lord, Lord Collison, for introducing this debate on it.

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, agriculture is not enough. Although British agriculture has perhaps nearly two generations of continuous improvement in efficiency behind it, although it is still dominant in the British countryside and probably among the most efficient agriculture in Europe, it is not enough. It is not enough, alone, to sustain the rural economy; it is not enough to sustain a rural community; in many areas it is not enough even to produce a family income; and in many parts of the country it is not enough to conserve our landscape, the wildlife of the countryside or the traditions of the countryside. To do these things, agriculture needs to be combined and integrated with other economic drives, with other social activities, with other sources of income and with other policies for the countryside.

It is because they have been so successful in discerning and acknowledging this fact, and in working out its implications, that I should like to begin by congratulating the Advisory Council, its chairman, Sir Nigel Strutt, and its members, including the noble Lord, Lord Collison, who has been fortunate enough to secure this opportunity for us to debate its report. I should like to congratulate them for having had the insight to see the need for the Ministry of Agriculture to take a wider view of its responsibilities towards the countryside as a whole, and for having such clear insights into the role that ADAS can play as the prime agency in bringing this wider-angled vision to bear throughout the agricultural industry and among the whole farming community.

It is clear from the study that as the members of the council and the panel went around they encountered a very widespread wish to see agriculture more effectively integrated, and more comprehensive and more coherent policies applied to the countryside. That I would have expected; and I was not surprised to see that they found rather less concord and agreement about how to achieve this integration, because it is indeed extremely difficult. I was glad that they early on renounced the transformation of the Ministry of Agriculture into a Ministry of Rural Affairs; and I was pleased to hear the noble Lord confirm this. Not only would that be too radical; I do not think it would help very much to achieve the objectives. I think the council were rightly sceptical about the practical benefits of tinkering in any other way with the machinery of government in Whitehall, because the kind of thing we are trying to do has to be approached from the other end. That is where their insights are so correct. I think the council were correct in settling for the vaguest possible recipe of consultation at national and local levels. That is about the sum total of what they managed to say in this area, and I am glad they did not go any further, because I believe it is right to be vague and open-minded on that issue at this stage. There is, in my view, far too little experience as yet on how best to progress and to advance towards an integrated rural policy. The fact that we can see the need for it is valuable: we have to proceed by trial and error.

All the experience there is shows that it is best to begin in a small way, from the ground, at local level, in very informal ways. One of the places where it is no bad thing to start is on the footpaths, by which in most cases the public gain access to the countryside, and on the footpath networks. I am glad that the National Farmers' Union, the CLA and the ramblers are effectively co-operating in a number of ways at that level, and I am glad that, in paragraph 203, the council identified this very simple, practical business of improving the footpath network as one of the ways to begin this process.

If one wants to look a little wider, it is not necessary to look beyond the Uplands Management Service in the Lake District, where five years ago a seconded officer from ADAS initiated experiments, which have now spread, which enable two men only to operate a management service throughout the Uplands in the whole of the Lake District. So that is some experience on which we can build, in starting and running an Uplands Management Service in other national parks. It does not make very heavy demands on manpower. As I say, two men can do it by mobilising and deploying the resources of the farmers in the Uplands, in one of the major national parks. This also has the benefit of generating a whole lot of permanent employment for a number of small, self-employed contractors. It is achieved with the minimum of red tape, and it is mainly undertaken by personal, on-the-spot discussion, at the minimum cost to taxpayers and ratepayers and considerable benefit both to the farmers and to the public.

This is, I would suggest, one of the most modest but firmest bases on which to build the proposals in this report. The main ingredient to build on, as the noble Lord, Lord Collison, has said, is the confidence and the trust of the farmer, and no service has that trust and confidence to the extent that ADAS has it already. So the Strutt Report recommends that the new role for ADAS and for MAFF should first be discharged in the national parks, and I agree with that. I should like to see the Uplands Management Service, which has already been pioneered, extended to the other parks, whatever else is done. I am not in the least detracting from what my noble friend Lord Lyell said about the urban fringe, because that is the second priority that the Strutt Report identifies.

The advantage of proceeding in the national parks is that each one of these now has a national park management plan for the whole of its land. This is the Lake District one, but there are nine others. They provide the framework, as well as the programme and the priorities, for the work that needs to be tackled, with the leadership and guidance of ADAS. These management plans, already produced in the national parks, provide models for what could be done elsewhere in the countryside—in the urban fringe, certainly; and in certain parts of certain areas of outstanding natural beauty—as a framework for the development of integrated rural policies elsewhere outside the national parks. I think the preparation of more of these management plans elsewhere in the country would provide a basis for the constructive co-operation which the Advisory Council advocates from the water authorities, from the Forestry Commission and from other public bodies which own large tracts of land to which the public desire access. It would also provide the framework for consultation which yet has to be developed between MAFF and the local authorities, and particularly the district councils.

Land management plans are not required by statute outside the national parks, so there is scope for plenty of flexibility and trial in deciding how they should be prepared. My personal preference would be for the district councils to take on the task in the remoter rural areas because they themselves have issued a valuable document which we referred to a few weeks ago entitled, Strategy for Survival, directly related to the needs of the remote rural areas. We already have the Uplands Management Service in the Lake District; we already have the land management plans in the 10 national parks as models on which to build and we also have the idea of management agreements, the theory and philosophy of which has now been published by the Countryside Commission.

As practical experience is gained at the scale and level of the Uplands Management Service in the Lake District, it will be necessary to develop them into the larger-scale, more permanent agreements envisaged here. We have to proceed slowly, and, for various other reasons, I expect MAFF and ADAS will want to proceed slowly. Confidence will have to be built up in the local farming communities which are not yet used to these things, from informal personally-agreed schemes worked out on the spot. As the habit of co-operation and understanding between agencies and departments, private landowners and private farmers grows through the production of a local plan of comprehensive land management, the moment will come for public authorities to enter into formal management agreements in writing with farmers and landowners, as the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, has been suggesting.

I should be glad to confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, that in the Countryside Bill now in the Commons We have a clause, Clause 6, I think, which will for the first time make it possible for public bodies and private farmers and landowners to enter into management agreements which are positive as well as negative and which run with the land, as the noble Baroness suggested is the case with listed buildings, rather than with the present owner only. This, coupled with other things that we have, will give the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and ADAS the opportunity to get on and negotiate these agreements in accordance with these plans and in the light of the experience gained in the Uplands Management Service.

This only leaves us in some anxiety about what the Minister will say about this plan. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Collison, and his colleagues for having produced it. But what now is important is a clear statement of the Government's reaction to it. I imagine that we will hear that they accept it in principle. What I fear we will also hear is that in present circumstances, and particularly those of the restraints on public expenditure, it is going to take time to do anything about it. Certainly I do not think that anybody would expect the Ministry and ADAS to implement all these proposals immediately. That would he quite unrealistic. What is important is that we should get a clear statement as to the rate of progress we can now expect. It will not be good enough for the rate of progress in implementing this report, which is an internal report from the Advisory Council to the Minister, to be accepted and then allowed to proceed at a pace set by the internal priorities of that single Department.

This is designed to lead to a comprehensive and coherent approach to rural policy. It will not be good enough for the Minister to accept the report in principle but to implement it at his convenience. If the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food accepts this role, there must be agreement within Whitehall among all the Departments concerned, at the general rate of progress; there must be proper budgetary allocations for so many management plans, so many Uplands Management Services, so much for management agreements, so much for training of this, that or the other number of staff. Whatever the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, can say this afternoon, I hope that, if he is not able to be specific about that, he will assure us that sooner or later his Ministry will he. If that can be done, I think that this report will have served the countryside extremely well.

4.5 p.m.

Baroness WHITE

My Lords, I am in somewhat of a dilemma this afternoon. We have two cognate debates, one following the other. As chairman of the Land Authority for Wales, I feel that I have a certain obligation to speak in the second of those debates. On the other hand, as someone intensely interested in the matters dealt with in the report of the Strutt Committee and having had the honour of giving evidence to that Committee, it seems that I should perhaps endeavour to make a few remarks in this debate as well. If one looks at the summary of conclusions and recommendations at the end of the Strutt Report and the second paragraph thereof, one sees stated—in paragraph 180—very plainly: Changes in attitude hold the key to success, and they must accompany and sustain any substantial policy or administrative changes. In particular we believe that the Ministry of Agriculture should accept a responsibility to promote conservation and amenity, just as local authorities and other agencies operating in the countryside should have a duty to contribute to the nation's food production aims". This is what one really wants to learn. It is now almost a year since the Strutt Report appeared. We have been waiting with increasing impatience for some official reaction from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Collison has obtained this opportunity for, unfortunately, only a short debate on a subject of very wide-ranging interest.

I am sure that my noble friend Lord Strabolgi will not take it amiss when I say that, while we shall listen with great interest and concern to whatever he may have to say, it might in some respects have been more appropriate if a Minister directly responsible in the Department had been in a position to make the first public announcement of the Government's attitude to this important report. I say this because within the last few weeks we have had two official documents issued from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—namely, the White Paper, Farming and the Nation, and the report on ADAS itself. I am sure we all have the warmest regard for the advisory organisation of the Ministry, but we have had a policy review of the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service and a report of the review group very recently to hand.

In the White Paper, Farming and the Nation there are two rather perfunctory references to wider responsibilities in countryside affairs in addition to the major preoccupation, naturally, with food production. That is not very much, my Lords. In the policy review of ADAS itself we have, of course, certain references which are germane to the recommendations of the Strutt Committee, but it seems rather curious when the Strutt Committee was so emphatic about the role of ADAS (a role with which most of us would concur) that one has a policy review for ADAS itself with virtually no reference to the Strutt Committee— understandably because there has been no official pronouncement on it. About the report which we are debating today, it simply says in paragraph 6.24: It is not for us to review the recommendations of the Advisory Council on Agriculture and the Countryside". So one asks oneself just how much a wind of change has been blowing in the corridors of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. There has not been a great deal of evidence, so far at any rate, of the change in attitude which was— very properly, I think—made the prerequisite of' progress by the Strutt Committee itself. It would be fair to say that the farming organisations are far in advance in their assessment of the change in attitude that is required of the Ministry so far as we know it.

It is possible that my noble friend Lord Strabolgi will be able to be so clear and emphatic in his pronouncements that these suspicions may be laid entirely to rest. I very much hope so. I must confess that until I hear what he has to say, I remain sceptical. Therefore one must reiterate that it is for MAFF, if this is to remain in its hands, to take these matters not merely seriously but, one may hope, even with a certain enthusiasm. I appreciate that the Strutt Committee turned down—and rightly—the concept of Ministry of Rural Affairs. It would be too difficult as an administrative proposition. On the other hand, the whole tenor of the Strutt Report is that rural affairs are complex; they are not concerned exclusively with the production of food, important as that is.

Noble Lords in all parts of the House arc well aware that, with the changes in agricultural methods, depopulation of the countryside is still proceeding, and if one is going to have a live countryside one must find other outlets for the energies and interests of those who live there, otherwise they become geriatric dormitories, apart from the strictly food production exercises. A number of points have been touched on concerning planning of the urban fringe. That is something which is equally germane to the second debate this afternoon. I hope to say a word or two about that then. The uplands management experiments to which the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, referred and the national parks are admirable so far as they go.

Regarding management agreements, there are agreements and agreements; and I was very glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kiddington, made her point. We have not yet had an opportunity of discussing the Countryside Bill in this House—whether it will ever reach us now seems a little dubious. That is a great pity because some of us would like to probe very much more deeply into the nature of some of these management agreements. The main one in reference to that Bill, the Glenthorne estate agreement, on my information, is very much less likely to be effective than some of its proponents would wish us to believe.

Therefore although management agreements have undoubtedly had their uses, and management schemes have had their uses, they are not in themselves by any means the full answer to the truly integrated development of our rural communities. I was very much encouraged, quite frankly, to see that the National Farmers' Union, who have communicated with several of us down to speak in this debate, point out that in certain areas at least something much more fundamental is needed; namely, a rural development board. I entirely agree that one does not require this at the Whitehall level. A Ministry for Rural Affairs, as I have said, would be too complicated.

There are certain rural areas where the problems are so acute that something more specific and comprehensive is needed than the services of ADAS or planning arrangements. ADAS, after all, is advisory; it is not executive. It is now almost 10 years since the very modest experiment in the Pennines and Wales on rural development boards was wiped out by the 1970 Government, to the great indignation of many who knew the real extent of the problems in certain areas. I seriously suggest that the recommendation made in the comments of the NFU on the Strutt Report, in which it says that the union records its view that the rural development approach to rural problems warrants very careful and sympathetic consideration, be taken seriously.

I do not know whether my noble friend Lord Strabolgi is going to be in a position to comment on that today; quite likely not. However, I am certain that there are sonic places in which one needs more than an advisory service, however admirable it may be, and that, as the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, suggested, we should carry out experiments, but experiments in depth in certain places. I hope that by now, when some of the political dust may have settled—10 years is quite a long time, after all—noble Lords in all parts of the House might agree that an arrangement of this kind in specified areas with intense problems should not be disregarded. My Lords, I revert to my opening sentiments: the Strutt Report in itself has received the warmest welcome from many of us who are much concerned with countryside affairs. We await to be convinced by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, that it has been taken equally seriously in the highest quarters.

4.17 p.m.


My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Collison, for bringing forward this debate. I join with the noble Baroness, Lady White, in criticism of the Government. It is quite wrong that 10 months after such an important report as this has been published we have yet to receive any Government statement, and even this debate precedes one.

Between 1971 and 1978 the average recorded loss of land from agriculture was about 125,000 acres annually, but the projected figure is a reduced amount of about 75,000 acres per annum. Nevertheless, this figure represents over half of 1 per cent. of the total rural area of England and Wales. If this country's major industry is to continue to expand as the Government would wish, we cannot afford to lose this amount of land. Other areas of land must be found or planning rationalised to prevent such a loss.

Besides working more closely with the NCC and allowing more public access to the countryside, there are increasing pressures on the farmer to produce more from less land. This will lead to a critical situation. The need for higher output from land is illustrated by the fact that in 1977 our import bill for food and feeding-stuffs amounted to £6,300 million, of which £2,900 million was spent on types of food which we are capable of producing at home. From the NCC point of view, it is the first time in our history that our resources of wildlife will be reduced unacceptably unless we plan to maintain them, even though we have to pay more for them. A decision must be made as to priorities, and the closer all sides can work together, the better we shall be able to make the countryside for our grandchildren. I therefore accept the report's main recommendation that the MAFF has a wider role to play.

Regarding the loss of agricultural land, I was pleased to note the report's conclusion that the 10 acre threshold for consultation should he reduced to two hectares. It is also important that when loss of land is being considered the MAFF and the planners take into full account the "farmability" of the land as well as its inherent physical attributes. Grade 3 land does not mean that it is third-rate land, as some planners seem to think. It might be better to preserve for the future grades 3 and 4 land which are well farmed and being utilised in a highly productive manner, and let grades 1 and 2 land on the urban fringe be taken for an alternative use. In theory this might sound wrong, but in practice, where such land cannot be farmed viably, it would be for the benefit of agriculture, which is a longterm business, to lose the better quality land.

I have one major disagreement with the report. Agriculture is important wherever it is located, and the identification of Priority areas as recommended by the report implies that farmland outside those areas is of less importance and therefore more vulnerable to pressure to use that land for non-agricultural purposes. The MAFF should continue to support agriculture over the whole country and not discriminate in favour of any priority area, except where grants are concerned. I welcome the recommendations regarding closer working between the MAFF and the NCC as well as those for the need to encourage farmers and landowners to enter into appropriate management agreements with realistic compensation. There is scope here for further consideration, as we have already heard. In addition, there could be consideration to see whether any help might be given to a farmer or landowner with regard to capital transfer tax.

Paragraphs 164 to 168 of the report discuss water authorities. All the information available indicates that this is a prime example of QUANGOs engaging in activities for which they were not set up. Is there really any need for them to own I per cent. of the total rural area of England and Wales? If that need can be substantiated—and from the evidence I have available it certainly cannot—then should not the authorities be banned from farming land in hand? The land they own would be more productive and would save the taxpayer money if it were all let on a commercial basis on management agreements and with suitable covenants for both the authorities and the tenants.

I should like to say a final brief word about footpaths. I had hoped that the report would recommend a further re-organisation of the present system to suit modern needs, but as it does not I hope that the Government, in the interests of better land utilisation, will bring in some measures that will provide an easier and more flexible system to divert or close footpaths on a temporary basis, which would not in any way impinge on access to the countryside.

4.22 p.m.


My Lords, paragraph 18 of the Strutt Report seems to hit the nail on the head. The final sentence says: This trend towards larger-scale, mechanised farming has also had harmful repercussions upon the viability of rural communities in certain areas in terms of reduced job opportunities, schooling and transport services, and upon social life generally". The question of job opportunities is the one with which I am concerned today. I would suggest that is a national objective in the countryside and I very much regret that the Minister did not add the one word "employment" to the terms of reference of the council. Had he done so the recommendations from paragraph 189 onwards would have been much stronger and more positive.

The debate in your Lordships' House on 14th February and the remarks of my noble friend Lord Sandford, I think, have made it quite clear that farming alone is not enough in the countryside. I would suggest that tourism is a help but is not by any means the whole answer. If one looks at the county of Cornwall—a prime tourist county—one finds that it has a very short holiday tourist season indeed, and that during the rest of the year unemployment runs at about 14 per cent., rising in St. Ives to about 21 per cent., I believe. One also finds that the average wages paid in Cornwall are well below the national level. I suggest that we need a choice of commercial and industrial employment within about 30 minutes' travelling distance of where people are actually living.

It is in response to this need that a new kind of voluntary body has come into existence lately. It is called "a local enterprise trust". There are about 30 of them in existence throughout the country and they are trying to do something about high unemployment and about the need to replace dying and static businesses with new sources of employment. The Anglo-German Foundation has just published a study of six local enterprise trusts: four urban and two rural. The two rural ones were situated in West Somerset and in the Lleyn Peninsula of North-West Wales. These local enterprise trusts exist to give advice and encouragement to provide services, to negotiate and to help to organise small entrepreneurs and self-employed people. They are hoping to be able to develop the local economy in any appropriate way and in an appropriate way for any particular place. The question will arise: how can these trusts be financed? The suggestion I should like to put forward is that the model devised for parish halls may be appropriate. If a village wants a parish hall it must raise some money itself. This is then multiplied by funds provided from local and central Government.

As well as voluntary bodies, I think that Government bodies have a very considerable contribution to make towards giving us wide and varied employment in the countryside. We all know about CoSIRA and the Development Commission. I very much hope that whatever limitations there are on these bodies will be removed so that they are enabled to help small businesses and small employers, not only in small country towns but also in medium-sized country towns. I hope that the distinction between development, intermediate and other areas will be less, as indeed is suggested in the Strutt Report. The Bolton Report is also lying about on the table. I very much hope that its remaining recommendations relating to small businesses will soon be implemented.

I should like to turn now to buildings. It seems that new businesses and small businesses have the greatest difficulty in finding premises not only of the right size but also at the right price. I think it is generally agreed that there is throughout the country a shortage of "starter units"—places where someone can setup a business initially. I had experience of this myself when connected with an embryo printing business two years ago. Just in the last six months in East Somerset the widest variety of little businesses have been approaching me in the hope of finding premises: cattle food, small brewing, stained glass, builders, furniture, coach and lorry operators, and perhaps even bookbinders.

The one thing they have in common is that none of them seem to be able to afford the price of new purpose-built premises on trading estates. Mostly, they want to rent the premises they need. I suggest that we should look very carefully at redundant farm buildings as a possible source of second-hand but reusable accommodation for these small enterprises. I think we can expect that nationalised industries, particularly perhaps British Rail and the National Coal Board, can make available some of the buildings they still have in the countryside so that they can be put to productive use by others.

I think, finally, that we need a change in the planning outlook and a presumption in favour of the use of existing buildings for workshops, for light industry and even for offices. No doubt there will have to be safeguards, but I hope the Government will be forthcoming on that one, as indeed on many of the other recommendations in the report.

4.29 p.m.


My Lords, the membership of the noble Lord, Lord Collison, of the Advisory Council for Agriculture and Horticulture ensures that what he says today carries weight and authority. May I join with other speakers in expressing my gratitude to him for bringing this report to the attention of your Lordships' House and for the opportunity it gives to debate its contents and recommendations.

The last time we had a general debate on agriculture was nearly two years ago, and I remember pointing out then that there was at that time no firm strategy with regard to land use in this country, nor is there one now. I remember using the Government's own figures for loss of agricultural land to development of various kinds, which they then estimated at around 70,000 acres per year. I also referred to the report Land for Agriculture that had recently been produced by the Centre for Agricultural Strategy, based on Reading University, and I quoted these words from it: It is no exaggeration to say that without a more positive approach to land use planning now there is danger of land scarcity in the near future". That debate was on 27th April, 1977, and in May, 1977, the Minister of Agriculture asked Sir Nigel's Advisory Council to report to him, advising him on ways in which, … the Ministry could best contribute towards reconciling the national requirement for economic agricultural and horticultural production, with the development of other national objectives in the countryside". If the terms of reference had ended just there, then we might conceivably have now been discussing recommendations to Government on developing a national land use strategy, instead of these recommendations, excellent as they are, which are more limited in scope.

They are limited, because the Minister's instruction to the Advisory Council went on like this: … in the light of public interest in recreation and access and in conservation and amenity". I should not wish for one moment to underestimate public interest in recreation and access and in conservation and amenity. Such interest is lively and increasing. The need for the 90 per cent. of our population who live in towns to enter into and enjoy a well-kept countryside is very great. As the report shows, this public interest has to be reconciled with efficient food production. But I have to confess to a feeling of disappointment that the Minister did not feel able, or did not then see the need when he drafted these terms of reference, to examine land use in greater depth. I accept that this might have been a heavy task for the Advisory Council. There is, however, an urgent need for a searching inquiry into not only the matters covered by this report, but those, together with all the other demands upon our precious and limited stock of land. It is necessary to examine all these demands and the ways in which they can be reconciled with the national objective of feeding our people.

Sections 2,3 and 4 of the report set out and explain clearly and concisely the role of agriculture, the machinery of administering rural affairs and the statutory planning process and its relationship and impact upon agricultural development. They are excellent and will serve equally well for the kind of wider-ranging survey that I hope for. I was particularly interested in the report's analysis of the planning process. I have participated in this process at most levels from regional planning downwards, and I have studied with much attention the way in which decisions are made that involve taking land out of agriculture.

My own experience leads me to conclusions very similar to those of the Advisory Council and I agree with the recommendations under Section 3. Machinery exists for ensuring that our industrial society uses our land resources wisely. There are, however, better ways of working the system and the report lists some of them. If I mention just three of the planning recommendations, it is because they are those which would help to ensure that the MAFF is able to present the agricultural case more forcefully than it already does.

They are, first, that both structure and local plans should specify the priorities accorded to agriculture and horticulture. When the Regional Council, of which I am a member, looked at the draft structure plans of our counties, as is its duty, we examined one county council's document and there were many pages, but on not one of them did the word "agriculture" appear at all. So that I heartily endorse this particular recommendation. But most structure plans are now ready for approval and the report came out nearly a year ago. Secondly, the present calling in procedures should be strengthened to require the DOE, at the MAFF's request, to call in any case where there is an unresolved agricultural objection to a planning proposal. I should very much like to hear, when the noble Lord replies, the Government's reaction to this most useful recommendation. Thirdly, the present threshold of 10 acres, above which planning proposals affecting agricultural land must be referred by local planning authorities to the MAFF for advice, should be reduced to five acres. This is long overdue.

This is a short debate and I must resist the temptation to dwell too long on the planning process, but it is through this process that any long-term land use strategy will, in the end, have to be implemented. I turn, therefore, to the other recommendations. I welcome the suggestion that the MAFF should take on a wider responsibility for promoting wildlife and landscape conservation, and I accept that this has implications for its advisory, statutory and regulating work. Probably the ADAS is the best body to advise on how to achieve a balanced use of land. Integration of conservation with agriculture requires considerable skill and additional specialist staff will be required within the ADAS to advise. One does rather wonder where they will come from. There will clearly, as the report points out, need to be a much closer liaison between the MAFF, the Countryside Commission and the Nature Conservancy Council.

If it is decided to consider a change in the role of the ADAS, then this question needs to be answered. In the event of a difference of opinion between food production interests and conservation interests, how will the decision be made? Will there be an appeal procedure? One can envisage this kind of situation. A farmer applies for grant aid to drain a wet area. The advisory officer may say to him "This is potentially good land and, if drained, will yield three tons of wheat to the acre. On the other hand, wearing my conservation hat" he may say "I am bound to tell you that it is a breeding ground for a rare butterfly, so not only will you not get your drainage grant but you must not reclaim the land." The farmer may agree or he may say "I think that food production is more important and, anyway, the butterflies breed quite happily on that land next door." Somehow this kind of difficulty would have to be resolved.

With regard to management agreements, I welcome the recommendation that fair compensation be paid. But I hope that this would take the form of annual payments to cover the costs of conservation, rather than a once and for all capital payment. With regard to CTT, which has been mentioned by another noble Lord, there are under present legislation CTT concessions that would go with conservation management agreements, but there is at present a lack of certainty about what land would qualify. I believe that the Government have this in mind, and it may be that we can deal best with this matter when the Countryside Bill comes before us, if it does. I welcome, too, the recommendations for conservation in National Parks, but I know that your Lordships will attach far more weight to the observations of my noble friend Lord Sandford, than to anything that I may have to offer on that subject.

I also welcome the recommendations under the recreation and access section. The report rightly emphasises the problem of land use in the urban fringe areas. We must share the advisory council's concern, and that of my noble friend Lord Lyell, over the productive land that now lies idle and over the permanent loss to agriculture of much high quality land in those areas. Probably the most vigorous recommendation in this section is the one referred to by my noble friend Lord Lyell, that approval of proposals by local authorities for the development of agricultural land be made conditional upon its being demonstrated to the full satisfaction of the Secretary of State for the Environment that there is no suitable under-utilised or derelict land available for the purpose elsewhere in the conurbation, particularly in the inner city area. There is, however, at present a lack of the kind of information required for implementing and enforcing some of the recommendations in this section.

Finally, the Strutt Report sets out clearly the conflicts which occur between competing pressures on land. Implementation of the recommendations would help substantially in achieving much better reconciliation between food production and conservation, and in reducing the loss of land to urban development. I look forward to hearing what the Government have to say. I should have preferred wider terms of reference to he given to the Advisory Council, but within its terms this is a most useful report. I very much hope that it heralds the beginning of a process of inquiry from which a national land use strategy will evolve. There is little time to spare.


My Lords, I have already apologised personally to my noble friends Lord Collison and Lord Strabolgi for the fact that at 5.15 I have to take the chair at a meeting elsewhere and therefore will not be able to remain until the end of the debate. I now apologise to subsequent speakers and to the whole House.

This is obviously an important and interesting debate. It has covered, and should cover, a very wide range of subjects. I shall confine myself to but two: to access to the countryside as it affects farmers and town dwellers, and to the maintenance and improvement of the amenities of the countryside, especially in so far as farmers can have an influence upon them.

With regard to the first subject, clearly it is most desirable that as many townsfolk as possible—and not only townsfolk but village dwellers as well who do not happen to own land—should have the opportunity to enjoy those things which the countryside can offer: walking, picknicking, riding and relaxing. I do not think that many farmers have any objection to this. In fact, I believe that most farmers welcome it. But one cannot escape the fact that a very large number of people use the amenities of the countryside—I do not say enjoy them, because I do not think they always do—without paying any regard to the needs of agriculture and without having any knowledge of what farming is about.

I do not believe that my experience is in any way unusual. I have frequently found, on a somewhat wet day, charming young ladies galloping their ponies across fields sown with young seeds, without realising that they are harming the crop. They think that in so doing they are exercising their horses, themselves, and their natural rights. When that happens, naturally farmers are not very happy about it. Nor are they happy when, as no doubt many of your Lordships have experienced, a happy young family park their car on the edge of a field full of young corn and play cricket, baseball, rounders or some other game on that growing crop. When—I hope politely—this is pointed out to them, the reply often given is, "Oh, we thought that it was just grass".

There is a lamentable lack of understanding on the part of the non-farming community of what farming is about and of the need to conserve and respect growing crops. I know that a certain amount of work has been done and is being done in schools to try to teach children about this. I know also that in certain areas the National Farmers' Union has attempted to do that job. But there is a very long way to go before we achieve a really happy relationship between the town dweller and the farmer.

I hope that the various bodies—the local education authorities, the Country Landowners' Association, the National Farmers' Union, the Countryside Commission and the rest—will devote more effort than they are at the moment to educating townspeople as to the right sort of behaviour in the countryside. They need to be educated not only not to leave their litter in the countryside but also not to throw their mattresses and prams into the shelter belts which exist on farms. I am afraid that this is normal procedure. Townspeople also need to be taught what farming is about, what crops are, and how they need to be looked after and respected.

My second point relates to the conservation and improvement of the amenities of the countryside. First, may I suggest to your Lordships that it is a very great error to think that in March 1979 our countryside has reached the pinnacle of its beauty and attractiveness. We love our countryside not only for what we see today—and for what those of us who are older saw 20, 40 or even 60 years ago —but because this is a dynamic process. The countryside is continually changing and adapting itself.

Just as some of us may regret that WC no longer hear the hum of the threshing drum and the wonderful noise that the steam engine made because it has been replaced by the clatter of the combine harvester, so I am quite sure that our fathers regretted that they no longer heard the very special noise of the scythe cutting against the stalks of corn as they watched the women and children following behind the men with the scythes and gathering up the corn into stooks. We cannot look upon the countryside as a museum that has to be preserved exactly as it is today, or as it was when we were somewhat younger and more impressionable. It must always be seen to be a growing and developing area of land, adapting itself to the economic needs of farming but—while preserving, where necessary and where it can—at the same time creating new sources of beauty, interest and enjoyment for those who live in the country and also for those who live in the towns.

How can we do this? To a certain extent it is a matter of taste. What makes the countryside beautiful to one person makes it less attractive to others. Some people, including myself, like the wide open spaces of the heathlands of East Anglia. Others like the small lanes and hedges of the West Country. We all remember the great outcry that there has been against the removal of hedges; yet much of the countryside is more beautiful as a result of hedges being removed, especially untidy and overgrown hedges. But that is a matter of taste, so we cannot be dogmatic about it. Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that it would be a shame if certain buildings were to disappear. I believe that we also all agree that trees of any kind must be preserved, that new trees must be planted and that dead trees, particularly as a result of elm disease, must be removed, as they are eyesores, and replaced by new young trees.

There is insufficient time to go into various other subjects. The farmer or the landowner—but more often the landowner than the farmer, although they may be the same person—must take an interest in them. I believe that most farmers and landowners take that interest. Even those who do not take that interest are changing their attitude towards the countryside, because of public interest in the subject which is increasingly being expressed. So that matter is already taken care of.

However, one must have knowledge of how to look after the countryside. It is not just a question of sticking a sapling into the ground and hoping that it will grow. Knowledge of trees is needed, and knowledge of siting, too. Therefore I support the suggestion that ADAS should be brought in. I do not see any contradiction in ADAS promoting the efficiency of agriculture and at the same time reminding their clients, the farmers, of the importance of the environment and giving them professional advice, or putting them in touch with those who can give it.

Money, however, will be needed. I do not want to stand before your Lordships and say that the farmers are always short of cash and are having a very hard time. All I would say is that if the public at large, the urban dweller, expects the farmer to cut down dead trees, to have tidy hedges, to plant new copses and to retain and renovate old buildings, it will cost money. That money can come either—but God forbid!—from Government sources or out of the farmers' own profits. But if the profits of farmers are unduly squeezed, they will not be able to carry out this work. We have only to look at the deterioration of our countryside in the years between the two World Wars to see what happens when farmers' profits are unduly squeezed. We only have to look today, when farming is more profitable, to see that a lot of money is being spent by farmers in the maintenance and improvement of amenities.

So I would say to your Lordships that we must accept that the landscape is continually changing; we must do what we can to ensure that it is changing in such a way that those things which we really cherish are maintained; that the changes that do take place enhance rather than detract from the beauty; that farmers are encouraged to do this and are helped through professional advice to do this, and that the consuming population—the urban population—should realise that all these things that they are asking for cost money and that, in the final analysis, it is the farmer and the landowner who have to pay for it.

4.51 p.m.


My Lords, in following the noble Lord, Lord Walston, I should like to say how much I have enjoyed his delving into nostalgia for the past as well as his very commonsense warning about being too much influenced by it in our treatment of the country in the future. I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Collison, very much for giving us the opportunity to have this most interesting debate this afternoon, to which I intend to contribute hardly a speech but just one point. I hope that noble Lords will not feel that I am too single-minded in referring once again, as I have to your Lordships on numerous other occasions, to the position of forestry and the sort of problems about which we have been speaking this afternoon. At any rate, I hope that if your Lordships think I am too single-minded I shall be absolved from any accusation of being narrow-minded about it.

Without touching upon so many of the general points which crop up in this report and which are the concern of us all, myself included—and I would say in passing how much I agree with and admire the way my noble friend Lord Middleton put things a few minutes ago—I jump straight to my point because I want to be as brief as I can in this short debate. Section two of the Strutt Report, paragraph 10, tells us that grades 4 and 5 land amount to 34 per cent. of the land in England and Wales. That of course is the poor upland pastures of the marginal lands and the hills themselves. It follows up in paragraph 11 by saying that over the past years 3,900—is it hectares or acres?—have been going out of agriculture into forestry and woodland and that this is mostly taking place in the grades 4 and 5 land.

The report goes on to say that this figure in relation to forestry is expected to stabilise. I just wonder what led Sir Nigel Strutt and his Committee to come to that conclusion, because in the light of what we have all now come to refer to as the Forestry Commission's blue book there are strong arguments advanced for giving consideration to a considerable increase in the forestry acreage. We are expecting at any moment now the report on forestry by the Centre for Agricultural Strategy at Reading University. We do not know what they may be suggesting, but I guess that they may not be very far away from the arguments advanced by the Forestry Commission.

There is no time to go into the arguments or the evidence suggesting the need to double the acreage of our forests. The arguments are there and this is not the occasion to debate them, although I hope perhaps your Lordships will find time to do so before this year is out. This, and the very low level of farm productivity prevailing over that 34 per cent. of the land in the uplands, point to an urgent need for encouraging by every possible means an intensification of pastoral agricultural methods. That means capital investment in such things as fencing and grassland improvement by the use of fertilisers, re-seeding techniques, the provision of roads, the renewal of buildings, et cetera. Such measures, if they were adopted, would make possible the production of livestock at existing or even at enhanced levels from a fraction of the land which is now being used for the extension system of grazing.

The corollary to my last statement, that one could do it on smaller acreages, is obvious. Land in adequate measure could thus—and I suggest only thus—become available for the sort of expansion of forestry that some say we need. As a small and heavily populated island, we cannot afford to leave our hill areas under-utilised as they are at the moment. Investment by both public and private sectors towards greater productivity of the hill country is a need which the Government and the country must face up to and tackle, and the productivity must come from farming and forestry integrated together as primary products of the land.

Paragraph 28 of the Strutt Report touches on capital grants for farm improvements. Are they enough, and arc they of the right sort to produce the required action in the hills? Is ADAS—an organisation to which the report pays very proper tribute—doing enough to encourage these desirable developments in adequate degree? If the answer to these questions is "yes", why is it not happening? It is not happening at all fast.

I commend these thoughts to the attention of your Lordships. The rate of return from investment in hill-land improvement, whether forestry or farming, may be low but it is an investment that we, in our present position in the world, must make for our successors, if not for ourselves. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, who is always so courteous and helpful, will bear these considerations in mind in replying to the debate.

4.58 p.m.


My Lords, this has been an excellent debate and I sincerely hope that I shall take a lesson from the rest of your Lordships and discipline myself to speak for a very short period though we have not had a general debate on agriculture for a long time and I think that we should have at least the opportunity for a full debate on agriculture in the very near future. Nevertheless, with other noble Lords I congratulate my noble friend Lord Collison on raising this issue today.

I pay tribute to all who worked on the Strutt Report but I wish to add one little semantic criticism. I am tired to death of Government reports being loaded with acronyms—all these letters! There should be a dictionary at the beginning of a report. In one Committee on which I sat I insisted that we put at the beginning what all the acronyms meant. A lot of people are laymen and we want the laymen in agriculture to understand, so for God's sake let us at least put the full title at the beginning of a page so that if the reader has forgotten what "ADAS" stands for—and I can think of other things that it stands for, too—there is a definition.

As an old hand at politics I have always bought the Conservative Guide. It is marvellous stuff. I am not being facetious. If I wanted the best political information for my election campaigns I would get the "Conservative notes for Labour candidates"! Of course I was frightened to death at one time, although it is good information. At page 343 of the Campaign Guide for the 1970 Election, just before we were rolled into the Common Market— and I will show your Lordships its relevance to the Strutt Report in a moment —it says: The Commission's Vice-President, Mr. Mansholt, published his reform proposals [for agriculture] in December 1968. They drew attention to the growing problems if policies remain unchanged—the 'butter mountain' (surplus) will soon run out of storage space". Not that the mountain would run out but that the storage space would run out was the problem. It has done it for cabbages, too. This sentence frightened me to death: The cost of financing present policies could rise to £5,000 million by 1985. Apart from proposals to adjust current prices (notably to cut the butter intervention price by 30 per cent.) Mr. Mansholt's long-term proposals are farseeing and drastic, involving the retirement of wait for it— five million farmers by 1980". There is a modern word; this is just kitsch, pretentious nonsense. I want to know what is going to happen to the farmers whom we say in the Strutt Report we are going to try to improve. Or are we going to eradicate the little man completely? Listen to the next bit: taking out of production agricultural land equal to the area of Belgium". We are now in the Common Market. What powers have we to run some of these excellent suggestions without being told what we can do and cannot do inside our own country? It is no good pretending, no good at all. I shall leave it at that and pick up some points in the next five minutes which I am allowing myself.

The great question asked in the report is how the Ministry of Agriculture can reconcile various interests, and the chairman's foreword demonstrates that we need co-operation. He says: We have found it impossible to restrict ourselves to agriculture during the course of our inquiry, encountering as we did so many areas of concern to other Departments". He then mentions the eight main areas: machinery and its administration in rural affairs, statutory planning, landscape and nature conservation, recreation and access, the urban fringe. I was delighted with Lord Lyell's report and that of another noble Lord on the intelligent use of the urban fringes which could produce lots of food.

The other main area was land owning and public bodies. That brings me to the Treasury. I should have liked to see two other bodies consulted by Strutt. Was the Treasury called in? Was the Ministry of Education called in? An appeal was made by the noble Lord, Lord Walston, an informed temperate and tropical farmer: how do you expect to encourage a unity with agriculture if you are going to destroy all the rural schools in Britain and cart little children miles away to the so-called central schools? There is a certain age at which the rural child can have as good an education in a small class in a rural school as he will get if he is carted through the snows of the Derbyshire Peak District. From those local schools many of them get to universities, get their A-levels and get their Higher. The organisation of the rural school should be reassessed in relation to the Strutt Report, in relation to modern agriculture and in relation to the modern understanding of our land.

I was delighted and gave a hearty hear, hear! to the reports on factories. There are two other reports that we should have. Please do not think I am being didactic. Farming and the Nation is of paramount importance, and an analysis of the possible patterns of agricultural production up to 1983 is also of vital importance. But I put the Treasury's relationship with all these organisations in first place. If we take the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas—its acronym is CoSIRA—it found lots of work and lots of rural arts and crafts. I had better give the council a little praise. Country Life, which I read regularly, on 14th December 1978 had a leading article on rural renewal. It said: Perhaps the silliest of all Treasury rules governing the use of public funds is that money not spent in one financial year cannot be carried forward to the next; it must either be disbursed during the allotted 12 months or it is forfeited". That is the cause of a lot of waste of money in the National Health Service, because they spend the money to get rid of it. The Treasury should have been brought in. That encourages extravagance because administrators, being human, prefer money spent to money returned to the Treasury, for not only is unspent money lost during the financial year but an equivalent amount is liable to be lopped off the subsequent annual grant". The Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas and to a lesser extent, the National Council for Social Service and Rural Community Councils are aware of this. I am now summarising because I have spoken for eight minutes and I think I had better finish at that point.

I really and truly believe that what this House has said about agriculture having a say in five acres (to use this terrible word "hectare"—and a hectare is 2¼ acres) should come back again to what it was before 1970. We should have a Ministry of Agriculture really having a say before land use changes. Finally, we should somehow or other get the Treasury to realise that this silly rule of theirs does not save taxpayers' money but destroys the possibility of constructive action, particularly as regards the countryside. There was an appeal not to make the countryside a rural museum. One of the ways not to make it a museum is to encourage rural arts and crafts and small businesses and factories to come to Britain's countryside. I have no fear ultimately about the success of the British people, but, in seeking that success, for God's sake watch the bureaucracy in the Common Market.

5.8 p.m.


My Lords, I mean the noble Lord, Lord Collison, no disrespect if I start off by referring to the very beginning of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, whom I have been privileged to listen to on many occasions recently in your Lordships' House, and his speech was none the less enjoyable today than it has been on previous occasions. I would invite him to set up with me an organisation with the title BAN—Ban Acronyms Now. He and I share exactly the same point of view on this particular subject.

We are of course indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Collison, for introducing this very important subject for discussion this afternoon, and for introducing, if I may be allowed to say so without condescension, in such a clear-cut way what is such a very all-embracing report. The debate has moved along in a swiftly flowing stream and (shall I say?) on a rather temperate level. The temperature was slightly raised just now by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, in his inevitable way. But I must say that this report is the only one that I have seen that really had my blood boiling. Again, I mean no disrespect to the chairman of the Advisory Council for Agriculture and Horticulture, Sir Nigel Strutt, nor indeed to the noble Lord, Lord Collison. But the Council was set up, we are told—in fact, it is not actually contained in the report but is just a general introduction to the subject— To consider and report on agricultural and horticultural matters within the field of responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food". That is fair enough and your Lordships may well ask what made my blood boil. At page 2, paragraph 7 of the report proper says: Yet agriculture (together with horticulture) still makes a significant contribution to the national gross domestic product (about £2,760 million in 1976)". That is all very fine, but of that total horticulture amounted to a gross total of £593 million. I would say that an industry producing items—whether food or not—of that size is entitled to be called an industry in its own right. I agree that there are problems in determining where agriculture stops and horticulture begins —for example, potatoes are now regarded as an agricultural crop; cabbages on many sites are regarded as agricultural crops; second grade roses which are available are now regarded as agricultural crops, whereas formerly we would have called them horticultural crops. However, as I have said, the amount is no mean amount and to lump the two industries together in that way is something which has gone on in the public mind for far too long. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, will follow the lead of his Department and, with me, try to put a stop to it this evening.

I do not want to speak for too long. However, there is one matter which illustrates what I am trying to say and that concerns the pressures of land. Horticulture is found to a large extent, although I would admit not totally, on the fringe areas around urban developments. Nowadays one whizzes to London Airport on the M.4, but before that road was built I was a regular mover along the A.4, which was the main road. Between the outskirts of London and Heathrow Airport there are large amounts of horticultural land, producing, of course, horticultural crops for the metropolis. London has expanded and that land has shrunk; the airport has expanded and that land has shrunk. One could well say that those are also the problems of agricultural land.

However, horticultural land has another competitor and that, of course, is agriculture. It is expensive to get hold of small parcels of land. I believe that at present the average price is somewhere between £800 and £2,000 an acre for agricultural land. In small areas of less than five acres it can, in my part of the world in West Somerset, be as high a £5,000 an acre. One must produce a great many crops to be able to justify overheads of that kind. I feel very strongly that, when agriculture and horticulture are looked at in a report such as this one, agriculture swamps horticulture, which is not only unfair but manifestly unjust.

Finally, I note, again from the report, that the Advisory Council was set up in 1973 for three years and was reappointed in 1976 for three years. It is now 1979 and I hope that it will be reappointed for a further term and that the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, will have something to say on that matter. When it is reappointed I hope that it will look much more carefully at the dissimilar problems of horticulture which, of course, come very directly within its remit.

5.15 p.m.


My Lords, in company with other noble Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Collison for choosing this very important subject for debate and for introducing it so clearly and so well. We have listened with great interest to the points which he and other noble Lords have made, and I was particularly interested in my noble friend's account of the evidence given by the many organisations which the Strutt Committee consulted on a countrywide basis.

The Strutt Report is a major contribution to a greater understanding of the importance of agriculture and agricultural production on the one hand, and of conserving the natural beauty and amenity of the countryside on the other; and the importance of reconciling such conflicts as may from time to time arise between them. Here I should like to pay a tribute to Sir Nigel Strutt and his Committee, of which, of course, my noble friend Lord Collison was a distinguished member.

As the report makes clear, the problems arising from the multiple use of the countryside are not easy of solution. The report says that only imaginative action, and adequate resources of manpower and money, will ensure material progress towards their resolution. There have been a good number of speakers today —I am very glad that there have been—and my time is short. Perhaps I can use it best by summarising the Government's response to this extremely important report. I hope to answer my noble friend Lady White and the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, and to go rather further than perhaps both of them expected.

My right honourable friend the Minister and the Secretaries of State for the Environment and Wales have accepted the central recommendation of the Advisory Council that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food could and should play a more positive role in countryside affairs. They also accept in principle the recommendation that they should extend the existing knowledge of ADAS in environmental matters, and develop its capacity to provide guidance to farmers on conservation. My right honourable friends point out, however, that it would be wrong to take on this new task without being sure that the necessary resources can he made available. They will therefore have to consider whether the necessary training programme and a continuing extra workload can be undertaken in the light of calls on other public expenditure and without prejudice to the Service's other important tasks, particularly the basic one of helping to improve the efficiency of the agricultural industry. As and when it becomes possible to do that, it will be done, for, as my noble friend has said, the ADAS officer is seen as a friend of the farmer. Meanwhile, ADAS will continue to act in consultation with the local authorities and statutory conservation agencies and give full weight to environmental aims in the course of their normal work.

My right honourable friends fully endorse the Council's recommendations on promoting a better understanding between town and country-as referred to by my noble friend Lady White—and on the need for consultation and co-operation at all levels between all those concerned with rural affairs. They hope that, both at county level and below, local authorities will take the lead in bringing together the many interests concerned. The two Agricultural Departments will take part in projects of this kind to the extent that resources allow.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and his right honourable friends are agreed that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should, as the council suggest, take an even more active part in the planning process but without disturbing the present responsibilities of central and local Government. He points out that as living standards rise there is bound to be a continuing demand for land resources for new, socially desirable uses, and the planning system continues to offer the most appropriate mechanism for guidance and control. At the same time existing legislation offers new opportunities for local planning authorities to relieve pressure on agricultural land by developing derelict, vacant or under-used land within existing built-up areas whenever this is reasonably practicable.

If agricultural land has to be taken, the amount should be no greater than is reasonably required. Land of a higher quality should not be taken where land of a lower quality can sensibly be used. My right honourable friend regards these guidelines as extremely important and will normally expect to call in for his own decision proposals for the development of good agricultural land which depart significantly from development plans and to which there is an outstanding objection by the Minister.

The Secretary of State and the Minister stress that when preparing their local plans, local planning authorities should carefully weigh the needs for development of land against the need to retain land for food production whenever possible. Ministry of Agriculture officials will be available to help authorities in considering the agricultural aspects. In order to help any local planning authority which is in need of advice on applications for the developing of smaller areas, the Minister has instructed his officials to accept requests for advice on areas down to five acres of agricultural land.

The problems of the loss of food production from the under-farming of land awaiting development, referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Robson of Kidding-ton, require further consideration. The complex problems of the urban fringe, on which the council lays particular emphasis, call for a long-term study, such as is now being made by the Countryside Commission.

The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, asked what steps we were taking over derelict land. Grants are payable to local authorities for the reclamation of such land under various Acts: the Land Employment Act 1972, the Local Government Act 1966 and the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. Grants are either capital grants or they are revenue grants paid annually over 60 years on the basis of 50 per cent. of notional annual loan charges. My noble friend Lady White asked about the Rural Development Board. This was, and still is, an interesting concept which has many supporters. The Strutt Report hoped that in considering the report's proposals for a closer integration of the various interests in the country areas, the Minister would have regard to the concepts and objectives of the Rural Development Board. The Strutt recommendation is for a consultative machinery at local and national level, aimed at a better co-ordinated approach to the problems of rural areas, with special regard to reconciling conflicting interests. I dealt with that in general terms earlier in my speech.

The noble Lord, Lord Middleton, raised a number of points. He asked about manpower implications. If the recommendations to give an enhanced role to ADAS are implemented, they will require an estimated 100 man years, but that is tentative only. It is very difficult to estimate over the long term what the advisory, promotional and grant aid administration will entail. We also fully agree with the Council that the formulation of detailed local plans is a vital step in the planning machine. The MAFF is fully alive to the opportunity here for influencing local strategy and is already closely involved in consultations at this stage. The noble Lord, Lord Middleton, also asked about capital grant schemes for conservation. Capital grants are payable to farmers under the Farm Capital Grants Scheme, the Horticulture Capital Grants Scheme and the Farm and Horticulture Development Scheme. Where additional expenditure is incurred, in order to conform to conservation or amenity requirements, the grant payment can take account of this. Examples would be the shape, colour or materials of farm buildings, the planting of screening belts, the provision of access roads to take account of special siting requirements and walling to match landscape. Those works attract grant at the same rate as the main agricultural works with which they are connected.

The noble Lord, Lord Dulverton, asked about forestry grants. Forestry grants are made under the Basis I, Basis 2 and Basis 3 Schemes. The latest statement of forestry policy and grants was made in 1977. I am glad to say that there has been a pleasing and increasing take-up of these grants. Amenity considerations are taken into account by the Forestry Commission when applications are made to them under these three forestry grant schemes.

The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, took my right honourable friend the Minister and the council to task for not giving, as he thought, sufficient emphasis to horticulture. Both horticulture and agriculture were referred to in the Minister's request to the Advisory Council. Although it is true that horticulture is not specifically referred to in the report—except in the way the noble Lord quoted—what is said there applies, of course, to horticultural interests and activities as much as to those of agriculture itself, as the term "agriculture" is normally taken to include horticulture. The report examines how to reconcile differences of view. The detailed examination of agriculture and horticulture is contained in the White Paper Farming and the Nation. I hope that that has done something to reassure the noble Lord that we attach as much importance to horticulture as he does.

The most important change of all is the need for a change in the attitudes among certain farmers—fortunately, a small minority—and members of the public. The farmer should understand and accept that he does not have exclusive rights over his land to the exclusion of all other interests. He is the custodian of a vitally important part of our national heritage, and he must realise that others as well as himself have an interest in that heritage. The visitors to the countryside—particularly those from the towns, who may not always be used to country ways, as described by my noble friend Lord Walston—must learn to accept that the primary task of our farmland, whether it be arable land or the open hill, is the production of food for the nation and is not there solely to provide them with an afternoon's recreation, as the Strutt Report emphasises.

Changes of attitude are often the slowest and most difficult of all things to bring about. I feel sure that they will be brought about, given the necessary leadership and help by the Government Departments and countryside agencies and, above all, by goodwill on all sides. We are grateful to Sir Nigel Strutt and to his Advisory Council for their extremely interesting and far-seeing report.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, will he please answer the point I raised about water authorities? Can he give us some sort of time-scale on the considerations of finance that the present Government are giving to this matter?


My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot. If I may, I shall write to the noble Earl.


My Lords, I did not want to interrupt the flow of the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, but it seems that I failed to make myself clear when I referred to hill farming improvements. It was the grants and the incentives for improving hill farms, not the grants available for forestry, about which I was really concerned when I spoke. I do not expect the noble Lord to be able to answer off the cuff now, but I should be grateful if he could give the matter his attention after the debate.


Yes, my Lords; I shall certainly take note of what the noble Lord has said with his great knowledge, and pass this on to my right honourable friends and go into it and write to him, if I may, at a later date.

5.30 p.m.


My Lords, in my speech I said that I hoped that my noble friend would be able to give us some indication of the Government's reaction to the report, and other noble Lords did so as well. I am grateful to him for speaking as he did and giving us an indication of what is the Government's reaction. I want to study what he has said very carefully. It appears that a number of the recommendations that the Strutt Committee made have been accepted: the more positive role for agriculture, the ADAS in principle. But here Lord Sandford's worry about the availability of cash was also quite evident. Nevertheless, in principle the Strutt Committee recommendation that there should be consultation at all levels has been accepted; again to be dealt with as resources allow. The five-acre threshold has been accepted. I am extremely grateful.

As I said, I shall study the report very carefully, and I am sure that Sir Nigel Strutt and the rest of his Committee will do so too. The response from noble Lords has been generous and heartening. No one raised any strong objection to the recommendations made in the report, and what was said was encouraging to me and I am sure will be encouraging to Sir Nigel and the rest. I am grateful to your Lordships. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.