§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Lord John-Mackie rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the difficulties of farmers in green belt areas, who in response to exhortations wish to diversify their operations.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is a pleasant light in this Chamber from what it has been this past hour or two and I welcome it very much indeed.
§ In putting this Question to Her Majesty's Government I must first declare an interest. I farm and live in the metropolitan green belt and I had an application before Epping Forest District Council to allow four young men to occupy some buildings for industrial purposes. These buildings were no longer required for my farming, but represented only 8 per cent. of our total buildings. Since the application has been turned down it has received some publicity. I have been approached by neighbours and others about the position in which they find themselves when applying for a planning permission in the green belt, not only around London but in other areas as well. I believe the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, will confirm this when he speaks.
§ I believe wholeheartedly in a green belt policy. We simply cannot allow our huge conurbations—London, Birmingham and Glasgow, to mention the largest—to sprawl over the surrounding countryside. I should like to point out that this is not the case of a few farms here and there. The impression I have from those to whom I have talked is that half a dozen farms here and there are affected. There are four and a half million acres of green belt land in the country. My own Epping Forest District Council alone has 75,000 acres.
§ It is difficult to find the figures of how many farms this represents. About 80 per cent. of green belt land is farmed; the rest is forests, downs and so on, but on my own observation these farms are larger than the average in the country (the average is only 150 acres) but there are few really large scale units. One can perhaps quarrel with my calculations, but I calculate that this probably represents between 15,000 and 18,000 farmers, plus their wives and families and their employees and their wives and families.
§ I make no bones about it. I want to emphasise that the management of the landscape, wildlife and recreational resources of the green belt depend on the prosperity of these people. I cannot emphasise that too much. I have said before that unless the actual business of farming, with perhaps some diversification, is profitable, no amount of grant will persuade farmers to plant trees or hedges or to take any other major conservation measures. That must be emphasised.
§ We have seen much written about farming incomes lately. They fell by 43 per cent. last year. This was not spread evenly, I readily admit, and I venture to suggest 683 that the mixed farming, which is common in green belt areas, fared badly. This may be arguable but suffice it to say that I have access to figures of cereal farming in the Eastern counties and those farmers have survived better than a 43 per cent. drop in spite of wheat prices being over £20 a tonne lower than two years ago.
The point I must make is that, apart from the devasting 43 per cent. drop in incomes, this year one can hardly lift a farming paper or some of the responsible national papers without being given warning of the future situation. I have cuttings before me. One from Big Farm Weekly says:
EEC plan will slash incomes … beef … 10–15 per cent., wheat by 10 per cent. and barley by 15 per cent.
The Farmers Weekly a couple of weeks ago said:
Cereal producers could face price cuts of double figures".
This week's Farming News says:
A time-bomb ticks".
That is a quote from Mr. Andriessen at the Farmer's Club last week. I could go on but at the same time as our prices are being slashed—my returns for wheat this year showed a drop of nearly £24 per tonne from the figure of two years ago—our costs are continually going up. I cite them—fertilisers, electricity, telephone, gas, wages, machinery, rents, interest rates. I emphasise them because they are a very heavy burden on agriculture. The only thing that has come down a little because of oil prices is the petrol for our cars, which are generally believed to be Rolls-Royces by the farming bashers.
What do we do about it? I quote David Richardson in another farming paper:
How do we deal with a situation which is heading inexorably towards lower or non-existent profit on arable farms?
There is no lack of advice and exhortation: do not rely on farming alone. Be like your European counterparts, diversify: tourism; bed and breakfasts; turn your old farm buildings into small industrial units; open up your farms to the public; farm shops; pure food produced without fertilisers and sprays, etc.; provide fishing, riding, shooting, all country sports. The list is legion. There is no lack of advice. The centre page of the Farmers Weekly last week shows just what is being done as regards turning old farm buildings into something different, and it heads it, "Old house, a new start".
§ A land agent's brochure heads an article on the same subject, "Improving future prospects", and shows what can be done. Only this week I received notice of a seminar organised by CoSIRA, which I presume everyone knows is the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas. It is an offshoot of the Development Commission. The seminar is on old buildings and new opportunities. It is to be held at Brentwood, practically on the edge of the metropolitan green belt.
§ These warnings and exhortations are not new; they have been going on for a long time. People farming in the green belt areas wonder just where they stand. There is no question that they are really disadvantaged. Practically any application for change of use of anything in the way of buildings, or almost any of the diversifications for which farmers ask, is almost immediately automatically turned down. It is all very 684 well to say, "Well, you can appeal", but it is amazing how many farmers feel that it is not worth the trouble, expense and so on going to an appeal which may fail.
§ I should like to give just three examples of which I personally know. A farmer not far from me had a small old barn which was a listed building. It was really no use for farming in this day and age. He had a plan made to convert it into a dwelling house, making sure that the old oak beams would not be covered, so as to preserve the character of the old barn. That application was turned down. A small fruit farmer near me had a not very large building which he did not require. He let it to a man who started a business making specialised footwear. He was not allowed to continue. Another smallholder waited for about four years for permission to carry on a bed-and-breakfast business.
§ I happen to know of these cases. In my opinion, not one of them would in any way have done any harm to the green belt. In fact, if one presses the planners on the subject they will admit this, but they maintain that their hands are tied. I have had discussions with them. They are reasonable people, but they point out that they have to obey their instructions and the various orders and instruments that they receive under town and country planning Acts, and so on.
However, at the Oxford Farming Conference a month ago the honourable William Waldegrave, a Minister of State from the department of the noble Lord the Minister, the Department of the Environment, made this statement in the body of the speech that he gave:
As planners—and this is not always popular—we must not let Green Belt or wider rural planning policy block the small-scale additional housing, the conversion of redundant farm buildings, and the light industrial developments which will be needed to sustain this improvement"—
that is, the improvement of life in the countryside.
Also, in answer to two questions which were asked because of that statement, he replied:"
We do want to stand firm against the wholesale destruction of the Green Belt, for example, by mammoth new housing developments. There may be particular cases that are special but in general we want the structure to remain what it is. But please District Councils"—
and I think it was a county councillor who asked him the question—
do not intrepret that as meaning that in every case where somebody comes to you for a building conversion or a particular small-scale housing development, as part and parcel of a village, you are being asked by us to give way every time to the lobby that says, 'No developments of any kind whatsoever'".
Then, in answer to another question, he said:
That is one of the messages I wanted to use this platform here today for to say to these District Councils, you are being asked to preserve the Green Belt, right, and we will stand by you with that. You are being asked not to allow urban and industrial sprawl in general but you are also being asked to do that and have the sensitivity at the same time to allow the necessary development to keep the villages and small towns alive, a much more difficult task because it is not saying no to everything".
§ I do not know whether that is the policy of the Department of the Environment, but the Minister himself, the Secretary of State, also had a long article in the Sunday Times of two weeks ago headed, "Green Belt [is] not a green museum". I think that that should be very true.
§ I think the statement made by Mr. Waldegrave was an eminently sensible statement by an eminently 685 sensible man. In fact, it was so much so that somebody at the conference suggested that he should be moved to the Ministry of Agriculture. Frankly, somebody else got up and said, "That would be a mistake. If we have a friend at the Department of the Environment, let's keep him there", and I think that is very wise. I can only hope that the planners will take note of what was said there.
§ Perhaps I may sum up the situation. Farmers' incomes are being drastically cut. They are being exhorted to diversify to maintain their incomes. In an area of 4½ million acres farmers are inhibited in their doing this because of the rigid application of planning laws. They are being asked to maintain the environment. They cannot do this without sufficient income.
§ I have been accused of wanting sympathy: just another farmer moaning, wanting charity. Sir Richard Bodey, if you please, suggests that each farmer should be given £10,000 to conserve the countryside. I have the cutting here, and I hope he is correctly reported. I am not asking for sympathy and I am not asking for charity. I never have and never will. What I am asking the Government to do is to understand the situation of probably 15,000 of my fellow farmers. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
§ 7.28 p.m.
My Lords, it is an immense pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, and his very important Unstarred Question, and perhaps add one or two questions of my own. It might perhaps have been a greater pleasure to have followed the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, rather than have him follow me: I could perhaps then have done to his speech what he may hope to do to mine after I have sat down. We can but wait and see so far as that is concerned.
As for the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, I had the honour to be chairman of the Countryside Commission at the time that the noble Lord was chairman of the Forestry Commission. At that time, although we were doing very different jobs, I think we were in part engaged in a similar job. We both had responsibility for national assets in the countryside—in my case the countryside per se and in his case forestry. We both had the responsibility of resolving a very important conflict in relation to those national assets. It is a very clear conflict—namely, the dispute which arises between those who seek to use those resources for recreational purposes and those who are responsible for those resources in so far as productivity is concerned.
It is an important conflict and I think it is right to say that the Forestry Commission, under the guidance of the noble Lord, did a great deal to resolve it. They were able to go on with productive forestry and at the same time to accommodate and adapt to the increasing demand for recreational use of the land controlled by the Forestry Commission. I think it is also true that over the years the Countryside Commission has done a great deal to resolve those conflicts. It is those conflicts about which we are concerned in this Question. We are concerned with the green belt.
Let me say at the outset that I and my noble friends on these Benches are wholly committed to the 686 preservation of the green belt. However, I must also say that we believe, and believe very strongly, that the green belt can be preserved in an acceptable and desirable form only by the preservation of profitable farming in green belt areas. On that, I think we are wholly agreed, that if land and urban fringe land which is largely agricultural land is under-farmed, it decays rapidly, falls into disuse and I think ceases to be of real value. We have seen in recent years in the urban fringes—and it is urban fringes that we are talking about; for urban fringe decay is not uniquely an English problem; it is a problem that has to be faced all over the Western world—agricultural holdings fragmented into smaller and smaller pieces; we see little pieces left idle and unfarmed, perhaps in the hope of planning consent for different kinds of development later. Hope springs eternal in the landlord's breast. I am afraid that some of that land lies doing very little for a very long time. I want to emphasise that at the outset. My commitment and that of my noble friends on these Benches to the green belt is also a commitment to preserve the green belt by preserving profitable farming in urban fringes. I think that is the way to do it.
The noble Lord's Unstarred Question draws our attention to the problems of farming profitably in some of those areas. I recognise some of those problems. I have responsibility, as chairman of the Groundwork Trust set up by the Department of the Environment, to try to restore urban fringe land in the Merseyside area. One of our major problems there has been to restore farming. The particular situation there is that much of the land which is under-farmed there is, in fact, Grade 1 agricultural land, of which there is not a great deal in the North West of England. It is a tragedy to see that lying under-farmed; and much of it has been under-farmed because of the pressures of trespass, of vandalism, of litter and problems of that kind.
One of our principal jobs—and we have managed to do it very largely as a result of the secondment to the trust of a senior civil servant from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who has been working very closely in the trust and who has managed to work very closely with the farmers in order to reconcile the conflicting interests involved—is to get the farmers to understand that they somehow have to allow some kind of access to townspeople who wish to use that land for recreational purposes and, at the same time, to encourage townspeople to understand the needs of those who occupy that land and depend on it for their living. I think that experiment has been outstandingly successful.
I accept that upland farming, of which I have more experience, but not very directly, is very difficult and that it is difficult indeed for farmers in upland areas to make an adequate living without some kind of subsidy. Many of them have other jobs. My land in Cumbria, such as it is, is farmed by the landlord of my local pub, which has certain advantages. It illustrates the point that, so far as upland farming is concerned, it cannot exist on its own. It is perhaps rather news to me that these kinds of difficulties are arising to the same extent in the green belt areas. That has been my impression, and I know very little about the economy of farming save that it seems more and more to have 687 become a matter of accountancy and making sure that one is able to attract the right grants from the EEC and so on.
I know one farmer (and I will mention no names) who on one day got a substantial grant for going out of dairy farming while on the same day his wife got a substantial grant for going into dairy farming on immediately adjacent land. So I merely say that it is sometimes a matter of accountancy. But I am now led to understand by what the noble Lord has said and by what other people have said that there are these very real difficulties.
For a long time we have been actively encouraging farmers in upland areas to diversify and to enter into activities which we hope on the whole have been agriculturally related and which will enable them to continue to farm their land. Should they not continue to farm that land, it would decay and go into disuse. I have seen many examples of that acting in practice even in national parks. I accept that we are not talking about national parks; we are talking about green belt. When you go into a farm on Exmoor, I think that farmers there farm under some difficulties because they farm under contraints in relation to conservation requirements. This particular farmer has started a boat-building enterprise which has been very successful. Although his farm is well inland, he has had no planning difficulties.
I recall having very few planning difficulties with the national park authority in the Yorkshire Dales, where an arrangement was made whereby dilapidated farm barns, which were potentially attractive buildings in that rural area, were converted with the help of grants into sleeping accommodation for walkers, who could book them in advance, as it were, and go on the trail from farm barn to farm barn, thereby bringing in an income to the farmers of the dales and assisting them and supporting them to continue farming in that area.
I now understand that in certain green belt areas farmers require some kind of diversification in order to continue to farm profitably and that impediments so far as planning permission is concerned are being placed in their way. That may be so or it may not. The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, said that the planning officers and planning departments were very reasonable people. They may be; but it is my experience that they act very differently in different areas and they act very much in response to the mood at the particular time or what they take to be the mood of those in Whitehall who are not perhaps actually their masters but whom they sometimes feel they have to consider very carefully.
I think there is no doubt, as the noble Lord has said, that there are occasions when farmers in green belt areas have wished to diversify in some ways and where planning consent could perhaps have been given without any damage to the green belt. That planning consent might have assisted the particular farmer to farm more profitably and perhaps thus have guaranteed the perpetuation of that area of green belt land.
This is a different matter from the question of planning consent in relation to agricultural buildings, and perhaps I could return to that for a moment. Had 688 the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, been speaking, he might have talked about the need for planning mechanisms to be applied to agricultural buildings. I am not making that appeal for a moment, but I say this to the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, who farms quite close to an area with which I had some connections—a designated area of outstanding natural beauty, the AONB at Dedham Vale. The NFU and the farmers there entered into a splendid voluntary arrangement with the planning authorities whereby proposals for agricultural buildings are submitted quite voluntarily to the planning authority for approval and advice. As a result, agricultural buildings erected in that part of the country are erected in a way which is compatible with the countryside. That has been to the very great adavantage of the area and I do not think it has been onerous to the farmers, but it has been wholly voluntary.
Planning consent for diversification into some kind of activity which I would hope would have some relation to agriculture is one matter, but I think one has to say at the same time that some of the agricultural buildings that farmers are occassionally able to erect without planning consent really do very grave damage to the green belt, just as they have done grave damage to designated areas of the countryside. I think I am right in saying—and I hope he will forgive me for mentioning this—that the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, who is to speak shortly, built without planning consent, because planning consent was not required, a silo of a kind to which he later took exception himself and took it down. I am merely making a point that had the agricultural community been a little more sympathetic to the needs of others in the community in relation to buildings for which they do not require planning consent, some people would perhaps display a more sympathetic attitude to their present requests.
§ Lord John-Mackie
My Lords, perhaps I can tell the noble Lord a story which Mr. William Waldegrave told us of a Nissen hut that had been erected during the war and has been listed. It shows that people get accustomed to buildings. If the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, had just kept his silo a bit longer, the neighbours would not have wanted it knocked down because it had been there too long.
My Lords, I note the point the noble Lord is making but he notes, too, that there are conflicts. We are dealing with conflicts. I should like to feel that everybody in your Lordships' House feels that such green belt as we have must be preserved if possible. Countryside land at the moment is in very short supply in Great Britain and under ever-increasing demand. Once lost, the cost of restoring it would be absolutely prohibitive. Therefore we must do what we can to protect it. I do not believe that we are protecting green belt land by applying planning restraints to farmers in such a way as to imperil the profitability of their activities on their land. We must understand that if we genuinely wish green belt land to be preserved in a form which is desirable, in a form which is valuable to other citizens living near it and around it, then we must do everything we possibly can to see that profitable farming is maintained and sustained in those areas.
689 In this matter, as in some others nowadays, I think we have a lot to learn from what has been happening in recent years in West Germany, where the diversification of farming in certain areas has been going on apace. I believe that that is a matter upon which the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, could speak: certainly he has drawn attention to it on other occasions.
§ 7.40 p.m.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, for raising this Question tonight, for it poses the unpleasant question of whether the Government's left hand, in the form of the Department of the Environment, understands the implications for them of the problems of the right hand—the combined hands of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Secretary of State for Employment. Sadly, I cannot find much fault with the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, and I would support the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie. We have a certain problem, not just in the green belt but throughout the agricultural industry, in making farming profitable: thereby hangs the problem.
So far as this particular Question is concerned, the problem is simple. Since the formation of the green belt and the structure plans the rural economic situation has turned a somersault; indeed it has done that during these last two years. Farmers are told by Government and by the European Community to stop producing food and to diversify, as the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, has said. They say that our efforts should be put into small-scale tourism or into larger ventures such as co-operative grain stores or indeed into straw-processing plants.
This message, as the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, told us, was given very clearly by my honourable friend William Waldegrave at the Oxford farming conference. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, quoted his speech, because now I shall not have to do that myself. But it was a very valid point, and a very valuable speech.
Similar support came from the Secretary of State for Employment when he addressed the Institute of Directors on 10th December last. But despite these remarks, I have to tell my noble friend Lord Elton that this message has not yet got down to the green belt planning authorities or indeed to some others—only some, I agree—outside those areas.
The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, has given some examples in his area and, for this evening, I will give just one concerning my own village, where my family and I have farmed for over 32 years now. The village is in the Oxford green belt and it is a village which my noble friend Lord Elton knows well and has perhaps known for longer than I have. Here a recent request to convert a derelict set of farm buildings into self-catering flats was turned down by the planning authority and also by the Minister's inspector, despite the support of the tourist board and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
Is it all a confidence trick? The Government know as well as I do that there is a farming crisis ahead—indeed it is with us now—and it appears to me and obviously 690 also to the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, that these pleas for diversification and conservation are merely worthless sops. I hope that my noble friend Lord Elton will assure me that they are not.
Of course, my noble friend has a problem—who has not? He has much difficulty in overruling a planning authority, whose members are elected by those who live in a green belt. Because of the tremendous expense of housing in such areas, the great majority of those who live there are retired or they commute. And if there is one thing which they dislike near their homes—and this applies to myself and to other noble Lords as well—it is any form of activity, employment or industry. That often includes farming. Certainly I had to give up livestock many years ago and my son's self-pick operation has come under criticism for filling the village with outsiders—outsiders, my Lords, coming into the village! The criticism has been made, even though the operation has provided a great source of local work.
The green belt policy is now many years old. It has served a useful purpose: I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, on that. Most certainly I do not want to see the greenness go. That greenness is our livelihood. Indeed, I like to see my noble friend Lord Elton running around my fields chasing hares. I am sure it refreshes him, and others. Certainly it does not harm the hare, who I must say always seems to get away—he seems to be faster on foot than my noble friend. But the policy of green belt and structure plans originated before the farming slump and the unemployment problem arrived, and I hope that my noble friend will say he will do all in his power to support diversification in farming and employment, and that such an objective will not be achieved by the rigid planning policy that is being exercised in the green belt.
I want to see our country villages, inside or outside the green belt, live again and not become just places for commuters and retired people. If need be, I should like to see muck on the road again and indeed corrugated tin sheds, as advocated in a recent hilariously funny article by Miles Kington in The Times, which I will give to my noble friend for his bedtime reading. It will at least make him laugh.
However, if such a revitalisation is to take place my noble friend will have to take a radical look at the structure plans and not least at the infrastructure needed to service our villages. If we really want our farmers to diversify and our villages to live and not be just dormitories, if we really want to reduce the unemployment queue, we here and elsewhere, who are fortunate to have jobs and to live in quiet little villages, must be more charitable and accept the dust, dirt and noise of work. My Lords, you cannot make an omelette without breaking the odd egg and I ask my noble friend Lord Elton to produce the saucepan.
§ 7.47 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend Lord John-Mackie for giving us the opportunity to discuss this subject, if only to learn that it is possible to make the noble Lord, Lord Elton, chase hares. I have been trying to do it for months, without any success at all.
§ The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Elton)
My Lords, on a biological point, I think they are usually red herrings.
§ Baroness Nicol
Before I go on to my main remarks on a more serious note, my Lords, I wonder whether I might make it clear that when I refer to planning considerations I agree with my noble friend Lord John-Mackie that unreasonable planning controls are not acceptable and that an unreasonable time taken for planning controls is not acceptable. It is something which I think we have all been working to eliminate, and indeed some progress has been made in the last few years. We must see that that progress continues because, as I hope to show later on, I think we have a need for planning controls. But they should not interfere with the livelihood of people, particularly with that of the farmer, and he should not be unduly held up by them.
The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, mentioned the need to extend some of the planning controls. I go along with him. I have not seen Lord Stanley's silo, and I probably would not like it if I did—
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
My Lords, I must interrupt the noble Baroness. I did not like it either and I knocked it down—which is more than the planning authority might do.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, if only to protect other farmers from the expense of having to knock down buildings they do not like, I think we shall have to reach the stage where there is some planning control over farm buildings. But that does not interfere with tonight's debate—
My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Baroness? I did not myself ask for planning controls to be extended. What I did say was that I knew of an area in which planning control had been applied voluntarily by the farmers and the planning authority: that seemed to me to be advantageous. However, I was not recommending—and I should not like to be reported as doing so—the application of planning controls to agricultural buildings as a whole.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. I will make my own position clear as I go along. May I first say that, because I felt that I needed to know more about the up-to-date situation, I consulted with the National Farmers' Union, with the Countryside Commission, with Serplan, with the Town and Country Planning Association and, to a lesser extent, with the Conservancy Council. It seemed to me that it was necessary to get a few outside views on what we were discussing tonight.
The National Farmers' Union makes very clear the difficulties that farmers are suffering at the moment. They point out that agricultural problems do not stop at the edge of the green belt and that green belt farmers are more likely to suffer disruption and damage from the proximity of urban populations. I am sure we accept that and sympathise with the situation of farmers in the green belt on that account. But it is probably fair to say that up to now, at least, individual 692 problems have been best left to the local authorities who know the area. I say "up to now" because we may have to move on from that point.
But what we must first consider is whether the difficulties which are now being experienced by farmers are greater than those of farmers outside the green belt. After listening to the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, in particular, it seems that the problems are widespread and are very much the same whether you are in the green belt or out of it. They are problems of over-production, of changed grant systems and of many other things, about which I am sure I do not need to tell your Lordships, which affect the whole of the farming industry and not just farms in green belts.
The Countryside Commission are not convinced that conditions on green belt activities are more onerous for farmers than for anyone else. They point out that everyone who lives in a green belt, whatever his occupation, is subject to more restrictions than if he lived outside, and I think that is fair comment.
The Town and Country Planning Association point out that farming is the only land use that has enjoyed preferential treatment through all the decades of the existence of the green belt. Farmers do not need planning permission for most purposes, though it is true that if they want to change to factory farming they need planning permission. But I understand that they are entitled to build up to two houses for essential workers, which is a very useful provision, and for which I understand permission is not needed. On the whole, farming throughout the country is less subject to planning restrictions than other industries, so it is not surprising that farmers do not take kindly to refusals when they get them.
But I am advised that many of the applications that are refused would be unacceptable in other situations, as well as in the green belt, on the grounds of public health, noise, poor road access and other potential public nuisance. For example, I was quoted an application by a farmer who wished to build a knacker's yard in the centre of a village. Not unnaturally, the residents of that village resisted it very strongly and that application was lost. So there are some applications that are legitimately turned down under other law and not simply because they are in the green belt.
I offer no comments on the examples given by my noble friend, because I do not know his area in particular. I know, however, that he is a very considerate farmer who has tried to follow the needs of conservation on his own farm, and I suspect has often been financially disadvantaged because of it. I give him full credit for that.
The green belt prohibitions are much the same as those for national parks, and very much of what we are saying tonight could apply to applications made by farmers in national parks. The call to diversify has emphasised the fact that farmers generally are less used to planning controls than the rest of the community. We have learned to live with them; the farmers, of course, have not.
At this point, I must say that it would be too easy to stray into a general discussion on rural conditions, which I do not want to do, in spite of the excellent report which the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, sent me 693 earlier today, because I think we should stick as far as we can to the problems of the green belt, as that is what we are here for.
The public attitude to green belts was illustrated in 1983, when the Government attempted to change the conditions of green belts. Your Lordships may remember that there was a circular which proposed relaxations and that it had to be withdrawn because there was widespread opposition to any change in the laws. What is worrying me now is the backdoor approach which seems to be being adopted on green belts.
My noble friend quoted the Minister, William Waldegrave, when he spoke to the Oxford Conference, and the National Farmers' Union also quotes him. I cannot remember whether this was the same sentence, and perhaps your Lordships will allow me to quote it again. He said:We must not let Green Belt or wider rural planning policy block the small-scale additional housing, the conversion of redundant farm buildings and the light industrial developments which will be needed.Looked at from the point of view of a conservationist, or one who protects the green belts, whether or not one calls him or her a conservationist, that is a very dangerous statement in the light of what happened to that earlier circular.
My noble friend also quoted the Secretary of State, who made a rather similar statement, and, if your Lordships will look at Chapter 3 of Lifting the Burden, which has widespread implications for the planning system, I think it will be realised that we need to be very careful that what we are not seeing is a quiet changing of the green belt planning control by a number of small methods, not as direct as the circular which went round and which was challenged. I am sure the Minister will have something to say about that when the time comes.
I am sympathetic to farming problems, but I am determined equally that green belt protection shall not go by default. We need evidence of the extent of the problem. We have had a number of accusations thrown around tonight about planning refusals and difficulties encountered, but we have no evidence other than individual cases. We have no general evidence. I should like to suggest to the Minister that it is well within the capability of, for example, SERPLAN, within their region, to produce a limited study—I am not suggesting a public inquiry or anything enormous that will take a long time—which would give us some facts on which to base our attitudes to what is happening to farmers in the green belt. The SERPLAN area is the one which is most under pressure, and it would be a useful exercise if they would do it. From my consultations with them, I believe that they would. I understand that nothing like it has been done, but there seems no reason why it should not be. Will the Minister consider this suggestion, which is a serious one?
We owe it to the farmers who are responsible for so much of these, admittedly, very important lands—important to very large numbers of the population and much more so than the farms that are out in the truly rural areas. We ought to listen to their complaints and to do what we can to help them. Because of the large amount of land which is involved, the potential for the 694 good or ill of farming in the green belt is simply enormous, and we must have a positive policy for it. I do not think it is enough simply to react to discussions such as this and to individual cases. I think that the Government owe it to us to produce some coherent policy for farming in the green belt.
§ 7.59 p.m.
§ Lord Sandford
My Lords, I must start by humbly apologising to the noble Lord who initiated this debate, and to those who have taken part in it, for not being here when he began. It was pure inadvertence and very rude and I am most apologetic. It leaves me guessing a little at what he said, though this is an issue which I have, of course, encountered quite a few times already, and I have had the benefit of hearing what my noble friend Lord Stanley said which was more or less on par.
I should like to be able to express a note of sympathy for the farmers, but I really cannot bring myself to see that it is merited. I should particularly like to express a very sharp note of criticism to the Ministry of Agriculture, but it is hardly worth doing that when the Front Bench is occupied by my noble friend the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment. So the temper of what I have to say will be more even than it otherwise would have been.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, may I ask my noble friend if he will be kind enough to be entirely frank and free in what he says as I enjoy the most excellent relationship with my noble friend the Minister in the Department of Agriculture, who I think ought to be able to consider these matters with me?
§ Lord Sandford
My Lords, indeed I very much hope he will.
I should like to start, speaking to some extent as the chairman of SERPLAN, about the sanctity of the metropolitan green belt. Of all the planning tools there are, this is the one that has been in place longest, is most clearly understood, and its firmness and solidity is most appreciated. If any of your Lordships, and particularly the farmers, are now nourishing any illusions about that, just have a look at what happened when in one of their deregulatory fits some time ago, and before my noble friend was at the Department of the Environment, a consultation paper was issued suggesting that the metropolitan green belt should be somewhat relaxed. An absolute furore broke out from all over the place, and instantly.
I took the occasion to write in my capacity as chairman of SERPLAN to all the 200 Members of Parliament with constituencies in the metropolitan green belt area. I had not a single dissentient voice to the effect that SERPLAN was being too harsh and unreasonable, was restraining growth and so on and so forth. They got to work on Ministers, and Ministers produced a circular which was more or less the same as the original. I hope that I shall not hear anything from my noble friend which will lead to any doubt about that.
The fact that there is, and has been for years and years, for decades, a really firm green belt around the whole of the London metropolitan area does not mean that things cannot develop. One has only to think of 695 the number of roads and railway lines that go through it. It is an area in which sand and gravel are extracted in large quantities from all sorts of sites. While that is going there is a massive impact on the environment. It is a place where several cement works operate because the cement is found in the green belt. That has a massive impact on the environment. It is a place where the raw materials——the sand and gravel—for building thousands of houses a year are found. The extraction of those in the metropolitan area has to be balanced, and is balanced year by year, against the transport of crushed rock from the Mendips or the dredging of sand and gravel from the sea.
The most recent activity in which I have personally been engaged is ensuring that the oil industry, of all things, can explore for and extract oil and gas from the metropolitan green belt, an area stretching from Wytch Farm in the Wareham area of outstanding natural beauty right across all the southern counties of London. When the M.25 is completed there will be a very strong case for using that to revive and develop the economic life of the area east of London, but of course restraining such development to the west.
A great deal of activity far more intrusive than farming is going on in a controlled, regulated and agreed way throughout the area. Of course, there are conflicts from time to time with the builders and with the sand and gravel operators; but these are resolved, studies are done, figures are agreed, land is brought forward at a faster or slower rate and the whole thing goes forward in a proper way.
About 10 years ago it was quite clear that we could not go on with the common agricultural policy as it was. I remember the House of Lords Select Committee which looked into the effect of the access of the Spaniards, the Portuguese and the Greeks. It was quite clear that we were heading for a situation which was quite untenable. One of the things that had to be done was that the farmers had to start to look around and see in what ways they could find an income from something other than producing a food which was already beginning to be in surplus. We have gone on for 10 years since then.
I have to give the Ministry credit for enabling us to have the Strutt Report. A very distinguished person, Sir Nigel Strutt, looked at a number of problems in which the environment and agriculture were related. He made clear recommendations that liaison had to be developed at the national level, at the regional level and at the local level to sort these matters out.
The Ministry of Agriculture did absolutely nothing about it. One of the obvious reactions to that was to increase the staff of ADAS devoted to diversification and particularly the staff expert in that field, known as the socio-economic advisers. The Ministry did nothing about it. If my noble friend can tell me that they have now increased the number of socio-economic advisers from the pathetic figure of six, which it was then and I believe still is now, that would be very good news because they would be able to give farmers some of the advice they need.
Three years later we came to the Wildlife and Countryside Bill. I took it upon myself to introduce in Clause 41 a statutory duty on the Ministry of Agriculture to provide advice for farmers who wished to do 696 better in conservation and to diversify. I do not think the Ministry has done anything about it. I have not looked at the relevant Bill which is in the Commons at the moment because we have been busy with the Shops Bill and the Local Government Bill; perhaps now they are doing something but it is far too late. Farmers are now in a desperate situation, with one lot of quotas already in force and. I should have thought inevitably, another lot coming.
Of course, it is natural that farmers should want to diversify, but you cannot expect a farmer to sit down in his farmhouse and think out a pick-your-own scheme, a woodland planting scheme, a school visiting scheme, a cheese processing scheme, or about the use of some of his redundant buildings for workshops, and expect whatever he dreams up first time to be acceptable for planning authority. It is ludicrous to think it can be done like that. You have to start a negotiation and discussion—this was what the Strutt Report was all about—and learn how to work the system. The builders work the system; the sand and gravel operators work the system; the cement manufacturers work the system; the oil companies work the system. The farmers have not taken any significant step towards learning how to do so. They cannot blame the planners if, now that they really want to get into the business, there are some difficulties.
I cannot hold out any hope that there will not be considerable difficulties for some years to come. All this has now to be worked through, and in a hurry. It can be done. Just a few ADAS officers have managed to do it. Just a few NFU county secretaries have managed to do it. Just a few CLA members have done it. But it is not yet part of the general philosophy of farming. This has to be done as a preliminary move. When it has been done I can assure noble Lords who farm that the planners will be as ready to work with them as they are with everybody else.
§ 8.8 p.m.
§ Lord Northfield
My Lords, I am delighted to speak after the eloquent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, with much of which I agree, and I shall return in a moment to some of the things he said. First of all, like my noble friend Lord John-Mackie, to whom we are greatly indebted for this debate, I want to declare an interest in that I am involved in a planning appeal for development in the metropolitan green belt. I shall not refer either to that appeal or to its subject, which is housing. I have rather wider principle and consideration to put before your Lordships this evening.
Of course, we are all in favour of the green belt, but have we realised what has actually been happening? The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, touched on this. First, we must remember as regards the metropolitan green belt that between 1955 and 1957 the really big circulars were issued, mainly by the noble Lord, Lord Duncan-Sandys, when he was Minister. These have been the foundation since then of our approach to the green belt. He was saying at that time that a green belt around London of seven miles to 10 miles ought to be sufficient. In fact, we now have a green belt of 12 miles to 15 miles which has crept up in the intervening years. We are all madly supporting it, and I am not against it. However, one has to recognise how all those problems 697 have been growing. As the NFU remind us, it is now a matter of one acre in eight of farmland. So we must begin to think more carefully about it.
The consideration that I want to put before your Lordships this evening is this. The problems about the use of the green belt have been catching up on us unawares. They will get worse, as noble Lords who have spoken earlier have said. The time is now very urgent for the Government to give clear guidance on the positive use of green belt land to match the admirable circulars that we have been receiving over the years about actually defining green belt land. We have just gone along assuming that because we have defined it then everything is okay and we need not worry too much; that we now have as sacrosanct that 12 to 15 mile band around London. However, we have never made clear, or received Government guidance about, what should or should not be permitted in that green belt.
I can understand the Government's view in all this, in the sense that they have relied very happily on the increasing sensitivity that there is about the environment in our community, and I am glad to see it. As the noble Lord, Lord Elton, knows, I am beginning to suffer from it even in my new town. I started with thousands of acres of dereliction, have made it very beautiful, and now the townspeople do not want me to touch any of it, even for creating new jobs. I understand the growing sensitivity of people about the environment but other considerations are not important.
The Government can also rely on the fact that we wanted the maximum use of every acre for food output. So long as it was nice green farmland producing agricultural crops, then the Government could sit quietly by and say, "We do not need to define what happened in the green belt. Let it go on being used for farming. That is all we need to say".
We might first look at the difficulties of my noble friend Lord John-Mackie and his farming friends in the light of the traditional objectives of the green belt. Its objectives have been carefully defined in circular after circular under three headings. First, to check further growth of built-up areas—to stop sprawl; secondly, to prevent neighbouring towns from merging into each other; and finally, to preserve the special characteristics of a particular town. Those are hallowed objectives. What my noble friend wants falls happily within them. His farming enterprises would not cause urban sprawl. They would not cause neighbouring towns to merge with each other, and they would not harm the special character of a rural town. Therefore, judged by all the hallowed tablets that we have had over the years, we should be allowing that which my noble friend wants.
On top of that, we had all the circulars, starting with that issued by Michael Heseltine in 1979–80, saying that the Government wanted farm buildings and redundant buildings of all kinds to be brought into use; that such would have their support and that they wanted local planning authorities to take that into account. But have we reckoned up what has been happening since? Noble Lords have touched upon that aspect.
First, there has been a great change in farming prosperity. I was told yesterday that eminent 698 agricultural consultants reckon that 14 per cent. of our land will have to go out of production. The noble Lord, Lord Stanley, says more. If we are in that situation then we must look at what happens to some of the Grade III land and other land in the green belt if it is going out of agricultural production—when, as I have said, that has been the reason for saying nothing about that land for all those years by letting it happily continue as farming land and not give alternative uses a fair definition.
Looking at this matter a little further, I wonder whether your Lordships have read the evidence that Dr. Richard Munton gave to the House of Commons Environment Committee. Dr. Munton is probably our best-known academic expert on land use of the kind in question. In his evidence to the committee, he pointed out—and I shall quote it because it bears reading out—that:It can be seen from Table 2 that nearly 30 per cent. of all the farmland … on a sample of 185 farms covering over 14,000 ha (and this is land that is returned in the June Agricultural Census as being in agricultural production) is not being maintained in such a way as to ensure its continued full, productive potential. And a further five and a half per cent. … lies derelict or semi-derelict with little or no agricultural value in its present state".I accept immediately that some of that land, even if it is in the agricultural census, is what is called hope land; bought, and left derelict in the hope of getting planning permission. However, that is not 30 to 35 per cent. of the land in the green belt.
If 30 to 35 per cent. of the land is verging on dereliction and underuse, and another 14 per cent. or more, according to the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, is going out of production as agricultural policy begins to bite even further and reduce the need for British production of food, then we will be faced with the absolute need to start defining positively for what we want that green belt land to be used as an alternative to farming.
I therefore press the Government most strongly to recognise that the time for being passive about the green belt's use has come for an end. The time has come to match the circulars about the objectives of the green belt with a new circular. That cannot be done in a hurry—and I shall return to that point in a moment—but we should begin positively to define what alternatives to farming we must now accept.
The position generally is not quite so bad as my noble friend perhaps made out. Some counties are very progressive about this matter. It is worth looking at the evidence given to the Environment Committee by Cheshire County Council. Cheshire has nearly half its land in green belt, but it said, "This is the policy we are going to follow". It would have accommodated my noble friend. The council say that it is time we all reached more agreement on pursuing such policies on the future of the green belt. The council quotes all the pious statements that have been made by Ministers over the years in trying to back it up. We know of course that they have not had much effect on many other counties.
When I plead for a more positive approach by Government in defining uses for the green belt, I am not alone. Dr. Richard Munton himself, in his evidence, clearly states that:It follows that central government must be actively encouraged to promote a new set of clearly-defined priorities for Green Belts that 699 goes beyond what is contained in the revised version of the draft circular".Most of the other evidence to the committee hints at the fact that we have wandered on hoping that it could be left as green farming land and that everything would be all right—but suddenly we are beginning to realise that we must start to define alternative uses.
The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, might argue that all this can be settled through planning appeals. I see the noble Lord nodding his head, but that is a monstrous suggestion. I shall quote to the noble Lord—and I apologise for using one particular expert, but he is a very eminint one—what was said by Dr. Munton about settling these matters by planning appeals. He stated:This will represent an ad hoc, responsive and even unaccountable approach to implementing policy based on reacting to developers' attempts to obtain planning permission".We shall not know the rules, and we shall be continuously spending money. The appeal in which I am engaged—and I am not complaining about it—will cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. We cannot go on like that without some clearly-defined usage that we can all begin to agree upon.
§ Lord Sandford
My Lords, the very last thing that I would want the noble Lord to attribute to me is the suggestion that a new policy, which may well be needed in some parts of the green belt, should be established by a series of planning applications and appeals. That would be the worst possible way of setting about it. What is needed is a fresh look at a number of policies in discussion, as we already do it with the builders, with the sand and gravel extractors, and with the oil companies. From those discussions a new policy emerges that affects the structure plans and the local plans. But planning applications and ad hoc appeals is the last way of dealing with the matter.
§ Lord Northfield
My Lords, I am sorry if I attributed that to the noble Lord; I thought that he nodded his head. I understand what he is saying, but I am saying that in order to enforce it on recalcitrant councils—some of them are recalcitrant, and the conservation lobby has become hysterical and is simply in favour of preserving the status quo at all costs—then we need clear guidance from the Government, based on the consensus that the noble Lord says he can extract from consultation. That is what we now need above everything else.
I join with the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, in criticism of the Ministry of Agriculture. One of the tragedies, as we have said—and the noble Lord and I and the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, have debated this issue many times—is that the Ministry of Agriculture is the Ministry responsible for food production; and it has never moved beyond that. The Strutt Report had no effect. Even worse, if I may relate this almost anecdotally, when we had the inquiry into the ownership and occupancy of land, which I chaired on behalf of the Government, one of the facts I discovered was that there is no department within the Ministry of Agriculture which has this responsibility. That is the way that the Ministry of Agriculture has let this matter go on.
700 Now, perhaps happily, may I say in conclusion that the responsibility for the environment has passed to the Department of the Environment. They have grabbed it. Good luck to the department! We changed the thinking of Ministers about taking environmental considerations into agricultural policy with the report we prepared in your Lordships' House. I hope that one day we shall also change them on this issue; that we can force the Government to stop sitting on the sidelines about the positive uses of the green belt and work out by consultation a policy which can then become a new circular.
§ 8.21 p.m.
§ Lord Wise
My Lords, I must apologise for not putting down my name to speak, but I thought that I would not be in the House this evening. However, I want to make only one small plea. It is for farm dwellings within green belt areas.
We know that there are anomalies regarding building in so far as it is permissible to erect certain types of farm buildings without planning permission but there are very strict regulations regarding dwellings—and probably rightly so to a degree. However, I think there is a case for the relaxation of these regulations in some instances. I have in mind one particular case involving a 140-acre grassland farm situated within a green belt area upon which there is no farmhouse. This was sold off independently at the time of the sale of the land and the farm. One cannot blame the vendor because I understand that it made about £250,000—in fact, appreciably more than the land.
The present owner of the farm badly needs to be living on the farm so that he is on the spot to diversify his enterprises in order to retain and, he hopes, improve its viability. He went to see the planning officer of the district concerned for what he hoped would be a helpful preliminary discussion before he submitted his planning application. Alas, in this instance he was told very curtly that he could have his refusal then or after he had applied.
As we know, planning committees take great heed of the advice of their officers and some, as the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, said, may be more favourably disposed towards the needs of agriculturists than are others. But I feel there is a need for more direction from the Government on this score. I am sure it would be welcomed by all who have to make the final decisions. It could eliminate many appeals to the Secretary of State, with all the acrimony and expense that these incur.
The amenities of this particular farm to which I refer are greatly enjoyed by the general public. The land is criss-crossed by bridle paths and public footpaths which are used constantly and extensively. That is good, but it is not the means and the livelihood of the farmer. It seems to me iniquitous that he is trying to earn his living from the land but is prevented from living upon it so that he can increase its viability, keep it in good order and enhance its beauty for all who use it, simply because it happens to be situated within a green belt area. I consider that the regulations concerning agricultural dwellings could be made a little easier, and that I should very much like to see.
§ 8.25 p.m.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie. The green belts are, of course, of very great importance not only to those who farm them but to a great many others besides. I am, therefore, grateful to the noble Lord for an opportunity of looking at a matter of considerable importance both to farmers and to their neighbours in green belt country. It is a matter of interest, I may say, to myself and to my noble colleague on the Front Bench on many occasions, my noble friend Lord Belstead.
The initial purpose of the green belts was, as has been repeatedly said this evening, to check expansion of large built-up areas and to prevent neighbouring towns from merging one with another. That is as valid today as it was when the first Act was passed in 1938 to cover land in and around London. The general policy guidelines we now observe were set out in 1955 by the Minister of Housing and Local Government of the day, who was, as the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, reminded us, the then Duncan Sandys.
However, when we returned to office 24 years later in 1979, less than half the green belt had been fully approved. We made it a priority to get the rest formally approved. We achieved that in just six years. As a result there is, I agree with the noble Lord, a lot of green belt land for farmers to farm. We now have a green belt round Nottingham and Derby of over 200,000 acres. There is an extension around Sheffield and the other South Yorkshire towns of 800,000 acres. The West Midlands green belt covers 650,000 acres and is 40 per cent. larger than it was 10 years ago. The Tyne and Wear green belt has been doubled to 200,000 acres and the green belt around London now extends to 1.2 million acres, which is an area greater than the whole of Hampshire.
The effect of designation as a green belt is to create a general presumption against inappropriate development, and that means taking great care to ensure that, except in very special circumstances, permission is not given for development for anything other than a limited range of purposes appropriate to rural areas—and I shall return to those in a moment. It means defining long-term boundaries to ensure the area's future agricultural, recreational and amenity value. I do not need to tell your Lordships, I am sure, of the very great importance attached by the public at large to this means of preserving rural England from all the ills of urban spread.
The circular on green belts issued by the Department of the Environment in July 1984 reaffirmed our commitment to this long-term protection and gave advice to local authorities on defining their boundaries. The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, directs our attention to the problems faced by farmers in these green belt areas who wish to diversify their operations. The Government recognise their difficulties. We do not wish to turn green belts into green museums—to use my honourable friend's metaphor—and there are, of course, many small-scale industrial activities that can be fitted into rural areas, providing much needed employment opportunities. There are also redundant buildings in the green belts which farmers quite understandably feel should not be left to deteriorate or become a financial encumbrance. 702 This is particularly true of listed buildings. This issue is important to farmers who may sometimes feel that the planning system gets in their way if their land and buildings lie within a green belt area.
I think I should say that our planning system is a good deal more flexible and accommodating than it is sometimes given credit for. Within green belts, as elsewhere, each planning application has to be decided on its merits. It cannot simply be dealt with on autopilot. Of course, planning authorities must take green belt and other national planning policies as well as all other material considerations fully into account. Those policies, which have been expressed ever since 1955 and most recently in Circular 14/84, have always made room for changes of use of existing buildings to uses appropriate to a rural area. The definition which the noble Lord, Lord Northfield is seeking has existed in a form—which he may regard as satisfactory or not—in Paragraph 5 of Circular 42/55. The noble Lord is nodding his head in a way which suggests that he is familiar with it. That sets the parameters of what is acceptable without there being special reasons for allowing a development of any other sort.
I must also tell the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, that she is wrong in one of her assumptions. Farmers need consent to put up any dwelling. I think I heard her say that they could erect without permission up to two dwellings, provided that they were for essential workers. It may indeed be easier for them to obtain the permission if they can show that the dwelling is required to house an essential worker for a full-time agricultural unit. But I should also point out that only the smaller farm buildings of 465 square metres or less are exempt from planning controls. The larger buildings require consent as do buildings of any size over 12 metres in height. This of course allows a good many farm buildings to be put up in the green belt without specific application which I am sure that my noble friend Lord Sandford has not failed to note.
My Lords, I have created a jigsaw in my papers which I cannot entirely follow. However, let me continue by saying that planning authorities are perfectly free to grant planning permission for any development in a green belt if they think it is appropriate and compatible with green belt objectives. If this is not reflected in Britain in the same way as it is in Germany, no doubt this is in great part due to the fact that in Germany there is a rather different agricultural tradition. The structure of farming is different there in that the farm unit is smaller on average and there is a much stronger tradition of part-time farming there than in this country—though I recognise that there is such a tradition in this country. Therefore, your Lordships may think that a part-time farmer on a smallholding is in a better position to diversify, and indeed is less dependent upon diversification, than is his English equivalent.
The detailed development control policies applying in the green belts are of course contained in structure and local plans, and even here I have to say that the system is flexible and subject to appeal and modification. I think it is becoming clear that we are looking at an extremely complex system, the complexity of which is not entirely dependent upon Government structures but on the forces which those structures are intended to contain and balance; and the 703 force with which the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, and my noble friend Lord Sandford and other noble Lords expressed themselves makes that very clear. There is very nearly a head-on conflict of interest between the need of development on the one hand and the need for conservation on the other.
The resource is finite, the need for development is acute and there is consequently a cash nexus which leads to land becoming exceedingly valuable. The decisions taken on planning are of very great consequence to the people concerned who own the property or who wish to develop it, and there must not simply be a slick administrative bureaucratic machine but a careful quasi-judicial system which places me, for one, in all the difficulties of having things, as it were, sub-judice, because so often cases—and some have been mentioned today—may come before me on behalf of the Secretary of State as the appellate authority.
I do not think that we can do without such a system. Your Lordships are discussing whether it cannot be made more expeditious. The fact is that both shoes pinch; both the farmer's foot and the developer's foot are pinched by the need to balance their interests, but can we do something to stretch the leather so that the feet are more comfortable? Is it the analogy, my Lord—?
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
My Lords, would the noble Lord give way for a minute? I see entirely what he means but I wonder whether he would change one word. To my mind—and I think that the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, would agree with me—the conflict is between the developer (if you call me a developer) and not the conservationists but the preservationists. I do not know whether my noble friend will take that suggestion. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, will take it.
§ Lord Northfield
My Lords, moreover, the problem is that what we really need in order to keep everyone in a game that they understand are clearer guidelines. We are all asking for that. Then we shall stop making so many appeals.
§ Lord Elton
When I am allowed, my Lords, to rejoin the game, I shall say that I am entirely content with the sentiments of my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley because he is merely using another phrase to describe what my honourable friend William Waldegrave at the Oxford Farming Conference called a green museum.
I accept—and shall say again when I reach it in the prepared text of my speech no doubt—that the survival of a healthy and therefore a beautiful and a preserved—no not a preserved, a conserved—green belt, is dependent on it being economically healthy. I do not know why I am getting into these metaphors. It is difficult to be healthy in a straitjacket, I was going to say. I suppose that is true and I think it is a good simile, but perhaps I had better get back to what I had intended to say all along before I get too florid.
I think I have already made it clear that there is a genuine concern, ably expounded by my noble friend Lord Sandford and felt also throughout the country, to 704 preserve our environment and to protect our rural heritage, which we fully share and to which we are fully committed. We recognise the needs of the farmers to diversify in order to counteract the pressures on income from their traditional products, and we also recognise that the natural beauty of the countryside and the green belt depend to a very large extent on the continuing success of farming and farmers. That was the passage I was anticipating.
The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, made the point very effectively early in his speech, and I agree with him and the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, on this matter. I also have to agree that the drop in average farm incomes of 43 per cent. last year was a very severe one. I think that for the record I ought to point out that it came immediately after a year in which there had been an average rise in farm incomes of 35 per cent., so we are actually looking at a fluctuation around a mean which is not disclosed by any of those statistics. It goes to show that the weather still has as much to do with farming as it did in the days when I was farming in Leicestershire.
§ Lord John-Mackie
My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will be gracious and give way. If he takes that 35 per cent. and compares it back to 1978 I think that he will find that it was not a very spectacular rise at all. Earlier this evening we had a lot of argument about what date one takes for these things and the noble Lord has taken a date which is germane to his argument; but I could go back a little and spoil it very successfully.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, the noble Lord chose 1985 alone. I chose 1984 alone. I cannot see that we have used different rules for this contest at all.
I think I ought to say that farmers do not only get the sympathy which the noble Lord says they should have from the Government, but they also get a great deal of help. Perhaps I may briefly list some of the things which the Government are doing to help them, particularly the smaller farmer whose need for extra income is greatest. I start by saying that we have encouraged local planning authorities to give sympathetic consideration to planning applications for small businesses in rural areas and for conversion or adaptation of redundant farm buildings.
Two circulars issued by my department, Nos. 22/80 and 16/84, set out our position on this subject very clearly and I would point that out to my noble friend Lord Wise, as the background to this discussion. They actively promote the idea of new uses for redundant buildings and a sensitive development, and provide guidelines for local planning authorities. I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Northfield, wanted us to elaborate on this.
Next, we are about to issue both a new circular aimed directly at the planning needs of small firms and a useful booklet giving practical advice on how to cope with planning procedures. Those planning policies are backed up by an appeals system which enables dissatisfied applicants to appeal to the Secretary of State if, for instance, it is felt that those policies have not been given due weight in the local authority's decision. The decisions at these appeals take full I account of those policies.
705 As for the practice of some optimistic speculators of buying up and breaking up holdings in the hope that after many fallow years they may yield a bountiful crop of houses, the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, will recognise that the very difficulty of getting planning consent in a green belt area is a considerable deterrent to that process, which can, I agree, be as bad for the landscape as it is for agriculture.
Most of us now in the Chamber, I think, are very much aware of the special problems of farmers on the urban fringe, which of course quite a number of green belt farmers necessarily are. For a long time the incomprehension of the "townies" of anything to do with the land was regarded as an immutable handicap. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, who spoke of the vandalism and litter that has often been the hallmark of that ignorance, for his recognition of the useful begining that we have made in changing the attitudes of the urban public on the rural fringe by means of the groundwork initiatives.
Seven groundwork trusts have been established as charitable bodies, each serving a small area. Their function is to stimulate efforts both by private individuals and by organisations to improve the environment on the fringes of major conurbations. The Countryside Commission, to which I pay all due and grateful respect, has, it is true, been encouraging local authorities to improve land on the urban fringes for many years. The difference between that and the groundwork approach is that the groundwork approach is to the communities themselves, and they are being encouraged to take a direct interest, and indeed a pride, in their own local countryside. The Secretary of State has provided substantial funds to the commission to support that initiative. Most of the trusts are at present in the North-West of England, but the programme is now steadily expanding to other parts of England and Wales.
The Ministry of Agriculture also offers a full range of practical advice on alternative sources of income through ADAS. It uses both its regional socio-economic advisers and its special interest advisers in local offices. I should tell my noble friend Lord Sandford that the six regional socio-economic advisers—I believe that he said six and I think that he is right—are between them backed up by about 70 special interest advisers in local offices, and they provide a full range of practical advice on alternative sources of income and a valuable link with other organisations prepared to offer further help.
ADAS also collaborates with other organisations to encourage diversification—for example, through the establishment of farm holding bureaux in association with the English Tourist Board—and it is involved in the setting up of rural development programmes with the Development Commission. The agriculture improvement scheme provides capital for investment for a wide range of items including new buildings, fencing, drainage schemes, electricity supply and so on. There are qualifying requirements to receive aid from the scheme, but there is no reason why farmers in green belts should not be eligible just like anybody else.
I have already mentioned the groundwork schemes. The only other thing that I would say in rising to my 706 noble friend's bait on this issue is that the reason that farmers have not come forward to work the system (I think that was the term that he used) in the way that people in some other industries have is that farming is very different and farmers are very different from industrialists. The majority of farmers are in a much smaller way of business and do not have smoke-filled boardrooms in which to take a close look at the machinery and how it can be exploited. That is why we think they need help.
§ Lord Sandford
My Lords, I do not think I want my noble friend to get away with that. I cannot think of any industry that is better served at the national level than farming by the CLA and the NFU. If there was the drive from the department to make a move in that direction, there are heaps of people who should be ready to respond.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I take the careful note of my noble friend's remarks which I always take, and which I take especially when they are friendly in their intentions. As I say, I shall pass to my noble friend in the other department the views that have been expressed; in fact, I shall pass him the whole of Hansard.
ADAS is, as your Lordships know, the farmer's own advice service and has a specific remit to promote farm diversification. But it can and does call on other agencies to help and advise on specialist developments through a number of organisations, including the English Tourist Board.
I ought also to mention the close co-operation which exists between ADAS and COSIRA. COSIRA is an agency of the Development Commission and sponsored by my department. It advises on all aspects of small business development in rural areas. Working with ADAS can be especially helpful to farmers who want to move away from the more traditional forms of agriculture, particularly as it also adminsters a grant scheme to encourage the conversion of redundant rural buildings to industrial and commercial use. I understand that farmers are taking good advantage of the grants that the scheme makes available. It appears that the publicity has not yet reached my noble friend, but I am beginning to detect the flavour of the letter that he will doubtless get from my other noble friend in due course.
The recently introduced agriculture improvement scheme is not aimed specifically at green belt areas, but it provides capital investment grants for a wide range of projects including buildings, field drainage and fencing. Farmers in the green belts are equally entitled to that. The eligibility conditions are easier to meet in the case of proposals most beneficial to the environment, such as hedges, stone walls and waste disposal equipment, and the grant rates on those items are the highest under the scheme. It incorporates now 25 per cent. grants for tourism and craft projects in designated less favoured areas.
I am nearing my end. Your Lordships will, I think, allow me a little injury time, so I shall not be too ruthless in my editing. The items eligible under this scheme include conversion of farm buildings for tourist accommodation, including holiday lets, and for craft production, laying on a range of necessary 707 services to those buildings (I am reading this note very badly), provision or improvement of caravan and camping facilities on farms and provision of certain facilities for recreational projects. Through this programme the Government are providing money and resources where they are most needed. All of this is, I have to remind the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, against the background of an increase in public expenditure in the United Kingdom on agriculture this year of £500 million or a total of £2.2 billion. I hope that that will go some way to help the difficulties of all farmers.
But I must return to the noble Lord's specific concern which is for the difficulties that farmers in the green belt face in diversifying their activities. I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, as well as to my noble friend Lord Sandford for their wholehearted recognition that planning controls are vital to the preservation of the open and rural character of the green belts. I, like they, must accept that they have to be applied with good sense. I stress that the remarks of my honourable friend William Waldegrave at the Oxford Farming Conference reflect, of course, our approach to the use of redundant buildings and small-scale development within existing settlements in the green belt. I do not think that anything that my honourable friend said can be represented, as the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, sought to represent it, as a threat. The provision is intended to enable farmers to do what my noble friend Lord Sandford said with great vigour and force they ought to have started doing long ago.
My noble friend Lord Belstead would have made a more satisfactory and expansive answer to the points made in particular by my noble friend Lord Sandford and by the noble Lord, Lord Northfield. I shall nonetheless draw their concern to his attention, as I apologise to him for perhaps doing insufficient to put the undoubted good work of his department in the best light to your Lordships.
I conclude by saying that our policy offers considerable scope for a flexible approach by local planning authorities. It is perfectly possible within the necessary constraints of green belt policy to accommodate small business in appropriate circumstances. We have indicated a proper sense of priorities to planning authorities. The appeal system exists precisely for putting things right where they seem to have gone wrong. Noble Lords and the friends of the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, ought not to need that recourse too often, but it is there when they do.
House adjourned at ten minutes before nine o'clock.