§ 4.5 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers) rose to move, That this House take note of Rural England A Nation committed to a Living Countryside(Cm 3016).
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, I believe that your Lordships will welcome the opportunity to debate the Government's new rural White Paper, Rural England, which was published on 17th October. I also believe that the White Paper will affect in some way or other almost everyone in the country. It is the first time ever that a government have produced a White Paper on the countryside intended to touch upon almost all the activities which take place in the countryside. It has been quite a magnum opus and I hope that your Lordships will approve of the result.1651
§ The first thing I would like to emphasise is that the White Paper is not a document which imposes the Government's will on the countryside. Any government of whatever party would be more than stupid if they tried to do that. We have certainly highlighted some of the problems which face the countryside and which exist in the countryside, and we have put forward some possible solutions which the Government think may be appropriate. Many of the measures suggested will require consultation on the details, and that will be held.
§ We have been lucky enough to inherit a wonderful country within which is a glorious countryside. It is our duty not to ruin it. But we cannot stand still. There must be progress and development. Yet we have to try to accommodate—as far as we can—all the variety of issues and attitudes which prevail about the countryside and within it.
§ In view of the Motions which your Lordships passed earlier today, I suppose that I should declare my interests. I live in the country where I have agricultural interests which have a financial interest attached to them. I also live in the town where I have political interests which have a financial interest attached to them. Moreover, I travel between the two where I have an interest in trying to remain within the speed limit which itself would have a financial interest attached to it if I did not do so.
§ Having got that lot off my chest, perhaps I may return to the substance of the debate. In considering the totality of the countryside, one has to realise that, whatever one's own view may be over some of the details of what is in and what goes on in the countryside, someone will almost certainly hold a diametrically opposed view. Wherever we stand in this mêlée of conflicting views, we have to be big enough to work with the warp and the weft of opinion, and not take the rather selfish view that, "I am right".
§ If we are all to live on an island, the extent of which is finite, some pretty difficult decisions are bound to have to be made. The countryside, and the people who live there, have seen many changes over the past 50 years or so. Patterns of employment have changed. Even in the most rural areas, only about 6 per cent. of employed people are now employed in agriculture. Of course, in the whole of England the figure is only 1.3 per cent. The countryside is under increasing pressure from day visitors. Many of our smaller villages no longer have a village shop and some villages are no longer able to sustain the village school.
§ All those things can be sad, but change is not always bad. It can be for the better. Already changing patterns of employment mean that the countryside has an increasingly diverse economy. For example, more people are likely in the future to run their business from their homes in the country, due to the modern technology of faxes, computers, telephones, the Internet and so on. People in the Untied Kingdom are now leaving the towns in order to live in the countryside. Oddly enough, that is in contrast to what has happened in the rest of Europe where the reverse is taking place. People there are leaving the countryside in order to live in the cities. However, this exodus from the cities to the 1652 countryside in England brings pressures upon the land and upon traditional country folk. We have to look carefully at those pressures and changes in order that we can take the right action to ensure the well-being both of the countryside and of the people who live in it well into the next century. The White Paper is the start of that process.
§ When we started on this venture some 12 months ago we undertook to consider together the economic, social and environmental aspects of country life. We began by holding an open consultation exercise. We received about 380 responses which reflected the views of academics, local government, many different interest groups, and, of course, the people in the countryside themselves. One of the themes which kept recurring was that rural problems are often best dealt with locally in a way which suits that locality and not as a result of some diktat from Whitehall or even from a town hall. That is a message we have tried to reflect in the White Paper. Local problems need local solutions and local action.
§ The White Paper is founded on the principle of sustainable development. A short while ago some people tended to talk purely about protecting the environment. However, that has a negative ring to it, implying that development in the countryside must be—as they would say in 1066 and All That—a bad thing. Of course that is not the case. Now we talk about sustainable development. That is a perfectly awful expression but in reality a good concept. What it means, quite simply, is ensuring that the economic and the social needs of people who live and work in the countryside are met without wrecking the countryside for future generations. It also means that rural enterprise and development must respect and, if possible, enhance the environment. That is quite a mouthful for a description, and that is why I use the more abrupt phrase, "sustainable development".
§ Our rural areas have many advantages: quality of life, peace, beauty and rural pursuits, as well as a sense of belonging to a community. Those are cherished assets. In rural areas—people often do not realise this—the economy has generally performed well. In fact, the economy of most of our rural areas has fared better than the economy of our urban areas in recent years. The growth of small businesses and self-employed people is greater in the countryside than it is in urban areas. Unemployment in the countryside is lower than for England as a whole. In 1994, 7 per cent. of people of working age were unemployed in the whole of England, but in the countryside only 5.1 per cent. were unemployed. The countryside has always been a place of work and it must remain so. We want to see rural businesses enjoy the freedom to grow and to prosper. We want them to seize new opportunities and to compete effectively with businesses elsewhere. With today's modern technology, rural businesses are now able to trade across not just regional frontiers but also international boundaries.
§ The rural White Paper does not imply that there is a single rural economy. The rural economy is different in different parts of the country. Those parts of the countryside which are close to large towns have generally done better than those in more remote areas. However, they have also experienced the pressures of 1653 growth: higher house prices; intrusive road traffic; demands for retail development and so forth. Remoter areas, on the contrary, face different problems. Small communities often do not have access to good roads or railways which may make it more difficult for manufacturers to run their businesses there. Sudden changes, for example, the closure of a large local employer, may leave no alternative employment for the majority of the local community, which means they are forced to look further afield for jobs or training.
§ Some areas with special needs have programmes which are aimed specifically at them, for example, those funded by the Rural Development Commission of which my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth is the distinguished chairman. We must not forget either that the attractiveness of the English countryside has a major part to play in its economic prosperity. Many rural businesses regard a pleasant working environment as a fundamental asset. Indeed, it is often one of the reasons why they moved there in the first place. Rural tourism, which also relies heavily on the attractiveness of the countryside, is estimated to account for an expenditure of about £8,000 million a year and provides about 400,000 jobs in England.
§ It goes without saying—but for that reason it is necessary to say it—that any new development in the countryside should be designed and located sensitively. In order to encourage that we will be revising Planning Policy Guidance Note 1 This should enable local authorities to recognise and value what is distinctive in their area and so try to guide new development accordingly.
§ Agriculture still lies at the heart of the countryside. The White Paper states that we want to safeguard a viable and a competitive agriculture. Although it is no longer the predominant rural employer, farming remains a thriving and essential industry and many industries—let us never forget this—both local and national, are dependent on it. Some 76 per cent. of the land in England is farmed and agriculture has the most important influence on the appearance of the countryside. The continuing viability of agriculture is a vital factor if we are to achieve many of our conservation objectives. The White Paper makes clear that we want to see further reform of the common agricultural policy in the direction of freer markets, at the same time as ensuring that care for the environment is a central concern.
§ We would also like to see the expansion of forestry in England and a doubling of woodland over the next half century. That should be possible given the various incentives for forestry which are available and the changes we would like to see made to the common agricultural policy. If we achieve that, we will make the countryside better for the people who live in the town; better for the people who live in the countryside; better for wildlife; and better for children who will be able to learn and to appreciate the value of the countryside.
§ In many rural areas there are particular difficulties in securing an adequate supply of land for affordable housing. The White Paper confirms that we will continue with the "exceptions" policy which was 1654 introduced in 1989 and which enables affordable housing to be built on land which is not allocated for development. We want to encourage landowners to bring forward new sites for the development of affordable housing by exempting villages of fewer than 3,000 people—including those which are in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty—from the proposed purchase grant scheme. We have agreed that the Housing Corporation should introduce, from 1996-97, a rural village "enhancement factor" to its grants to housing associations and to other providers of low cost housing to take account of the increased costs of developing small housing schemes in villages. That will increase by up to 25 per cent. the amount of government subsidy to individual schemes in settlements of up to 3,000 people, and it will encourage local authorities and housing associations to give priority to village housing.
§ People live longer now—and, if I might say so, thank heavens for that—and they live in smaller units. Regrettably, however, there are more single parent families now which means that more units of housing have to be provided than was the case a generation or so ago. Those factors have all increased the demand for housing which, in turn, has put great pressure on the countryside. The Government's view is that wherever possible new development ought to be aimed at the existing centres of population. We will produce a discussion paper in the New Year which will consider the possibilities for providing this necessary housing development.
§ We must also not forget the need for essential services. In areas where there are few houses and where the population is widely dispersed, it can be difficult to provide a full range of services, let alone provide the sort of choice which many city dwellers take for granted. New approaches are necessary. Post buses are an excellent example of sharing facilities. School facilities might also be used for a variety of purposes such as sport, adult education and indeed parish meetings. The village shop can be a lifeline for people who do not have access to a car as well as being a centre for the local community.
§ Many small shopkeepers often find that the burden of non-domestic rates is the greatest single threat to their viability. Therefore, we have decided to introduce legislation at a suitable opportunity to provide rate relief for general stores and post offices in villages.
§ The Government believe that local authorities, because they know the local area and because they represent local people, are often best able to respond to local needs. Parish councils, in particular, are an excellent vehicle for responding to those needs. They are based in the locality, with members drawn from the locality and they know the problems of the locality. We would like parish councils to take on more responsibilities and to become more involved in their local communities. Therefore, the White Paper states that legislation will be introduced at the earliest opportunity to provide arrangements whereby formal consultation can take place between town and parish councils and the principal authorities. We would particularly like to see parishes take on a wider role in 1655 crime prevention and community transport. That would require legislation, and we have invited comments on the suggestion.
§ Then there is planning. We intend to revise Planning Policy Guidance Note 7 on the countryside, and we shall issue a draft revised version for public consultation next year. We propose to allow greater discrimination in favour of the re-use of rural buildings for business rather than for residential purposes.
§ Some local authorities may be reluctant to grant planning permission for new businesses or new business uses which they fear may intensify beyond that which is appropriate for a rural location. We are therefore considering the possibility of introducing a new rural business use class which will enable planning authorities to impose limitations on the traffic which is generated and so control the rate of expansion of the business. We shall shortly issue a consultation paper on that, and we shall be publishing in the near future a guide for local authorities on how to promote good practice in planning for rural diversification.
§ The countryside is, of course, the home of much of England's flora and fauna, and we all have a responsibility to see that they are not destroyed. Over the past 50 years our conservation efforts have concentrated on the most important areas and sites—the national parks, the special protection areas, the sites of special scientific interest, and so forth. Designating special areas such as these has helped to conserve features which might otherwise have been lost. However, we do not want to make the existing system of designations any more complex. In future our priority will be to complement the present system of designations with new ways of enriching the wider countryside. We do not intend to introduce further classes of statutory designation.
§ We all value the English countryside for its own distinctive and unique environment and for the rural communities living there which are smaller and more closely knit than those found in towns. Those qualities must not be allowed to become submerged by our predominantly urban culture. Nor must the voice of the countryside be overwhelmed or drowned out by the clamour of the towns and cities. Rural people have as much right to their lives and their style of life as do urban dwellers to theirs. We want to ensure that rural people have a say in their lives and in their livelihoods.
§ The White Paper announced that we would give the EDE Cabinet Committee a new role, which will be specifically to consider rural affairs. That should ensure that proper progress is made on the implementation of the commitments made in the White Paper. We shall publish a progress report next year.
§ The Government offices for the regions will be building on the success of their regional rural White Paper seminars and will continue to meet regularly with representatives of rural communities. We also want the government offices to work much more closely with the regional offices of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Forestry Commission and the countryside agencies.1656
§ The White Paper tries to set out how we feel that the role of government should fit in with the many other organisations, such as the local authorities, the voluntary sector and so on, which have an influence over the future of rural life. It tries to strike a balance between the many competing pressures on our rural life, its wildlife and landscape. Running through the White Paper is our determination not to allow the countryside to be turned into a museum piece. It is a living, working place, and it must be allowed to move with the times. It must not be allowed to fossilise. Nor must it be allowed to be ruined.
§ It is not the duty only of government to look after the countryside. Nor is it the duty only of local authorities. At the end of the day, it is the duty of people. After all, local authorities and government are only made up of people. It is people who matter. It is people who give meaning to life and who create the driving forces. And it is the people who will continue to make the countryside the lovely and loved place it is, or who will ruin it. If we are careful, we can ensure that it remains the lovely and loved place it is. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That this House take note of Rural England: A Nation committed to a Living Countryside (Cm 3016).—(Earl Ferrers.)
§ 4.25 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, the whole House will be grateful to the noble Earl for the comprehensive way in which he introduced the White Paper. If his reasonable and positive approach can be carried forward into the consultation and the action programme then we shall not have a problem. I did not disagree with anything that the noble Earl had to say.
I too welcome the White Paper. The relationship between farming, forestry, landscape, wildlife and urban development has always been close, but in recent years the destructive effect of human activity on the countryside has grown dramatically. At the same time, rural communities are suffering social and economic hardship. Therefore, such a comprehensive review of the problem is necessary. Public concern has grown, and with it the desire to protect what is best in our countryside. I am sure that what the noble Earl said will move us along that path.
The White Paper represents a first step towards a co-ordinated approach to the various problems. I have one or two criticisms of the paper, but they are minor criticisms.
The paper is short of specific targets. Therefore, it is difficult to see how progress is to be measured, even if there is real co-operation between all the government departments concerned.
The paper is a long and glossy production, which perhaps makes it more enjoyable to read. However, there is a considerable amount of repetition in the various sections, which suggests that there are different authors of the different sections who perhaps did not talk to each other very much.
It might have been better to have had more substance and less bulk, and to have reduced the price of the document. It is meant to be a working document, but at 1657 £18.50 many interested parties will find it too expensive. At a time when we are trying to reduce the cost of government publications—and I understand that even the price of Hansard is coming down—it seems a pity that the new policy was not applied to this one.
If the list of speakers were shorter I should have liked to comment on much more of what is in the paper. My particular interest is in the penultimate section, which is entitled "A Green and Pleasant Land". I shall concentrate on that today. However, before I do so I have one question on an earlier part of the document.
On page 26 it is proposed that in future local authorities should be allowed to spend 90 per cent. of their receipts from the sale of their farms on improving rural conditions. Can the Minister say whether it is intended that any money gained in that way is to be additional to the standard spending assessment, or will it result in a cut in the grant that the local authority could have expected?
I turn now to the section entitled "A Green and Pleasant Land". First, I welcome the recognition of the work of the non-governmental organisations. Organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the British Trust for Ornithology, the CPRE, the CPRW and many others make invaluable contributions to the work of maintaining biodiversity. Their contribution to research and monitoring is very important. Through their large and growing memberships they educate and involve thousands of people. I noted the emphasis which the noble Earl placed on the involvement of people. Those organisations have a large role to play in that regard.
I welcome the section on the value of hedgerows and the need to maintain and, where appropriate, replace them. However, it is necessary to seek agreement on what constitutes an "important" hedgerow so that local disputes are kept to a minimum. I understand that difficulties are being caused already regarding that definition. We had considerable discussion on that issue during the passage of the Act.
I welcome, too, the suggestion that dry-stone walls could perhaps be included in incentive schemes. It might be more encouraging if the word "perhaps" could be omitted; it was a passing remark. But dry-stone walls are as important to the landscape as hedgerows.
The reference to the role of national parks as defined in the Environment Act 1995 is encouraging. It reminds us that there is now a duty on all public bodies to have regard to national park purposes when carrying out activities in the parks. Does that reference include the Ministry of Defence? The Council for National Parks believes that there is a need for a better balance between the needs of military training and the environmental sustainability of the countryside. It is suggested that the Ministry of Defence could make wider use of strategic environmental assessment to avoid some of the more damaging decisions. The struggle to achieve sustainable development, to which we all subscribe, should surely not exclude military training activities. Perhaps I may emphasise that there is no suggestion that military training should cease. We all recognise its importance 1658 and the vital role it plays in the local economy of the areas in which it takes place. But sensitivity to particular locations is not an unreasonable request.
I note with some unease the comments on common land. This may be the first time that the Government have stated publicly that they have discarded the recommendations of the Common Land Forum. I have a long history of being interested in common land. It is almost 10 years since the forum report was acclaimed as offering solutions to the problems caused by the existing defective common land legislation. In 1987 the proposals were part of the Conservative election manifesto. The Moorlands Association was formed specifically to resist that manifesto commitment, and so nothing was done. However, in meeting the concerns of the Moorlands Association—it is arguable whether or not they should have been met—the Government have sacrificed many of the small commons near urban centres which were and are so important to local people.
Losses continue year by year. I have had private conversations on several occasions with members of the Moorlands Association. It is quite clear from their attitude that they did not wish the effect of their action to wash off on to the small urban common lands. Even at this late stage, I beg the Government to produce legislation which will protect those commons. The grass moors are not in the least affected, but those small common lands are valuable to urban people.
For example, a long battle is in process over Spring Common in Huntingdon, the Prime Minister's own constituency. The local authority seems bent on allowing development against the wishes of local people. The bland statement in the White Paper is not reassuring. The tone of the remarks suggests that only the concerns of landowners and commoners will be considered and not the interests of the general public.
There is much more to discuss, but there are 30-odd speakers—there are 32 speakers; they are not particularly odd! —and I hope that we may return to the subject on other occasions. I am glad to give a welcome to the White Paper although it may be a cautious welcome in some respects.
§ 4.35 p.m.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
My Lords, I, too, welcome the opportunity to discuss this welcome White Paper. I was sad that we did not have the opportunity to comment on it when it was first published. I understand that the official Opposition did not wish to discuss it at the time; but we have been paid off well by being given this full day. We have a long list of speakers. The usual suspects all appear to have been rounded up, and among them we welcome—as some relief presumably, and certainly as an addition to our numbers—the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hambro, to which we all look forward.
The White Paper has been described as the longest unpriced menu in the world. I believe that we should concentrate on the unpriced part. It is in part a succulent menu and much to be welcomed. However, although I do not often visit places where such menus are available, those noble Lords who visit Wiltons will know that one 1659 receives a very succulent bill of fare and a fairly nasty surprise at the end of the day. I do not believe that most of us would mind paying a fair price for what is on this menu. However, we wish to ensure that the Government will be able to afford to produce it.
My party controls most of the local government in the rural parts of the South of England. I think that probably everyone is looking forward to a change of government in the fairly near future. Therefore one of the more useful things that I can now do—I was tempted to produce a number of what my noble friend Lord Mackie has referred to as my own eccentric ideas—is to lay before your Lordships as briefly as I can my party's proposals on this subject, having in the recent past produced its own White Paper.
As everyone agrees, the key to rural affairs is the common agricultural policy. We look for a much more broadly based common rural policy throughout the European Union. I think that we underrate the future of agriculture in this country. I suspect that over the next 20 years we shall see a large increase in world prices of agricultural products. I believe that we are at the bottom of one of those periodic troughs about which every student of the history of English rural life knows, and are on our way up. Nevertheless, we have to come to terms with the situation as it is—with the lack of money as it is.
We believe that the common agricultural policy must cease to be a system of indirect price management and become a programme of direct payments for economic, environmental and social goals which befit the wider community as well as those directly involved. Such a market-based rural economy, besides avoiding the building up of surpluses, will enable farmers to become more competitive within the EU and beyond. By targeting support, the current leakage of huge sums of public money can be turned round and invested to maximum effect, meeting specific natural, regional and local objectives.
We see no reason why there should not be a new system of countryside management contracts, whereby every farmer or land manager has a contract with the Government and with the common agricultural policy as to how the money which goes to him should be spent. Everyone would be able to choose from a menu of options. In the past it would have proved bureaucratically impossible and an intolerable burden upon individuals, but in these days of computers, it is easily conceivable and fairly practical. Indeed, over the past few years we have been progressing along that path with more and more welcome regional local variations from the broad aims.
One of the aims must be greater environmental sustainability, encouraging agricultural systems which are cyclical in nature, less reliant on inputs of fuel, fertiliser and pesticides and less prone to degrade and deplete soil and water resources. We ought also to encourage as much as possible the processing of farm produce locally. Producers' marketing strength should be supported, and in that we must support the tenanted farm sector. That is important. I am not happy about what the Government say in the White Paper about local 1660 government owned farms. It seems to me that they ought to be encouraged, rather than the opposite; they are an important step on the farming ladder.
The development of telecommunications is, of course, reinvigorating the countryside. Without our believing that everyone in the countryside will control the financial markets of the world from Little Snodbury, nevertheless there is great ability for distance working which should be encouraged. It is part of the reason the countryside is so flourishing at the moment. The time has passed when, as one postman used to say, "By 8 o'clock I have counted them all out and by 6 o'clock I have counted them all back; and God knows what they got up to in the meantime". People are now spending more time in the country and working there far more.
The protection of the physical environment is an important element in our system of countryside management contracts which will conserve the maintenance of wildlife habitats. I very much welcome the fact that the Government have come clean about the way in which wildlife habitats have deteriorated in the past. I hope that they will produce rather more definite objectives for dealing with the problem than they have so far put on paper.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, commented on the lack of targets and I believe that is right: we need more targets. She and I, among others, worked on the Committee on Sustainable Development of your Lordships' House where we learnt the importance of setting absolute targets. The rural paper should be gone through with a fine-toothed comb and targets set and produced to Parliament before too long.
There must be a basic minimum level of services to rural communities; there must be more and better transport. Only this week, Transport 2000 produced an interesting document about the £1 billion which it says is lost per year to the Treasury by the wrongful use of company cars. That excludes the rightful use of company cars. The organisation produced a detailed and interesting paper on it. With £1 billion, the Treasury could do much to help the rural transport of the country; some subsidy will be needed in the first instance, but we must have it. A situation where over 40 per cent. of the parishes of this country do not even have a daily bus service is not one which we should tolerate for long if we want a healthy rural community.
I very much welcome the proposal for rate rebates for post offices and local stores; it is tremendously important and something which we also had on our menu. I welcome the fact that the Government intend to produce it. We need to support rural post offices, not only by granting exemption from business rates but also encouraging them to develop a role as community offices, with a wide range of services. We need to encourage support for local shops and library services.
Government structure is important and it is a disadvantage that in the White Paper we do not have much about pricing or objectives. We probably also need more structure. As regards pricing, as the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, suggested, we must ensure that new money is provided for what the NGOs and all the people outside government are asked to do. At the 1661 moment they do valiant work in the countryside. They should not be asked to give up some of their extremely valuable work—and that applies to councils as well as NGOs—in order to do what the Government now suggest. That is the trouble with the non-priced nature of the menu.
The magazine, the Economist, comments on the paper, describing the suggestions as a motley collection of little ideas. To a certain extent, that was correct. However, the article went on to say that two of the reasons for that are that the countryside is in considerably better heart than it was thought to be a few years ago; and, partly as a result of that, it is showing considerable ingenuity in solving its own problems. In various parts, the White Paper has good instances of the way in which that is happening.
I suggest that the best way of going about the matter is to give greater freedom to local government at all levels to set about doing the job which it can do best and to provide the finance for it. If that is done, then the White Paper, which is full of excellent ideas, will be a good thing. If it is not done, if the Government insist on keeping everything in their own hands and the proposals are throttled by the Treasury's desire not to produce any money ever for anything, then the White Paper and this debate will not have been worth while.
§ 4.47 p.m.
§ Lord Hambro
My Lords, it is clearly a privilege for me to address your Lordships this afternoon and I hope that the courtesies which the House traditionally extends to novices will also be extended to me. I enter the debate with considerable anxiety, as I am well aware that there are many of your Lordships who have much greater knowledge of countryside matters than I ever shall. But I can assure noble Lords that it is a subject which is very close to my heart.
I welcome the White Paper which is a clear and well-documented publication. When I read it, I found that it contained information which I had no idea existed. The countryside consists of such varied occupations that it is obviously impossible to cover it all in the short time I have available.
The White Paper gives welcome support to both new and traditional activities in rural England and I note with pleasure that it gives firm support to the traditional activities, including all the field sports.
Running through the theme of the report is a sense of encouragement and co-operation, of listening, dialogue and understanding. I fear that inevitably from time to time conflicts of interest will develop with the agencies involved in countryside matters in monitoring and making sure that the environment and its protection is indeed being carried out correctly. Those agencies, which are commonly termed quangos—that rather unattractive word which has emerged from the quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations—have in fact considerable powers. There may be a suspicion abroad that on occasion they appear to have not too much public accountability attached to them.
1662 Perhaps I may give your Lordships an illustration of that. When English Nature wishes to create a new area of special scientific interest, usually—certainly quite correctly—it enters into informal talks with all those concerned before going on to a more formal consultative and legal position. If no agreement can be reached at that stage, those concerned have the right, which they exercise from time to time, to appeal to English Nature's Council. I cannot help feeling that when those concerned reach that position, they feel that not only are they appealing to the prosecutor, in a sense, but also to the judge.
Due largely to your Lordships' endeavours, in Scotland legislation has been enacted which allows for a final appeal to be made to an independent committee. I feel that that gives considerable comfort to those who may be involved in arguing their case. I wonder whether it would be possible for that arrangement to be extended to the rest of the United Kingdom.
In the atmosphere of encouragement which the White Paper so ably offers, it is obviously vitally important that those bodies who become involved in administering the protection of our beautiful land carry with them the farmers, landowners, people who live and dwell throughout rural England and those who own houses and all forms of dwelling there. After all, it is their property that is involved. It is important that they feel that they are being carried along with the arguments before final decisions are taken.
I believe that this House above all has a great knowledge and understanding of the countryside and its stewardship, which stretches back many centuries. I know that your Lordships will always act as the guardian of our unique and beautiful land and those who live and work in it.
§ 4.54 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Southwark
My Lords, I know that the whole House will wish me to offer the noble Lord, Lord Hambro, our warmest congratulations on a splendid maiden speech.
Some people may ask why on earth the Bishop of Southwark should join in a debate about rural England. Let me offer two points in justification. First, the diocese of Southwark stretches far to the south of the London conurbation and encompasses many a hill, woodland and glade. My previous diocese of Bradford also included moors, forests and dales. Secondly, and more importantly, the condition of rural England is a subject of enormous importance to the vast majority of our population who live in urban areas. Not only do we like eating the food that is grown there but, as the White Paper points out, the Countryside Commission has discovered that 93 per cent. of those whom it interviewed, who came from all kinds of backgrounds, considered that the countryside was valuable to them. Ninety one per cent. believed that society has a moral duty to protect the countryside for future generations.
Indeed people's feelings about the countryside run very deep and cross the boundary between material and spiritual concerns. We read in the White Paper that the most common benefits from visiting the countryside 1663 were seen to be a sense of relaxation and well-being, fresh air, peace and quiet. That is a good enough reason for a bishop to make a speech.
I should like to associate the Church of England with the warm welcome that the White Paper has received. It is beautifully written and presented. It strikes an admirable balance between the many different interests and concerns that different people have when it comes to the future of the countryside. Too often, rural society fragments into interest groups which do not necessarily talk very much to each other. Often, environmentalists, farming interests, developers, incomers and those concerned with rural poverty and services form separate organisations and even sub-cultures and pursue their particular interests in isolation from others. That may well be healthy up to a point, so long as it is done within a framework of shared values and shared inspirations and so long as it is always borne in mind that, in the end, we all depend upon each other and must build on what we have in common.
The institutions that bind us together across the boundaries of class, sub-culture and interests are not as strong as they were. To build a sturdy framework of shared values and human contacts which is ultimately stronger than many conflicts of interest over the countryside, is one of the key challenges to the community and civic organisations, not least the Churches themselves. It is also a vital role for government. I believe that the White Paper holds the ring between potentially conflicting interests and draws out sentiments, principles and aspirations behind which the great majority of different people can unite.
I am particularly grateful for the generous references in the White Paper to the work of the Churches as a central focus of spiritual and community life in many of our small rural communities. In line with what I have just said, I am delighted to be able to take this opportunity to give your Lordships an assurance that the Churches take most seriously their role in building bridges between the different sections of the rural community and in drawing people together, for the sake of the truly important things, across the boundaries which so often divide them.
The White Paper recognises its debt to the report Faith in the Countryside, produced by the Archbishop's Commission on Rural Areas. There is a great deal in common between that document and the White Paper. I can assure your Lordships that we are ready to respond most warmly to the proposal in the White Paper that the Government should consult with the Churches on ways of working more closely in the countryside.
I am also impressed by the candour of a number of passages in the White Paper. There is no attempt made to gloss over the deterioration of many rural services and in particular the huge problems which the growth of private car use has caused to community services and to rural public transport. The serious difficulties which that brings to poorer people who do not have cars are emphasised with great honesty, and I applaud the resolution in principle to reverse the general decline in rural services; to sustain a balanced social mix and to 1664 tackle some of the special handicaps of isolation, which are in some ways worse in many rural areas than in our towns and cities.
Similarly, I warmly endorse the objective of encouraging a wide range of housing options to maintain balanced living communities and to take specific measures to secure the provision of affordable housing. Again, I am sure that, potentially, many Churches have an important role to play in that regard. There are already a number of significant initiatives in which Churches, sometimes using glebe land, are one of the partners in sponsoring new housing provision for the less well off.
A further candid and potentially significant statement in the White Paper is that,the long tradition of unpaid stewardship by farmers and landowners is not always sufficient to ensure that they deliver all the environmental benefits that society now wants and expects".The truth is that there is no private market mechanism through which farmers and landowners can be properly rewarded for the enormous environmental blessings that they bring to the nation. The only adequate way of achieving that is through public expenditure.
The taxpayer has become accustomed to enjoying incomparable environmental blessings on the cheap, and that must inevitably change if the countryside is to remain properly managed for its environmental and recreational benefits as well as for the food it can supply. That is a far-reaching, even radical, principle to appear in a White Paper and I congratulate the Department of the Environment on getting it past the Treasury!
That brings me to the one cautionary note I want to strike. I have just given examples of some fundamentally important and excellent policy objectives. But the brutal truth is that most of them cost money and require political will to make available resources through the tax system to support objectives which are widely endorsed by the public at large. If our political culture slides back into the simplistic mindset that spending public money is bad, that taxes are bad and that the common interest is OK as long as we do not have to pay for it, most of the White Paper will be a dead duck.
Nevertheless, one of the points that delights me about the White Paper is that there is a commitment to establish an inter-departmental mechanism within the Government which will keep all the recommendations of the White Paper under review and report back publicly on what has been done. That is extremely valuable. If nothing has been done to forward the splendid objectives set out in the White Paper, the Government will have to say so and pay a political price. I feel sure that this House is one of the places where the Government can be certain that they will be brought to account, using the White Paper as a series of benchmarks against which to measure their performance. Frankly, to issue publicly what are known in effect in Whitehall as "hostages to fortune" takes some courage, and I sincerely thank the Government for it.
§ 5.4 p.m.
§ The Earl of Selborne
My Lords, I too join in congratulating my noble friend Lord Hambro on his maiden speech. I hope he will speak frequently on these subjects so that he soon qualifies as one of the "usual suspects" of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont.
I declare that I am a farmer and chairman of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, a statutory committee of English Nature, and I am also chairman of the Committee for Rural Hampshire about which I shall say more in a moment.
Everyone so far has welcomed this wide-ranging review of countryside matters and I do also. As my noble friend the Minister reminded us, we received over 300 responses. When one bears in mind that those are responses on environmental, social and economic issues, one sees that an enormously wide range of views are correctly woven into this document. We have heard already that there is a request for more and firmer targets. I hope some precise targets will be set and that there will be close monitoring of those targets; but not yet please.
We heard from the Minister, which I entirely endorse, that we need to give back to the rural interests some degree of control over their own affairs. We have had enough of central organisations, of quangos and so forth, setting the targets for us. The Government have done right to set out this extremely far-ranging document and then to say, "What do you think about it? Go back and talk about it on a regional and local level and by all means inform us of your response".
The document does not contain many targets, but let us take one of them, which I believe to be misplaced. I refer to the target for doubling the amount of woodland over the next 50 years or so. That may or may not be right. However, before we know whether the target is right or that it is simply something dreamt up in Whitehall, we need to ask each county and perhaps each parish whether it wants to double its woodland. Who will do it? How will they do it? Why should they want to do it? Those questions need to be answered, amalgamated and then a decision can be taken as to whether the figures make sense. Therefore those who ask for targets and for local say should think through the consequences of the two. But we will move to targets and it will be important that the Cabinet committee enforces those targets not just on government, but also on other sectors.
Why do local interests, particularly rural interests, appear to have lost out to the centre? It is partly because of the enormous economic pressures—land use pressures—imposed on the countryside from urban areas. In the 1960s we were losing 21,000 hectares a year. It is now much better; around 5,000 hectares a year are being lost to urban development in the 1990s. But that is still an alarming amount and much of it is going to housing.
With that amount of imposition on rural areas it is clear that, however much rural areas may wish to try and influence those tendencies, they are being swamped by pressures from outside. Clearly if one is looking at rural interests and how to protect this green and pleasant 1666 land, if we want to ensure that we have a dynamic rural economy, we must look at the urban economies as well. If we are not making proper use of brown sites, clearly we will make inappropriate use of green sites in the countryside; the two are closely interlinked.
There is nothing inherently worse or better about either urban or rural areas. Many people prefer to live in urban areas for obvious reasons. But if an inequity arises between the two, if the inner cities are run down and deprived, then clearly the pressure on rural areas will increase to their detriment.
I participated in a modest way in something of a "top down" process of planning in Hampshire. Hampshire took up the challenge set by the Countryside Commission, with which I suspect the noble Lord, Lord Barber, was involved. In 1987 it was suggested that counties should develop their own rural development strategies, which was an excellent idea. It came from the Countryside Commission. The rural development strategy was taken up by the county council and very much owned by the county council. It took three years to prepare and involved a lot of people in annual conferences and working groups. It was excellent. I ended up as chairman of the Committee for Rural Hampshire which was asked by all those who participated to ensure that the county council did not put the report on a shelf and forget about it. In other words, we had to keep the momentum going.
The problem with that plan and with all plans based on land use is that there was not a strong sense of local identity. The district councils in particular felt that they did not own it. There is now a greater realisation that community strategies need to be much more "bottom up". Of course there must be a contribution from the Countryside Commission and from the county council, but if we are to obtain a rural community strategy with which people can identify at parish council level or even at the level of local groups within the parish, there must be input from informal fora or groups which need to be encouraged and made to feel that they can make a major contribution.
Another point, referring to the Hampshire rural development strategy, which surprised us all was that, despite all the great care and time that was taken in preparing it, within two or three years it was more or less out of date. There was no further input to it. There was no real ability, apart from our committee of a dozen people or so, meeting three times a year, to revise the plan as situations changed rapidly, as indeed they always do. We continue to meet as a committee for rural Hampshire. We still believe that we serve a useful purpose in bringing together the diverse interests of rural Hampshire to talk about our problems and ensure that we do not unduly antagonise each other. That is helpful. But it is a wholly modest agenda. Local initiatives are needed; we need rural community strategies; and we need to devise systems where anyone, whether on a parish council or not, can feel that he has a contribution to make.
Very often the first requirement is to identify local needs. It may seem obvious that there is a local transport need or a local health or community care need. But until 1667 you sit down and ask people what they really want and how they would like to achieve it, and indeed share information as to what is available and do so in an accessible form, it is sometimes rather surprising to find that the strategy for that area is remarkably defective. Very often that will lead to the need for a part-time information co-ordinator. That is simple but, of course, it implies expenses for the telephone, because people will be ringing up the whole time, or probably, more realistically, it implies a part-time salary. A charge on the parish council may be possible if the funding is to be put in place from the parish council. That is an essential building block. Plans which lack this ability to identify on the ground what people really want and how they are going to set about providing it for themselves and with help from others will not get very far.
The White Paper correctly identifies rural transport as one of the almost intractable problems. It is, and we all recognise that we are becoming more and more dependent on cars. The deprivation of those who do not have cars, or whose breadwinner takes the car away all day leaving the rest of the family isolated, is becoming a serious problem. Yet, much as we recognise that that is an almost intractable problem, I do not think that the White Paper gets very far in the lateral thinking that will be required to resolve the problem. If there are cars and there is a shortage of buses—it is unlikely that the bus network will ever be as extensive as we would wish—perhaps we need to try to devise a system where private cars can participate in public transport itself. That means changing the law, changing insurance practice and so on.
There are many speakers and I do not wish to say anything more except to welcome the emphasis throughout the report on problem-solving at a local level, identifying the local character and identifying local priorities. That surely must be what we are all looking for.
§ 5.13 p.m.
§ Lord Chorley
My Lords, I must begin by recording that I am the chairman of the National Trust. I say this, not so much in the sense of declaring an interest as that the trust's estates are now rather more than 1 per cent. of England's total countryside. That is a considerable responsibility. Moreover, our interests are wider than the ownership of land per se; for example, we own some 60 villages and thousands of buildings. It follows that the White Paper—that is to say, the Government's policies as they exist today and as they may now be modified—are highly relevant to us.
If I may sound a note of slight complaint, it is that a mere three weeks between publication and debate is too short a period for the examination and reflection on a commendably wide-ranging document. Having said that, we warmly welcome the White Paper. There are, of course, many areas of detail where we will need to reflect and, indeed, some proposals, one or two of which I will come on to, which concern us. I congratulate the Secretary of State for the Environment. I do not wish to belittle MAFF's contribution but the White Paper is very much a DoE document. Nevertheless, the need effectively to co-ordinate the policies and activities of 1668 the many other Departments of State with a strong but indirect influence in the countryside is considerable. The role of the co-ordinating Cabinet committee will be of crucial importance. I welcome, too, the commitment to report on progress. I hope that will happen regularly, year by year.
I find it convenient to divide the subject into two broad areas. First, the need to conserve, and I quote here from page 10 of the report,the character of the countryside—its landscape, wildlife, agricultural, recreational and natural resource value—for the benefit of present and future generations",phraseology which is remarkably similar to the trust's own statutory purposes. It carries with it the implicit need to resist more strongly the relentless pressure of land loss, to which the CPRE has drawn our attention in a well-researched document. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, also referred to it.
However, on this occasion I do not want to pursue the question of landscape conservation, recreation and so on, except to note, and indeed welcome, the proposal to enhance the very successful countryside stewardship scheme, which was the brainchild of my noble friend Lord Barber. This, together with the increasingly useful environmentally sensitive areas schemes—rifle and scattergun respectively—are the main measures to deliver environmental land management. I have one question: how much extra funding will there be? And one observation: I hope MAFF, in enhancing stewardship, will take note of the lessons of the successful whole-farm management scheme, the so-called Tir Cymen scheme, of the Countryside Council for Wales. I am delighted, incidentally, to note—the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, mentioned it—that the enhanced stewardship scheme may target traditional stone walls and banks.
The second broad area, and the area I wish to concentrate on, is the future of our country villages. I mentioned that the National Trust owns 60 or so villages, so we have what one might call a vested interest. I believe that they are the key to a thriving rural economy and social community. Healthy village communities depend primarily on the right mix of economically active people and young people. Whether we successfully achieve this can, I suspect, be measured by whether or not we succeed in retaining the village school. When a village loses its school the heart goes out of it. That, in turn, depends, I believe, on affordable housing with a strong rented element, together with local policies which seek to ensure that through renting there is the right age distribution in the village community. I suspect that if a village, or a cluster of hamlets, can support a school, then it will also be able to support those other key elements, a shop and a post office. The White Paper devotes considerable space to this and to related issues. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether it succeeds.
I should like therefore to make six short points. First, affordable housing, to which I have already referred. One can welcome the proposed rural village "enhancement factor" to give extra grants for small village schemes and the recognition of the importance of the private rented sector. Equally, one can welcome the exclusion from the 1669 purchase grant scheme of communities of fewer than 3,000. But why restrict this to fewer than 3,000? What is the magic about that figure?
Secondly, homes. These are not apparently thought to be a problem. That may be so in terms of overall national averages, but as the White Paper says, they "can be significant in particular areas". This is a clear case where a national generalisation is pernicious. There are many villages—for example, in national parks—where over 30 per cent. of the houses are now second homes. In those cases they are a huge impediment to a thriving community.
Thirdly, schools. One would have liked to see a more proactive policy. Why not a rural village school enhancement factor, as with housing? Does one detect a rather indifferent attitude of the Education Department, in contrast to the DoE? Fourthly, shops and post offices. We welcome the proposed rate relief. Fifthly, employment. It is noteworthy that, notwithstanding the reduction in agricultural employment, there has been a 13 per cent. increase in overall rural employment between 1981 and 1991. The Minister referred to that.
He also referred to the fact that rural unemployment was much lower. Why is there a need to boost employment? We may need more housing in the countryside, but we certainly do not need more people. We need to halt the steady drift of people who live in the country but commute to the city and the attendant effect on house prices. The employment must be local employment. As the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, said, cities have to be made more attractive places in which people can live and work to redress the balance. It is against that background that there is a need to encourage truly local employment. I find it difficult to judge whether these measures are sufficient, especially on the school and housing front, and whether new housing can be accommodated without a further loss of green fields.
All of that brings me to my final point: planning. The White Paper commits the Government to increased protection of the wider countryside, but I am bound to say that the detail tends to work in the opposite direction. I take as an example the proposals regarding Grade IIIA land or the proposal to introduce a new business use class. On the face of it, these weaken protection. Given the acknowledged huge pressures from developers, I find this worrying. Consultations are proposed, including a draft revision of PPG7. I welcome that, provided the starting point is that there is a need for less rather than more development. Above all, we need discriminating development; that is to say unambiguous guidance which strengthens the commitment to the environment and the protection of landscape quality.
There is a very long list of speakers, and I will therefore end by repeating my welcome for the White Paper. If it is followed through with vigour, determination and, I hope, cross-party support—which I believe to be a reasonable hope—it will be a milestone in the protection of the cinderella of our incomparable landscape.
§ 5.22 p.m.
§ Lord Kimball
My Lords, the excellent speech of my noble friend Lord Hambro forces from me a small political confession. When he was a director of the Guardian & Royal Exchange Assurance Company for many years he farmed the southernmost tip of my Lincolnshire constituency. Like all good organisations, he was kind enough to ask the local Member of Parliament to shoot. Such is the relaxed life of politics in Lincolnshire that in previous by-elections and six general elections his particular polling station had been omitted from the Gainsborough constituency register. It was only when he was kind enough to ask the Member of Parliament to shoot that we appreciated he was our constituent.
The countryside, as always, is experiencing great change. I wish to deal briefly with three important changes as I see them: agriculture and employment; housing and the motorcar; and recreation, both new and traditional. The figure for the decline in the number of people in agriculture is irrelevant to the importance of agriculture to the countryside. Whatever may be said about the number of people employed, farming is the still the lifeblood of the countryside. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, that the Minister of Agriculture should be seen as the lead Minister in the Cabinet Co-ordinating Committee. I have nothing against the Department of the Environment, but agriculture is more important in the countryside. The future of agriculture is linked to the reforms of the CAP, but in the end we will have to face up to agriculture surviving in terms of the world market.
The White Paper deals with the business of telling planners to be more sensible about other uses for old and out of date agricultural buildings. I believe we should say quite clearly that in the first instance these buildings should be used for developments that add to the value of locally produced products. Certainly, in the East Midlands at the moment many businesses start up in villages but the people who run them want to move to another group of villages where there are others who are developing similar enterprises. It is not just the business of getting away from home for lunch, but one cannot develop unless one is living in an atmosphere where other people are also developing rural ideas. There is a cross-fertilisation of ideas.
I am particularly pleased that in the White Paper a major contribution has been made to the question of rural housing by two of the districts from my old constituency. I refer to the county district of Lincolnshire and, in particular, the Lincolnshire Rural Housing Association and the West Lindsay Rural Housing Enabler. But there is another important point about rural housing that is not covered in the White Paper. We all know that in small towns many small businesses are going bust. If we want to have good, affordable rural housing, the time has come when buildings which in the past century have been turned into shops should be turned back into residences for people to bring life back into small market towns. The idea of placing restrictions on out-of-town shopping is unrealistic and impracticable. As politicians, it is our job to give people what they want. People want to get into 1671 their cars and go to the best area for out-of-town shopping. Unless out-of-town shopping is developed in conjunction with small market towns, people will go to areas where there is out-of-town shopping which will further increase the decline of small market towns. I welcome the idea that we want more homes in the high street. Those homes will ensure that within the high street a certain number of what may be called top-up shopping areas will survive.
I deal finally with the question of recreation in the countryside. The White Paper highlights the importance of recreation as part of working in the countryside. It goes on to say that field sports represent £2.7 billion a year of expenditure in the countryside. I wish that the number of people employed could be quoted. I hate to think of sport and leisure only in terms of money. The White Paper goes on to make a special plea for a greater need for tolerance and understanding of those who wish to enjoy the countryside in this way. Those of us who enjoy the countryside in this way should appreciate the serious problem which exists today of misperception of our activities. That is something that we must put right. I thought it very significant that at the time of the Labour Government in the 1960s the coursing community found themselves in difficulty and there was no understanding of their sport. They asked Mr. Stable, QC, to look at the conduct of their sport. With the help of a distinguished Fabian, who had been his secretary and who had previously written the Fabian Society pamphlet on the right to roam, he produced the Stable Report on the conduct of coursing. That was accepted and acted upon by the coursing fraternity.
I am a great admirer of what the National Trust has done in the West Country. I believe that the document which it produced in March 1993 on the conservation and management of red deer in the west country was a masterly way of dealing with the misperceptions about that particular subject. I believe that some of the other rural sports should take those two reports as an example. Those who fox hunt must look at some parts of the country where developments make the continuation of that sport an irritant. I also believe that the hunting community must look at some of the grounds for misperception of the conduct of their sport. The shooting community is very lucky because it has the Game Conservancy. But we will have to face up to the problem of the control and management of both avian and mammalian predators in future. There is a need to clip the wings of some birds of prey, particularly the sparrowhawk and the peregrine. From the anglers' point of view something has to be done about the cormorant in the future. The expansion of the polecat and the pine marten beyond their particular natural habitat in Wales and the West Highlands is unacceptable. Why is it acceptable to run the Red Alert scheme between the Tweed and the Tyne and eradicate the grey squirrel in that area in order to encourage the red squirrel? Surely the same policies will have to be introduced in areas where the pine marten and the polecat are now spreading and becoming very serious predators in an area to which they are not natural.
1672 As I have said, the countryside is always changing. I believe that all countrymen would agree that change is their ally. It is only by change that they will have a prosperous and vibrant countryside. That is what we all want to see and the White Paper is the basis on which we should proceed.
§ Lord Barber of Tewkesbury
My Lords, I wish—in fact, I hasten—to disclose a pecuniary interest in commercial farming and forestry. I was reminded during a debate in your Lordships' House a few days ago that I should also disclose that I was once chairman of the Countryside Commission and of the council of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
I have sat on no end of groups and committees during the past 10 months, some official, some informal, some formal and some indeed secret. They were to feed information and views into the Government in order to produce their White Paper. I am bound to say that, half-way through, I came to a state of despair because I could not really see how anything constructive was capable of being fashioned out of what we had got, given the fact that resources were not going to be available. I am bound to say, however, that the Government, with very little straw, have produced some really good and workmanlike bricks, producing a broad lurch forward. We can mount action on what we have got. I congratulate the Government most warmly on what they have done.
I anticipated that 30-odd speakers after the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, might be speaking today. Therefore, if noble Lords will allow me, I have decided to offer some thoughts on issues in the White Paper with which I have been personally involved rather than comment on the broad sweep of policies.
Inevitably, in all this agreeable ointment, there are one or two flies. I have to say that at least part of the forestry with which I am associated—a forestry management company—although I believe I reflect the views of the whole private forestry industry, were deeply pained to find that our beloved industry was denied a place in the section entitled "Working in the Countryside" and was confined to the one called "A Green and Pleasant Land". The implication is obvious. Forestry is regarded as far more important as a decorative part of the countryside, its ecology and access than as a hard core national industry supplying commercial softwood to the pulp mills and other processing outlets. From getting the balance wrong one way, I believe that we are now getting it wrong the other way, with all the consequences for rural jobs and full exploitation of our enormous processing investment.
This is not an occasion for a dissertation on forestry, but surely the days of the rape of the flow country, bathmat planting designs and all the rest of it, are long gone. We need to rehabilitate conifers in the eyes of the public and indeed in the eyes of the Government, if I may dare say so. What we have now is an imbalance growing ever greater with no prospect of the matured forest fellings of the next 20 years being adequately replenished. From private coniferous plantings of some 1673 23,000 hectares in 1989 we are down now to some 2,500 hectares. It is not a bit of good arguing that the conifer content of mixed woodland in such as the farm woodland scheme means very much. It is in small parcels, and little will be managed commercially. One report we studied referred to forestry policy rather cynically and harshly as producing the most decorative and expensive firewood in the world.
I turn to some less contentious but still argumentative issues arising from the document. I quote roughly that the Government propose to give increased funding to countryside stewardship. How splendid! That may well prove to be the most influential piece of policy to have emerged from the Countryside Commission in the past 25 years. I am pleased that the present chairman of the Countryside Commission is listening to our debate this evening.
An adjoining paragraph engenders sharper question marks:The Government will work in Europe to make the environment a central objective of the Common Agricultural Policy".That is splendid again, one might say, bearing in mind always the need for balance between profitable food production and greenery. But how much do we really know about some of the issues if we are preparing for an eventual major switch of funding from production support to environmental "good things"? If the taxpayer sees him or herself increasingly as providing funds for the countryside, what sort of countryside does he or she really want? We have very little idea, because I suspect that public tastes change as they become more familiarised and sophisticated.
We know even less about another central issue—the relationship between the withdrawal of agricultural subsidies and the consequent effect on farmland appearance, its ecology and the rest. Professor George Peters, a sage voice from the world of agricultural economics, picked up the issue in a letter to The Times a few days ago. He argued,It is easy to describe potential gains and losses, but the potential effects of a change in broad agricultural policy are beyond anyone's ability to visualise".I agree wholeheartedly. Clearly, we need further investigation. For myself, I wonder, when we are involved in all this forward policy thinking, whether we are all inclined to overlook the sharp and growing dichotomy of English agriculture; the 10,000 to 20,000 large-scale entrepreneurs producing most of our food on the one hand, and the rest on the other. As rationalisation continues so do the patterns of potential change in ways we do not properly understand. It is absurd to discuss the farming industry, as we do, as if we did not have a developing two-tier structure raising such questions as whether one directs the largest tranches of new environmental money more specifically where the investment pays off best in the public interest.
Professor Peters picks up another point and prays in aid the late Dr. C.S. Orwin, one-time director of the Oxford University Institute of Agricultural Economics, to argue that the withdrawal of subsidies will inevitably result in a distasteful, depressed-looking countryside, 1674 citing 1930s agriculture as an example. He quotes Dr. Orwin as referring to the dire appearance of broken down gates, men working in "muck and mire", unrepaired buildings and so on. Both in farming and in environmental terms, this really is part nonsense, which has been accepted truth for the reason that nearly all descriptions of 1930s farming came from urban academics and fanner journalists like the late Arthur Street to whom a manicured countryside was the only acceptable one.
Those of us who are old enough to have farmed in that decade, as I did, know differently. The parts of Oxfordshire I have known—the Windrush Valley and later the Cotswolds—were incomparably more beautiful farmland landscapes than they are today. If the public had seen them in the flesh, as it were, I suspect that the mellow, shaggy vistas filled with features and the semi-wilderness aspects of the less productive land are what they would have wished to see in coming years.
I make another point. I am absolutely certain that the public will want more and more wilderness areas. That is surely something that we must bear in mind when we think in terms of CAP reform and what is to happen over the next 20 or 30 years. There is much to learn on this front. One needs to be open-minded for the time being about public choice. How the Minister's group on the CAP review dared be so dogmatic as to write,On the one hand, reducing support should relieve pressure of intensive use of landand later to assert that environmental gains from reduced support would outweigh the negative effects is beyond comprehension. We simply do not know.
The White Paper refers to joint working between the Countryside Commission and the Rural Development Commission to develop initiatives which enhance environmental quality and economic opportunity, which is surely long overdue. A former Cabinet Minister who was a personal and good friend of mine and a Member of your Lordships' House, sadly no longer with us, once summoned me in 1987, I think it was, to discuss future countryside quango relationships. He anticipated events in his usual clear-sighted way and saw that the green political bandwagon might run a good deal faster than had been anticipated, with the effect of influencing economic development. He believed that the future lay with the Rural Development Commission being the bedmate of the Countryside Commission rather than what was then the Nature Conservancy Council. He saw the two cultures becoming progressively more interdependent. I agreed wholeheartedly and I understand that plans for a more formalised relationship were started but that they fell somewhere along the way. A better and more intimate relationship can now go forward, I hope. Perhaps I may say how relieved many of us are that the Countryside Commission and English Nature are not now sharing the marriage bed which was designed for them at one time last year.
I turn now to village greens—not, I am sad to note, a proposal contained in the document. A scheme was submitted by one of the groups on which I served whereby greens would be created within villages as a result of fiscal reliefs for landowners. The instrument suggested was Gift Aid with a target of 2,000 greens, 1675 each of two hectares. That would have cost the Treasury, on our calculations, some £25 million over five years. Maybe it will all be resurrected. Happily, the Countryside Commission, I understand, is now looking to millenium money for this most admirable purpose. I emphasise that it would be one of the speediest ways of bringing character back to villages that have become totally characterless under the relentless flood of executive homes and the like, smothering the last vestiges of open land within the settlement boundaries. The creation of areas of common land might also fit into a scheme of that kind.
Finally, there is a wealth of many positive initiatives to be taken to fruition, referred to in Rural England and emanating from the Countryside Commission. Perhaps I may list just a few of them. They are so important that we should bear them in mind all the time because they are things to cherish and to try to push forward. I refer to the development of quiet roads, a new designation, whereby vehicles have secondary rights, and to wider use of village design statements to massage new development into the essence of individual villages. I wholly accept what the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, said about the Hampshire plan. We did not get far enough down to the grassroots. With a village design statement, the parish council is involved and can have its say. I refer also to research into means of reducing light pollution from road lighting, a matter about which people are becoming more and more restive. More attention should also be given to that marvellous feature, our river landscapes. Those are but one or two examples of a whole battery of not too costly initiatives that are needed to keep the balance in tune, as we move, I hope, to a more economically dynamic rural scene.
I think that the Government have done rather well in providing a fresh and imaginative framework. All of us should try to carry the whole thing forward with imagination and enthusiasm.
§ 5.42 p.m.
§ Lord Shuttleworth
My Lords, as always in our debates on rural affairs, I must declare an interest as paid chairman of the Rural Development Commission, the government agency concerned with people in the countryside. Much as I enjoyed the speech of my noble friend Lord Hambro, I breathed a sigh of relief, sitting as close to him as I am, that his swipe at quangos was aimed elsewhere. I suppose that I must also declare an interest as someone who lives and farms in the countryside although the latter in the high Pennines tends to be a somewhat negative financial interest.
Welcome attention has been given to rural issues in the six months since we last debated them in this House. Most of that attention involved the wide-ranging considerations and consultations which were part of the formulation of the White Paper. The Secretary of State, and indeed the Prime Minister in his foreword to the document, made it clear that the White Paper was part of a process, the starting point in the identification and development of further detailed policies. I hope that we can keep the spotlight shining purposefully while that debate develops.
1676 In a debate such as this it is inevitable that there will be some repetition and I apologise in advance for my contribution to that. I shall be as brief as possible in view of the list of speakers, but this White Paper is very significant to the commission's remit. In contrast to some noble Lords who have talked about specific matters of detail, I want to refer to its general thrust, to the climate that it sets for the countryside.
The main concern of the Rural Development Commission was that the White Paper should put the people who live and work in the countryside at its heart. It does so unequivocally and I welcome that. It gives a very clear message that the people in the countryside matter and that their need for jobs, homes and services are important and must not be overlooked. It also emphasises that we need a working countryside; and that a profitable and diverse countryside is of benefit not only to the local rural economy, but to the nation as a whole. At the same time it makes clear that a living, working countryside is not incompatible with a respect for the environment and that the two can, and indeed do, go hand in hand.
The White Paper also recognises the diversity of the countryside and its economy and the differences as well as the similarities. Some areas of rural England are buoyant, but others are suffering the effects of structural change. Some people in the countryside enjoy a splendid quality of life, but others are disadvantaged and in danger of becoming marginalised by a lack of suitable jobs, homes and services. For some people the countryside is a playground, but for many others it is their livelihood.
The White Paper recognises that the countryside cannot stand still, but will be affected by what is happening. I refer to transport policy and pressures to reduce environmental damage and reliance on the motor car; the projected major growth in households, not only from people moving in, but in new household formation, much of which will occur among those already living in rural areas; the almost inevitable reform of the CAP and the impact on fanning incomes and practices; the growth of the information highway and its effect on businesses and service provision; and the challenge for very small firms of competing in an increasingly global economy.
The White Paper makes clear the need to strike a balance between competing, sometimes opposing interests; it acknowledges the interdependence of economy and environment; it recognises that sustainable development is about the right way in which to achieve development, not about stopping it.
The White Paper emphasises—the Minister chose to emphasise this also—that it is the rural voice, not the voice from the city nor necessarily the voices of national lobby groups, which needs to be better heeded on rural issues.
The White Paper sets out a strategic framework which is clear, realistic and entirely appropriate as a backcloth against which to develop more detailed policy. With a firm welcome, therefore, for the framework, I should also like to welcome much of the detail—there is a great deal of it—while recognising that there is much further work to do.
1677 I was pleased to see the recognition that local communities and parish councils should play a greater part in deciding and shaping their own futures. As I have said, country people should, wherever possible, have the greatest influence on matters that affect them. As Professor Howard Newby said at a White Paper conference last week:it is at this level that the integration of development policies, the protection of cherished values and ways of life and the maintenance of diversity are best guaranteed".
Rural services rightly figure prominently in the White Paper, but there are no simple solutions to their provision. There are a number of policies on individual services which I am sure we all welcome. As other noble Lords have noted, the Government have decided to exempt small rural settlements from the scheme to enable housing association tenants to buy their homes. I also welcome the intention to look at ways of assisting more local transport provision. Incidentally, in that context, I thought that I heard a very expensive dish on the menu of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont. I welcome also other ways of providing help for village shops and post offices and of ensuring that education, health and other policies reflect rural needs and circumstances.
There are a number of proposals in the White Paper under the heading "planning". Planning plays a central part in ensuring a healthy rural economy and viable rural services. We shall have to wait to see how it is proposed to revise PPG7, the planning guidance note for the rural economy, and how a new rural "business use" class might work. I was not at all persuaded by what I thought were the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, on PPG7 although I shall study his comments with care in Hansard tomorrow. It is essential that PPG7 and use classes are considered within the overall framework provided by the White Paper and thereby help to foster a living and working countryside, and not detract from it.
The White Paper contains a commitment to a more strategic approach nationally and a higher profile for rural issues generally. Responsibility for the rural dimension of policies across government has, as we have heard, been given to an existing Cabinet committee, but there will need to be a continuing political commitment at the highest level to ensure that departments and others keep rural issues on their agenda and co-operate on them.
One of the tests of this White Paper will be that policy proposals do not emerge in future which appear to ignore the rural viewpoint. The housing association right to buy is perhaps a case in point. Another test will be about future resources. The White Paper is right to emphasise the part that flexible delivery arrangements and new technology, joint use of facilities, and the contribution of volunteers, can play in stretching the resources that are available. However, and to its credit, the White Paper recognises problems and needs in rural areas that have barely been previously acknowledged by government. Simply redirecting existing resources is unlikely to provide the solutions.
Of course, the ultimate test is the impact on the ground. After all the analysis, and the setting of the framework, there must be some real benefit. How do 1678 we turn commitments in this White Paper into reality? I welcome the undertaking that there will be an annual report on progress, but a list of statements made, policies reviewed, guidelines published, will only be a sign of continuing good intention. My noble friend Lord Selborne was cautious about targets, emphasising the need for local contribution to them, but eventually the work will have to be done—the identification of the right indicators, proper targets, measurable outputs—so that we will know what is actually happening in future, and whether the policies are working.
There are some statistics upon which to build; for example, the Rural Development Commissions biennial survey on availability of rural services, and the statistics on unemployment in our priority rural development areas.
But while we have the baseline indicators for rural deprivation taken from the 1991 census, which we used in identifying rural development areas, there is no system for updating that particular information in the 10 years between each census.
I return to the point that I made at the beginning. One of the best things about the White Paper is that it has happened. It has stimulated debate; it has set a framework; it states clearly the need for balance; and it should ensure that no single interest achieves a disproportionate influence. It has moved the debate on from one simply dominated by conservationist issues to one more directly concerned with a broader range of more fundamental issues.
As I have said, the White Paper recognises problems in the countryside as well as successes. It shows also that government understand that the countryside wants less government, less regulation, less interference from without, and that it will be better for it. Above all, it places at the heart of countryside policy the needs and the views of the people who live and work there.
There is much to do in developing the detail within the framework, and of course the development commission looks forward to working on that with all other interested parties, particularly local partners in the rural areas. As I have said, the White Paper has some tests ahead of it. I believe that it can pass those tests, and I warmly welcome it.
§ 5.53 p.m.
§ The Countess of Mar
My Lords, in what is an extensive and comprehensive White Paper, I propose to restrict what I have to say to the paragraph on health and social care. I promise not to mention organophosphates. The author of this paper has painted a picture in words which I, as patron of the Dispensing Doctors' Association and a patient of a dispensing doctor, find hard to recognise. About 10 per cent. of GPs dispense NHS prescriptions from their surgeries in rural areas where the provision of such services by a pharmacist in a chemist's shop would not be viable. Unlike pharmacists, doctors can be compelled by the FHSA to dispense.
The commitment to the improvements in healthcare across the country is not reaching the community served by dispensing doctors. The writer of the report 1679 recognises that rural doctors can have small practices with branch surgeries and that they may need additional financial support. There is a global sum paid by the Department of Health generally known as the "pool". The rural practice payments scheme is part of that "pool", and any allocation from it means that less is available for another purpose. The result is that the scheme is poorly targeted and few doctors' practices benefit.
Payments for associate doctors are made only in the remotest parts of the United Kingdom. Most doctors in rural areas have worked at least alternate nights and alternate weekends on call for many years. They receive no reimbursement for locum payments and do not expect to benefit from the latest out-of-hours scheme which appears to be weighted towards co-operatives.
The allowance paid to GPs for training courses is much less than the cost of a locum doctor who would have to be employed while the dispensing doctor is away on a course. That means that he or she must try to keep up with new developments by attending evening meetings, often held many miles from home.
I am puzzled by the statement:11 out of 19 Family Health Services Authorities with over 50 per cent. of their population registered with fundholding practices are shire counties and include substantial rural populations".Shire counties also have substantial urban populations, and I suspect that very few, if any, of those patients are registered with a dispensing doctor, for fundholding is beyond the reach of the small, totally rural practice. Just because fundholders are able to commandeer the services of consultants for special clinics, and physiotherapists for their practices, the patients in rural areas must wait longer for hospital appointments and, in many cases, are unable to benefit from the services of a physiotherapist as hospital departments suffer staff shortages.
The financial incentives, following the implementation of the 1990 contract, to provide special clinics such as asthma or diabetic clinics, do not benefit rural patients as the population is too sparse and scattered for the clinics to be viable. Dispensing doctors find it difficult to increase their income from capitation fees as the population in their catchment areas is largely static. They are expected to increase their doctor/staff ratio in the face of increasingly stringent financial restrictions on staff reimbursement imposed by the FHSAs. Some FHSAs are now reported to be refusing to reimburse for dispensers or replacement staff such as receptionists or secretaries.
Rural general practice survives upon the good will of the doctors and their staff. It is increasingly obvious that it will not be viable unless the Government take remedial action very soon. The Department of Health has consistently failed to recognise that the Clothier Regulations which govern the provision of doctor and pharmacist dispensing of NHS prescriptions in rural areas are not safeguarding the position of the services that rural patients want and need. These patients are not being listened to.
Before the courts at present there are a number of applications from pharmacists to provide dispensing services in rural areas. The expenditure of time, money 1680 and effort involved is vast and would not have been necessary had the Government acknowledged the lacuna in Section 12 of the regulations and amended it. It is the patients of dispensing practices affected who will suffer, for without their dispensing income doctors will have to take measures to ensure their practice viability by reducing the number of partners in the practice, for example, or closing branch surgeries.
Even if their dispensing is secure, the income derived from it is under constant downward pressure. Without consulting dispensing doctors, the Department of Health, with the tacit agreement of the General Medical Services Committee of the BMA, imposed a clawback of up 14.2 per cent. on the discounts dispensing doctors were assumed to be able to obtain from their drugs suppliers from 1st April this year.
After an outcry from the affected doctors, the discount abatement scale was revised in October, when the maximum clawback was set at 9.5 per cent., with those doctors who make fewer monthly drug purchases suffering adversely. That clawback was imposed several years ago because dispensing doctors were assumed to be the "fat cats" who were pocketing the discounts at the expense of their prescribing colleagues, another example of the operation of the "pool". In fact most of those profits were ploughed back into the provision of improved services for patients. The department has decided that those doctors are receiving £9 million too much from the "pool", and that they must repay it.
Compare that with the sums reported to be between £68 million and £100 million not spent by fundholders in the last financial year which those doctors are allowed to retain ostensibly for improvements to patient services but often spent on building improvements which will ultimately benefit the doctors themselves when they retire and are paid their share of the valuation of the practice.
I know that life is unfair but it seems to me to be manifestly unjust that rural doctors and ultimately their patients should be penalised simply because they are a minority group without a voice. The best dispensing practices are a fine example of one-stop primary care. Dr. Steven Ford of Hayden Bridge and Dr. Kevin Jones of the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne have made an excellent proposal for integrating pharmacy fully into the primary care team. They believe that their proposal could save the National Health Service £1 billion per year. It is a saving—for a change, I am not asking anyone to spend anything.
Time does not allow me to go into their proposals in detail. However, perhaps I may recommend to the Minister that he and his noble friends read the article published in the British Medical Journal on 24th June 1995. I refer to volume 310, pages 1620 to 1621. The proposals of those doctors could easily be piloted in existing dispensing practices and many of the problems encountered by rural doctors and their patients would, I am sure, be overcome.
I would have liked to have had the time to talk about the functioning of the National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 in rural areas but I am most 1681 conscious of the long list of speakers who are to follow me. No doubt there will be another occasion when I can raise the matter.
§ 6.2 p.m.
§ Lord Marlesford
My Lords, the depth of the White Paper extends the declaration of interests which we are now required to make. Therefore, I declare a financial interest as the owner of an agricultural estate in Suffolk. I also declare an interest as the chairman of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, which is unpaid, and certainly not least as chairman of the Marlesford Parish Council, which is also unpaid. As we are exhorted to declare relevant past interests, I declare that I served for 12 years on the Countryside Commission under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Barber, and for eight years on the Rural Development Commission under the chairmanships of my noble friends Lord Vinson and Lord Shuttleworth. Finally, I should declare that I am a constituent of Mr. John Gummer, who wrote the White Paper, on which I congratulate him. I felt that if I did not declare that he was my MP I may be doing the wrong thing.
The White Paper is good in many ways. I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, that it is rather expensive and long. However, it is well worth reading. I am a slow reader but I read it in six hours; that is, in three bites of two hours. I found it well worth reading. The Labour Party should be most grateful for it because it has done any work that they may have needed to do in this area to prepare themselves for eventual government. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, holds up a document about which he and I have previously exchanged words. However, I believe that the White Paper has proved to be the last word and that it takes us forward for a long time as regards many crucial areas of policy. I believe that it should be read widely in Europe because what we do in the rural areas of England can be learnt by many countries in the EU.
There is much to be welcomed in the White Paper, but I refer quickly to the need for a flourishing rural economy. As was stated in the Economist, it shows that, economically, things are good in the countryside. The excellent paper, Unemployment by Constituency, which one can obtain from the Library, gives a snapshot of monthly unemployment throughout the United Kingdom in 650 discrete parts. It shows how relatively low unemployment is in almost all the rural constituencies. The White Paper's attitude to jobs, in particular as regards the encouragement of self employment, is thoroughly to be commended. Having advocated that in a small way for many years, I am delighted that it is seen that the grass roots of parish councils can have a greater scope in ensuring that the right policies emerge bottom up.
There was a worry that the White Paper, with certain Members of the Government in their seats in Cabinet, might damage the planning system. That certainly has not been the case. The planning system has not only survived intact but is to be enhanced. When I think of the planning system I pay tribute to the post-war Labour Government which put it in place. That was necessary 1682 because of the appalling loss of agricultural land before the war. One of the good things about the planning system was that after the 1947 Act the loss of agricultural land was halved as compared with before the war. That is a big plus.
I am pleased that the business rate was referred to. Business rates have killed and, I am afraid, may well continue to kill many small businesses in the countryside, not only village post offices. I was shattered to read page 88 of the White Paper, indicating that for a long time machinery has existed to ameliorate business rates on small rural businesses but that that has not been put into practice. I hope that it will be.
I believe that as regards roads, the balance is about right. Today the emphasis is on bypasses to relieve small communities whose quality of life has been made intolerable. There is much less emphasis on trunk roads. No doubt Mr. Waldegrave will have seen to that recently and we shall hear about it in the Budget. I am also delighted that there is a reference to the intrusive nature of lighting and the need to reduce it. Of course, I am not sorry that cycling has been referred to.
I wish to focus on what I believe to be a crucial point for the future; that is the provision of housing in rural areas. I shall not talk so much about the need for housing as about the damaging effect it could have on rural England. As was said by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, we are moving away from food surpluses to food shortages. There are several reasons for that. The first is the huge increase in productivity; for instance, the new rice varieties and so forth. We would be sanguine to assume that science will continue to provide such increases in the magnitude of yields. We should not assume that that will continue to be the case; certainly, wheat yields have been on a plateau for five or six years. Secondly, populations continue to increase in spite of what is done by the biggest countries. We must not forget that the population of China is almost double that of Africa and four times that of Latin America.
In China alone enormous areas of land are being lost, and some of the best land too, because development around Canton and Shanghai is taking away some of the most productive land in the world. Thousands of acres of silt land are being covered with rock. I have seen it for myself because I was in China this summer. It is a depressing sight. The Chinese do not have a word for topsoil, neither do they realise that if one wants to build on agricultural land it is possible to pick up the topsoil and put it somewhere else. If any noble Lords are able to give them that message it would be relevant to everyone in the world, certainly to everyone in this country.
The prices of agricultural products are increasing rapidly. Indeed, the price of wheat is now high, but nothing like as high as it was in the 1980s. In the mid-1980s the price of wheat was the equivalent of £200 per tonne. Today it is about £124 a tonne and if one adds on the CAP area payment it is about £150 per tonne. There is some way still to go but we are moving to a state in which land for agricultural production will again be needed. It would be a great mistake not to assume that.
1683 There was a period when the survival of rural England depended on—I use Nicholas Ridley's phrase—preserving the countryside for its own sake. That was a useful stopgap at a time when people had the misapprehension that land almost had no agricultural relevance and could be sacrificed to an unlimited extent for housing. We really are threatened with housing demands on the countryside which cannot be sustained if we are to retain a rural England anything like that which we wish to have.
There is a prediction that something like 4.4 million new houses will be built by the year 2016. One reason for that is neglect of our cities. Also, in this country there is what Professor Howard Newby described, at the conference to which my noble friend referred, as the anti-urbanism of the English. Basically, the English like to move into the countryside. That will produce enormous pressures. Part of that is neglect of the cities which has been lamentable ever since the war, and possibly even before it. Certainly if we allow developers a free hand, they will always prefer to build on a green site because it is much easier and cheaper. Therefore, the more that is allowed, the more the brown sites, to which my noble friend Lord Selborne referred, will be neglected.
There are areas where the situation is particularly serious. My noble friend Lord Selborne has referred already to Hampshire. It is predicted that Oxfordshire will have 47,000 new houses by the year 2001; Gloucestershire will have a further 53,000; and in the counties around Liverpool and Manchester, Cheshire will have 64,000, Lancashire 78,000 and Cumbria 30,000. Those figures are not sustainable. What is more, if the Government allow a policy of predict and provide to be paramount, that will discourage those who are trying to improve our inner cities. It is not good enough to encourage people to move out of the cities. That is a really serious threat to the countryside.
We are now at a turning point and a point at which we must recognise the real limits imposed by the character, beauty and the need for agricultural production in England. Tough decisions are needed. Such decisions are extremely tough because, in the short term, they may be unpopular. There are two moments at which it is good for a government to make unpopular decisions or take tough decisions: first, when they have just been elected; and secondly, when they are extremely unpopular. I am very serious about this. At that moment the decision to do the right thing, even though it is unpopular rather than politically expedient, may be politically rewarding. Certainly I am optimistic that in view of the quality of thought that there is in the White Paper, we may begin a move in that direction.
§ 6.13 p.m.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, I too was astonished at how good the White Paper is, coming from this Government. I was very pleased indeed to see that it has a nice-looking cover. There is an upright chap with a stick in a green jacket who I am sure was modelled on the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, perhaps when he was a little younger. Nevertheless, it is a White Paper 1684 about rural England and I do not feel qualified to comment on rural England, coming as I do from Scotland. However, the White Paper contains a great deal of information and many good ideas and is extremely useful.
This evening I should like to comment on the section on agriculture. That is extremely interesting and the figures are extraordinarily well put. We all know what is the trend as regards agriculture. I should dearly like to believe what the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, and my noble friend Lord Beaumont have said: that we are entering a period of shortage of food; that prices will be high; and in a free market, that will produce prosperous agriculture in Britain as a whole and in England.
But I have seen, as have many other noble Lords, the lands of Eastern Europe—Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary and above all Russia. There the potential is totally unexploited. At present in Poland a man may be employed for something longer than two months for the price paid there for a ton of barley. Therefore, it is obvious that for many years, it will be difficult to produce food competitively in this country.
We are going a long way towards tremendous efficiency in the countryside, which is not good socially. The figures show that very clearly. Production of wheat in tonnes per hectare has increased from 4.37 in 1973 to 7.35 in 1994. That is a large increase. That has not yet stopped and it must be maintained.
Figures for agricultural holdings are even more interesting. They show that the total of other workers, who obviously are employed workers, has declined by 40 per cent. but the number of part-time farmers, partners and active directors has increased by 76 per cent. We all know that those figures are correct and that farming is becoming more and more mechanised and efficient in technical aspects. In my area in Scotland three farmers, brothers, are producing practically all the peas for canning because they take the land and they have the machinery. People are willing to let the land to them. The same is true as regards many small farms where the farmer stays on the farm, lives in the house and lets the land on a yearly basis. That is going on all over the country and the farming must be carried out efficiently.
In my view there is too much talk of the harm done by intensive farming. Without intensive farming in the growing of crops, we could not compete. We cannot compete with the prairies or the low labour costs in the lands of eastern Europe. Therefore, as regards sustainability in agriculture, we must concentrate on seeing that the use of fertilisers, big machines and pesticides is monitored and that research is done to keep it safe. Tests should be carried out all the time. In other words, those tools for the production of food which we badly need and will badly need at a reasonable price must be used properly and without danger to either the land or the people. It cannot depend on the hope expressed in the White Paper that more extensive farming will be the order of the day and that pesticides will not be needed. That is not on. Farming must be efficient, competent and must use the modern age if it is to survive in a free market. The Government must bear that in mind.
§ 6.19 p.m.
§ The Earl of Macclesfield
My Lords, I too start by declaring interests. I have lived on the family estate in Oxfordshire all my life, partly on the Chilterns and the Oxfordshire Vale. I have farmed beef and sheep in the Chilterns for 25 years. I managed to give that up just about the right time when the paperwork load on farmers had become intolerable. At least, that is my opinion. I have now retired gracefully to the flatlands where it is a little warmer and have become involved in running the estate in general.
My second interest is that the estate has been a focal point for ramblers during the past five or six years in their attempt to get the right to roam. That is encapsulated in a proposition from Oxfordshire County Council that there should be an access agreement. No one seems to understand the problems that would accrue to the countryside in general should that occur.
I begin with forestry. The noble Earl's remarks about increased afforestation were most welcome. It is, however, awkward that forestry land is deemed to be uncultivated. If the noble Earl were to have a word with any forester and suggest that all the trees were on uncultivated land, he might be the recipient of uncomplimentary remarks about men from the Ministry. It could be helpful if a slightly different view were taken of that type of land and it was accepted that the growing of young trees is an agricultural task. The vast bulk come from the planting of young trees—seedlings—and not from natural regeneration. It would be nice to have natural regeneration back, but I suppose that it has gone for all time. We now use tractors on tracks to pull out trees. A horse pulled out one tree at a time but harrowed in the seed while doing so. We had a wonderful beech mast this year. A horse walking about pulling a log out would harrow the seed in; now the seed seems to get stuck in the leaf mould and does not go down to the ground. Therefore, we lose the next crop.
Whichever way we slice it, the human is simply another predator in the woodlands. Of course, there are others; for example, deer. Woodland owners have contracts with the Forestry Commission. The latter's side of the bargain is that it provides grants: our side is that we grow decent timber which means controlling the vermin. If we start with deer, that means the use of high-powered rifles. To have humans wandering about when high-powered rifles are going off is not entirely acceptable, at least not for those people who will be at risk. I understand that there have been fatal accidents in Germany. It would be preferable that such things do not happen here. All that would happen is that the culling operations would be curtailed. At present, we have deer uncontrolled naturally because we have done away with the wolf and the bear. Therefore, it is necessary for humans to control the numbers, otherwise we would simply not have the trees. If we do not control the numbers and do not have trees, we would lose the grants from the Forestry Commission.
If you have an access agreement and the right to roam, precisely who will repay those grants when the trouble starts? There are other aspects which are not necessarily seen by the general public. There are other 1686 predators in the woods which, in turn, have predators of their own. That is the way the food chain works. We have mice wandering around the tree roots. Most of the trees are in guards and the mice have to make their way in. But if the hawks are not there to control them, the numbers of mice and other tree predators increase. The hawks fly about in the open over the trees looking for their prey. Indeed, we have all seen them from the roads. They will not be terribly happy running into haphazard human beings. If we start to drive them from their feeding habitat, that will drive them from their breeding habitat and thus the numbers will be reduced. We will have yet another imbalance created by the human.
We have reintroduced certain species. The Red Kites have come back. I am not quite sure why we lost them at the end of the last century, but they, among others, are very sensitive to interference from human beings. Certainly, one pair of birds lost their site by simply being foolhardy enough to build their nest next to a footpath. But any species can stand that type of loss. Another lost its site on farmland simply because a man doing his job had not been told to keep away from the area. That is all very fine. It can be tolerated on the grounds, "He will learn; he won't do it again".
The right to roam simply means that there would be people wandering about and, of course, they would do so in the spring and summer because that is a happier time for people to be out in the countryside. We would see that disturbance again and the loss of species. I saw the loss of buzzards in the Chilterns during—and this is, I suppose, an unfortunate term—the reign of the didicois that we had for about five years before the county council was finally able to remove them. Originally, when I first moved to the area, there was one pair of buzzards in the summer which reared their nest. One could see the old and young birds floating about in the skies above. Then they vanished; but we got the kites back.
I prefer not to lose that type of bird simply because humans want to walk about. All those birds can be seen either from roads or footpaths. Wild animals of whatever sort can see a threat to their security from a footpath. They avoid it, and anyone on it is no longer a menace to them. That is another reason why I feel that we should keep the law as it is and that the Government, with their remarks encouraging access to woodland, have got things slightly wrong because of the problems that will occur.
We still have the behaviour of the human to consider. Basically, human beings damage and vandalise property. We have that throughout the country. It is no different in the countryside. We have it at home. I have known a big straining post to be uprooted. It required a good deal of effort by two reasonably-sized men. Way markers have been ripped up and thrown into the bushes by someone walking on the footpath. I have even known rabbit netting to be pulled up; indeed, we have even suffered sugar being put in a tractor's tank and tyres being let down. Some of it is vandalism; some of it the result of boredom. You name it, it is there.
It would be nice to see a healthy respect for the countryside before we ever consider letting people loose in it. I believe that there is scope for doing so. But when 1687 I come to town I have to pay car parking fees. I cannot for the life of me understand why the Forestry Commission provides free car parking for those visiting the countryside. It would be helpful if the public at large appreciated the operational costs incurred by the Forestry Commission in looking after the public and providing such facilities. It might also be useful for the public to see an estimate of the cost of vandalism on Forestry Commission land. I can quote one such example from memory. There was a warden, or ranger, walking about keeping the peace over a weekend who found himself having to threaten the public with the police in order to stop them cutting down young beech trees of about 2 inches diameter for firewood. Why landowners should accept that type of person—and we are talking about human beings, not just ramblers—is something I just do not understand.
If we are to get people out into the countryside, apart from making them pay for car parking there could well be different areas of land designated by agreement. I have in mind forestry land and set-aside land; indeed, mature trees can take a certain amount of interference. But if the Countryside Commission is to be involved in developing such schemes, I do not see why any arrangement of that nature should be free to the general public. After all, it is a recreational facility. One has to pay to go to the theatre or the cinema. If people come to the countryside they should pay for that recreational facility. It would encourage them to value such facilities. It is much the same as the need for cheap food and subsidised bread which occurred after the war. If it did not cost the housewife, there was more likely to be waste than if she suddenly found herself paying the full cost, even if she was reimbursed by family allowance. At least she understood the cost of the product. In exactly the same way the public might realise that there are costs incurred in the upkeep of the countryside.
Somehow the White Paper gives the impression that there are no costs incurred in the countryside and that, because it does not cost, it is available and should be free to the public. I do not accept that concept. Indeed, I do not think that anyone in the countryside does so. It seems to me that the way forward is to encourage respect and responsibility for the countryside, not just for the humans who live there but also for all the other species for which, on the whole, the human has precious little regard.
We should encourage the public to understand that they should pay for whatever recreational facilities are provided for them. It is preferable that these facilities should be paid for by the public who use them and not by the general taxpayer. Before anyone refers to my next point, I accept that one cannot charge someone for using footpaths but I do not see why a farmer should pay half the cost of maintaining stiles and the local authority—which is a rural authority to which the farmer contributes through local taxation—should pay the other half. That seems to be a case of lumbering the poor old countryside again. I hope that the Minister will consider that matter and the fact that the public should be encouraged to pay for recreational facilities which are provided for them.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Lord Stanley of Alderley
My Lords, I welcome this White Paper, not least because it gives a strategic plan which spells out broad principles and has resisted the temptation to spell out the nitty-gritty. That is the job of individuals, government departments and indeed your Lordships who have to make sure that the strategy which the Government have proposed is pushed forward.
I shall mention just two areas which interest me. The first is the Government's proposal to exclude the right to buy from housing associations in communities of fewer than 3,000 people. This was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Ferrers. I hope that when my noble friend replies to the debate he may be able to say how alterations—if any—to this scheme can be made. Will that be done by ministerial direction, by order or by primary legislation? I am, however, much relieved that your Lordships will not have to repeat the "staircasing" amendment that occurred in your Lordships' House on 25th October 1989. I do not always agree with my noble friend Lord Marlesford—in fact, it almost disappoints me to say tonight that I agree with him strongly on this occasion—but I hope that he is right about food shortages. However, as a cynical, avaricious farmer I rather doubt that that will happen.
Secondly, I welcome the proposal to consult on and then revise PPG7. That point was mentioned by my noble friend on the Front Bench and by many other noble Lords. If the rural economy is to prosper, it is essential that firm guidelines are given so that both developers and indeed planning authorities know what sort of development should take place and where it should be sited. I was somewhat perplexed by the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Chorley. He said that he wanted local jobs but then I thought he said that he wanted less development. However, I may have misheard him. I sided rather with my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth on that matter. I believe that there can be suitable and sympathetic development in the countryside provided there are good guidelines. The snag is that when one listens to local people—which all your Lordships suggest that we should—one finds there are more "NIMBYs" than those who work in the countryside and want it developed. That is a problem. The problem is making guidelines stick. I hope that my noble friend will consider Circular 23/93 which determines how costs should or should not be awarded.
My concern is that when a local planning authority disregards a planning guideline—and on appeal the inspector may well state that the council had acted unreasonably—costs should go against the local planning authority. At the moment the inspector is tied too tightly by Circular 23/93. I believe that councillors and council officials, whoever they may be, should be made accountable, just as I am when I make a mistake. My other suggestion on PPG7 is that matters that concern local planning authorities giving permission for the improvement or movement of farm buildings for environmental or animal welfare reasons—these are contained mainly in the annex to the document at paragraph B3.5 or B3.6—should be moved to a more prominent position in the main body of PPG7.
1689 I believe it is most important that safety should be included as a factor to be taken into account by planners. I speak with feeling on that matter. Farms are now dangerous places. Farms now have 40-tonne articulated lorries, not horses and carts. Planners should take that into account when planning permission is sought to move farm buildings to a new site. I mentioned that matter in your Lordships' House on 13th June 1989 and the Minister agreed that local planning authorities did not seem to have received the message despite the fact that farming is now the most dangerous of all industries.
Finally, I follow the example of my noble friend Lord Ferrers and declare an interest in that I have been involved in both the matters to which I have referred. Indeed I only speak in your Lordships' House on matters I have knowledge of but I never have, nor ever will, accept any remuneration for so doing. In any case I doubt very much whether "they"—whoever they may be—would ever get value for money.
§ 6.36 p.m.
§ Baroness Macleod of Borve
My Lords, I feel strange as, like the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, I am one of the few women to speak in this debate. I cannot even declare a financial interest in the countryside. I only speak tonight because I have a deep love for the countryside in which I was fortunate enough not only to be born but also to be brought up.
I listened to the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Macclesfield, about kites and various other birds. That brought back many memories for me. This report was ably and helpfully discussed by my noble friend Lord Ferrers. It has been an eye-opener for me. However, I have not been able to stay awake reading it at night as it is so heavy. I could not even support it. However, the report contains much information for which most of us—certainly myself—are most grateful. The report certainly helped me to appreciate not only the present but also the future of the countryside.
I wish briefly to mention three subjects which are aligned—the green belt, housing and transport. I believe that they all hang together. I have discovered that there are 1.5 million hectares of Green Belt in England; that is, 12 per cent. of the whole of England. There are 39 areas of outstanding natural beauty in England and Wales excluding the parks. Some 13 per cent. of the English and Welsh areas overlap. Although the green belt is expanding most of it was declared 40 years ago. In my view the area of Green Belt needs to be revised and reviewed in the light of the need for housing. Many noble Lords have referred to housing but I have to deal, in a charitable capacity, with people who are without homes. I always feel that we could do much more to help them and to give them a chance. I refer not only to the homeless in towns but also to those in the rural areas.
Living in the country as I do, I see the results of the decisions of planning committees, many of whose members have very little idea as to what the end product of their planning will be. I feel that many of them should have training before being appointed to planning 1690 committees. I realise that a great deal is done by civil servants, but I do not think that many of them, either, can foresee how their decisions will turn out in the end.
When thinking about what I should say today, I rang up the new rector of the parish in Worcestershire where I was brought up. I asked him what was changing. To my surprise, he said that nothing has changed. This afternoon noble Lords have said that change is our ally, that we must move forward and we must change. When you go to a beautiful parish like mine in the middle of Worcestershire and are told that nothing has changed, you realise that we must do as much as possible to keep the beautiful countryside that we have now.
Two parishes have amalgamated. The right reverend Prelate will be pleased to hear that the rector told me that he now has 330 parishioners. The church is known to have one of the most beautiful peals of bells in the country. The bells are rung by hand before every service. That was always the case in my time, too. There is a choir of at least a dozen people. It is in the heart of the country.
The Church of England school has 75 pupils, two-thirds of whom come from outside the parish by car from towns which are at least five miles away. Therefore, parents, having the choice of whether to send their children to the local school in town or to drive them to the Church of England school in the middle of the countryside, have chosen to do just that.
There is no policeman in the village as there was in my day. The nearest police are five miles away. Unfortunately, I have to report that the shop closed two years ago, and with it the post office. Therefore, one has to buy one's butter from the petrol station. I hope that it does not smell of petrol. There is a Women's Institute, as there always was. There is a big hall, which belongs to the National Trust and is kept impeccably. There is a hunt, with which I used to hunt, which hunts through the parish.
That is a sketch of the countryside as some of us are fortunate enough to know it. Once countryside becomes urbanised, it ceases to be country and that is a great loss to everyone who wants to live in the countryside.
I was delighted to hear again from the Minister that there will be rate relief for shopkeepers and post offices. I am sure that that will encourage people to stay and to run shops in the local community. It is very sad when a shop closes. There is nobody to gossip with or to spread the news of the parish.
The provision of housing is particularly difficult when there is so little land that is not restricted by the green belt. I asked the new rector about the green belt land and the need for housing. He said that he wanted more housing but the only plot of land that was not green belt land was at the bottom of his rectory garden, and of course/he does not want new houses at the bottom of his rectory garden. That is an issue that needs to be looked at. I believe that some of the green belt land might be made available for houses without undue difficulty and without having to go to the department for permission.
1691 One noble Lord said that housing was not being built for people who needed it. How right he was. It does not appear that housing—whether in the countryside or elsewhere—is geared for the people who need houses. I have figures—with which I shall not weary the House tonight—and I know of people who need houses desperately, but nobody asks them what they want. That applies both in the country and in urban areas. I gather that 75 per cent. of rural housing is owner-occupied and 64 per cent. is in urban areas.
As noble Lords have said, if you live in the country you need transport. It is very difficult if, as in my parish, there is only one bus per week. I hope that, as they did many years ago, the Government will encourage more people to start their own bus companies to meet the needs of people who live in the countryside.
To me, the country is life. I could not live in the town. I did so for two years when my husband died, but I found it impossible as I could not see from my flat either a blade of grass or a green tree. Now I have gone back to the country, and I am surrounded by cattle, sheep, horses, hedges and everything that makes life worth living.
§ 6.47 p.m.
§ Lord Vernon
My Lords, I must first declare an interest as a farmer and landowner in Derbyshire. I, too, welcome the White Paper as a basis for discussion. I hope that it will stimulate action, which is what we all want. I shall confine my remarks to two particular aspects: planning and transport.
First, the first paragraph on page 69 of the White Paper suggests that local authorities should encourage the building of new housing in villages near to where people work and thus reduce the need for them to travel long distances. That would also ensure that the countryside would be protected from development. That is an admirable idea in theory, but not always quite so admirable in practice. One can see villages in different parts of the country where a large number of soulless, almost identical, red-brick houses are being built at the back of an existing old village for the benefit of workers in nearby industries. If the development had been treated with sensitivity by the planners—if, for example there were more variety in the type of houses and materials used for their construction, if there had been provision for perhaps a village green (a matter referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Barber) or such like—some of the character of those old villages might have been retained; or at least some new character added. The fact that that so seldom seems to occur is due, I believe, to lack of imagination by the planners, and by the architects whom they so often employ.
I sometimes wonder whether the existing planning procedures, with so much power in the hands of local authority committees which are inevitably bound by financial restraints, are adequate for the important and responsible planning decisions which are required at this critical time when so many people are moving from the towns to the countryside.
I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, said. It is difficult to see how the amount of housing which it is stated will be required by the end of the 1692 century and early into the next can be sustained without total damage to the countryside. Much more thought should be given to the use of urban areas which are under-used, in particular for industries which are springing up in the countryside alongside motorways, and so on.
I believe that I swim rather against the remarks made by some noble Lords by saying this. Are members of local planning committees, some of whom have vested interests in their own areas, best qualified for taking these decisions? They are advised by their own planning officers, but the planning officers can also be overruled. The present system may be cheap, but is it the right one, and can we afford it if the quality of the countryside development is to proceed satisfactorily? Those are some of the questions that we should be asking ourselves.
Secondly, I wish to say something about transport. We are told that an adequate trunk road network is as important to the inhabitants of areas as it is to businesses and farms. It is my submission that too much money has been spent on the trunk roads and not enough on providing bypasses for small country towns. It is intolerable that in 1995 heavy articulated lorries, belching filthy exhaust fumes, should have to pass through the narrow roads of small towns where pavements are sometimes four feet wide. It is a blot on our society, and I believe that it compares unfavourably with the treatment that similar towns receive in other EC countries.
I read with much interest the paragraph on page 77 on branch railway lines. It appears that once the railways have been privatised, old stations will be reopened, fares will be reduced and everything in the garden will be lovely. I am afraid that I remain totally sceptical. It is stated, for instance, that private sector operators will have the flexibility to increase service provision where they judge it in their interests to do so. But what if they decide that that is not in their interests and yet it may be in the public interest? Their lies the basic fault with privatisation of the railways. What we need in this country is a modern, reliable and efficient railway network, and that will come only from investing public money on a large scale. What this Government have failed to appreciate is that a growing number of people want better quality public transport, both buses and railways. Here I endorse what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark said about old people. There are people in this country who do not have cars. They cannot drive for many reasons. They are totally isolated without public transport.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, perhaps I may start by apologising to the House and to my noble friend on the Front Bench. I may not be present at the end of the debate. I have a long-standing dinner engagement which I ought to attend. Perhaps I, too, may congratulate my noble friend Lord Hambro on his excellent maiden speech. It was a modest speech. He said that he did not know as much about countryside matters as other Members of your Lordships' House. I can assure your 1693 Lordships that he does. He is not only a man of finance but of agriculture too. We look forward very much to hearing him again in the future.
Like virtually every other noble Lord who has spoken, I welcome the White Paper. I congratulate the Government on their extensive consultation. I believe that every interested party had a chance of proper input into it. That is reflected in the final outcome.
I believe that a significant part of the report lies in the subtitle: A nation committed to a living countryside That surely is one of the great keys of this White Paper. Living represents people; people mean jobs. That theme extends throughout the White Paper, and I welcome it.
My noble friend Lord Marlesford quite rightly identified that although agriculture may be going through a prosperous stage at present, it may face difficulties in the future. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, referred to that and to the competition from Europe. Clearly we cannot be complacent. If agriculture or rural jobs are to survive, it is clear that farmers must take every opportunity to diversify wherever possible. Clearly that has been happening. However, as other noble Lords have identified, some of the planning restrictions have been such that diversification has not been encouraged in quite the way that it might. One of the great difficulties that we face is that planners are intrinsically negative people. I wish that there could be greater encouragement to regard planning in a more positive way. Therefore I welcome the review of PPG7. As my noble friend Lord Stanley, said, it is absolutely right that we consider carefully how the guidelines will work. At the end of the day, that is the key to how successful those guidelines will be.
One should also give credit for much of the development that has taken place in rural areas to those who have come from the urban environment. In a recent lecture to the National Farmers' Union my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth made the point clearly; it is one that we should not forget. Those people also need encouragement. Any opportunity which will further development and jobs in the countryside must be welcomed.
That leads me to housing. It is absolutely clear that we need a reasonable level of affordable rented accommodation through the exclusion of a right to buy. That is absolutely crucial in certain areas. I hope that the Government will not be too rigid about this. I am not absolutely certain why we have a population community figure of 3,000; I am sure that there is a good reason underlying it. But let us not be too rigid. Let us keep a degree of flexibility. I am sure that the principle is absolutely right.
I much welcome the new rate relief scheme for general stores. Every encouragement must be given to keep the village shop intact and trading. My noble friend Lord Kimball was right when he said that we shall not stop people from going to the superstores. Apart from anything else, for people living in remote rural areas it is a day out. Any help that can be given to the local shop is welcome, but at the end of the day it is very much up to the people who live in rural areas and the 1694 visitors who go there to use the local facilities. At a dinner the other night I was sitting next to a nice lady who happens to be a farmer's wife. We were talking about this subject and she said: "I give my local shop 100 per cent. support—when I use it". That says it all. Unless there is a positive move by people to use local stores, with all the help in the world I am afraid that they are likely to continue to be on the demise. That would be regrettable.
Before I move on to the wider countryside, perhaps I may pick up one point on the White Paper. I am pleased to see that the Government have come out against the right to roam. I realise that it is a contentious issue, but I believe that such a policy would be very irresponsible indeed. It would undermine the ability to manage and at the end of the day it is management that makes the countryside what it is. If we lose management, we lose the ability to deliver the whole range of countryside attributes that we wish to see.
The White Paper clearly identifies the many environmental difficulties that we face. Whereas considerable strides have been made over the past decades to rectify some of the excesses of overproduction—if I may call it that—and attempts have been made to restore more traditional and beneficial management systems, there is a long way to go. Most of the environmental initiatives have come through a range of designations. Here I must declare an interest in that I am a member of the Nature Conservancy Council. Admirable though the designations have been in the case of English Nature and the SSSIs—and we have had a whole raft of others—we are in danger of ignoring the wider countryside. I shall come to that in a moment, but what leads to the confusion that abounds now in the countryside is the enormous number of interested groups involved in trying to deliver nature conservation. There are far too many of them. My noble friend Lord Hambro referred to it in his maiden speech. We are inundated with far too many people chasing the same objectives, far too many people doing the same job. I urge my noble friend and the Government to look again, in a comprehensive way, at trying to streamline the way in which we deliver countryside initiatives in this country.
I must pay tribute to one particular countryside conservation vehicle, if I may call it that—the countryside stewardship scheme. I am aware that the noble Lord, Lord Barber, was chairman of the Countryside Commission when the scheme was initiated. It has now gone over to MAFF. I welcome that because MAFF is the right vehicle to exercise control of many of the schemes. It is a flexible scheme which can meet the specialist requirements that a particular countryside area demands. MAFF officers have the expertise to deliver, but they also understand the needs of farmers. The combination of those two factors, I believe, leads to the most successful of the countryside conservation schemes that we have. I urge the Government to build on the initiative, not just for the sake of simplicity but of effectiveness as well.
Perhaps I may urge my noble friend and the Government specifically to look seriously at the expansion of the stewardship scheme to the urgent implementation of what is a costed action plan for low 1695 input arable field margins, agreed by the UK Biodiversity Action Steering Group earlier this year and to be published in December. I believe that such action would quickly benefit many species of birds, insects and wild flowers which are still declining on British farmland. It is an area which has been sadly neglected by nature conservation initiatives to date.
Like my noble friend Lord Kimball, I was pleased to see that field sports have been fully recognised in the White Paper and in particular the work of the Game Conservancy, of which I have the honour to be chairman. The Government have recognised that our research into game birds and their habitat has had a real benefit to other species besides game throughout the wider countryside. I am delighted to see that recognition.
That brings me to my final point and the one which I regard as the most important for the British countryside. It revolves around a simple question: what steps are proposed to address the decline in habitat and species brought about by the incentives for agricultural development since the war? I believe that that is the greatest challenge the Government have to face. We have already identified that agriculture is likely to change, that competition will increase and demands on our landscape from agricultural output may well increase. Yet at the moment only 2 per cent. of the common agricultural policy is being spent on agro-environment schemes. In my view, that is simply not enough. We must get a proper framework in place to allow agricultural development, but at the same time maintain our wildlife base and increase it before we see a further surge of agricultural output in the countryside. If we fail to do that, we fail in every way to achieve any degree of sustainability within the countryside.
This is an extremely good and wide ranging White Paper. I am certain that if it is implemented, the people who live in rural Britain will rise to it and benefit from it.
§ 7.7 p.m.
§ Lord Vinson
My Lords, I have the good fortune to be a hill farmer in the north of England, where there are more sheep than people. I declare that interest and also that I had the privilege of being the chairman of the Rural Development Commission immediately prior to my distinguished successor, Lord Shuttleworth, between the years of 1980 and 1990. It is a great delight to me and to my fellow commissioners to see so many of the policy initiatives that we helped to start then beginning to blossom and be picked up and adopted by the White Paper. So in general I applaud and welcome it; it is a fine document on which future rural policy can and should be based. I particularly welcome the fact that behind the scenes there will be a Cabinet committee to ensure that the appropriate measures are taken and appropriate balance given.
The balance between the economy of rural areas and their ecology is a fine one. It is easy to fall into the trap of talking about rural England as though there were just one type of countryside. There are such diverse parts of rural England, some parts are near-urban and some are desperately rural with people having to go a distance of 1696 over 40 miles to hospital. In framing policy it is important to recognise the huge differences in types of rural England that we have.
In our debate this afternoon, I have listened to some marvellous and excellent contributions. I hope I may be forgiven if perhaps I am a little contrary. I said to myself, "Perhaps there are other aspects which need bringing out and some counterbalance might be added". As a farmer, naturally I am keen to see the land promoted, but perhaps we have taken too easily for granted the fact that for 40 years food has been "coming out of our ears". We forget perhaps why other countries, particularly those on the Continent, which starved to a great extent during the last World War when we did not, understand that perhaps it is better to rely on your own home produced foodstuffs than on what could be the fickle nature of imports.
However, this is a difficult argument to sustain if one cannot produce food cheaply. On the other hand, such have been the advances in agriculture that we in this country can compete on equal terms with anybody—certainly in terms of the world median cost of growing wheat and the world median cost of dairy products—if agriculture is not undermined by excessive dumping. So in agriculture we have a huge resource which is the backbone of the economy of many parts of rural England. It produces an economic output greater than that of Australia and New Zealand put together and has done so for years. People should remember the scale of it. It is quintessentially important to the more rural parts of the British Isles and it can hold its own internationally. So, when there is talk of subsidy and subsidising, the British farmer can compete with anybody on most of our land.
I should like also to touch on the question of cars. Nowadays there is a tendency to denigrate the car and say how awful it is and so on. But the car has emancipated the rural dweller. People who live in rural areas will give up eating meat and almost everything before they give up their car. It is their source of freedom and recreation. In framing policies which are anti-car—I find it politically extraordinary, bearing in mind the number of pressure groups which are so anti-car, that the Government do not look over their shoulder at the 10 million motorists who are very pro-car—we must remember that they will hit rural people particularly hard. Whatever the pleasures of postbuses and alternative forms of subsidised transport, there is no way that a public sector transport system can work for deep rural areas. They have to rely on the car. The more cars there are, the more people have them and the more people who have cars, the more neighbours are able to give lifts to those who do not have a car.
I hope therefore that we can stop running down the car. It is the most marvellous form of transport, not only for rural dwellers but for urban dwellers also. I feel that the Government made a great mistake in cutting back so severely on their road building programme, particularly on bypasses, which are essential for rural areas. Also, the trunk road system in this country has not by any means been finished, as anyone who has recently struggled up the A1 will know.
1697 The next rather contrariant point that I should like to pick up is the excellent point made by the noble Lord, Lord Barber, concerning our current forestry policy. It is indeed in a real muddle. We are all in favour of planting trees but we do not know what the hell we want the trees for when we have planted them. Trees can be a crop but they can also be planted just to beautify the countryside. There is plenty of room for both. But, if we are interested in having trees as a crop, we certainly must have our aftercare thoroughly well organised. The thinning, pruning and trimming of trees throughout their life is essential to make good mill wood, and a good product which in turn can sustain many rural jobs is certainly not being looked at as part of the present policy. I hope this matter can be addressed again.
I am loath to pick an argument with my dear friend, the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, over houses. But for me, the one priority of housing is to make it affordable, so that all those people who do not have houses can have them. If there is a demand for millions of houses, it means that millions of people want houses. It is fine for those of us who live in rural areas; we can say "Let them live in the towns. We can live in the country". But the cost of urban building is high, the cost of rural building is high and the cost of land rationing is very high. Planning has a consequence. We are all in favour of the green belt but there is a consequence. In this country the land cost of a house is roughly 40 per cent.—it depends on the location. In France, the land cost of a house is roughly 20 per cent. That means that in this country we are increasing our housing costs by a factor of 20 per cent. through the rationing of land. We may want to ration land; but there is a consequence, which is that many people who would have been able to afford a house are now priced out of the market. Many people live in the most difficult and dire conditions, and we have a housing subsidy problem which is getting out of hand. The side consequence of land rationing by planning is homelessness.
My last point was not touched on in the White Paper. The best way to help rural areas is to build on their indigenous advantage. Indeed, we may propose plans, but 95 per cent. of what happens in rural areas will probably happen anyway. Policies only tweak the edge of the underlying social and economic forces.
But there is one small measure that could bring immense benefit. A few years ago the Rural Development Commission carried out a comprehensive survey on the effect of extending daylight hours into the afternoon—having continuous British summer time; in other words, having European time, as we would see it now. It meant that the tourist season went on for longer, golf courses made more money, farmers—I am one myself—could plough into the evenings and have more work activity, and small outdoor builders and fencers—all those who cannot work under artificial light—could carry on. The economy was greatly stimulated and it cost not a penny. Indeed, there was a positive benefit.
The reasons for that measure were supported by not only the CBI, the tourist boards and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (because many fewer people overall would be killed through the extension of 1698 daylight hours into the evenings) but also Age Concern. Age Concern supported the measure because nowadays old people are under curfew when the sun goes down. Old people cannot get around in the dark. Old people get up later and would have a whole hour more of daylight. So I propose one factor which was not mentioned at all in the White Paper; namely, that the adoption of continuous summer time, or European time, would be of immense economic and social advantage to rural areas. I hope that the various Cabinet committees and others who will address the problems of rural areas in the future will pick up that idea, which has not been mentioned at all to date.
I welcome hugely the White Paper. It flags up the inevitable dichotomy between those who regard rural areas as places of recreation and those who have to live and work there, and whose priorities as regards jobs and houses are just the same as those who live in the towns. There is a great mutuality of interest between the two. That is the basis on which, I am sure, the White Paper is founded and which we must all develop.
§ 7.16 p.m.
§ The Earl of Lytton
My Lords, I too welcome the White Paper. One could perhaps even say that it was a little overdue. Like other noble Lords, I should like to declare a number of interests. I am a hill farmer, like the noble Lord, Lord Vinson, in an area where the sheep outnumber the people. In my case, the sheep are heavily outnumbered by pheasants, which says something about the diversified economy of which I find it necessary to take advantage. I am also a chartered surveyor and a member of various committees of the Country Landowners' Association and a member of the National Farmers' Union. I also sit on a West Sussex rural strategy group which sets out to look at the way in which planning interacts with land use. Therefore I offer my remarks from the standpoint of land use management.
I detected, as did other noble Lords, that the White Paper sports the hallmark of the Department of the Environment rather than the Ministry of Agriculture. I hope that that is an illusion. The White Paper itself seemed to me to be a little long on public expectations and land use planning and a little short on economic reality and land use management. But I trust that that will be rectified and that the Ministry of Agriculture, through the government offices of the regions and the co-ordinating procedure, will be a co-equal partner.
There are many points that I welcome, which have been covered in some areas by other noble Lords and not at all in others. Reference was made by the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, to consultation in the context of PPG7. I am a strong believer in a sound consultation process, provided that the views of those who are affected by proposals are genuinely taken into account and that there is real consultation and not just a paper formality.
The problems of the common agricultural policy have been well argued and spoken to by other noble Lords. There is one point that I should like to raise; namely, that environmental considerations are not simply a 1699 transferable option, as an opportunity cost against agriculture. Nor are all sectors of agriculture doing well, as I certainly know from my own experiences as a hill farmer on Exmoor. Hill farms in that particular area are often extremely marginal, despite high levels of support. That was a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth.
If there are no profits, there is nothing to put into environmental work. The high landscape values that are attached to these areas by the general public are not matched by secure rural businesses. That is a structural mistake which has to be addressed at the earliest possible moment, because in those areas crops compliance is an empty principle. It ignores the fact that environmental support has to stand on its own two feet as a separate entity and that it may well, in difficult areas where there are steep slopes and awkward terrain, be much more costly than agricultural support itself.
I have a strong interest in jobs in rural areas and rural business. I applaud the contents of the White Paper and what has been welcomed by other noble Lords. But we must not destabilise land management by bidding away the labour force; nor must we salve our consciences by putting businesses in rural areas that are quite unrelated to rural land management and do not support its purposes. We need small scale processing, slaughtering, adding value to food and fibre—a point very well made by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont—and in addition we need planning policies that will permit those to take place.
Environmental advice is referred to in the White Paper. That is a very welcome mention. But, at the moment, it is very often only free for an initial cursory inspection. That needs to be extended if the Government's policies are really to bear fruit in this area. I applaud the incentive schemes and the commitment to enhance them. As a member of a stewardship scheme, I can speak highly of that scheme pioneered by the Countryside Commission; but it must he genuinely voluntary and it must not be coercive. I have concerns about tying land managers into long-term plans where they cannot possibly foretell whether they will make profits or losses in the next year or two, let alone what will happen after five.
The concept of a countryside valuable for its own sake has to mean that it is worthwhile and valuable in the hands of those responsible for the direct management, just as much as it is for the general public. It is a matter of balance.
The Minister made welcome reference to the concept of the rural business unit. That should be looked at very seriously. I gather that it was a suggestion made by the Country Landowners' Association. My particular reason for supporting it is that it is the only proposal in the White Paper that makes this direct causal link between land use management and land use planning. It should he followed up.
Reference is also made in the White Paper to the value of field sports. Here I must declare an interest. Again, it makes the link between rural economics and conservation, particularly at times of the year when tourists are all safely tucked up in front of their 1700 televisions in their easy chairs. It is very important that field sports, in terms of their input into the rural economy, are not underestimated. They are a recreational facility as well. They bring people together when there are not football grounds down the road or cinemas in the vicinity.
I particularly welcome the White Paper's comments on access, especially the reference to the balance of obligations and freedoms. That is a very important principle. Another principle is that there needs to be fair treatment to the various parties involved, as between the public and landowners and land managers. I commend to the Government the principles in paragraph 65 of circular 476. That reaffirmed the question of balance in national parks between the competing interests and made it clear, nearly 10 years ago, how much there was to play for and how much gain there is to be made for the general public interest and the needs of farming communities. But it needs resources, and those resources are not evident as being committed in the White Paper.
Reference is made to rural businesses and overzealous enforcement action. I would like to add one point to the list of bullet points in the White Paper; and that is to plead that there should in all cases be a full, reasoned and clear explanation of the matter complained of. There should be no fishing expeditions by local planning authorities and no facility, particularly for mischief-making by members of the public, protected by anonymity, save in exceptional cases where criminal proceedings are in prospect.
The comment on page 35 of the White Paper regarding applicants being told after their application has failed what consent would perhaps have been granted is wrong. Applicants should be entitled to know beforehand what is acceptable. There should be a requirement to set out the principles in local development plans. That cannot be avoided. It is a cardinal principle in all planning policy guidance. There should be clear indications as to what is acceptable and what is not. So that provision is putting the cart before the horse.
On page 34 of the White Paper, where there is reference to a best practice guide, I hope that that will reinforce the need for a positive informative approach throughout every stage, preapplication and during the application, of seeking planning consent. There should not be a precondition of exceptional charges which are sometimes imposed by local planning authorities. In many instances, particularly with relatively low value rural activities, such charges can be a real tax on access to planning officers.
I wish to make one or two more points. Page 107, on regulation, was a disappointment. The noble Earl, Lord Peel, made the point very well. There are too many designations which are often overlapping and confusing. That creates prolonged consultation which is unintegrated and has different agendas and priorities. More to the point, it is difficult to see the out-turn of all this in terms of the product at the end of the day. Are we dealing with regulation in order to keep regulators in business or are we having it for the benefit of adding 1701 value to rural areas? In terms of the pound on the ground, it is not making sense at the moment. Therefore, a government commitment to reducing regulation would be extremely welcome.
On that point, adding value to the countryside for its own sake means a partnership of sharing risks as well as achieving rewards. You cannot have a cost benefit where the public are deemed to benefit but the cost is borne privately. So agencies and regulators have to make themselves useful in the countryside. They need to have the principles of proportionality and we may need to have higher standards of proficiency. I should like a reassurance from the Minister—a confirmation—that it is no accident that the "enabling rural business" reference on page 145 comes first in the proposed national government framework. I hope that he will be able to give that reassurance.
Finally, our maiden speaker today, the noble Lord, Lord Hambro, in a careful and well considered maiden speech, raised a very important point about independent rights of appeal and impartial adjudication. Economically and socially, that is extremely important and it has the added benefit that it makes people talk to each other. After all, the great merit of this White Paper is that it is starting the talking process going.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Lord Norrie
My Lords, the White Paper sets out an easy-to-read and clear analysis of the social, economic and environmental challenges facing rural areas. I am pleased that it recognises the importance of the environment and acknowledges that a beautiful and healthy countryside is important for nature conservation, landscape and recreational purposes. I am equally pleased that it acknowledges the economic importance of the rural environment for significant industries such as leisure and tourism.
One aspect which my noble friend the Minister alluded to in his opening remarks was the Government's commitment to extending to the wider countryside those principles of environmental protection which already apply in designated areas. That is breaking new ground for government policy and I welcome it wholeheartedly. It reflects the concept of using areas such as national parks as "greenprints" which can then be applied to other parts of the countryside. The idea of the parks as greenprints is something I mentioned in our debate on sustainable development two weeks ago. It is such an important role for national parks to play that it is worth re-emphasising it again tonight. The parks are ideally placed to put the principles of sustainable development into practice and both they and the wider countryside will benefit as a result.
What is crucial to this debate, as many speakers have indicated, is the announcement thatPlanning Policy Guidance Note 7, covering "The Countryside and the Rural Economy", is to be revised. It sets the framework for local authority development plans and planning decisions. In my view the current guidance does not give adequate weight to the protection of the whole countryside and the revised version needs to include a 1702 clear statement that, while in no way weakening the protection of designated areas, increased weight should be attached to the non-designated countryside in respect of development plans and development control. Only such a statement will demonstrate the strength of the Government's commitment to the countryside as a whole. I hope that the review of PPG7 will provide an opportunity to safeguard against the worst aspects of development in the countryside in general and in national parks in particular.
I want to make three observations which deal specifically with national parks. First, in setting out its objectives for the countryside in section 1, the Government demote the environment into third place after sections on "Changing Patterns of Work" and "Changing Communities". I suggest that in national parks those priorities should be shifted. I would be happier if the White Paper placed more emphasis on the inter relationships between the environment and the economy and also recognised that the environment should be the overriding concern in national parks, setting the framework for all other activities.
Secondly, I want to sound a cautious welcome for the Government's proposal to allow greater discrimination in favour of re-use of rural buildings for business rather than residential purposes. While I fully recognise the need to create a diverse and sustainable rural economy, we must be careful not to destroy the fabric of the national parks. The re-use of redundant agricultural buildings for commercial purposes can be very productive, but the potential environmental impact should not be underestimated. Will the Minister therefore reassure me today that the emphasis on commercial redevelopment will not be interpreted as a signal that all such development will be acceptable in planning terms?
Thirdly, I welcome the Government's intention to develop collaborative programmes between the Countryside Commission, the Rural Development Commission, the Sports Council and the English Tourist Board. That is especially important in national parks where recreational pressures are at their most acute. I hope that such work will result in the publication of regional recreation strategies which would go some way to resolving some of the conflicts which may arise between the different types of recreational activity. In that context I am pleased that the Government intend to examine the implications of rapidly growing noisy and obtrusive leisure activities in the countryside.
There is one more general point which is close to my heart and which was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth, the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. I am particularly happy that the role of volunteers and the voluntary sector has been highlighted and that successful programmes such as Rural Action and the Parish Paths Partnership will continue to be developed. I add some words of caution on the use of volunteers. The increased participation of volunteers is not necessarily a cheaper method of getting things done. However, it is sometimes a better one.
1703 In conclusion, while I would prefer a greater commitment to protect special areas such as national parks and more recognition of the important role which such special areas have to play in taking forward the principles of sustainable development, I welcome the rural White Paper as a step in the right direction in recognising the value of the countryside as a whole. As my noble friend Lord Hambro said in his excellent maiden speech, it is a clear and well documented publication. For that the Government should be congratulated.
§ 7.36 p.m.
§ Lord Astor of Hever
My Lords, I congratulate Her Majesty's Government on an excellent White Paper which should reassure most country dwellers that the Government recognise their concerns. Having said that, my one disappointment relates to the section on forestry. In that regard I must declare an interest as a small woodland owner and as vice-president (unpaid) of the Tree Council whose aim is to promote the planting and conservation of trees and woods throughout the United Kingdom.
The doubling of English woodland over the next 50 years is a worthy objective. Sadly, the White Paper is largely silent on new incentives and the timber production needed to pay for that target, which I fear will simply not happen. At the current rate of planting the target will be reached in 170 years.
Like my noble friend Lord Vinson I feel that the Government have missed a golden opportunity to encourage forestry and, with it, jobs. We need an effective incentive framework and a streamlined regulatory system which cuts red tape and bureaucratic delays to a minimum, such as the scrapping of the ministerial directive of 1984. That removed from the Forestry Commission the ability to decide upon applications and left it in the role of umpire rather than authority. After all, forestry is a business. Woodlands produce timber in the same way that wheatfields produce wheat and car factories, motor cars. Tree planting is the least attractive land-cropping option in most situations and there is no level playing field in the grant equation.
Administrative regulations restrict the uptake of the farm woodland premium scheme and planting will undoubtedly decline unless alterations are made. Interestingly, the scheme was underspent in the past two years in both England and Wales. Last year in England the underspend was £483,000 and the year before, £555,000, out of a cash limit of only £1.2 million each year. Furthermore, last year the Forestry Commission underspent its total grant from the Exchequer of £88 million by a whopping £11.5 million. However, it managed to spend £23 million on its pension fund.
The Irish experience is an example of how planting can be encouraged. Given similar terrain, climate and land holding structures, why is there an astonishing difference in the size of areas planted in the United Kingdom and in Eire under schemes which are not dissimilar in the amounts of money offered to farmers? The difference is most obvious when one compares 1704 Northern Ireland, which achieved only 322 hectares last year, as against Eire's 19,600. I hold a copy of the Irish scheme; it is obvious that it is much more encouraging, user friendly and simple to apply for. It is only one document. Our arrangements are a progressive series of hurdles to be surmounted to unlock payments which are guarded by three successive layers of bureaucracies, each applying different sets of criteria and rules. The simplest difference is the division of applicants into full-time, part-time and non-farmers. In Ireland 1,800 owners in total planted 12,800 hectares. In addition, Kilture planted 6,400 hectares, mostly by leasing land from farmers and paying them the annual premia. Kilture is equivalent to our Forest Enterprise, had it been privatised, and in two years has rapidly become a highly profitable organisation as opposed to a loss-making drain on the Irish Treasury.
The main financial benefit is that full-time farmers receive annual premia for 20 years and part-time and non-farmers for 15 years only. Higher afforestation payments are absorbed by higher stocking densities. That fact will make conifers an economic option, which they are not here. I agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Barber, in regard to conifers. The more equal Irish treatment is confirmed by the 70 per cent. conifer share of Irish planting. Our grant structure restricts, and in lowland England has virtually eliminated, the conifer option. Likewise, the planting of large areas (more than three hectares) is much less economic because of the new requirement to plant double the number of trees, which effectively halves the amount of WGS establishment grant. The planting statistics bear that out.
In addition, our landowner restrictions are too narrow. There are two types of landowner: the hands-on working farmer and the hands-off landowner who "share farms" or lets his land. The hands-on farmer does not want to plant his better land but is an agricultural unit. The hands-off farmer is prepared to plant his better land but often is not a defined agricultural unit. Large numbers of landowners are ruled out by one or other of these restricting criteria. The Irish have got it just right and we have got it just wrong. Our afforestation and premia are too low to bring landowners in to make the everlasting commitment, bearing in mind that the felling licence regulation to replant means that the land will probably never be allowed to be taken out of forestry and returned to other use. The long-term nature of the crop, together with cutting off the grant at year 15, makes a convincing case for not committing arable or improved grassland to trees. To take better land out of agriculture for forestry is a flawed concept. I hope that MAFF can be made to ditch these restrictions.
I should like to say a final word on the administration of the FWPS. Can we have a citizen's charter with a clear timescale for acknowledgement, inspection and approval? If the agent is named, can all correspondence not be routed through him or her?
§ 7.44 p.m.
§ Lady Kinloss
My Lords, I welcome the White Paper which appears to be a comprehensive report on rural 1705 England. Having lived a great deal of my life in rural areas, I realise that no village or hamlet is a static place and is changing constantly. There are many and varied reasons why a rural community can change. The loss of a school may be followed by a reduced population. People find that they are able to move nearer to another school and perhaps to shops. A change to a smaller community can have a knock-on effect. The village shop, or post office with a shop attached, may be unable to stay open. That may be a serious blow to a village where a post office-cum-shop or a village store often forms a focal point of a small community. If there is no post office often the village shop will act as a post office, grocers or newsagents. That is very important for those who have no transport.
I am glad to see from page 89 of the report that it is intended to introduce, at a suitable legislative opportunity, a new rate relief scheme that is targeted specifically on general stores and post offices in villages. There is already an existing scheme of hardship relief, and I understand that there is to be a review of how it is working. Can the Minister tell the House how long it will be before the new scheme can come into effect? The White Paper says that it will take some time, but timing is very important to small village shops.
There is a wide variety of measures in the White Paper which affect many people in rural communities, not only local authorities but rural employers, landowners, and not only residents of the countryside but those who enjoy the countryside. The White Paper points to a need for all those who are involved in the countryside to work together in preparing a co-ordinated and effective strategy, which must be for the good of rural areas. I know of one rural district council which interviewed people for the post of planning officer. They invited the applicants—I do not know how many, but quite a few—to read the White Paper and give their views and thoughts upon it. Almost all of them had quite different views. That is an interesting result, which may show how difficult it will be in some rural communities to devise a co-ordinated and effective strategy.
One area in which co-ordination can be effective is the planning and building of houses. There is an increased demand for houses. In part, this is caused by single-person households, which include elderly people who live alone and apart from their families. There are retired people who wish to live in the countryside and those with jobs in towns or cities who prefer to live in rural areas.
On page 67 of the White Paper it is said that the Government wish to make sure that local people are not priced out of the market and that the right type of housing is built for those who wish to rent, for first time buyers and those on low incomes. This is very important for agricultural workers and others who work in the countryside, for example those employed in forestry, hedging, dry-stone walling and much other work. They should be encouraged and enabled to buy their own homes. Sadly, over recent years there has been a decline in the services permanently based in villages. One reason is the increase in the number of private motorcars. This applies particularly to people who need 1706 them to get to work. People in rural areas are obviously more dependent on motorcars than those in urban areas. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Vinson, that cars are the one thing that people cling to in rural areas. For many people who live in the countryside a car is a necessity and no longer a luxury. The lack of public transport in many areas causes hardship to some. That group includes the young, sick or disabled people and, especially in the daytime, mothers with young children.
Schools and village stores are most important to village life and can form a focal point for many activities. I hope that all authorities concerned will be able to act upon many of the recommendations in this very good White Paper and will have the necessary resources to do so.
§ 7.48 p.m.
§ The Earl of Northesk
My Lords, like all your Lordships who have spoken so far, I warmly welcome this White Paper. More than that, I welcome the Government's recognition implicit in their publication that the rural resource is faced with a number of problems. Quite rightly, the White Paper concedes that rural policy cannot be isolated from other policies, and the rural resource and its qualities must not be submerged in our predominately urban culture. Quite rightly, it promotes the concept that the vast majority of those who do not live and work in the countryside should respect the way of life of those who do and understand their different values and priorities. The corollary of these principles, that the rural resource should respect the urban, is equally true.
Why is it that at one level at least, in the face of these very worthy intentions, one cannot escape the feeling that the solutions, policies and initiatives that they promulgate—albeit one believes them to be very welcome as a first step—are but a tinkering with the margins of the problem rather than addressing its fundamentals?
I should emphasise that I pose this question in a spirit of helpfulness and not in any way as a criticism. Nor do I believe that we should perceive the ever-growing unease that is felt by country people, true country people, about their status in the scheme of things as the archetypal complaint of the errant husband that he is misunderstood by his wife. I should perhaps preface my further remarks with my conviction that I am very fortunate to be a simple country boy at heart. I am not enamoured of the urban environment and, in the main, feel somewhat uncomfortable with it. I make this point so that your Lordships are aware of the perspective from which I approach today's debate.
Additionally, and in the light of the current climate, I should perhaps advise your Lordships that I have an interest in land, albeit on the Isle of Man, and therefore perhaps somewhat outside the remit of a declarable interest. More tellingly, I also own a number of cottages in the south-east of England, which, incidentally, are all let to true country folk at less than market rents.
As I have already indicated, I sense that the White Paper, however welcome and well-meaning its intent, does little more than pay lip service to the underlying 1707 problems of the rural resource. I come to that conclusion because, in my belief, those problems have very much more to do with differences in attitude, in perception, in philosophy even, than with tangible substance. Indeed, the White Paper infers this concept on numerous occasions.
More than this, as evidenced by its very broad scope, the countryside faces this sort of dilemma; the simple problem of entrenched, and essentially urban attitudes, misconceiving its true character and needs over a multitude of issues, such as housing, transport, health care, education and so on. I go so far as to suggest that it is this more than anything else that poses the greatest threat to the survival of the rural resource. To my mind, this is also why the tragedy of rural decline, of rural malaise and discontent—and let no one doubt that these are very real phenomena—is such an intractable problem, because it is founded in individual perception and opinion rather than something more tangible and concrete, which could be addressed by the legislative process.
With your Lordships' leave, I would like to cite a small illustrative example. As your Lordships will be aware, I promoted the Dogs (Fouling of Land) Bill in this House; a measure which, incidentally, I remain convinced would make an admirable addition to the statute book. However, I do not believe that it stretches the point to suggest that, at Committee stage, I ran into a little local difficulty in persuading a number of your Lordships of its merits.
Why so? I have mulled that over in my mind, and, with the benefit of hindsight, have come to realise that the substantive objections to the Bill are to be found in its implicit presumption that urban solutions to essentially urban problems—in this particular case an attempt to protect the urban populace from the indignities to be found in encountering dog faeces—can be simultaneously applied to, even imposed on, the rural resource.
It is of course ironic that, with my stated rural credentials, I should have been, as it were, hoist with my own petard with respect to this measure. But I do not believe that that should blind me to the simple fact that such a legislative approach disallows the fundamental truth that the rural resource is different from its urban counterpart, and very different.
Recognition of this element of my little local difficulty has led me to a further conclusion. I suspect, although I am entirely happy to be disabused of this by those of your Lordships very much better versed in this area than me, that our legislative process, even the language of statute, is singularly ill-equipped to frame this fundamental distinction between town and country in law—that is to say, on the face of the Bills that are brought before Parliament. The implication of this is that there may be a very real and legitimate sense in which our democratic system is in fact failing our countryside and those who live and work in it.
I would like to expand this thought a little further. I make no bones about it. In my view, the single most destructive and most inimical influence that has preyed on the countryside in recent years is the planning 1708 system. Lest I be misunderstood, no one in their right mind would dispute the need for controls on the development in both urban and rural situations. However, the planning system has always been, and continues to be, an essentially urban-inspired and top-driven device designed to resolve essentially urban problems. In effect, the dichotomy that faces us is that, however worthy and worthwhile this need for restraint is, there is no escaping the fact that, of itself, it has done much to destroy the vibrancy of the very resource that it sought to protect.
Manifestly, in Chapter 3, Living in the Countryside, the White Paper recognises and acknowledges this. There would seem to be an acceptance that the rural planning system needs to be redefined so that the ways in which it has contrived—perhaps unwittingly and with no little help from a number of external factors, to denude the countryside of its continuity from generation to generation—can be reversed.
In this regard, talking to country folk in my own village, I can detect a restlessness; a hint that they perhaps feel in some way marginalised; perhaps even dispossessed or disenfranchised. There exists an undercurrent of opinion, albeit unstated, that they feel unrepresented. My own belief is that, were they but to express it thus, they would in fact have a wholly valid point. It is inescapable that the planning system, however strenuously it may attempt not to, tends to favour the urban at the expense of the rural.
Nor can it be said that this ethnocentric bias is confined to the planning system. It affects all aspects of rural life. Your Lordships will of course be aware of the seeming lunacy of incidents such as cockerels having noise abatement orders imposed on them and of farmers being prevented from spreading manure on their fields. Indeed, last Saturday's Daily Telegraph carried the front page headline "Moms dancers face noise ban". We can all sympathise with the concerns of the complainant in such cases, but surely it is incumbent upon our society not to sacrifice rural principles of tolerance and give-and-take so lightly on the altar of urban expediency.
There is no miracle cure for these problems. Of course I welcome the initiatives already in place and those proposed in the White Paper. However, as will be apparent from my comments, I do question whether these will address the fundaments of the dilemma facing us. The two resources, urban and rural, are of course contiguous, but I repeat that they are also distinct. It may therefore be that, as law is made in this House and in another place, we shall need to pay greater heed to the relevance and shape of such law as it affects each resource, even perhaps to the extent of enacting separate legislation to accommodate the unique characteristics of each: as it were, a Dogs (Fouling of Urban Land) Bill and a Dogs (Fouling of Rural Land) Bill.
Indeed, to a very major extent, many of the policies and initiatives of the White Paper have about them the seeds of such a strategy, as, for example, in the Government's very welcome proposal to introduce,a new rate relief scheme targeted specifically on general stores and post offices in villages".1709 My personal hope, given the anxieties that I have expressed, is that the White Paper, notwithstanding the commitment with respect to PPG 7, is the precursor of a thoroughgoing review and radical rethink of the whole rural planning system, particularly towards housing and particularly in so far as it relates to the appeals procedure of, and applications from, individuals. I am also especially concerned about the methodologies that individual planning officers apply to their interpretations of general policy strands defined in structure plans and PPGs and that these often seem to reveal inconsistencies and contradictions in the decision-making process. Above all else, the planning system should pay due heed to the simple fact that the countryside is an evolutionary resource and that, in consequence, planning policies based on the more revolutionary impulses of the urban resource are antipathetic to it.
Of course, I can see that the establishment of dual threads of legislation for both the urban and the rural resource is, at many levels, far from ideal. Quite apart from any financial or definitional difficulties, it could have the effect of exacerbating the differences between town and country instead of reconciling them; of creating divisiveness where harmonious co-existence would be more appropriate. In that context there already exists an erroneous presumption that the concerns being expressed about our rural resource are simply the siren voices of vested interests pleading a special case. I repeat that it is much more fundamental than that. As the White Paper makes abundantly clear, our rural resource is our most prized national asset. We need to think very carefully about whether we want our relentless march towards an ever more urban society to damage it any more than it has already.
That brings my argument full circle. What I have endeavoured to convey today is my perception that what lies at the heart of the dilemma before us is an attitudinal impasse, the drawing of a line in the sand between the town and the country. Should our society fail to erase that line in the sand, to acknowledge and accept our rural resource for what it is—rather than for what urban perceptions and bias desire it to be—ultimately we will damage it irreparably. In some areas, such damage may already be irreversible.
In that context, I am reminded of the comments of my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal in last week's debate on the declaration and registration of interests. My noble friend intimated the sense in which your Lordships' House,relies on courtesy and give and take"—(Hansard, col. 1437.)and so it is with the values of our rural resource. However redundant or unfashionable our modern world may perceive them to be, we do incalculable damage to the fabric of our society in dismissing them as an anachronistic idyll of some former age. Indeed, at this most fundamental of levels, we have very much more to learn (perhaps even relearn) from the countryside and its people than we could ever reap from the urban resource.
In conclusion, I pay tribute to the Government for having had the courage to publish the White Paper. It has been a long time coming. In common with many 1710 noble Lords, I earnestly hope that its provisions are indeed but a first step towards rethinking the position that our rural resource holds in our society. As future debate of the issue unwinds, perhaps I may express the simple and earnest plea to the nation as a whole—to paraphrase the popular song, "Please don't let our countryside be misunderstood".
§ 8.1 p.m.
My Lords, perhaps I may echo the sentiments of many of the noble Lords who have spoken today. I am reminded of many of the points that were raised in our debate on sustainable development two weeks ago. These reflect the growing recognition that the environment is not to be regarded as a problem for one particular department or body. It should be seen as an opportunity where every government department can play an important role.
I welcome the Minister's statement during the sustainable development debate that green Ministers will take on a wider range of issues. This should identify the many opportunities that are available for different government departments to take more positive action to protect the rural environment in general, and national parks in particular.
I would like to make some brief points about the Government's approach to agriculture, especially in relation to national parks. The report mentions that MAFF will take over the countryside stewardship scheme. This scheme has proved to be very successful and like my noble friend Lord Peel I am sure that it will continue to flourish under its new managers. Nowhere is the ability to help farmers to manage the countryside positively, more important than in national parks. It is incongruous that not all farmers in national parks currently benefit from environmentally sensitive areas or countryside stewardship-style payments. I would very much welcome a commitment from the Minister that he will encourage MAFF to make all of each national park an ESA, and to ensure that the budget for stewardship (or other green farming schemes) enables all national parks to benefit.
National park authorities are ideally placed to act as one-stop shops for the delivery of agri-environment schemes. I would welcome such delegation of the running of the schemes to park authorities where this is appropriate, as has been successfully piloted in Wales. Such measures would be in line with the duty on government departments and public bodies to have regard to national park purposes under Section 62 of the Environment Act.
As a final point on agriculture, I very much welcome the Government's commitment to review the CAP in order to move away from payments for production to payments for positive environmental work. This would go a long way to enhance the quality of our national parks; for example, by reducing the damaging overgrazing which takes place in some upland areas.
To move on to the subject of rights of way, I note that page 125 of the White Paper refers to the target set out in This Common Inheritance of bringing the rights of way network into good order by the year 2000. A 1711 target which is not mentioned in the report is that of bringing the rights of way network in national parks into good order by the end of this year, and I would be grateful if the Minister could set out the action that he has taken to ensure that this target is met.
I welcome the undertaking to examine ways of dealing with the problem of four-wheel drive vehicles on byways. I fully support the Government's undertaking to take the action outlined on page 127.
Recreational use of four-wheel drive vehicles is a growing problem on byways in many national parks. National park authorities are not always able to deal with the problem effectively as some are not responsible for rights of way. The position varies between parks. In some, the highway authority (or authorities) has (or have) delegated rights of way powers; in others this has not happened. In some parks this has lead to a confusing situation; for instance, in the Peak National Park responsibility for rights of way is divided between no fewer than seven authorities.
During the passage of the Environment Act support was shown by all sides of the House for giving park authorities responsibility for rights of way. This would enable the authorities to map and manage rights of way, and to impose traffic regulation orders where this is deemed necessary due to inappropriate vehicular use. I would very much welcome a commitment from the Minister that the draft guidance which will accompany the Environment Act, will make it clear that highway authorities will be expected to delegate rights of way powers to national park authorities. While welcoming the proposals set out in the White Paper, I believe that the problem in national parks will not be solved until the park authorities are made responsible for rights of way.
On a final note, I was pleased to see reference to the fostering of understanding between urban and rural England. The second national park purpose is for the promotion of opportunities for understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the areas. I attach a great deal of importance to the word "understanding". Many of the pressures facing the national parks are due to a lack of understanding about the parks' environment and the purposes for which they are designated.
I have identified two aspects of "understanding" in the context of the parks. I refer first to the understanding of the physical environment; to answering the questions: what have we got? How does it work? What are its essential elements? Why is it important in a national or international context? Secondly, I refer to understanding the pressures that the parks face and the best ways of ensuring that the pressures are reduced. I very much hope that the Government will give the new national park authorities the necessary assistance as they continue to promote the understanding of their areas.
§ 8.8 p.m.
§ Lord Palmer
My Lords, I too greatly welcome this White Paper and would like to add my congratulations to the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It much deserves the universal praise it has received.
1712 I will not detain your Lordships for long, but I should like to focus on one important issue which only gets a brief mention on page 51: alternative crops.
We all know that North Sea oil is not going to last for ever and international supplies, particularly from the Middle East, from a politically unstable source, must reinforce this Government's policy on future sources of fuel. Fuel security is vital for the prosperity of this country and therefore time and money spent on research and development for non-food arable crops is vital. We are at the moment lagging far behind our European partners in research and development. The production of bio-fuels from agricultural land must be one of the most exciting and challenging developments this century. Properly managed, it could and should make a vast difference to our balance of payments.
What must not be forgotten is that, in rotation, bio-fuels will never ever run out, as rape seed can be grown year in, year out. With proper research and development and with new varieties, the costs could be further reduced and yields increased.
I feel I, too, must declare an interest as a farmer who, for the past three years, has grown industrial oilseed rape on set-aside ground. I have to add that we get enormous pleasure out of growing a crop which is wanted and is so environmentally friendly.
Home grown bio-diesel could account for about 1 per cent. of UK diesel consumption and costs, when grown on set-aside land, 34 pence per litre to produce. If it were grown on non set-aside land, it would cost an extra 17 pence per litre; in other words, a total of 51 pence. In comparison, black diesel costs 11 pence per litre to produce before the Chancellor adds his 32 pence per litre tax, totalling 43 pence per litre. If the Chancellor were to increase the duty on black diesel tax by just 0.3 of a penny, he could then allow bio-diesel to be sold tax free and, most importantly, the Inland Revenue would be no worse off financially.
The market potential is enormous, particularly in such areas as urban taxis and buses. Indeed, my native town of Reading trialled buses on bio-diesel for four months. United Oilseeds ran three standard Rovers on bio-diesel for 12 months with amazing results. Nor must we forget the enormous advantage of the much cleaner and healthier urban environment bio-diesel could bring.
The Government have done little towards the promises they made at the Rio summit. Here is their chance. It is such a politically obvious move and one which would be extremely popular with the electorate. It seems extraordinary that the Government have not grasped this, and I just hope that they will now give it the due consideration it deserves.
§ 8.12 p.m.
§ Lord Wise
My Lords, I, too, welcome this timely countryside White Paper, for it covers a wide range of rural issues, many of which have been commented upon today. However, there are one or two points that I should like to make. I share the concern expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, about the White Paper's proposal to allow councils to retain 90 per cent. of the receipts from sales of county farms. I appreciate that 1713 sitting tenants have the first option to buy, and if they are able so to do, good luck to them! They may not agree with me, but I feel that it would be a retrograde step if those farms were to be sold off to enable councils to use the assets for short-term purposes. That would undoubtedly result in a considerable reduction in the number of council holdings available to let, thereby seriously disadvantaging young farmers trying to make a start on their agriculture ladder.
I shall be grateful if my noble friend the Minister will tell me, not necessarily this evening, how many council holdings have been sold over the past few years and how many are still tenanted. I imagine that the number will vary considerably from county to county.
I turn to the environment and conservation. There is considerable concern over hedgerow removal. Most of the hedgerow removal has probably been in predominantly arable areas. By now I believe that most of the fields have been made sufficiently large to facilitate the economic use of modern machinery. There is probably little need for the removal of many more. Those that are left are essential for wind breaks and the prevention of soil erosion.
However, we must not lose sight of the necessity for good maintenance. It is essential that hedges in livestock areas especially are allowed from time to time to grow for a few years and are not trimmed continually, so that they can be expertly cut and laid. That is the only way to preserve their stockproof capabilities, something which eliminates the need to have a great deal of unsightly barbed wire all over the place. A well cut and laid thorn hedge is a truly lovely sight which greatly enhances the countryside. It also gives small birds an excellent opportunity to have safe and secure nesting places. We must accept that, as with the maintenance of drystone walls, that is a labour-intensive, costly and negative income exercise.
Hedge laying and drystone walling are both dying arts. For the preservation of our environment, which we all desire, it is essential that young people are trained in those arts. I am glad that that is happening. However, farmers cannot be expected to bear the whole cost, and that must be taken into account.
The White Paper states that rural businesses have been relatively successful over recent years and the growth of small firms higher than in urban areas, with rural unemployment generally lower than the national average. For that reason I am glad of the review of planning policy guidance to enable the re-use of rural buildings for business rather than solely for residential purposes. That view has been expressed on many occasions. Given adequate environmental safeguards, that must be a good thing, especially when it relates to rural enterprises.
Employment there will keep young people in the villages. Local communities will be alive and vibrant rather than just dormitories with daily commuting to urban areas. Village shops will continue to flourish. Long may they do so, because they are an essential part of village life. In my village the shops deliver free of charge groceries to elderly people who have difficulty 1714 getting to them. What supermarket in a town 20 miles away will do that? Our first-class local butcher used to do the same thing with his meat, but, alas, owing to some regulation from Brussels, he is now unable to do so. I can buy a joint of meat there, put it in the back of my car, and drive half-a-mile with it to my home. He is not now allowed to put a joint of meat in the back of his car and drive a quarter of a mile, or possibly less, to an elderly, disabled person. Oh no, Brussels says that he must have a refrigerated van.
I was most interested in the speech of the noble Countess, Lady Mar. We are truly fortunate to have a doctor's surgery with its own dispensary in our village. I do not know how the village would manage without it. I am grateful to it for so much. With my health problems, it does so much to keep me ticking over. I shudder to think that it may be under threat, as the noble Countess said.
My noble friends Lord Addison and Lord Norrie spoke about national parks. I welcome the Government's commitment to national parks in preparing park-wide transport management plans. A number of parks are already preparing such plans. They are a useful way of identifying priorities and setting out the kinds of actions needed to reduce the impact of traffic. Traffic congestion within the parks can be considerable, especially at peak holiday times.
I shall end by making a plea on behalf of caravanners. They desperately need to go from urban areas into the beauty of the parks. I acknowledge that at times they slow down the traffic flow, but not always continually. They arrive at their site where they stay for the whole weekend. Some national park authorities have in the past banned the use of certain sites for caravan rallies at peak times. I hope that in the new management plans that will not continue to be the case, for it seems grossly unfair. The traffic congestion remains even when the caravanners are quietly ensconced at the rally. At this stage I should perhaps declare an interest, for I have the honour to be vice-president of the Caravan Club of Great Britain. I hasten to add that that position is completely unpaid.
§ 8.20 p.m.
§ Viscount De L'Isle
My Lords, at this late hour I shall not detain the House for long. Perhaps I should first declare an interest as a landowner and farmer and the fact that I derive some income as a rural sub-postmaster. I hope that in this House, as in my own, Postman Pat jokes are not permitted!
For 30 years after the end of the Second World War we suffered from a fragmented rural policy, resulting in considerable disintegration of rural communities. However, since the late 1970s we have seen a slow revival with the introduction of better planning policy, mobility of labour and new technology.
I, like so many other noble Lords, congratulate the Government on the "Rural England" White Paper since it recognises the needs and aspirations which many of us have sought for so long. My noble friend the Duke of Westminster with his report The Problems in Rural Areas addressed many of the issues now being tackled 1715 by the White Paper. We stand now at the end of the beginning and it is important that we build on the foundations set out in the White Paper and maintain the progress towards a vibrant rural economy which will help conserve and improve the English countryside for future generations.
The White Paper mentions many partnerships between private, public and voluntary sectors which have helped meet challenges. I believe that for far too long we have had the rural equivalent of megaphone diplomacy, with each sector talking loudly and mainly uncomplimentary about the others. By working in partnership we are able to resolve many challenges.
Planning is an area which inevitably creates many tensions, with those wishing to bring about change to benefits to the community being fought every inch of the way by those who are not fully aware of or who are unable to recognise the needs of the community.
Landowners should consider the voluntary introduction of a whole estate management plan which audits all the resources on their holding including, conservation, archaeology, landscape, agriculture, woodlands, housing, buildings, tourism, access and development and sets out the plan for the estate's management of these resources over a 10-year period, preferably to run in parallel with the local district plan. Consultation with the planning authority enables the officers and members to see the extent of the plans for conservation, agriculture and enabling development and to measure these against the district plan objectives. That gives all parties an overview rather than a snapshot, as happens when planning applications are produced in isolation. A whole estate management plan needs regular reviews throughout its life to take account of changes which are certain to occur. Initiatives such as this are a loose form of partnership which help to create an improved understanding and through this a better countryside.
The redrafting of Planning Policy Guidance Note 7 is welcome since there are ambiguities in the current PPG7. I refer in particular to the green belt, which enables many admirable and appropriate schemes reusing redundant buildings to be refused because they fall within the green belt. The creation of small business opportunities in the countryside will help to keep the green belt active and attractive while conserving the past in creating the future.
The changing needs of country dwellers and agricultural practices have modified the rural landscape and it will always go on evolving to meet the needs of successive generations. If it is to remain a living entity we must seek evolution not revolution. Throughout this constant change we must seek to adopt the best practices in the way in which we manage the land surface, our buildings and our work. The White Paper is illustrated with many projects set up by local people often assisted by the Rural Development Commission, which is chaired by my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth, local government private-sector companies and landowners. Those demonstrate what is achievable by communities working together. The projects, modified and replicated, 1716 are helping to transform the countryside. I very much hope that we can all build on this, helping to keep rural England a living countryside.
§ 8.25 p.m.
§ Lord Dormer
My Lords, I must at the outset congratulate the Government on their excellent White Paper. It fills a great need with much ability. Also at the outset, I must declare an interest as a landowner and an owner of woodlands.
Tonight we debate something that is very precious to this country; the English countryside which, since the Enclosure Acts and the system of primogeniture in this country, has given us the unsurpassed vistas that we enjoy today. I intend to illustrate that by a new approach; that of overseas visitors to this country. What do they come to see? Certainly Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey and perhaps the Tower of London. But after that they visit a stately home. If it is surrounded by its own land and woods its attraction is greatly increased. It is this combination of centuries-old care and dedication on the part of the owners, together with a degree of modernisation to comply with present-day requirements, which gives it a character and beauty which is unsurpassed the world over and which brings back thousands of visitors to this country with all the revenue that that implies.
The question today is how long this wonderful position can be sustained in this century of change and development which today seeks to destroy those very characteristics which I have just mentioned. Motorway and road building are sadly at the top of the chief destroyers of the centuries-old care and maintenance of the history of this island. Once destroyed it can never be replaced.
But there is a brighter aspect. Electricity and roads have brought great benefit to our countryside and this factor must not be overlooked. However—and I say this with great emphasis—there must be a limit to both these enterprises in a sensible way if farming as we know it today is to survive. As we all know, farming brings great prosperity, contentment and peace. I beg the Government to bear that in mind before any further rape of prime agricultural land takes place, as has happened in the green belt, and to guarantee a reasonable degree of restraint in the countryside of this island, which alone can provide that perfect combination of peace, quiet and wholesome life which is the delight of those born and bred in it and which is also the delight and envy of all those who visit us in this country today.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Robson of Kiddington
My Lords, I hesitate to rise at the end of four and a half hours and add yet another speech for your Lordships' pleasure, I hope! I believe that I have hardly ever been present in the House when a White Paper on rural England has been so universally welcomed. That must augur well for its future, or at least I hope so. The Government must be congratulated on the first attempt by any government 1717 to review the policies affecting the countryside and the people who live and work in it. It has never been done before and it is long overdue.
In particular, I welcome the setting up of a sub-committee of the Cabinet which will be charged with ensuring steady progress in implementing the White Paper. That is a most important remit because, although the White Paper has been produced by MAFF and the Department of the Environment, it is obvious that its implementation will be of great importance to most government departments. They will all have a part to play in that implementation.
The underlying principle in the document is the acknowledgment that the most important aspect is the reform of the CAP. We all know that that is not likely to happen tomorrow; it will take some years. The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, seemed to be extremely optimistic about the future of agriculture in Europe. But my noble friend Lord Mackie voiced doubts about what will happen when the countries of eastern Europe go into production. As those countries used to supply practically the whole of Europe before the First World War, I have a feeling that they may do that again. Therefore, that will be a problem we must face.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark paid a great compliment to the farming industry. I should have declared an interest because I am a farmer and landowner in both England and Scotland. Farmers are really the gardeners of our countryside, responsible for creating the beauty we now see there. We cannot expect farmers to carry the countryside on their shoulders for our benefit. Therefore, it is right that changes should take place and that support for their environmental input should be forthcoming. But I should like that support to come from a pocket other than the pocket which supports the CAP. Support for the environment is not only support for the life and livelihood of farmers in the countryside; it is support for that which we are all able to enjoy when we go into the country.
Another matter which worries me is the fact that there is no indication in the White Paper as to where the resources are to come from. The change of emphasis to support for rural communities will not be achieved without additional finance. My noble friend Lord Beaumont called the White Paper the longest unpriced menu in the world. That is probably right. The money does not all have to come from the Government. But it is important that they should put resources behind the White Paper in order to enthuse others to collaborate.
There are aspects of the White Paper which we all welcome and which have been mentioned by many noble Lords. The proposal to allow business rate relief for village shops and rural post offices is welcome. I hope that that will apply also to farm shops and various other enterprises which take place in the countryside. But it is rather tragic that we stand here saying that we should help those businesses—village shops and post offices—when for the past 15 years government policies have resulted in the closure of such businesses which go hand in hand with each other. It is sad that the proposal 1718 did not come forward a few years ago; nevertheless, we welcome the Government's conversion to supporting those businesses.
The problem has been not only the expense of business rates but also a planning system which has allowed supermarkets to be created on green field sites. That is a tragedy. I realise that it is convenient for many people; it is however extremely inconvenient for those living in small villages who do not have a car and therefore cannot get to the supermarket.
The problem is not only one for small villages. Large supermarkets on green field sites have an affect on small towns in the countryside. There is no reason why planning should not operate on a different basis so that supermarkets are not built in green fields, taking up the countryside. They should be planned within the confines of smaller towns.
The encouragement in the White Paper for schools in rural areas to open their premises for other local activities also comes rather late. Many schools have already closed. I live in a village in Oxfordshire which had a wonderful local primary school. It has closed. While it existed it was the centre of village activity and every community organisation used it. In order for such schools to survive, it is important that the local community should make use of the premises as much as possible. It is not merely a question of small children going to their first school from the age of five until the age of 11. It is very much better for children to go to a local school as their first experience of school rather than have to go to a large school where there are several hundred children. Therefore, the community needs to use those premises. If that happened I am sure such schools could be saved.
Housing and transport in rural communities is very difficult. The White Paper highlights the problem of urban populations wishing to live in the countryside and thereby contributing not only to rising prices in housing in rural communities but also to the congestion on roads. I believe that it was the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who mentioned that that trend does not apply in other countries but it has been so in England. The noble Lords, Lord Chorley and Lord Marlesford, mentioned that one of the reasons why people in conurbations wish to live in the countryside, apart from its beauty, is that we have not done enough to improve the cities and to make them more enjoyable places in which to live. That must be part of the whole equation because, given the choice, I am certain that there are many people, however much they like the countryside, who would prefer not to have to commute for one or two hours in the morning and again in the evening and, as a result, never see their children. The whole emphasis on reviving the rural community carries with it the need to revive also the urban community and to make use of all the possibilities that we have in the cities to improve the surroundings and to use the housing that is already there.
We very much welcome the announcement that housing associations in villages of below 3,000 population will be exempt from the need to sell to the sitting tenant. Like some other noble Lords, I question 1719 what is so sacrosanct about the figure of 3,000. I believe that it should be considered on a slightly more variable basis.
The other important fact in the White Paper is the re-use of rural buildings for businesses. We need new planning rules; we need to promote good practice; and we need to get the Department of Transport on board to ensure that access to those new businesses will not be prevented by a ban on lorries using a little side road. That has happened on many occasions about which I am aware.
The noble Countess, Lady Mar, talked about something quite different relating to rural life; namely, dispensing doctors and the problems of people living in remote, rural communities from a health service point of view. The noble Countess did not have time to talk about the impact of the new principle of community care instead of hospital care. For people in rural communities, community care means that there is no one except a member of your family to look after you. There is a very limited service. People who are looking after elderly or invalid relatives rarely get any respite or help. We are asking too much of those people. They are quite happy to do what they do but they need a break. We must make certain that that is available to them.
There was one other speech with which I was 100 per cent. in agreement. I refer to that of the noble Lord, Lord Vinson. He wanted British Summer Time to go on all through the winter. I would welcome that with open arms.
We have had a far-reaching debate today but debates do not necessarily achieve the desired goals. It all now depends on where we go from here. It is the responsibility of all of us to take the initiative that the Government have presented to us. I sincerely hope that the Government will fulfil the hopes that they have now raised in people for a future for rural England.
§ 8.43 p.m.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, we have had a very good debate on an important subject with many excellent and well-informed speeches, none of which was better than the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hambro. I am very glad from these Benches to be able to welcome his contribution. We look forward to hearing more from the noble Lord in our future debates.
When the Government announced their intention to produce the White Paper, all of us with an interest in rural matters were enthused by the idea and looked forward with great anticipation to what we hoped would be a real understanding of real rural problems with firm proposals for future policy. However, I am afraid that I am not able to share in the encomiums which we have already heard in the debate for the White Paper.
My first reaction on reading the White Paper was to echo the immortal words of Snoopy in the Peanuts' Brown cartoon who wisely observed:No problem in this world is so big or so complicated that it can't be run away from".What we actually have is a document of 146 pages with beautifully produced words and pictures, confirming in terms the Government's deeply-held belief in rural 1720 motherhood and apple pie. The Government's White Paper is, of course, not the only such document on rural policy which has been produced this year. Indeed, in April the Labour Party produced its own consultation paper, A Working Countryside. I shall return to the policy proposals of that paper a little later.
The general thrust of the White Paper can best be seen by analysing the way in which it is to be taken forward and by seeing how many firm policy commitments involving new resources are actually made. The White Paper contains a plethora of proposals to consult, discuss, invite comments upon and explore further. It also contains undertakings to review policy after further consultation and to undertake further research or surveys. I believe that those noble Lords were excessively polite who pointed out that there were no specific targets in the White Paper and that, therefore, it would be very difficult to measure progress—not accidental, I suggest.
However, I should like to congratulate the Government for producing a whole new growth industry. Many of us have retired exhausted from the seminars, the conferences and the colloquia on reform of the CAP, and those of us on the punditry circuit can see the roadshow starting again in discussions on the rural White Paper. But when it comes to firm policy commitments with a price tag attached, it is quite hard to find them. When the Minister replies to the debate, it would be helpful if he could indicate the nature of those commitments. Before the notes come from the Box, perhaps I may emphasise the importance of the words "with a price tag"; I mean real new money, not the reallocation of existing resources.
It is not possible with such a wide area of policy and in the time available to do more than comment on certain aspects. The omission of others does not mean that they are not important. Perhaps I may turn first to housing. I should declare an interest as a trustee of the Rural Housing Trust. I gave the Minister notice of the questions that I am about to ask. Obviously we welcome the proposal to exclude from the right-to-buy, or the purchase grant scheme, all housing in communities with fewer than 3,000 people. But exactly how is that to be implemented?
There is curious difference in the wording between the White Paper and the summary document. So far as I can see, the White Paper makes no mention of parliamentary approval, but that is expressly stated in the summary on page 9 which reads:exempt, subject to Parliamentary approval, villages of less than 3,000 from the proposed new Purchase Grant Scheme".Do the Government intend to include appropriate clauses in the housing Bill which we are promised for the next Session? Alternatively, as the noble Lord, Lord Stanley, asked, is it to be a matter of a ministerial directive or will it require some primary or secondary legislation? On rural housing, we welcome the proposal for the village enhancement factor in housing corporation grants. But the final judgment must await the actual announcement of the grants which will show the effect of the current public expenditure round on housing expenditure generally. What we read in the press does indeed give real cause for concern.
1721 The White Paper contains some useful analysis of what might be termed the "rurality factor". To set alongside the arresting statement in Page 8 of the document that,There is hardly a place in [England] which would not fall within the city limits if it were in the United States",there is the equally startling fact that, in the city state of Hong Kong, twice the percentage of the population work in agriculture as compared with Britain. Britain now has fewer people in farming than any other Western nation, with the paradox that less than 2 per cent. of the population is responsible for the upkeep of 80 per cent. of the landscape.
There is no need to labour the point regarding the changing nature of the countryside in terms of employment and those who live there. There is a great unfilled demand from those in the urban areas to move to the countryside. It is therefore essential that any government initiative affecting housing, planning, employment, education, healthcare, and the rest, should take fully into account the immense social changes that have taken place and will take place behind a deceptively placid and very beautiful landscape.
We must guard against the temptation to transpose urban life and values into the countryside. Rural areas are societies in their own right—they are not just nodes on the Internet where urban activities are conducted in pleasant rural surroundings.
The White Paper makes some interesting comments on health and social care in rural areas. In this context I draw your Lordships' attention to an excellent recent publication entitled Rural General Practice in the United Kingdom produced by the Royal College of General Practitioners. This document illustrates well the differing needs of rural communities as regards health care and draws attention to the indicators of rural deprivation which affect not only the health of the rural population but also what I would call the whole of the social matrix. Such factors as lack of local services; the high cost of living; transport problems; housing problems; and inadequate facilities produce just as many social problems in rural areas as in urban areas. All of this has an effect on the allocation of scarce resources, but the White Paper tends to steer round the problems rather than address them in depth.
The interrelationship of environmental concerns with other aspects of rural policy is a crucially important aspect of that policy. Our national parks are a fine example of protecting a national asset for quiet enjoyment by everyone. The proposed revision of PPG7 should take particular account of the need to strengthen and clarify our planning policies in rural areas, particularly in the national parks where development must be properly controlled. As the White Paper correctly states, the principles and practice learned in designated areas should be applied to the wider countryside. We can all agree that what is needed above all is proper and sensitive planning control.
I wish to discuss a few points made in the debate. I was extremely pleased to hear the warm words at the outset from the Minister as regards local authorities and 1722 the role of the parish councils. We welcome a conversion to appreciating the merits of local government after all local government has had to go through in the past 16 years. My noble friend Lady Nicol made a shrewd point when she asked about the effect of the 90 per cent. retention from sales of county farms on the spending assessment. This gives me an opportunity to make it clear that the Labour Party is opposed to the sale of local authority farms. We feel that that is a retrograde step.
The noble Lord, Lord Barber, referred to the important subject that we all discuss; namely, the major switch of funding from farm support to environmentally friendly activities. But do we know how to achieve it at farm level in a European context? One can see how to do it in this country, but I find it hard to envisage a major shift in support from commodity support to so-called environmentally friendly farming in certain other member states.
The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, said that the White Paper should be read widely in Europe. It is interesting to note that besides the expected call for reform of the CAP—with which we can all agree—there is not much mention of Europe in the White Paper. That indicates perhaps the need for subsidiarity as regards rural policy. I must declare another interest as regards the noble Lord, Lord Palmer. I am the vice chairman of the farmers' co-operative which buys the noble Lord's oilseed rape. I should add that we pay him a jolly good price for it. I agree with his remarks about bio-diesel. I believe that has great potential in crops grown for all forms of industrial use.
I referred earlier to what I described as the social matrix in the countryside. What are the facts in which this matrix is set? Between April 1990 and January 1995 the percentage increase in unemployment in urban Great Britain was 51 per cent. while in rural Great Britain it was 74 per cent. In England the percentage increase ranged from 54 per cent., in the north west to 171 per cent. in the south east. Between 1979 and 1993 homelessness more than doubled in rural Wales and rural England and increased nearly threefold in rural Scotland. In the rural part of Wiltshire where I live in the past two or three years between 215 and 260 families were classed as homeless and over 1,500 families are on the waiting list.
Recorded crime increased between 1979 and 1993 by 87 per cent. in the English and Welsh metropolitan counties compared with 144 per cent. in the English and Welsh shire counties. The deregulation of the bus service has been a disaster in rural areas. Passenger journeys have decreased by more than a quarter since 1985. I leave your Lordships to consider the likely effect of rail privatisation on rural transport and to set the statement in the White Paper that privatisation of British Rail will protect rural rail services against what has happened to rural bus services since deregulation.
I referred earlier to the Labour Party's consultation document A Working Countryside. There seems to be a curious idea in circulation that the Labour Party lacks ideas on policy. I should point out that a 26-page document with no pretty pictures contains no fewer than 1723 50 proposals for policy formulation, including a number of firm commitments. These include the phased release of the billions of pounds raised from council house sales to build more houses; full access to the information super highway for rural communities; nursery education for all three and four year-olds whose parents want it; and a national minimum wage to combat the scandal of low pay. We have of course had a minimum wage in agriculture for years. As we all know, the Government received a bloody nose when they tried to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board.
We further propose the re-regulation of the bus industry with strong licensing bodies and a system of target setting, of particular importance in rural areas; replacing GP fundholding with GP health commissioning (again this change would be particularly relevant to rural areas); the placing of a statutory responsibility on local authorities to develop policies for sport, arts and leisure; ending the sell-off of Forestry Commission woodland; and the right to roam, which is coupled with a duty of care for the countryside by all those who use it, recognising the need to protect valuable habitats, livestock and cultivated land. I find it slightly ironic that the biggest opposition to the right to roam comes from those whose personal roaming area covers many hectares.
I have listed only nine out of the 50 proposals and objectives in our paper. Time prevents me from listing the other 41. What our rural areas need is economic renewal to ensure a broad range of job opportunities; social and democratic renewal to strengthen rural communities; and the protection and enhancement of the countryside environment. The White Paper is long on analysis and short on commitment. The idea behind it was a good one but I am sorry to say that the White Paper represents an opportunity missed. However, there is a final and cheering thought. All the consultation and discussions on policy which are proposed will be translated into action by a Labour government.
§ 8.57 p.m.
My Lords, we have had an interesting debate. Many of your Lordships have made a number of interesting and pertinent suggestions and have asked a number of pertinent questions. It is remarkable that of the 35 or so speeches, almost all were in favour of the measure. The exception was the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Carter who made an unnecessarily party political speech which was uncharacteristic of him. It was a snide speech denigrating all that the Government have done on this matter.
The noble Lord said that the document constituted 146 pages of rural motherhood and apple pie. The noble Lord must try better than that if he is to criticise a document which examines the subject as deeply as the one we are discussing. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, said that the measure was overdue and my noble friend Lord Northesk said it was a long time coming. He was correct to say that it has been a long time coming because it has never been produced before. The fact that it has never been produced before means that the document should receive a little more commendation from the noble Lord, 1724 Lord Carter, even if that is difficult for him as I know that he must put forward the Labour Party's point of view. I do not blame him for that. But it was curious that he ended his speech by telling us what the Labour Party was going to do and mentioned its own document.
It is also strange that the one proposal for which the Labour Party document has come under appalling criticism is the right to roam. We do not believe that a right to roam is appropriate. It conflicts with other uses of land and elevates one interest above all others. As I watched the noble Lord, Lord Carter, doing sterling work on the Labour Front Bench, assisted occasionally by one or two others and at the moment by three others—I thought the Labour Party had more interest in the countryside than that—I wondered whether his colleagues had elected to exercise their right to roam already and left him on his own. Our emphasis is on bringing rights of way into good order by the year 2000. A great deal of progress has been made, especially in national parks.
I was greatly heartened by the fact that everyone welcomed the White Paper, apart from the noble Lord, Lord Carter. Even the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, welcomed it but, in passing, saying that even for this Government it was a good document. I accept that as the best that he can do in saying that it is a good publication. I was happy that he said that he recognised me on the front cover. I would have been far less happy if he had said that the lady was my wife.
A highlight of the debate was the speech of my noble friend Lord Hambro, who brought to the debate all his considerable business and agricultural experience. He spoke in most measured tones, and I hope that we shall hear him on a number of occasions in the future. He said that quangos must carry people with them. He is quite right. They must carry people with them.
I hope that your Lordships will. understand that I cannot reply to everything that has been said today. I shall try to pick out one or two of the more salient points which some noble Lords raised and answer some of the questions I was asked.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, and the noble Lord, Lord Carter, talked about a glossy document. I make no apology for that. If one is to get anything over nowadays, when people are presented with so much information, the first thing one has to do is make a document readable. If the document is not attractive to readers it does not matter what the contents are, one does not get over the first hurdle of attracting their interest. I believe that it is right that the document is glossy.
The noble Baroness complained about the document costing £18.50. There is a less expensive summary, which has also been published by the Department of the Environment. It can be obtained from the department. It has been sent to everyone who responded to the consultation exercise and to all local authorities and parish councils. Many people have telephoned and asked for copies. So there is that alternative.
I was glad to hear the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, about bio-fuels. There is great potential there. The White Paper recognises that potential, but 1725 there is a good deal of research and development still to be done. Many people say that these things do not work. I happen to heat my house with straw. Everyone said that that would not work, but all I can say is that it jolly well does work. Therefore, I have a great deal of sympathy for the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, who hopes to pursue that aspect.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark said that the White Paper holds the ring of conflicting interests. That was a good way of putting it, because there are conflicting interests. Anything concerned with the countryside, or indeed the nation, is stuffed full of conflicting interests. We have to try to get over that problem. Therefore, I was glad when the right reverend Prelate said that the Churches will take the need to build bridges seriously. The Churches have a great part to play in rural communities. I am sure that the right reverend Prelate and his brother bishops will do the best they can in that respect.
My noble friend Lord Shuttleworth said that the White Paper moved away from conservation only into dealing with the countryside as a whole. He is right. My noble friend Lord Kimball said that change is an ally, but my noble friend Lady Macleod said that there has been no change in the village in which she was brought up. It is possible for both to be right. People do not like any change from what they have known, but over the years in the village in which my noble friend was brought up there have obviously been changes, such as the introduction of motor cars, telephones, central heating and so on. However, because change has occurred gradually one tends to take it for granted.
A number of your Lordships referred to money. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, said that there was no money. The right reverend Prelate said the same, as did the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, who described the White Paper as the largest unpriced menu in the world. So did the noble Baroness, Lady Robson. I make no apology for that. The document is an indication of the way in which the nation's efforts in respect of the rural countryside ought to develop. Enormous sums of money are being spent in the countryside at present, and indeed in the towns, whether on houses, roads or hospitals. We say that perhaps there ought to be a redirection of effort. To suggest that all this will tot up to a large bill of extra money is entirely wrong. It is the wrong way to look at this major document.
The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, asked about stewardship. Additional funding will be determined, like all expenditure, in the public expenditure survey. However, the White Paper commits us to making additional funding for countryside stewardship a priority. Two new options will be added, one targeting traditional stone walls and banks and the second targeting unimproved meadows on neutral and acid soil in lowland England.
My noble friend Lord Marlesford said that business rates will kill small businesses and that we had the ability to ameliorate the problem but had not done so. For most businesses rate bills are small in relation to total turnover but they impose a more substantial burden on the smallest businesses, in particular retail 1726 businesses. Parliament has given local authorities the discretion to reduce or remit rates where they are satisfied that the ratepayer would otherwise sustain hardship. But the practice of local authorities in operating hardship relief varies greatly. Many local authorities in rural areas give none at all. The Government will review the way in which local authorities operate the scheme and will issue fresh guidance.
My noble friend Lord Marlesford referred to the protection of agricultural land. I agree that present conditions may not last and that it is right to protect high-grade farm land from irreversible development. In individual cases it may be better to allow development on that land rather than on lower quality agricultural land which is of significance for wildlife, landscape or amenity.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and my noble friend Lord Selborne, stated that no targets were set. The White Paper sets out a strategic framework. I agree with my noble friend Lord Selborne that targets should now be developed, where appropriate, as part of the implementation of the White Paper. Next month we shall receive the report of a steering group on biodiversity and will consider its proposals including the proposed targets for improving conservation. Over the coming months we shall also consider the potential for setting targets in other areas as well.
I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, and my noble friend, Lord Selborne, approved of action being undertaken at local level. I believe the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, said that if local people took more responsibility, and the Government less, the White Paper will work. I believe that it requires everyone to make an effort—local authorities, local people, and Government, in their individual areas.
The noble Lord, Lord Barber, said that the pendulum had swung too far as regards trees: that we need to plant more conifers. The White Paper reasserts our commitment to multipurpose forestry including conifers as well as broadleaved woodland. The national forest, which the noble Lord, Lord Barber, proposed to the Government, will contain both. Last year's review of forestry incentives gave additional encouragement to conifer planting. That point disturbed my noble friend, Lord Astor of Hever. He said that at the present rate of planting we shall not double our woodland cover for more than 100 years. The key to a major expansion of forestry lies in changes to the common agricultural policy. Forestry needs to be able to compete for land use on more equal terms with farming. The doubling of woodland in 50 years should be possible when the necessary future changes to the common agricultural policy are made.
My noble friend Lord Kimball referred to cormorants. I sympathise with the view that he put forward. However, we are constrained by the birds directive in the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Licences can be issued only to scare and not to cull, and then only when there is clear evidence that damage is caused by 1727 cormorants. The Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of the Environment have engaged in an R&D project on whether cormorants are really a problem and, if so, how that problem can best be dealt with having full regard to all the interests concerned.
The majority of the points of concern expressed by your Lordships referred in different ways to housing, shops and planning. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, asked whether the funds from the sale of farms—it is about 90 per cent.—will result in any cut in the standard spending assessment. Any money from the sale of county farms will be treated as a capital receipt and will not affect the SSA.
My noble friend Lord Kimball said that the redundant shops in village main streets should be converted and used as housing. The new rural enhancement factor for housing association grants for rural schemes will increase the maximum costs allowable for developments. That may well encourage housing associations to consider more costly developments such as conversion of other properties for housing use. But the associations will still have to bid competitively for grants, and schemes will have to represent value for money.
The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, asked whether we could halt the drift of people away from cities into the country. I do not know what kind of dictator he thinks we are, but people have the right to go where they wish. It is not for the Government to tell people where they should or should not live. Our aim is to enable local people to remain in the countryside, to maintain balanced communities. My noble friend Lord Selborne was right to draw attention to links between the urban and rural areas. That is why we give high priority to making our cities more attractive places in which to live and so to relieve the pressure on the countryside. The noble Baroness, Lady Robson, also made that point.
The noble Baroness, Lady Robson, and the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, welcomed the enhancement factor and the exclusion of rural villages with a population below 3,000 from the purchase grant scheme. They wondered why there was a limit of 3,000. Our aim is to protect the supply of social housing in small rural settlements, where the cost of small scale developments is generally higher—that is why we have the enhancement factor—and also where there is the greatest difficulty in securing land for development. Hence the exclusion from the purchase grants, one of the key aims of which is also to provide replacement properties for those sold. The limit of 3,000 is consistent with the Government's and the Housing Corporation's existing rural housing programmes and it is accepted and understood for those purposes. Any increase in the population limit would have to be balanced against the interests of those tenants who would be deprived of their right to purchase their home.
The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, was concerned about the proposal for the rural business class. Local planning authorities often refuse planning applications because they fear that the business will grow and create unacceptable environmental pressures, especially from heavy goods transport. We will consult on a proposed 1728 rural business class order. This would enable local authorities to allow a planning application, subject to limitations on the transport which it generates. It should give local authorities more confidence in allowing rural enterprise to diversify.
The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, was also concerned about the flexibility on grade IIIA land and whether it would weaken its position. Grade IIIA land is protected because of its agricultural value. That can sometimes push developments on to other land which is of high environmental value. What we want is a more flexible approach so that we can take fuller account of the environmental consequences of development.
My noble friend Lord Stanley asked what mechanism we would use if we wished to allow rural housing association tenants to "staircase up"—another awful jargon word—to 100 per cent. I am sure that my noble friend knows exactly what "staircasing up" is, I think that you staircase up in the same way as you "ratchet". The phrase means to increase from the shared ownership of, say, 60 per cent. by the tenant and 40 per cent. by the housing association to sole ownership; in other words, a 100 per cent. by the tenant, in a series of small steps. At present, the staircase stops at 80 per cent. As my noble friend Lord Stanley—who is a wag—would say, you then come to the landing. I can assure my noble friend that we have no proposals to allow rural housing association tenants to increase the amount from which they can staircase up, from 80 per cent. to 100 per cent.
The noble Lord, Lord Carter, and my noble friends Lord Stanley and Lord Peel were concerned about how the 3,000 settlement exclusion would work and how it could be altered. As the noble Lord, Lord Carter, rightly surmised, the housing Bill will include a provision for the Secretary of State to designate rural areas by order. We will want to consult local councils and housing associations before the statutory instrument is made. Defining the areas will be a challenge. In identifying the settlements we will start with the Housing Corporation's Rural Gazetteer, based on the 1991 census material. In putting that into clear geographical terms for the order we will probably list parishes containing settlements of fewer than 3,000 and include maps, where necessary. We realise that the order will need periodic updating.
My noble friend Lord Peel mentioned local shops, and the noble Baroness, Lady Robson, said that government policies have closed the shops down in the villages. I thought that that was a remarkable suggestion. In fact, the shops were closed down because people do not use them, as my noble friend Lord Peel said. They like to go off to the supermarkets and do all their buying there because it is quicker and cheaper. They like to go to the village shop to buy the loaf of bread that they have forgotten, but they find that the village shop is not there because they did not support it. I do not believe that government policies closed the shops down but government policies have tried to enable them to live on in a better condition.
My noble friend Lord Norrie asked that the revised PPG7 should include a clear statement that the wider countryside should be given greater weight in the consideration of development plans and development 1729 control. The rural White Paper states that we need to find new ways of enriching the quality of the wider countryside. Local planning authorities should place more emphasis on identifying the particular characteristics of the local countryside which need to be respected or enhanced. We will incorporate that approach in the revised Planning Policy Guidance Note 7.
My noble friend Lord Nome asked that the proposed emphasis on commercial re-use of redundant agricultural buildings would not be interpreted as a signal that all such developments would be acceptable in planning terms. The position is that the existing Planning Policy Guidance Note 7 makes it clear that proposals for the re-use of rural buildings may not be acceptable, if their form, bulk and general design are not in keeping with their surroundings or if there are legitimate objections on environmental or traffic grounds. We intend to include similar safeguards in the revised Planning Policy Guidance Note 7.
The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, asked whether it was an accident that the first reference under "sustainable Development" on page 145 was to:enable rural businesses to develop and contribute to the national economy".I can tell him that it is no accident. Page 9 also makes it clear that:meeting the economic and social needs of people who live and work in rural areas, ensuring that rural businesses are as efficient and competitive as they can beis an essential and vital ingredient of sustainable development.
The noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, asked when would we introduce the rate relief for village shops. I was glad that she supported that move. We shall consult as soon as possible on the detail of those proposals and bring legislation in front of Parliament in due course.
My noble friend Lord Northesk asked about the planning system. He said that it marginalised country people and that the decisions were inconsistent. The planning system is operated at local level by local authorities. The planning system provides full opportunities for public participation in preparing the development plans. Those who live in the countryside should take full advantage of these opportunities. The development plan provides the framework for consistent 1730 planning decisions. We have made it mandatory for local authorities to prepare development plans for their areas.
My noble friend Lord De L'Isle said that it was too difficult to obtain planning permission for re-use of buildings in the green belt. Noble Lords will find that the revised version of Planning Policy Guidance Note 2, which we published earlier this year, makes it easier to obtain planning permission to reuse existing buildings in the green belt.
There have been a number of quite detailed questions and I may not have answered all of them, in which case I shall look through them and if necessary write to noble Lords. But it is a fact that we live in one of the most urban countries in Europe. In fact, only the Netherlands has a greater proportion of urban areas than we have. Therefore it can be very easy to forget that about 20 per cent. of England's population lives in the countryside. In the White Paper we have tried to recognise the needs and aspirations of rural England and put into place policies which will secure a good quality of life for people in the countryside today.
This is the beginning. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, said that it was all full of consultations and discussions. My word! He would not half have given me stick if I had said that there were going to be no consultations and no discussions and that the Government would plonk it all on top of Parliament and the countryside whether or not they liked it. I realise that his speech had a twist in the tail. He could not help that. After all, it is his business.
I am grateful to noble Lords for the support in general—very much in general—which has been given to this Motion. It is a very important area. We want to try to get the matter right. Governments do not have all the solutions. In the end, it is up to people to make it right. I commend the Motion.
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.