HL Deb 12 March 1997 vol 579 cc357-96

6.26 p.m.

Lord Carter rose to call attention to the needs and problems of the rural economy; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Motion for debate today selected by my colleagues on these Benches recognises the importance of the rural economy and the fact that the needs and problems of that economy are very different from those of urban and inner-city areas. We know that the population of the countryside is increasing. Every census reveals an increase in rural population. Moreover, many urban dwellers would like to live in the countryside if they were able to do so.

This has been confirmed by a substantial MORI poll. Evidently, there is a strong belief in a rural idyll away from the pressures, problems and pollution of our cities and large towns.

What are the facts that lie behind this concept of a rural idyll? Between April 1990 and January 1995 unemployment increased by 51 per cent. in urban Great Britain and by 74 per cent. in rural Great Britain, with the largest increase (171 per cent.) in the south-east of England. Between 1979 and 1993 homelessness more than doubled in rural Wales and rural England and increased nearly threefold in rural Scotland. Between 1979 and 1993 recorded crime increased by 87 per cent. in the English and Welsh metropolitan counties and by 144 per cent. in the English and Welsh shire counties. Nearly 75 per cent. of rural parishes in England have no daily bus service. Since deregulation of bus services, passenger journeys in England outside London have gone down by 29 per cent; in Wales by 20 per cent.; and in Scotland by 22 per cent. But in London, where buses have not been deregulated, the decrease has been 3 per cent.

The phenomenon of two nations is now an established fact in rural areas. There is one group of relatively well-off people with one or two cars—and so they are not concerned with poor bus services—who shop weekly at out-of-town supermarkets—and so they are not concerned about the decline in the number of village shops. They have time to serve on the parish or district council, and they apply perhaps an essentially urban view to the smells and noises that are inseparable from many rural pursuits and to the demand for social housing, which may reduce the value of their own houses. The other group is effectively hidden away. Rural poverty in Britain?—some say that there is no such thing and that the countryside is where the affluent live. If you drive through any village you will not see the poverty and deprivation that are now sadly such a feature of certain areas of our cities. Rural poverty is submerged beneath a layer of apparent affluence. It is household-based rather than area-based and is not readily acknowledged, or even recognised, by the more affluent. Even the disadvantaged in rural areas do not like to use the term "poor" to describe themselves. But that rural poverty and deprivation are real and affect some 25 per cent. of the rural population.

The Community Council for Wiltshire—where I live—has managed in 11 years to provide 106 homes for local rural people. There are an estimated 3,000 families needing decent rented housing in the county. The majority of employed people between 18 and 30 years old in one large Wiltshire village which was recently surveyed were earning less than £140 per week. Examples can be found in North Yorkshire, Northumberland and Devon, where 50 per cent. of households surveyed had a main wage earner earning less than £8,000 a year.

Whenever I speak to rural, largely farming, audiences, I always say the same thing—by far the biggest social problem in the countryside now is the lack of affordable homes to rent or buy. The right to buy local authority housing, although extremely successful politically, has had a particularly severe impact in rural areas. Between 1980 and 1991, some 30 per cent. of council housing stock in predominantly rural districts was sold off, resulting in a loss of 95,000 rented homes.

ACRE (Action for Communities in Rural England) estimates that there is a need for some 30,000 local authority homes a year to satisfy the demand for affordable housing in rural areas, created by the selling off of local authority housing stock. The Rural Housing Trust, of which I am a trustee, points out that the latest cuts in the Housing Corporation's Improved Development Programme have meant a reduction of roughly one-third in the rural programme. Cuts in the rate of grant over the past five years have resulted in rents which are too high for those people on low incomes who do not qualify for housing benefit. Government policy on funding for housing association development now means that large-scale development by large, urban-based associations takes up most of the allocations. Small rural associations which are close to the communities they serve and which concentrate upon meeting small-scale local needs are at a huge disadvantage in the competition for funds.

The Labour Party is committed to the phased relief, over time, of the billions accrued from council house sales to build the homes which are so badly needed, with the concomitant effect on employment in the building industry and associated suppliers.

All our rural areas typically have lower wages than the national average; lower percentages of affordable housing; limited local services; and poor public transport. That combination of factors impinges particularly on all groups in the rural community. Perhaps I may take just one example—carers. I should declare an interest as vice-president of the Carers National Association, which points out that only 5 per cent. of parishes has some access to a CAB; 46 per cent. of rural carers have never applied for any benefit; 30 per cent. of carers have never inquired about benefit; only 17 per cent. of parishes has a GP; about 40 per cent. of the carers surveyed had never taken a week-long break since they started caring; and the Rural Development Commission found that only 8 per cent. of parishes had some day care provision for the elderly and only 3 per cent. of rural parishes had day care provision for disabled people.

However, it would be wrong not to mention some of the positive things which are being done to promote employment and provide services in rural areas. The Countryside Commission recently launched a strategy for the south-west coastal path that supports the equivalent of more than 800 jobs. It is what might be described as sustainable tourism. There are many other examples in that field.

The RSPB points out that nature conservation provides jobs and benefits to local economies. In a recent report Working with Nature in Britain it highlights eight case studies. Three, the Abernethy Forest RSPB reserve, the conservation of the red kite in Mid-Wales and the management of heathlands, provide almost 300 jobs.

In the field of rural healthcare there is considerable scope for improving services and providing information to people in rural areas. The employment of community development workers by primary healthcare practices or groups of practices can do a great deal to develop rural healthcare services and draw attention to the isolation of many poorer people, which is the common experience of all those in rural community development work.

There is undoubtedly a change in the political attitude to the problems of the rural economy. In April 1995 the Labour Party produced a rural policy document entitled A working countryside; in September 1995, the Government produced a White Paper Rural England; and in November last year we had the Cork declaration following the European Conference on Rural Development under the Irish Presidency of the EU.

It is interesting to note the common threads which run through all those documents, led, dare I say it, by the Labour Party document, which was the first in the field. It recognises that a countryside policy can no longer be the residual of an inefficient and wasteful CAP, riddled with fraud and doing little to create employment and revitalise our rural economies.

The Labour Party has produced a substantial document on reform of the CAP. In our objectives we say that we want to see a fundamental reform redirecting funds to the benefit of the rural environment, the broader rural economy, consumers and the public purse. We set out six major policy objectives, the fourth of which states: European policy must play an enhanced role in the rural economy—to advance the sustainable development of economic activity in rural areas, in particular by promoting rural employment".

In the Labour Party we have made it clear that we support the redirection of the CAP towards a common agricultural and rural policy. We accept the concept of a rural strategy, set out in the Cork declaration. However, it would be wrong to suggest that that fundamental redirection of policy will be easy. The farming lobbies throughout Europe are still very powerful and will argue strongly against change. It is easy to pay lip service to the idea of developing the rural economy, but it will not be easy to shift policy, particularly with the pressures on agriculture that will result from the WTO negotiations which start in 1999 and the enlargement of the EU towards the east in the early years of the next century.

Enlargement of the EU may present an opportunity to redirect ourselves towards a true rural development policy. Fundamental reform of the CAP will he essential to accommodate eastern European countries. But there is a further inescapable result of EU enlargement. To repeat an observation I have made previously in your Lordships' House, the EU now stretches from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean and from the Atlantic to Poland. When Poland joins it will stretch from the Atlantic to Russia. That vast panorama of differing rural structures and agricultural efficiency and productivity cannot be managed from Brussels with a dirigiste agriculture policy which is targeted down to the last litre of milk over quota and half hectare of set-aside. Rural policy, above all, in the EU cries out for subsidiarity.

That is why the increasing political recognition in the UK of the importance of rural policy is so significant. I have referred already to the Labour Party document A working countryside and the Government White Paper. There are a number of ideas and proposals which are common to both. The Countryside Commission has recently produced an imaginative and thoughtful document called A Living Countryside which sets out a strategy for economic activity and reinforces that character of our countryside which makes it so special.

The needs and problems of the rural economy are now widely recognised. Our success in dealing with many of them need not involve heavy public expenditure, but it will demand a recognition across national and local government of the particular policy approaches which are required. The Labour Party document A working countryside contains no fewer than 50 policy proposals and commitments under the three broad headings "Rebuilding the rural economy", "Renewing rural communities" and "Respecting the rural environment". I shall take just a few of them at random: Partnership with the private sector to ensure rural communities have access to the information superhighway … A national minimum wage to combat the scandal of low pay". That is one aspect of agricultural policy which will always be supported by the farming industry, because of course farming has had a minimum wage for over 50 years.

To continue: Building thousands of new homes with the thousands of millions of pounds from council house sales which Labour will allow councils to spend on a phased basis. Partnership with housing associations to build affordable homes to rent. Maintaining the network of rural post offices and strengthening them by giving them greater financial freedom". There will be an improvement in rural bus services by regulating the private bus companies and demanding that they meet certain social objectives. Each health authority will develop a rural healthcare plan. Rural schools will be linked to the information superhighway, giving access to new educational opportunities.

We will judge all our policies for rebuilding the rural economy and renewing rural communities on criteria of environmental sustainability. There will be a major boost to low input agriculture, including organic farming, through reform of the CAP. There will be an end to the sell-off of Forestry Commission woodland—privatisation by stealth. There will be a target of reducing waste disposed to landfill by 30 per cent. over five years and a presumption against new opencast coal-mines. Those are 16 or 17 of our 50 proposals and commitments.

Whatever our political views, I hope that all of us can agree with the three basic objectives of rural policy as we have set them out in A working countryside: first, economic renewal to ensure a broad range of opportunities; secondly, social and democratic renewal to strengthen rural communities; and, thirdly, the protection and enhancement of the countryside environment.

We have a countryside whose diversity and beauty we all wish to protect. We have a rural economy with many needs and problems; but, it is hoped, a new political recognition which cuts across party boundaries of those needs and a willingness to deal with them. As we approach the millennium, I am hopeful regarding the future. I hope that today's debate will add to that optimism. I beg to move for Papers.

6.41 p.m.

The Earl of Selborne

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for initiating the debate. I agree entirely that it cuts across party lines and I am in a great measure of agreement with his analysis of the CAP. I wish to deal with that specific aspect; that is, the relevance of a reformed CAP to a rural policy for Europe and specifically for the United Kingdom. I must say immediately that I am a farmer and therefore a recipient of CAP payments. I am vice president of the Action Committee for Rural England.

I think immediately of the cost of the CAP; 45 billion ecus, that is £33 billion, paid to seven million farmers throughout Europe. Those farmers have assets and income. At the same time in Europe, approximately 18.5 million people are unemployed, a large number of them in rural areas. Again, I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Carter, on the need for social renewal and social equity. It has taken a while, but since 1995, three years after MacSharry's reform, it was accepted by the Commission that the reform of the reforms had to be put back on the agenda. That culminated in the meeting at Cork referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and the Cork declaration. That called for a move away from a sectorially based CAP to a rural policy for Europe which emphasises rural development and rural industry.

I am not sure that I approve of a concept of evolution of the CAP. For many years we have been asking for something stronger. I sat as a member of a sub-committee of the European Communities Committee at the time of MacSharry when we pointed out the need for something that would be much more radical than is implied by evolution. It is clear that, whatever happens to the CAP, if we cannot have an integrated rural policy it must have a completely different concept from the present top-down approach of the CAP. It is highly centralist and highly inappropriate for reflecting local needs. If you cannot reflect local needs you will not achieve local investment in jobs and you will not understand the dynamics of the local rural economy. If a rural policy means anything it means job creation.

It is clear that agriculture, which by definition is a large industry in rural areas throughout Europe, must be a component of a reformed common agricultural policy, but it is equally clear that the funds must be channelled more widely than simply to agriculture. Farming will be a beneficiary, but so will other industries. Indeed, while we are looking at the reform of the CAP, it is clearly important to look at other mechanisms in Europe such as the structural funds and objectives to determine how rural policies can be put in place.

This is a short debate and time-limited. I shall set a precedent by taking less than the full time. I shall simply point out that there is no point in having such massive expenditure in rural areas if it does not inform a rural policy. Since 1948 we have had a great deal of intervention in agriculture. It is remarkable that, despite all attempts to change support for agriculture, we have never wrestled with the problem as to how we support the wider rural economy.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, as always, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carter. I am also most jealous of the way he handles his facts, which makes my efforts appear less good.

The question of rural development and the rural economy is enormously important. Immense changes have occurred, and they were detailed by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. They have had an extraordinary effect on the countryside. All of us who have any connection with farming know how numbers employed in farming have decreased in the most extraordinary way. I am a retired farmer. My old farm used to employ 12 men and many casual workers. Now only two people work on that 500 acre, good Angus farm. The same is true all over Scotland and the rural areas.

The Liberal Democrats in a constituency in Aberdeenshire conducted a survey of the farms in their area. They did not receive a full response, but 10 per cent. of the forms were completed. It gave them a fair indication of what is happening. Of those responding, 66 per cent. were from farms worked entirely by the farmer and his family. No people were employed. Thirty-seven per cent. of them relied on sources of income other than farming. A number of other interesting points arose, one of which interested and depressed me. It was that more than half-55 per cent.—of those who responded would not recommend that their children should follow them into farming. That is a tremendous reversal and indicates the state of the economy and thinking of the farming section of the rural economy.

The farming sector will remain the major single factor, but by no means will it be the majority factor in the countryside. Therefore, while the importance of farmers making a decent living is immensely important, if we do not want the countryside to become the commuter belt we must encourage many different ways of making a living in the country. Of course, we have tourism, which in many cases is allied to forestry and access to forests.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, highlighted the fact that if people are going to work in the countryside they must have somewhere to live. People who want to live in the countryside and have money have driven up the price of houses much too far. In the countryside we need more social housing in which people can afford to live.

The way forward appears to be to encourage enterprise of a different sort. One of the enterprise groups in Aberdeen carried out a survey. Of course, we are talking about an area which is very prosperous due to the presence of oil. That survey took in the whole of the countryside behind Aberdeen, which is a big area. It found that the average company would employ about 10 people. The survey also found an extraordinary amount of enterprise and a willingness to start business in the area. Indeed, an exhibition was organised with the presence of bankers and entrepreneurs who showed what was needed to start a business and how it should be done. I should stress that 3,000 people attended that exhibition; they did not just look, they also asked questions as to how they could start in business and go ahead. That must be one of the main ways to keep the countryside alive and vital with small businesses.

I should add that there are some very interesting businesses in the area which really depend on intellectual curiosity and enterprise. They do not need much capital or, indeed, many raw materials. There is one small group which started a business with remote observation vehicles—ROV, as I understand it—which has been very successful, especially in the industry. The vehicles are made elsewhere but the group places them; and, indeed, it received a good deal of publicity when one of its vehicles was used to try to find the Loch Ness monster. That expedition was not successful, but it found many other things at the bottom of the loch and was very useful. That form of enterprise by small groups in the countryside is most important.

The Government have a great deal to do in order to advance the cause. They need to ensure that the capital, training and education are available and, indeed, they should make sure that certain tax advantages can be obtained by those who put money into small businesses. I know that they are doing so in a small way, but such enterprises need to be encouraged. If you encourage such enterprise in the countryside you will get a living countryside with people being employed, and you will also get a living, breathing area which will be of great advantage to Britain and to Europe.

6.53 p.m.

Lord Chorley

My Lords, I must begin with an apology as I shall almost certainly have to leave the Chamber before the start of the winding-up speeches. The Government's Statement this afternoon has thrown my timetable rather out of kilter. I should like to talk about housing, although in a rather different direction from that taken by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. However, I have to say that I very much agree with most of what the noble Lord said.

Last November, the Government issued their Green Paper Housing Growth: Where shall we live? It is a very thoughtful document and of great significance to the rural economy because of the now notorious need to plan for 4.4 million extra households by the year 2016; that is, as near as may be, a 25 per cent. increase. Indeed, the Government thought the figure probably too low because all past projections have been too low. On the other hand, their critics thought it too high.

However, surely we can all agree that there will be an increase in the demand for housing well above the population growth and that the figure, whatever it is, will be a pretty big one. The question then arises as to what extent demand will, unless managed, spill over into the countryside. My thesis is that there are already quite enough pressures on the countryside so that, whatever the colour of the next Administration, we must contain that spill-over to an absolute minimum.

The Rural England White Paper, to which reference has been made, forecast a growth in population of rural areas of 12 per cent. by the year 2025. I do not know how much of the urban spill-over is contained in that rural growth but, if it is included, then the implications for rural housing demand, for reasons explained in the Green Paper, are much higher than 12 per cent. Indeed, if the spill-over is not included in that 12 per cent., then, because of the drift to the countryside, the situation will become much worse.

It seems very clear to me that it will be difficult enough to cope with what I call "natural growth" in rural household formation, let alone dealing with urban spill-over. I believe that the Green Paper is conscious of that problem. It rightly emphasises the importance of urban regeneration and has useful things to say about making our cities more attractive places to live in and about the use of brownfield sites and whether there are enough of them. It also has interesting thoughts about the respective merits of key village extensions versus multiple village extensions, and so on.

However, what needs to be emphasised—it is perhaps not sufficiently emphasised in the Green Paper—is the fact that new towns and new villages on greenfield sites should only be sanctioned in exceptional circumstances. I believe that that is a fundamental point. There is an interesting short section in the Green Paper called "Improving the Planning System", but there are two worrying sentences: Nevertheless we should not assume that the current [planning] system is adequate to meet the demand … we need to ask ourselves whether present guidance … provides a sufficiently robust framework for the necessary development to take place in the most appropriate parts of each region". We certainly want a robust planning system and robust guidance but not one that implies, which is how I read it, although I hope the Minister will perhaps tell me that I am wrong, a willingness to accommodate spill-over into the countryside. Just as important, we want robust implementation by local authorities and robust support from Ministers.

Even if the danger of the spill-over into rural areas was not worry enough, there is the added dimension of its effect on rural road traffic. Even without that effect, the forecast of a more than doubling of national road traffic by the year 2025 implies a far greater growth in rural road traffic, without any spill-over from urban populations.

When we have to build new houses as I am sure we will, I should like to emphasise the need for, and the importance of, good design both in siting and in detail. The Rural White Paper had good things to say in that respect. I wonder whether we would benefit from encouraging the Royal Fine Art Commission to play a leading role. Unless we resolutely tackle the problem of the need for 4.4 million houses and unless we make cities places where people want to live, we risk, especially in the south east of England, losing our most prized national asset: our countryside.

6.59 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I do not have the level of expertise of previous speakers or indeed of the speakers who are to follow me. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to raise a few matters which relate in particular to rural Wales and which we regard as being of critical importance. Those issues are based on the White Paper of the Welsh Office entitled A Working Countryside for Wales (Cm 3180). Many of the concepts in that White Paper offer considerable potential. Nothing that I say this evening detracts in any way from my appreciation of that potential.

However, perhaps I may begin by asking whether the Government can devote more resources to ensure that employment is brought to those rural communities where there are severe problems of unemployment. The Welsh White Paper acknowledges that the east of Wales has done better than the west. But who in the end decides how the money is to be allotted between the east and the west? In rural Wales one of our major problems is to find employment opportunities for those communities in north-west Wales and in south-west Wales—the areas, broadly speaking, to the south of the A.55 and to the north of the M.4—which are by now in serious decline. I mentioned one of those communities in the health debate about a month ago. Those communities constitute the Welsh heartland and are therefore in a category of their own. We are aware that the process of economic decline can also become one of social decline involving the disintegration of communities. That is our concern.

The second issue I want to raise has been mentioned by three previous speakers. I refer to the lack of housing which local people can afford to buy. This matter is well known to the Welsh Office. On page 13 of the White Paper the authors acknowledge that their consultation, revealed considerable concerns about the future supply and cost of housing". They further state that the answers to these concerns need, inter alia, to, allow markets to work effectively". That is an astounding conclusion. There is every reason for thinking that unregulated market forces during the past 18 years have been a prime cause of the present problem. Therefore to ask us to continue to rely on the market will make matters even worse.

I believe that the authors of the White Paper (on page 14) are conscious that many people in Wales are demanding legislation to control the local housing market in rural Wales. That demand was articulated at a rally in Cardiff a few months ago. Of course there are problems with that suggestion. All the same the case for such legislation has not been properly addressed or convincingly answered by the White Paper. It is also surprising that the document contains no reference at all, as far as I can see, to the impact of second homes or holiday homes on the housing market although this has been a burning issue.

Before I leave housing, I should also mention that there is a great deal of anxiety in rural Wales about the possible impact of unused large-scale residential planning permissions granted under the pre-1968 planning system, such as the one affecting Morfa Bychan in the Lleyn Peninsula and which the High Court has recently ruled is still alive. It would be helpful if we had some idea of the size of the problem and whether it needs to be addressed by central government. Do the Government know how many such permissions are in existence and if not can they obtain the information?

I have had an interest in health issues since I first became involved with the Welsh hospital service in the late 1960s. There is a worrying admission in the Welsh White Paper that some of the health needs of people living in rural Wales may require special attention. That will come as news to the authors of the Rural England document. The Welsh Office document identifies the symptoms in these terms: a higher than average rate of suicides in farming communities; emotional problems in children and young people; and the effects of stress on elderly or disabled people and their carers". The document further states that the problems, need to be well researched and tackled effectively". The authors are to be congratulated on bringing all this into the light of day. But who will undertake the careful examination which is required? I hope it will be undertaken by an authoritative body such as the Medical University of Wales.

My final point is to inquire whether we in Wales have the right all-Wales machinery to develop rural policy? The present machinery has come in for considerable criticism, for example from the Wales Rural Forum which is representative of all aspects of Welsh rural life. The forum has been pressing for the setting up of a comprehensive rural forum to represent all rural interests and which would have an effective say in policy making. The Government have rejected its case. However, I do not believe that the case has been fully answered by the arguments set out on page 41 of the White Paper. Looking two years ahead, I trust and hope that the elected members of the new Welsh assembly which an incoming Labour government will establish will themselves have a key role to play in influencing policy making for the development of rural Wales.

7.5 p.m.

Lord Shuttleworth

My Lords, I welcome this debate on the rural economy and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for giving us the opportunity to focus on it. As always on these occasions I need to declare an interest as chairman of the Rural Development Commission although I do not intend to talk about the commission specifically this evening.

Strictly speaking there is now no such thing as the rural economy. Just as there is no homogeneous urban economy, rural areas house a diverse range of economic activity and enterprise. This wide variety in the countryside relates to local, national and international markets and is, with the obvious exception of agriculture, really just that part of the total economy of our country which happens to be rurally based.

It follows of course that the rural economy is not synonymous with agriculture. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, reminded us, although it is still the biggest user of land, agriculture in most rural areas is no longer the largest employer. The overall picture of economic activity in the countryside is one of the long-term decline in employment in traditional industries such as agriculture and mining, and a growth in other sectors such as services and manufacturing. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, gave us some unemployment figures. Perhaps in the interests of balance I could respond with employment figures for the rural development areas. Between the census years of 1981 and 1991 there were 120,000 new jobs. That is a far greater rate of growth than in urban areas. I believe that has continued since 1991. Therefore the rural economy generally has proved adaptable to the changes which have taken place, especially in the more accessible areas and those closer to the centres of population or with good communications.

Given more time—and also in the interests of balance—I should have liked to spend a moment or two on the lessons learnt, and some of the success stories. However, the main point that I must make in the time available this evening is that not all rural areas have enjoyed economic success. Some, mostly the remoter areas which were heavily dependent on declining industries or lacking good communications links, have continued to face difficulties in adjusting to change. Rural economies, particularly in these less accessible areas, are heavily dependent on self-employment and very small businesses. There is clearly a need to try to ensure that many more small firms not only survive, but grow and create more jobs. I see that as a key challenge for the growing Business Links network.

The more disadvantaged rural areas also need good communications and infrastructure. Roads and utilities are important. It is also vital that rural areas are not allowed to fall behind in the provision of the infrastructure required for advanced tele-communications. Retaining the present universal service obligation and the geographic averaging of tariffs operated by BT ensures the availability of the same standard of modern telephone services in rural as well as in urban areas. This principle of universal service needs to be extended as new telecommunications developments are introduced. We also need to consider the incentive, or lack of it, to service providers to push their network into remote areas in a market-led environment.

One industry of particular importance to the rural economy is tourism. Recent research has calculated that in 1994 tourism spending in rural England amounted to over £9 billion and supported almost 400,000 jobs. In addition, tourism can also bring a number of wider benefits to the local community by helping to support local shops and services.

Therefore, tourism policy must have a clear rural dimension. But in taking advantage of the economic and social benefits to be gained, we must be careful not to spoil the very thing people go to rural areas to enjoy—the countryside itself.

In discussing the rural economy of this country, as other noble Lords have said, we cannot ignore its place within Europe. A significant number of England's rural areas are designated as Objective 5b areas and benefit from European funding under the structural funds. Those are due for review in 1999. There has been much speculation also—the noble Lord, Lord Carter, added to it today—about possible further reform of the common agricultural policy and the emergence of a single integrated rural policy. The UK must contribute to the debate and secure a policy which fully recognises the needs of the poorer rural areas of England. If I may say so, the Rural Development Commission, with all its experience and practical knowledge, has much to offer to that debate.

I have one final point. In this House rural debates are well supported by well informed, regular Members from all sides of the House from what I might call our "country club". But I suspect that the rural economy in too many quarters is automatically regarded as a specialist topic, firmly and completely in the sphere of the Department of the Environment—and certainly not much to do with the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department for Education and Employment, the Department of National Heritage, the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Transport or the Treasury. Despite the clear and helpful lead given by the 1995 rural White Paper, in the country as a whole many take the view that jobs in the countryside are an unwelcome, indeed, unnecessary, intrusion and that it is in the towns that they belong. Too often rural areas are viewed through urban eyes just as places for growing food or for recreation.

Much of rural England makes a significant contribution to the national economy. It can and must do so in the future.

7.13 p.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, it is very easy for the rural and remote areas of Scotland to be seen as a playground, a theme park and as a holiday sanctuary. I assert that these remote areas are valid working environments.

The Motion talks of the needs and problems of the rural economy. I would suggest that it is not all doom and gloom. Migration in recent years to Skye and Lochalsh, for example, has caused that district to become the fastest growing population in Scotland in percentage terms. Quality of life and sense of community are the attractions.

Large distances and low population density are obvious symptoms of a remote area. The Highlands and Islands, and Scotland as a whole, enjoy an easy statistic: one person per nine square kilometres in the Highlands and Islands; and nine persons per one square kilometre in Scotland overall. Long distances, high fuel prices, ferry prices and air transport charges can be mitigated by lower rates of vehicle taxation, reduced VAT on road fuels, road equivalent tariffs on ferries, and the removal of air passenger duty on Highlands and Islands air flights. Those minor tax breaks would ease the higher cost of living without creating a tax haven. Further infrastructure measures should include more causeways between islands, as already built between Barra and Vatarsay and about to be built between North Uist and Berneray.

Bridges keep better hours and are open in worse weather than ferries. My only and inevitable remark about the high toll Skye Bridge is this. A PFI bridge should be built only in a vibrant economy where it will be paid off quickly. A fragile rural economy is the last place where a high toll bridge should be built.

After fiscal and infrastructure measures, I move to the issue of enabling people to find ways of making a living. This is becoming easier with advances in electronics. Teleworking is possible though there are perceptual problems. For example, an acquaintance is a power station engineer who works from his croft in west Argyll. The question is: how can anyone in west Argyll know anything about power stations? I suspect the answer is that this person was a power station engineer before moving to Argyll. The real challenge for someone in a remote area is to gain credibility. That is the solution of an urban perceptual problem.

In reality, just as electioneering can take the form of telephone canvassing, so directory inquiries and mail order type businesses can be located anywhere. The debate is all about enabling people to empower themselves. That is different from empowering them. Education for emigration must be reversed. The role of government and other economic development agencies must be to pilot examples of possible practice and provide training. For example, I am excited by a new bulb-growing venture in Benbecula. That is being promoted by Comhairle nan Eilean and the Scottish agricultural colleges. The venture typifies the essential elements of a remote area's enterprise. Three areas of expertise are required: horticulture, marketing and distribution, in equal proportions. The product is, and must be, a high value one. Markets must be sought; and air transport is available, for example, from nearby Balivanish airport.

Finally, I move to land use and land reform issues. After the Clearances, the potato famine of the mid 19th century and the land wars of the 1880s, commissioners were sent to north west Scotland. The Napier Commission report of 1884 recommended that smallholders should be given security of tenure as tenants and organised into townships. They are, of course, known by their Anglo-Gaelic name of crofters.

Crofting used to be about subsistence. The 1886 Crofting Act allowed crofters to engage in what it quaintly called auxiliary occupations. Today crofting is a viable population holding measure. Active crofters live on their crofts and earn 80-plus per cent. of their income from auxiliary occupations. But the key is that they live in their own homes on their crofts with which they have developed a deep bond despite only being tenants of the land. The Gaelic language and way of life help as well in that respect. There is currently a strong and unmet demand for crofts.

A courageous government will revisit the Land Settlement (Scotland) Act 1919 and create more crofts. This time they will buy in good land rather than the poor land bought by the Congested Districts Board and the Board of Agriculture for Scotland. The Crofters Commission should move beyond regulation and reorganisation towards the development of economically stronger crofting townships. The under-utilisation of land must be tackled. The plight of the islanders of Eigg lies in the failure of the landowner to grant leases. No economic development can take place on Eigg as a result. That stifling of the rural economy by landowners is quite prevalent.

In conclusion, the Crofters Commission, along with the Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the local enterprise companies, and the talents of the residents must be combined and encouraged in their counter-urbanisation policies.

7.18 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, six minutes is not enough for a lively debate. Nevertheless I am grateful to my noble friend for the opportunity to make a few comments. Degraded rural areas mean a degraded environment—bad for people, bad for wildlife. It is bad, too, as the noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, pointed out, for the tourist industry which has become a useful source of extra income for some farmers. So measures to sustain biodiversity and to conserve the best in landscape not only create employment directly but have spin-off effects which benefit the local residents.

I am happy to acknowledge the valuable work of the Rural Development Commission. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, was too modest in not mentioning it. It has achieved a great deal. I share the concerns of the National Farmers Union at the budgetary restraints which are presently causing the Rural Development Commission to withdraw some of its very valuable services. But there are many areas outside the present remit of the RDC which suffer similar problems and for which help is needed.

Part of the answer is to give back to communities control over their own lives. So many decisions that should be made by local people through elected representatives are now made by unelected quangos answerable only to the Secretary of State. Local people know best what they need and they should have the power to change their representatives when those representatives fail to reflect local needs and wishes.

We all acknowledge that the school and the village shop are key elements in the life of rural communities. Closing the local school is a body blow to village life. It reduces security for the children and causes endless problems for parents. Until now, there has been a rigid approach to closures based on school numbers. I suggest that that approach should be re-thought.

I give as an example a school at Outwell in the Fens, with a roll of 150 children, which is viable even in current terms. With support from an enthusiastic head it has embraced information technology, established electronic communications nationwide and overseas, including in North America. That has had the effect of widening horizons and combating the feeling of isolation which so often afflicts schools in rural areas. The example is being copied by other schools, to their great benefit.

The case of the Beaupré school in Outwell is an example of how even smaller schools can remain part of the wider picture and should not be considered too small to provide real education. As the noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, and my noble friend Lord Carter said, we must also ensure that rural populations as a whole are not left out of the information revolution.

Village shops across the UK are struggling to keep open. Too many have closed already. To help the remainder, and perhaps to reverse the trend, it will be necessary to take positive action. I welcome the proposals in the Local Government and Rating Bill, but more is needed. For example, the new requirement to introduce unit pricing will have a severe impact on small shops, which may stock as many as 3,000 different items on their shelves but may lack the computer systems to deal with the 6,000 or so pieces of information that they need to record. It is important therefore that small and medium-sized shops are given plenty of time to comply with the law. They will need sympathetic advice and handling if they are not to be forced out of business.

We appear to have reached a consensus on the kind of help that is needed in rural areas. What is now required is a practical approach to the problems and a willingness to re-think some of the old, outdated ideas.

7.22 p.m.

Lord Norrie

My Lords, we have heard from all sides of the House this evening how rural England has undergone tremendous social and economic changes in recent years, how the economy of rural areas is buoyant, and how it is out-performing that of urban areas. We have also heard of the high growth rate of new businesses and of unemployment rates in the countryside being generally lower than urban areas.

However, the apparently vibrant economy of rural areas disguises the effects of important variations in the quality of the jobs created—that is to say: are they short-term or long-term, part-time or full-time, and are they compatible with the needs of the environment and local communities?

In particular, it appears that, despite the huge amounts of development taking place in these areas, there has been an overall decline in the provision of essential services and, for some groups of people, continued deprivation and hardship. The obstacles to a better quality of life for these people consist of a range of issues, such as the lack of childcare facilities, affordable housing and access to public transport.

The aims of policies for these areas should not only be to ensure a better quality of life, but also to improve the environment. I am concerned that we risk devoting too much attention to purely economic activities such as job creation or new physical development in the countryside. Such activities could detract from the quality of life.

Perhaps I may give an example. The villagers of Woodcote, in Oxfordshire, conducted and co-ordinated two village appraisals over a period of 10 years. The findings highlighted the dramatic pace of rural social and economic change. From 1961 to 1991 the number of houses in the village increased almost three-fold. Many new residents and firms had moved into the village from outside the area. Proportionately fewer local people were working and by 1990 two-fifths of the local jobs were held by non-local people. These kinds of changes are placing enormous pressures on the quality and fabric of rural life and bring few local benefits.

I believe that we are not being discriminating enough about the kind of development in these areas. There appears to be a mismatch between the opportunities and benefits arising from new rural development and the needs and skills of rural dwellers themselves. Meantime there is a danger that the quality of life in the countryside is being eroded.

I turn briefly now to the national parks of England and Wales, which are places where there is an opportunity to promote social and economic well-being while protecting and improving the environment. In fact the appropriate clauses of the Environment Act 1995 confer a duty on the park authorities to foster the economic and social well-being of their local communities as they carry out their purposes of conservation and of promoting understanding and enjoyment. These clauses form the basis for sustainable development, rather than stifling any development at all.

Some national park authorities are already taking a lead on implementing this new duty. For instance, the Brecon Beacons park authority has set up "Beacons Country Products", which works with local communities to encourage and market local produce. Its projects include a mobile slaughterhall, the aims of which are to keep more of the value of locally produced sheep within the local communities, and a silage wrap recycling project, which addresses an environmental problem in a creative way.

The public will associate national parks with high environmental quality. The Council for National Parks is promoting the idea of a national parks accreditation scheme. Products from the parks, where they are environmentally-sensitively produced, should be identified and promoted as such. Supermarkets would have a role to play in marketing these goods, capitalising on regional purchasing policies where they exist.

We should, perhaps, take a lead from the French experience—in France great success has been achieved by promoting local goods in this way, enabling much more of their value to remain with the local communities, and also enabling greater investment in maintaining the high quality environment on which such products depend.

Finally, tourism, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth, is another example of the interdependence between the major employment sectors in national parks and a high quality environment. The Countryside Commission and Countryside Council for Wales have carried out a survey on visitors to national parks. That survey confirmed the importance to these visitors of the quality of the park landscapes, the fresh, clean air and the peace and quiet they offer. These are the reasons why the parks were designated and underpin this significant sector of the local economy.

These examples from national parks carry lessons for the whole countryside. They highlight the interdependence of a high quality rural environment and economic vitality. The Government's new planning guidance for these areas, PPG7, makes that link clear. High environmental quality is a driving force behind much rural development. That development and the jobs it supports must, in their turn, sustain and improve the environment for long-lasting benefits.

In conclusion, it would be wrong of me not to pay tribute to the Government for their record in placing rural issues in the hands of some perceptive and effective Secretaries of State over the past 18 years. I feel that I must mention Michael Heseltine, who carried out this appointment twice, and the current incumbent, John Gummer, for his understanding of and sympathy with green issues, for which he is saluted by many of us, and who minds passionately about these matters.

The balance between rural prosperity and the protection of the countryside will never be easy to achieve, but Britain has much to be proud of and to teach the rest of Europe. By contrast, there is much to fear from the prospect of an urban-based Labour government which would not have the interests of the countryside as one of its priorities.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Cobbold

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for introducing this debate. The needs and problems of the rural economy are so often submerged beneath the weight of urban priorities. I have had the mixed blessing of inheriting a large family home. In previous centuries such homes with their parks and agricultural estates were major centres of rural employment. Hardly anyone living in the village would not have been employed in some capacity by the "big house".

In the early 1970s, when my wife and I took over the management of the property, employment had perforce dwindled to one or two ancient retainers. The head gardener, nearing 80, had in his earlier days had 14 gardeners working for him. Now he was alone doing his own weeding in an inevitably much reduced area.

The good news is that in the 25 years since then, by moving from traditional agriculture and building up a commercial leisure and banqueting business, we now employ 31 people full time plus anything up to 50 people part time on busy days in the summer. The big house has once again become the largest employer in the village.

I mention this only because it illustrates the changing nature of rural employment. Our needs are not for cowmen and ladies' maids, but for park wardens, waitresses, banqueting managers, tour guides and gift shop staff. Rural employment is now extremely varied and continues to change.

However, this change and the broadening of income-earning activities have not yet been recognised by the Inland Revenue. The taxing of rural activities is steeped in history and is extremely complex. Some of the problems can be overcome by the formation of limited companies and by the helpful one-estate election option. But I would like to put in a plea today for the introduction of the concept of a rural business unit, as proposed by the Country Landowners' Association and supported, among others, by the Historic Houses Association. I should say that I am a member of both organisations.

In recommending the rural business unit, I am speaking not only to the Minister but also to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and his colleagues who may shortly be in a better position to secure its introduction.

The concept of the rural business unit, or RBU, is that all those income-producing activities traditionally associated with a rural estate, together with evolving leisure and other commercial activities, could be assessed as one trading unit for income tax, capital gains tax and inheritance tax purposes. That would allow, for example, the letting of furnished holiday cottages, the letting of sporting rights and non-agricultural lettings and the income from houses open to the public, gift shops, garden centres and catering activities to be brought within the RBU.

The Inland Revenue and the Treasury are familiar with this proposal and I will not burden your Lordships with the detailed figures. Suffice it to say that the RBU concept should lead to a more productive use of rural assets which should in turn have a positive effect on tax revenues over time. I hope that whoever is in power after the election will give careful consideration to the concept of rural business units.

There is one further problem of the rural economy to which I wish to refer today and it is one on which I have been in correspondence recently with the Minister. It concerns the thorny question of access to the countryside and the classification of rights of way. A case with which I have recently been concerned has involved the designation of a series of public footpaths and bridlepaths as a "Byway Open to All Traffic", or BOAT as they are rather confusingly called. The evidence used for the designation was a variety of ancient maps which indicated that these ancient routes may have been used by horse-drawn vehicles in previous centuries.

The new designation as a BOAT means that these routes can now be used by motor cycles and four-wheel drive vehicles in competition with the pedestrians, cyclists and horse-riders who use them now. It is difficult not to be sympathetic to the legitimate rights of motor cyclists and four-wheel drive vehicle owners, but I have to say that I cannot help feeling that the new BOAT designation is not in the best interests of the particular countryside environment, nor of the wildlife habitat nor of the pedestrians and equestrians currently using the paths. In the event of misuse, it is possible for the county council to make a traffic regulation order under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 banning motor vehicles, but that is a cumbersome and expensive procedure.

The Minister has indicated to me that he has considerable sympathy with my concerns. He has said that he hopes to make an announcement shortly based on the response to his consultation paper Vehicles on Byways. I hope that he will be able to tell us more about it today. In particular, I should like to hear whether he has had further thoughts on the idea of the creation of a new class of highway, determined by whether the surface is or has ever been metalled. The suggestion is put forward in paragraphs 10 to 17 of the consultation paper Vehicles on Byways and seems to be an excellent idea.

I look forward to the noble Earl's response and once again hope that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and his colleagues will take note, in case it falls on them to put the suggestion into practice.

7.35 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I very much welcome the opportunity to participate in this important debate so ably and knowledgeably introduced by my noble friend Lord Carter. I am a city dweller and always have been, but like most of us I very much value the countryside, although I must confess that I see it mainly as a visitor. However, I have relatives who have made their lives in the country and who are very much a part of their local communities.

The welfare of those communities is, or should be, of concern to all of us. At one time in previous centuries most of the employment available was in the countryside. Now the declining nature of countryside employment is everywhere acknowledged and is believed to constitute something of a problem. Between 1986 and 1996 there was a decline of 32.6 per cent. in full-time male employment. The Rural Development Council identified the cause of the continuing decline in the number of agricultural workers as, the continuing substitution of farm labour by various forms of capital. While the most obvious substitution is of labour by farm machinery, it is important to recognise that other forms of capital, including agrochemicals such as herbicides and fungicides and the various prophylactic drugs used in animal production systems, have also reduced the labour in-put required on farms". During this time, farming has become a highly profitable enterprise. Furthermore, the subsidies received by farmers are substantial. In its submission to the Agricultural Wages Board in 1996, the Transport and General Workers Union—the union which organises agricultural workers and to whom I am grateful for the briefing I have this evening—told me that it was able to demonstrate that the subsidies paid directly to farmers were more than the entire hired labour bill. Given that huge payment to farmers, the union believed that insufficient consideration had been given to the impact on agricultural and rural employment of the policies adopted under the common agricultural policy.

The union cites as a classic example of a policy which it believes specifically creates unemployment the policy of set-aside. It is estimated that for every 130 hectares of land put into set-aside, one job is lost. It estimates that that has led to a loss of over 3,500 agricultural jobs. However, unlike the subsidies paid to farmers for taking their land out of production, the union members receive no compensation beyond statutory redundancy payments. That is not a lot of help to farmworkers, many of whom now spend much shorter times in jobs owing to what appears to be the increasing casualisation of the industry.

I understand that the Low Pay Unit recently undertook a study of rural life in Suffolk. It cites some typical cases. For example, a young man only in his late 20s had just been made redundant from a job he had held for only two years. He had twice been made redundant before and moreover was well qualified, having taken a three-year course in arable management and husbandry. He was becoming disillusioned and, not surprisingly, even though he enjoyed the work, was thinking of moving out of agriculture altogether.

Poor wages do not encourage energetic young people to stay in the country and make their lives there, even though they may enjoy the work and love the country. Wages in farming are generally conceded to be low. Incidentally, if the experience since the abolition of wages councils is anything to go by, they would be a great deal lower were the Agricultural Wages Board to be abolished. Naturally, there would be strong opposition to any such course.

Even so, the figures I have for last year indicate a minimum wage in agriculture of around £155 a week. The Council of Europe decency threshold rate is £239 a week. Average wages in the country compare very badly with those in manufacturing industry. There is a gap, I am told, of about £90 a week. Moreover, we are not here talking about jobs that require little skill. The union makes the point that agricultural workers are now required to have a range of skills, dealing with complicated vehicles and machinery. Moreover, unfortunately, it is not an industry in which accidents and diseases arising from the job are rare—quite the contrary. We have often in this House—due, I am glad to say, to the commitment and persistence of the noble Countess, Lady Mar—frequently discussed the threat to farmworkers of the use of organophosphates. It is now increasingly admitted that the noble Countess was absolutely right to be so concerned.

The cost of living in the country is no cheaper than in many country towns. The majority of agricultural workers no longer live in tied cottages—no doubt they are glad about that—but rural housing has become more expensive in recent years, as the better off from the towns compete with local people in the housing market for the housing that is available.

There are also problems about transport. Poor transport in most country areas forces many families to buy cars, which often they can ill afford, if they are to cope with the isolation that would otherwise be imposed upon them. Incidentally, while on the subject of transport, I must voice what is perhaps a controversial view. I have little sympathy with the anti-bypass protestors. They may be active and engaging young people, but the viewpoint that they represent is essentially a minority one. We have some lovely country towns and villages. The village in which my sister lives was once quiet and peaceful, but no longer. Heavy lorries and traffic thunder through it. As a result, the villagers are desperate to have a bypass and apparently one is to be constructed. We are not speaking about well-to-do people with country mansions. They are ordinary people living in ordinary little houses, often built abutting the road in days when there was little or no traffic. The heavy volume of traffic is now seen as a threat to them and their children, and sometimes to their homes.

Of course, there should be full consultation with local people before heavy road works are commenced. And that usually takes place. The problem is that the people who want bypass roads, which I understand includes the majority of the population in Newbury, very rarely get newspaper coverage because they do not provide sufficient of a story.

Again, I thank my noble friend for providing the opportunity for this debate. The welfare and prosperity of our fellow citizens who live and work in the country should be of importance to us all because ultimately we rely upon them for our own wellbeing.

7.43 p.m.

Viscount Addison

My Lords, I commend the noble Lord, Lord Carter, on introducing the debate and declare an interest as a vice-president of the Council for National Parks.

The national parks of England and Wales cover 10 per cent. of the land area and are places where people have lived and worked for thousands of years. Those beautiful landscapes are the product of mostly benign human interaction and our challenge is to ensure that we hand on to future generations the national parks that we enjoy today.

As living and working landscapes where the quality of the environment is of paramount importance, national parks provide a model for sustainable development. That means balancing the needs of society with the need to sustain the environment. As government advice states (DoE circular 12/96): the qualities for which the parks have been designated are as much the products of man's hand as of nature. It is in the interests of the conservation of those qualities that the National Park Authorities have a duty to work with and for their local communities". The 1991 report of the National Parks Review Panel, chaired by Professor Edwards, found that: human activity, of a sympathetic kind, is a major factor in the achievement of park purposes". Those purposes are conservation and the promotion of their understanding and enjoyment. Yet today proposals for major and damaging development in national parks seem to be justified by the short-term gain in jobs, often only a very few jobs. The economy in national parks needs jobs that sustain the environment. Only those kinds of jobs will sustain the natural resource on which those communities depend. That relationship is recognised by the recently revised Planning Policy Guidance Note No. 7: the appeal of the countryside is central to its economic prosperity, and healthy economic activity in rural areas facilitates investment to protect and improve the countryside". The Council for National Parks has carried out research, using data from the National Office of Statistics, to examine the economy of national parks. The data suggest that national parks have a higher level of economic activity among the male population than other rural areas and the national average. The biggest sector is tourism, which depends on a high quality environment for its viability; then comes the service sector; and agriculture.

The reliance on those sectors suggests that protecting the environment of national parks is a significant factor in protecting the socio-economic well-being of the park communities. One would expect national parks to be disadvantaged by being remote rural areas. But the park authorities play a vital role in supporting tourism and associated local purchasing and employment; and they provide help to secure environmental land management funding and European Objective 5b funding, to which my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth referred. There is even greater potential for such a supportive role, as park authorities now have a duty under the 1995 Environment Act in pursuing their purposes to foster the socio-economic well-being of local communities.

The Government say that national parks are: in a strong position to influence the way we care for our countryside, to be models for the sustainable management of the wider countryside, and to help further general understanding and appreciation of the means by which development and conservation can he better balanced". There are many lessons from national parks from which other rural areas can benefit, not least that it is possible to protect and enhance the environment while securing the vitality of rural communities.

Lastly, I should like to put in a good word for the Post Bus service. The three-cornered co-operation between local government, the Royal Mail and the Rural Development Commission, so ably chaired by my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth, should be highly commended. The Post Bus provides an increasingly important lifeline at affordable cost for the still fit but elderly, who are no longer provided with a user-friendly bus service. I hope that we shall see increasing support for that very worthwhile initiative.

7.48 p.m.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, those who both live and work in the countryside are today a tiny minority, some 3 per cent. of the population. Most of those who live there, like myself, now work in towns and cities. We were told recently that most of the population, given the choice, prefer to live in a country village, which is of course an impossibility. For them, holidays and weekend visits have to make do. But that 3 per cent. of the population are responsible for making and keeping the countryside as it is. They farm it, manage it, care for it and live in it all the year round. They work in it, if they can get work. The rest of us merely enjoy it and enjoy the results of their work. If we are to have a living countryside instead of one which is dying, it must be a working countryside too, not a dormitory and not a rural theme park but a place with affordable homes and suitable jobs for proper pay—a true community for those who live there.

Six minutes is scarcely enough to draw breath on any of the many vital issues that noble Lords have raised this evening. In my six minutes, I shall just touch on three matters.

No matter how many jobs are available, if one cannot get to them, they are no use at all. Yet one quarter of rural homes have no car, and that includes many old people for whom visits to hospital can he a nightmare. Many families have no access to a car during the day and for young people who are not well paid or are on training courses, life can become intolerable and opportunities for future careers simply cannot be taken up.

The rural economy cannot flourish without a properly integrated transport system which serves the needs of that specific rural community. We need a government with the will and determination to see that that happens. If one has a job and can get to it, it is of no use if one has a young family and no help. Only 5 per cent. of rural parishes have any nursery school provision at all; only 4 per cent. have any after-school care. We need a government which have the will to change all that.

As experience shows, it is of little use allowing new developments in rural areas which are unsuitable for the people of that area and their skills. If we do that, people move in from outside to take the jobs or come out from the towns to work there. That leaves the local population as before; that is, unemployed but with roads under more pressure from the increased traffic, house prices still further out of reach, and too often watching the destruction of the most precious and non-renewable resource—the countryside itself.

We need a proper strategy for each area with encouragement to small businesses to invest in suitable projects. Part of that must be a real will and determination on the part of government to reform the common agricultural policy. There must be new incentives to use land in ways which both contribute to the environment and to the rural community.

Perhaps I may raise two matters in relation to jobs, both of them dear to my heart. Many of our most rural areas depend on livestock production. The days of the village slaughterhouse have gone. Two-thirds of our abattoirs have closed in recent years. We now transport live animals for increasing distances to be killed and processed in larger and larger plants, the consequences of which we now hear almost daily in this House. We are not making progress; quite the reverse.

I hope that there will soon come a time when projects like that referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Norrie—the mobile slaughterhall—now operating successfully in Wales as a result of the work of the Humane Slaughter Association, will take off. It will ensure that animals are slaughtered and processed as close as possible to the place of production, with consequent and obvious benefits to both animal welfare and rural jobs.

There are differing views about country sports and this is not the time to debate the merits or the demerits. In the parish in which I live on Exmoor the local hunt is the largest single employer. Sixteen thousand jobs in rural areas are directly dependent on the continuation of hunting, and the same number again indirectly. Many of those people live in tied housing with families, children at local schools and have known no other career. The latest estimate that I have seen only this month indicates that a further 150,000 people are engaged in work or businesses which would be adversely affected by the end of hunting. They include farriers, transporters, saddlers, forage merchants, horse breeders, dealers and fencers. Almost all of those people in rural areas are extremely worried about the future.

My noble friend Lord Carter has done this House a service by introducing this important debate in such a constructive way. Rural communities may be in a minority, but the time has come when their views should be heard above the clamour of urban and suburban views and their needs, so long neglected, met at last.

7.55 p.m.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, in his introduction clearly demonstrated the common strands of thinking throughout this House. The greatest problem for the rural economy is to keep it rural and then to manage it in a sustainable rural environment.

The village is the centre of the rural environment and yet the village is being destroyed by centralised shopping areas—denuding the villages of their shops—and poor rural public transport. The incomer—the noble Baroness may agree with me—does not usually help the situation by trying to import urban standards into the village way of life. They are often at odds with those enjoying countryside pursuits and who live in an essentially different rural environment. So those who choose to move to villages must change their way of life.

We are lucky that the British Field Sports Society has amalgamated with other countryside groups to focus their combined forces on the need to protect and enhance all countryside pursuits. It is those activities which encourage local labour, as the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, said, to stay in the countryside.

The village used to be maintained by the farming community as the major source of employment. What is happening, as has been said, is that modern and intensive farming methods require fewer farm workers. But there is hope yet. The reform of the CAP is at hand. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, mentioned it and my noble friend Lord Selborne spoke with great authority, as he frequently does, not only on the reform of the common agricultural policy but also on the reform of the reform of the common agricultural policy. May that soon happen. There is a great victory to be won at the end of that rainbow. It was the Bard who said, There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune". We can look forward to success when the CAP is reformed.

I have the enormous good fortune to live in a village of 1,500 souls. It was recently upgraded to the unwelcome status of a "major population area". We have a thriving high street of shops to supply every need—even a bootmaker. There are adjoining estates which are large enough to sustain themselves as an entity and employers of considerable importance generating the need for a timber mill, a blacksmith, keepers, water bailiffs and many other services increasingly supplied by the self-employed. It has the good fortune to have a road system which must be the target of every transport planner. The roads are narrow and winding, and can only be used by those with a great determination to reach their destination in our village. Long may it remain so!

In addition, there are two employers in the farm machinery business in the village and a small brewery, which was opened by my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth thanks to the Rural Development Commission. Unfortunately the brewery does not have a pub attached to it, though there are five in the village. We have our own medical and dental centre. So I must confess that we can perhaps survive without too much additional farm labour. But the point is that it is farm labour in general that keeps the rural element in the countryside and creates a cohesive structure in the life of the village.

We need such small centres in the rural environment which support the surrounding catchment area of small hamlets, in a parish which may typically be part of a team ministry covering half a dozen parishes. Those are of vital importance to the countryside that we are all trying to maintain.

That may be at variance to the wishes of the supermarket chains which are rapidly filling the local towns with tempting one-stop shopping. But the geography of the country applies here because those towns are largely relics of coaching days, with stops some 20 to 25 miles apart, and it is in the interstices of the countryside between those centres that village life thrives. That is where the rural environment needs to be cherished as an entity.

In the previous debate today reference was made to the transport infrastructure. That was a point also made by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. We need more smaller forms of transport in local areas, perhaps an enhanced taxi service or a service similar to that of the Royal Mail van.

There was a very rude article in The Times of last Saturday by Simon Jenkins. I shall not quote from it but it went entirely over the top. It was quite unacceptable, but it nevertheless demonstrated a feeling that is growing in contemporary society that the concentration on using pesticides in farming is becoming less and less popular. Noble Lords will perhaps know of my support for organic farming. I believe that the day will come when up to 10 per cent. of arable land in the UK will be farmed by these methods. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, kindly mentioned organic farming. I am grateful to him for that.

It is with such farming methods, among others which noble Lords have mentioned, that the rural economy will thrive, with increased farm labour and less chemical warfare against the very soil which we need to protect and regenerate and which is vital to the self-sustaining environment of the rural economy.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, mentioned the EU. With your Lordships' permission, I wish to draw attention to ECOVAST, the European Council for the Village and Small Town, which has issued a pamphlet entitled A Strategy for Europe. Its purpose is definitive. I ask my noble friend to draw it to the attention of my noble friend Lady Chalker as its work may correspond to the efforts of the ODA and the British Council in promoting the benefits of rural economies in Eastern Europe. In the meantime, I have placed a copy of the report and the strategy document in the Library.

8.1 p.m.

The Earl of Lytton

My Lords, I too pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for introducing this most important subject for debate. I declare several interests. I am a chartered surveyor and a member of the Country Landowners' Association. I also live and work in the countryside and I am a manager of an Exmoor hill farm. It is a matter of pride, in connection with that, that over the past five years both the workforce and the turnover have been increased by around a factor of four. That is purely through the process of diversification—both tourism and running a commercial shoot. I very much relate to what the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, had to say about rural sports. They are an extremely important part of the rural economy. Anyone who suggests that they should be removed needs to put something else in their place.

There are more fundamental problems which I should like to address. They relate to problems of poor integration right the way through our regard for the rural economy. I realise that there are fundamental difficulties in dealing with domestic and EU policy integration in this area, but we need to have balanced policies that keep a proper relationship between urban and rural land. That has been mentioned before and I should like to stress it. The town and country planning regime in particular has a very important role to play. The noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, referred to transport and communications. I agree with him: it took me more than a year to get a clean line through to my farm manager so that I could send and receive faxes. That was not good enough.

What we need above all else is investment and business activity. There needs to be a government steer in all this. We need this particularly through county structure and local planning policies. For years they have said that the economic factors were not the affair of local planners. They are central to the local planning purpose and they have to be fully integrated with that. Beyond that, too many rights are being claimed for the public interest and not enough duties and responsibilities are being accepted by those who claim those rights.

There is a lack of reciprocity in how we look at things. Again, the planning world gives us some examples. On urban fringe degradation, it is all very well calling it a local gap or a green belt. But if it is degraded, it does not matter how good the agriculture land is; it will not be possible to use it for that purpose. That point has to be considered. For years the presence of livestock buildings was not treated as a material factor when planning new residential development of protected buildings. That is improving, but we are still faced with situations where access roads to farms on urban fringe areas are being fettered by housing development, which then means that any diversification is held back by the fact that occupiers do not want lorries rumbling through and do not want extraneous traffic. Those matters have to be looked at in both directions.

We have problems with central policy integration. I have problems with forestry policy on Exmoor. There are problems of open landscapes, with the inference that there should be no tree planting—no conifers because conifers are not wanted in the uplands. There is also the 800 ft. rule. Yet I have ancient conifers, which were planted in the 1840s, that are subject to Section 3 designations under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. We have to see these things in both ways. All those woodlands need investment. They cannot be left just to be some quirky feature on the landscape.

The new Planning Policy Guidance No. 7 has gone into some detail on agricultural permitted development rights but it does not look sufficiently closely at equestrian, sporting, amenity and tourism uses of land, all of which are valid rural activities. Economics is still not being made central to a mixed process. This economic situation is overwhelmingly the engine of rural land use and management. As the co-owner of seven listed buildings in rural areas, I know that they are extremely expensive to maintain and that the money for that does not grow on trees.

Many localities are more viable and valuable for almost anything other than agriculture and forestry. We ignore that at our peril. Land has to be valuable for the purposes for which society wants it managed. If it is not valuable for that purpose, society will be whistling into the wind for delivery. We need the equation of landscape value versus critically poor land-use returns to be squared and resolved. The equation of costs of good environmental management in areas of low rural returns is related to that. There are also compliance costs versus the vulnerability of the management systems that have been traditionally in place.

We have had abandonment, fragmentation and rural disinvestment before—Wales in recent memory and England in the period from 1870 to 1939. I would say to the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, that hill farming is certainly not one of the profitable sectors of the agricultural economy. The rural economy has to be a viable, free-standing business sector. It is not to be a charity-aided dependency of the nation. It cannot survive in that way. It requires long-term investment.

I should like to pose a few possible solutions. We need to add value, which has been mentioned by several noble Lords. We need to repatriate parts of the food industry and the timber processing industry to rural areas. We need to simplify the tax treatment, which was referred to by my noble kinsman Lord Cobbold. I very much relate to that. We need a bottom-up approach, where land managers are part and parcel of the policy formulation and can put in their halfpenny worth as investors in production and people. We need less dictating by government and, more particularly, a reduction perhaps in the nine central government agencies that are even now still referred to in Planning Policy Guidance No. 7.

8.8 p.m.

Lord Grantchester

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Carter for initiating the debate on this aspect of the economy, which is of particular interest to me as a farmer in Cheshire.

The rural economy is not separate from the national economy but an integral part of it. There are, however, some features which require that policies for a predominantly urban environment need to be tailored differently if they are to be successful. Rural areas have certain similarities even though they are diverse in nature. These range from the remoteness of the hills, through the intensities of market gardening, to the vagaries of fishing.

It is worth noting that 23 per cent. of the nation's population live in rural areas. The disposable income of these areas is generally less the further they are from the south-east. Disposable income in the south-east is generally 110 per cent. of the national average, while in Scotland it is 96 per cent., in the north of England 93 per cent., Wales 90 per cent. and Northern Ireland 88 per cent. This economic pull towards the south-east will put rural areas under downwardly spiralling pressure as regards employment and income—that is, unless regeneration, re-investment and development policies are consistently maintained.

The rural economy's problems are highlighted by agriculture. As with any other industry, the expectation is of increasing efficiency, producing more healthy food at cheaper prices. At the same time, farmers are expected to show responsibility for the stewardship of the countryside. We have moved from an era of production, as portrayed by "Food from our own Resources" of 20 years ago, to the sentiments expressed in the 1995 rural White Paper of sustainability, subsidiarity and self-help.

Sustainability in this context is the balance between development and diversification, tempered with the desire not to destroy the inherent character of the landscape. Yet there is a long-term exodus of employment from agriculture. Professor John Marsh of Reading University calculates that agriculture and horticulture contribute only 1.5 per cent. to gross domestic product. Nevertheless, the economic importance, as confirmed by the BSE crisis, extends beyond this contribution both downstream to food manufacturers, processors, retailers, florists, hauliers and the timber industry and upstream to the agrichemical, engineering and feedstuff industries.

Agriculture must remain the focus of countryside policy. The Government must commit themselves to a strategy of developing a thriving farming community. Significant changes to the common agricultural policy are in sight and Britain must not stand on the sidelines, as it does under the present Government, when changes are proposed. Policies must reflect market realities.

Although various models of reform have been proposed, the direction of the reforms seem set to reduce prices and place greater emphasis on social and environmental policies. A reduction in prices will steer agriculture to ever more efficient production, capable of competing, without support, in world markets.

However, areas which cannot produce profitably will become uneconomic. Support payments will need to be structured on an area basis de-coupled from production. The alternative of income support is helpful in any transitionary period, although it must be realised that financial support for the farmer does little for support for the farm worker, as my noble friend Lady Turner has highlighted.

If re-structuring is to succeed, a genuine open single market within the EU must be created, with effective enforcement and fair competition. Farmers are exhorted to survive on world prices for their produce. Yet each trading bloc, and, indeed, often each country, finds ways of supporting its farmers such that the world price is largely a dumping price.

With the long-term agricultural restructuring into fewer, larger holdings, and the consequential thinning of the workforce, strategic development of an integrated rural economy becomes ever more necessary. The shedding of jobs must coincide with new business opportunities. People living in rural areas must have the same access to training, jobs and services as people living in urban areas. Policies on training, public access and recreation need to be made relevant to their needs, rather than the town migrant.

Encouraging out-of-town developments on greenfield sites, characterised by the growth of supermarkets, has had a disastrous impact on small towns. The belief is that this will bring employment to the area. Instead, the life of rural towns has been sucked dry when developments take place on their doorsteps. Village communities often mask unemployment as the workforce becomes so-called self-employed, part-time, odd-jobbers.

We must commit resources for training to enable the rural workforce to adapt to the diversifying economy of the countryside. The present Government are reluctant to do anything, but I think we can say with confidence that after 1st May the people will elect one which will. The adequacy of the training and enterprise councils and Business Links in meeting rural needs must be reviewed.

Simply promoting development in rural areas and freeing up more land for development will not produce benefits for those most in need. Development needs to be based on a better understanding of local constraints and opportunities. All rural policies should have the protection and enhancement of the quality of the rural environment at their heart. This is imperative if rural communities are to continue to thrive.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, we have passed the gap on the speaker's list and this debate is coming to an end. We have had a very good debate. We are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for initiating it. The debate has produced all the usual suspects, one might say, and I amused myself at the beginning by writing down one topic which I knew each speaker in turn would produce. For instance, it does not need a great deal of deduction to deduce that organic farming would be mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam; that hunting would be mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and the way in which landowners have been done down by bureaucrats would be mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. But all these aspects were parts of longer speeches which were unfortunately not long enough, but which have contributed a great deal to the subject.

The importance of Britain's rural economy cannot be over-emphasised. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, quoted some figures about how small the farming side of it is, and she is right. She went on to quote figures for employment in the hunting industry which made me think that almost everyone in the countryside must be in that industry.

The rural population of Britain is a very large part of our national life. The Countryside Business Group has produced a report, The Economic Significance of the British Countryside, by Professor Diamond and Dr. Richardson of the London School of Economics. It indicates that the rural areas of Britain comprise about 20 million people, which is about 35 per cent. of the total population. There are 6.5 million people employed in rural areas, which is about 30 per cent. of national employment. That is a very large part of our economy and our national life and it is a very good thing.

There are a great many things that we need to do and a great many changes that we wish to see. The reform of the CAP is something which almost goes without saying now when anyone talks about agriculture or the countryside. We on these Benches certainly subscribe to the view that the CAP must be reformed. But we should not forget that the common agricultural policy has virtually saved rural western Europe because without it there would not have been nearly as much real countryside in Germany, France, Italy and in this country as there is now. We should be grateful for that.

We should also be very careful before we say that we must not repopulate the countryside. During the past 150 years we have been depopulating it, so repopulating it will be something of a strain for everyone concerned. It is quite true that incomers can upset the status quo, but there must be a balance and people must learn that both sides must show tolerance to each other. Nevertheless, we want people in the countryside to revivify its whole economy. The noble Lord, Lord Shuttleworth, was one of those who said exactly that.

But there are a number of people, including those who are the pillars of the national parks, who seem to be resistant to the suggestion that we should repopulate the countryside. I am quite sure that we should do that if we are to have a healthy rural life and be able to produce the kind of services which people living in the countryside are entitled to ask for in a modern economy.

It is sad that the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, is not here to speak for the Council for the Protection of Rural England. It is also sad that a Bishop did not speak. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark does not represent the most appropriate see to speak about this matter, although it does extend to rural areas south of London, but we would have appreciated a contribution. Some have spoken about the importance of the work of the parish priests in the countryside and how very thinly spread they are at the moment.

My noble friend Lord Mar and Kellie spoke about tax breaks for those living in remote rural areas. I believe that that should be considered because although everyone tends to think that it is cheap to live in the countryside it is not—and the more remote the area in which one lives, the more expensive it is. I was delighted to hear that my noble friend was going to grow bulbs in his part of the world. At the moment I get my snowdrops from the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, who brings them to the House. I look forward to competition from my noble friend.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, spoke about democracy. That is tremendously important. We want fewer quangos but much more elected democracy with devolved powers and a real ability to act.

The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, referred to the unions. My father's father sat on the Liberal Benches in another place. He was a friend of Joseph Arch and a real supporter of his work in those early days of the agricultural trade unions.

We need more small businesses in the countryside. We have been told that the days of the British slaughterhouse have gone. That may be so, but I was interested to hear the suggestions about travelling slaughterhouses. What are certainly needed are user-friendly slaughterhouses—if that is not a contradiction in terms—

Noble Lords

It is!

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

No, I do not think that it is. I must not boast, but I was reading Kierkegaard this afternoon. He compared the deaths of Socrates and Jesus. One could say that Socrates had a very quiet and user-friendly death. What we should give the animals for which we care, but which we eat, is a user-friendly death.

As far as possible, we must build new houses on brownfield sites. I always think that that is a most unfortunate expression. Presumably "brown" land is the best arable land that one has just ploughed up. Anyway, we know what it means as opposed to what is meant by "greenfield" land. I think that we should build more and more on the "windfall sites" which appear from time to time in built-up areas.

We want lower chemical and energy use. We want to cash in on sun, water and wind energy. We want to build up town centres in the urban areas of our countryside. We want to preserve the country farm estates and to encourage small farmers wherever possible. It is good that this Session we have been able to support crofters in legislation. It is good to know that there is a waiting list of people who want crofts. That is extremely healthy. We must encourage local public transport initiatives. We must try to keep our village schools by the use of imaginative co-ordination, as happens in Dorset. If we are to make more houses available, I think that we should have full taxation—not extra taxation, but full taxation—of second homes. We must encourage rural business units.

Overall, in this overcrowded island, the problems caused by overcrowding could be helped if we were better to balance out the population of our island between the cities and the countryside. The noble Lord, Lord Norrie, hinted that with regard to the treatment of the countryside the prospect of a Labour government did not fill him with an immense amount of confidence. I hope that a Labour government will treat the countryside well. On the evidence of what has been said today by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and others on the Opposition Benches, that will indeed be the case. One thing I can pledge absolutely is that the Liberal Democrat Party, in so far as it has any influence at all, will use it in support of the countryside.

8.25 p.m.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, as regards the common agricultural policy, I want to say only that such acquaintance as I have with the CAP convinces me that radical change will come only from external pressure and that it is unlikely to come from internal agreement.

Despite the United Kingdom's success in farming, partly due to our larger farms, as has been pointed out the farm labour force is still slowly declining, especially in terms of full-time workers. That adds to the rural problems on which so many noble Lords have touched. Environmental issues have never been more significant in the countryside. The CAP has responded, but not always to the satisfaction of all. Many CAP environmental projects are now co-funded; for example, the farm woodland premium scheme, introduced in 1988 to counter growing agricultural surpluses, is 50 per cent. funded by Brussels and now totals some 48,000 hectares in the UK. That benefits the landscape and wildlife.

Planning matters have a major influence on the rural economy. Planning Policy Guide No. 7 is now in place and is supportive of rural enterprise. However, the way in which it is interpreted will be a key factor for applicants. The new dimension in planning matters will flow from local government structural changes, such as the creation of the new unitary authorities. Those changes appear to have a random element; for example, ranging from no change, to the abolition of one county council, with the selective granting of unitary status to local authorities which will co-exist with county councils as did the former county boroughs. Time will tell whether those changes will improve matters. The role of county councils in local government is relatively unexplored territory, yet they seem well fitted to take an overview of environmental matters for areas as a whole.

Rural housing still presents major problems, especially in the rented sector. How will housing associations decide priorities in the light of the restrictions on expenditure? The Housing Corporation is also subject to strict budgetary limitations. New housing targets thus fall seriously short of need—and rural housing could lose out. A diminished role for local authorities as house providers seems especially regrettable in rural areas. Local authorities are good at land acquisition and some have capital receipts available from the sale of housing stocks. Pressures to concentrate housing development on brown sites and inner-town areas is strong, but rural economic development needs affordable rented housing. The Rural Development Commission continues to do a good job, but needs new partners, especially following the expense of winding up its advisory services for small businesses.

Tough times are ahead for village shops and relief for non-domestic rates cannot come soon enough. General stores and post offices in rural settlements may be relieved of 50 per cent. of the amount otherwise payable in rates. Discretion is also to be given to billing authorities to relieve stores and post offices of the full amount, as well as other businesses in rural settlements, the purposes of which appear to the billing authorities to benefit the local community.

That opens the door to experiments with the establishment of community co-operatives. Expertise in that important area is available from the United Kingdom Co-operative Council. The Rural Development Commission must surely invite the United Kingdom Co-operative Council to attempt the formation of two or three community co-operatives. The beauty of that idea is that, if successful, it can be imitated by others. That happened in Rochdale in 1844 and could happen again today in suitable rural communities. A modest start could and should be made. Just think of the range of top level experience which the United Kingdom Co-operative Council can deploy in retailing, credit unions, housing, workers' co-operatives, banking, insurance, agriculture, fishing and building—"infinity" is the word here.

Much of the current bus service owes its existence and continuance to subsidy from local authorities. This applies in both town and country. Cash-strapped local authorities are now obliged to look hard and selectively at bus subsidies. Any reduction in rural timetables will seriously affect the quality of life for a vulnerable body of essential users who are unable to afford private cars. Post bus services have increased and further expansion is proposed by the Rural Development Commission. We strongly support it. However, are there no other sources worthy of examination? For example, are school buses always full? Their departure and return times on weekdays would benefit the elderly. A system of payment by tokens to be purchased at the village shop would eliminate delays in taking cash and giving change. To the best of my recollection, the daily pinta was traded on the basis of tokens quite successfully for many years. Some major city bus services now also use tokens to avoid delaying drivers. A successful community co-operative, perhaps with local authority assistance, might run small buses of the kind that some schools and other institutions now operate for leisure uses.

The Republic of Ireland has been a major beneficiary of European Union membership. Apart from giving it the status of membership of an economic group of world standing, the flow of Community cash to Dublin has played a large part in transforming life in both town and countryside. The blue flag with 12 stars flies happily alongside the green, white and gold. A journey any day along our own M.20 is replete with lorries bearing Irish names and addresses. Despite all this, Irish rural areas are also threatened with depopulation, mostly by the young, leading to decline. I read that village life in Ireland is being partly revived by the limited provision of rural housing for skilled unemployed men and their families who are currently living in urban areas but who are without housing there. In some cases village school closures have been avoided by such transference. As always, the scale is modest but worthy of study.

The partnership role of the European Union in such matters is of increasing importance to the rural economy. Tonight's debate has been useful, but action is needed. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in reply to the many comments that have been made in this constructive discussion this evening.

8.32 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for having introduced this debate today. It is a debate about a very important matter. True to form, your Lordships have presented views in a way that one would expect, views full of knowledge and interest. The countryside covers more than 75 per cent. of England in land terms and about 20 per cent. of the population live in it. What happens to the countryside and its economy is very important.

Various noble Lords have made a number of points. I do not guarantee to answer all of them this evening. I shall do my best to answer as many as I can. I was slightly amused by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold. He made a number of comments and then decided to address questions to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, because he thought that his party might be in government in two months' time. I thought that if he addressed his questions to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, there was no point in my replying. I had always thought the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, a sensible and intelligent person but, my goodness, he is misguided and this evening has shown the weakness of his cranium. I can assure him that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and his party will not be in government in two months' time.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

Do you want to bet?

Earl Ferrers

The noble Lord opposite, the Chief Whip, loves making interjections from a sedentary position. I am not going to bet. It would be quite inappropriate for me to take a bet from the noble Lord across the Dispatch Box. That puts the noble Lord in his place. Fortunately, we have avoided a lot of the jargon, except for the contribution of my noble friend Lord Selborne. I thought that my noble friend would do better. He referred to a top-down approach. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, referred to a bottom-up approach. Both expressions are absolutely dreadful. If anyone wants to reform the CAP he can start on the language. People use such absurd language and believe that they are very smart and that everyone knows what they are talking about. A short while ago I went to Cork to attend the conference to which the noble Lord, Lord Carter, referred. Somebody there referred to the need for "more interactivity across trans-sectoral boundaries". I have always believed it childish to talk like that. I have now got it off my chest. Although I did not expect to say it to my noble friend Lord Selborne and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, I have said it to both of them. I hope that we will not hear such expressions again.

The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, also made a mistake. He does not usually make mistakes. He said that a brownfield site was land that had just been ploughed up. As a matter of fact, he is wrong. He does not know what it is. A brownfield site is recycled rural or urban land.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, that was the very point I made. The noble Earl misquotes me. I said that brownfield land was misdescribed and could be viewed as arable land. I knew perfectly well, as I thought I made clear, that brownfield land is exactly as the noble Earl has said.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, in that case I apologise fully and profusely for misdirecting your Lordships as to what the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, said. I thought that he had said what I said he had said.

The countryside and the people who live in it have seen the most enormous changes over the past few years or so. Traditional rural industries such as forestry and agriculture are no longer the mainstay of the economy of the countryside. Some industries like mining have declined; others such as light industry and small businesses have developed. Computers and faxes have enabled work that could previously be done only in towns to be done in the countryside. Various noble Lords have referred to that. Only a short while ago I visited a village hall that had been given help for rehabilitation by my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth's Rural Development Commission. I asked the chairman what he did. He said that he was a German technical translator. When I asked what on earth he meant by that, he said that he translated technical journals from German into English and from English into German, and he did it all by faxes and computers. His job was right in the heart of rural Suffolk. That demonstrates how that kind of activity is taking place more and more in the countryside.

I saw another small business which was also assisted by the Rural Development Commission. It was an old pigsty that had been modernised and turned into a mail order business concerned with horse food supplements. It was doing colossal business all over the world and providing employment to the rural community. All of that is good.

In recent years rural enterprise has performed better than enterprise in urban areas. In general, the countryside has enjoyed higher growth than urban areas with lower levels of unemployment. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, said that unemployment in rural areas was greater than in urban areas. With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, that is not true. The number of economically active people in rural areas increased by 122,000 between the summer of 1992 and the summer of 1996, compared with a net increase in all of England of only 109,000. Economic activity is higher in rural areas than in England as a whole—82 per cent. in rural areas compared with 79.6 per cent. in England as a whole. So employment-wise, oddly enough—I agree that one would not expect it—rural parts of the country have been doing better than urban parts.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, was concerned about unemployment in Wales. With his great knowledge of Wales, I take note of what he said. I am not sure how the figures in Wales compare with those in the rest of the UK. Both the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, referred to affordable housing. The Government have recognised that there are special needs in rural areas for affordable housing. We have made various arrangements. There is an exceptions policy which allows planning permission for social housing on land which would not normally be given development approval. The Housing Corporation's rural programme targets small communities. Between 1989–90 and 1995–96 over 12,000 new rural social homes were approved. Small rural settlements will be exempted from the purchase grant scheme giving housing association tenants the right to buy. So those are all the things that are being done from the point of view of affordable housing.

Again, I shall take note of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, about the particular problems experienced by the housing market in Wales, resulting from holiday homes and second homes, and his concerns about health services. I shall certainly draw them to the attention of my ministerial colleagues who have responsibility for Wales.

Some areas are experiencing major changes in the economic sectors upon which they have previously relied heavily. The published unemployment figures can, as my noble friend Lord Shuttleworth suggested, disguise local pockets of high unemployment as well as problems of part-time employment and low rates of seasonal work.

The beauty of the countryside and all that lives and moves within it is important to everyone, both urban and rural dwellers alike. That is why we published the White Paper in 1995 entitled Rural England—A nation committed to a living countryside. It was a comprehensive review of the countryside, the like of which had never been undertaken before. It tried to depict but not to dictate the way in which the countryside was likely to go. It was a major work. It was well received. I am glad to say that I see the noble Lord, Lord Carter, nodding assent. I think that he agrees with me. It was a very much better document than the one the Labour Party produced, but that is to be expected. It re-emphasised—we must never forget this—that the countryside is and always has been a place of work. That is what the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, said. She said that it must not be a dormitory; it must be a place of work. She said that it must not be a theme park. She is right. She always makes the most fascinating of speeches. I was glad to hear her stand up for the right of rural needs and views to be heard. I was glad to hear her support of fox hunting. She said that 16,000 jobs are created in it and 150,000 other jobs depend upon it.

Those jobs are carried out by good, respectable, honest people. It is good, respectable work, and, as such, the noble Baroness was right to draw attention to the fact that if hunting and what happens on grouse moors in Yorkshire and Scotland were to go, that would have a great impact on employment in the countryside. The only thing I found surprising about her speech was her conclusion when she said, "What we want is a government to change all that". She was probably referring to another part of her speech, but she was misguided in that respect and I think she was misguided—if I may say so—in the totality as well.

The White Paper proposed some direct government action including that relating to village shops. One sad fact is that the motor car tends to draw people away from villages to do their shopping in towns, and that has resulted in the loss of the village shop which, apart from its function as a purveyor of goods, is an important social centre. It is in order to encourage the continuation of a village shop that in the Local Government and Rating Bill we are introducing a 50 per cent. relief for single village shops in settlements of fewer than 3,000 people.

Indeed today I went to present a Calor Gas Rural Sponsorship Award which recognised the huge input of voluntary work into the countryside. Indeed, one of the awards I gave was to an organisation which was actually campaigning against the Government and planning and development. So noble Lords can see that we are very broadminded and we give people awards for campaigning against the Government. It went to that particular person, but I can assure noble Lords opposite that it would not go to them. They will have to do a lot better before they can get an award.

The noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, showed—if I might say so—shadows of old Labour, but she was so right about the protestors. Of course bypasses are necessary. She described where her sister lives with all the vehicles rumbling through. Of course those places need bypasses. They are wanted by some and not wanted by others. There is a proper democratic process which should be gone through. When that has been gone through, it is right that the conclusion is pursued properly. Those people who disrupt such processes think that they are doing so for democratic reasons. They are not doing it for democratic reasons at all. It is entirely selfish and causes enormous expense. It disregards the democratic process and creates huge problems for the police and huge expense for the people in the locality. There is nothing to praise such people about for that.

The role of British farming as a direct employer in the countryside may be diminishing; nevertheless, it is a highly successful industry upon which many depend—consumers, food processors, suppliers of agricultural machinery and equipment, and others. I was concerned that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden—here we go again—said that there should be a national minimum wage. Well, that would put the frighteners on anyone. I hope that noble Lords will not do that. The party opposite says very little about what it is going to do, but occasionally little bits of iceberg appear from out of the water. They cover a huge great iceberg underneath. I can assure noble Lords that as the general election draws near we shall expose what is underneath the iceberg a little more than has been done so far. When the noble Lord says things like that, it puts the wind up me as it does anyone else who thinks about these things.

Any reform of the CAP must take account of the fact that agriculture is important. We need a CAP which ensures that agriculture in member states will be competitive in world markets. The CAP was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, my noble friend Lord Selborne and the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, who was concerned to see the CAP change. I agree with much of what he said other than his remark that this Government are doing nothing and we must wait for the next government after May to do something about it. I am bound to say that the noble Lord is totally wrong over that because it is this Government who have been pursuing changes in the CAP time and time again year after year and trying to encourage our partners to do so.

For the past 23 years we have played a leading role in the Agriculture Council, invariably seeking constructive solutions to the many problems which arise. If, in his wildest dreams, the noble Lord thinks he may be on this side of the House shortly—it may be a dream to him but it is a nightmare to others—I can assure him his real problem will be trying to get his European partners to change. However, I agree with him that we should decouple from the price support mechanisms the cash that is required for social needs in the less favoured areas.

It is worth thinking about what will happen in the next few years. In 1960 there were 3,000 million people in the world. There are now 6,000 million. In another 25 years, the number will have doubled to 12,000 million. All those people will have to have food, water and houses and will have to be clothed and have jobs to do. Furthermore, we must preserve the countryside, the bugs, the beetles, sites of special scientific interest, the rain forests, the jungles and so forth. The pressures on the environment will be colossal. I respect the desire of my noble friend Lord Clanwilliam for organic farming and say to him only that of course it has a place in the totality of things. However, he must consider how it will fit in with those alarming figures.

The CAP must encompass not only agriculture but also the economic and environmental needs of rural areas. I attended the conference referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, at which there was a declaration covering a reformed, simplified, more decentralised CAP. We are a long way from having that accepted by Europe as a whole, but it reflected the Government's views.

The diversification of businesses in rural areas means that the countryside is less vulnerable to changes which might affect one particular sector. The noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, referred to the need for infrastructure development in Scottish rural areas. A Scottish Rural Partnership Fund came into effect on 1st April 1996 with £4.2 million for 1997–98, £1.5 million of which is new money. Furthermore, £1.2 million is offered as challenge funding to support innovative projects drawn by local people which find new ways to tackle particular local problems, and £500,000 of the fund is available to local partnerships.

The noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, referred to the taxation of rural business. That is a matter for Treasury Ministers. I understand that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury wrote to the Country Landowners' Association on 22nd November explaining why this is a matter of fundamental tax policy and that so long as the rural business unit concept envisages landlords of rural estates receiving more generous tax treatment than other landlords, the message from the Treasury will be likely to remain in the negative.

The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, referred to the closure of village schools. The number of closures of small village schools has been of concern to many people. The Secretary of State for Education, while pressing education authorities to be cost effective, accepts the need to preserve the accessibility of schooling for young children.

There are many other matters upon which I should have liked to divest my views, but time runs against us all. I merely thank the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for having introduced the debate, giving your Lordships time to discuss the matter. Perhaps I may tell him not to get too excited because he has a long, long way to go.

8.53 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. As always, they have clearly demonstrated the range of expertise and experience of countryside matters which your Lordships' House possesses.

All speakers, perhaps with the exception of the Minister, largely avoided polemics. I shall be charitable and presume that the noble Earl knows something that we do not know about the date of the election. Apart from the polemics, I greatly enjoyed the noble Earl's contribution. I could not help reflecting that if he was like that before he had his dinner I was jolly glad that he was not winding up after a convivial evening.

I repeat my thanks to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.