HL Deb 15 October 1997 vol 582 cc446-86

3.40 p.m.

The Earl of Lytton rose to call attention to land use in the countryside and to the demands placed on it by society; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, in moving this Motion, I am mindful that in March of this year the House debated the rural economy. I follow that with a related topic: land use in the countryside. I welcome the large number of distinguished speakers who have chosen to take part today. I look forward particularly to the contributions of the maiden speakers. I am delighted that they have chosen this day to make their debut.

I declare an interest as a co-owner of a hill farm high in the Exmoor National Park and of some mainly wooded and pretty soggy acres in the low Weald of Sussex. Therefore I come from the traditions of extensive livestock husbandry, not intensive agribusiness. I am a practising chartered surveyor and a member of the Country Landowners' Association. I have a special interest in rural land use management but my views are those of a private sector land manager and are essentially my own.

The saying goes, "Live your life as if you would die tomorrow but farm your land as if you would live for ever". At the heart of this is a social responsibility. It is on this aspect that I intend to start and finish in this debate. Land uses have shaped the countryside mainly by farming and by forestry. Of course land use in the past, particularly pre-war, was extremely diverse. But that turned into an imperative to grow two blades of grass where one grew before. Now the view is that much of the countryside is more valuable for other uses and methods of husbandry are coming under critical scrutiny. One of the biggest land use issues is the rural share of the 4.4 million households projected by the year 2016.

Most land is under private management but the process is immensely more complex than for previous generations requiring new skills not easily learnt or taught. Environmental and public amenity factors have been added to the fiscal and regulatory challenges of the past. Unless a land manager is in the business to make a profit he will almost certainly go under. Production support after the war, the CAP and the fiscal regime did much more than change techniques of husbandry; they altered the culture of land use, shifted the capital base and revised the entire rationale of the management process. It is not surprising that something started in wartime and continued thereafter for 40 years will take some time, perhaps even a generation, to refocus.

Society is questioning the old order and I question it too. What is being asked of land managers has changed and the practical and business environment has been substantially and irreversibly altered. A simple comparison of land value and the extraordinarily low returns achievable from its use compared with any other business shows us how far this has gone. In the uplands, where my chief interests lie—leaving land value aside—it is frequently not possible to make a profit on the cash account alone without grants and subsidies. That is clearly a questionable basis for a business and for the environment in the longer term. I recall that I sold my single Buckler beef herd and its quota some months before the BSE crisis, not because I had any premonitions but because they simply could not be made to balance the books.

Some land managers—and I am one—try to diversify to augment their income but the opportunities are woefully limited and sometimes involve specific requirements. Few schemes succeed in tapping the public interest and public demand for facilities in the countryside. When they do that tends to be for tourism. The problem with that is that the season may be short, competition with foreign holidays fierce and the risks are accordingly high. At the same time public perceptions of what is valuable in the countryside result in closer scrutiny of what goes on there. But critically, conservation and recreational factors may produce no land use benefits. They may not even relate to legal ownership. Woodland plots for leisure rather than silviculture and pasture for amenity and horses are increasingly common phenomena.

Too much has changed to turn the clock back to an age of low input, low output farming, and I should know. The countryside is in play as a commodity. Everyone is now expecting the CAP to change but without an agreed policy to supplant the current and admittedly flawed system. In this vacuum land management philosophies have become a good deal less cohesive. It is easy to destroy land use utility but much harder to recreate it. Land managers are understandably a little confused. Doubt represents cost and risk and affects management and land use. The response becomes more short term and tends to be opportunistic. Where fragmentation of farms and estates results, they frequently default to high value second or retirement homes with a few acres and capital starved ranch land beyond. Therefore the entire level of expectations within society as a whole and among land managers in particular has shifted.

The rights of ownership from which much management control derives its authority are said to be a social construct. However, it is worth remembering that social realignment may itself lead to conditions in which management and resultant land use alter and often in imperceptible ways over many years. Short-term measures, sometimes in response to public opinion, can conflict with the need for longer term strategies. Indeed, despite the interest in the countryside there is a real gap in the understanding of rural land use and its management by the majority of the nation who do not live there. This situation leads to incompatible objectives. If environmental works have no benefit for the land manager, he needs other means to fund them. If he is strapped for resources, even a 60 per cent. grant still leaves him 40 per cent. short. If the only way to get grant aid is by long-term commitment through a management plan of questionable profitability, that may have the same effect as no grant at all. Unprofitable habitat management, especially where bank managers are involved, makes little sense.

Old hazel coppice in my part of Sussex has value for dormice, but save for small-scale schemes, it has little economic use. I calculate that it costs between £800 and £900 per acre to rejuvenate. Grants of up to 50 per cent. can be obtained when there is some money in the kitty. But spending say £450 an acre to maintain land worth £1,200 an acre with no prospect of return is an elegant way of "going bust". Of course some of us like a challenge but that is not a sustainable way of dealing with the matter on a wider scale. It is little wonder that such woodlands lack management. Despite all that I am encouraged by the great amount of work that is being done in the countryside in these difficult-to-manage areas.

Similar considerations may apply to the regulation of protected areas. On Exmoor I have heather moorland, improved pasture and other bits and pieces of woodland in a site of special scientific interest. However, according to my calculations, there are six other designations which all affect my land and which all have different emphasis. Consultation is longwinded and tortuous to say the least. On occasions I have missed windows of opportunity altogether. The rules change fairly frequently making forward planning pretty difficult. The regulators—I make no particular criticism here—tend to lack knowledge of land use. The administrative cost to me is high. That is a disincentive because there is no end to it all. It is no good taking away control by designation and then wondering why management falls off.

It is not possible to democratise land use in the sense of undertaking consultation at every turn. Public debate at national level needs to set the cultural filters and philosophies. That is fine, as is an expression of broad local preferences, but this must be followed by executive decisions and good relevant advice if land managers are to be guided effectively. This gets more pressing the more the regulatory process bites into daily land management.

Official bodies have grown up to deal with specific problem areas but it is apparent that many of their tasks overlap—I suggest to the point of unnecessary duplication in some instances. The regulatory process appears heavily fragmented in a number of instances. The approach tends to be prescription rather than targets. When targets are set the means are all too often methodological standardisation. Of course that leads to arguments about the best way forward. There is a real need for a new approach. The present process is inefficient and gives the impression that the regulatory agencies hold no real authority to deal with the matters under their control and that the public interest speaks with many and often discordant voices.

I think that the number of bodies claiming to represent the public interest, in particular with regard to the proportion of annual budgets devoted to administration, needs looking at. Despite the valiant efforts of the staff of your Lordships' Library, to whom I am most grateful, it is almost impossible to identify the element devoted to administration. The indications are that the costs are well in excess of the amount acceptable in a well run charity. The matter should be looked into.

No one is guaranteed a living; but value for the purposes of publicly acceptable land use could be added to holdings. Land managers need to be able to capture some of those values which society places on the use and management of land. High grade land may always be profitable; and land with higher amenity value, such as the uplands, may always have a command for special assistance. However, mediocre land in between—and there is a lot of it—is susceptible to reductions in product support and grant, with precious few alternative uses. Therefore there are real risks of land use change, disinvestment and rural deprivation.

There needs to be a better understanding between consumer and producer. The consumer is entitled to environmentally acceptable methods of production, but he has to show commitment by purchasing a product so produced. Unfortunately this simply does not happen. As consumers we cannot go on asking the impossible, compromising the countryside use and expect no change in land use.

Public access to the countryside—I promised the Minister that I would not make an issue of this—is a huge asset. It creates business for the makers of maps and hiking boots but is seldom a resource to the land manager; sometimes quite the converse. The same applies to a view, a place to picnic, to paddle in streams, and so on. Many land managers provide access free, but beyond a certain level it represents a cost and a risk. I await with interest to see how the responsibilities on users will be imposed under a statutory right of open access. I think that enforcing it will be a difficult task. It is that which would worry me rather than the principle of open access.

On urban fringes, there are impediments to husbandry because of levels of access. I refer in particular to dogs, vandalism, and so on. Not unnaturally, land use and general amenity suffer. Woodland buffer strips may be preferred but they result in loss of views, landscape change and perhaps cover for fly tippers. Risks have to be shouldered in respect of that. It is almost impossible for private sector managers to police and manage those areas effectively. I noted today that Dr. Miriam Rothschild confirmed that lack of appropriate management is one of the most significant causes of ecological and environmental loss. That has to be considered in the context of lack of management, and the inability to manage the land because there are no means and resources to do so. Simply tightening the regulatory framework misses the target. Part of my land is so full of ticks that grazing is limited. An imposed grazing regime may fail if the livestock simply will not eat what is on the ground.

I invite the Government to take a new initiative. A cohesive domestic rural policy is needed without having to wait for the rest of Europe. The culture of taxation of rural business needs fresh consideration so that multipurpose long term land use is encouraged, not discouraged. Hedges and habitats could be made assets to the land manager. As matters stand, environmental works do not even rank as farming for tax purposes. In short, we need to make public objectives of land use valuable in the hands of managers. Some holdings will have to diversify. Planning officers and governments issuing guidance need to be positive about changes, including rural housing and diversified activities.

There have been failures in both the public and the private sectors. I recall policies which involved grants for preserving hedges while at the same time assisting their grubbing out. That was not many years ago. Land managers may have sinned but I suspect that it is mostly in pursuit of Government and EU policy. Re-education all round is needed; but it also needs motivation with relevant and accessible training.

Partnership is a current buzz word. All I will say is that partners share costs, risks and investment culture. They have compatible and transparent agendas. And I have a word about management plans. Often those have different meanings for different people. They should never be compulsory, even less the sole means of providing incentives or grants. They should be kept simple, cost effective and flexible. Whole farm plans should not represent an entry ticket for gaining planning consent.

Despite those concerns, I am positive about the future. The problems can be overcome and land managers have had to become enormously flexible in their approach. But the right signals need to be given. That has not always been the case in the past. A new long-term strategy is needed especially for those areas where farming will never make money, or where land use is controlled on environmental grounds.

If collectively land managers and government on behalf of society can formulate common aims and objectives for the future of the countryside, I believe that the latent expertise of managers will deliver results. To adapt a quote from Errol Flynn, we all need to, reconcile our gross habits with our net income". I beg to move for Papers.

3.55 p.m.

Lord De Ramsey

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, for instigating this short debate on land use in the countryside for two reasons: first, because the European Commission has this year issued its paper entitled Agenda 2000 on the reform of the common agricultural policy; and, secondly, because it gives me the opportunity to make a speech on one of the few subjects about which I know anything.

I have to declare an interest. My family have lived and farmed at Ramsey on the edge of the Fens for over 200 years. Our land is mostly below sea level, which is inclined to concentrate the mind. Ramsey men and women have been forced by their geographical situation to concentrate on survival. It is therefore probably no surprise that when I started farming there was an advertisement in the Ramsey Post which read, "Ramsey man seeks wife with tractor—please send photograph of tractor". But Ramsey is no exception. The British countryside has always had to survive by change although I expect many people would be surprised if they could be shown how much Bronze Age man altered the wilderness and how agricultural it was even in those days.

Most of the changes have been gradual. The violent depopulation of the countryside by the Black Death was not equalled until the 1880s when a combination of bad summers and imported grain from the opening up of the middle west brought dereliction on a scale that was not seen again until the depression of the 1930s. We saw then the effect of dereliction on the countryside; and we know that we never want to see it repeated.

The Scott Report published by the Government in August 1942, Land Utilisation in Rural Areas, was surprisingly lyrical about our countryside. It stated: The landscape of England and Wales is a striking example of the interdependence between the satisfaction of man's material wants and the creation of beauty…The beauty and pattern of the countryside are the direct result of the cultivation of the soil and there is no antagonism between use and beauty". Those of us who live in the country cannot help feeling that there is something rather unnatural about town life. That is why it sticks in our throats to be told by urban man that farming practices are unnatural and that what we need are urban solutions to rural problems. What we need has not changed. We need thriving rural communities and, as over 500,000 jobs have been lost over the past 50 years, we need new employment. Clearly, this will not be agricultural employment but small and medium-sized businesses which suit their locality because without jobs and profits the countryside will lose that spiritual quality which is so special to us.

That is why I am so delighted to be able to take part in this debate. We need to get across the message that the Scott Report was right when it said that the countryside was not there just to provide recreation and holiday facilities for the town. I have seen many examples of small tourist businesses all over the country, in particular the West Country. People are very enterprising. On one visit, a notice on a farm gate said, "50p to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Rambler".

We are partly to blame for failing to explain how the countryside works. The 1947 planning and agricultural Acts enshrined the belief that the countryside is just for agriculture; but while 80 per cent. of land use will always be agricultural, our communities cannot survive on agriculture alone. We need to spread the word through schools and open days to influence our local decision makers. Like many farmers, I have parties of school children round the farm and hope to educate them and, in turn, their teachers and parents. I am not normally at a loss for words but on one occasion, after I had been explaining about the Fens and flooding and had referred to Noah's Ark, a small girl asked me a question. "Were you on the Ark?" she said. "I certainly wasn't", I replied, rather offended. With that unanswerable childish logic, she said: "Well, why weren't you drownded then?".

I count myself extremely fortunate to be able to contribute not just to the patch of land that I farm, but also to the health of the countryside through the Environment Agency. I have two mottoes on my desk. The noble Earl has already mentioned the first: "Live as if you were to die tomorrow, but farm as if you will live for ever". The second is: "The town has a face but the country has a soul". That spiritual quality is the reason for making sure that we manage change successfully. Therefore I look forward to hearing the wise words of advice which I am sure this debate will evoke.

4.1 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, it is a great pleasure on behalf of the whole House to congratulate the noble Lord on his maiden speech. I confess that I was rather surprised to find that it was his maiden speech. The noble Lord seems to have been present in the House for so long that I thought he had delivered it long ago. It was thought-provoking and helpful. Apart from anything else it was a very learned speech. Noble Lords may not know that in his own area the noble Lord is a shining example of how to live in an environmentally friendly way. He is greatly respected in the neighbourhood for that approach. I hope that we hear from him a great deal in the future.

The time allowed is very short. The House will be pleased to hear that I shall not attempt to refer to the CAP. We must remember that this debate is conducted against a background of the Government taking up the legacy of the previous government; namely, the commitment to sustainable development. I am therefore very pleased to agree with the noble Earl's remark that a great deal has to be done to the regulatory system in order to get it right.

The two main pressures on land are the need to maintain the viability of rural areas and the demand for housing. The estimated need for 4.4 million houses referred to by the noble Earl is a subject for argument. However, there is undoubtedly a need for considerable expansion.

Earlier this year a regional conference took place in East Anglia on what should be done in relation to the pressures on land. Noble Lords will forgive my particular mention of that area since it is where I live; a number of the points raised are also relevant to other parts of the country. It is perhaps obvious that we should use brownfield sites first where they exist and encroach on valuable agricultural or recreational land only as a last resort. I include in the term "recreational land" landscape and open natural countryside which provide an escape from our crowded way of living and for which the Countryside Commission has a special responsibility. I commend its efforts to fulfil its aims.

But the amount of brownfield land is diminishing and in some areas, such as East Anglia, there never has been enough to make a significant contribution to the projected need. East Anglia is under particular pressure at this time. It has the fastest growing population in England and, although the new development of industry there is welcome, it brings its own pressures.

The first priority requirement is the need for clearer government guidance on what constitutes brownfield land and how the target for its use is to be measured. Does it include, for example, derelict brick pits and abandoned military sites in rural areas? That is an important question in East Anglia, as it is in other parts of the country.

If we are to achieve sustainable development we shall need integrated government policies on planning, housing, employment, crime prevention, education, health and transport. If we are to improve the viability of existing rural communities and make life better for rural dwellers, the same considerations apply. The health of our environment is ultimately linked with the health of our communities. Poverty-stricken communities in a derelict landscape are not to anyone's advantage. It would be helpful if the Minister could give some indication as to whether such considerations have been, or will be, part of government thinking.

4.5 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells

My Lords, in the time available I want to make one theological, spiritual point and one practical one. In English we use two words for what in Hebrew is expressed in one. The Hebrew word "eretz" means both "earth" and "land". There is no doubt about the teaching of the Old Testament that, the earth is the Lord's and all that is in it", and the human race is given a direct and clear responsibility for stewardship of that earth—an earth which is wonderfully made and held in trust for each generation. These two words, earth and land, often each carry a distinctive culture. "Earth" is the word used in expressing the big ideals, the cosmic questions, doomwatch predictions, green policies like the concept of sustainability—attempting to ensure that this generation's quality of life is maintained and enhanced only in a way that does not jeopardise the quality of life of succeeding generations—whereas "land" most often refers to parcels of earth, whether it be a country or a building plot.

"Land" is used to describe a possession, a commodity, where we tend to resent any restriction upon our ownership. Of course we all need to have clear, defensible space and people need to make their living from the land. That will always involve an element of being treated like a commodity, but it remains a parcel of the earth and carries with it important responsibilities as well as rights. It is my belief that real dialogue is needed between those who concentrate on the use of the word "earth" and its big ideas and those who use the word "land" in a very practical way.

Secondly, I wish to make a practical point. In my experience in Somerset most farmers are highly conscientious about their responsibilities for the countryside. We owe many of them a great deal for their persistent care; and many farmers—especially in the hill country—are struggling to survive. The structure of subsidies is generally biased towards intensive and large-scale, industrial farming, leading all too often to the destruction or removal of important habitat, reduced variety of species and severe inroads into the natural food chain. What is the philosophy which lies behind subsidies of £193 per acre for oilseed rape and yet only £20 per acre to encourage any change to organic farming methods? Has the time not come in Europe and the UK—I was interested to hear about the developments in Europe—to recognise that the impact of subsidies should be urgently reviewed in the light of the need for greater sensitivity to the ecology of our countryside? In New Zealand a new look at subsidies has, in the longer term after real initial difficulties, brought about impressive improvements. I believe these issues have to be faced for the sake of the countryside and of the longer term security and satisfaction of farmers in combining the essential production of food with the stewardship of natural resources.

Moreover, with or without a reform of subsidies, there is a need for good ecological information to farmers as they decide how to manage their land. It is not just a question of ownership; it is foremost a matter of management. Are farmers getting enough good and tested information in relation to the delicate ecological balance in their area? For instance, why has the monoculture of rye grass been largely unchallenged, thus excluding a variety of plants and insects and distorting the natural order? I am convinced that with a positive and resourced approach, most farmers would respond. As a lay member of the Conservation South West Awards, I saw at first hand what could be done with woodlands and landscapes given the right advice. I commend the work and approach of the Farm and Wildlife Advisory Groups (FWAG), which are constructive and realistic, revealing how much difference can be made by thoughtful and practical steps to preserve conservation headlands—creative spaces where nature can grow and be a host to a greater diversity of plant, insect and bird life.

The whole intricate balance in the creation of Planet Earth is endangered by what we so often do in the use to which we put land. We all carry responsibility and share the stewardship—the use of cars, the waste we accumulate and not least the way in which we seek to use our countryside without destroying it. It is already five minutes to midnight; the situation is serious; but we can all do a lot in the remaining five minutes to give the earth a better chance if we behave like the good stewards God wants us to be.

4.10 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, the length of the list of speakers bears testimony to the debt that we owe to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, while constraining us from expressing it fully.

It is my very welcome duty, on behalf of the whole House, to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells on his maiden speech. He is one of those people who comes to us with an enormous reputation before him. Many of us in the Church of England have been waiting for Jim Thompson to come to the House of Lords and wish that it had happened earlier. We are very grateful to see him here.

I take family farms as my subject. My noble friend Lady Hamwee will deal with some of the other matters which arise from this subject. She has kindly said that I may trespass on one or two of her lavish 10 minutes if I need to do so.

I am a vice president of what used to be called the Small Farmers' Association until they began to be afraid that they would be taken for a race of hobbits. It is now called the Family Farms Association. I did my later practical training in farming on two small south Devon farms.

This is an important subject and one on which I should be speaking from these Benches, because I suspect with some confidence that the members of my party in another place represent more small farmers in the West Country, Wales and the north of Scotland than does any other party. But the most important reason for raising this subject is that in both the short and the long term family farmers can do more for this country in human terms, which are the only terms worth our considering, than can large farmers.

In the short term an increase in small farmers can repopulate the countryside. The countryside is primarily for agriculture and it is a sad and sorry distortion of its nature if we divide it up into areas for factory farming and a series of playgrounds for the urban masses. The more people we have living in the country the better. It relieves the overcrowding of the towns and provides the demand which is needed for the provision of rural public transport, shops, cottage hospitals and all the other services which no one with an ounce of humanity and aestheticism wants to see replaced by endless cars, supermarkets and enormous health centres.

We want to repopulate the countryside and we want to repopulate it with people who respect it and want to serve it, not just people who sit opposite a computer screen at the end of a 'phone, useful though those tools are. If that means having rather more people living in new buildings in the countryside than the CPRE would like, that is just too bad. I do not believe that we need to fix the British countryside in an Edwardian pattern of large Dukeries, prosperous large tenant farmers and underpaid agricultural labourers any more than we want to turn it into an industrial waste of large farms with no hedgerows.

I therefore ask the Government—and have given notice of the question—what they are going to offer to the small farmer, who has been the lifeblood of the countryside and can be exactly that again.

It is quite clear that CAP reform must embrace "modulation" with enthusiasm. It is essential to address the ridiculous situation where 80 per cent. of aid goes to 20 per cent. of farmers. We must address the situation where more food is essential to feed more people. It is realised that small farms and indeed smallholdings are the most efficient way of doing this—not the most efficient in terms of pounds and pence but certainly the most efficient per acre of ground and in providing human employment in a world where conventional economics have deprived millions of people of employment; the most important in terms of producing healthy food, as no doubt the noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam, will remind us; and the most important in providing an ecologically sound and environmentally attractive countryside.

I hope that the Minister will tell us that the Government will resist the blandishments of the big and greedy farmers and listen to the small farmers for a change. I hope that they will pledge themselves to an approach to modulation which will help the latter even if it robs the big men of some of the million-pound cheques that we have heard about. I hope that, beyond that, they will announce some imaginative policies in areas into which, for lack of time, I have not been able to venture, such as efforts to help new entrants to farming, in which, as the SAFE alliance reminds us, we fall behind both the Republic of Ireland and some of our partners on the Continent. I do not necessarily want to go back to my party's tradition of five acres and a cow, but the small farms and small farmers of this country deserve respect and encouragement; I hope that that is what they will receive in the future.

4.16 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I should like to argue the case for forestry as a versatile land-use option that fits into a rural development policy and is able to fulfil a range of resource, recreational and environmental needs.

The production and manufacture of timber is a significant generator of jobs. Current research indicates that one hectare of productive hardwoods sustains the equivalent of one full-time employee. Commercial activity along the timber chain tends to be more labour than technology intensive, making enhanced activity in this sector a fruitful focus of investment when sustainable employment is a goal. Projections forecast that productive forestry is set to create 1,000 jobs a year over the next 16 years' expansion.

Forestry performs well as an alternative to agriculture and is a recreational resource for a largely urban population. Woodlands can be managed for recreation without loss of production and can absorb large numbers of people without the appearance of crowding.

Forestry has a significant contribution to make to environmentally sound economic policy by providing a renewable, managed resource of raw materials. Timber is the second largest traded commodity after petrochemicals. The UK currently imports 85 per cent of its timber requirements. The British wood products sector is therefore in a strong position as a supplier, and demand is expected to increase in all sectors.

The key to further investment in processing is resource security. Our forestry industry must achieve a sustained annual yield of 15 million cubic metres per anum. This will require approximately a further 275,000 hectares of commercial softwood planting (exclusive of amenity, native woodlands and community schemes, where productivity is not a principal objective).

The previous government set ambitious targets for forestry expansion in the three rural White Papers: in England, doubling over 50 years; in Wales, a 50 per cent. increase over 50 years; and in Scotland, a steady expansion. There has been talk recently of reducing these targets to "encourage a significant expansion" and I am unclear what the Government's policy is. I should be grateful for some clarification and encouragement on this point from the Minister.

4.20 p.m.

Lord Nathan

My Lords, I have had the honour over the past five years to be chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board, which is responsible: for the protection, conservation and enhancement of the natural beauty of the Sussex Downs area of outstanding natural beauty, including its physical, ecological and cultural landscapes". The AONB has been made beautiful by nature, substantially aided by economic activity over the generations: by farming, forestry—and, yes, by industry. It is only by development of economic activity that the landscape will be maintained and improved and that wildlife will be protected and enhanced, as we all desire. The integrated rural policy presently being promoted by the Countryside Commission should be a great instrument to achieve that.

In that context, and in view of the shortage of time, I confine myself to one activity in which I have recently become particularly interested; namely, coppicing, which was briefly mentioned by the noble Earl who opened the debate. We have worked closely with the Wessex Coppice Group based in Hampshire and much of what I say has been derived from information which it has most kindly supplied. I find it interesting that, in speaking of coppicing, I echo the few words that the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, devoted to it and also the noble Lord, Lord Astor, who referred to forestry. There are many in your Lordships' House who have extensive knowledge of forestry and coppicing, whereas I have very little; yet it seems to me that there is something to be said for coming down to earth and avoiding the great wide issues which others are so much better equipped to address than I.

In Hampshire there are about 16,000 acres of neglected coppice and there is a substantial and probably somewhat similar area in East and West Sussex. Coppicing has been neglected for the past 50 years. Revival depends on marketing. Some idea of the size of the market can be gauged from charcoal, of which some 40,000 to 60,000 tonnes a year are required and of which about 4,000 tonnes are produced in the United Kingdom. The employment potential is substantial. Sales of hurdles are increasing; in the suburbs, demand is growing to replace panel fencing; likewise on motorways. Coppice workers are struggling to meet demand.

Studies of the financial viability of hazel coppicing indicate that, if harvested every eight years, the highest quality might produce some £9,000 per acre. If 5,000 acres were restored—out of the 16,000 acres in Hampshire, for instance—a total sum of some £45 million would be raised, or over £5 million per annum. Restoration costs for an area of 5,000 acres are estimated by those qualified to do so at around £3 million. Coppicing is financially viable. The main problem is the cost of restoration.

But beyond the economic and social benefits are benefits to the environment, particularly to landscape and wildlife. Sir David Attenborough put it succinctly when he said about the hazel coppicing industry: Here you have a unique situation where we are talking about both creating jobs and wealth and also improving the side of Britain that conservationists most treasure". I very much hope that the Government will encourage the new regional development agencies and MAFF to use their influence and resources to aid the training of those already in the industry and those wishing to join and to promote its expansion and development for the benefit of the economy and the countryside.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, perhaps I may respectfully remind speakers that when three minutes is signalled on the Clock that is the end of the time the speaker has been allotted. We are in danger of some speakers not having time to speak at all.

4.24 p.m.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, I must start by declaring an interest as an owner of land. National parks and beauty spots will come under increasing pressure and the proposed open access to moorland will do irreparable damage to it.

The North Yorkshire National Park published a figure of 16 per cent. of walkers wishing to walk off footpaths. More recently, an officer of the park put the figure at 1 per cent. The walker wants and should have a good footpath system. With very few exceptions, landowners have always been prepared to talk about that and most of them support it. But the vandals, the egg collectors and the long dogs men will all enjoy any right of access. Even now, 56 per cent. of walkers on the moors run their dogs out of control, in contravention of the country code. Drystone walls will simply not stand up to the pressure of orienteering.

Of course, it would be against the law to vandalise, but there is no way in which the national parks can be under supervision all the time, any more than populated areas can always be under the eye of the police. Once there is disheartenment over the management of moors near urban areas and it has gone, inevitably high heather and bracken will soon turn even the militant rambler back onto the footpath. By then the moors will be permanently ruined for everyone. If Ministers do not understand what is involved, I hope that they will make it their business to find out. They will be welcome visitors to any moorland manager. It cannot be right to jeopardise the economy, management and consequent enjoyment of 84 per cent. of walkers—those who say that they wish to walk on footpaths—for the sake of satisfying the political desire of a militant minority, who should not be allowed to wreck things for everybody else.

The rural interests are worried and would like an assurance that, in the proposed merger of Objective 5b, they will receive a fair share. The countryman feels, with some reason, that he is largely represented now in Parliament by town dwellers with little practical knowledge of country problems. Therefore, it behoves the Government to take particular notice of the countrymen's concerns.

This is a huge subject. I had a mass of points which I had to throw away. I do not feel that a debate such as this should be conducted in three minute speeches. It makes a nonsense of the debate. When a debate is scheduled and the number of speakers means that the time allotted falls below seven or eight minutes, the list should close. There is no way an argument can be developed in three minutes.

4.27 p.m.

Lord Palmer

My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord Lytton for introducing this important and timely debate. I must declare an interest as a farmer and landowner and as someone whose home and garden are legally obliged to be open to the public.

I say "timely", because most stewards of the countryside are currently experiencing significant economic difficulties. Cereal farmers in Scotland, for example, have had a poor harvest and cereal prices are very significantly down on last year, in some cases by as much as 50 per cent. Hill farming and particularly the beef sector continue to face the consequences of the BSE crisis. Our commercial timber producers face severe competition from imported timber. If we are to have a well tended countryside, we need to ensure long-term economic stability of farming and forestry. Much of Scotland's tourist industry is based on the attractiveness of its managed countryside and the scenery that it produces.

It is important to remember that the countryside is not a natural resource which has been created overnight. It is the result of generations of hard work and applied land management, achieved at great expense to those generations. Had fox hunting been banned 100 years ago and other field sports 50 years ago, dare I say how very different our countryside would look today?

Public interest in the care of the countryside is a relatively new phenomenon. Traditionally, the countryside has been relied upon to produce food and timber and particularly strategic supplies in time of war. The great success that was achieved must not be swept aside. I believe that it was criminal, back in the 1970s when we were told that more food was required, to say, "Drain the wetlands and here is a grant to do so." Now, we are told, "Stop, set it aside and here is a grant to do so." Real commercial management is the raison d'être for ongoing management in the countryside and that must not be forgotten. Who would want to see ranch or prairie-type farming in this country?

What we really need and deserve is a proper balance between modern production measures and economic pressures, and, most importantly, sustainability and preservation of the intergenerational equity. I urge Her Majesty's Government to look at that most carefully, especially as land use, farm production and, indeed, the woodlands sector require long-term planning. One simply cannot correct yesterday's mistakes overnight and such long-term planning is essential and vital for the future of the countryside.

I believe that a departure from the situation in which land managers are seen to be those responsible for damaging the countryside and jeopardising biodiversity is a number one priority. Single pressure groups must not be allowed to think that they know best. In reality, there is a very great cost to land managers of having the public presume that they can wander wherever they wish. Responsibility is very much a two-edged sword. The voluntary principle of countryside stewardship is vital to the countryside as a whole. I just hope and pray that this Government have no intention whatever of doing away with it.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chairman of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. It is good evidence—not just anecdotal, but polled evidence—that there are few matters about which the British people mind more, whether they live in the town or the country, than the English countryside.

It is about two years since the previous government produced the first substantial White Paper on rural matters and about a year since that White Paper was updated by the previous government. The special point about the White Paper was that it required all government departments to take an interest in the concern for rural matters. That needed some doing. It was not just a product of the then Ministers who were responsible for the environment and agriculture. Michael Heseltine took a big part in pushing it as did the then Prime Minister also. I hope that the new Government will take that mantle and inheritance, burnish it and update it and fairly soon bring out their own views where they may differ. In general they were supportive of that White Paper.

One area where I know the Government are considering possible changes is in the speeding up of the planning system. Planning was one of the two great legacies of the Attlee Government. I believe that the beauty of rural England and Britain as a whole would not be what it is without the planning system. I should like to bring one specific point to the Government's attention.

Planning is essentially something in the public interest and the cost of the proper planning process should be part of the cost of development. There is a real danger of local authorities and other completely legitimate objectors to certain proposals by developers being intimidated either by the prospect of costs being awarded against them by the inspector in the case of a planning refusal on appeal or, indeed, by developers bullying and intimidating objectors, particularly local authorities and saying that they will ask for damages for delay.

It is necessary for the present Government—it should fit in with their ideological attitude to these matters—to ensure that, unless there is evidence of malevolence or impropriety in an initial refusal of a development application, the planning appeals should be heard without local authorities being landed with extremely heavy costs. Going round to the CPRE county branches, again and again I have been told that local planning authorities, faced with a bill for costs of perhaps as much as £100,000 for expensive lawyers hired by developers, are intimidated and inhibited from doing their proper duty in planning. This is an important point and I hope that the Government will respond to it.

4.33 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I declare an interest as the chairman of the Parliamentary All-Party Group on Forestry. I am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, for making the case for forestry so positively and succinctly this afternoon. I hope that his speech will be taken on board by the Minister.

I want to put forward two statistics which justify the concern for an expanding forestry policy. One is the fact that imports to this country of wood products amount to £6 billion per annum. We are the least forested country in Europe. The other statistic is not economic; it is social. In the Forestry Commission estates last year, 50 million day visits were paid by ramblers and people escaping from the dreariness of towns to enjoy the beauty of the countryside. Those statistics are important.

It is interesting that in the past—20 or 30 years ago when I was chairman of the commission—we had a policy of partnership in forestry. The private and the state sectors worked together in research, training and forestry management. I regret that during the period of the last government that partnership disintegrated because there was an obsession with privatisation. Ramblers, trade unionists, land owners and everyone involved with the countryside opposed privatisation; but privatisation was practised by stealth.

Let me give the House a further couple of statistics. Forestry Commission planting 20 years ago was 15,500 acres per annum. Last year the Forestry Commission planted 461 hectares. Twenty years ago the number of employees in the Forestry Commission (we have been discussing employment in the countryside) was 8,000; 10 years ago it was 5,700; last year it was 3,600. Those are skilled people who know what they are doing in the countryside and love the countryside. That represents a reduction of state interest in forestry.

Can the Minister give me an assurance that under the new policy of the new Government we will restore the partnership that formerly existed in forestry? Can he also give me an assurance in relation to devolution? I notice that devolution is a subject devolved to Scotland. One of the things I did during my time in the Forestry Commission was to take the commission headquarters to Edinburgh. Edinburgh is the centre of the Forestry Commission (UK). Under the devolution proposals Scottish forestry will be devolved to the Scottish parliament. What will happen to English forestry? It will have no national authority and no national office. Can the Minister assure me that national forestry policy will be protected?

4.36 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, perhaps your Lordships, on this autumn day, will let your imaginations stray for a moment from Westminster to a grassy valley two miles outside Lewes in Sussex which has been walked over or ridden over on horseback by the people of Lewes from time immemorial. That grassy valley has almost all the initials attached to it that the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, mentioned in his opening remarks. It was a site of special scientific interest, environmentally sensitive and outstandingly naturally beautiful.

This spring the local farmer ploughed up the valley. He gave notice to English Nature. He followed the rules. But English Nature was unable to make an adequate financial settlement with him. He therefore ploughed it up and planted a crop of flax—wholly unsuitable to the flint and chalk out of which the Sussex Downs are made. I walked up and had another look at the valley last Sunday; it is close to my home. One third of it is outside the SSI. The crop has been harvested and there is now six inches of brown stubble. The one third in the SSI has been replanted with either wheat or grass which is starting to grow and, most remarkably of all, the bottom third has been "de-ploughed". Volunteers from Lewes came out to roll the turves back onto the ground which they had walked over for so many years.

I do not blame the farmer for acting as he did, although my family too had walked over the valley for many years. He did it because of the subsidy. He was able to obtain a subsidy of £500 per hectare for his flax crop, no matter what the yield. That compares to the £40 subsidy for continuing with the grassland which he and his father had previously had. The matter received a certain amount of national interest. I mention it in the House because the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, promised an answer as to how the conflict between Department of the Environment aims and Ministry of Agriculture subsidies will be resolved. We wait with interest to hear what is to happen. Obviously, what happened can be repeated in other parts of the Downs.

I must declare my interest. I have the honour to be succeeding the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, as chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board in just two days' time. It will be very hard to follow in the noble Lord's footsteps. He is aware, as I am, of the tremendous pressures that are now on the Sussex Downs and on other areas of outstanding natural beauty which, like them, get no direct central government grant and no mandatory local authority grant either.

I suggest to the Minister that the Government, who are to spend £750 million on a millennium dome, might consider putting aside some millions of pounds for the Sussex Downs which, after all, attract 32 million visitors a year and which have 10 million people living within an hour's drive. I suspect that the Downs will be there and being enjoyed for very much longer than the millennium dome.

4.40 p.m.

Lord Cobbold

My Lords, I should like to thank my noble kinsman, Lord Lytton, for introducing this important debate so early in the life of the new Government. In the interests of brevity I shall confine my remarks to one topic; namely, the vexed question of rights of way. Local authorities currently have a target of having the rights of way network properly maintained, well publicised and legally defined by the year 2000. Under this umbrella there has been a lot of activity as councils have attempted to agree on the definitive map for their areas. Much of this activity has been contentious, expensive and, in many cases, has verged on the absurd.

I have been involved in two cases recently—one where an expensive two-day public inquiry was necessary, when in fact all parties were in agreement outside the meeting on the appropriate solution, but that could not be put forward by the local authority for procedural reasons.

The other involved the designation of a footpath/bridleway as a byway open to all traffic or a "BOAT" as it is curiously called. This designation means that the byway can now be used by motor cycles and four-wheel drive vehicles, in competition with the pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders who used it all along.

The rather spurious evidence used for the BOAT designation was a variety of ancient maps which indicated that these routes may—and I stress the word "may"—have been used by horse-drawn vehicles in previous centuries, but their usage during the current century was not taken into account.

I believe that the present situation is illogical and often absurd. The previous government issued a consultation paper a year ago entitled Vehicles on Byways. That paper contained some valuable and commonsense suggestions, particularly for the creation of a new class of highway determined by whether the surface has ever been metalled.

I do not know what has happened to that paper, but I hope that the Minister will be able to resuscitate it. It is not an issue of party politics, but of common sense and balancing not necessarily irreconcilable interests. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond on that point.

4.43 p.m.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, having lived in the country all my life, I certainly appreciate my good fortune. It was not until I grew up that I realised that with such a privilege came responsibility for the land. We are only the custodians and I believe that we should be careful in such a position not to alienate those who wish to visit or move from the city to join our rural communities.

I believe that more should be done to help newcomers to understand that the country needs managing, and that has been referred to by other speakers. The cost is not inconsiderable, as we all know. I have only 43 acres, but fencing, keeping footpaths clear; keeping stiles in good repair; woods free as possible from rabbits; protecting badgers and bats—I have a cave full of bats—are all things that take many hours of attention. There is also the responsibility of cutting down dead trees—something which appears to upset those who come from the city more than many other things that one does. They do not seem to understand that trees actually die.

Having planted 700 hardwood trees in a valley, I take pride in what I have done and want others to enjoy my efforts. I have also put in a lake which is fed by a nearby spring. The grants for planting amenity shrubs and trees are far from generous. I received £190 for an area of 100 such shrubs and trees and that cost me £900. That is not very much encouragement for a small farmer such as myself.

Welcoming 50 youngsters to use the woods for part of the national motorcycle trials has proved a great success and perhaps more people should follow that.

These are only a few examples of what can be done if we have the will to understand the views of others who may have a very different perception of rural life from our own. Thank you.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, I first became interested in the subject of land use as a schoolboy growing up in the Second World War when there was a very active debate on this subject. I read with some fascination what appeared in magazines such as Picture Post, the Architectural Review, or the writings of Thomas Sharp, Lewis Mumford and various other authors of eminence. It was out of this debate that we had the Labour Government's Town and Country Planning Act to which the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, has paid some tribute and I join him in that. It was a milestone piece of legislation. It was perhaps a trifle too comprehensive and it could be described as a belt and braces and buttons piece of legislation designed to constrain or contain any unplanned expansion or contraction. It was left to what now appear to be the decades of Conservative government which followed to trim off some of the unwanted excrescences of that legislation and such things as development charges or undevelopment payments, which were not really necessary. I believe that what we have now is a pretty well tried and worthwhile system. I very much hope that the Government will be able to continue it.

Speaking as somebody who has spent much of his life living abroad, one becomes very aware of the deficiencies of those nations where there are no such systems. Perhaps the leading example in my life has been the coastline of Attica, a natural jewel which has been desecrated by human development and to which the final insult is now to be added; namely, the installation of a major international airport at Spada in the centre of the peninsula. In looking at our system I hope that the Government will be able to concentrate on one or two areas where I believe that some updating and improvement is now necessary.

The first question to arise is that of resources, both human resources and cash resources. The human resource is very important. It is a question of the human quality of those managing the system on which all depends. Some years ago I became interested in the way in which the Department of the Environment selected, appointed and trained inspectors conducting planning inquiries. I was rather impressed by the trouble that they took. I hope that that investment in human quality can be continued.

There is also inevitably the question of the cash resource. Here I have been concerned that the budget for the Countryside Commission, which is responsible for supervising and controlling much of importance in the countryside, appears to be lacking resources for funding such things as the committees which run areas of outstanding natural beauty. Even more important is the inability of the commission to make evidence available to public inquiries in areas in which they are interested. That seems to me to be a serious failing and I very much hope that this resource deficiency can be made good.

I would also like to say a brief word about the question of 4.4 million houses. I believe that the way in which that figure has been arrived at is open to serious criticism. It is derived from a study of population statistics at the centre. The figures are then extrapolated and allotted to counties. That is not the right way for us to arrive at the best system. It would be far more sensible if local input could be obtained at an earlier stage so that the local authorities who have some better knowledge of social trends and requirements can devise a system in a more sensible way. The present system fails to distinguish as it should between economic need and social reality. This is an important debate, but I have tried to keep within the time limit available. I hope that the Government will be able to respond to some of the constructive suggestions that we have already heard.

4.49 p.m.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, for initiating this debate. We have also heard two scintillating maiden speeches, particularly appreciated by those of us who live in rural areas.

Although there are many advantages in living in the country, such as lack of pollution (although not always, because sometimes, with intensive farming, erosion sets in, the topsoil starts blowing off, and everything gets covered with a fine red dust); lack of noise (although not if you live within a mile or so of a motorway); birds and butterflies, particularly if you feed them and do not spray; hedgehogs and roe deer, and rabbits (if you call those an advantage), there are many disadvantages too. That is shown by the number of people who find it easier to live in an urban area. Shops, libraries, cinemas, theatres, recreational facilities such as swimming baths and public parks, and public transport are all there and easy to get to.

In rural areas there used to be vans coming round—now there are not. We have no milk delivery, nor bread, and the grocer's van with its horse is long a thing of the past—although we do have a fish van from Arbroath on Thursdays. Buses to town are few and far between, and there may be as much as a mile or even further to carry home your shopping. The local rail station, to which I used to bicycle every morning to go to university in Dundee, has now closed down.

A car is therefore a necessity, not a luxury, for all rural families. Of course, most people in the country grow their own vegetables and keep hens, but they do not all have a cow or make their own bread. They need a car to fetch the other essentials for living or, dare I say it, to go to church, to the cinema, or to take their children to school (or at least to the school bus), or swimming. The girl who lives next door to us at Megginch had a baby yesterday, called Fern, and doing well. Luckily, her husband had a car and was able to drive her 10 miles to the hospital, saving the ambulance journey and the heavier petrol consumption that that would have meant. I am making a small plea to the Government to consider reducing the tax on one car per family for people who live in a rural area and who really need it.

Those of us who scrub mud from our leeks and carrots, who put on gumboots when we go out and overcoats when we come in, may not have all the advantages and rich pickings of Johnny Town Mouse, but though like Timmie Willie we prefer to live in the country, because that is where our roots are, we would still like to have some.

4.52 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I have always felt that visitors to the countryside should be given plenty to do so that they enjoy, and learn to understand, value and respect it. I thank my noble friend for this debate. My wish today is to bring to the notice of your Lordships one important matter in which I must now declare an interest. I refer to the use of agricultural land for riding schools. Many people, be they locals or tourists, who cannot afford their own horse or pony and have no facilities to keep one, use those facilities if they exist. I have a small centre for just that purpose in North Yorkshire.

Running a riding establishment is very expensive. One has to produce or buy the horses or ponies, provide the facilities, buy and repair the tack, provide the feed, repair the fences, worm the animals several times a year, shoe them regularly at £40 a time, pay the staff and do the administration such as paying the telephone and vet's bills and the insurance and licence fees. Advertising costs are high, but so is the growing need for security. In the past 10 days my small centre has been burgled twice. Crime in the countryside has become big business. Tack seems to be very popular and resaleable. Even with security lights and alarms, padlocks and chains, the burglars still keep coming into the rural areas from the cities to reap from the countryside what they can get. Many villages no longer have policemen who used to give protection and a feeling of security.

On top of all those problems, the councils are trying to rate such establishments out of existence. I now quote from Horse and Hound magazine of 9th October: Surrey School new victim of rates burden. A Surrey riding school has become the latest victim of savage business rate rises. Ray Lodge Riding School at Lingfield was forced to close after its rates soared from £790 to £4,300. To worsen the blow, proprietor Sheila McCory was presented with a back-dated bill, landing her with a debt of £8,000. The farm is to revert to purely agricultural status. Mrs. McCory said she would take the case to the European Court". That sort of thing is happening up and down the country.

Many young girls in particular spend hours helping at riding establishments in return for free rides and instruction. Their parents know where they are. Riding gives them a healthy interest, keeping them away from drink and drugs. These places provide a service to their local communities. They should not be penalised and put out of use. I hope that the Minister will give some hope to the people who are struggling to provide a leisure facility in the countryside. Compared with set-aside, where farmers are paid for doing nothing, this seems totally unfair and ridiculous.

4.55 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I must declare an interest. Unfortunately, the Onslow estates are not nearly as big as they used to be—we seem to have dissipated them—but I am a landowner and today I hope that I can draw your Lordships' attention to what I believe is the countryside's greatest need. We need a multi-use countryside. What the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, has said about riding schools is only too true. Others have referred to shooting and to the other activities that take place in the countryside. We must have a multi-use countryside. We must get away from the idea that the countryside is merely a prairie producer of grain. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, told us a horrifying story of a farmer behaving completely and utterly legitimately, but in a way which must run counter to the public interest.

One of my noble kinsmen owns about 20,000 acres of Suffolk. His set-aside payment on that was in excess of 1 million quid. As he owns chunks of Vancouver and a large number of Guinness shares, I am not totally sure that he needs that payment. I cast no aspersion on him and say merely that he should kick his advisers to make sure that he gets the cheque earlier. No blame attaches to him; it is the system which is absolutely crazy. It is a system which makes life more difficult for hill farmers and which makes it more difficult for us to keep the countryside populated.

The common agricultural policy has failed completely—not only in this country, but in France and Germany also. Parts of Burgundy are depopulated. In the Beauce and the Île-de-France one sees mile after mile of cereal monoculture, which puts large sums of money into the pockets of the Alsace grain barons. I have no objection to them claiming their subsidy. However, it is a totally silly way of spending public money because not only is public money being used to enrich the rich, but the system also taxes the poor. If you want to buy margarine because you cannot afford butter, you encounter the import tax of £2,000 per tonne. It is crazy to run a system of agricultural support which does not support the countryside and which penalises the poor who wish to buy cheaply. It is madness to a previously unparalleled degree.

We must ensure that subsidies in the countryside are not directed towards food production. For want of a better phrase, they should be directed towards "gardening and gamekeeping"—that is, they should be paid to those who look after the place, make it look right, and maintain its appearance and its biodiversity. Subsidies should be directed at keeping the ecology of the countryside sound. They should not be directed only at the grain barons.

I had an environmental assessment carried out, and the assessor's comment on a barley field was that it was an environmental desert. That is because a good barley field contains nothing but barley plants. Nobody is denying that it is essential that we have food, but food should be produced in a free market and without subsidy. It is the things that we care about in the countryside, such as protecting the environment, that need economic subsidies. We must also ensure that maximum use is made of the countryside by the maximum number and in the maximum number of activities compatible with good biodiversity and sound ecology.

4.59 p.m.

Lord Norton

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, for bringing this important and much neglected issue to the attention of the House. First, I declare an interest. I have a small estate. Therefore, I understand people's problems in trying to work and live in what can be described as a harsh environment. I say "harsh" because those who live and work in the countryside have a very limited choice of jobs, public transport, shops and schools. Frequently the villages in which people have grown up are places in which they can no longer afford to buy houses because of pressure from second home buyers. This threatens the whole community.

Some years ago I kept bees in the second most productive area of the country. I regularly obtained over a hundred pounds of honey from each hive. The bees were in a good environment. It was warm and relatively pollution-free. I was keeping them in the centre of London. On this morning's "Today" programme we heard that there are more species of birds in urban areas than in the countryside.

Society's perception of the countryside and what many expect from it is, I believe, totally confused. Although I have described it as harsh, it is perceived by many as a good place in which to live; it is quiet, scenic and less polluted. The people who do not have some of that—there are now many—want it. At one moment we say that we need 4.4 million new homes and we should build 2.2 million in the countryside, but where are the figures which state how many are to be created in the 60,000 hectares of vacant urban land and from the currently estimated 1.5 million dwellings that are unfit for human habitation? Where are the figures to show how many dwellings are to be created from offices that are no longer required?

The countryside is also under threat from building on green belt land. The present Government show no signs of being sympathetic about that threat. Recently the Deputy Prime Minister overturned a public inquiry decision and allowed 140 acres of building at Peddimore in the West Midlands. That land is said to be worth £28 million and the new Labour local authorities will benefit from the sale. To demonstrate that point further, we have spent the past 15 years putting shops in big lumps in rural areas so that we can ruin the countryside and finish off market towns at the same time. What are we trying to achieve? We have dying city centres and a dying countryside. There are obvious countryside issues such as the saving of hedgerows, but the countryside is a complex resultant of all factors of living, be it the netting of salmon in the North Sea or education policies.

It is natural that people wish to escape from an urban environment that is stereotyped and boring but this in turn imposes unrealistic pressure on the remaining countryside. It is said that 300 people a day leave the towns. In conclusion, I argue for a rural urban environment rather than an urban rural environment. That will ease the great pressures on land use in the countryside.

5.3 p.m.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, I declare an interest in the countryside as a landowner and farmer in an area of outstanding beauty. I am also a member of the CLA and the NFU. Sadly, this is such a short debate that one can hardly cover some of the more interesting subjects. I would have very much liked to debate the waste disposal problems in the countryside as well as access, which I should now like to cover.

The countryside is home to 25 per cent. of the population and it must also answer the recreational demands of many sports and hobbies. It does so on a day-to-day basis and also at weekends and during holiday periods. Many types of activities occur in the countryside. Some of the main activities, such as angling, cycling, golf, model aircraft flying (believe it or not), motor cycle sports, parachuting, rambling, riding and shooting, all take place in the countryside. If one gave an advantage to one of those it would perhaps be incorrect. For example, to give a right to roam would mean that walkers were accorded preference over other groups. Arguably, it would damage our patchwork country, but that is a long argument on which we do not have time to expand today.

I suggest that the best way to increase access to the countryside is by negotiation. I also believe, like many bodies such as English Nature, the RSPB, the CPRE, the CLA, the NFU and—I say to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton—the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Association of County Councils and many others, that the best way forward is to manage and increase access by negotiation. I believe that there is a problem in this route and that a lot of work can be done to improve the framework of negotiation. We should be able to make the negotiation process easier and more constructive.

Some of the problems that need to be addressed relate to management. It is essential that management of access is environmentally and economically sustainable. Resources are required to cover the cost of providing and managing high quality public access and public rights of way in other forms. Perhaps most importantly, especially from my perspective as a landowner, there is a need to remove the barriers that hinder positive action by owners to improve access. I refer for example to concern over occupiers' liability, dogs and litter. One should be able to have a sensible discussion with groups of people to provide new footpaths without owners being worried that once footpaths are drawn on a map they can never be removed or altered even if faults come to light at a later date. It is interesting that negotiation has worked well for the hunting fraternity. It has access to large areas of the countryside as a result of negotiation, not legislation.

I observe that I have run out of time so I shall cease. I hope that the House can have another debate on this topic another time. There is much more to talk about.

5.8 p.m.

Lord St. John of Bletso

My Lords, noble Lords have heard a number of emotive speeches today and a good number of alarming statistics on the projected pressures on the countryside from increased housing and traffic flows. Clearly, there were a number of disastrous housing developments in the countryside in the 1980s. In many cases local authorities had no statutory obligation to take design into account when considering planning applications. It was encouraging that in February of this year the Department of the Environment issued planning policy guidance which formally recognised design as a vital criterion in planning applications.

In the few minutes available to me I should like to explore possible constructive solutions to sustainable development. To that end I simply focus on the subject of responsible planning and development. If rural England is to absorb a share of the millions of new homes that are planned by the Government over the next 20 years detailed consideration must be given to architectural character, local culture, the impact of traffic flows, the provision of employment and support services and the vitally important aspect of reliable public transport in rural areas.

The planning system, wisely used, should and can be a driving force to enable and encourage change to the benefit of the nation as a whole. Both the public and private sectors should play a far more active role in ensuring responsible planning. I favour a system of developers undertaking a village audit of urban, and more specifically, rural developments. Moreover, with large developments, it should be the developer's responsibility to provide good and reliable public transport for the area.

If the Government are looking seriously at the regeneration of town centres to try to stem the flow of people leaving our major cities for the countryside, it is vital that good public spaces and sports fields be provided in urban areas.

The problem of compatibility between growing urbanisation and the preservation of the countryside is common to almost all over-populated European countries. New roads, new business parks, and new houses are needed in many parts of the countryside where there is poverty and high unemployment. I do not mean to say that I subscribe to the adage of urban solutions for rural problems. I hope that sustainable development can be achieved through responsible and consultative planning and development.

5.12 p.m.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, demands from the whole population for convenience foods and shopping have combined to cement the intensive farming scene in this country. As the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, said, the farming community has been depopulated by some half a million people over the past 50 years. There is no likelihood of solving that problem by intensive farming.

It is the CAP which is at fault. It has become a kind of incurable disease. Farmers are paid £2.3 billion a year and the housewife pays £20 a week more on her shopping bill. There is something arcanely ridiculous about that. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, mentioned Dr. Miriam Rothschild who says also in her book published today: Nature cannot just survive in reserves. It depends upon what farmers are paid to do in the wider countryside". If we can alter some of that, we shall have much better intensive farming.

Your Lordships would expect me to make one plea for consideration of a serious attempt to increase the area of land farmed organically in the UK. The Soil Association reports that the level is static at 50,000 hectares. That is a derisory 0.3 per cent. of UK farmland. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, said also that intensive farming would never be able to cope with the nation's total demand for food. That is true. There is an enormous demand for organic food which is not satisfied by the organic market; two-thirds of the organic food sold by the supermarkets in this country is imported.

I take this opportunity to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells on his maiden speech, and in particular on his excellent reference to the anomaly which arises from the difference in support prices for oil seed rape and organic farming. I thank him for that remark. As a member of the Soil Association, I hope that he will join us. Perhaps he is already a member.

Demands for access to the countryside present a serious problem not just from urban incomers who need a manicured vista of pastoral bliss to satisfy their politically correct ideas of the countryside but from the urban motorist who has a similar agenda. The urban motorist needs more and more roads. I recognise that the construction industry would be hard put to turn an honest penny if there were not a considerable road-building programme, but motorists will not have a chance to enjoy the freedom of the road. That is a joke if ever there were one.

5.15 p.m.

The Earl of Macclesfield

My Lords, I, too, have an interest to declare as one of a family of landowners. I, too, should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, for introducing this debate, and inviting the countryside to town. We all turned up in force in July. I am sure that other speakers today would agree that reservations about the future of the countryside which have been expressed today were the reason for the presence of the vast number of people who filled Hyde Park in July. It is reasonable to point out that we did not just fill it, we behaved in a thoroughly responsible fashion when demonstrating all our reservations about the future of the countryside. We left Hyde Park in a state fit for someone else to come in an hour later.

We left the police sitting in their minibuses doing whatever they wanted for the day. There was the delightful sight of two coppers wandering in shirtsleeves around what, in theory, was a protesting group of people 100,000 strong. That says an awful lot for the values of the countryside. I hope that the Minister will take into account today that sort of thing and what we heard from the noble Lord, Lord De Ramsey, in his excellent maiden speech when he said that we do not like being talked to by townsmen who do not really know what they are talking about.

It is a great sadness that the governing party has no support on its Back Benches. They will presumably be coming forward with legislation in due course. At the beginning of December about three years ago there was a debate in your Lordships' House on a White Paper on the countryside. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, will recall it. She opened it in those days for Her Majesty's Opposition. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, closed the debate for the Opposition. Unfortunately, the noble Lord found himself at the wrong end of the words of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, who pointed out that the noble Lord, Lord Carter, had no supporters, presumably because they had all gone roaming.

It is a sad reflection of what is going on today. I felt that that was what was going to happen from that day onwards; the countryside was going to face legislation brought in by those who have not tried to understand the countryside. The noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, issued an invitation to Ministers to come to the countryside to learn. That would be a nice thought. Would not just Ministers, but Back Benchers and others like to spend time in the countryside? We have some time for the subject today. We do not have enough of it. The countryside does not clockwatch. It is no good coming to the countryside for three minutes or three days. The minimum cycle will be a week. Would the governing party of this country care to come out, look around, talk to those who live and work in the countryside and who understand the countryside, and learn about the problems? Instead of concentrating quite so much on the three Rs, would they give a little thought to the fourth R and biology? If a great deal more biology were taught, we should not be faced with quite so many silly ideas about the countryside. If we dealt with the fourth R, the problems would not arise anyway. What is the fourth R? It is the reason for this building—responsibility.

5.18 p.m.

Lord Milverton

My Lords, it is a pleasure to support the Motion tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. I do so because I studied agriculture in Kenya and a good part of my ministry in the Church of England was in rural areas. When we observe the countryside, we are struck by the differences in its appearance. The contrast is sometimes distinct. The way land is being used will indicate the care that is being taken and the purpose for the land use. Is it just to gain the necessities we need or is the work done in harmony with our knowledge of nature so that the riches of nature are preserved rather than merely taken out? Are we leaving nature less healthy and without any replenishment? That is something that we can see clearly if land is over-grazed or over-cropped. We can see that on even the slightest of slopes or hillsides where there is erosion. Heavy equipment with massive towers must cause a wearing away of important topsoil into powder. We know that thousands of feet trampling in areas of public access on open ground—parks, trust land and so forth—wear away the surface. That is the problem which must be tackled.

The sight of hedges having gone is a sad one, bearing in mind how they protect the land and provide a habitat for birds, other creatures and animals. Hedges, where they are still kept, are lovely and beautiful, and that goes also for trees. Both enhance the landscape. They are a necessary, wise protection, as I saw from a farmer on Points West. They are a positive protection for nature's life.

Set-aside, if not done with thought and planning, can be useless if the area is just left with no positive ideas, with no purpose. The need is for an attractive, useful area rather than just an untidy mess and the possibility of controlled pastures of mixed grasses and flowers. There is a need for the encouragement of art and craft enterprises as well as light industries and also sports facilities. Helping the young to stay in the countryside is necessary. One knows that many would like to do so, but financial reasons do not make it easy. Why should there be unkept, dirty land?

If people are to have the right to move over and roam over the countryside, as one has read in newspaper articles, they may need to think not only of rights but to think in greater depth. They should ask themselves in what way they can take part in creativity and help promote respect for the land. Respect for the land goes with respect of the landowners.

That is the crux of the matter for all. Are we going to participate in the work of creation's creativity so that the countryside can be a wholesome place in which to live and work for the harmony of all elements of nature, including ourselves? That includes the young, many of whom would like to be able to live in the countryside if it were possible and many of whom have a real desire to preserve it. That is what many young people have told me. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will be able to be positive for the countryside.

5.22 p.m.

Lord Colwyn

My Lords, I wish to draw your Lordships' attention to the problems of many thousands of people living and working in the vicinity of the beautiful Cotswold rivers, the Churn, the Coln, Ampney Brook and, more particularly, the Windrush. I declare an interest as a house owner on that river.

The local media have recently highlighted a campaign aimed at the Secretary of State to give special protection to the River Windrush. Continual complaint over the past five years has led to assurances from the Environment Agency and Thames Water but they have been unable to identify the cause of what they describe as a very complex problem, let alone implement a satisfactory solution.

The thousands of people who enjoy the river for its wildlife, fishing, history and recreational activities agree that it is dying—not because of the recent droughts, but because of the amount of water being abstracted at various levels. The Cotswold town of Witney's wealth as a centre for wool was due to the sparkling, fast running waters of the river. That water is now being diverted to supply many thousands of households.

Although the river is now less than half its former size, the Environment Agency maintains that flow gauge readings have not significantly changed over 20 years. Statements it has made in the River Windrush Catchment Water Resources and Abstraction Licensing Policy in 1992 and in the Local Environment Agency Plan in 1996 are directly contradictory.

During very low flows, abstraction can be as much as 30 per cent. of the total river flow. Thames Water blames the restricted rainfall, but the problem goes back 20 years and the permanent effect on the river's ecology is largely due to constant abstraction. Flow levels are also affected by the large scale gravel abstraction where very often water which leaks into gravel pits is not returned to the river but is pumped into nearby brooks which have been dry for many years.

The licensed low flow rate states that water cannot be abstracted if the flow is less than three million gallons per day. Given that the average daily flow is 63 million gallons, it theoretically allows Thames Water to abstract when there is only 4.7 per cent. of the average flow. The Environment Agency puts all its emphasis on averages when it is obvious to conservationists that it is the data on low flows which need to be scrutinised.

Since everyone who knows the river estimates that it now flows at less than one quarter of its original volume, I ask the noble Baroness to seek assurances from the Environment Agency that it will have another look at the matter.

I know that the Secretary of State has been contacted and I hope the noble Baroness will also be able to ensure that the Environment Agency takes proper account of the important issues when formulating its action plan for the Windrush. Can it look carefully at the plan to spend £9 million on a new treatment works at Worsham? If water has to be taken from these rivers, does it not make more sense to take it at its confluence with the Thames, thus maintaining levels upstream?

Under the Government's new guidelines, all abstraction licences issued in the 1960s have to be reviewed. I would ask the Minister to take notice that the abstraction licences affecting the Windrush are carefully considered and that she recommend that a low flow study is implemented for the Windrush as it has been for other local rivers.

5.26 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, first, I apologise to the House for being unable to be in the Chamber for much of the debate. I have been attending a meeting of the Procedure Committee in the Moses Room. However, I was lucky enough to be present for the two notable maiden speeches. I was not, as some of your Lordships might have thought, in the Prince's Chamber auctioning some of my minutes.

During the three minutes allowed, it is difficult to deal sensibly with many of the issues raised by the topic. The title of the debate is to call attention to land use in"— perhaps "of"— the countryside and to the demands placed on it by society". I thank the noble Earl for drawing your Lordships' attention to those two aspects. As regards the demands of society, one might say that the topic can be dealt with in two words; cui bono, for whose benefit?

One cannot deal separately with issues raised narrowly, at any rate geographically in the countryside, without also being aware of pressures on other parts of our society, particularly in urban areas. Town dwellers have interests in the countryside, too—not only food production but development. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, asked what is to be treated as brownfield land and how it is to be dealt with. There are issues of town planning, and town dwellers reap great value from the countryside by being able to visit it. I believe that there are approximately 1.3 billion daily visits each year. I am a tourist to the countryside and recently in the north I came across a sign directing travellers to the Lakeland Oasis Farm Village. I believe that it is a commercial enterprise which seems to be an interesting conjunction of characteristics. Perhaps it satisfies town dwellers in achieving everything in one visit.

My noble friend Lord Beaumont of Whitley referred to the need to move away from seeing the countryside as something set in amber. He talked about it in terms of the social hierarchy. It is all too easy for NIMBY characteristics—no development in my back yard, which are all too obvious in towns—also to apply in the countryside. The countryside as it is today is not entirely natural; it is the product of development over many centuries. I refer to enclosures and the industrial revolution. Many of the distinctive features of the countryside include those which are man made. I mention that because I believe that one cannot resist all change. I suggest that the context for change should be a respect for tradition but coupled with productive use of the countryside and the need for new ventures. One cannot expect landowners simply to preserve. That is not an end of it. They have interests, very supportive interests, and they have to make sure that they can survive. Preservation or conservation cannot happen as though there are no economic factors surrounding it.

In other words, regeneration is a rural as well as an urban issue. We need to plan for it, possibly or probably at regional level. We need to plan for the needs of our regions. We need a strong regional planning framework, observing the need to integrate economic, environmental and social issues.

There is a major demand—and reference has been made to it—for affordable housing. There is an argument for good country houses, which I support, as good examples of architecture and for modern houses which add to our historical heritage. But that is irrelevant to many who are in need. I was pleased that my noble friend Lord Beaumont of Whitley referred to demands for new settlements. I do not believe that the need for new settlements can be ruled out. But it is important that the new settlements should comply with agreed and strict criteria—criteria of design, sustainability with regard to individual buildings and the facilities which new settlements should provide for businesses and for services, not least to minimise the need to transport people from a new settlement to other settlements.

New settlements probably will have to be located away from areas of major employment if only to discourage commuting. I do not suggest that all that needs to be imposed from one centralised master plan. The need for partnership has been referred to and there are many partners who can be a part of that process. There is a need for participation and democracy. I look forward to debates in your Lordships' House on regional identity when we come to consider the proposed new regional development agencies. However, I should like to see the place of regional government discussed and I believe that that would have a role in assisting the countryside.

The countryside is a resource to be cared for as well as exploited. It is a home to communities which are to be nurtured. But it is also the bedrock of economies. They need hard work and innovation to sustain them. It comprises also an environment which we must respect. But it is not a museum piece. We could fight every new development, tolerate every vested interest and, as a consequence, suffer, for example, a lack of affordable housing and appropriate services. Or we could—and I suggest we should—shift our perspective to the regeneration of the countryside to fit the new world.

5.33 p.m.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, this has been a very stimulating debate and, as the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, said, in his opening remarks, it has attracted a large number of distinguished speakers. I compliment the noble Earl on initiating the debate and giving us such a thought-provoking and wide-ranging introduction to what is an immense subject.

There is little that has not been touched upon by someone. I was delighted to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, speak on brownfield sites. I believe that we should have more specific debates on the subject of brownfield sites and contaminated land in the near future. We had some tremendous contributions on forestry from the noble Lords, Lord Taylor and Lord Nathan, and my noble friend Lord Astor. There were some very good contributions on planning from the noble Lords, Lord Bridges and Lord St. John, and my noble friend Lord Marlesford. We went on through' the index of rural issues even as far as the rabbits of my noble friend Lady Strange. Our discussion has extended from riding schools to the bees of the noble Lord, Lord Norton.

I am delighted that the excellent performance based on the accumulated experience of this House provided such a good setting for two excellent maiden speeches. My noble friend Lord De Ramsey, who has established an impressive reputation as chairman of the Environment Agency, made a long-awaited maiden speech and a very good one at that. He was cleverly away from his seat when my noble friend Lord Colwyn put in a plea for the Environment Agency to attend to the River Windrush. I was delighted to hear also the maiden speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells. He gave us some interesting thoughts for debate, not least about the word "stewardship" which has been a theme running through much of the debate.

The Government are very keen on focus groups. I believe that this debate alone has, in an informal way, gathered a focus group of extremely wide experience and expertise with a large number of informed comments and expert opinions. I hope that the Minister and her advisers and colleagues will consider what has been said. I share the regret of many that the time limit on today's debate has been so punitive on those who had so much to contribute. However, I believe that the prize goes to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, for squeezing the maximum number of words into the legal time limit.

We have covered the sheer diversity of the countryside, economic viability, enterprise and opportunity. We have covered the prosperity of the countryside not only in its economic sense but in its environmental and social sense. We have covered environmental stewardship, housing, and, in many different ways, we have covered the options available to management. The diversity of this debate is a true reflection of the diversity of the countryside. It is not just a diversity of landscape or topography; it is a diversity of people, varying aspirations and traditions. It is thus a fear of many noble Lords who have taken part in the debate that the countryside is subject increasingly to simplistic and misleading generalisations. It is increasingly vulnerable to prescriptive edicts and formulae, regardless of the sheer diversity of circumstances which lie out there.

Most vulnerable in terms of misconceptions about the countryside is the role of economic enterprise in our rural areas. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, the distinctive features of our countryside are not necessarily God given—and I say that with respect to the right reverend Prelate. It is not a museum. Much of what is there owes its existence and final shape to the hard work of man. The countryside is merely a series of working landscapes. It is the scene for seven-days-a-week and 52-weeks-per-year industries and enterprises. Those land-based enterprises in the countryside form a considerable economic element not only of rural Britain but, indeed, of our whole national economy.

I do not say that from quaint, rose-tinted, rustic sentiment. The employment statistics, up and downstream, of all our major land-based economic activities are considerable. There is a fashion to focus on the fall in on-farm employment since the Second World War. But if one looks at the increase in employment of up and downstream industries to agriculture since the Second World War, it can be seen that agriculture still comprises a huge industry and a very important part of the landscape in every sense.

The CAP and the problems that its subsidies have presented to land use were touched on widely by my noble friends Lord Renton of Mount Harry, Lord Onslow, Lord Clanwilliam, the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. As many noble Lords will know, the CAP is up for reform in the very near future. The one issue which must be guarded against by the Government in the negotiations is that of modulation.

A number of speakers today complained about large farms, about the rich becoming richer and, indeed, about the need for small-scale family operations. However, we must be very careful in our negotiations in Europe to ensure that the consensus across the Channel for modulation does not disadvantage farmers in the United Kingdom unnecessarily. The average farm size on the Continent—indeed, across the whole of the EU as a statistic—is half the average farm size in the UK. Moreover, the average farm size in Scotland is twice that of the United Kingdom. Therefore, modulation, which is something that the last Government fought very hard to prevent in 1992, is something which must not be imposed upon us. It is not a matter of simply stopping the rich becoming richer; it is a matter of protecting the average-sized family farming unit in this country. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure the House that modulation is something that the Government will do everything they can to prevent in negotiations.

There is a very strong link between economic prosperity and environmental prosperity. The myth has for too long been that if land use is economic and successful, surely it is environmentally damaged. There is a second myth in parallel; namely, that the interests of land management and the interests of natural heritage inevitably conflict. Neither of those myths is borne out in reality. It is the farmer, it is the woodland manager, and it is the land user who is economically viable who is able to incorporate environmental value adding stewardship into his operations. In his very strong opening remarks the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, dealt extremely well with that fundamental economic reality and the environmental benefits which accrue.

The most eye-catching and vivid manifestation of society's demands and the pressures that they place on land use in the countryside involve the huge explosion of tourism and the desire for greater access. The noble Lords, Lord Cobbold and Lord Rotherwick, dealt with those issues. However, that is another subject which I believe would be best handled as a separate debate. But those whose livelihoods are based in the countryside should welcome the interest that those based in urban and suburban areas are showing in the countryside. It is an enthusiasm for the countryside which can bring great benefits. The sheer and straightforward economic opportunities provided by tourism represent one obvious symptom of the benefits that can accrue from people taking a greater interest in our rural areas.

There are also educational opportunities which I hope will be grasped. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, talked about the gap in understanding and my noble friend Lady Sharples mentioned the disappointment that urban and suburban people feel when they see a tree that has been felled in the countryside, simply because they do not necessarily understand how the countryside operates. It is not just a matter of managing the visitors; it is also a matter of educating them so that they understand why some rural activities have to be managed in a certain way.

There are some contentious aspects to rural activities. The management of wild deer is just one. Similarly, the 130 million activity days devoted to country sports of various sorts, the near 100,000 full-time or full-time equivalent jobs which depend upon country sports and the £6 billion in direct and indirect expenditure from those traditions are all vital elements of our countryside.

When considering what has been said in today's debate, I hope that the Minister will do her utmost to take on board some of the hard-earned experience which has been outlined. I also hope that she will take note of the pleas for partnership approaches to policy making and decision making as far as possible and of the need to be sensitive to the needs and desires of the countryside, especially when it comes to such contentious single-issue themes.

I also hope that the Minister and her colleagues will recognise the benefits that can come from working with land managers rather than in a way which alienates them. Land managers can bring a commitment, they can bring energy and resources, and they can work with rather than against in a rather neutral and unconstructive format. I hope that the Minister will be able to take away with her the points so well made by speakers from all parts of the House.

5.43 p.m.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, as the noble Earl said, we have indeed had a fascinating and constructive debate today. I should like to add my congratulations to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, both on the very lucid and considered way in which he introduced such a wide-ranging and diverse subject and on choosing a subject which has attracted such a long and star-studded cast of contributors in your Lordships' House. I have to say that it also gives the person concluding the debate from the Government Front Bench what I believe would be described in current parlance as a challenging task. However, I shall do my best to respond to the points raised.

As many noble Lords said, today's debate has provided us with two outstanding maiden speeches. The noble Lord, Lord De Ramsey, gave us a speech of great wit as well as great eloquence and indeed of passion. That is a very good combination for a maiden speech and of course for any speech made in this House. I am sure that we all look forward to hearing from him in the future. Equally, the right reverend Prelate gave us a wonderful balance between the spiritual and the practical. If I may say so, it is not many Members of your Lordships' House who have their maiden speech trailed on the "Today" programme for them. Perhaps it gave us all expectations which were not in the least disappointed by listening to the right reverend Prelate. It is possible that the timing of today's speeches and contributions were such that we all ought to have practised for the format of the "Thought for the day" slot and then we would all have got the timing absolutely right.

As I said, today's debate has been extremely wide ranging. Although I shall not be able to cover everything that was said, I shall do my best to write to noble Lords on specific subjects. I shall certainly write to the noble Lord, Lord Colwyn, about the River Windrush, although I was tempted to suggest that we simply cut out the middle man and that I refer him immediately to the noble Lord, Lord De Ramsey, in his position as chair of the Environment Agency.

The only aspect of today's debate which somewhat concerned me was the suggestion that the Government represent only urban interests. I should point out to the House that after 1st May the Government—and, indeed, Members in another place—now also represent a wide swathe of rural interests. The responsibilities of representing those interests—that fourth "R" of responsibility and one that the Prime Minister himself has emphasised many times—is something that we take most seriously. We have to be a government of the whole nation and that involves listening carefully. I can assure the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, that we will listen to what has been said today. Indeed, we do want to know about and hear from those who have an enormous contribution to make from their own experience. However, I do not believe that it does any of us any good to categorise the other side of the argument either as distant and unknowing members of the countryside who do not recognise the problems of urban deprivation or vice versa in terms of people who live within towns and cities having no feeling for the problems or respect for the values of the countryside.

The need for partnership was an aspect stressed by the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay. I should like to endorse that. Indeed, we do need partnership which brings together the very considerable devotion of skill and effort which will be needed if we are to formulate policies which will actually tackle some of the very real problems which were so eloquently outlined today.

Several speakers today pointed out that we need to have an integrated approach. We made clear our intention to place the environment at the heart of government policy, to pay our duty to eretz in its widest sense. But today we have also been talking about eretz, as the right reverend Prelate said, in its narrower sense in terms of the specifics of land use. Many strands of government policy have an impact on rural areas. It is vital that we take an integrated approach to address those distinctive needs. My noble friend Lady Nicol made that point. Matters such as jobs and transport—as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, and the noble Lord, St. John of Bletso—housing and employment in rural areas and the protection of and access to the countryside are all closely linked. I stress that we are committed to considering them in the round. It is only through a genuinely integrated approach that we can aim to consider the issues that have been raised by noble Lords tonight.

The countryside and rural policy have been considered as part of the Government's comprehensive spending review. The aim will be to set priorities for rural policy for the medium and for the long term. The need for a long term view, as expressed today, is something that we take seriously. We need to consider the best means of delivering those policies in institutional terms. I believe that the noble Earl made that point in his introductory speech. The review is being jointly conducted by my department, the DETR, and by MAFF and is taking into account other departmental interests. In areas such as transport the work that we are doing on an integrated transport policy must have at its heart the needs of people in rural communities and must recognise that the solutions that we find for congested inner cities will not be appropriate for isolated rural areas. We have also invited comments on this process from others interested in countryside issues.

As one would expect, several speakers such as the noble Lords, Lord Gisborough, Lord Milverton, Lord Rotherwick and others, referred to our manifesto commitment on access to open countryside. We shall publish a consultation paper setting out how this matter is to be taken forward. I hope that my next point will reassure some noble Lords who have spoken today. The consultation paper will recognise that legitimate aspirations to walk more widely in the countryside need to be set against other legitimate concerns. It will strike a balance between rights and responsibilities of walkers and landowners including respect for wildlife and the natural environment. We are firm in our intention to enable more people to enjoy the countryside but we are equally determined to respect the rights of those who live and work there. We shall keep compulsion to the minimum necessary to meet our objectives and we shall encourage the use of voluntary agreements. That issue was mentioned today. I hope that noble Lords will find that the consultation paper covers their concerns and allows them the opportunity to contribute. We look forward to drawing on the long experience of land management in this House and elsewhere to develop practical proposals for legislation.

On a specific issue, the noble Lord, Lord Cobbold, asked for reassurance on the consultation exercise on vehicles on byways. The Government have considered the results of that consultation exercise. We expect to make an announcement shortly. I return to the substantive issue of the debate, land use in the countryside and the demands placed on it by society. The countryside is a vital national resource and a key part of the economy where many people live and work. Our countryside must be a living countryside with a defined purpose as important as that of towns and cities but where non-renewable resources are carefully managed to preserve them for future generations. If we are to balance these needs, we must foster an attitude to development which ensures that it enhances or preserves the character of the countryside, its market towns and villages. Sustainable development is a cornerstone of the Government's rural and planning polices.

Revised national planning guidance for the countryside was published earlier this year by the previous government. The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, emphasised the importance not only of having the right planning policies but also of having streamlined and effective procedures. That is something we have already debated in this House. We are considering proposals for speeding up the planning system as part of the comprehensive review. We shall bring forward proposals in the light of that. As regards funds for the Countryside Commission to appear at public inquiries, I understand that the commission has had to consider carefully its priorities in relation to individual development proposals. I am afraid that determining priorities is something that all public bodies, like all government departments, have to do.

I have already said that our countryside must be a living countryside. It has been said this evening that the countryside cannot be embalmed and kept as it is. There are many reasons why it is important that our countryside is a living countryside. That helps to contribute to general economic growth and to support conservation. It can combat social exclusion and the poverty that is often not recognised but which still exists within the countryside. We have talked about dying cities as well as dying countryside. Government planning policy aims to revitalise our towns and cities while maintaining and enhancing the environmental quality of urban areas. That is important not only for its own sake but to stem migration of people from towns and cities which increases the pressure for new development in the countryside. I welcome the thoughtful remarks of the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Bletso, on quality as an important ingredient of sustainable development. It is that issue of the need for more housing and the growth in the number of households that poses one of the big challenges. Many speakers mentioned it in the debate today including my noble friend Lady Nicol, the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.

It has been mentioned today that 4.4 million new households are expected to form in England alone between the years 1991 and 2016. Noble Lords are no doubt familiar with that statistic. I know that there has been some debate about the methodology for calculating that figure of 4.4. million. The methodology is set out in the 1996 Green Paper Household Growth: Where Shall We Live? We believe that the methodology is robust. I remind noble Lords that household growth is not a new phenomenon. It has been evident since the 1920s and particularly in the 1950s and 1960s. All previous forecasts have proved to be under estimates rather than over estimates. Of course much of this growth is already accommodated in regional planning guidance and structure plans and many of the houses needed have already been built. However, making further adequate provision for these households locally will not be easy. They will all generate pressure on transport, the utilities, water resources, energy and on both urban areas and the countryside. We shall give careful consideration to the responses to the previous government's consultation paper before deciding what the next steps should be.

We are committed to re-using previously developed land, particularly in urban areas, to assist urban regeneration and to create more sustainable patterns of development. The current national target is for at least half of these new homes to be built on previously used sites—the "brownfield" land that has been alluded to today—and these might include former MoD sites where a sustainable mixture of residential and other uses can be achieved. Recent statistics indicate that nationally local authorities are now close to meeting this target. The Government's planning policy guidance clearly states that authorities should make the most effective use of "brownfield" sites for housing. But it is inevitable that some greenfield sites will be needed. We are of course still considering definitions and targets for the re-use of "brownfield" land as we consider responses, in consultation, to the household growth Green Paper.

A number of noble Lords referred to the importance of making substantial changes in the operation of the common agricultural policy, particularly if the more remote farms are to remain viable. Reforming the CAP is a major Government priority. Although a key objective is to secure substantial budgetary savings in due course and benefits for consumers, we recognise that in the past too little agricultural support has been linked to measures which actively improve the rural environment. Radical reform of the present CAP would bring substantial budgetary savings, and we want to divert some of those savings to positive measures for rural development and for the enhancement of the environment.

The Government fully understand the needs of small farmers, a subject so eloquently argued by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, and referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells. The Government's aim is to promote an efficient, prosperous and outward-looking agricultural industry which makes a positive contribution to the rural economy. That policy is pursued for agriculture as a whole and helps smaller farms. Measures such as the environmentally sensitive areas scheme and farm woodlands scheme acknowledge the important role of family farmers in a rural economy. They will be of considerable benefit to smaller farmers. As the noble Lord, Lord De Ramsey, said, farming is the most significant contributor to the appearance and character of the landscape. In particular, in remote areas those small family farms play the biggest part of all.

Farms need to respond to changing marketplaces, but consumers' expectations, as well as expectations for the environment and recreation, have to be recognised. However, those demands do not need to be at odds. I indeed expected that the noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam, would raise the benefit of organic farming. I take much to heart the points he made about the extent to which we rely on imports for the demand that is already there nationally for organic products. Environmentally friendly production methods can add value to farm produce, although UK farmers do not yet satisfy market demand for organic food. We are carefully considering how to encourage an expansion of organic farming. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, also raised the issue of flax grown on SSSIs. We are looking at this matter urgently in order to close the loopholes to which he alluded. I hope that he will be reassured that we are looking at it seriously. We hope to come to some conclusions soon.

Of course, the pressures on the countryside vary, depending on a number of different factors, although the common thread throughout is the need to safeguard the environment. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, referred to the problems faced by upland areas in particular. There are voluntary support schemes of payments available to farmers under England's agri-environment programme, mainly through the countryside stewardship scheme and the environmentally sensitive areas scheme.

Those schemes are subject to regular review in the light of experience and environmental needs. For example, the schemes are, where relevant, being adapted to help achieve biodiversity targets. We work closely with non-governmental organisations in monitoring and developing these schemes through the National Agri-environment Forum and Regional Agri-environment Consultation Groups, public consultation exercises and formal and informal contact with relevant organisations. This reflects the importance—it is a theme running through tonight's debate—placed by the Government on consultation and the open exchange of views.

Of course in recent years, farmers across the board have looked increasingly to supplement their incomes from non-agricultural alternatives. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, talked about the multi-use countryside. Much farm-based work now features activities such as woodland management, equestrian businesses—referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham—sporting facilities and tourism generally. National planning guidance for the countryside recognises the potential benefits of farm diversification to individual rural businesses and the wider rural community and encourages local planning authorities to take a positive approach to such development. I mentioned woodland management as one form of farm diversification. The management and creation of woodland also affect, and are affected by, many of the other issues to which I have alluded. Woodland offers recreational opportunities, landscape diversity and wildlife habitats. The Government support a steady expansion of woodland cover and the sustainable management of our existing woodland resource.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, asked about farm woodland grant rates. The Government increased the grant rates under the farm woodland premium scheme in April this year. In the period to the end of June 1997, over 6,000 applications to convert 37,500 hectares of agricultural land to woodland have been approved under the scheme.

Several noble Lords raised the issue of forestry, including the noble Lord, Lord Astor, and my noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe. The Government are considering how best to progress woodland expansion in England, taking account of responses to last year's consultation by the Forestry Commission and the Countryside Commission which were published recently.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt. Did the noble Baroness say that the Government are considering plans for expansion in England?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, indeed I did.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, 90 per cent. of forestry expansion is in Scotland.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, my noble friend asked me specifically about England. With his concern that with devolution the base and focus of attention might go to Scotland, I sought to reassure him that we were looking at the situation in England as well.

The countryside is a precious part of our national economic, cultural and spiritual life, a point made from the Bishops' Bench and elsewhere today. We have a collective responsibility for the protection and enhancement of the countryside and to ensure that development is sustainable. We will look at the demands placed on the countryside and the needs of rural communities through an integrated approach to rural policy. This bestows on all of us obligations as well as rights. We will take account of the points made during this debate and will be happy to go on listening to, and taking seriously, views from the wide range of rural organisations and from the people in the countryside themselves.

6.6 p.m.

The Earl of Lytton

My Lords, it falls to me to wind up. Your Lordships will be glad to know that I shall do so in fairly short order.

First, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. When I arrived in the House today I was, frankly, amazed at the number of speakers on the list—and not a little concerned that there would be insufficient time for them to say what they needed given their expertise. I give special thanks also to what I have written down as two "outstanding maidens". I am sure that the House will take it in good part when I say that they were two very special maiden speeches. As I said earlier, I am pleased that they chose to speak on this occasion. The speeches were thought provoking, providing much food for thought for the future.

I am grateful for the positive comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay, and the Minister. I felt reassured by what the noble Baroness said.

There have been many candid expressions around the House from those with thoroughly non-partisan expertise. I cannot mention individuals' contributions because there is not time. I do not label the Government "urban"; nor do I criticise them for the present situation. We should not ask why things have happened. But we are in the present situation and we have to look forward. I wish to be forward looking. What is needed is a series of philosophical tools which will inform consideration of ever more complex sub-divisions, as one considers special interests and site specific considerations. I believe that we have lost some of that linkage. It needs to be rebuilt.

It is a huge subject area for debate. I hope that this is just a way station in a process leading to a larger discourse in the country generally. The countryside is a finite resource. It is a valuable resource. It needs to be nurtured and it needs inward investment. It is also an organism, not a static object. It requires process management. My time is up; I must sit down. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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