HL Deb 10 March 1999 vol 598 cc226-81

3.4 p. m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer rose to call attention to the case for policies which will ensure a living, working countryside and in particular to the need for clarity in the new relationships between the regional development agencies, the Countryside Agency, government offices, the European Commission and local authorities; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, as I introduce this debate this afternoon I especially welcome the fact that so many noble Lords have chosen to take part. The future of rural Britain needs a new vision, and sharing our thoughts and concerns today will certainly help to build that vision. I especially welcome the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, is making his maiden speech this afternoon. He has long expertise in this field which I am sure will be welcomed.

For decades we have lived with the myth of a countryside which has now ceased to exist. We have lived with the myth of rural England as the cosy, rose covered cottages near the village green. But the reality has changed. People who were born in the cities now move to the village when they have enough money or when they retire. People who were born in the village have to move to the cities as they grow up because that is where the cheaper housing is and where the jobs are. People from urban and suburban Britain want to visit the countryside for a day to walk, to go to the country pub for lunch or to watch the heron rise from the river. People working in the countryside want access to training to help them keep as skilled as their city counterparts. But the sad fact is—it is this fact that we must address today—that the political vision, the policy and the resources have been denied to rural Britain by successive governments. The Government have trailed dismally behind the pace of change and that is why we are now faced with a crisis in the countryside.

Liberal Democrats have long advocated many practical policies for putting our vision of a thriving countryside into action. Indeed, our Liberal Democrat councils have, in spite of the lack of central government action over the past decade, worked with their rural towns on regeneration and with their village communities on practical measures. This Government have adopted some of them, for example rate relief for rural post offices and shops. One of the major points which we have consistently made is that rural issues need addressing in a comprehensive way.

This Government are proud of the phrase "joined up thinking". Where, then, is the rural policy unit or the rural ministry that could achieve this? Early on this Government were minded to think about that, but it seems to have fallen off the agenda. We need an overall vision. We must implement the kind of changes that will create a rural Britain that is not a museum where there is no real work; that is not a wilderness of wheat with no wildlife; that is not a preserve of the wealthy second home owners; but is a place where wildlife thrives; where wholesome food is produced; where children can grow up in communities that offer them varied opportunities; and where elderly people do not need to dread isolation and diminishing essential services as they grow older.

The Government are now preparing a White Paper on rural England and a discussion document has been published in the past fortnight. But what will be the reaction to this document? Rural communities and their representatives have been consulted literally dozens of times over the past few years. They have been consulted on their local plans, on how many houses should be built and where they should be built. They have been consulted by their community councils on how their communities are progressing and what kind of things need to happen to build them up. They have been consulted on their response to the crime and disorder proposals. They have been consulted by their local housing authorities on housing needs, and they ask themselves what has changed. What they do know is that their post offices and village shops continue to struggle and sadly in many cases continue to close. I am sure that most noble Lords are aware of the huge number of rural villages that have no shop or post office. People in rural communities also know that there are fewer hares in the fields and fewer larks in the sky and—as has been highlighted in your Lordships' House over the past few months—fewer sparrows and fewer lapwings. They have heard about good intentions from successive governments, so one cannot blame the people of rural Britain for being cynical.

I wish to turn for a moment to the people who are trying to deliver the rural services. I have to say, off the record, that they are cynical too. They are cynical because the forthcoming White Paper on the future of rural Britain will come after the Government have done so much to define that rural future. It will come after the creation of the RDAs and the guidance to them on what their strategy should contain. I remember the struggle in your Lordships' House to include a reference to representation of rural interests. The White Paper will come after the decision to merge the Rural Development Commission and the Countryside Commission into the Countryside Agency. It will come after the prospectus for that agency has been decided.

In their Select Committee on the Countryside Agency, Members of another place wondered whether this decision to, in their words, "cobble together" was more a matter of administrative convenience than a vital part of a new strategy for rural areas. Furthermore, the White Paper will come after the Government have decided their negotiating position on CAP reform. Hardly anything will have more impact on rural Britain than that. The White Paper on rural England should have led this process, not followed it.

After hearing that catalogue, your Lordships might be forgiven for asking what there is left to discuss. I am an optimist and I hope that there is quite a lot left to be discussed. The positive step in this direction is that the discussion paper on rural England is a joint publication between MAFF and the DETR. So there is a partial acceptance that rural issues are cross-departmental. But other departments whose policies are crucial are not included; for example, the DTI. Small businesses outside the agricultural sector are very important. Tourism, too, is of great importance in many of our rural regions but is so often left out of the equation.

It is possible to foresee an environment in which small rural businesses thrive and where farmers, especially those on the smaller family farms, get their due for implementing agri-environment schemes and receive a decent return for producing high quality food. A recent Exeter University study estimated that producers receive only 15p in every pound for their produce. If the Government supported a processing and marketing scheme for farmers, imagine what that would do to change some of the returns producers would receive. I think it is the small producers, despite the exchange I had at Question Time, who need special consideration. They are the ones who are building the whole picture of the agricultural sector in rural Britain. Although we may dismiss only 15 producers as a very small part of what happens, we know that it is local produce and the distinctiveness of that produce that are very important to people.

There are European funds for such schemes, but as yet the Government have chosen not to take part in them. I hope that we will benefit from the reform of CAP funding that can introduce agri-environment and rural development measures. But who will decide how to use these funds? Who will decide the priorities in each region? Crucially, who will measure the success of such schemes? In short, we have a jigsaw of agencies, boards and authorities. How do they fit together? The question that should have been addressed right at the start of this process is: which agency or authority is responsible for what?

Regional development agencies' guidance is that their fundamental purpose is to improve their regions' economic performance and enhance their regions' competitiveness. The guidance makes almost no mention of either the quality of life of the people living in the region or of maintaining and enhancing the quality of the environment, sustainable development and protecting biodiversity. RDAs have to deliver their first regional economic strategies by June of this year. They urgently need advice on those environmental issues. From where will they get it? Will they get it from the new Countryside Agency? Its chairman has only just been appointed and its board has not yet met. Where do English Nature and the Farming and Rural Conservation Agency fit in? Who informs whom? They will all be dealing with remarkably similar issues. Will we end up with more barn owls as a result? Will wildlife sites get the recognition they need? Will the rate at which we are losing SSSIs be halted? What if the RDAs choose not to heed advice? The consultation paper does not really define that relationship.

This would be less of a thorny issue if the Government had defined that relationship between RDAs and the regional chamber. Noble Lords will remember that it was not defined on the face of the Regional Development Agencies Bill. The RSPB, among others, has picked up this point. It says that, The relationship between the RDA and the Regional Chamber is crucial to the success of the regional partnership". Without a clear relationship that link with those who deliver so many rural services is lost. In fact, I am surprised by the way local authorities are so marginalised in the rural discussion document. Councils are key players in delivering rural services and in the regeneration work in their towns and villages. This is all the more surprising given that the Government have said that the point of their Modernising Local Government drive was that those elected, accountable bodies could play a vital role in shaping the future of their communities. Is this not to be the case in rural areas?

We should bear in mind the crucial role of local authorities in, say, housing. Again I return to the discussion document on the rural White Paper which gives housing just a cursory mention. It says: Access to decent, affordable housing plays an important part in sustaining rural communities and demand for housing in many areas continues to grow". I think that that understates the situation wildly. For anyone who needs to live in rural Britain, who wants to live near their families and needs to work there, who is young, single or in insecure employment, finding a home would be as hard as finding a haystack in modern rural Britain.

I recently had a meeting with the chairman of the Young Farmers in Somerset. I asked her what was at the top of her members' agenda. I expected her to say BSE or the difficulty of entry into farming. But at the top of her list, too, was lack of affordable housing. So who is the housing authority? Who must draw up and implement the integrated transport plans? It is the local authority.

Into this melting pot I would just like to throw the Government Offices for the Regions. Among other tasks, they must encourage a constructive dialogue between, for example, the regional planning conference and the RDA. That is particularly crucial at the moment when we are all still struggling to predict and provide the number of homes that will be required and which threaten so much of our greenfield England. That is continuing to cause enormous conflict between what we should protect and how we should protect it.

We now have many new bodies and a good deal of re-organisation. Will these structures be easy to understand and work with? Will they make it easier for a community to rebuild its village hall? Will the funding mechanisms for such projects be easier to deal with? It is very, very difficult for a local community to get together four, five or six partners; frequently we need a professional red-tape interpreter. I hope the reorganisations will make this simpler.

Recognition of the problems and solutions offers us opportunities. The European CAP reform proposals offer a chance to draw on funding for rural development which will strengthen the whole of the rural economy. It offers an opportunity because a regional structure with regional assemblies could draw the strands together. It offers an opportunity for the Government to create a Ministry which will draw the strands together nationally, or will at least do what so many in the countryside are after and "rural proof, a phrase which people like the CPRE are now using. It is a time of opportunity because there is a recognition that everyone has a stake in a rural future. The city dweller, those in the market town, the farmer, those living in villages and those who live in our isolated uplands all have a stake in that future and we need to get it right. We must not miss these opportunities because they fell through cracks in the structures. Let us be clear in our vision. Let us make the links and fill in the cracks. I beg to move for Papers.

3.30 p. m.

Lord Williamson of Horton

My Lords, this is an important debate for me for three reasons: first, because it is widely acknowledged that debates in this House and the reports of committees of this House have made a valuable contribution to public policy and discussion on agriculture and the countryside; secondly, because so far in this debate there has been a monopoly of speakers who are Somerset folk, and Somerset folk think that they know a thing or two about agriculture and the countryside; and thirdly, because it is the first time that I speak in this Chamber and I ask your Lordships' indulgence. There is a very good principle to which I subscribe. It is that newcomers should be seen and heard —but not for too long!

I support very much the approach proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, in seeking a living, working countryside. If farmers cannot make a living, or if they do not think that it is worth continuing to work, we shall not have a living, working countryside. So agriculture is central to this debate. However, the countryside is much more than farming, and there are many things we can do to improve co-ordination between the various agencies to which the noble Baroness referred.

In the countryside we are in any event going to depend in the future very much, perhaps even more so than now, on small businesses. The action taken in yesterday's Budget is very welcome. It should be pan: of countryside policy as well as national policy to encourage small businesses in small towns and villages. There are many ways in which we can help small businesses; for example, by systematically questioning, when new obligations are imposed on businesses, whether the smallest businesses can be exempted on de minimis grounds. That should be an important general rule.

The type of small business in the countryside is bound to change, with fewer manufacturing and more service businesses, and more distance-working. I do not know how far the public services have gone in encouraging distance-working. I doubt whether a part of the department of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will be established in Chilthorne Domer in the near future, but at least we should seek to remove any barriers to distance-working by which people or groups work at home with a connection to the main centres by computerised means.

In addition, the increased attention being given by the public to the protection of the environment and to leisure activities in the countryside is to be welcomed, provided that we do not overrun the capacity of the countryside to handle the changes. That is particularly important following the recent Statement on the right to roam. We should not under-estimate the attractiveness of the rural landscape, not only to walkers but to the public generally. A recent study in the south west indicated that an estimated 10 million holiday trips in the area are motivated by the rural landscape. Conservation organisations such as the National Trust and the wildlife trusts provide a large number of jobs and a great deal of economic activity, going well beyond their own employees. The estimated figure for the National Trust—I declare an interest as a member of the regional committee for Wessex—is that for every one job in the National Trust, 3.3 jobs are created elsewhere in the south west. Altogether, about 5, 000 full-time equivalent jobs depend on the activities of the National Trust. It is a significant figure.

All the agencies need to understand the changes that will, or have, come about in the common agricultural policy. There is a certain time lag in comprehending the changes. I am sympathetic to that, as they are fairly complicated. However, I believe that changes in the common agricultural policy will have a significant impact on the countryside. After all, we are making changes in terms of reducing prices, reducing the importance of intervention and in setting up more direct and agri-environmental grants, and grants for rural development. These are important changes. They will mean lower prices. Regrettably, there may be a higher budget cost. And there will probably be very low stocks in intervention in the near future. All those factors will affect the way in which farming develops. The safety net will be somewhat lower and farmers will be more reliant on market prices and direct grants.

Finally, we need to look beyond changes that have already taken place towards possible future changes. As we debate this matter, Ministers of the member states are meeting yet again in Brussels to discuss further changes in the common agricultural policy. As one who has attended—I should say suffered—108 meetings of the Council of Agriculture Ministers, including eight marathons, I know the horrors, and also that the results are not always strictly rational. However, I think we can assume that the movement will be towards a greater impact of the market on agriculture. The Commission has proposed a 20 per cent. cut in the price of cereals. That is an important move. Even if Ministers do not accept it, there will probably be some significant reduction in cereal prices. I sometimes reflect that, were we in ancient Egypt or Rome, people would be cheering in the streets if they heard that the price of wheat was to decline by 20 per cent. But in Britain, where good news is occasionally overlooked, it seems not to have received a mention. Indeed, for 2, 000 years it has been a principle of political success that we should give the people "bread and circuses. "We already have the Millennium Dome, and now it looks as though there will be a slight cut in the price of bread. So the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will be able to sleep peacefully at night.

Overall, I believe that the forthcoming changes are important, as is co-ordination between the agencies. Change will be difficult, but it is absolutely necessary if we are to have a living, working countryside of which we can be proud.

3.27 p. m.

Baroness Young of Old Scone

My Lords, on behalf of the whole House, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, on his excellent maiden speech. He brings to this House a wealth of experience, not only of the Department of Agriculture in this country, but also of the machinations of Europe which he so well described. Many of the issues with which we shall be wrestling in the forthcoming months and years to safeguard the vibrancy of our countryside for the future are ones in which the noble Lord is thoroughly steeped. We look forward to the benefit of his knowledge and wisdom. If I may be bold enough to say so, attending 108 European Council meetings eminently equips him for this House!

I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for the opportunity to debate this important issue of a living, working countryside. I declare an interest as chairman of English Nature, one of the plethora of bodies that she described as presently working for the countryside.

The rural agenda that we have heard sketched out is an extremely wide one. It includes all the economic, social and environmental issues described by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. Indeed, we are all looking forward to the rural White Paper. I was with the Deputy Prime Minister when he launched the rural White Paper. I found myself experiencing one of life's delicious moments when he turned to me, pointed his finger and started lecturing me on the importance of tackling the decline in skylarks. It is not a topic on which I have often heard the Deputy Prime Minister wax lyrical. I am glad that the rural White Paper has brought him to a recognition that the decline in biodiversity in our countryside is an important issue.

I had another wicked thought while he was lecturing me on the value of skylarks. We have had several other rural White Papers, none of which has solved the problems of the countryside. I do not believe they have been short on ideas, they have been short on implementation. It might be easier if we erased the word "Conservative" from the last rural White Paper and wrote "Labour" at the top of it and proceeded to implementation immediately, rather than going through the process of asking everyone their views all over again.

What we need is integration of the three countryside issues to produce a sustainable countryside. We need to bring together the economic considerations and the economic crisis in the countryside, the real social deprivation and lack of amenities and the need to protect the environment.

I am pleased that we shall look at the rural White Paper also in the context of the urban White Paper because, as the noble Baroness pointed out, the town and the country are not hermetically sealed from each other. These days they are mutually dependent, they share issues like deprivation, poor transport and lack of employment.

I wish to tackle three issues. First, I shall look at what is different in the countryside. It is distinctive because it is green, it has biodiversity, it is our landscape. It has a value that is intrinsic in that its wildlife and biodiversity are important for the future of all of us and the sign of a healthy environment. But those distinctive features of the countryside are also economically important. Our wildlife and landscape create jobs—conservation management is now one of the fastest growing employment sectors in the countryside. For every direct conservation management job there are five other jobs created in support services and areas like green tourism.

I hope we will see more of extensive agriculture under the common agricultural policy reforms. It employs more people than traditional—as it has now become—intensive agriculture. A high quality countryside is economically good because it promotes inward investment. Many firms go to parts of the country that have high quality rural surroundings because they want to operate there and know that they can recruit staff to live there.

Last but not least, our landscape and biodiversity are important for social reasons. People enjoy visiting them and we will look with interest at the development of the access provisions recently announced.

In tackling the social and economic interests in the countryside, we need to ensure that we are building them firmly on the basis of the natural assets that are so valuable in the countryside. Economic development must enhance the environment and reflect regional character rather than destroying it.

The noble Baroness also pointed out the plethora of regional processes that we are now seeing impacting on the countryside. I wish to focus particularly on the regional development agencies. They have the potential to become a positive force for change and renewal in the countryside and not just engines for economic change. They need to tackle their development task in a sustainable way that takes account of social and environmental issues as well. They are rather thin in membership terms of people who have real rural background and knowledge. But that is not necessarily a total fault. There are other ways in which knowledge of rural processes, the environment and the countryside can be brought into the rural development agency process. As they begin to recruit new staff, we want to see specialist teams who have rural interests as part of their background and a range of skills being brought in through advice from other agencies.

Most of all, we need the rural development agencies to operate within the framework of the planning system which has been developed over the past 30 or 40 years, to do the job of bringing together competing needs in the countryside and resolving those competing needs.

My time has overrun. The third point I wished to raise has already been well covered by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson: the common agricultural policy reform. I end by saying that the countryside is distinctive because of its natural assets. In tackling social and economic issues it is vital that the solutions are built on enhancing those natural assets.

3.33 p. m.

The Earl of Selborne

My Lords, I also wish to start by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, on his maiden speech. He clearly has great expertise in the area, but he particularly commands our admiration as a veteran of 108 Agricultural Council meetings. His speech was admirable; his attendance record at those meetings even more deserving of praise.

I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for initiating the debate. She reminded us of a number of far-reaching changes here in the United Kingdom, in the regions, and in Europe. It is extremely important that we work out how we can achieve what our own rural White Paper seeks to achieve: an integrated and effective approach for rural areas.

National policy must ultimately be the key. It is clearly helpful to have a European input. It is sad in a way that the great aspirations at the time of the Cork conference two years ago have clearly not been fulfilled. There is much watering down of the rural development element; nevertheless it is still there. I hope that that can be harnessed to our own aspirations—national, regional and local—for the rural areas.

One factor is absolutely clear. We cannot conceivably determine the rural initiatives that are needed in order to recharge the rural economy at a European level. It is self-evident that we have completely different aspirations and problems in our rural areas from region to region, let alone compared with other parts of the continent of Europe. Objective 2, which is an innovation within the Agenda 2000 package, is something we will no doubt welcome provided it can be seen to be subservient to the measures that it is incumbent on us to identify.

The regional development agencies will have a central role because so much can and should be determined at the regional level. I share the concern of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that there may not be the expertise on rural areas within the regional development agencies. It is important that we ensure that the expertise is available.

We have a raft of initiatives from the past five to 10 years on which to draw. We know that the population in the rural areas of this country—unlike so much of the Continent, particularly France—is increasing. We know that this, in turn, causes great pressure on housing. There is a shortage of low-cost social housing. We must put in place the appropriate housing in order to meet the aspirations of younger wage-earning adults of whom there is a shortage in the rural areas. The rural areas have a greater preponderance of the elderly, often suffering from lack of transport.

A point touched on by all speakers is that agricultural employment is in long-term decline. There is nothing new in that; it has been happening ever since the war. That is not to say that the agricultural industry is inevitably in terminal decline. Nor is it automatically true—and this is where I part company with the noble Baroness, Lady Young—that extensive agriculture employs more people.

If we require agriculture to be competitive in world terms—and we do require it—we must ensure that we develop agricultural systems which have the least impact on the environment and provide the most opportunities for the rural economy. There is no reason why extensive farming or intensive farming should be better or worse. If we consider some of the best managed farms and estates which have won national awards for environmental measures, some can only be described as intensive, highly competitive agriculture. If that agriculture does not survive, we will not have a rural economy. Agriculture may be declining in terms of rural employment, but it is still a large part of the rural economy.

We become muddled when we use emotive words about intensive agriculture and the impact on the environment. I make the point time and time again that while organic farming may be an important niche, which we are failing to fill, we must ultimately determine how we have agricultural systems which fit most happily into the environment and particularly into the landscapes which we all cherish. The phrase, "a living, working countryside", to which the terms of the Motion refer, implies that there must ultimately be commercially competitive agriculture.

There is one specific proposal to which I should refer on the agricultural side. I was saddened that the previous administration removed the UK processing and marketing scheme. If we recognise that we must have a competitive agriculture, we quickly determine that we must meet the regional aspirations to which the noble Baroness, who initiated the debate, referred. We must also try to add value as close as possible to the farm. That means creating jobs in the countryside and trying to bring marketing and processing as near the farm as possible. We missed an opportunity to do that by removing the scheme which was funded by the CAP. My time is up. I shall set a precedent by being the first person not to exceed the six-minute time limit. I hope that noble Lords will not ignore the great contribution that can be made by competitive agriculture.

3.40 p. m.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for introducing this important debate. I also add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, on his excellent maiden speech. This debate gives us the opportunity to consider again the vital needs of a living, working countryside at a moment of change when we see the evolution and emergence of several new agencies with, we hope, complementary but possibly conflicting responsibilities. The picture is very complicated. It is a kind of three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle with many uncertainties, some risks but also a number of important possibilities for revitalising rural life.

I believe that the key lies with the new Countryside Agency which is a national body with the specific remit of promoting a living, working countryside. It has been created out of the old RDC and the Countryside Commission, but continues to be housed in the former base of the Countryside Commission. Many of its staff were formerly with the Countryside Commission. This has led to some fears being expressed that the Countryside Agency may be too much concerned with environmental issues and too little interested in rural development, infrastructure, transport and all those other vital factors that make for a vigorous and sustainable rural community.

In reality it would be difficult to be too much concerned with environmental issues, which are clearly crucial. I long to see more larks and lapwings. A fortnight ago I was in Normandy under leaden skies and saw huge flocks of lapwings. I wondered what the French knew about lapwing habitats that we appeared to have forgotten. But the new Countryside Agency needs to act quickly to win the confidence and support of all in rural communities: farmers, small business people, landowners, voluntary organisations and environmentalists. The research and advisory function of the Countryside Agency is of critical importance. It will need to give clear and convincing advice to the RDAs, which are dominated mainly by urban and business interests, and also to the Government Offices and local authorities. It will need to maintain a close and fruitful relationship with Brussels.

The RDAs are emerging as very powerful players with easy access to government which is to be welcomed, but they need to take over the old rural regeneration functions of the RDCs and to be put in charge of European Union structural funds as well as the single regeneration budget. I hope that the Minister will be able to give noble Lords some indication that that will happen. There is real concern about the urban domination of RDAs. Their members need to remember that 23 per cent. of the population live in the country and 30 per cent. of national GDP is accounted for in rural areas.

The Government Offices may appear to be losing out in terms of power and influence to the RDAs. I understand that in many places Government Offices staff have been offered the chance to transfer to the new RDAs. But further devolution to the regions is very much on the cards. That process may well bring other functions to the Government Offices, such as Home Office or culture, media and sport responsibilities. One very important change that it would be good to see and that would be especially beneficial to rural areas is the incorporation into the Government Offices of the regional offices of MAFF. Indeed, MAFF needs to be much more concerned in future with rural development in the broadest sense, especially by helping farmers to add value to their produce locally. Moreover, MAFF needs to advise the RDAs about businesses that can appropriately be located in rural areas to help the process of regeneration. I ask the Minister to give your Lordships' House an indication of whether the Government intend to encourage the convergence of MAFF and the Government Offices.

The regional chambers are as yet fairly shadowy bodies. It is not clear how influential they may become. They are important because they give a voice to local authorities and voluntary agencies. In due course they may develop into regional elected assemblies. That would transform them into very powerful bodies. In the West Midlands there is a strong head of steam in favour of that development. But for the moment I see the chambers as ensuring a close and harmonious partnership between the RDA and the local authorities. It is the local authorities who still handle the vast bulk of public funding, even though they may believe, as one local politician put it to me rather cynically the other day, that RDAs are a necessary evil so that they can continue to have access to Richard Caborn's wallet.

Rural people and voluntary organisations including CPRE and the Churches are not well represented on most chambers. We are concerned about being taken seriously. We are also concerned about the end of European 5b funding which was specifically targeted for rural regeneration. Common agricultural policy reform has run into predictable difficulties and access to European funds for rural development appears to be increasingly difficult and problematical. The Minister's assurances that this problem is recognised and will be tackled vigorously would be very welcome.

Finally, I touch upon another change that we may have to envisage. We may have to look again at local government. We have just been through a great upheaval in the form of the introduction of unitary authorities in many places. In the diocese of Hereford, which is almost equally divided between Herefordshire and South Shropshire, I can compare a new unitary authority—Herefordshire—with a weakened two-tier Shropshire. Having lost The Wrekin with a large population and significant resources, Shropshire, although an extremely well run county, is struggling. The argument for simplifying local government, for example by creating new unitary authorities in North and South Shropshire, begins to look quite convincing.

If regional government does come it is clear that unitary authorities will have to come too in place of the more elaborate two-tier county structure. The prospect of more upheaval is not attractive, but I believe this debate has made us think more radically and long term. However the present relationships develop and whatever comes in the future, a living, working countryside will remain of vital importance. Tourism will become more important, but to take rural England as a whole it can never make more than a marginal contribution to the kind of well balanced, sustainable rural communities that we urgently need to maintain.

3.46 p. m.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Williamson. I know that we have a strong agricultural voice on his Bench. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for initiating the debate. The Government make frequent Statements on the countryside and produce White Papers and consultative documents, but positive action is much less substantial. This week it has been totally negative, in that we have had a big increase in the tax on fuel, which is our life-blood in the countryside. On most farms it is essential to have fairly high-powered vehicles to pull trailers and to get round the countryside. The same goes for transport. We have also had a Statement on access to the countryside, to which I shall turn later, and the continuing muddle of the CAP in Europe. All together, this is bad news for the countryside.

I speak with some credentials as one who steered the Wildlife and Countryside Bill through another place and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, is aware, served on the Nature Conservancy Council for nine years before she became chairman of English Nature. By and large, I have strongly supported what we have done in the countryside, with two exceptions: wind farms and telecommunication towers. Both the previous government and the present one have made it far too easy to erect these most unattractive, almost obscene, towers all over the rural countryside. Nothing can be done to enhance the environment, improve habitats, support wildlife, achieve a high standard of husbandry and retain employment unless fanning and forestry are profitable. We must have a fair return on capital and labour if we are to make any improvements in the rural economy. At the moment that is manifestly not so.

We had a period of increasing income up to 1996–97. Since then almost everything has gone wrong. There has been a severe drop in farmgate prices. In Scotland, the income from agriculture was £600 million in 1995 and £100 million in 1998. Every sector is affected, especially the hills. No wonder there is gloom. I think that it was made worse by the wholly one-sided government Statement earlier this week. I do not think that the Government have appreciated the substantial progress in the past few years towards voluntary agreements and arrangements. The CLA, the Scottish Landowners' Federation and the NFUs of each country have worked hard towards that. Under the excellent chairmanship of Magnus Magnusson—sadly he is retiring this year—Scottish Natural Heritage introduced the Access Forum in Scotland which brought immediate agreement on all sides as to voluntary access to the hills of Scotland. He underlined the important point that, Access must be exercised responsibly and must be subject to land use requirements". I hope that the Government will include that requirement in the Bill when it arrives in this House.

However, harmony was ruined by the confrontational approach by the Government this week. I think that they will rue the day. It is sad to see the argument polarised. We must have a long debate on the subject when we can raise the tone of discussion and seek consensus.

The Government seem enthusiastic to reform the CAP. I recommend caution, and did so in public on many occasions as a Minister. Any major reform which reduces income, coupled with the current low prices, will be the death knell of farming. That industry is the mainstay of the rural economy. At present the world is full of cliches from Ministers to academics on advice to farmers. It is so easy to give and difficult to achieve. Buzz words are everywhere—training; conversion of buildings; tourist development; farm shops; country cottages; co-operatives; rural transport; bed and breakfast, and so on. They tell you everything except where the money is to come from. Even if there were a 50 per cent. grant from the development agencies, from the enterprise companies in Scotland or from Europe, the matching 50 per cent. on many grants is just not there.

How can farmers make substantial investment without a good cash flow? There are also the lengthy arguments they have to undertake with planning committees, which, my goodness, can be difficult, and the grant-giving authorities. The Government's first duty must be to get farming off its knees; then the rural problems will begin to disappear. But if there is no increase in income, no capital, no employment and no development, the countryside will deteriorate. Last autumn I was in northern New York state on a military visit. The countryside there had been largely abandoned, with derelict fields, fences and buildings. It demonstrates what can happen if farming is allowed to go to rack and ruin; and that includes all the environmental aspects too.

The CAP presents many aspects which are unattractive to us, in particular the modulation scheme. I hope that the Government will be careful how they proceed. They must realise that if we are to improve the environment they must make farming profitable.

3.53 p. m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, noble Lords will be glad to hear that there is no need for me to make my speech. Everything has been said, and said well, in particular by the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who placed the correct emphasis on the importance of agriculture. That was emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Monro, in a somewhat more gloomy manner.

An enormous proportion of the countryside is still peopled by farmers. In Great Britain in 1977, 748,000 people, including spouses—it is important to include them—were directly employed in agriculture. In 1996—it is the last comparable figure I have—the figure was 603, 000. Those are large numbers. In Scotland the total figure is 80, 000, with 20, 000 farmers and 60, 000 workers in the countryside. The number is multiplied by a large figure which I have been able to ascertain precisely: that is, those who are directly employed in servicing agriculture.

I visited a farm machinery firm representing one of the best known manufacturers. In the past year-and-a-half of bad figures relating to farming, while it has not sacked anyone—it is a good firm and wishes to keep its good people—it has not replaced five people out of 20 in the workshop. That is a significant figure which demonstrates the dependence on prosperity in agriculture.

A somewhat lesser illustration comes from a pest control officer—we used to call them rabbit trappers. He said to me, "The farmers are daft. In bad times they don't employ me to kill the rabbits. They leave the rabbits to multiply and eat the grain they need so badly". So he, too, was suffering. It is an illustration of the importance throughout the countryside of reasonably prosperous agriculture. It is true that we need to develop and facilitate other forms of employment in the countryside. On the east coast of Scotland one of the great snags, for example, to developing old farm buildings for other purposes is the difficulty of obtaining planning permission. For example, a young man may have a good idea in engineering. It is ludicrous that the planners, for some extraordinary reason, refuse permission or take so long to give it that the project falls through. We need to pursue all these practical matters.

In introducing the debate, my noble friend Lady Miller had an English background in mind because she is rightly concerned with the cohesion of the various bodies. I wish to point out, with others, the absolute necessity of a prosperous agricultural industry if we want a good, viable countryside. It is vital to spend money—we have many enterprise groups in Scotland—on encouraging co-operation and marketing. The ludicrous figure of the farmer receiving 15 per cent. of the end price needs to be improved. I have said enough and will sit down well within my allocated time.

3.57 p. m.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I associate myself with others who have thanked the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for allowing us to discuss the subject today. Perhaps I may be forgiven if I do not mention agriculture. Four of the first seven speeches were by experts in agriculture. It is sufficient for me to endorse heartily all that they said.

One of my reasons for taking part in the debate is that I see a distinct danger of this House becoming divorced from Scottish matters after the creation of the new Scottish Parliament. The functions of that Parliament are far-reaching; and we shall have no locus in the legislation it may pass which could affect seriously the Scottish countryside. My hope is that your Lordships will not feel inhibited in any way from comment or advice on such issues, and that the new parliament will have the confidence and the maturity, even in its infancy, to welcome constructive criticism and comment from wherever it comes.

It seems likely that either Labour or the Scottish National Party will emerge as the largest single party after the May elections, and since both are committed to some sort of land reform, a Bill to enact their proposals will be among the first to be presented to the new parliament.

I trust that very careful thought will be given to the preliminary researches already carried out by the Scottish Office. In September 1998 a land reform group, chaired by the Scottish Office Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Sewel and including a number of distinguished Members, produced an interesting document entitled Land Reform-Identifying the Solutions.

I have no criticism of the way in which the case is presented or with the detailed analysis given to each of their "Visions for the Future"—the somewhat romantic title which they gave to their ideas. But I do hope that they, or the Scottish Office officials who will service the new Ministers, will take very careful note of the many disadvantages as well as the advantages, outlined in their own document. In the future nobody can suggest that the new parliamentarians have not been warned. The disadvantages of every aspect of land reform is there in black and white for all to read.

I would not deny that over the years we have had some bad landlords in Scotland, but they have been far outnumbered by the far-sighted, dedicated and thoroughly good landlords who have struggled to make their estates viable.

I trust that some research will be done into the present viability of estates particularly in the Highlands of Scotland. If it is, it will be discovered that few would be viable without the injection of capital from business or financial interests from other sources and sometimes even from other countries.

Should those estates be broken up, their limited viability would be further eroded. I do not want to see the baby thrown out with the bath water. I want to see a way of life preserved and rural areas continue to act as the lungs of the countryside, free of pollution and available for both leisure and sport, with each having regard to, and respect for, the aspirations of the other. For example, there is no merit in encouraging hordes of ramblers to climb hills where eagles or falcons are known to nest. Their very presence will scare off the birds they wish to observe. Yet there are opportunities for hill walking which are readily available throughout Scotland, as can be witnessed by the number of enthusiasts who conquer munros in Scotland every weekend.

Fishing, shooting, and stalking all provide sport for a sector of the tourist industry which we neglect at our peril, for within that grouping are customers who are prepared to pay substantial rents which help to finance the land over which they shoot or the rivers which they fish. I doubt that land reform will play a significant part in improving the situation. The problems of the countryside in Scotland differ from those in England and Wales only in scale. Those and other problems will not be resolved overnight, but the terms of this debate can help to provide the way forward.

4.3 p. m.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, the timing of this debate is most appropriate. I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for tabling her Motion. I also add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Williamson for his very enlightening speech.

I must declare an interest. My husband and I have just over 100 acres in Worcestershire. We have a small flock of pedigree black Welsh Mountain sheep; a small herd of pedigree Blonde Aquitaine beef cattle and about 20 milking goats, from whose milk I make cheese. Our local family butcher, who has a low throughput abattoir attached to his shop, kills our surplus lambs and kids and prepares them for private sales. He, his brother and other members of his family have awards for their specialist meats and sausages. There is, as the Minister is no doubt aware, a niche market for these meats. Neither our lambs nor our kids are acceptable to the supermarket buyers who dominate local auction markets and co-operatives. No large-scale abattoir would look at the small numbers we would want killed. Even if it would, we would have to travel many miles to our nearest one. Our local hunt kennels takes our fallen stock. The local knackerman went out of business during the BSE crisis.

It seems to be the policy of this Government that farmers should lose their local abattoirs and hunt kennels; the first in the name of rationalisation and the second in the name of morality. I wonder whether they, their supporters and advisers are aware that by doing so they are in grave danger of killing off the few remaining local markets and, with them, upland and specialist meat producers. Do they not realise that there is a ready market for meat with flavour that has been reared, slaughtered and prepared to the highest welfare and hygiene standards? Is it not the intensively reared, industrially slaughtered, pale and tasteless relation that masquerades as meat that is in surplus in the EU?

The Minister's honourable friend, the Minister of State for Agriculture, appeared only last weekend on BBC2 South-West in a debate on the plight of small abattoirs. He said in effect that, while he had sympathy for the small abattoir owners, the "big boys in the meat industry" would not allow him to order charging on a headage rather than an hourly basis. It is all too clear why these "big boys", with a throughput of a beast every 45 seconds, will not hear of a headage charge.

We are also told that there is over-capacity in the slaughter industry. Dare I suggest that it is not a question of over-capacity? It is one of profitability. I understand that the Meat and Livestock Commission calculations are based on the throughput capacity in the slaughter hall. Will the Minister persuade his colleagues in MAFF to go back to the MLC and ask it to produce true capacity figures, including chiller capacity, together with those for profitability? Could it be that the "big boys", to whom the agriculture Minister says he must bow, have over-extended themselves in that their premises are too large and their profit margins are too narrow? It would be much more sensible to plan the closure of one or two of the factory abattoirs rather than force the closure of 150 or so small throughput abattoirs and cutting plants.

As an aside, there is a 300 per cent, over-capacity in car production plant in Europe. Why not close Longbridge? As the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, will very aptly illustrate, the social and employment effects of the closure would be similar in both situations. Instead, it seems that Longbridge might well get £200 million of taxpayers' money. The charges to be levied on the slaughterhouses and cutting plants are for meat hygiene inspections. Is this not a public health matter? Should not these costs also be paid out of general taxation as they are in some of the other European states such as France?

We are told that, because of a lack of suitably qualified veterinary staff, only the small throughput abattoirs with low hygiene scores will face the higher inspection charges in the initial stages. I wonder whether noble Lords are aware that although there are legally established requirements for hygiene, for staff, premises and equipment in slaughterhouses and cutting plants, the scores applied to each plant are based upon the subjective judgment of the inspector, as I gather some owners have found to their cost. I am also reliably informed that members of the State Veterinary Service have recently been going round deliberately downgrading hygiene assessment scores. There is no appeal mechanism. A senior vet stated at a recent tribunal that it was no part of his duty to act fairly. What is the world coming to?

Perhaps it would be much simpler if we are told that there is no longer a place for small producers, livestock in the hills and speciality British farm foods. The rural community would then know where it stands in the great plan. Its members could then be issued with mowers and contracts to keep open the paths for the roaming urban population.

4.10 p. m.

Lord Kimball

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, in an excellent maiden speech, rightly drew attention to the jobs created by leisure activity in the countryside. The Motion calls for clarity. It is timely with the new organisations, the Countryside Agency and the regional development agencies, coming into effect on 1st April. The Motion also addresses the role of Government Offices, and I shall endeavour to show briefly how two ministries are failing to recognise the major growth area of their responsibilities in the countryside.

In previous rural debates, we have lamented the restructuring of the Rural Development Commission. It has achieved so much since its foundation in 1909. Whole villages in my old constituency in the heartlands of Lincolnshire have been resuscitated by it. It goes into the Countryside Agency in company with the Countryside Commission but disembowelled of its grant-making powers which pass to a regional development agency competing with the demands of the urban regeneration agency. The functions passing from the Rural Development Commission to the regional development agencies are the redundant building grants and rural development programmes.

Powers passing to the Countryside Agency under Section 35 of the Regional Development Agencies 1998 include ones that can be applied across a wide-ranging experimental sphere covering social, economic and recreational areas. I want to put down an early marker here concerning the urgent need for licences to be issued for extensive experiments in avian predation management by quota and translocation. It is needed as a result of the Langholm study and the correct procedures for dealing with a major rural problem of the employment and harvesting of the most valuable crop of the heather moorland; the red grouse. The department has the power to issue such licences in relation to the hen harrier and peregrine falcon. Research by the Game Conservancy as a follow-on from the Langholm project shows that this may be an opportunity to save these birds as part of the rural working landscape.

Like the right reverend Prelate, I am concerned that the Minister of Agriculture was missing from all press briefings about the Countryside Agency and the regional development agencies. The Deputy Prime Minister was to the fore, supported by Ministers from the departments responsible for the environment, trade and industry and education and employment.

If you take a graph of agricultural employment and production and compare it with a graph of employment of production from the British Horse Industry Confederation, you will see that in rural Britain the horse will overtake agriculture in a very short time. No Minister is responsible for this major development. The interest of the Home Office in racing is purely as a regulator of betting. It has no responsibility for breeding or export.

It is the moment to pay tribute to the bold action of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, who, from the Ministry of Agriculture, has played such a key role in encouraging and facilitating the creation of the Horse Industry Confederation. It is most welcome. The confederation has an estimated annual value of £2.5 billion and more than 160, 000 jobs. The confederation wants to discuss with the Government more encouragement of British equine exports, trade missions and taxation, especially the favourable conditions granted to Irish and European breeders, and at least six other major issues, including rights of way and a proper data base. I do not want to see the horse classed as an agricultural animal—it is a very complex issue—but I do want the Minister of Agriculture to become the responsible Minister for one of the major areas of development in the countryside. It is certainly an area that needs clarification.

Finally, can we say loudly and clearly that rural England needs the motor car? The Government's hostility to the motorist does not support their pre-election promises on traffic. The Motion deals with working in the countryside. In the rural south-west of England, in Somerset and other places, 3.5 per cent, of the population work in the combined manufacturing and servicing industries for the motor car. In Lincolnshire and Humberside, the figure is the same (3.5 per cent.) and in rural Wales it is 3.8 per cent. We must champion personal mobility and the freedom to travel when and how one likes. We must not pander to the anti-car lobby. We should confront it and encourage technology to make improvements on the impact of the many more cars which will undoubtedly be with us. The planning authorities will have to tackle the problem of car parking in villages in relation to any new housing. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions must not neglect its rural role. The Budget will hasten the continuing decline in small, unbranded petrol stations. Last year saw a 31 per cent. decline in the number of petrol stations in rural areas. There are now only 601 in such areas of the United Kingdom.

So much of what has been said in today's debate emphasises the importance of the rural White Paper. We must all make representations and ensure that it has some positive and helpful conclusions.

4.15 p. m.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Miller has crafted her Motion with great care. She speaks of policies which will ensure a living, working countryside. In 1962, I fought a by-election on the very problem of rural depopulation from Montgomeryshire. I therefore know that there is enormous ignorance among the public and those in high places about the problem of having a living, working countryside.

In today's debate and outside this House, speakers have spoken with pride, saying that if the common agricultural policy disappears and is not replaced, and if agriculture is unable to compete in a free trade world, the countryside will look after itself. It will not. A great deal of the English countryside is man-made and we would quickly see the kind of countryside that is to be found in New York State, New Jersey and such like, with its abandoned fences and so forth.

Life in the living, working countryside involves a rural economy which sustains civilised life. When I became a Member of Parliament in 1962, 1, 000 young people left my area of the country each year. The unemployment figures were low because people did not stay in the area. They moved elsewhere to find employment because they had been brought up to be industrious. Unless adequate steps are taken now, we are in danger of allowing the whole of our countryside to slump into a rural depression.

I do not believe that the problem will be solved by bureaucracy. We are in great danger of creating too many bodies charged with the function of helping the countryside. The countryside needs more carefully thought-out, directed help. Perhaps I may give two examples. I remember the help which was given by the local councils and others to Bernard and Laura Ashley when they started a business in my constituency a few months after I became an MP. They employed two people when I first knew them and their business grew to become a large concern. It still provides more jobs than almost any other company in mid-Wales. It probably did more than any other corporation. In addition, a small scientific firm called Control Techniques set up in my area. Three people started working together and were attracted by the idea of working in the countryside. The business developed into a large company, which has now been taken over by a large American company, but it is still in the area and provides work.

When one thinks of a living, working countryside, its backbone is agriculture. I do not care what anybody's theories are. I should fight to the death to preserve a healthy agriculture in this country because without it, the countryside will not be preserved. I have: not been one of those who has hammered away at the common agricultural policy as though if we got rid of it tomorrow, everything would be all right; far from it. One would perhaps need a better-directed policy, but we should need a policy nevertheless.

We need a healthy agriculture and the ancillary industries and services which depend on it are then important. There are other matters. When I think of a typical farmer living in my area, I think of a husband and wife on the farm. Sometimes the wife goes out to do clerical work and the daughters are working in one or two of the factories nearby. That means that the average income of the household is enough to sustain life in a very beautiful part of the countryside where people want to live. In the area where I live, I am amazed by the number of people who go away to work, but who return when they retire. They tell me that they wished that they had never had to leave the area at all.

We are living in a time of great change and there will be enormous developments. There will be some problems and I advise people in England to take care because we have faced those problems in Wales. There is a danger of transferring the ethos of an over-centralised UK into an over-centralised region. Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Cardiff have their own metropolis complex and one must take care that the countryside is safeguarded when there is regional development because the interest of the region is not necessarily the same as the interest of the countryside within the region.

4.23 p. m.

The Earl of Radnor

My Lords, I too am very grateful to the noble Baroness for bringing forward this very wide subject of the living countryside and how it should survive and work well. I believe that it does still live and I declare an interest because I have worked in it all my life. Many people still do.

In particular, I echo what the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, said. It is absolutely vital that farming should be efficient as it goes into the future. There should be no idea of holding it back into a kind of Stanley Anderson A. G. Street period. If we are to work our way in the world, which I hope we shall eventually do, and put up with the sort of wheat and barley and pig prices that we have had, then we must be efficient.

I start by dealing with our relationship with Brussels. Brussels is not my favourite place. Of course, there is a love-hate relationship between farmers and Brussels because all the money comes from Brussels. And yet it is nonsensical in a way because it always seems to be applied to supporting people rather than to making them more efficient so that one day, they can compete in the world market, or at least come near to it. I do not say that that will happen tomorrow, but it should happen at some time. Therefore, I am not at all happy about Brussels. I believe that there is a large democracy gap and I am not sure that the people there really understand about farming. They are much keener on playing politics. I am not at all happy about the situation between them and the Parliament at Strasbourg which had the opportunity to sack all the Commissioners and passed it by, which I felt was rather a pity.

The next matter on which I wish to touch is local and central government. It is really local government on which I wish to concentrate although central government must be included. I wish to refer to planning. Planners have been an absolute dead hand. The process has always been too slow. The ideas behind planning are always fairly unimaginative and because of the large number of people who must be consulted about everything, somebody is bound to disagree and the whole performance is extremely expensive. That is bad for small workshops in the villages and so on. The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, mentioned Laura Ashley. As my neighbour I have Von Evzdorv who has one of the best silk-printing businesses in the world. It was established originally in a derelict stable and is now in a derelict cow barn. But it has been hard work the whole time.

It is too early to tell what the new agencies will be like or what they will do. I liked the Rural Development Commission because it covered the whole of England. It was much better placed on a national scale to pick out priorities instead of dividing up the country into smaller areas where the very badly-off areas may be left out. The noble Lord, Lord Vinson, ran it very well as did my noble kinsman, Lord Shuttleworth, after him.

That takes me on to the right to roam and so on. I was deeply sorry that no agreement was reached on a basis any more friendly than that legislation is promised for the future. Of course I understand why people want to go onto the land, but we must acknowledge that people and wildlife do not mix. Large numbers of people and wildlife do not mix and it would be a sorrow to the ramblers that if they get their way and go all over the place in large numbers, they will kill the very thing that they love and want.

I do not know about the French being better, as the right reverend Prelate said. France is a much more rural country with a great deal more countryside. In Italy I believe that a starling makes a very good sandwich. At least we do not do that here.

Perhaps I may revert back to central government and the subject of forestry which nobody has talked about. The Forestry Commission has set forestry in aspic. If you cut down an oak tree, you plant an oak tree; if you cut down a beech tree, you plant a beech tree. Lots of oak trees are growing in the wrong soil as are beech trees. It may be better to plant a Douglas fir, make a bit of money and plant the oak trees elsewhere. That does not seem to have occurred to the powers that be. The sooner they become a little more flexible, the happier the countryside will be.

4.19 p. m.

Lord Peston

My Lords, having moved back to the countryside 18 months ago, I hope that I possess the necessary credentials to take part in today's debate. I have a few remarks to make. Some are positive and supportive of the countryside and country people, but one or two are negative and critical.

I start with the positive. I had forgotten the pure pleasure of living in the countryside and the many benefits stemming therefrom. I do not take a sentimental view of all that. Even today country life can be very harsh, and while rural poverty does not stare one in the face as its urban counterpart does, it undoubtedly exists. The abandonment of full employment as a policy objective is no more acceptable in one part of our economy than in another. Nonetheless, I see in the rural area in which I live a sense of community and neighbourliness which is lacking in the big city. Let me add that that is characteristic of the local towns as well as of the villages and hamlets. I also see it in the excellent local newspapers (in my case the Sudbury edition of the Suffolk Free Press). The treatment of local issues, whether it be the conflicting uses of the River Stour, the future of the local hospital, the reports of the Women's Institute, the parish councils and gardening clubs, is an endless source of fascination to me. The letters pages of such papers have a simplicity and an honesty which contrast attractively with the self-importance of their counterparts in the national dailies.

I have no doubt, therefore, of the importance of preserving what we have, not ruining it, and, more to the point, enhancing it. It is eminently reasonable to scrutinise policy at the level of central government and the European Union in terms of how it impinges on rural life and the rural economy. I should add, like other noble Lords, that the rural economy amounts to a good deal more than farming. There is, indeed, very little that other noble Lords have said that I could possibly disagree with.

My doubts arise in the area of what I can best describe as the present tendency of some country people to feel sorry for themselves and to look for blame in others; notably the people who live in the big city. Not least of those who are blamed are members of the government, of whatever political persuasion.

I have no doubt that there are always valid grounds for complaint. Obviously, country people will ask how any item of legislation—not least yesterday's Budget—will affect them, but in that they are the same as all of us. What I find unreasonable is the current tendency, evinced most strongly by the so-called Countryside March, to try to make the case that the inhabitants of our rural communities are somehow specially selected for adverse treatment and that they are victims. How farmers, who because of the common agriculture policy are a clear example of the dependency culture, can say that is quite beyond me. There are plenty of industries adversely affected by world competition, let alone recent monetary policy, which would like access to some of that support.

However, my point is more extensive than that. Let me give two examples with which I am directly familiar. I live in a small hamlet on a country road lying between two main roads. My road is only just wide enough for two average sized cars to pass safely. However, it is used as a so-called rat run between the main roads, and the speed limit is widely ignored. It is not people from big cities who are behaving in this way and destroying the peace and quiet for the sake of saving a couple of minutes; it is country folk. It is not my noble friend's department which is failing to deal with this problem; it is Suffolk County Council and other local councils. It is not the Metropolitan Police who do nothing to enforce the speed limit, but the local constabulary. My reading of the local press tells me that my experience is not unique. I shall not dwell on the related issue of the destructive use of all-terrain vehicles on small roads and lanes. My point is that countrymen and countrywomen have the power to act, both personally and through their own institutions, to improve the quality of life. Too often they are themselves the source of the problem.

My second example concerns local shops. I have recently been involved in research on the future of neighbourhood shopping. While this is relevant to urban areas, it is especially important to rural areas, and in particular to those lacking motor vehicles. In our part of Suffolk there are still local shops, including some small stores run by the larger chains. There are also some excellent supermarkets. Clearly the latter take a substantial part of rural trade and, while providing a service themselves, also threaten their smaller rivals. When the Office of Fair Trading completes its work on supermarkets, it will be interesting to see whether it will report that the rural chains are engaging in unfair competitive practices.

Our research shows that consumers would be worried if the neighbourhood shop disappeared but they feel no obligation to change their own behaviour to help it survive. Most households do not favour strong government aid to local traders. In this connection it seems that our legislation and tax system are less helpful to the small shopkeeper than those of our European neighbours. So much for Napoleon! That is not all. Both the big banks and the Post Office appear to be in the process of closing down many small local branches.

In my judgment, the least we can do is to ensure that rules and regulations are not biased against the neighbourhood shop, which, of course, is generally a small enterprise—which I hope will benefit from the Government's announcements yesterday and today. I should also like to say to my friends in rural areas, do not shop in the supermarket and then blame someone else when the village store closes.

I do not wish to end on a negative note, because both the countryside and the big city are part of our nation's history and heritage. I am convinced that their interests are complementary and that the way forward requires each to show some sympathy for and to place some trust in the other.

4.35 p.m.

Lord Vinson

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Peston. I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for this timely and, I hope, possibly influential debate. I declare a personal interest. I live and farm in a deeply rural area. Fortunately, [do not have to make my living there. It is an area where there are more sheep than people. It is the most rural county of England. Also, for 10 years I was chairman of the Rural Development Commission. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, for his kind remarks.

The policy of the Rural Development Commission was to help develop indigenous enterprise by building on local skills and, having found and developed that enterprise, help to house it in redundant farm buildings and workshops. That policy over the years helped to create tens of thousands of jobs in rural England that would not otherwise have existed. I can only hope that the initiative will be continued, financed and recognised for the value it has, by any new agency.

We tried to do some practical things on the ground. After all it is not governments who create jobs; they can only provide the setting for others to create jobs. We recognised the whole time that our primary task was to inform government about the rural condition, not least the problems raised today, the problems of distance and sparsity that are so often overlooked, not deliberately but through lack of experience, by the urban dweller. At the same time we recognised that fundamental employment creation in truly rural areas is, and always has been, based on agriculture. I am therefore very glad indeed that the point was made earlier, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, in an excellent maiden speech, and by the noble Viscount, Lord Selborne.

The impact of what is happening in agriculture today is perhaps not sufficiently recognised. It is experiencing its worst crisis in 60 years. There has been appalling weather which, incidentally, in my view, is responsible, to a greater extent than any changes in agricultural practice, for the decline in skylarks and other ground-nesting birds. Cold springs have helped to wipe them out. I wish that that was more readily recognised by the RSPB. But it is not only appalling weather which is making farming—obviously very weather dependent—extremely difficult. There has been an absolutely massive fall in prices over the last year of some 30 per cent. right across the board in virtually every commodity except potatoes.

Even with subsidy, most farms in Britain today are now running at a loss. This has a profound effect on the rural economy. Basically, food is too cheap to give a living return to those growing it. This is not just a United Kingdom problem; it is worldwide. We always argued that the CAP was far more important to the rural economy than the RDC. That remains the case. Indeed, it will remain so because any new agency cannot possibly have anywhere near the same input in rural areas as the CAP.

Although agriculture ostensibly employs only between 1.5 and 2 per cent. of the population, it actually employs many more if one adds in service-dependent and related industries. It is still overall the biggest industry in the United Kingdom, bigger than the agricultural sectors of Australia and New Zealand combined. Agricultural prosperity really does lie at the heart of rural prosperity, particularly in deeply rural areas where the main social and economic problems are to be found.

It may be useful to analyse the problems behind the worldwide crisis. Such an analysis is often overlooked. Nations starve if they run out of food, so governments encourage the production of food. That creates a surplus. That, in turn, leads to low prices. There are then calls for subsidies. Those continue until the next generation of politicians becomes bored with the whole thing and decides that all subsidies should be scrapped. To maintain a living, farmers then increase production. Prices get even lower; massive bankruptcies result; governments panic; and the whole cycle begins again with new subsidies.

That is precisely what is happening in the world today, with America's wall-to-wall "grow-anything" policy. The price of wheat in Chicago is at an all-time historic low in real terms. There are massive numbers of farm bankruptcies in both the United States and Canada. One could say that the market is correcting. However, there is no way in which the United Kingdom could possibly substitute—in a hurry, anyway—the 25 million tonnes of grain that it grows. And there is no way in which the EC could substitute the 150 million tonnes of grain that it grows. We simply must nurture our own. Farming and agriculture must remain central.

That begs the question: what can any government do about this? There is not enough time to spell out the answer, but government at all levels should strive to help to bring supply and demand into balance and restore equilibrium to the market so that prices recover to their proper level.

Finally, I hope that if any new agency is a multiple agency, the department that is charged with looking after rural affairs will be a discrete arm of it, with dedicated staff. If that is not the case, rural problems will be overlooked and will be treated as secondary to urban problems instead of rural life being seen as part of the whole spectrum of our society.

4.42 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer for having initiated the debate. As we reach the halfway mark, perhaps I may say what a good debate this has been so far. I should like to thank particularly the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for her remarks about slaughterhouses. I hope that the Government will take that point on board.

Perhaps I may advise the noble Lord, Lord Gray of Contin, that I do not think that land reform is necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps we should remember that most of this century's industrial giants, including all the countries of South-East Asia, had major programmes of land reform before they managed to take off and become prosperous countries. There is much to be said for what might be described as "wholesale land reform". I am not suggesting that that should be a policy for my party, although when the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, was a member I remember that he advocated the nationalisation of land at our party conference in Llandudno.

A living, working countryside is absolutely essential. Many of us remember such a thing in our own lifetimes. Admittedly, its highest point was in wartime, but we should not need a war to protect our countryside. Nevertheless, it does no harm to look back and see what we had then. We had a countryside which was primarily dedicated to producing food. The food that it produced was bought and consumed by the people of Britain. We fed our own nation.

Now, free trade has ensured that only a few food products can earn a farmer enough to keep his family alive. As for the main staples, you cannot give them away. The problems of beef have become legendary and have been discussed in this House over and over again, and it is difficult even to give away lamb and pork.

There used to be something called "animal husbandry"—do your Lordships remember that?—when the ratio of workers to animals was such that every cow was known by name and appearance to everyone on the farm; when the object of the government was to get people onto farms; when we had land girls, Italian prisoners of war, and schoolchildren working in the holidays and even in term time, planting potatoes; and when we used muck to fertilise the land, thus achieving an admirable level of integrated housekeeping without poisoning the countryside. Although there were some excesses of production and bureaucracy—the old WarAgs were not always sensitive or efficient—we left behind us a good-looking countryside and held the balance between producing food and caring for the land. I do not remember any great threat then to biodiversity.

Now, the countryside is becoming increasingly denuded of country workers and the state of agriculture and rural life is such that family farmers are going bankrupt by the score and committing suicide by the handful. That is no exaggeration. At the same time—and this is a source of great trouble—we must face the fact that the next generation does not want to farm. Very few farmers have children who want to continue farming after their parents.

The countryside is also becoming a desert; not because nothing is growing—the countryside is very green—but because it is a landscape without figures. There are not even any animal figures, as animals are concentrated more and more in large areas of factory accommodation, where more and more animals are kept in less and less space. The populations of wild birds and butterflies are virtually disappearing. What is the result of that depopulation? In spite of the influx from the urban middle classes, we are seeing a decline in public transport because the middle classes have cars and the railways were destroyed long ago. There is also a deficit of shops; the middle classes shop in supermarkets.

Is everything then terrible? Well, most things are, but there are countryside agencies of various kinds which are doing their best. We have started to protect our national parks. I speak as a vice-president of the National Parks Association, which is now celebrating its 50th anniversary. The church and parish system still has a great influence. Organic farming is thriving—I am sure that we shall hear more about that—and farmers' markets are beginning.

But what basically needs to be done? We must not throw up our hands and admit defeat. We must not hand over our countryside to the insurance companies and the factories, or even to such attractive and energetic people as Oliver Walston. We must realise that some trends have gone too far and that trends do not continue in a straight line for ever; they more often describe a sigmoid curve, which, as your Lordships know, flattens out following a large rise. It is not inevitable that what happens on the 14-acre farm is dictated by money made in Washington behind closed doors.

Our fight back must start with the big international organisations. It must start when our Ministers are talking to those in the WTO and GATT. We must be able to have the freedom to put our house in order. We must keep and cherish our countryside. In this Parliament, we must remember that directions are changed little by little. We must not give up hope. A 1 per cent. divergence today in our actions may be only a tiny step, but as the future radiates out, the difference in destination becomes vast. It is time that we stopped going in one direction and that we chose another—one that produces a living, working countryside, such as we see probably once every 50 years, but which we never manage to keep. This time, let us find it, let us make it work and let us keep it.

4.49 p.m.

Earl Peel

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness for introducing this timely debate. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, on his excellent maiden speech.

My noble friend Lord Kimball slightly wrong-footed me by making reference to the game conservancy work at Langholm and its effects on red grouse. As chairman of the Game Conservancy I declare an interest. But I do not particularly wish to be tempted down that path of debate this afternoon, important though it is; no doubt it is something to which we will return at a later stage.

I am sorry that the right reverend Prelate is not in his place; he mentioned lapwings, peewits or green plovers, whichever terminology one likes to use, and his perception of their decline in this country. There are certainly less than there were, but it is clear that it is on the well-managed grouse moors of England and Scotland that the green plover is to be found because the management there is right for them.

The introduction of regional development agencies and the new Countryside Agency herald a new beginning for rural England. I sincerely hope that it proves to be successful. I regret the emasculation of the old Rural Development Commission and have my doubts as to whether the RDAs will be able to bring to the countryside the same expertise as the Rural Development Commission did in the past—a point to which my noble friend Lord Vinson referred.

I am also slightly baffled by the cobbling together of what was left of the Rural Development Commission and the Countryside Commission. They do not seem to me to be natural bedfellows. I am surprised that the Government did not emulate what has been done in Scotland and Wales; that is, merge the Countryside Commission with English Nature. I am wondering whether that implies that the Government have doubts about the success of SNH and CCW. Perhaps the Minister will be kind enough to give us his views on that question.

I congratulate Ewen Cameron on his appointment as chairman of the new agency, but with the Government's announcement on Monday to legislate on the right to roam and given the Countryside Agency's remit on that subject, I suspect that it could well turn out to be an agency destined for countryside damage limitation only. That would be a great pity.

It is essential that those living and working in rural areas and their representative groups have access to and confidence in the government agencies. It is important that each one has a clear and distinctive role. Some of us would say that there are perhaps already too many such bodies in the countryside resulting in duplication of responsibilities, inevitable overmanning and a certain degree of confusion.

I wish to take an optimistic view of the new Countryside Agency. As its name suggests, it must speak out and act for the wellbeing of rural England as a whole. But confidence among country people is very low. So there is a crying need for the new agency to champion the interests and aspirations of all those living in, working and managing the countryside. It must do so despite external pressures and the ever-increasing ascendency of an urban culture.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, mentioned one of the most important issues in the countryside at the moment; that is, the question of planning. Farming is changing. Inevitably, regrettably, farm sizes will increase. It seems to me that there remains a pressing need for the Government to promote a less rigid and more flexible planning system. There are too many examples of intransigent planning officers impeding sensible progress despite the more enlightened central government planning policy guidance. Therefore I urge the Government to tackle this issue. I hope: that the RDAs and the Countryside Agency will be able to monitor such schemes and provide government with information on the success or otherwise of such policies.

The noble Countess, Lady Mar, and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, mentioned the question of abattoirs. I must declare an interest in my involvement with the Duchy of Cornwall. In the south-west of England this is becoming an extremely serious problem. Small abattoirs are being closed down and the effect of that on animal welfare is obvious, and also on schemes the Government are backing to try to induce home produce being sold from farm shops and through farmers' markets. It is important therefore that abattoirs are preserved. There is a perception both by local butchers and vets that it is a deliberate policy by the inspectorate to seek closures to reduce costs and inspectors' workloads. I hope the Minister can refute that. It is a serious allegation and I sincerely hope that it is not true.

Finally, I know that the Minister will be well aware that a number of rural Back-Benchers in another place produced a report in which they asked for the standard spending assessment formula to be reconsidered. That report recommends that a set of rural indicators be developed and adapted in order to consider why metropolitan areas receive an average 20 per cent. more of SSA per head than rural areas. It is a serious matter. I am sure it is one at which the Government are looking, but I would be grateful if the Minister could assure the House that they take it seriously.

The Chancellor claims to have given us a "give-away" Budget. Let us hope that under these new initiatives and the forthcoming White Paper, the countryside gets a generous deal as well.

4.55 p. m.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer introduced a timely and important debate. It has been extremely wide-ranging and some of us have been going down memory lane this afternoon. My noble friend Lord Beaumont reminded me that my very first paid job was picking up potatoes in a field for 1s 9d per hour.

However, I am grateful today to be given the opportunity to highlight the importance of housing policies in a living, working countryside. People living and working in the countryside need homes and jobs. They will go on needing housing when they are retired. It is therefore extremely important that the regional development agencies recognise, along with local authorities and other government departments, the importance of housing provision as part of the social and economic structure of our regions.

The availability of housing, both public and private, is central to achieving sustainable communities. In practical terms, where inward investment is being attracted and jobs created, account must be taken to audit the availability and quality of housing and, equally, the socio-economic profile of the residents who will inhabit that housing. If economic regeneration occurs in an area where there is not a significant supply of housing, problems arise; for instance, problems of transport, which can be two-fold. An enormous increase of pressure on transport infrastructure can bring real misery to people living in some of our small towns in trying to get to work. Some employees will not have the opportunity to get to work other than by using personal transport. If they are young or elderly they may not possess that.

If we are not careful it may also lead to the over supply of and excessive demand for housing in certain localities. That too can bring associated problems. Sometimes it will lead to excessive house prices. That is a problem in some rural areas for young people who are trying to stay in the area. Also, as was mentioned earlier today, people who cannot have access to services may be excluded from obtaining employment which is important if we are to have a living, thriving community.

I know that some of us—this was raised in the debate on the Bill setting up regional development agencies—had concerns that the agencies may be led and staffed by people who were more committed to economic regeneration and who did not have sufficient appreciation of the social policy agenda which is integrally linked to it. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, because he gave us assurances at an earlier stage in those discussions that the regional development agencies would be able to take part in facilitating the provision of housing—though not be direct providers—and that they would have similar powers to those of English Partnership. I hope that the Minister can perhaps give us some indication today about what further steps he thinks the Government can take to ensure that that is a reality.

I am particularly pleased that one government department—indeed, I might almost call it a "quango"—has taken up the challenge here. I have in mind the Housing Corporation. However, I am rather disappointed that the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, is not present in the Chamber, because I wish to complement her on being the chairman of that organisation. The Housing Corporation recently produced a news release about its new funding proposals, which actually put the RDAs right at the heart of such matters. Such proposals include, using Regional Housing Statements to help guide decisions on Corporation investment". The release continues—and this is most important: These statements will describe the local housing, economic, demographic and planning context and will take a three to five year view". That is good news. Indeed, if other agencies can work in that way, that would prove to be a very good way forward.

The provision of affordable housing and a cross section of types of housing in rural areas is an increasing problem. We have all seen villages that have become commuter villages. Indeed, sometimes that is the reason why the shops and the other facilities close. We have also witnessed the problems experienced by young people trying to find somewhere to live in rural areas. That also affects their ability to obtain jobs.

Only this week Shelter produced a report outlining the great difficulty experienced by young couples when they try to get into the housing market. Many of them will be on low incomes, and may well have just started out in life. Moreover, the changing pattern of jobs is a further difficulty. Very often, the people who are made homeless in rural areas are those who cannot keep up with their mortgage payments and subsequently their homes are repossessed. As one speaker said earlier, there is also the problem of second homes in our rural communities but I do not have time today to go into that situation.

The development of RDAs and regional chambers, which I personally hope will lead to regional government, does, as my noble friend Lady Miller said, give us an opportunity to bring forward fresh thinking and new levels of co-operation and co-ordination between the various bodies. It will not be easy. The present planning framework is not an easy process. You cannot put into your plans what type of housing you want, whether it be private or social. Indeed, it is usually the market that decides such matters. I hope that those issues will be tackled by the various RDAs and local councils in the coming months and years. That co-operation and new thinking must be at the root of our approach to ensuring that we have a countryside which remains a place where people can live and work.

5.3 p.m.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, I have a recurring nightmare: a nightmare of all these agencies, guided by the Health Education Council; abetted by the Sports Council; supported by ASH and other quangos and charities all advising the British to abandon their sofas, their computer games and their TVs in favour of a Good Brisk Walk. I have a nightmare of thousands of cars pouring out of town and city to tear up grass verges, to block farm gateways and to choke village streets. I have a nightmare of thousands of dogs chasing wildlife: Over hill, over dale, Thorough bush, thorough brier, Over park, over pale". disturbing feeding grounds and destroying nesting sites.

Noble Lords may think that I am being unduly alarmist. So I should like to draw the attention of the House to some of the comments that have been given in evidence over recent months to various inquiries. First, in its evidence to the Environment Sub-Committee in the other place, the Ramblers' Association stated: We have real concerns that the environment will lose out to rural development unless there is proper integration and balance between the economic, environmental and social strands of sustainable development". Tony Burton of the CPRE told the committee: We produced a methodology which defined tranquillity. It showed that since the 1960s England had lost an area of rural tranquillity almost the size of Wales". That was followed by a submission by Miss Greaves of the National Hedgelaying Society, who said: Our landscape has been created by agriculture. Even the so-called 'open spaces' which many people consider not to be farmland are, in fact, managed, usually by grazing with sheep, native cattle, ponies or deer, the grazing maintained by cutting bracken, heather, etc. regularly". She then went on to say: Without this hard work…the much valued access would cease to exist, as routes became impassable". In specific comments on the draft prospectus for a countryside agency, the RSPB said: Biodiversity is an integral part of the health and viability of our countryside. Biodiversity and wildlife are often the very reason that a large number of people have an attachment to the countryside. This fact is not acknowledged anywhere in the document". The society also pointed out that the Countryside Commission has a remit that extends to biodiversity under the terms of the Countryside Act 1968.

The Moorland Association provided a comprehensive response to the consultation paper on access, in the course of which it made a number of points. For example: There is evidence from surveys done in the Peak District and South Pennines that birds like golden plover, curlew and lapwing are particularly sensitive to too much disturbance at breeding time. Continual disturbance leads to cold eggs or chicks dying of exposure and also makes the nest more prone to predation". It continued that theme by saying: …an individual walker, present in the wrong; time in the wrong place on a moorland area, may entirely unwittingly disturb both mammals and birds, particularly at the time of territory establishment (February/March), nesting (March/June) and fledgling (May/June)— that is, a six-month period— 'The effect of the disturbance is very much compounded if he has a dog, whether on a lead or not, but in almost all cases each walker will be unaware of the damage he is doing". The association makes a plea that: Any provision for access to heather moorland must make effective and enforceable provision for restricting or removing the right of access at times of high fire risk", and concludes by saying, managing access to heather moorland by closure for particular periods is simply not a practicable management solution". The problems of "open access" have to be recognised and used to inform the debate on access generally. The most important of these is the preservation of wildlife, which has a prior claim on the open countryside. At a time when the countryside is under pressure to have the "right to roam" legislated upon it, the countryside would have warmly welcomed any new help given in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's Budget yesterday; an acknowledgement of the continuing and deepening plight of the countryside's economy. That opportunity was missed.

However, the Chancellor of the Exchequer did lavish money on politically sensitive areas, For example, £300 million extra on capital spending on the electorate of Scotland and Wales to help cut crime and modernise schools. That is a part of the UK which already enjoys higher spending in these areas. The Chancellor said that the, Budget places environment at the heart of government". This policy is tough on those rural people who use their cars to go everywhere. If one spends £10 on petrol, £8.50 of it will now go to the Government in taxes. In 1997, 75 per cent. of rural parishes in England had no daily bus service. Moreover, of 9, 000 surveyed rural parishes in 1997, the vast majority had no food or general shops, no post office, no police station, no public nursery, no elderly daycare centre, no bank or building society and no job centre or benefit agency. As most noble Lords have already said, private transport is of great importance. I find myself, unusually, in the position of that arch villain, Topol, "I think I had better think it out again". I hope that this Government will be able to reverse the present demise of our countryside.

5.9 p.m.

Lord Chorley

My Lords, as other noble Lords have said, this is a timely debate, following, as it does, hard on the heels of the Government's consultation paper.

I certainly warmly welcome the consultation process but I am a little disappointed in the document itself. Unfortunately I do not have time to go into that, but it seems to be rather full of what I would loosely call "motherhood" statements and I am not sure where it gets us. There is a good deal to be said for the rather old-fashioned Green Paper approach which explores practical possibilities and analyses problems.

For my part, I start with my concept of the countryside as a precious landscape of extraordinary diversity and quality which is perhaps unique in such a small island, but which, as a result, is subject to tremendous pressures and threats. What I seek are policies which help to protect the countryside and enhance our environment and, of course, enable the communities who live there—and who shape the countryside—to enjoy a good quality of life.

As 80 per cent. of our rural landscape depends in one way or another on our farmers, agricultural policies should be our starting point. That has been fairly evident from the speeches of most speakers today. But first I must flag up what I loosely call the housing issue; that is, the perceived need for 4.4 million houses in England by 2016; that is to say, four Bristols every 25 years if, as expected, the demand is likely to continue at that level. This issue was hotly discussed a year ago and the Government made a number of changes. However, I suspect that unwittingly some of those changes will turn out to be more cosmetic than real. This is an ongoing debate but I simply make the point that even if government policy manages to achieve its objective of 60 per cent. of the need being met from brownfield sites, the erosion of our countryside, especially in the south-east and the south-west of the country, will be pretty awful, and in fact unacceptable. The solution must lie in making our cities more attractive places in which to live. That, to me, is where the real interdependence in this matter lies. The Government have, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Rogers, and his committee working on this matter. I eagerly await his report. He has a challenging task.

I return to agriculture because it is so central to a living, working countryside. I am puzzled that it earns only a few mentions in the consultation document. As almost every noble Lord who has spoken has mentioned agriculture—I refer in particular to the outstanding speech of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne—I shall confine myself to making one point to draw attention to some of the work of the National Trust, in which I no longer have to declare an interest. Country Life states, in regard to the work of the National Trust, The National Trust is offering a range of packages for its 700 tenant farmers on a farm-by-farm basis. These include delaying or phasing rent payments, supplying cash support to upgrade farmhouses for bed-and-breakfast, developing marketing schemes and using meat from the tenant farmers in Trust restaurants. The Trust is also employing farmers to carry out environmental work on their own property and other land, and funding organic farming enterprises". I am so glad that the Trust is doing what it can to help.

So much for agriculture. I now turn to the rural economy itself. We must recognise that farming is no longer the huge employer that it used to be. The structure of the rural economy is, at any rate in England, not that different from the national picture in terms of employment. Moreover—I find this amazing—given the steady loss of jobs in agriculture, the rural economy has had a relatively more buoyant economic performance than the urban economy, with twice the rate of increase in jobs—8 per cent. as against 4 per cent. nationally—from 1991 to 1996.

As I see it, the rural problem is not so much one of low paid jobs but is much more of a social problem of poverty and social exclusion. It is a problem of considerable patchiness at village level, of pockets of unemployment and lack of job opportunities. There are patchiness problems of affordable housing, as has been mentioned. In general there tends to be—perhaps partly inevitably—a much poorer provision of essential services, especially public transport provision, as we all know. Schools have not been mentioned in this connection but shops have. These facts are well known and were well rehearsed by the Rural Development Commission, whose demise a number of speakers have regretted, as I do. It is in this area that the RDAs will be of crucial importance.

On this I have time only to make a few bullet points. First, above all, I am worried that the RDAs and the chambers will be urban dominated. There is an exceedingly tight timetable for drawing up regional economic strategies, a timetable which is out of kilter with the regional planning conference frameworks. There is the danger that sustainable development policies will be poor relations, despite the useful draft guidance, due to the timetables and the pressures for immediate results. The lack of environmental expertise in the RDAs has been mentioned by some. It has been mentioned that MAFF still after all these years has not merged its offices with the GORs. The Countryside Agency, with its new shape and its new chairman—incidentally I warmly welcome the choice of Ewan Cameron as chairman—is not yet up and running and is not therefore in a position to fight the countryside corner with the RDAs. I have run over my time and I shall sit down.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I hope I may ask noble Lords to keep to their allotted time; otherwise, the Minister may not have time to reply to any of the points that have been made.

5.17 p.m.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, as I have explained in a number of previous debates on similar subjects, I have several rural interests which I should declare, and which I hope and believe I have accurately included in the register.

In his impressive maiden speech, the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, referred to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. He said that they both came from Somerset. What they can do well in Somerset, we in Cumbria can do better. I am delighted to speak after the noble Lord, Lord Chorley.

There is no point in beating about the bush. It is pretty depressing in the rural north-west these days. After all, farm incomes are down at 1930s levels in real terms. CAP reforms do not seem to be going well, and it looks as if the wrong systems of support may be gaining the upper hand. Modulation, which is a serious threat to legitimate UK farming—and, in my view, a stumbling block to economically sustainable reform—seems to be gaining in popularity. The high pound is depressing commodity prices, and that affects not only agriculture but also timber prices. The outlook for the continuation of much of the existing 5b areas is—I am told by those involved—looking distinctly bad. The important tourist industry has, overall, had a bad year.

If rural Britain was, quite simply, a market—a bazaar where anything went—it would be quite understandable to say that that is the way of the world and you must take the rough with the smooth. But, of course, that is not a fair description. Rural land use—which is heavily regulated—and agriculture in particular are not in an open market; rather they are heavily regulated by government, which have given certain pledges in respect of them.

In particular I wish to draw the attention of the House to the provisions of the European Community treaty. I would like to draw attention to two provisions in particular. Article 39(1)(B) states that one of the purposes of the common agricultural policy is, to ensure a fair standard of living for the agricultural community, in particular by increasing the individual earnings of persons engaged in agriculture". I suspect that that sounds like a sick joke to most people involved in farming these days. Article 130(a) is concerned with regional policy. It states, In particular, the Community shall aim at reducing disparities between levels of development of the various regions and backwardness of the least favoured regions including rural areas". After all, Article 130 is the policy background to what, as I have already mentioned, I am reliably told looks like being a significant reduction in objective 5b eligibility in the north-west in the middle of the worst agricultural recession for some 50 years.

What will the Government do about their obligations contained in the European Community treaty? In particular—I have already raised this matter with the Minister—will the Government replace whatever may be lost from objective 5b by compensating national aid? I should be very grateful if the Minister will deal with that point during his summing up. If he cannot do that—I understand he may not be able to—will he write to me and put a copy of the letter in the Library?

Had we on these Benches been in government, I know that we would not have added to the complication of the multifarious agencies and tiers of administration that the establishment of the RDAs and the new Countryside Agency entails. But we are not in government and the Government have electoral legitimacy to do what they are doing. I do not complain about that.

As your Lordships may know, I am privileged to be number one on the list of prospective Conservative candidates in the north-west for the European elections. I wish to make it clear that while my party was opposed to the establishment of the RDAs, which it considers to be an error, it is the firm intention of whichever Conservative candidates may be elected for that region to work constructively—I hope that this may be of some interest to the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington—with the RDA in the north-west in the region's best interest.

The RDA there, under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Macclesfield, has a big task. No one in the north-west wants him and his fellow members to make a hash of it. As to rural areas, just because they are less populous than the urban areas—this point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Chorley—it is important that they are not overlooked. I know that a number of the RDA members are rurally based and focused, and I am sure that they, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, will use their judgment and sense of fair play to ensure that it does not happen.

Finally, I wish to make a plea for simplicity. By any standards the relationship between the various agencies and tiers of government and administration is Byzantine and opaque. Cynics might well suppose that the whole thing had been designed to make the services they provide as non-user friendly as possible. My plea is to have a "one-stop shop" from which all the various services can be delivered in a single place and in a coherent, comprehensible, simple and non-bureaucratic manner. If that can be done they will do a great deal more good than otherwise might be the case. After all, when all is said and done, that is their sole real raison ďêtre.

5.22 p.m.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone

My Lords, first, I wish to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, on a masterly maiden speech. I wish also to thank my noble friend Lady Miller for initiating this important, interesting and complex debate.

I wish to speak fleetingly on two issues with specific reference to Scotland. In three months' time these issues will be the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, but they share, nonetheless, important common problems with the whole of the UK. The debate in one part of the country will both reflect and inform, I hope, the debate in another. The issues are agriculture and land reform, although I have to admit to a fraction of the expertise of many of the speakers in the debate. These subjects are highly topical; they are distinctive but related in their agendas; and both are at a critical point in their histories.

Policies which will ensure a living and working countryside could not be more important in the Scottish context—not least because to a greater or lesser extent 80 per cent. of the land mass of Scotland is in agriculture of some kind or another. While some of it may have little productive value, some has the highest quality of production to be found anywhere in Europe. Furthermore, I believe that Scotland has countiyside of a beauty unsurpassed in the rest of the world and an environment which we must treasure and nurture as one of the nation's greatest assets.

All this is at grave risk. Never has there been such a crisis as there is in agriculture today. Never before has it been so difficult for those whose lives are devoted to or associated with agriculture to make a living. Yet it remains the economic mainspring of our rural communities. If that dies, then those communities also die.

The statistics are terrifying. The average net income per farm in Scotland dropped to £416 last year from around £5, 000 the previous year. Many suffered negative incomes. How can any industry survive if such circumstances persist? The answer clearly is that it cannot. The strength of the pound coupled with impossibly high interest rates compared with our competitors in Europe mean that its viability is seriously compromised. The result is that borrowing by those in the industry now stands at £1.2 billion. People are not borrowing to expand but to live—and we are talking about one in ten of the Scottish population.

Where I was raised, in the Perthshire hills, on what my father only half jokingly referred to as a "non-revenue producing asset", where once three people were employed full-time we are down to one; where holiday cottage letting of what was once a shepherd's home is necessary; where a reduction in sheep and an increase in forestry has taken place; and where sporting lets are now an important part of the picture. Survival is now the issue.

Never before have subsidies been so necessary, but they must be restructured so that they are not seen to be linked to production alone but can ensure farmers' livelihoods. Payments for agri-environment measures which are project-based, not production-based, are examples of a way forward favoured by many in the industry. They link payments for good farming practice to good environment and conservation practice. Policies which can combine these economic, social and environmental elements into an agreed strategy in rural communities and pull together all the varied but interconnecting interests are surely the way forward.

Linked crucially to the debate on the crisis in agriculture and the implications for living in rural communities is the question of land reform, now the centre of debate in Scotland since the publication in January of the Government's Land Reform Policy Group's recommendations for action. Its essential purpose was how to, best utilise the land resource so as to enhance the lifechances of people living and working in rural areas". That sounds splendid, but in reality it is a diversion from the central crisis. It covers, among other things, the wider rural community, the legislation relating to land ownership, private, community and public, and the accountability and involvement of all these groups, one with another. But the importance of land owners as key players alongside farmers—they are often synonymous—in the sustaining of the rural economy is crucial.

The development of greater accountability and more communication between landowners, tenants, farmers, local and wider communities is widely, and rightly, welcomed. But investment and job creation must be encouraged as a priority and bureaucracy and uncertainty kept to a minimum. So far, slogans like, for example, the "community right to buy" have simply generated anxiety in the farming and landowning sectors, not least since it is not at all clear what is actually meant by "community" in such a context or how it is all turned into a reality.

Thus there is an important balance to be struck between the necessary regulation of, say, bad landlords, and those regulations or controls which act as a disincentive to good investment in the countryside. Of key importance is the improvement of landlord-tenant relations across the whole of Scotland, something over which the NFU and the SLF have been in consultation. The availability of let land is vital in the evolution of the rural economy. It is issues such as these which should be focused on as a priority.

If we are to assume, as I do, that our rural communities are an integral and essential part of our society, then all measures possible must be devised to sustain our threatened agriculture industry in its hour of greatest need and all possible encouragement should be given to those who can invest and sustain the rural community in all its forms. Without that commitment and support we put at risk the very essence of the society in which we live.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for providing the opportunity to discuss this important subject. The objective of a living, working countryside is one that we all share. That has been clear from all the speeches that we have heard. Britain's rural economy is presently facing one of its most serious crises. On top of a damaging drop in farm incomes, Britain's meat industry is on the brink of disaster, thanks to the rigid, inflexible implementation of EU meat hygiene directives, to which both my noble friend Lord Peel and the noble Countess, Lady Mar, referred. I wish to enlarge on the subject as it has a big impact on the rural economy.

From 1st April, hundreds of meat firms will find themselves liable to pay hugely increased charges for inspection—charges which small businesses simply cannot afford. They will have to sell out or close down. The results will be felt by thousands of farmers, butchers, hotels, restaurants, and of course individual consumers—in fact, by the whole local economy.

Noble Lords may think that that is a generalisation too far, but that is not so. Perhaps I may give just two examples of the kind of business that will face ruin unless the Government seriously rethink the matter.

Pipers Farm is a specialist meat business in Exeter, employing seven people. It enjoys an enviable reputation throughout the country for providing top quality beef, lamb, chicken and sausages. Its suppliers do not use intensive farming methods. The stock are all extensively reared, without the use of growth promoters, routine antibiotics or artificial additives. The produce is sold by special delivery throughout the country to hundreds of satisfied customers and the farm has won numerous awards for its superb quality. Most notably, the farm is supplier to the Gidleigh Park Hotel on Dartmoor, whose chef, Michael Caines, recently won his second Michelin star. It is one of the very few restaurants in Britain to achieve that award.

In short, Pipers Farm is a roaring success, the sort of business that we all admire. It has got there not by cutting corners, skimping or cheating, but by investing in quality: quality in its raw materials, quality in the processing, and quality in service—and of course, quality people.

But the farm faces ruin, not through any fault of its own but under the beetlecrushers of the hygiene police in the shape of the Meat Hygiene Service. On 1st April its new charging structure will come into effect. Nationally, according to a Written Answer given to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, by the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, the new charges will be £21.5 million to enforce EC regulation of the disposal of specified risk material. A further £21 million will be required to comply with an EC ruling that British meat firms should have 100 per cent. cover by official veterinary surgeons.

That is not all. The Food Minister, Mr. Rooker, in reply to a parliamentary Question, confirmed that the cost to the meat industry of the Meat Hygiene Service will be £33.1 million to March this year. The industry will thus face total costs in a full year of £75.6 million. That is an eye-watering 128 per cent. increase.

But, of course, it gets worse. Those increases will of necessity hit the smaller firms hardest. Pipers Farm is supplied by a small local slaughterhouse in Ottery St. Mary, run by a local farmer, Mr. John Coles. At present, Mr. Coles pays a subsidised charge of £61 a week for two MHS inspectors—one of whom, incidentally, is a Spanish gentleman with a limited command of English. But from April he must pay the full costs for the whole week, even though he slaughters and dresses on only one day each week. His costs will rise from £61 to £702 per week, or £36, 500 for the whole year. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that these charges will make his business completely unviable.

This is institutionalised lunacy. Mr. Coles, a local slaughterer who meets a local need, will close. Pipers Farm, which is a nationally successful business, will have to close. Pipers Farm employees will lose their jobs. The 25 local farmers who supply Pipers Farm will have lost their best customer. Transporters and suppliers will lose yet more business—a loss that could tip them over the edge as well. In short, it is a total disaster, a huge hole blown in the delicate web of that area's economy.

My second example is in Norfolk, where a top-class poultry processing business which employs 72 people is faced with further veterinary inspection charges which will jump from £400 a week to £1, 600 a week—an increase of £62, 000 a year. The owner of that business will have to shut up shop. Bang go not only the 72 jobs there, but at least another 150 which depend on that business in one way or another.

What makes this even worse is that these costs which will ruin so many British businesses and do incalculable damage to the rural economy are, in the rest of the EU, met by the state, by the taxpayer. Ministers in this country seem to be seriously under-informed on this matter. The Food Minister denied in a radio interview last November that the French Government paid these costs. But that is the case.

What is so deeply depressing is that these small businesses, encouraged only yesterday by the Chancellor in his Budget, which are now under threat are the engine room of the rural economy. They should be nourished and supported, not cut off at the knees because they do not fit some bureaucratic procrustean bed.

In the light of that, I hope that the Minister will treat as a matter of urgency a review of the Government's position. If, as is the case, the costs of our European Union competitors are being paid by the state, then surely it is only fair that the inspection costs of the meat industry in this country should also be paid by the state. I thought that that was what the single market was all about. I understand that there are derogation procedures which have not yet been explored to enable extra support to be given to small abattoirs and meat processors. My noble friend Lord Vinson hoped that this debate would be influential. I share that hope. This is an important matter.

5.34 p.m.

Lord Geraint

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Miller for initiating this debate and for her constructive opening remarks. I thank also the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, for his maiden speech and wish him well. I am sure that we shall hear a great deal from the noble Lord in the years to come.

I am very concerned about the severity of the crisis in the countryside and its effect on the local economy. Farm incomes in the United Kingdom have fallen by nearly 100 per cent. in the past two years in the worst recession for decades.

Once again, I urge the Government to set up a Royal Commission to look into the state and role of the countryside and agriculture. When I made that plea a few months ago on behalf of my colleagues on these Benches, the Minister refused point-blank to consider it. But how the scene has changed in a matter of months. Now the Government are willing to set up a Royal Commission to look into the problems of this House. If a Royal Commission is good enough for your Lordships' House, I am sure it is good enough for the countryside and agriculture. I wonder what the Minister will say today.

I turn first to the tenanted farm sector which plays a major role not only as a source of lifetime family farms but also as a means of entry to the industry for young farmers. The provision of smallholdings by county councils makes a vital contribution to the tenanted sector. They provide a structure of starter units and larger units to which the tenant can progress. County councils should be discouraged from further disposal of such smallholdings. They should, whenever possible, increase their resource of land available for letting. I urge the Welsh and Scottish parliaments, when established, to consider providing extra financial resources to local authorities to buy more land within the next three years.

EC structural measures should be made available to farmers in the United Kingdom. Similarly, young farmer entrants on smallholdings should be offered low-interest loans and other incentives such as direct income aids for a limited period to assist in their establishment.

The abolition of agricultural subsidies would cause major problems in the countryside for producers and consumers alike. The health industry is almost entirely funded by the Government, as, too, are education and training, the police and the Armed Forces. Those industries are important to our society and their services should be encouraged. Underfunding would create untold damage to the rural economy in Wales.

Let us look at the policy of the New Zealand Government over the past 10 years. There are no government payments of any kind coming back through the farm gate in New Zealand and for some farmers the past 12 years have been a real pain. Over the 10-year period from 1986 to 1996, the overall number of farmers has declined by 17 per cent. Sheep farms have declined by 44 per cent. I wonder whether it is the Government's intention to pursue similar policies for the United Kingdom.

Farm size has to increase to cope with lack of profitability in New Zealand. Sheep farms have increased in size from an average of 1, 057 acres to 1, 485 acres; dairy farms from an average of 215 acres to 304 acres. The number of sheep in New Zealand has come down from a peak of 70.3 million in 1983 to 46.2 million in June 1998. The number of people involved in sheep and beef farming decreased by 32 per cent. between 1986 and 1996. But statistics like those do not show the full effect of such changes on farming couples and their families. I hope that that type of policy will never be pursued by any British Government.

We on these Benches press for the creation of an independent appeals panel for Wales and other countries within the United Kingdom to adjudicate in disputes between government and farmers involving the processing of grant support applications and their payments. Many farmers suffer financially every year because of these rigid and unwanted rules and regulations imposed on the industry. What we need is a little common sense to prevail on both sides. On behalf of my party, the Liberal Democrats, I urge the Government to introduce an independent appeals panel forthwith to make sure that justice prevails within the agricultural industry.

We must ensure that the Government safeguard the future of family farms and maintain the rural infrastructure before it is too late. I also believe that we need a supermarket watchdog because United Kingdom producers have little influence in the market place. When farmers bargain with the big supermarket buyers they often have to take the price they are offered, however low.

Farmers may understandably be reluctant to criticise the retailers who are their biggest customers. The public may be more sympathetic to the plight of producers in the developing world. However, pointing out that many UK farmers face problems too need not trivialise the issues facing producers in developing countries. If supermarkets can support farmers in the developing world by signing up to the ethical trading initiative, then surely they can adopt a more ethical stance with UK farmers.

5.42 p.m.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for introducing the debate. I wish to refer particularly to the needs of the countryside and the dependence of its environment on agricultural and local employment.

Agriculture as an employer has been in decline in direct proportion to the rate of intensification of farming methods. On the other hand, extensive methods such as organic farming and the management of ESAs, countryside stewardship and other scheduled areas all provide opportunities for increased labour input. My noble friend Lord Selborne referred to organic farming as a "niche" market, but at 100, 000 acres out of 24 million it is not only a niche market but a niche niche market. If my noble friend Lord Selborne would allow us to extend to 10 per cent. of the market, we would then be in a position to make an effective contribution to local employment in agriculture.

It is the small employer who needs support, particularly at present. His business is being greatly affected by supermarkets. RDAs may be able to assist with the increasingly popular farm gate shops—another of my noble friend's niche markets. The small farmer has particular difficulty in getting his cattle to market. Ever-decreasing in number, the abattoirs become larger and larger, and it is becoming more difficult and expensive for the small farmers to get to the abattoirs. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, has already referred to the matter, and the possibility of mobile abattoirs has been mentioned.

Under Agenda 2000, funds will be available from the savings resulting from CAP reform, but the proposed 25 per cent. is not nearly large enough a slice to compensate for the damage done. The agricultural environment is delicately balanced and the inroads of CAP-inspired insensitive intensification have caused enormous damage. There has, incidentally, been a considerable move among so-called conventional farmers towards extensification in the light of public approval of organic methods, which I call conventional; the other methods are modern.

But overall there has been much damaging activity, such as the ploughing of the shallow turf of downlands which for generations, up to 50 years ago, were the exclusive preserve of sheep, and also the ploughing up of watermeadows, with the resultant annual flooding of crops. That is all in response to the opportunities offered by the common agricultural policy. If that is competitive farming, is it sustainable?

Undoubtedly the best thing for the rural environment would be the reform, if not the scrapping, of that evil monstrosity, the common agricultural policy. We have yet to see an accommodation between the, now sparring, partners in the original design—that is, between Germany and France. Until that valuable day, we are unlikely to see much reform.

Employment will be the responsibility of the new RDAs, supervised by their senior partner, the Countryside Agency. A major problem they face is the exodus from the urban areas into the countryside, with the increased demand for housing and its concomitant pressure to encroach on the green belt. While urban areas are becoming wastelands, the all-powerful supermarkets are driving the countryman and the urban dweller alike into the motor car. The village shop is fast disappearing and 70 per cent. of our villages now have no village shop.

What is the result? You have to drive to the supermarket along country lanes which, at that rate of growth, will not be able to carry the traffic generated. A 50 per cent. increase in rural traffic is forecast over the next 25 years.

Another factor in the urban exodus is the demand for the so-called right to roam. These roamers seem to be enthused by some irrational desire to have their way at any cost. At a recent meeting convened by my noble friend Lord Marlesford, consisting of representatives of all sides of the controversy, it was evident that we could peacefully pursue a course of voluntary action, with the exception of a surly reply from the roamer members of the team answering our questions. There is an unattractive bitterness in their approach which does not augur well for future decisions. There was no acceptance of the cost to society of providing the roamer with his dubious rights. Who is to pay for the inevitable lavatories and car parks which, of themselves, are obtrusive in the sensitive environment that these roamers wish to trample?

There is a well-known phrase: "Keep off the grass". I suggest a new one: "Keep off the heather". The wildlife and biodiversity exist because of the wilderness, itself an ecology that should not be wantonly disturbed.

5.48 p.m.

The Earl of Lytton

My Lords, along with other noble Lords, I have several interests to declare. I am a member of the Country Landowners' Association, a chartered surveyor and a part owner and manager of a hill farm, I am glad to tell my noble friend Lord Williamson, in the Somerset part of the Exmoor National Park. Very proud of it I am too.

I describe myself as a rural entrepreneur, and I am not a fan of the dependency culture of grants and subsidies. The VAT bill I pay substantially exceeds those grants and subsidies that I receive. I am particularly interested in rural land use outside the towns and villages, especially the difficult to manage, less favoured areas.

The nature of the Motion tabled by the noble Baroness denotes part of the problem: too many interests and a painful lack of focus. I do not regard CAP reform as the Holy Grail of rural economics and I am sure that many noble Lords share that view. I believe that we should be developing our own rural strategy, in particular a socio-economic one. Part of the problem is administrative baggage from the past: land use planning and control, the regime of consents and designations and regulations. I do not say that they should not be there but that they should be properly focused. If one follows the argument adopted by the noble Countess, Lady Mar, we do not even have a playing field, let alone a level one.

My estate thrives on income from sport and tourism. I am very proud to say that I regard the public as a resource. In that context I should also like matters such as public access, which I have tried to foster, to be regarded as a resource and not a burden on countryside management. I accept that my situation is probably untypical. As the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, pointed out, this is a niche operation. Some good land will always be profitable. At the other end of the scale not only is land unprofitable, but there is no realistic alternative because it is too remote and there is no possibility of diversification. These areas will require continuing and large support measures unless we are to witness substantial landscape and land use change. Particularly at risk are the uplands. However unprofitable it may be, the only method of management in some areas is agriculture, but we cannot simply throw money at the situation because the dependency culture is itself not sustainable. Nor can we parachute urban uses into the countryside willy-nilly unless there is a real need because such uses may be substitutes for other rural employment and so they will destabilise the rural economy in their own right. We need a basket of measures and a "can do" mentality.

The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, made reference to the need to add value. I accept that. There must be farm diversification but, please, it must be related to land use and there must be a proper planning, rating and fiscal regime in place to deal with it. At the moment there is a scattergun approach. I should also like to see producers acting as processors. If the example cited by the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, is adopted no one will ever make a start down that road. I believe that that is a terribly bad message to give.

Service industry in rural areas is fine if it adds value, but it needs to be locked into the rural economy for rural purposes and for the reasons for which the land is to be managed; it should not be something that is totally different from it. The Government's initiatives on organic production are particularly welcome. One wonders whether they will stack up. Presently I shall tell the Minister about this. I am looking into this myself to see whether or not it can be done on my estate.

There is also a need for a change in the buying culture to which the noble Lord, Lord Peston, made reference. Whether we buy elsewhere or from abroad, we export the fundamental worth of our countryside, which is not right. As for tourism, we need to consider the quality of accommodation to see whether it is possible to extend the season in the face of fairly unpromising weather. We need a culture of doing that. I have a special interest in country sports which I hope will continue to be the backbone of my estate. I hope that others will be able to enjoy their countryside pursuits. Further, I should like to see greater emphasis placed on bio-fuel and biomass—the use of low-quality timber products—to add value to land use management. I should like to see access as a resource, not a threat. Perhaps we can encourage business sponsorship of environmental works in the countryside. One hopes that it will be possible to use existing manpower, not to supplant it and thereby bypass that part of the local economy.

The methods to be adopted must be varied and there must be a multi-warhead approach. Land use planning must respect economic and social aspects as well. We will probably require dwellings for non-agricultural estate workers—that is a problem which particularly afflicts me—as well as for an increasing rural population. The agencies require a common strategy that is focused on objectives with some pooling and streamlining of resources. Finally, I hope that local authorities which in many cases have tried to put rural strategies together will be encouraged to do so. Perhaps the Government and the various agencies will pick up that ball and run with it as well.

5.54 p.m.

Viscount Thurso

My Lords, I begin by congratulating the maiden speaker, Lord Williamson of Horton, on an excellent contribution. He will forgive me if I do not wax lyrical about it. Given the constraints of time I should like to crack on. This has been an absolutely fascinating debate. It is a testament to my noble friend that she has managed to achieve a good attendance in the House as well as a number of contributions to the debate. I note the number of noble Lords who, although they have not spoken, have sat in their places throughout the debate listening to all the contributions. Those contributions have been varied and of great skill. Perhaps attendance is a little thin on the Government Back Benches; nonetheless the quality has been good.

It is impossible to reply to every point that has been made and therefore I shall canter through and cherry-pick. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for doing so. I congratulate my noble friend on tabling the debate and on her consummate skill in drawing together the Motion before the House. It casts a general net across the countryside, which has certainly caught quite a few interesting fish. However, my noble friend has focused on two key issues. One is the coupling of the words "living" and "working" countryside. It is almost like saying "living and breathing". That very important element has clearly emerged from the many contributions we have heard. The other dart, thrown very accurately by my noble friend, relates to the number of agencies, the wide diversity of functions they perform and the newness of many of them. Some of these bodies have not yet come into being. She is also to be congratulated on having raised that issue.

I turn to the second of those topics. A number of speakers have referred to the RDAs. I believe it was the noble Baroness, Lady Young, who referred to the potential of the RDAs not only in economic terms but in other areas. Broadly speaking, we on these Benches warmly welcome the RDAs. However, I have some concerns; I wish to refer to three.

One may be forgiven for forgetting sometimes that the "R" in "RDA" does not stand for "rural" but "regional". That is where my first concern begins. I refer to the sheer size of these bodies. For example, my office is established just outside Tring in Hertfordshire. I understand that the RDA stretches from East Anglia in the north to Sussex and Kent in the south. It is like a huge doughnut with the hole in the middle representing London. My worry is that the people in the northern and southern parts of that area will not have a particularly homogenous view of what they want to happen. That is particularly true of tourism where the approach at the two ends is quite different.

My second concern is the urban context of the RDAs. There is a danger, particularly in the more affluent southeast—or (if I may say so), compared with Scotland, the affluent southwest—that the number of cities in RDAs will give those bodies a rather urban feel. We need to ensure that rural issues have their place in RDAs.

My third concern about RDAs is that their remit lies largely in regeneration in economic terms. Speaker after speaker on all sides of the House has pointed out that the preservation of the countryside is not simply about profit and loss and balance sheets but much greater issues than that. Perhaps we should consider giving the RDAs a wider remit.

I turn to the first of my noble friend's darts: the combination of the words "living" and "working" countryside. This highlights the fact that very often there are two aspect to the countryside. There is the countryside that is very often close to a large city—usually in the south—which is fairly affluent and perhaps lived in by people who do not work in the countryside. In the truly rural countryside, the more distant areas, people live and work there. As many speakers have said those areas are genuinely in crisis. We must not use the term too lightly. As the noble Lord, Lord Peston, mentioned, there are real problems of rural poverty. There are real problems of sub-standard houses, as my noble friend Lady Maddock mentioned. There is considerable social deprivation. Those problems are largely hidden from the gaze of the city dweller by the leafy surrounds in which they exist.

Perhaps I may make one small party jibe at my neighbours. I find it somewhat rich that after 18 years in power noble Lords on the Conservative Benches attack the Government for what they have not done for the countryside. I think, frankly, that it was Thatcherism that ripped the guts out of the Highlands. I have no doubt that the policies pursued by the previous government were not helpful to the countryside. However, over the past two years it is equally true that the crisis has widened and deepened. It is now a requirement for the Government to take action. Whatever may have been true two to three years ago, we now have a much graver crisis.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, referred to the fact that people in the countryside have no greater right to a living than those in the city. He was right to bring that to our attention. I largely agree with him. However, he went too far when he accused farmers of living in a dependency culture. One of my noble friends pointed out that the income of a hill farmer is £416 a year. I do not think that one can accuse them of living in a dependency culture. Agriculture is at the heart of the countryside and is extremely important.

I wish to touch on one other issue: tourism. It would be difficult for me to speak on any issue without trying to bring tourism into it. A number of noble Lords have been slightly dismissive of tourism, saying that it is on the periphery of what can be done in the countryside. I draw noble Lords' attention to a recently published document entitled Tomorrow's Tourism. It sets out the Government's tourism strategy. While I congratulate the Government on the document, I have some severe complaints about some of it. However, on page 53 a case study of the Crocker Farm in Devon sets out what can be done to sustain existing jobs and provide new jobs in agriculture. I do not have time to tell your Lordships about it, but it is, I suggest, a document worth reading.

To ask hill farmers, as some of us believe the Scottish Office would like to do, at one leap to swap the ploughshare for the serving spoon, and sheep for tourists, is redolent of Marie Antoinette's, "Let them eat cake". It is insulting to hill farmers and hoteliers. In many of the worst hit rural areas tourism will not have an impact. It will have an impact in those areas which are already slightly more affluent.

My noble friend mentioned that on these Benches it is our policy to have a rural affairs ministry. I have been struck during the debate by how integral farming is considered to be within the rural community and the extent to which it is interdependent with so many other rural activities. I believe that the time has come when rather than having a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food we should have a ministry of rural affairs which can look after agriculture and fisheries in the context of the countryside. Food can be looked after elsewhere.

There is a crisis in the countryside. I look forward to hearing the Minister. I hope he will have some crumbs of comfort for us.

6.4 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I, too, would like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, on bringing this debate before us today. The question we are debating is in two parts. It calls attention to the case for policies which will ensure a living working countryside; and it seeks to clarify the relationships between the many agencies involved.

I have said it before, and I say it again: unless our farmers are able to make a profit, the countryside that we enjoy today will be destroyed. Confidence is low, as my noble friend Lord Peel said. The fact that this is our fourth farming debate within the past three months indicates how this House appreciates the dire situation faced in the countryside.

But farmers are not the only ones working in the countryside. Market towns, village shops, craft businesses, our farmhouse bed and breakfasts, village pubs and churches are all part of the interwoven pattern of our countryside today. Whether we earn our living there, whether we live there but work in the town, or whether we visit it for enjoyment, we should acknowledge that the countryside exists as it does at present thanks to those who have worked the land and cared for it over many generations.

In the debate following his Statement on Monday, Mr. Meacher stated, we have always made it clear that the protection of wildlife and environmental crops is our priority". —[Official Report, Commons, 8/3/99; col. 24.] In saying that, he put his finger on one of the most important aspects of the definition of countryside. Unfortunately he confined protection to meaning, temporary and limited closures, probably in a wide area of countryside, during the lambing season and the breeding season, particularly between April and June". —[Official Report, Commons, 8/3/99; col. 33.] In the debate that followed the announcement in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, replied to the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, in reference to the closing off of access for periods of time: We would not envisage that being a very lengthy period … the landowner would be able to close the area for up to 28 days. That would probably cover most of the situations the noble Lord has in mind". —[Official Report, 8/3/99: col. 51.] Those two responses contrast unfavourably with the submission by the Moorland Association —it was touched on by the noble Earl, Lord Peel —in its response to the access consultation. It stated that disturbance can be caused particularly during territory establishment, nesting and fledging, all of which lasts from February to June. Clearly the needs of the countryside are seen differently by differing agencies and resulting policies will be heavily influenced by the relative power wielded by each of those particular agencies.

The constitution of the bodies is of vital importance to the sustenance of our countryside. It should represent and reflect the constituent parts; namely, the villages; through their parish councils, the WIs, local churches, old people's organisations, and so on. It should also include the farming community, the local landowner, local businessmen, local authorities, national authorities and —dare I say it? —Europe. Many of its directives, and some of its bureaucracy, have a huge impact upon the living and working environment of the countryside. The RDAs should reflect different shades of political opinion. They should reflect the young and the old, those who work away from home and those who stay in their villages. Concerns have been expressed to me with reference to the regional development agencies. Indeed, some noble Lords have referred to that today. Their rural and political appointees do not always fully represent their constituents. Perhaps the Minister will inform us of the rules of selection which have been operated. For example, Lincolnshire is very different from Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, but the representation on the Lincolnshire authority is not as good as it might be.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, most astutely highlighted the challenge of legislation on open access by stressing the importance of agreement between the various agencies. My noble friend Lord Kimball spoke of the powers that pass respectively to the regional development agencies and the Countryside Agency from the Rural Development Commission: two heads; two minds; and two hearts where there was previously one. The Government are now demanding an effective relationship between those agencies, plus the European Commission, the Government, local authorities and the new local fora which have been envisaged by Mr. Meacher. What a plethora of agencies is involved!

The maintenance of the countryside as a living, working environment; as a source of rest and recreation; as a sustainable entity and as a valuable resource for prosperity means providing adequate funds; setting up viable planning parameters, to which many noble Lords have referred today; monitoring progress; evaluating developments; incorporating expert advice; recognising changing needs and encouraging small businesses. The noble Countess, Lady Mar, highlighted what a niche market can do. There are many other examples in existence. What most people want is less legislation not more. They also want a level playing field to enable our business people to thrive.

To enable these agencies to fulfill their objectives the Government must provide sufficient resources to support these activities. Perhaps the Minister will give us assurances that the necessary funding will be made available not just in the initial stop-gap, but on an on-going basis. Pilot projects are necessary and a reasonable way of testing expert opinion, but those that are shown to be successful should be supported for some little time after that to ensure their long-term success.

For instance, I refer to Monday's Statement on open access. It is not sufficient, to ensure that resources are available to local authorities to cover…the building of stiles, the gates and signs and possibly some rangering services if those same stiles, gates and signs fall down or are pulled down or damaged through fire, flood or tempest and there is no more money to replace them. Arguments about who is to finance it cause serious dissension between government departments and local authorities and far less the discussions about matching European moneys on some of the agri-environmental schemes. How are the Government planning to handle the continuing development of such projects?

The countryside is home to countless animals. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred to that earlier. In fact, I shall have to read Hansard carefully tomorrow. I thought she said at one point in her speech that the present government were going to adopt Conservative policies and just put "Labour" on them. I shall have to look at that very carefully. The countryside is also home to 23 per cent. of the population of the United Kingdom and a source of about 30 per cent. of our gross domestic product. For instance, in places such as North Yorkshire, over 50 per cent. of the population lives in isolated rural communities. For these people the decline in local services, the lack of public transport, the increase in petrol tax announced only yesterday, which will hugely affect rural areas; the closure of community hospitals; and the delay in planning decisions spell the beginning of the end for some of these communities.

I quote from the Countryside Alliance about the low level of car ownership in urban areas reflecting poverty while people in, rural [areas] rely on cars and own cars, no matter how battered or old as the lack of public transport leaves [them] no alternative". Many noble Lords have referred to housing, planning and commercial competitiveness. The contribution of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, this afternoon was very worthwhile. In that respect I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, on his excellent maiden speech.

The new government agencies must look to their duties in a spirit of co-operation and refuse to allow the polled opinions of many people to destroy one of our most treasured possessions; namely, our English countryside.

6.13 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, for initiating this debate and everyone who has taken part. The subject has been dealt with so fully that I am not sure that I can cover all the points raised in the time allocated to me. I shall attempt to do so. I pay a particular compliment to the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, who made a formidable maiden speech. If a speech made by a survivor of 108 Agricultural Councils can be called a maiden speech, then the term needs looking at again.

Although for half a century I have been an inner-city kid, I recently moved to the countryside and to Dorset rather than Somerset although I can see Somerset from my back garden. Therefore, I have some sympathy with the first two speakers in the debate. After a few general remarks I shall concentrate primarily on the area of the institutions to which the Motion draws attention. I shall try to answer some other points, but many will have to be dealt with in writing.

As the debate has shown, the rural agenda is very diverse and quite different in some parts of the country from others. Much that is positive is being done already in rural areas. There is a good quality of life for most people who live in such areas and a quality of environment which is of benefit to us all. Nevertheless, the pace of economic development in many of our rural areas has not been substantial. Despite official unemployment being relatively low, there is much hidden and exported unemployment. There are also serious social and poverty problems. As a number of noble Lords have pointed out, there are also serious problems as regards access to services and a lack of transport.

This Government have recognised the problems. We have taken action on a number of fronts specifically to help rural areas. We shall spend an extra £150 million over the next three years to support rural public transport. We have increased to £174 million the money spent by my department on countryside programmes. We have included specific rural areas in health and education action zones where there are problems. We have introduced rate relief for single village shops and post offices. We have supported the agricultural community in terms of a special aid package for livestock farmers. A further £35 million will be spent for a new cattle tracing system. As regards planning in general, we have developed a new approach to encourage greater use of brownfield sites for housebuilding while protecting greenfield areas.

These and many other targeted measures illustrate the Government's commitment to a living and working countryside and give the lie to the allegations sometimes made, to which my noble friend Lord Peston referred, that this Government and perhaps to some extent their predecessors have ignored the interests of the countryside. We are a government for the whole country. We recognise the specific and difficult problems some parts of our rural countryside are facing.

Yesterday's Budget will disproportionately benefit the countryside. There is help for the low paid in the taxation system plus the national minimum wage, help for those employed in the countryside and those who are failing to get jobs. The level of poverty and incomes is disproportionately low in those areas. Having taken those specific measures we now intend to develop them into a comprehensive rural policy. The noble Baroness was a little impatient that we should get through the consultation process on the White Paper. We believe that we need a further round of consultation. The discussion document was issued a few days ago. It invites questions and comments. I have no doubt that a number of your Lordships will wish to contribute. Perhaps I may remind noble Lords that the closing date is 30th April. In addition, we are having seminars in each of the English regions in order to listen to the views of local and rural organisations. We intend it to be a very inclusive process. We shall produce a White Paper on rural policy later in the year.

We have already set up a number of agencies. There is some logic in what the noble Baroness said about the order of events, but there is a much better logic in the sense that it takes a long time to establish organisations. They will deliver the policy which we shall announce in the White Paper. I understand, and have some sympathy for, the central point of the noble Baroness's Motion. There are a number of agencies involved, all of which are making a contribution to the delivery of policy in the countryside, although I do not necessarily concur with the noble Lord, Lord Geraint, that it requires a Royal Commission to sort out all the different institutions.

As regards the farmer, entrepreneur or the inward investor into our countryside, I believe that there is need for something closer to what the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, referred to as a one-stop shop. We may not be quite capable of delivering that, but we need to convey the role of each of these organisations and to guide people seeking help and advice to the appropriate one in an understandable way. The Government are committed to do so.

There has been a demand from the Liberal Democrat Benches and elsewhere to create a rural ministry of some kind. Examined in detail, that has no great logic. A note passed to me indicates that this is a matter for the Prime Minister, just to stop me making policy on the hoof! But the reality is that the present government departments are acting increasingly together. The noble Baroness noted that the Ministry of Agriculture and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are working closely together on delivering the White Paper and on many other programmes. MAFF has had an input in the regional development agencies and so forth. The Government Offices increasingly operate in covering all government departments, incorporating their relation with MAFF—not physically in the same office, but there is a great deal of joint working.

Furthermore, there is much closer working between local authorities and the agencies of central government, bringing together local authorities and regions as a whole in the new planning structure and process. Parliament's job is to ensure that all these; agencies work closely together to ensure that their functions are performed efficiently and effectively. There is a change in institutions, some of which will require organic development, but once we have a comprehensive policy it will become clearer which of the agencies delivers which aspect of policy. They have clear objectives in terms of economic and countryside development, rural transport and so forth. It is not appreciated how much there is joined-up government in the rural areas. The existence of a comprehensive rural policy will make more evident how the agencies are pursuing the same objectives.

A number of specific questions were raised about the institutions. It is important, for example, that the RDAs and the regional planning bodies work closely together to develop their strategies, not least strategy towards the rural part of their remit. There has been some public concern, repeated today by a number of noble Lords, that the transfer of the RDC's regeneration function to the RDAs may militate against rural areas. The Government believe that the rural areas will benefit from being included in the rural strategy for the: whole region and not marginalised into what is seen as a solely rural dimension. To ensure that rural issues have due rate, the RDAs are being given specific remit to serve rural areas. It is the case that at least one member of each RDA board, except for London, has rural experience. As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, indicated, RDAs will also benefit from the expertise and knowledge of staff transferring from the RDC as they have substantial experience of rural regeneration issues.

Our commitment to rural representation will continue to be reflected in the RDAs' funding of rural areas. Rural funds will be separated to ensure that the needs of rural areas are addressed and will be allocated specifically to those areas. We are also giving guidance about how RDAs should use their rural budgets, including how they determine the rural needs within their regions.

A number of questions were raised about the role of RDAs in relation to European funds. Some complex issues arise. They were mentioned by the right reverend Prelate, among others. The RDAs' role in general strategy is clear. They can co-operate in the delivery of structural and other regional funds. However, as the RDAs are also involved in decisions on individual programmes, we must avoid any lack of propriety in that respect. Therefore, we have yet finally to define the RDAs' relationship with the delivery of structural funds to rural and other areas.

A number of noble Lords asked about the role of the Countryside Agency. We are determined that the agency will play a major role in addressing rural needs and complement the work of the RDAs. The RDC's research and advisory role will transfer to the Countryside Agency next month. At the same time, the RDC's old regeneration activities will transfer to the RDAs. The combined experience in the new Countryside Agency will provide a national source of research and advice about countryside and rural issues. The agency will be able to develop a more integrated approach to conserving and enhancing the countryside and helping to meet the needs of rural people. The agency will continue to advise government on social and economic issues in rural areas and it will continue to play an important role in assisting the development of rural services and identifying new approaches. It is also important that the Government Office in each region, the RDAs, the Countryside Agency and local government work closely together.

I have spoken mainly about England, although I appreciate that several noble Lords raised points relating to Scotland and Wales. Most of those issues will become the responsibility of the devolved Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. The question of how the Scottish and Welsh executives approach rural matters will be for them. That will include the issue of land reform, which has been prioritised in Scotland. It has a different history of land tenure and slightly different geography and climate. Agriculture and other land use issues are different in Scotland and it is appropriate that land reform together with agricultural and rural development policy are as far as possible devolved to the Scottish executive and Parliament. The same is largely true for Wales where, as noble Lords have indicated, there has already been progress in that direction.

Many issues were raised about agriculture. I gently chide the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, who said that this was a farming debate. It is not a farming debate; it is a debate about rural development as a whole. Agriculture is of vital importance to land use, the environment and the rural economy of rural areas, but it is not just agriculture that defines the interests of the rural economy. I believe that, in reality, the noble Baroness recognises that.

Agriculture is vital as a direct and indirect job provider, an economic motor and as the manager of the countryside, the environment and many aspects of rural life. We respect that. We also recognise that there is a serious problem in much of the agricultural sector at present. As a city dweller, I used not to feel sorry for farmers, but at present I feel very concerned about many aspects of the agricultural sector. The Government are helping in turning them around but, in the long run, reform of the agricultural policy needs to be of benefit to agricultural managers as well as to consumers and the interests of the environment.

The noble Lord, Lord Williamson, referred positively to reform of the CAP. Others, including the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, cast scepticism on the process. Nevertheless, in the medium term it must be to reform of the CAP that we look for a better system of improving both the efficiency of our agricultural system and the degree of protection that it gives to the more vulnerable elements, particular hill farmers in this country. The original CAP among the original six was a very successful regional and social policy. It then turned into something more of the monster referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam. We need to return it to its original purpose which was to upgrade and modernise agriculture; to provide social support for those areas which are most vulnerable; and to protect consumers and the environment. If we can achieve that it will not only benefit the agricultural sector; it will also benefit the whole of the rural economy and environment.

A number of points were raised in relation to rural housing, rural transport and access to the countryside which we dealt with at some length the other day. There may be some continuing disagreement which will be resolved, it is to be hoped, when the legislation comes before this House—or possibly not!

Important issues have been raised relating to rural housing and transport to which I shall respond in writing. Such has been the enthusiasm of noble Lords in contributing to the debate that I must leave some time to enable the noble Baroness to sum up. The debate has shown the wide range of concern in this House about the rural economy and a great deal of experience has been brought to bear on the issue. The White Paper will provide a focus for what we can do for the countryside not only in the short term but also in the medium term so that whether we visit it, or live or work there, we can have a countryside which delivers both economic benefit and a great deal of enjoyment and quality of life for us all.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, will he undertake to write to the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and other noble Lords, who raised the extremely important point about the scandal of the slaughterhouses? That is a major problem at present and we need a quick answer from the Government.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I shall consult my colleagues and provide an answer on that matter.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, in an effort to be helpful, perhaps I may suggest that we receive an answer by Monday when I shall be asking a Starred Question.

6.31 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, first, I thank the Minister warmly for his positive and helpful reply. I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. I have learnt a great deal. It was a good debate because we did not spend too much time hand-wringing. Many positive suggestions were made for a way forward which is extremely refreshing. I thank too all noble Lords who listened to the debate. I shall not detain your Lordships any longer as I know that the Minister is to reply also to the next debate. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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