HL Deb 25 February 2004 vol 658 cc237-80

3.15 p.m.

Earl Peel rose to call attention to the situation in the countryside in the light of the rural White Paper; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I start by declaring an interest as an owner of land in the north of England that is largely subject to tenancy.

The rural White Paper was published in November 2000 by the then mighty Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Since then the former has been reduced to less obese proportions and the latter has disappeared without trace. Subsequently, we witnessed in 2001 the birth of Defra and, as of the other day, a review of the White Paper by the Secretary of State, Mrs Beckett.

However, to further complicate matters, the Government have commissioned a review of rural delivery by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, which can, I believe, only be viewed as an indictment of how ill-thought-through was the planning of the new department. On top of that, we are witnessing a major reform of the common agricultural policy, which is one of the most fundamental changes ever experienced in agriculture. The Secretary of State has just announced how she intends to implement those changes. During that turbulence, agriculture has lurched from crisis to crisis, with plummeting farming incomes, huge job losses and, of course, the crisis of foot and mouth disease, which literally tore the countryside asunder.

I should say from the outset that I, along with most other commentators, wholly welcomed the fusion of MAFF—so totally discredited after the foot and mouth epidemic—with responsibility for the rural environment. They are natural bedfellows and cannot be effectively separated if we are to have a cohesive rural policy.

Another major commitment in the White Paper was CAP reform and the decoupling of support from production. Again, that move had overwhelming support, ensuring that those in the business of food production should gear themselves to the marketplace, thus allowing the continued support from public funds—still very considerable—to be channelled into sound environmental management.

However, delivery of those new policies is complex and I am bound to say that I find it peculiar, to say the least, that England is taking a different route from all other countries in the United Kingdom. Of course, the principle of decoupling is to be welcomed, but the route adopted by the Secretary of State is bound to have a hugely damaging effect on efficient dairy and beef producers. Taking the special disadvantaged area boundary as the dividing line between the two areas could well bring about the demise of English suckler herds within those SDAs.

With those area payments are attached cross-compliance conditions, which will demand certain environmental standards. How those will operate is crucial. The conditions must be clear to farmers, land managers and those whose task it is to conduct the monitoring. Who will have the responsibility is uncertain, but we cannot expect civil servants to be given the power of objective measurement, unless the parameters are clearly defined. It is also important that the conditions imposed on our farmers remain pretty constant with those in other EU countries to ensure that British farmers and growers are not placed at a competitive disadvantage.

Furthermore—and it would be disingenuous of me not to mention Sir Don Curry's considerable input into current rural policy formulation—how will the implementation of the level entry scheme, one of his main recommendations for further environmental enhancement, dovetail with the cross-compliance conditions attached to area payments? Will the two schemes be the responsibility of different agencies? I suggest that the cost and confusion could be considerable if not.

I would like to add something at this stage about the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins. I do not propose to dwell on these as they are complex and a subject for a separate debate. But if the Government do accept his basic principles in that the formulation of rural policy and its delivery are to be separated, it strikes me as essential that that part of the Countryside Agency which is responsible for rural proofing be retained in order to act as the overarching link between the two objectives. I entirely agree, however, that there must be a big push to streamline rural delivery, as at the moment it is far too confusing.

The new challenges facing those who make their living from the land, and whose responsibility it is to manage the environment, are demanding to say the least. Any new order creates concern—and the task of government in setting the right framework is equally demanding. But the key to success is, I believe, mutual understanding and trust. Here I feel that the Government have forced rural communities on to the back foot, and they have lost the confidence of so many.

European directives have been gold plated and forced through without proper consideration of their true impacts. There is the constant threat of anti-hunting legislation, which has gone deep into the heart of so many rural communities. There was the ham-fisted and irresponsible way that the Government handled the Animal Health Act after foot and mouth, which with more consideration could have had the support of the farming community. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act, the effects of which are still to be felt, showed a lack of practical common sense and was forced through on the back of political dogma. The draconian powers of compulsory purchase under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill shows a gross insensitivity towards those who own land. The potential effects of regional assemblies, if successful, include virtually disenfranchising those who live and vote in rural areas.

On the first page of the White Paper, Mr Prescott claims that some want to drive a wedge between town and country. Well, he certainly seems to be setting the perfect example.

We all welcome the recognition of the importance of economic vitality in rural areas expressed in the White Paper. I am particularly glad that the Government have accepted the principles of broadband.

Rural Britain is changing and it is changing fast. Agriculture no longer dominates in the way that it did, even though I remain confident that the production of food, and the management of the countryside—so vital for the ever-important tourism business—will remain the bedrock of rural society. But the future must embrace new opportunities and new enterprises, as well as encouraging the old.

The rural White Paper review acknowledges that there have been real difficulties in coming to a workable definition of "sustainable development".

The current planning guidance PPG13 states: in rural areas, locate most development … in local service centres, which are designated in the development plan to act as focal points for housing, transport and other services, and encourage better transport provision in the countryside.

That is all very well. But many local planning authorities have interpreted this demand for traffic reduction as a reason for refusing sustainable rural development. There is no way that we can have a thriving rural economy without some measure of traffic generation, particularly when there are no alternative modes of transport.

Furthermore, and in addition to addressing this fundamental issue, I would like to see a whole culture change in the attitude of planners, when they actually begin treating people more like clients, and start serving the community in a more positive and helpful fashion. But, clearly, the first stage is to have a more realistic rural planning guidance that is not moulded around urban conditions.

I have just mentioned housing and, of course, the shortage of affordable accommodation has now become a crisis in many rural areas. Although recognised in the White Paper, since 1997 there has been a steady decline in new affordable accommodation in settlements with fewer than 3,000 inhabitants. Indeed, homelessness in rural areas has soared by 13 per cent since the Government came to power.

There is a real need for new thinking and new initiatives, and I urge the Government to enter into dialogue with organisations such as the CLA—and I declare an interest as a member of that organisation—whose members can help to deliver, and whose recent report on housing and the rural economy details the real impediments to securing a better prospect for rural people.

I turn to the police. Clearly, effective crime prevention is a hallmark of any civilised society. This is important, not simply in terms of protecting those that already live in rural areas, but also in encouraging new businesses and jobs. Reported rural crime has increased by 5 per cent in the past year. According to police authority figures, police numbers and funding have decreased in many rural areas. It is an astonishing fact, but over 50 per cent of rural businesses and 75 per cent of farmers have been victims of crime during the past five years. That is unacceptable. Indeed, to see a policeman on foot in any rural area has become a rarity: you stop, you take note, you look at him. But we must not forget the considerable psychological effect that this has on those who live in isolated areas, or by themselves.

I have no doubt that the most significant reason for this wholly unsatisfactory situation was the removal of the old tied police accommodation, brought about, I fully acknowledge, under a Conservative administration. Perhaps we should seriously consider restoring this system, thus ensuring that the police become, once more, an integral part of the communities that they serve.

Back in 2000, the Government responded to the ever-increasing wails of anguish being uttered by the farming community about the mounting burden of red tape. That is an issue that my noble friend Lord Vinson will be addressing later. As in most cases when the Government are in doubt about something, they turn to the noble Lord, Lord Haskins. He duly produced his report Environmental Regulations and Farmers. The noble Lord came forward with 21 specific recommendations but, to the best of my knowledge, none of these has been implemented by the Government. No doubt the Minister will put me right if I am wrong on this point.

The rural White Paper gives extensive coverage to environmental matters, including biodiversity objectives—and quite rightly so. What is notable, however, is that the whole thrust of the policies revolves around what the Government and their agencies and the large NGOs can do, implying that the private sector plays no part.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, there are plenty of examples where the government agencies and the large NGOs have notably failed in their objectives.

For example, there is no mention of the considerable contributions that field sports have made, both in maintaining and enhancing habitats and ensuring the well-being of many species. In the north of England, the areas that have been designated as sites of special scientific interest have largely been on land that has been managed for shooting.

In conclusion, 30 per cent of England's businesses are in rural areas, thus making a hugely important contribution to the GDP. Yet metropolitan areas receive an average of 20 per cent more of standard spending assessment. That speaks for itself.

There are some excellent schemes both in the public and the private sector which have helped to encourage the survival of, or indeed the enhancement of, general rural services. But by and large—and here I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Haskins—the key to their survival is use, and the key to use is businesses, jobs, and affordable housing.

I have no doubt that those who farm, manage land and run businesses in rural areas will continue to rise to the new challenge ahead. But the Government must start showing a greater appreciation of those who live and work in rural areas, and start governing and legislating accordingly.

I beg to move for Papers.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, it is a privilege to speak in this debate; I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Peel, on initiating it. We are debating a massive topic today. The noble Earl has mapped out the current situation, particularly regarding the rural White Paper and some of the reforms taking place. I shall try to build on that in relation to specific aspects of rural life, referring in particular to the situation in the farming industry, the rural infrastructure and the threat of bovine TB and its impact on rural communities.

I declare an interest as the former MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, the most rural constituency in England and Wales. At 87 miles long and 45 miles wide, it is a continent rather than a constituency, but I know it well. I am also president of the Brecknock Federation of Young Farmers, which, although not in England, puts the problems of young people living in the countryside very much to the fore. I shall try to approach this debate in the context of England, as I realise that agriculture in Wales is devolved, and rightly so.

I shall look first at the current viability of farming. In macroeconomic terms, farming constitutes only 1 per cent of the UK GDP; but if one considers the value added to the industry by food manufacturing, for example, it constitutes almost 10 per cent of GDP. That tells a story in its own right; the primary producers get only 1 per cent of the GDP and those that add on the value get another eight per cent or so. Six or seven years ago the output of farming was worth about £3 billion; it decreased to around £1.5 billion about three years ago and has now risen to just over £2 billion. During that period margins on farms have been cut to the bone. Taken together with the foot and mouth outbreak, the impact on the welfare of farming families has been very considerable.

Average farm incomes have increased from around £9,000 about two and a half years ago to the present rate of around £16,500. Incomes on many farms had been below the national minimum wage. The situation is better now but incomes are not as good as they were in the late 1990s. The situation is particularly poor in lowland livestock farms and for milk producers. Incomes of milk producers in the past 12 months have increased by only around 1 per cent, which is a reflection of the terrible price of milk; the fact that it has been used often as a loss-leader; and that there is a very poor marketing arrangement for it at present.

The other factor that must be taken into account is that on many farms up to 50 per cent of income now comes from diversification. The increased importance of the tourism industry, in particular, which is now worth many billions of pounds, was shown starkly at the time of the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001, when it was identified as being far more valuable as a source of income then the farming industry itself. That tells a story; the synergy between agriculture and tourism should never be underestimated.

I am particularly concerned about the exit of young people from rural areas. The noble Earl touched on one or two very important aspects, not least housing. I am concerned about the importance of sustaining young people in the countryside and in farming. I make no apology for quoting again that the average age of farmers is around 57 years old. I speak as a former member of staff of the Welsh Agriculture College and as president of a federation of young farmers. The closure of entire agricultural colleges and university departments of agriculture that has occurred during the past 10 years or so reflects a depression in the farming industry. Advisory services should be reinstated with links to university and college agriculture departments, as they were a long time ago and still are in Scotland. There should be a link between advice and education as a lifelong experience. It is a lifelong learning curve that never stops, so such communication must continue.

The common agricultural policy reforms should be broadly welcomed. The decoupling that has taken place between subsidies and production into a single farm payment should be welcomed. The problem is how it should be best administered, which is a problem in its own right. The noble Earl referred to problems in cross-compliance with environmental factors. We now see a diversification of how that will be applied in England—mainly on an area basis, although it is a hybrid scheme—compared to Wales and Scotland, where it operates on a historical basis. I shall not discuss the technicalities, but my party and I are interested in considering how best to support family farms, particularly small ones.

The noble Earl, Lord Peel, has outlined the problems in England, which have an impact on family farms, particularly on an area basis. The historical basis actually benefits small family farms. Will the Minister say whether the matter will endure in the long run, or will he be forced to change it in the medium term—by 2008 or so—and will the whole policy have to be applied on an area basis? I have seen that question put in the agricultural press and do not know the accurate answer.

The problem of product prices and the activities of supermarkets needs much investigation. All I will say is that the decision by Stephen Byers, when he was Minister in the other place, on the marketing of milk, particularly milk co-operatives, and the share of the market that they should have was very unsatisfactory and should be revisited. It does not make sense that milk co-operatives in the Netherlands and other countries in the European Union, for example, can operate with 80 per cent of the market share, whereas here it is below 30 per cent. That cannot be right.

The rural infrastructure, to which the noble Earl referred, is very important. Services in rural areas have declined enormously, which has brought genuine hardship for old and young people in particular. I shall not go into much detail, as the issue will be referred to later.

I am particularly concerned about the crisis of bovine tuberculosis in the countryside. I do not know what is behind a Defra leaflet that advised that farmers and farm workers should consult their GPs if they have bovine TB on their farms. That is a very alarming statement. I believe that there is only one answer as far as eradicating TB is concerned. I am talking about eradication—not trying to live with TB, which is unacceptable. Badgers and cows and cattle should be equal. If they have got TB, they should be controlled. That must be our aim.

We need an answer on whether the rural delivery review now supersedes the rural White Paper for England. Some of the Government's proposals are in line with the Curry report. Many years ago, I took a soil sample on Don Curry's farm in Northumberland. You cannot get nearer the grass roots than that.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I remind all noble Lords that if everyone speaks for two minutes over their time, the Minister will have four minutes to reply.

3.41 p.m.

The Earl of Selborne

My Lords, I join in thanking my noble friend Lord Peel for the way in which he introduced this debate and has given us the opportunity to speak on this subject. I declare an interest as the chairman of the South East Rural Affairs Forum, as well as being a farmer in Hampshire.

The review of the rural White Paper reminded us that the White Paper's aspirational view was based around sustainable development, which means a lot of different things to different people. It is important when we are assessing to what extent sustainable development—which everyone welcomes as a concept—has been delivered or is being delivered by successive rural policies, that we test these policies against economic developments, environmental impact, environmental enhancements and social implications. The review does not always help us to tease out these aspects of sustainable development.

For example, in the chapter headed, "A Protected Countryside"—not a good title, I fear; it speaks to me of protection rather than enhancement—the executive summary on restoring and maintaining wildlife diversity and the natural environment refers to just two objectives: the improvement of river quality, with which I have no quarrel, and conversion to organic management.

I have nothing against organic farming. It is clearly important that it be promoted, because there is a market for organic produce, and it should be met. Nevertheless, it is rather hit and miss as a way of maintaining wildlife diversity. Organic farmers on the whole tend to farm rather more benignly than the average farmer, but if we wish to deliver wildlife diversity, we must target that as a precise objective. I doubt if going for something that clearly is far from helpful in terms of social cohesion is necessarily a helpful measure. When we are talking about sustainable development, we should remember that social inclusiveness, landscape, house prices and quality of life in the countryside are all equally important. If anyone has any doubt about whether organic farming automatically delivers the best of natural wildlife benefits, one only has to look at who wins environmental awards such as the Silver Lapwing Award, which is by no means invariably won by organic farmers, and there is no reason why it should be.

Let me move to the social implications of rural policy. The report, particularly the appendices, demonstrates that levels of rural homelessness have increased since 1992. It used to be 11.8 per cent of the national total; in 2000 it was 18.8 per cent of the national total, which is the last figure that I could glean from the tables referred to on page 28. Housing prices in rural areas are up 17.2 per cent in one year, compared to 14.8 per cent in urban areas. In my region of the south-east we have the most acute affordability problems with the ratio of mortgage cost to household income being much higher than in most other regions. The Housing Corporation's rural programme has not delivered the target set out in the rural White Paper of 9,000 affordable homes annually in rural areas. Many would have said that that target was anyway an unambitious one.

It must be accepted by these Benches that the right to buy has played a large part in contributing to the housing problem. There must be stronger limits. There is also clearly a problem in respect of those who wish to conserve landscapes and local opposition at the price of social inclusiveness. Above all, there is the problem, that is true of both urban and rural areas, of high construction costs. It is a remarkable and sad fact that to build in this country, whether in urban or rural areas, costs more than elsewhere. In the countryside, where for perfectly good reasons of landscape, conservation of the environment and the like, all we seem to do is make even affordable houses even more expensive.

For example, in my area of Hampshire, where an enlightened affordable scheme was put in place and the land was free, thanks to planning gain, the local water company took the opportunity to say that since the water supply in the village was inadequate—probably because a lot of people had built Jacuzzis, swimming pools and the like—the cost of providing a better supply to that village would be added to the cost of the affordable housing scheme. The affordable housing scheme was nothing like the cost that it should have been. It certainly compared most unfavourably with housing schemes that could be constructed to high environmental and energy standards, were there to be much more research and development put in at a national level on how we could remove some of these construction costs. It would be of enormous benefit to rural areas and a great benefit to the nation as a whole.

Another example of lack of social cohesiveness and lack of ability to deliver to the minority—although it is a large minority submerged in rural areas, particularly in my area of great affluence in the south-east—is that some 20 per cent who are far from affluent are living at or below poverty levels in great social deprivation. On page 33, paragraph 17, the review refers rather feebly to a pilot scheme to develop post office one-stop-shops for access to a wide range of government information. This was abandoned because it was not thought to be good value for money. We had a look at this on our Rural Affairs Forum in the south-east, and we agreed with the assessment that it was not good value for money in that the amount of information available was limited. It was, however, welcomed by the people who accessed it.

We had a look at an alternative scheme from a not-for-profit organisation, StartHere, which gave a far wider range of services on health information, housing, education and social issues, together with all the information that the Government might wish, and we thought that it was excellent. It needs a champion. It is being championed in some urban areas and in the Scottish Executive, but Defra has not shown much enthusiasm for it. I hope that, if Defra, which is the lead agency in rural areas, is serious about delivering social cohesiveness, it will look at StartHere again, and recognise that what was tried by the Post Office in Loughborough, but dropped because the Post Office did not think that it met its requirements, could provide what people are looking for at a modest cost.

Rural policies must be seen not just to enhance the countryside and protect the values that make the countryside so attractive to those of us lucky enough to live in it, but must recognise the serious social issues that arise from the inability of so many people in the countryside to live alongside an affluent community. I am not sure that the rural White Paper that we are discussing today has yet addressed the serious issue of social divisiveness.

3.48 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Peterborough

My Lords, I, too, want to thank the noble Earl for initiating this debate, and for his comprehensive introduction. The future of the countryside is a matter that affects us all, for wherever we live we are to a greater or lesser extent influenced and shaped by the countryside. My own formation goes back to a childhood in Dorset and a school in Derbyshire that had its own mixed farm, where I learned many skills of animal husbandry, which I confess that my present role does not often allow me to exercise. Like most bishops, I serve a diocese that embraces both urban and rural communities. As often as my duties allow, I have lived in Upper Weardale in County Durham, where we have had a home for 20 years.

As the review of the rural White Paper reminds us, one of the significant principles that the Government sought to implement was, a commitment to provide equitable access to public services regardless of where people live". That is a laudable objective. The review also pointed out that the sister document, the urban White Paper, had a strong emphasis on the Government's regeneration agenda. Therefore, in the review's words, the two papers, had different, but complementary perspectives". That comment prompts me to ask whether the level of delivery and the aims of the Government's rural policy would have been different if there had been an equal emphasis on regeneration in relation to the countryside. That is not just a semantic or theological question. The Rural Evidence Research Centre has emphasised the point that the ward-based indices of multiple deprivation tend to hide the heterogeneous nature of rural areas, where there are pockets of genuine and deep deprivation in more affluent and environmentally attractive contexts.

Birkbeck College's paper also reminds us that, in the remote areas—particularly in the north-east and south-west—there are clear signs of socio-economic disadvantage. It says that such areas are characterised by lower incomes, higher unemployment, relatively disadvantageous industrial structures and a poorer skills base. In addition, they have higher proportions of elderly residents and slightly lower levels of car ownership. The paper concludes that those factors combine to increase the risks of economic and social exclusion, affecting areas that contain more than one in 10 of the national population.

For people in such areas, regeneration is as live an issue as accessibility. A couple of years ago in Upper Weardale, Lafarge closed the Eastgate cement works, a major employer in the dale. The district council produced an imaginative plan for the regeneration of the village and the site. It sought to create a community with a welcome emphasis on energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable development. Regrettably, we have yet to see any tangible results, but I applaud the emphasis on the regeneration of that community. It was threatened with decay because of the closure of the works. That is not the only example in our country.

Regeneration in the rural areas must, as others have reminded us, embrace the farming community that, for centuries, has shaped our landscape. The work that the Rural Regeneration Unit has done in Cumbria and other areas has shown the way in providing a means to increase farm gate prices by promoting local produce. As many noble Lords will know, the Rural Regeneration Unit has, since its launch in March 2003, demonstrated its ability to translate public policy into action at the grass roots. It has sought to ensure a sustainable future for rural communities by promoting food co-operation in Cumbria, bringing together farmers and disadvantaged local communities, providing food at prices that benefit both parties by cutting out the distribution chain. There is a similar scheme in Wales, with the commitment of the Welsh Assembly. It has also taken over the British Food Fortnight from the Countryside Alliance. With matched funding from Defra, it has devised the first national marketing and promotional campaign for the game meat industry and so on. Together with the unit's Kids in the Countryside programme, such schemes contribute significantly to rural regeneration.

In July last year, the Bishop of Hereford hosted a seminar on farming and the catering trade. It highlighted the benefits of linking local caterers with local sources of production. The recently published report called for levels of bureaucracy appropriate to the scale of the operation, often a problem for local suppliers and specialist units, including local abattoirs. It also called for government and the public sector to support the local sourcing of food in their catering procurement. My diocese joined its neighbours in East Anglia to promote a seminar on the issues facing the sugar industry, an important contribution to the fenland economy.

Those examples bring me, secondly, to the role of the Churches in the countryside, particularly in the delivery of the aspirations in the rural White Paper. The Church continues to play a vital part in rural community life throughout the country. In a previous debate, I mentioned the work of the Addington Fund during and after the foot and mouth disease crisis, but our contribution is wider than that. The Churches remain the largest voluntary network in the country, but their role is often unrecognised and unquantified. In Defra's work on community capacity building and the voluntary sector, we are scarcely mentioned.

Yet, in spite of the financial and other pressures that are causing a significant change in the pattern of our ordained ministry in rural areas, churches are often the only public building remaining in a village. Their adaptation to provide much-needed meeting space for many community groups is thoroughly to be welcomed and encouraged, and it is happening. In some cases, the Church has also made the valuable contribution to a community of assisting with keeping open a post office. It may be staffed by a non-stipendiary priest or a lay reader, drawing some financial support from the Church community. Furthermore, faith—not only the Christian faith—is a large contributor to the motivation to volunteer. If the Government's desire to see more services delivered by the voluntary sector is to be met, they would be wise not to neglect the Churches' existing networks.

Churches can have a significant impact on economic development—for example, via church tourism. Projects in North Yorkshire, where 250 churches participate, East Anglia and elsewhere are good examples of partnerships involving the Churches that benefit the local economy. Hidden Britain Centres, a sustainable tourism project, encourages churches to take the lead in a community in the sensitive development of tourism. Following the pilot project in Cumbria, six centres are now up and running throughout the country. Ecumenical working among Church and faith leaders has ensured Church representation on local strategic partnerships and regional and national rural affairs fora and other bodies. It has also contributed to the Market Towns initiative and Vital Villages.

Regeneration in our countryside remains a shared aspiration. As the review of the rural White Paper indicates, the Government have achieved several of their targets already. However, if we are to maintain a vital and vibrant countryside, we must address the further issues of genuine deprivation and the need for regenerative policies in the remaining pockets of social and economic exclusion. That requires a sense of partnership between government and our rural and agricultural communities. The Churches are keen to play their part. Although we face our own challenges, we are there, and our established network has much to contribute to the future prosperity of rural communities.

3.58 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, I have great sympathy with the remarks about regeneration in the countryside that the right reverend Prelate has just made. I hope that he will forgive me if I pursue a different aspect of regeneration. I welcome the opportunity that my noble friend Lord Peel has given us, and I congratulate him on the wide-ranging nature of his speech. I declare an interest as chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board.

Looking at the list of Defra Ministers, I was interested to see that, under the Secretary of State, Alun Michael declares himself Minister of State for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality; Elliot Morley is Minister of State for the Environment and Agri-Environment; and Ben Bradshaw is Minister for Nature Conservation and Fisheries. Agri-environment, local environmental quality and nature conservation are the matters on which I shall dwell this afternoon. They are especially important on the South Downs, where I have lived, and in other areas of outstanding natural beauty, such as the Cotswolds and the Chilterns. We have working farms on poor soil. Sheep is the traditional farming product. We have a beautiful countryside. We have 32 million tourist visits a year, over twice the figure in the Lake District, and 2,000 planning applications, many from those wishing to enlarge their stables in order to encourage the keeping of more ponies and horses, or to turn their stables into houses.

It would be good if we could see more profitable farming coupled with wider unploughed margins around the fields, with the return to the South Downs of wild flowers and types of orchids which have disappeared. But what do we get from the Government? Over the past six or seven years, we have had an enormous number of speakers stating that they love and understand the countryside. The Curry report was a new look at farming. I agree with much of the Haskins report—it is a great pleasure to see the noble Lord present today. The report pointed out the inadequacies of Defra and suggested major changes in the way grants and subsidies should he delivered to the countryside.

We have had the nonsense of the Hunting Bill. Quite frankly, the Government lost their nerve in the Commons. They went for a total ban on hunting. That, in turn, was totally against the sympathy and traditions of the countryside. At present we see the budgets of Defra and the Countryside Agency being cut severely for the financial year ahead. Above all—my noble friend Lord Peel spoke about this in some wise detail—we have the mid-term review of the common agricultural policy with its intention of moving from mass cross-subsidy under Pillar 1 to agri-environmental schemes improving landscape and the countryside under Pillar 2.

What does decoupling mean to the small or medium-sized farmer who farms 200 to 500 acres? Has he really to change his ways? Does he know whether he will be better or worse off at the end of the day? So where does all the talking over the past few years about agri-environment, and so on, lead to? We have had many speeches, reports and visits from perhaps five NGOs where one was sufficient previously. But there are no clear decisions, action or money. Money is extremely important not only to the South Downs where I live but also to other areas of outstanding natural beauty. It is particularly important to us because, some four years ago, the Government announced at the Labour Party conference in Brighton that we were to be turned into a national park. The idea underlying that was to return the land on the Downs to the people. Great expectations have been aroused inevitably by the prospect which is subject at present to a major planning inquiry. Dreams are being dreamt: the stone curlew will return; the bee orchis will again be seen widely; sheep farming will become profitable; footpaths will be extended. Where is the money to do all that coming from? As chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board which may become an embryo body that will turn into a national park authority, no one has given me a budget or indicated how the national park will find new money to fund all these new, good activities. There is no point in becoming a national park unless more money is available to help working farmers to improve the landscape, widen the bridle paths, create conservation areas where birds, butterflies and rare flowers can flourish and deal with the problem of parking the cars of tourists who visit us.

Agri-environment has become a buzz word—a strapline—but it has to be backed by hard cash and positive schemes which encourage the farmer and the neighbouring community to work for a better environment. As my noble friend Lord Peel said, to put into effect the changes in the common agricultural policy will be a massive challenge. The Secretary of State has published guidelines but, as has been said today, those often raise more questions and problems than they solve.

We have had speeches and sympathy but lack of implementation. We need clear, well financed policies which will improve conservation and the enhancement of our countryside if we are to move forward. When the Minister responds, I hope that he will give us a flavour of what policies the Government have in mind.

4.6 p.m.

Lord Plumb

My Lords, I feel privileged to support my noble friend Lord Peel. The situation has been debated many times but never more importantly than at this time.

As has been stated several times, we all recognise that the countryside is a national asset for rural communities and is enjoyed by many visitors. We all have a responsibility for maintaining the quality of the landscape and it is essential that we keep a fair balance between protecting the environment and sensible rural development.

Our major challenge in the 21st century is the effective stewardship of the land. I hope that in his response the Minister can tell us what actions will be taken or what plans Defra has in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Haskins—we are delighted to see him in his place—who stated in his Rural Delivery Review in October 2003: My underlying premise is that the existing arrangements for delivering Defra's policies are incapable of coping effectively with the changes that lie ahead whilst delivering value for money for the taxpayer". He went on to say: Too many organisations are involved in rural delivery, resulting in confusion"— about the role of rural delivery and, above all, those dealing with land managers. He concluded: Many of the difficulties are due to long-standing cultural and institutional problems, highlighting the need for greater devolution and the separation of responsibility for policy and delivery as being at the heart of the necessary reforms". I ask the Minister, therefore, how much of the detailed blueprint will be retained.

I declare an interest. It may be appropriate to follow my noble friend Lord Renton. I declare an interest as president of one of the 41 AONBs in England and Wales. In the Cotswolds, the largest AONB in the country covering an area of 790 square miles, 78 miles from north to south, we represent 34 local, regional and national organisations representing local people, local authorities, tourist bodies and wildlife and heritage groups. About 200 voluntary wardens care for footpaths and other features—not least in assisting the police on rural crime. That is what we call the bottom—up approach, an approach which brings together partners concerned with conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the area. Plans are being put forward for a conservation board to pursue two purposes as set out in the CROW Act. This is a good example of sensible and practical devolution. Rural communities have to be local and community-driven within a coherent framework that encourages them to be more self-reliant and removes the stranglehold of red tape and unnecessary controls on rural businesses.

Farming is at the centre of rural areas. Again, I declare an interest as a farmer following generations of farmers, whose motto was and still is, leave the land in a better shape than you found it". J F Kennedy said that change is the law of life. On the issue of change, does the Minister agree that 56 per cent of farm businesses have some diversification, that 15 per cent of rural businesses are related to farming, and that 575,000 rural businesses in England are related to agriculture in one form or another? So it is a myth to believe that only 3 per cent of the population in the countryside try to make a living from British agriculture.

Let us recognise that farming is everyone's business. As we decouple payments from production, intervention ceases to be a realistic option and the market place must be at the centre of the decision-making process. Two weeks ago, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, repeated the Statement made in another place by the Secretary of State on reform of the CAP and implementation of a single farm payment scheme in England. Following that Statement, farmers and growers have had time to reflect and consider the options for reform and how the radically reformed CAP fits their business. It is essential to keep a fair balance between protecting environment and rural development. This CAP reform fits some businesses better than others.

At the weekend my telephone was red hot with farmers telephoning from all over the country expressing their concern or trying to work out the effect that this is having on their own businesses. Of course, there are serious winners and serious losers. Redistribution will be a feature that will cause massive disruptions of the English livestock farming scene, as recognised by the noble Earl.

The fact that a different system exists in Scotland and Wales will cause tangible disruption to trade. Consequences will be reduced confidence, especially by those younger people wanting to find a foothold, and destabilisation of the critical mass necessary to maintain upstream and downstream businesses. Unless action is taken, the result could be fewer beef animals, less dairying and more sheep, with market forces creating low prices due to the upset of supply and demand expectations.

Many people who farm in disadvantaged areas will lose out. Dairy farmers have been waiting for this reform hoping that it will return some confidence to the dairy sector. But estimates show that phasing out the historic payments and moving to regional payments by 2012 will result in a drop in income of some £14,000 on many of the smaller units. The Milk and Dairy Council estimates that prices could fall by more than 4p a litre as intervention prices are reduced.

Therefore, I hope that the Minister can assure us that there can be a revision of milk pricing, recognising that many producers are relinquishing dairying, including my own son, as businesses become so unprofitable. The Secretary of State said in her Statement on package reform that one single payment simplifies the present system of support, which was the intention of Commissioner Franz Fischler, as he stated last week in this country. He accepts that one size cannot fit all but recognises that splitting the country into regions brings with it many complications.

This radical package follows a long period of crisis, which was fully recognised in the Curry Report. Foot and mouth clearly showed that the English countryside is vital for more business than farming. Development in the farming and food industry is lagging behind changes in consumer lifestyles and purchasing habits. Health experts tell us that we are stocking up problems through poor nutrition. European products have been more competitive, thus reducing our own export opportunities.

One of the main reasons is the weakness of the euro and the strength of the pound. Losses in support payments over three years are calculated by the NFU to be more than £1 billion. Farmers would have saved in interest payments a further £600 million if the exchange rate had been on a par with the euro-zone. In 2002, we received £2 billion from the European Community in support payments. Yet, it is paid in euros.

With the loss of this market, pressure from imports from Europe and countries where labour is cheap and where standards of production are lower, we face a reform of the CAP, which is seriously overdue, from a lower base than our main competitors. Farmers and taxpayers should welcome the commitment by government, but it must be fully and fairly fulfilled in practice. Many farmers would agree to move to a removal of government intervention altogether if they had the same system of import controls as New Zealand, Australia and many other countries. That is the issue facing the World Trade Organisation. I hope that the Minister can assure us that some of these issues will be reconsidered in recognition of the inequality of support across the country and a very unlevel playing field.

4.16 p.m

Lord Palmer

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Earl, Lord Peel, for his superb and concise introduction to this important subject. I must, as always, declare an interest as someone who tries to farm north of the Border. As such, my farming business is not affected by the rural White Paper that we are debating today.

I have never much liked reports of any kind; that is, I suppose, due to the appalling ones that I used to get at school. Today, I often wonder whether they are worth the paper that they are written on, although I accept that this report has no doubt occupied the minds of a long line of distinguished civil servants. The review of the White Paper, Our countryside: the future, is beautifully presented, easy to read with some lovely rural pictures. But what is it trying to tell us? How much do all these reports cost to produce and, dare I ask, who reads them? Surely, what people want is action and not a constant flow of academic ideas, many of which in the real world are impractical.

Can the Minister indicate precisely what Defra will do with the Haskins report? How does it in reality relate to Defra? Despite Monday's press release, when will we see the appropriate legislation? What relationship will there be between the Haskins report and the "refreshed rural strategy", as announced by Alun Michael? For the sake of the countryside, let us hope that it really is refreshing and not just another attempt to paper over the cracks; for those cracks are very real indeed.

The powerhouse of the countryside has to be a healthy, sustainable and profitable agricultural industry. One must not forget that farmers are a complete hostage to so many factors outside their control. They are out in all weathers, and they cannot farm from nine to five, whether they are arable, livestock or dairy farmers. The right weather at the right time is all-important to yields and, of course, to quality.

It is impossible to prepare accurate budgets for agricultural products without knowing what the costs are to grow, harvest, dry and, more importantly, what, at the end of the day, those crops will be worth. No other business has to operate under such uncertain conditions. It discourages investment, especially bearing in mind the long turn-around period between investment and yield in the farming world. To change or expand an agricultural enterprise takes careful long-term planning. When I used to make biscuits, we could produce a new product and market it within weeks. In farming, new products can take years to introduce.

I would like for a moment to quote some statistics which I hope will emphasise the real plight of the farming community. In 1982 wheat was selling for £114 a tonne; 20 years later the gross figure paid to farmers was £62—a drop of 52 per cent. The farm gate price of malting barley has dropped 38 per cent and yet the price of a nip has gone up by 116 per cent. Wages in the agricultural sector have risen by 179 per cent and yet the number of hours worked has decreased by 3 per cent.

I too am worried about the future, particularly when one recalls a recent frightening headline: "Mass exodus from UK arable". It went on: As much as a quarter of the UK arable land could be removed from production as a result of the MTR according to a new study". That is well over 1 million hectares—1 million. With such an exodus, nobody seems to have thought of the added costs of social security and housing benefit for the thousands who will undoubtedly be made redundant all the way down the agricultural chain. The deficit to our balance of payments is frightening, as undoubtedly we will have to import more of our food, as headlined by this week's Farm Business Magazine.Surely any economist with the minimum amount of intelligence would say that this was utter madness.

Red tape is strangling many rural businesses—as the noble Earl mentioned—and legislation for the countryside seems far more stringent than in urban situations. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Vinson. will clarify this point later.

The farming industry does need access to the skills of workers from other parts of Europe, including the 10 accession states. Although I understand why the Government have decided to introduce regulations to limit the availability of benefits to workers who come to the UK seeking work, it must be of concern that there will apparently be an onus on employers to seek to verify that workers have registered. It appears that workers will have to register with the Home Office not only when they have found a job but also each and every time that they move jobs.

Given the short-term seasonal nature of much of the work in the agricultural and horticultural sectors, there is a risk that the new requirements will make it much more difficult for farmers and growers to have access to bona fide skilled workers. Will the Minister give an assurance that the particular requirements of agriculture will be fully taken into account in the drawing up of the new regulations?

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, would be surprised if I did not mention biofuels, but today I would like to place on record how pleased the farming industry was with his sympathetic understanding for Amendment No. 113ZB to the Energy Bill, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, and introduced so strongly by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, in Grand Committee on 12 February. I gently remind the Minister that the Budget is but three weeks away. I too am concerned about the MTR and the different guidelines and rules for the different countries within the United Kingdom, especially as I live so close to the Border and have friends whose farms are in two different counties, let alone two different countries.

My noble friend Lord St John of Bletso recently introduced a debate on Broadband. It was interesting to note that all the speakers prior to the wind-ups were elected Peers, and today 64 per cent of the speakers are elected Peers. Sadly, I am computer illiterate, to my shame, but do not live in the back of beyond; everyone is longing to be able to get Broadband and only this morning I was told it will be a long wait and expensive if and when it comes.

The right honourable lady Mrs Beckett, in her keynote speech on 4 November last year, said: Our goal must be to establish sustainable rural communities". I am sure that we all agree with that, but putting words into practice is far from easy.

Sustainability is a three-legged stool: environmental, social, but most important of the three legs is economic. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and his Defra colleagues, will do all they can to give a major boost to the rural economy. I believe that it is vitally important for those of us involved in the countryside so that we can pass it on with pride for future generations, for the benefit and enjoyment of the nation as a whole.

4.24 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Peel for giving us the opportunity for this debate. My contribution will be limited to asking the Government two specific questions.

The first, on which I received a Written Answer from the Minister, concerns Countryside Stewardship payments. I declare my interests as a farmer and member of one of the Countryside Stewardship Schemes. My Written Question asked when farmers would receive increased Countryside Stewardship payments following the rise in grain prices on the "income foregone basis".

Any of your Lordships who are in a CSS will remember that payments were substantially reduced three years ago to all farmers in CSS who had established grass margins around their arable fields; I guess that is the majority of farmers who are in a CSS. This reduction in payments, we were told, was based on the "income forgone" principle; that is, that notional income from grain sales forgone by putting margins into grass should be repaid. That seems fair; I have no quarrel with that. When grain prices kept falling I understood the logic, even though I was disappointed at getting a smaller cheque than I had looked forward to.

But fairness cuts both ways. Grain prices have now risen and the relevant Countryside Stewardship payments should surely rise with them, hence my Written Question to the Minister. But I was a little disappointed. He said in his reply: Payment rates for both countryside stewardship and the proposed higher level environmental stewardship scheme, which will replace it, will be reviewed in the light of the introduction in 2005 of the single farm payment as part of CAP reform".—[Official Report, 29/1/04; col. WA 58.] I am not sure what that means. I was not asking about future schemes but about the current one, and specifically whether this year's CSS payments will take full account of the rise in grain prices; that is, the payments due in the autumn. If the Minister cannot answer today, perhaps he will write to me and place a copy of his letter in the Library.

My second point also deals with a matter that I have raised previously—small business rates. As noble Lords know—my noble friend Lord Peel and the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, both referred to this matter—many farmers have diversification schemes. I declare my interest as a serial diversifier. Like many farmers, I have converted some of my farm buildings into offices and small workshops. In doing that I believe we are doing what the Government want. We are providing the opportunity for individuals and small businesses to get a start, to establish themselves at a ludicrously low cost.

I have a very mixed bag of enterprises, most of them one-person bands: a clockmaker, an olive oil importer, an upholsterer, a furniture repairer, a brewer and even an arts and crafts person who sells art by the square metre—never mind the quality, buy it by the size and you pay accordingly. They all make a living and some have taken on local people to help them; the most successful, a metal polisher, employs 12 people. But most are sole traders and are financially fragile. They are always on the edge.

We have quarterly meetings, and the first thing they say—after the routine question of whether I will continue grinding the faces of the poor—is, "Can't you do something about the rates? The rates are killing us". I have huge sympathy with that; the rates are virtually equivalent of the rent I charge them, yet they get absolutely nothing for those rates: no rubbish collection; no sewerage; no lighting; no street cleaning; no road repairs; nothing. If there is a theft or burglary, they may be lucky to get a letter from the police asking if they want counselling. That is all. But they are currently charged the full business rate of 43 pence in the pound. That is grossly unfair. These businesses are fragile. Dumping a four-figure bill on them for non-existent services is the last thing they need.

I know that the Government are seized of the issue and have taken steps to improve matters, so I emphasise that I am not attacking the Government here. I come not to bury Caesar, but to praise him. The problem appears to lie in the new jargon word, "delivery". A Green Paper published in 2000 contained proposals for rate relief for small businesses. This was followed in December 2001 by the local government White Paper entitled Strong Local Leadership—Quality Public Services, which confirmed that the Government intended to introduce a small business rate relief scheme, as was broadly outlined in the paper. Relief of up to 50 per cent was to be allowed for properties up to £3,000 rateable value, declining on a sliding scale of rateable value up to £8,000, at which point there would be no further relief.

I think that the Government got that absolutely right and I congratulate them on what they have done. The measure will be of enormous help to small businesses at a time when they most need it. I also believe it right that this valuable relief was granted to all small businesses, not simply those that are farm-based.

But—and I am afraid that, as was the case on my previous point, there is a "but"—while the Local Government Bill received Royal Assent in September last year, it appears that the part of the Act dealing with rate relief for small businesses—Section 61 in Part 5, to be precise—is not yet in force. It appears that only part of the Act came into force on Royal Assent on 18 September last and that Part 5 still requires a commencement order before it becomes operational.

Can the Minister clarify the position? If Part 5 of that Act is not yet in force, can he tell the House when it will come into force? After all, we are four years on from when the proposal was first floated in the Green Paper. I repeat, the Government deserve praise for putting this provision into the Act because it will make a real difference to small businesses. But how long will they have to wait before the good intentions are translated into effective action?

4.32 p.m

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, as an arable farmer with my pastures rented, my involvement with foot and mouth disease was limited. I watched the proceedings with a critical eye for indications of how the Government would be likely to deal with any future agricultural emergency. The total direct and indirect costs of FM D to the countryside were between £9 billion and £10 billion—for just one livestock disease.

Also during the past four years we have seen swine fever, potato blight and rhizomania on root crops, and blackhead in turkeys. All are highly infectious diseases requiring destruction of the animals infected and cleansing of the fields involved. And that is not to mention the exploding crisis of tuberculosis. It is expected that over 18,000 cattle will be slaughtered this year, marking a 25 per cent increase on last year. The Government expect tuberculosis to cost £2 billion over the next 10 years.

The Government's efforts at controlling major agricultural disease to date have been rather less than reassuring. With other nasty diseases on the horizon, the countryside has every right to be jumpy.

On 25 March 2003 Defra published two documents, the Action Plan and a risk assessment by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. The Action Plan, aimed at tackling illegal meat imports, made various improvements to the rickety old system. However, those who work in this area say that there are still major problems.

At ports of entry, Customs and Excise is responsible for illegal meat, while port health officials deal with legal meat. There is no link between the two. Once in the country, responsibility lies with local environmental health authorities. Environmental health officers have the power of seizure but not of arrest, and the police will not arrest for a food crime. What a pickle. Currently, the Government are wasting money supporting all these agencies without cohesion and communication. Should Customs, the revenue protection and smuggling agency, be responsible for the health of the nation as well? Should there not be one properly funded and dedicated new agency responsible for both port and inland health in food products?

Among other things, the risk assessment undertaken by the VLA estimates that each year, on average, some 7,500 tonnes of illegal meat is brought into the UK. It also estimates that 95 kilograms of such meat is contaminated with the FMD virus. At present, seized meat is destroyed immediately and no testing for disease takes place. Is this wise?

The VLA also estimates that each year, on average, 175 grammes of infected material is digested by susceptible livestock, which has been calculated to cause an outbreak of FMD every 130 years. No testing is needed here because we have already had two outbreaks during the past 50 years.

The assessment suggests that the method of entry is in air passengers' personal baggage. Blood trails in airport terminals provide a good clue. Furthermore, legally imported meat has an even greater chance of infecting livestock. So what is the VLA's estimate of the risk of legally imported meat being infected with FMD?

In March 2003, responding to me in a Written Answer, the Minister stated that, prosecutions are an important aspect of deterrence which we would like to see used where there is clear evidence of a serious breach in the rules".—[Official Report, 4/3/03; col. WA 106.] To date, it seems that a suitcase stuffed full of dripping meat being brought into this country is not considered serious. Paul Rainbird, a senior Customs and Excise official, is reported to have commented this month to John Healey, the Minister responsible for Customs, that illegal meat imports can be compared to a UK tourist taking a packet of biscuits on holiday. So that is all right: a suitcase full of illegal meat cannot be serious. Perhaps someone of importance and with common sense could tell Paul Rainbird that biscuits do not carry serious diseases such as Ebola or FMD. Could the Minister say what is "serious"?

Why should people worry about importing illegal meat? No one is being fined or imprisoned and no serious deterrent is being used. At a bushmeat conference held in December last year, African representatives stated that part of the reason for illegal meat imports is due to the smugglers not being frightened of facing a conviction if they are caught in the UK.

But the danger is not solely from unintentional infection. The Veterinary Record for March 2003 contains an editorial on the threat of bioterrorism in the shape of intentional food contamination. How can we find out about and prevent such an incident if our border arrangements are lackadaisical about illegal meat importation, and when illegal meat that is seized is not tested'?

The same editorial refers to the seriousness with which the bioterrorism threat is being treated in the USA. In 2003, the US National Institutes of Health, the leading government agency in biomedical research, was due to receive almost 1.75 billion dollars' worth of the planned investment into countering bioterrorism. The US has taken this issue extremely seriously, apparently unlike the UK.

In a recent response, the Government would say only that they are considering a wide variety of potential scenarios within the risk assessment of terrorist attacks. That is not very reassuring. Should we not follow the lead of the US and take seriously the massive dangers surrounding the importation of illegal meat? I support the actions taken by the US. I do not support the Government's lackadaisical attitude towards our national agricultural security. One cannot blame the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, for referring to Defra as a "dog's dinner of the highest order".

4.39 p.m

Baroness Thornton

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to discuss rural matters and I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Peel, on initiating the debate. The recent publication of the review of the Rural White Paper—Our countryside: the future—and the independent work of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, in reviewing rural delivery, presents us with an opportunity to do three things: to celebrate the success of what is working, to assess the challenges, and to work out how best to move forward. The idea that this Labour Government are not interested in or committed to improving life in rural communities is simply not borne out by the progressive interventions and care that has been taken to make those interventions effective. I believe that it is a shame that the noble Earl returns to that old, so-called urban/rural rivalry and debate. We should have moved on from that by now.

I should like to speak about several parts of the review: access to and the care of the countryside; enterprise in rural communities; and the importance of the sensitivity of rural poverty programmes. Many of us, especially supporters of the Ramblers' Association, wish that the progress to implement the Countryside and Rights of Way Act had been more rapid. However, I accept that it is very important that extended access has to be the result of a sensitive and fair process. I welcome the fact that this programme will be completed by 2005.

This House amended the CROW Bill to include a commitment to the implementation of the biodiversity strategy and the Act strengthened the conservation and management of areas of outstanding natural beauty. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, championed many of those changes and, I am pleased to say, the Government eventually accepted the proposals that she made.

I am particularly interested in the commitment in the review to rigorous evaluation of the new programmes and how they will work. The review sets some rather hard targets for the improvement of SSSIs in England of 100 per cent by 2010. Some years ago, when I served on a European Union sub-committee in your Lordships' House, we explored the issues, partly under the chairmanship of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne. We looked at the state of SSSIs and expressed our dismay at the dishevelled and sorry state of many of them. I note from the graph in the review document that by March last year all areas had been assessed and that over half had been improved.

I also welcome the fact that the UK is beginning to contribute effectively to the European Union's Natura network through the designation of further sites. SSSIs are affected by a wide range of complex factors. Although it will take time to deliver results, I believe that the review is right to note that greater effort is required, but that much progress has been made.

I turn to the issue of rural enterprise and in particular to the importance of Defra working effectively with regional development agencies, government offices, local government, the Rural Affairs Forum and the voluntary sector to define new mechanisms for delivering services to rural communities and supporting the 30 per cent of businesses in rural areas. I have a particular interest in social enterprises, community enterprises and cooperative enterprises. I declare an interest as the unpaid chair of the Social Enterprise Coalition. That organisation has made the development and growth of rural, social and community enterprises a major priority. By bringing together social and community enterprises across the UK, we hope to challenge some of the lack of coherence among the business support that is available through the Small Business Service, regional development agencies and other mechanisms. Our experiences very much echo the findings of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins. I particularly welcome the frank assessment contained in the rural White Paper review document which recognises that there are real challenges in improving support to rural businesses.

There is a requirement to improve the understanding of the needs of rural businesses and how best they can be delivered. When a local social entrepreneur or a group of local people want to establish a community enterprise, a co-operative business or want to buy out the local pub which is being closed down—as happened in Hesketh, where the community now owns the pub and the brewery attached to it, or in Lock Fyne where the community owns Loch Fyne Oysters or a group of which I heard yesterday in Cumbria that wants to run and own its village school) it is important that the new and more coherent ways of delivering support for rural businesses, promised by the review, provides the expertise and training that such enterprises require.

Last September the Social Enterprise Coalition brought together many of those who are supporting social enterprises in the countryside. We estimate that up to 36 per cent of our members trade and operate in rural areas. The pleas that came from them about co-ordination of services, training, management expertise and funding, absolutely echo the findings of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, and the commitments in the review.

I believe that the Government's stated first priority in the review, which is to focus interventions and resources on areas and on people who need them most and to target those resources effectively, is absolutely right. It is clear that to deal with poverty in rural areas—a matter to which the right reverend Prelate alluded—one must deal with poverty in small pockets that are widely spread. That requires programmes that have detailed knowledge and are designed to deliver in an appropriate fashion.

NCH, the children's charity with which I had a close association some years ago, works with the Countryside Agency to try to provide blueprints about how those kinds of programmes may best be delivered. We can see that the enormously successful Sure Start programme, which operates in many urban areas, has been doctored and adapted so that it is available across rural communities.

I close by saying that the commitment made in Chapter 5 of the review—a chapter entitled "A Vibrant Countryside"—speaks of, a … countryside which can shape its own future and whose voice is heard by government at all levels". I say hurrah to that.

4.46 p.m

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Peel for tabling this Motion and for his very thoughtful speech. First, I declare an interest as a landscape contractor, working in the Cotswolds. I am fortunate to live there—an area of outstanding natural beauty, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Plumb. If one is lucky enough to be able to afford to live there, it is a great place to live.

Difficulties arise for those taking the first step on the property ladder. How can a skilled worker earning, say, £8 or £10 an hour afford to get into the market unless he has an enormous deposit to put down on a property? People may say that the Cotswolds is an exceptional area, but every area has its exceptions. A two-bedroom cottage in the Cotswolds, in an outlying village, costs a minimum of £200,000.

As my noble friend Lord Selborne said, housing associations are doing a great job, but they cannot keep up with demand. That lack of supply feeds housing inflation. What else can be done? The Government have the Starter Homes Initiative. They do their bit, but perhaps more discretion should be given to those determining who is a key worker so that the scheme can be widened.

I note that there is to be a reduction in the discount on council tax for those with second homes. I do not believe that that will affect those purchasing properties, but it may raise a few more resources for local authorities. Perhaps the Minister could tell the House how much it is estimated that that will raise.

Education of the rural workforce is another important point. At the moment the rural skills centres, at such places as the Royal Agricultural College and Hartley College, provide a very useful service in providing skills courses, but red tape still manages to get in the way. Would the Minister clarify the position relating to the recognition of the ROLO and Lantra qualifications? Although they are recognised by the Health and Safety Executive, they are not recognised by the main contractors' group through the CITB. That means that workers with ROLO and Lantra qualifications cannot work on sites under the control of the main contractors' group. I realise that the Minister may not be able to answer that question off the top of his head, but perhaps he could write to me.

A more desperate situation is that of school leavers who come into the workforce with few skills. More worrying still is the lack of reading and writing skills in school leavers and among the adult population. That should be made a priority.

Another area of concern is the emphasis on forestry. When I was at college 20 years ago the emphasis was primarily on quality timber, followed by conservation and leisure. That has now been reversed. In the lowland environment a great deal of broadleaf woodland has been planted, but with little softwoods. During the planting season this year the only conifers we have planted are those in landscaping schemes around large country houses, which also happen to be second homes.

According to a recent article in a trade magazine, all that seems to be growing at the moment is rather expensive firewood; we are not looking to growing quality timber, both softwood and hardwood. We are now fourth in the list of importers of round wood behind China, Japan and the USA. I feel that we should promote the planting of more softwoods. I am not talking about the enormous blocks of softwood that received such appalling publicity in the 1970s and 1980s; I am talking about promoting the planting of softwoods in small blocks, whether as nurse crops or to vary the landscape. This will also help conservation.

It has also been established that mixed woodland copes better with global warming. It is able to handle the effects of the extremes of weather; it helps to stabilise ground water; it increases holding capacity and reduces run-off.

Many interesting issues have been raised in the debate. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

4.51 p.m.

The Earl of Shrewsbury

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Peel on introducing this important debate today. He has always been an acknowledged expert on, and a stalwart supporter and defender of, the countryside and those who live and work in it. He deserves our congratulations.

I shall be brief. I should like to demonstrate the economic and environmental contribution that the aggregates industry makes to the countryside and its economy. I declare an interest as the owner of a major limestone quarry situated in the Staffordshire moorlands on the periphery of the Peak District National Park.

Minerals are an important natural resource. The United Kingdom is fortunate that its geology allows us to be largely self-sufficient in our supply of aggregates. There are some 1,300 quarries supplying crushed rock, sand and gravel. Ninety per cent of this material is used for construction purposes, with 10 per cent for a wide range of other uses ranging from glass-making to antacids, from pills to chocolate soft-centres.

The benefits of using these minerals are apparent. They are used whenever we build a patio, repair our roads and railways, build a new school or hospital, or embark on a major national project such as the Channel Tunnel rail link. As well as providing for a national need, these quarries and associated manufacturing plants bring direct benefits to local communities, and because of the very nature of where the vast majority of these quarries are sited, especially to rural communities.

The 1,300 current aggregates quarries, which are mostly located in rural areas, support some 40,000 jobs. These jobs range from the southern part of Cornwall to the far northern tip of Scotland. At a time when traditional sources of employment such as agriculture are declining, these jobs are a most important part of rural life and vital to the rural economy.

But it is also important for local communities that the industry operates as sustainably as possible and that after-care of former quarries is carried out to a high standard, sympathetically and to the benefit of the locality. There exists, of course, a rigorous regulatory system operated through local minerals planning authorities—generally the local councils—and bodies such as the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive.

In recent years the operating standards of the industry have continued to improve. In 2002, only two out of 1,468 serious pollution incidents—which equates to 0.13 per cent—affecting air, land and water, recorded by the Environment Agency, were related to aggregate extraction. All reputable operators appreciate the need to work constructively with local communities.

Key sustainability improvements in the industry include the quality of the land restoration carried out. More than 700 sites of special scientific interest have their origins in mineral extraction. There is a high level of recycling. Twenty-four per cent of aggregates supply in Great Britain is from recycled sources, such as construction and demolition waste, ensuring that all aggregates resources are used efficiently. It is estimated that this recycling rate is three times higher than the European average. It is commendable.

In conclusion, it is important for countryside policies to reflect the real need of real communities. Quarrying and associated activities provide wide-ranging employment opportunities in rural areas—often in areas where very few other opportunities exist—and therefore produce income for local people and businesses, as well as supplying products of national and local importance in an increasingly sustainable manner.

I am aware that in the near future Her Majesty's Government will issue a consultation paper reviewing mineral planning policy. I impress on the Minister and his colleagues that this consultation must recognise the economic, social and environmental value of the quarrying industry to rural communities and to the countryside in general.

4.55 p.m.

Lord Grantchester

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Peel, for introducing the debate today. It is very topical as the agricultural industry digests the ramifications of the Statement of 12 February on the system of single farm payments and before the publication of the refreshed rural strategy during the spring. I declare an interest as a dairy farmer in Cheshire, a director of Dairy Farmers of Britain milk co-operative, a member of the Cheshire Rural Recovery Board, a member of the NFU and chairman of the Cheshire branch of the CLA.

The countryside accounts for 80 per cent of the area of England and Wales, 23 per cent of its population and 30 per cent of its jobs in manufacturing and services. It is the start of the food chain and its prosperity is reflected both upstream to the supply trade and downstream to processing.

The announcement on 12 February takes CAP reform forward. The fundamental decision to decouple subsidy payments from 2005 and to ensure that all land is included to meet sustainable environmental benefits has been welcomed. My noble friend the Minister is to be congratulated on the imaginative dynamic change that will unfold from historical production support to geographical support.

Nevertheless, there will be losers and gainers under the redistribution but generally the livestock sector, especially dairy and intensive beef—many of whose farmers will have invested in efficiency measures recently—will lose out. Furthermore, if they are located within the severely disadvantaged areas they will suffer from the reduced level of support. I know that the National Beef Association has examples where predominantly suckled calf breeding farms in the fringes of the SDA line face a 55 to 75 per cent difference between the historical coupled subsidy income and the flat rate SFP received from 2012. Livestock systems will be under severe threat as the SFP is larger than any expected profit.

This is of concern as the western side of England is naturally suited to livestock farming, which has a further reach into the rural economy through feed mills, auction marts and so on. Can my noble friend indicate how far those disadvantaged can be helped? For example, can the SDA line be split between above and below the moorland line? Can my noble friend give any indication when entitlements regarding applications to the natural reserve will he published for those under transition, and whether this will include provision for exceptional hardship?

The debate will naturally develop with the standards of environmental practice required under cross-compliance. Under present stewardship schemes, there is a poor take-up from the livestock sector as most livestock farmers, especially dairymen, judge it as inadequate in terms of reward for quite disruptive procedures, and yet intensive dairying has a huge contribution to make to improving environmental sustainability. In considering good agricultural practice and cross-compliance, can my noble friend indicate that procedures in relation to livestock farms will be reassessed, especially in regard to including more positive encouragement?

There is further concern that differing models will be adopted between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Can my noble friend clarify that there will be a consistent approach both within the UK and between the UK and Europe so that farmers and growers are not placed at a competitive disadvantage?

The changes in support mean that agricultural production must become market focused, not subsidy based. Many operations will be in deficit and unprofitable without support. The implication is that, for British produce to exist in the future, it will have to be paid for. No longer can food markets expect produce to be available at whatever price is offered. The milk co-operative, Dairy Farmers of Britain, responsible for some 20 per cent of England and Wales milk production through its members, has set itself an ambitious strategy to deliver real change in the dairy sector.

The rural economy is characterised by a greater proportion of small and self-employed businesses than in towns and cities. Agriculture is no exception to this and has been taking advantage of rural regeneration schemes. In the north-west, the Northwest Development Agency among others is to be commended for its rural recovery programmes. As part of that, Cheshire has been allocated £11 million to spend between 2002 and 2008. Cheshire has identified key flagship projects to aid regeneration. In partnership with Business Link, it is setting up a rural enterprise gateway, located at Reaseheath College, to help rural businesses assess opportunities, retrain and establish themselves through the planning system into new operations.

Secondly, it is focusing on market towns and villages to recreate them as rural hubs. Thirdly, it has identified key aspects of Cheshire, such as gardens and waterways, and will be helping them to develop as key features in the tourism sector. The interplay between agriculture and tourism was clearly identified during the disastrous foot and mouth outbreak. At a turnover of £16 billion in England and Wales, rural tourism far exceeds agriculture in headline importance.

Rural recovery programmes focus on rural entrepreneurship. The Country Land and Business Association, with Defra funding, has set up a programme of courses entitled Enterprise Works, with a three-year target of 20 new business start-ups. That figure has already been exceeded, with 70 courses already oversubscribed. The countryside is awash with potential entrepreneurs, who must be encouraged as the new heartbeat of the rural economy. Those entrepreneurs need to operate on an equal basis. Rural broadband is a key element in establishing rural areas as competitive locations for business. The Government, along with BT, are to be congratulated on the drive to enable all areas to have access to broadband by 2006.

Finally, new access to the countryside is developing. Mapping under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 is progressing to its conclusion. In January this year, my right honourable friend the rural affairs Minister in the other place announced that the new public right of access is to be brought forward and rolled out in stages, region by region. The lower northwest is to be one of the new areas, the first to be available from September 2004. That will prove to be an ambitious target, as a conclusive map for the area covering Lancashire, part of Cumbria, parts of North and West Yorkshire, Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Cheshire as well as parts of Staffordshire and Derbyshire is yet to be published. How will the public know about the areas for access if the Ordnance Survey maps are yet to be finalised? Will my noble friend give an assurance today that enough resources will be made available and everything will be ready on time?

The new Countryside Code has yet to be published. Local authorities are severely underfunded to undertake the additional work that is clearly needed. I must stress to my noble friend that these are pressing matters. The countryside continues to change. Problems have been recognised, much has been done and more is needed. I commend the policies being undertaken.

5.4 p.m.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. His last comment was that the countryside is awash with new entrepreneurs. I am not sure that I would go that far, but it is certainly a theme that I wish to address.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Peel for introducing this debate, which is on the situation of the countryside in the light of the Rural White Paper. The situation in the countryside will be exactly the same before the White Paper and after it. I am pretty cynical about the ability of the Government. I cannot criticise them for a lack of enterprise, initiative or energy. The time it takes to produce these telephone directories on the subject is indication enough of a measure of industry. However, they bear a startling resemblance to some that I published, with the same pictures of rural post buses, voluntary post offices and the various rural initiatives with which I once sought to arrest the decline in country services and the quality of life in the countryside, to which noble Lords have drawn attention.

The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, and I were in the House of Commons together. I apologise for not knowing for how many years. I have watched my own largely rural constituency face such challenges over 30 years—the irresistible forces that seemed to be at work. We faced appalling challenges in trying to sustain agriculture as a key engine of employment and economic survival in the countryside. The continuing decline in employment was progressive over those years. It was partly because of productivity, but partly because of the declining state of agriculture.

There has been enormous pressure on the family farm. We would all love to see the romantic concept of the family farm, which continues generation after generation. I remember two years ago standing in Nether Stowey in Somerset—which the noble Lord, Lord Hussey, will know well. A very experienced farmer pointed towards the Quantocks hillside, at farms of 200 or 300 acres. He said, "In 10 years' time, there will not be a single farm of less than 1,000 acres". Three years later he revised that forecast to closer to 2,000 acres, if those farms are to be viable, agricultural units.

Just down the road is what used to be an agricultural college. It now has hardly any agricultural courses. Now it has courses about municipal parks and a course on green-keeping for golf courses. Those are enterprising initiatives to find alternative activities because, sadly, of the tremendous decline in demand for agricultural courses. We all know the sad statistic of the average age of farmers in this country and the percentage of farmers who have no successors for the active, energetic, hard-working and, at times, arduous work that farmers have to undertake.

As we increasingly look at what can be seen as palliatives—environmental support and turning the countryside into our nation's parkland—we cannot avoid the conclusion that, unless we can re-establish that engine of economic justification, the future for the countryside will be challenging indeed. Nothing is free of that. The noble Earl, Lord Courtown, mentioned forestry, which was not mentioned by other noble Lords. I read the recent Forestry Commission report, published under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere—a colleague in this House. I read all the various pages about access, biodiversity and environmental sustainability. Until I got to the end I hardly found anything about timber production.

We face further pressures, which grew throughout the time that I mentioned, but are now accelerating. I must tell the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, something about globalisation and the globalisation of imports. We know about agricultural produce. One can walk into any supermarket and, regardless of the season, products are available—anything one could want—which come from some quarter of the world in which it happens to be in season. Such are the challenges that we face. I should warn him that I went to a recent exhibition about stone. I found that, if one wished to surface a patio, one could now get a competitive supply not only form India, but from Afghanistan. Even something as bulky and unsuitable for long-distance transport as stone threatens our own domestic industry.

At the moment, the purchasing power of the supermarkets is a challenge continually faced by home agriculture. Very shortly, we shall face the expansion of the European Union and the greater challenges that that will pose. We know that farming is like a manufacturing industry. Parts of it are labour-intensive and those areas will face enormous pressures from imports from eastern Europe and the rest of the world. That will not happen immediately, and there will be certain transitional arrangements, but it is a great challenge.

In that situation, I shall add to the depressing list. Other noble Lords have referred to housing. The housing situation is becoming much worse. It is the background to the huge rise in house prices. By its nature, housing in the countryside, in rural areas, is very much in demand. The Cotswolds have been referred to. I know them well and live in the Cotswold AONB. It now seems to be a given that a house bought at a price at which some local person might have competed for it is immediately doubled in size by some massive extension which puts it completely outside the reach of a local person next time round.

As a former chairman of the English Rural Housing Association, I noticed that there was a brief from the CLA which referred to the opportunity for using exception sites, which the English Rural Housing Association strongly supported. Moira Constable, who some noble Lords may know, has been very active in this field. The opportunity is taken to build small numbers of houses on those sites, which can be restricted to local people, perhaps being available under shared ownership schemes, to give them some chance of continuing to live in the countryside. We knew the challenge of second homes, but if other homes are now extended beyond people's reach, it is a very serious challenge indeed.

So, in this situation, am I totally pessimistic? Do I see nothing but an inevitable, irresistible drive towards the decline of the countryside? I do not. My hope is based on the initiative, the entrepreneurial capabilities, of people if they have the chance, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester. But their voices must be heard. I had not thought about the introduction of RDAs to the same extent as the noble Earl, Lord Peel, who said that it is virtually the disenfranchisement of local people. I noticed that the voices of local people and rural communities were always liveliest in district councils, became slightly more attenuated in county councils, and in RDAs, with the major conurbations being contained within them, it will be very hard indeed for their voices to be heard.

If people have to find their own solutions, there are initiatives, there are opportunities and it is up to them. Thirty years ago, I was asked to chair a conference of the Rural District Councils Association about transport in rural areas. That led to initiatives such as the post buses. I said—and I do not often remember what I said 30 years ago—that, at a time when there was the least public transport in villages, there was more transport in villages than there had ever been. That is an illustration in relation to transport of the way in which co-operation and constructive effort by local people can help them to meet their own opportunities. In my own constituency we had volunteer post offices, we had a butcher's shop that was a butcher's shop and a post office, we had opportunities and the ideas of local people.

The rule for government—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins—is to listen to local people, to give them opportunity and local delivery. MAFF was and Defra is too centralised. We live in a world of "regulationitis". I call it "health and safety disease". Every regulation has a good point behind it. But the overriding duty of Ministers is to look at the totality, to see what it adds up to and to try to ensure that we produce an environment for people in the countryside. Then the entrepreneurs, whether they are in farming or in other activities, will have a chance to get support to enable them to survive and make a future.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Peel, for giving us the opportunity for this debate this afternoon. It has become a debate between those who see the glass as half-empty and those who see the glass as half-full. I feel that the second half of the debate was more in the category of the glass half-full, which has allowed us to end on an optimistic note.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough started the trend by talking of local produce. The theme was taken up by the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, who talked about quarrying, the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, who talked about social enterprise and the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, who talked about wood and the shame that there is no domestic production. Like the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, I noticed with dismay that the Forestry Commission's splendid publication did not mention timber production as a useful product.

The theme that has run through the debate this afternoon may give the Government pause for thought. I found their review of the rural White Paper helpful. I noticed that, when it comes to local production—I refer noble Lords particularly to paragraphs 60 and 61—they have concentrated around regional food initiatives, which are about the more extraordinary or special products that are marketed in a particular way, often for export. They have not concentrated enough on ordinary produce and products for ordinary people living locally. I know that the Minister has championed some local procurement efforts and I am surprised that they are not reflected more strongly in the review. This is an area that needs another look from government.

Food from Britain has taken the lead in. for instance, promoting local food but its expertise is in specialist producers. It has a very strong producer interest. For example, in the south-west the rural development agency has given the lead to a private-sector organisation that is entirely producer-run. This means that the interest in developing a market for, for example, health, building on the Government's work with local schools and hospitals and their interest in local food, is missing from the equation at the moment. That area needs substantial further thought.

I especially welcome the emphasis on social enterprise this afternoon. That is where the future of rural areas lies. They have a terrific rural land base, which, at the moment, is in a state of flux. This afternoon, noble Lords have emphasised the difficulties that farmers and growers will face in the reform period of the CAP. Given that, it is particularly important that there is one place where farmers and growers can go for advice on how to deal with the forthcoming changes and how they may best access the markets that, if they are given sufficient advice and help with marketing and training, they will find locally, regionally and nationally. That area of work for the Government needs to be emphasised particularly.

I was also interested in a theme that came through very strongly about the changing framework that rural areas have faced. I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, for his 30-year view. I of course have a much shorter view, but it was only in 1999 in this House that we had a debate on the changes that rural areas were about to face with the introduction of rural development agencies, the abolition of the Rural Development Commission, and the setting up of the Countryside Agency. As a House, we expressed a lot of concern that that would mean great change for those in rural areas. We also expressed our hope that it would mean more streamlined delivery and a much simplified regime.

As we know in retrospect, that was not the result of those changes. The noble Lord, Lord Haskins, has done us a service in laying out the options for a better way forward. In his report, he talks about the fact that local authorities and partnerships should assume the main responsibility for the delivery of schemes and services to rural communities. I am glad that he said that, but I would go further than him. They should assume the main responsibility as the local elected bodies not only for the delivery of schemes and services, but largely for their design.

That issue has stymied development in rural areas time after time. Successive governments have been very keen to lay down a central pattern for the way in which the services should be delivered, which has been taken on wholesale by rural development agencies. They themselves have very little rural focus. It was very strongly argued in this House that they should have even one board member with special responsibility for rural areas, and they perhaps have one such member. If the Government feel that rural development agencies are the right bodies to design services for their regions, I ask them to think again.

Local government is the right place for the design of those services. I was quite surprised at the strength of the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Peel, on planners. They largely enact the local and national policies laid down by central government or councillors. It is often forgotten that the local planning officers merely enact policies that others have laid down. I am sure that they do not always get things right, but it is more incumbent on those elected to make sure that they lay down the sorts of policies that then become enacted in the right way.

If we are to address any of the issues about which noble Lords have talked so eloquently this afternoon, local entrepreneurs and local people must design services for which they see the need in their region and which can support local businesses and the local environment within a very light-touch regulatory framework. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, described the three-legged stool of sustainability, and I agree with him on that. He suggested that the economic leg should be much longer but, of course, if one leg is much longer than the others, that results in a very unbalanced and tippy stool. We have to make sure that we get all three legs the same length.

Social divisions have become much sharper in the countryside, another fact referred to by noble Lords. There is no quick fix for that. I recognise very much what was referred to on the issue of affordable housing. That was the other theme that ran through the debate, and it is a critical issue. As my noble friend Lord Livsey said, we will not have young people in the countryside unless they can afford the housing. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, that exception sites can prove one way forward. The experience of many homeowners who went into shared ownership schemes in the 1980s and early 1990s was very difficult, so I am not sure that I could recommend that as a way forward. However, I ask the Minister to say what the Government are doing with regard to both exception sites and affordable housing schemes.

5.25 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I would like to begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Peel for instigating the debate, which has produced a wide range of issues this afternoon. I also remind the House of our families' farming interests and my interest with several rural groups—the NFU, the CLA, the National Trust and many others.

Last year, we had a debate in June on the state of the countryside instigated by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, the rural delivery review by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, and Defra's autumn performance report on 2003, and now we have the review of the rural White Paper. That is an amazing amount of words, as mentioned by others, and follows an alarming expenditure of time on consultation, discussions, drawing conclusions and committing the whole thing to paper. Yet there is still a palpable feeling in the countryside that little is going right. My noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry said that there were no clear decisions, action or money, which is reflected in several areas where I have been lobbied. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, asked what happens next, a subject to which I shall return.

One tangible effect has been the drain on farmers and farm labourers from the land, and the migration of young people to towns and cities in search of jobs and a place to live that is affordable and does not mean sharing their lives by living with their parents at home. All that has taken its toll on the countryside. In addition, the rise in crime on rural properties and the increasing proportion of road accidents on rural roads is alarming. So too is the increase of litter on our rural roads, the fly-tipping in the lanes, gateways and fields, and the burning of vehicles anywhere that is not easily overlooked. The case of fly-tipping is extremely important, because the Environment Agency said in its recent pamphlet that it rose by 20 per cent in 2003.

The review of the White Paper contains plenty of statistics concerning delivery or the lack of it, against the target set only three years ago. It in some ways excuses Defra's inadequacies. There are no central statistics; there was not, and there still is not, a robust definition of what is rural or urban; and there is no clear understanding of priorities. Only today, I received a written reply from the Minister informing me that he cannot tell me how many consultants and professional advisers are employed by Defra. Yesterday, I was told that the fallen stock scheme is to be postponed until the autumn or even November. As that is caused by the Government's inability to sort out the state aid problems, will the Minister assure the House that the rules governing the disposal of fallen stock will be applied with a light touch, which was originally the suggestion? Will his department issue guidance to local authorities, which actually implement such light touches?

On the question of fallen stock, I would like to refer to the contribution made by my noble friend Lord Rotherwick. Disease control is hugely important, and the lack of it is of worry not only to those who look after livestock, but to those who have no association with livestock. My noble friend suggested that too many departments overlapped and in some cases did not talk to each other at all. I hope that the Minister will explain briefly where the Government intend to go on that.

I turn to crime. Last week, the NFU Mutual, which is the largest insurer of farmers and rural businesses, reported a steep rise in claims of burglary, theft and damage to property. The feeling of violation caused by such acts goes in deep and results in increased expenditure of time and money in trying to protect possessions necessary to carry on rural business.

There is real anger that throughout the country the police are being centred in towns. Village police stations have been closed and telephone calls are dealt with miles away. Those in charge insist that the result is more cost-effective and that modern technology removes the need for local knowledge. I must say that that is not shared by those who live in rural communities.

There is also bewilderment and anger at the way in which access to the countryside has been handled. Most people who do not live in rural areas believe that the Prime Minister has given them the right to roam wherever and whenever they please outside towns and cities. They have no concept of crops or, sadly, of livestock. A field of young corn is very different from a type of grass. Very young animals are cute, but there is no understanding of the levels to which their mothers will go to protect them. Sometimes, farmers who try to explain the difference and the dangers are liable to receive some rough language—if not something stronger.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, referred to greater access. We all welcome greater access, but walkers must have a clear understanding of those who maintain the land. We do not want aggravation. Is the Minister confident that the recent slippage in preparing for open access, particularly in the north-west and the south-east, will be remedied in time, or are the Government considering delaying its implementation? The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, questioned whether money was available and the timing was right.

Last week on the airwaves there was news that contracts would free up GPs from doing night work. Could the Minister explain the replacement service that will be operated in rural areas? Will a GP who is close by provide cover, or will it be provided by a national call centre? We have no idea what will happen and we need to have confidence in the new system. It is one thing being ill in an urban area where other doctors are around, but another in a rural area where there is only one doctor, probably several miles away.

Several noble Lords—my noble friends Lord Selborne, Lord Peel, Lord Courtown and Lord King—highlighted the problem of housing. I, too, want to touch on affordable housing in particular. It is a disgrace that in the so-called "nice" areas of the countryside hidden homelessness has risen from 11.8 per cent to more than 18 per cent. My noble friend Lord King in particular mentioned smaller houses being extended. I am worried about small cottages which house independent families being bought and knocked together to displace two or even three families in order to house only one. That is a tremendous challenge for the future. I agree with my noble friend and others who question whether the RDAs are the way to make a success of any future housing policy.

On planning, the Government must be well aware of the fact that they must give clear guidance to local authorities to define and endorse the wider meaning of "sustainability". If not, we risk misinterpretation and inconsistency in different areas of the country. I have previously given examples of that.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Peterborough talked about post office closures and the roles of the churches. I have for some time campaigned on behalf of post offices and of the need for them to be maintained. The Minister may bring me up to date, but I know that they continue to close at an alarming rate.

I cannot leave the debate without finally returning to the CAP review. It is the most important event in agriculture at the moment. The noble Lords, Lord Grantchester and Lord Palmer, and my noble friend Lord Peel, spoke about that. My noble friend Lord Plumb questioned whether redistribution and different systems would cause great difficulty between those who farm in England, Wales and Scotland. I support what he said because he was right.

Also in that context, could the Minister say more about yesterday's announcement on the joining together of English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the rural development services? We have heard only the announcement and we have no idea how it will work.

In conclusion, I thank my noble friend for making the debate possible. I am one whose cup is half full. I believe that there are opportunities out there, but the Government have many questions to answer. They need to free up people to get on and make their businesses a success.

5.36 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whiny)

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for initiating the debate and I thank all noble Lords for their detailed participation. They made a wide range of points, not all of which, I regret to say, I shall be able to answer.

The Government's position has been clear. In the rural White Paper, we gave a commitment and we have reviewed the White Paper. The general direction of policy arising from that review demonstrated a number of significant achievements. There has been a general view that the vision established in the White Paper was accepted by a large swathe of individuals and organisations in rural areas. Good progress has been made on many of those commitments, but many challenges remain. With varying degrees of welcome and grace, today's contributions reflected that.

There is also the question of whether the policies are right. Broadly speaking, the review indicates that they are. Then there is the issue of delivery, which my noble friend Lord Haskins addressed in his usual forthright and trenchant manner which the department has fully taken on board. There is a need to rationalise the means of delivery; to ensure that entrepreneurs and others within rural areas are aware of the structure of the schemes and regulation. It can be greatly confusing, as the report amply indicates. There has also been a move to regionalise and localise some of the deli very and decision-making.

That is a massive task in terms of government machinery, parts of which we have begun and parts of which we announced only yesterday in relation to the integrated agency which will oversee the land management responsibilities, regulations and schemes. It will take in almost the whole of the current work of English Nature; a large part of the work of the Countryside Agency; and the rural development service work in support of agri-environment schemes. Other grant schemes are currently located within the central department.

The Government have therefore embarked on a major step and clearly it will ultimately involve legislation. But already we can rationalise our delivery to a significant degree along the lines the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, recommended to us. We are addressing major delivery issues and we are facing up to many of the major problems within rural areas.

One of the problems of the debates is that there is no clear definition of "rural" as against "urban", as the noble Baroness said. That is of course true, but it is largely because there are huge differential problems in different parts of what we broadly call "rural Britain". Some agriculture remains the dominant factor, or the driver, of economic and social activity. In others, we are talking about a similar pattern of life and employment to those of urban areas. Many people living in those villages and smaller towns work in larger towns or retire from larger towns.

By and large, the range of prosperity in rural Britain is pretty wide. Much of rural Britain is more prosperous than much of urban Britain. There are remoter rural areas, even in England, which have particular problems but, in general, the countryside—rural Britain—is sharing in the general prosperity and, to some extent, is doing rather better than many parts of urban Britain. We must address those different problems. That is one reason why my noble friend Lord Haskins said that we had to localise and bring delivery of schemes, support and policy closer to the people.

Many contributions focused especially on agriculture. We have recently announced our decisions on implementation of the radical change in common agricultural policy. There has been welcome for the principle of the change—in particular, the principle of decoupling. The principle of decoupling will give agriculture here and across Europe a means to get away from dependency on production-related subsidy. That often leads to production that may not strictly be overproduction but produces things that the market does not especially want or for which it is not prepared to pay a sufficient price to maintain what we all want: a profitable agricultural sector.

Now, significant support will remain under the common agricultural policy for people who farm and manage the land, but it will not be linked to what they produce on that land. In other words, farmers will be left to direct their activity—their production and their whole economic enterprise—to what the market really wants. They always claim that they would love to do that. Many of them find difficulty moving from a dependency on subsidy to a dependency on what the market wants, but they are making valiant efforts to make that change and some are clearly well down that road already.

They will complain about aspects of the new system and about regulation. As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, mentioned at the beginning of the debate, my noble friend Lord Haskins also addressed that problem and gave 21 recommendations. I can tell the House that 14 of those recommendations are being acted on and Defra is involved in a much wider range of rationalisation of regulations—in environment as well as strictly in agriculture. One of the main recommendations of the Curry commission was that we must approach regulation in a more holistic manner.

As one noble Lord—I think it was the noble Lord, Lord King—said, regulations may be individually justified but, when we consider their totality, they inhibit the proper operation of enterprise and the environmental and safety outcome that we want. By moving to a whole-farm appraisal, whole-farm planning and whole-farm management, we will adopt a much more holistic approach in which regulation is carried out in a more sensible, whole-farm, whole-enterprise manner, rather than farmers in many cases having to deal with 17 different regulators or sets of regulation.

It will take time to move towards that position, but it will be easier to do so when we move to a single farm payment, rather than the whole range of additional regulations—over and above those that may be desirable for environmental, welfare or safety reasons—that are attached to forms of the 21 regimes in the common agricultural policy that we are replacing. The move during the next eight years to a single farm payment based on area rather than production, on not an historic basis but one related to the quality of management of land for agricultural and environmental purposes, will also allow us to move to a better system of regulation.

So there is a lot to be gained here. Various noble Lords—my noble friend Lord Grantchester probably put it the most crudely and straightforwardly—said that there will be huge winners and huge losers. Yes, there will he winners and losers; there would be however we implemented the proposals. But if we had chosen to stick with an historic system, the worst system would be to try to freeze in aspic a method and pattern of farming that related to 2002 and to continue paying support systems on that basis for another 10 years. That is unjustifiable, so we decided to move away from that system—not overnight but over a period of eight years, so that farming can adjust to the new system.

Over those eight years, some forms of farming will benefit more than others compared with the historic system. However, in a sense, that creates something closer to a level playing field, rather than the opposite, as the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, suggested, than has existed in the past. The vast distortion of the 21 regimes differentiated hugely between farmer and farmer.

To have frozen that system in 2002 and continued it until 2012 would have led not only to a distortion based on history, not reality, but to an extremely uneven playing field. We are trying, for the benefit of farmers, the profitability of farming and the environment, to create a level playing field, so that any area in England has roughly the same level of support. There is a differentiation here. We found that if we dealt with the whole of England as a single entity, the winners and losers became greater, as did the shift. That would be hugely disruptive. If the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, had referred to that in that context, I should have accepted it. However, having considered the SDA area, which was already being treated somewhat differently, and removed it from the rest of England, we have a viable system with less distortion and immediate disruption.

Nevertheless, there will be winners and losers. We must consider those sectors that will lose—including, as was mentioned several times, the dairy and beef sectors, especially those on the edge of the SDA area. However, frankly, the main problem of the dairy sector is not the result of the current, not yet completed, agricultural reform nor of the new one that we are imposing on top of it. It is a severe structural problem that needs addressing as a food chain issue. The Government are engaged in that with various elements within the sector—with some difficulty, I must say; but we need structural change in dairy farming.

That creates the possibility of agriculture delivering the environmental public goods, in return for what continues to be by far the biggest subsidy that we give to any industry, while at the same time basing its activities on what the market—not only the national but the international market—really wants. The noble Lord, Lord King, was perhaps a little pessimistic in his early remarks about our ability to compete. If we are involved in the right areas—high-quality, high value-added areas in which we have a natural comparative advantage—English agriculture can be competitive.

That will not involve every area. We need to contribute to the freeing up of world trade in general, in a way that will take time but will not be too disruptive of European agriculture. We cannot go on subsidising, supporting and protecting European agriculture against world trade, but we can provide the basis for our agriculture to be competitive in those fields where it can compete.

If I may, I shall move on from agriculture. Although other questions were raised about it, I shall have to answer them in writing. The totality of the rural community depends for a sustainable social and economic basis on a much wider range of activity than agriculture. Much of it depends on the state of the countryside—much of which is delivered by agriculture—but the tourist industry is now by far the biggest rural industry and depends on the landscape looking good and bringing people in. Much of the quality of life of rural England depends on the landscape, but the economic activity is very different.

We therefore need to encourage firms of all sorts, large and small, to locate their businesses in rural areas. We also need to ensure that those working for those firms can afford to live in those areas. Several noble Lords said—I think that the right reverend Prelate said it first, but so did the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, the noble Lord, Lord King, and many others—that the housing situation in many rural areas is a serious problem.

It is a problem in price and quantity. Some of that is due to movement into rural areas by people who previously made sufficient money outside those areas to move there, which raises the price for locals.

It is also a question of quantity, because there has been insufficient building of affordable housing—or, indeed, any housing—in many rural areas. Some of that is due to planning problems and the constraints that local planning authorities—rather than national planning policy—tend to put on housing developments in rural areas. It is important that rural housing is addressed as one of the key issues for regeneration and prosperity, as it will allow people to live a high-quality life in rural areas. We have almost doubled the funding for affordable housing, increased the housing corporations' rural targets and given greater encouragement to local authorities and housing associations in rural areas. But we recognise that significantly more needs to be done in the areas of housing provision and planning guidance. Local authorities and the housing market have a big role to play here.

Some of the problems go beyond housing. The right reverend Prelate referred to social inclusiveness and the need to recognise that there are serious social problems in a number of rural areas. In many ways, inequality in rural areas is worse than in many urban areas. We need to address those problems through access to services and, in particular, by retaining services in villages. Innovative ways may be used to do that, such as using the post office—which may otherwise be facing closure—the pub, the garage or the village shop to provide the basis for a range of services instead of its original function. A lot of initiatives are dealing with that.

The rate relief that has been provided to small businesses will also help with that. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby be Broke, that the full effect of that rate relief will come in on 1 April 2005. Financial year planning means that that is the earliest we can bring it in on a mandatory basis. That answers his question. It is an important contribution to ensuring that there are motivations for rural businesses to move in—or stay in—areas of rural Britain.

We need to attract not only permanent inhabitants to remain in rural areas, but also temporary visitors such as tourists. In some parts of the House there is a reluctance to recognise that that depends on better access, as my noble friend Lady Thornton emphasised. The CROW Act provides the basis for that. Some of the mapping issues involved have proved complicated, as we envisaged when it was debated in this House, but we are getting on with it.

To answer other questions, we are providing the resources for that to happen. We will not move to the full implementation of access until it is clear that we can do so. We are confident that we can meet the timetables that we have set out. But the full effects of the CROW Act will involve a long period of regional roll out. If access is properly managed and resourced, then we can provide a further contribution to rural revenue, and also a means by which the urban and rural communities can mix more effectively and reduce misperceptions on both sides.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I raised the point that people out there have the expectation that access is now. What are the Government doing to convey the fact that it will be rolled out and that it is not possible over all the country at the moment because it is causing difficulty between landowners and those who want to go walking?

Lord Whitty

Difficulties between landowners and people who want to go walking are not entirely new. I recall that some of the confrontations that were referred to would have occurred without the CROW Act.

Nevertheless, it is important that the information gets down the line and it is part of our engagement with local authorities, national parks and local access fora to ensure that more and better information is made available.

The noble Earl, Lord Courtown, emphasised the need for retaining skills in rural areas. We have just completed a review of the skills needed in rural areas, and that will be published shortly. He should keep his eye open for that. It is an important dimension of our activities.

I am reaching the end of my time and there are clearly a significant number of questions which have yet to be addressed, many of which I will need to write to noble Lords on. The rural White Paper strategy—and its further refreshment, as we have referred to it—presents a clear way in which the Government will support rural enterprise, address the social, environmental and economic problems of rural areas, and do so in a way that is sensitive to each particular locality, and is not entirely dictated nationally.

There is a slight disconnection between those who say that they welcome the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, in devolving issues, but at the same time argue that there should be no inconsistency. We do not want too much inconsistency, but there are different solutions for different parts of the country, different landscapes, different communities and different patterns of work.

It is important that all aspects of government recognise that, including the planning systems, the RDAs and all the schemes for rural delivery that come under Defra. It is also important—and here I take issue with some noble Lords—that all three pillars of sustainable development are respected. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, graphically demonstrated that she was a milkmaid in her youth. Equal emphasis is needed on all three.

We have a system where we clearly need money and revenue to go into rural areas, but we need the environment to be maintained in order to retain the attractiveness of those areas and the quality of life within them. We also need social cohesion and social inclusiveness, otherwise the economic enterprises will not flourish.

All three elements of sustainable development are there in our policy for rural areas, and the way in which we are trying to deliver them follows through the careful and clear recommendations of my noble friend Lord Haskins. Fuller details of those will be revealed as we go on, but the general direction is clear both from his report and the Government's commitment to the principles set out within it.

My thanks again to the noble Earl and to all who participated in the debate.

5.58 p.m.

Earl Peel

My Lords, I thank everyone for taking part in the debate. As is always the case when we discuss these matters in your Lordships' House, there is a wide range of interests and opinions. We have covered as many subjects as I would have expected. My noble friend Lord Shrewsbury surprised me by mentioning aggregates, but why not? It is a perfectly legitimate topic, and his points were extremely well made.

The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, accused me of raking through the coals of divisions between rural and urban areas. The issue is not of my making. If I go down to "The Blue Lion", the local pub in East Witton, I find that the issues that I have raised are being talked about every day by country people. They are deeply concerned by some of the legislative procedures that have been introduced by the Government which affect their everyday lives. I am not making it up. The points that I raised were to illustrate that if we are to have a successful union between government and rural people—and that is the way forward—then those who legislate must understand the minds, workings and traditions of those who live and work in the country. That is the point that I was trying to make.

We have discussed a great range of subjects. The one that has blossomed to the fore is housing. Seven or eight noble Lords have mentioned that. I was grateful that the Minister acknowledged this. I think that he said that the Government would look at ways to develop in more imaginative ways. That will be required. It is not just a simple question of finance; we must find new land available for housing, as my noble friend Lord King said. That is perhaps the key.

The other point that evolved from the debate was the question of regional regeneration. Quite a number of noble Lords mentioned specific cases. I have noticed quite often when reading rural documents and listening to debates that many initiatives come forward from both the public and private sectors but the two never seem to get together. We must try to unite those good ideas so that we do not waste time and resources and have a more effective means of developing the notion of regeneration, which is the whole secret of the countryside.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I am also grateful to what I may call the Minister of the Back Benches who sat through the entire debate. His role in the rural debate is as important as that of the Minister, from what I can see, so I am extremely grateful to him for listening to our remarks.

The Minister started by talking about significant achievements, but then he stopped, so we did not hear what they were. I shall leave that up to noble Lords' imagination. He at least acknowledged that there were weaknesses, for which I am grateful. On agriculture, he said that there were big winners and big losers. I suggest to the noble Lord that the route that his right honourable friend the Secretary of State has pursued will result in marginal winners but very big losers, particularly in the beef and dairy sectors. It speaks volumes that the Minister's noble friend behind him made the criticisms that he did about the route that the right honourable lady has taken.

I have said enough. I share the optimism of my noble friend Lord King for the future. I believe that the rural community will rise to this tremendous challenge. New businesses will develop, and I firmly believe that farming will remain the bedrock of the rural community. We must make certain that it does, as I could not begin to contemplate the very notion of not having farmers managing the land, bearing out the experience that has come through from generation to generation. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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