HC Deb 14 March 2000 vol 346 cc31-7WH 11.57 am
Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

This is the first time that I have had an Adjournment debate, and spoken in, the new Chamber at Westminster Hall. I am delighted to raise a subject dear to my heart. Thousands of people, including the Minister, share my love of the Pennine hills and other upland areas, where the landscape is traced with walls that climb up to the horizon, fringed with foxgloves in the spring and harebells in the summer.

The walls vary hugely. Some are white in limestone areas, others are grey gritstone in the southern Pennines and others are blue slate. Depending on which side the wind blows, lichen and mosses cover them. They were built with great skill many years ago, to mark a boundary, to clear stones from the fields, or to shelter new-born lambs and livestock and keep livestock safe and within a field's parameter. Some walls are very old—pre-Romano-British. As the Government acknowledge in their response to the report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and the Regions, there is little data on exactly how old and dilapidated they are, but they are important. They are home not only to lichen, mosses and wild flowers, but to insects and many species of birds. Wrens and little owls nest in them. The centres of dry stone walls are very warm, so they are also home to hibernating reptiles. The great crested newt likes to spend the winter there. They are intersected by many other important stone features: big stone posts at gateways, step stiles, squeeze stiles and sheep creeps—an expression I did not know until I started to research the subject. I can enlighten hon. Members later if they are interested.

For years, dry stone walls have been mapped. They are used on Ordnance Survey maps for guidance. They are an integral feature of the upland countryside, and are loved by local farmers as well as walkers, riders and the urban population of the north of England who, in the words of the song, may be wageslaves on Mondays, but are free men on Sundays. At present, dry stone walls have no statutory protection. They are disappearing and crumbling at an alarming rate.

The House has been concerned about hedgerows for many years. A private Member's Bill is proceeding, but we are waiting for firm proposals from the Government on how to respond. Of all traditional field boundaries, dry stone walls are especially vulnerable because they have a market value. There is a price on their heads, so to speak. The Countryside and Rights of Way Bill receives its Second Reading on Monday, but the Government have missed the opportunity to include a clause about field boundaries and possible protection for dry stone walls.

The Countryside Commission survey of May 1995 showed that 50 per cent. of the 112,000 km of dry stone walls in the country are derelict or not stock-proofed. South Yorkshire has the fifth highest density of dry stone walls in the country: only 5.4 per cent. of its walls are classed A or B which means sound; 54 per cent. are classed C, which means semi-derelict and in need of restoration; and 44 per cent. are so derelict that they consist only of remnants.

Dry stone walls crumble for many reasons, some of them perfectly natural. Rabbits burrow around and underneath them so that they collapse. They need constant repair. Road works often damage dry stone walls along the highways. They are often demolished to improve access for farmers to fields or even woodlands and forests. Bodies that should know better, such as the Forestry Commission and Severn Trent Water, have demolished walls to gain access to woodlands. Stones are also taken by members of the public, who go along in cars on Sundays and think that putting a few stones in the boot to improve their gardens and rockeries will not do much harm.

More worrying is the damage done when larger topping stones or copes are taken in a fairly systematic commercial way to garden centres, possibly all over the country, for their market value. Once a wall loses its heavy topping stone, deterioration is more rapid. They also crumble away, as farmers use other barriers such as electric fences or netting to keep livestock in. Most worryingly, in my area they are often simply sold—and that it why I have asked for this debate. One week a wall is there, the next week it has been taken away to be sold. The current cost of local stone is about £40 per tonne, and it is going up. That adds up to £6,200 for 100 m of stone wall. Hill farmers in my constituency have had a rough time over the BSE crisis and the general crisis in stock farming, and there is a huge temptation for them to sell off a wall to bridge a short-term crisis or financial problem.

Farmers are also put under pressure by planning rules which, in areas such as mine to the north of Sheffield, increasingly and rightly insist that any rebuilding ought to be done in local stone. The frequent transformation of farm buildings into residential accommodation puts up demand for local stone, which puts up the price—the vicious circle that puts pressure on the farmers. The increasingly common transfer of agricultural property to residential or holiday home use often means that walls lose their purpose as stock boundaries, fall into disrepair and crumble, because the people living there are not keeping sheep or cattle. As the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee said in the excellent, thorough inquiry that it carried out two years ago, the situation is worrying.

The answer is twofold—there should be incentives and disincentives. There must be not only an extension of the incentives to protect dry stone walls, but a clear disincentive, backed by legislation if possible, to prevent the removal of the whole or part of any dry stone wall without good reason. That is especially necessary in areas of outstanding natural beauty, conservation areas and national parks.

The disincentives could include a requirement to get permission from a national park or a local authority, or consult a local conservation body. The Minister might consider that that work could come within the remit of the local access forums, when they are established. I am not calling for a rigid ban on the removal of the whole or part of any stone wall; such removals are part of the evolutionary process in the countryside. However, the key phrase in the new legislation, which is central to the Government's policy, is "good countryside management". The laissez-faire attitude cannot continue.

Moves by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to put countryside management and stewardship schemes at the heart of its grant regime are to be wholeheartedly welcomed, as is the recent announcement that the money going into the schemes will be increased. Local farmers in my constituency often talk to me through the NFU, the Dry Stone Walling Association and the Council for the Protection of Rural England. They say that, although they are committed to restoring and maintaining walls on their land, the countryside stewardship grant schemes insist on their being part of an integrated countryside management structure, while farmers are often looking for something simpler. They want to be able to say, "I want a programme of restoration for the walls on my land, which would take three or four years, and some grant aid would help me do the work over one or two years." The proposal is supported by the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the Dry Stone Walling Association and was included in their briefings on the Countryside Bill and their response to the Select Committee's report. I understand that the Yorkshire dales, which I am sure the Minister knows well, runs a programme of countryside protection in which barns and walls are given extra European money. That category in the grant regime has stemmed the deterioration of the limestone walls and miles of walling have been renewed and restored. That is an example of how the grant regime can be improved.

I am discussing not just walls, but the traditional skill of walling and the people with that skill. The inhabitants of Dungworth in my constituency always know that walling is taking place when they hear the beautiful baritone voice of a farmer called Hector, who sings hymns as he mends walls.

In that context I pay tribute to the efforts of the Dry Stone Walling Association, which has pressed wallers' arguments strongly. I agree with the officers of that association that it is not good enough to allow grant schemes to go forward without any check on whether the work is being done by skilled or expert wallers. If it is not, walls will continue to crumble, which would not be good value for money.

As well as the wallers' skills, voluntary conservation groups play a key role. In another part of my constituency a volunteer group goes out on Sunday mornings under the guidance of a trained wailer to tidy up and strengthen walls around woodland areas. The volunteers learn a skill, increase the community's appreciation of the environment and improve the look of the woodlands and the strength of the walls.

If the House is serious about looking after the countryside in our overcrowded islands, action is needed. The public will not forgive us if we simply watch in the hope that our country's heritage remains. Without action, it will be too late. I urge the Minister to talk seriously to his colleagues. A major Bill is passing through the House with the protection of the countryside at its heart, and I support its principles. Today, I want to raise awareness of one small element of the countryside field boundaries, which are a crucial part of our upland countryside. The public and those who love the countryside would not forgive us if we missed this opportunity to prevent deterioration in dry stone walls, which will inevitably occur if we do not take steps to prevent it.

12.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin)

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) has raised an important issue, and I thank her for initiating this debate with great distinction and charm. The way in which she presented her case demonstrated that she cares about this subject, but I have a small quibble. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Dowd), who has left the Chamber, advises me that newts are amphibians, not reptiles.

Helen Jackson

The Minister is of course correct. Frogs, toads and great crested newts are amphibians, but I am informed that reptiles such as the grass snake also enjoy hibernating in the central areas of dry stone walls, which provide warmth.

Mr. Mullin

I shall not follow my hon. Friend down that path, because I would quickly be out of my depth. As she probably knows, I am walking in four stages from Holy Island to the Lake district—a journey of about 250 miles, much of which passes through the Pennines. So far, I have reached Barnard castle. I passed many stone walls along the way and, as she said, they are in varying states of repair and neglect.

Since taking on this post, I have noticed that differing forms of boundary can excite many, often mixed emotions. Some people are keen to do away with boundaries such as the dreaded leylandii hedge, a subject on which we receive more letters than any other. However, there are other boundaries to which we want to give tender loving care, and dry stone walls fit firmly into that category.

My hon. Friend vividly described the various reasons why we want to save and nurture such features of the landscape, and said that they help to define the character of the countryside. There are often local differences in stone type and building techniques, and such visual variations are appreciated by passing ramblers in particular and the public in general. As she said, dry stone walls are important to a wide range of wildlife, and they remain functional. As well as controlling and sheltering livestock, they may help to prevent soil erosion and water run-off.

As has been said, dry stone walls are at risk. Although the countryside has never remained static, changes in recent decades have given rise to concern about the rate at which walls are disappearing. According to the countryside survey of 1990, there were about 86,000 km of dry walls in England—a dramatic decrease of about 15 per cent. in six, which was particularly serious in marginal upland andpastoral landscapes.

Helen Jackson

After this intervention, I shall let the Minister get on, but I want to emphasise a point that is relevant to my constituency and many others. Does he agree that there is a particular problem for countryside that abuts major urban conurbations?

Mr. Mullin

I am sure that that is right.

Only about 4 per cent. of walls were described as being in excellent condition. Where the stones of walls fall down, the wall can be put up again, but in the vicinity of some urban areas, the walls are disappearing. Some of the instant makeover gardening programmes may have a little to answer for in that respect. Against that background, my hon. Friend has called for the Government to give statutory protection to walls, which the Select Committee recommended. As the figures suggest, much of our knowledge about dry stone walls is five or 10 years old. We are updating ourselves on the countryside survey 2000, which will provide reliable estimates on the number and condition of walls, and an improved base line for detecting changes to those features in future. We consider further legislation when the survey becomes available.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill. As I am sure she will appreciate, we are not short of suggestions for additions to that Bill, or to nearly every major Bill. Someone, somewhere, at a slightly higher level than me, has to make the harsh decisons on what will be included. I regret that I cannot hold out any prospect that the matter will be dealt with in that Bill. We do not rule out the possibility of legislation, although the survey results will not be available until the end of the year, which would be too late for incorporation into the Bill.

My hon. Friend suggested that protection might come within the remit of the proposed local access forums. Those non-statutory bodies will have an important advisory role in helping to ensure that new opportunities for recreational access are implemented sensibly and sensitively on the ground. Their focus will be on promoting responsible public access to the countryside rather than on conservation. Although we must await the results of the survey before making final decisions on legislation, I note the general view among experts who gave evidence to the Select Committee inquiry—for instance, the Dry Stone Walling Association—that the biggest threat to walls was posed by neglect rather than deliberate destruction. I accept my hon. Friend's point about what happens in the vicinity of human habitation. No amount of legislation can deal effectively with walls falling into disrepair and becoming derelict. Sound management of walls is a long-term activity that requires the continued commitment and enthusiasm of land managers. It is a question of winning hearts and minds, which is best achieved through advice and incentives.

My hon. Friend mentioned the incentive schemes administrated by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which offer funds for the restoration of stone walls in England. Under country stewardship, payments are available for major rebuilding if a wall has collapsed, become unstable, is in danger of collapse or has slumped—I have never thought of stone walls as slumping, but apparently they do—or is no longer stock-proof. To maintain the historic value of the walls, the scheme requires that the work should retain as much fabric as possible. Traditional materials, in keeping with existing walls, should be used. The source of all stone has to be identified and agreed. The stewardship scheme has led to the restoration of more than 1,000 km of stone wall since 1991. The trend is not entirely downhill.

Similar arrangements apply in environmentally sensitive areas, such as my hon. Friend's doorstep in the Pennine dales. MAFF will pay farmers up to 80 per cent. of the cost of repairing and maintaining dry stone walls. In the Pennine dales, 5.3 km of stone wall have so far been restored with funding from the scheme. That does not include work done on stock-proof walls, which must be maintained as a requirement of the ESA scheme. My hon. Friend believes that more walls could be saved if there were a separate grant scheme that focused on maintaining and repairing walls and other field boundaries. That point was also raised in the Select Committee report. As our response indicated, experts have advised that the best value for money, and the most benefits for landscapes and biodiversity, will be achieved through an integrated approach to conservation. We do not consider it right to divert funding from existing agrienvironment schemes to separate grants for ad hoc boundary restoration.

Helen Jackson

The point made to me is a call not for the diversion of funds from agri-environment schemes, but for a simpler subsection within those schemes that would focus on walls and field boundaries.

Mr. Mullin

I thank my hon. Friend. I am sure that those who work on such matters will note that point.

Earlier this year, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced that more than £1 billion would be available over the next seven years for countryside stewardship, environmentally sensitive areas, organic farming and farm woodland premium schemes. We hope that that will mean that more walls can be restored in future.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, MAFF is not alone in supporting the active management of dry stone walls. National park authorities operate local grant schemes in recognition of the important contribution that walls make to natural beauty and heritage. For example, restoring walls is a high priority for the Peak district park authority, which restored 13,260 m of wall in the 10 years up to 1999, and has in recent years given grant aid for more than 10,000 m of wall a year. That is a good record. The North Yorkshire moors national park offers land managers 70 per cent. grants for the restoration and repair of dry stone walls. Since July 1997, more than 22 km of wall have been repaired under that scheme, at a total cost of about £109,000, and several jobs have been created.

That leads me to another point that has arisen during the debate. We have heard about the importance of ensuring that traditional wall-building skills are passed on to future generations. I am aware that there is a problem in some areas with a shortage of skilled labour able to carry out restoration work. Local intelligence suggests that, but for that, more Pennine wall could be restored. However, the training opportunities that are available should help to increase the pool of skilled workers. For example, Lantra—the national training organisation for industries that make a living, directly and indirectly, from the land has developed a series of courses on landscape boundaries within its environmental training portfolio, including units that specialise in dry stone walling skills. All Lantra's training courses can be counted towards national vocational qualifications. I pay tribute, as did my hon. Friend, to the part played by the Dry Stone Walling Association and voluntary bodies such as the National Trust and the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers.

MAFF hopes to be able to provide help with training in the near future. The European Union's rural development regulation will provide aid for vocational training for farmers and others involved in agricultural and forestry activities. Several priority areas have been identified, including countryside and environmental skills such as dry stone walling. MAFF is planning to make available a total of £22 million over seven years for its training scheme, subject to the European Commission's approval. It is a case of "watch this space".

My hon. Friend paid tribute to the key role played by voluntary groups. She may like to pass on to them the news about a new national grant scheme that helps local groups to investigate, explain and care for local landscapes, landmarks and traditions. The local heritage initiative launched in February is planned to run for 10 years at a cost of £45 million, and is expected to support about 300 projects each year. It is administered by the Countryside Agency, with funding from the heritage lottery fund and the Nationwide building society.

This has been a good debate about an important issue. Given what I have said, I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that the picture is not entirely bleak. A great deal of progress is being made, and we must ensure that that continues. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the subject.

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