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Agriculture And Pollution

Volume 977: debated on Thursday 31 January 1980

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4.48 pm

I beg to move,

That this House takes note of the Seventh Report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution relating to Agriculture and Pollution [Cmnd. 7644].
I am particularly pleased to have the honour to open the debate on the Royal Commission's seventh report, having in a previous incarnation had the opportunity to debate the Royal Commission's sixth report, which dealt with nuclear power and the environment.

One is struck immediately by the very welcome characteristics of a Royal Commission report—a report on a matter of vital interest that is so thorough, balanced and constructive in its approach. I think that right hon. and hon. Members on each side of the House will agree that very often on contentious issues we are presented with documents which are more notable for their polemical approach than for the partiality of their evidence. It is, therefore, all the more refreshing to be able to welcome today and to consider a document that is very different from that and represents a very much more valuable approach.

I should therefore like to express immediately, on behalf of the Government, their appreciation to the chairman of the Commission, Sir Hans Kornberg, and to all the members of the Commission for the seventh report, and to thank them for the very considerable time and effort they have devoted to the study of agriculture and pollution. I believe that it will be of great value not merely to this country but also in an international context.

One of the features that I noticed when considering the sixth report on nuclear power was the very great interest and attention that it aroused throughout the world. It became, undoubtedly, one of the authoritative books of reference in many countries. I have no doubt that the seventh report will likewise be very widely read in a considerable number of countries which face many of the same problems and issues as the report covers.

In considering the Government's response to the report, we shall obviously want to take account of the very wide range of interests concerned in it—agricultural, industrial, local authorities, water and environmental. We are therefore consulting all these interests.

There has already been a debate on the report in another place. Today provides an opportunity for Members of this House to express their view upon it, and I and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be listening to the debate with great interest.

Before turning to the report, I should like to say something about our general approach to pollution control and about the part that the Royal Commission plays in this. The day-to-day implementation of the controls over environmental pollution is generally decentralised. But my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and I have general responsibilities in regard to environmental pollution and, in particular, for the coordination of policy in relation to environmental pollution over all fields of governmental activity.

Consideration of the pollution implications of particular policies is a matter for all departmental Ministers. My right hon. Friend and I claim no monopoly of environmental wisdom. It is far better for pollution to be considered as an integral part of policy decisions by those who are expert in the various areas and for this to be done within the context of overall governmental policy on environmental pollution, co-ordinated by my right hon. Friend and my Department.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has an important part in this structure. It obviously keeps a general eye on developments in environmental policy, but its main contribution is in the preparation of major reports like the one we are discussing today. The Royal Commission plays an essential role in making in-depth studies in particular areas. It is done in a way that cannot be achieved through normal interdepartmental co-ordination.

The report dwells particularly on the question of ministerial responsibilities. It recommends a stronger role for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in considering and minimising the polluting effects of agricultural practices. In relation to many of the issues raised in the report, it is, of course, true that, apart from my right hon. Friend's co-ordinating role, both Departments have an interest in the matters studied by the Commission. For example, my right hon. Friend and I have an interest in the implications of agricultural practices for water quality because of our responsibilities, under the Water Act 1973, for the water supply aspects of national water policy.

My right hon. Friend and I are similarly involved with the effects of agriculture—in relation to the report, this primarily means pesticides—on wildlife. Again, my right hon. Friend has a direct interest because of his interests in nature conservation and his responsibility for the Nature Conservancy Council.

Similar points of our involvement in the Department of the Environment arise in other sections of the report—those dealing with sewage sludge, air pollution and the operation of the planning system.

None of this undermines the point that the Royal Commission makes fairly about ministerial responsibilities—that thinking about possible effects on the environment should be an integral part of agricultural policy and not something to tack on as an afterthought. The point was well made by a member of the Commission—the noble Baroness, the Baroness White. When speaking in the debate in another place, she said that the Ministry of Agriculture
"should take a much greater responsibility upon themselves for ensuring that they are the Department of first instance where matters of agricultural pollution are concerned.—[Official Report,House of Lords, 17 January 1980; Vol. 404, c. 353.]
Looked at in this light, I do not believe that the Royal Commission is calling for any fundamental change. It is not proposing any alteration of statutory responsibilities, nor any diminution in the role of my Department in its general oversight of environmental pollution issues. But it wants to see a greater emphasis on pollution matters in the agricultural Departments and their advisory services. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will deal with this point in more detail in winding up the debate.

I can say now that the Government accept the general principle that the possibilities of polluting effects should be considered by those who are experts in agricultural matters.

I should like to turn now to the report's detailed recommendations. I welcome the report. Some rude comments were made that the report fell apart at the seams as soon as it was published. That was due more to lack of good adhesive chemistry in the binding in HMSO than to any lack of cohesiveness in philosophical content.

Comments on the report are still coming in, but it is possible to say that it has been generally well received. Some of the proposals for more detailed control, perhaps over the aerial spraying of pesticides and intensive livestock units, have been criticised by the farming community. But we must be encouraged generally by the response of the National Farmers Union that the report gives a reasoned approach that is not biased against the agricultural industry. Attention has been drawn to the resource implications in a number of recommendations by a number of bodies, not least local authorities and the water industry.

As the report brings out so clearly, there has been a revolution in agricultural practice over the last 30 years. We have seen a greater use of pesticides and nitrogen fertilisers and the trend towards more intensive farming of livestock. These have all helped our farmers to make considerable improvements in the productive capacity of the land. British agriculture has increased its contribution to the nation's requirements of farm produce to over 70 per cent. of the total supply of commodities which can be produced here. This compares with about 60 per cent. in 1970. The comparison is more stark in financial terms. The total value of agricultural production, which was £1,600 million in 1960, amounted to some £7,000 million in 1978.

Clearly the aim of keeping to the minimum our dependence on imported foodstuffs commands general support. We must bear in mind that, unless British agriculture remains competitive, we put at risk an import saving on livestock products alone of over £2,000 million per year.

I was struck by a comment Lord Winstanley, speaking in his medical capacity in the other place, against a general background of concern over the use of chemicals and fertilisers, that if for any reason there were a total cessation of their use at the present time, one-third of the world's population would die of starvation. That puts in context one of the moral aspects of the use of artificial chemicals and fertilisers.

Having put that background to the case for the use of chemicals, it is right to stop and consider the wider implications in terms of the effect of these developments on the environment.

The Royal Commission has made a number of recommendations for changes. Most of them are directed at minimising the risks of pollution caused by agriculture. But some also deal with the way in which pollution from other sources affects agriculture. Although the Government have not yet reached conclusions on the recommendations, it may be helpful if I comment briefly on three major issues—pesticides, nitrogen fertilisers and farm wastes.

Since the Second World War, we have seen a massive growth in the production and use of synthetic chemicals. The agrochemicals industry has been among the most successful sectors of the chemical industry. I was interested in the figures that the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) quoted in an Adjournment debate. I had them checked, and they are pretty accurate.

In 1944, there were 65 approved pesticide products based on some simple active ingredients and total sales represented some £20 million. Compared with that, we now have over 800 approved products, containing 200 different and mostly complex synthetic chemicals. The total value of the market had increased to no less than £140 million in 1975. Pesticides can be divided, according to their action, into three categories—insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. The use of each of these in agriculture has developed.

In the case of insecticides, in the period from 1971 to 1975 the estimated annual average quantity of active ingredients was over 1,300 tonnes, and in the case of fungicides over 2,000 tonnes. There has been a huge increase in the use of herbicides. This area now dominates the market. The estimated annual average quantity used in the period from 1971 to 1975 was over 15,000 tonnes. I should like to pay tribute to the careful watch kept on all these developments by the Advisory Committee on Pesticides. Our outstanding safety record to date is in no small measure due to its work.

The Royal Commission in its report gives a general blessing to the present approach on the control of pesticides, but it makes a number of recommendations for improvements. These include a policy aim of minimum pesticide usage consistent with efficient production, closer control of aerial spraying, and more research, especially directed at ways of reducing overall usage.

I might interject and, in one sense, declare a previous interest. From my own observations in that previous interest, I recognise that there are some exciting possibilities in new technology, perhaps connected with electrostatic application that could ensure much more efficient use of such chemicals while achieving all the objectives of the application but perhaps without the random spray nature of a considerable amount of the present methods of application.

As with pesticides, there has been a considerable increase since the last war in the use of inorganic fertilisers. The increase has been most marked in the case of nitrogen fertilisers—their usage has increased from a little over 300,000 tonnes in 1959 to over 1 million tonnes in 1975–76. This development has made some contribution to the rising nitrate levels in certain waters, particularly in arable areas. On present evidence, the Royal Commission considers that anxiety over risks to public health from current levels of nitrate in water supplies is not justified. But it stresses the importance of using these fertilisers efficiently in order to minimise nitrate losses. It also makes more detailed recommendations, including some for further research.

On farm wastes, particular concern was expressed by the Royal Commission about the wastes from intensive livestock units. There has been a considerable increase in the extent of intensive livestock farming. Although precise figures are not available, there is a clear trend towards larger herds and flocks. I have asked for clarification on this, and these are the best statistics available to me. For example, the number of pig herds in England and Wales with 1,000 or more animals was 1,278 in 1975, compared with only 130 in 1960. That shows very clearly how those units have grown.

I take up the point about waste from large flocks kept in intensive conditions. I know that one large outbreak of fowl pest in Norfolk arose from the spreading of manure from some of these houses. Can my right hon. Friend tell us whether the Commission has commented on the spread of disease in this way, as opposed to polluting streams and water supplies?

I shall make certain comments on some of the problems involved here. If my answer does not fully cover the points, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will reply more fully when he replies.

I have looked at the growth of intensive units. I quoted the figures on pigs which were of particular interest. It is interesting to note that the number of broiler flocks with more than 100,000 head has doubled in the last 15 years. Quite traditional forms of agriculture show increased concentrations. The keeping of large enterprises on small areas of land is also increasing.

The number of dairy heards of 100 head or more on holdings of less than 60 hectares rose from 12 in 1960 to 342 in 1974. The number of flocks of poultry of over 5,000 head on holdings of less than two hectares rose from 278 in 1960 to 405 in 1974. Whereas in 1960 there were no pig herds of 1,000 head or more on holdings of less than eight hectares, there were 284 in 1974. These figures are, of course, small compared with the total number of holdings but they illustrate graphically the development of intensive units.

The Royal Commission makes a number of proposals for dealing with the nuisance that can arise from intensive units. Its major proposal is that these units should be specifically excluded from the permitted development provisions of the Town and Country Planning General Development Order and that there should be controls over their operation. The interaction of planning and pollution is an issue in which I am closely concerned.

Pollution considerations are matters which can and should be taken into account in certain ways under the planning system. For example, in providing land in development plans for heavy industry it is important that this should be in areas where the polluting effects on neighbouring land use will be minimised, and development control could be applied where the polluting effects of a proposal made it totally unacceptable. However, I would normally expect to see the detailed controls over pollution exercised under pollution powers.

The question of planning control over agricultural developments is one which I know from my own experience as a constituency Member causes a good deal of controversy. Certainly, the two most controversial developments in my own constituency resulted from the exemptions that are possible for agricultural developments under the present permitted development provisions. I know that this causes concern in certain parts of the country.

Against that, we must recognise that, at a time when we are seeking to streamline planning and to get the development control system out of unnecessary concern for detail, we would have to think carefully about extending the range of development control. The wide exemptions from planning control which agriculture enjoys at present have generally worked satisfactorily. We would be reluctant to see any substantial change in the position.

At the same time, we must recognise that the nature of agricultural buildings has been changing in recent years and we shall want to consider the Royal Commission's recommendations very carefully in the light of all the comments that are made, both in the report and the representations made to us.

The report deals also with some ways in which pollution from other sources affects agriculture—in particular, the longstanding practice of using sewage sludge as a fertiliser. In fact, 40 per cent. of all sludge produced goes to farmland.

The use of sewage sludge as a fertiliser and soil conditioner clearly makes good sense. It enables the water industry to dispose of a substance which is, so far as it is concerned, a waste. It is for many water authorities, by far the most economical option, and the loss of that option would have a significant impact on water charges in general. It provides the agriculture industry with a cheap source of fertiliser. It is therefore not surprising that, although there are large variations from one area to another, all water authorities use this method of disposal for some of their sludge.

The Royal Commission makes no criticism of the general practice of using sewage sludge in agriculture. One of my diligent researchers has found a higher authority for this practice. I refer the House to Deuteronomy 23: 12–13, where Moses advised the Israelites to return their waste to the soil. But the Commission points out that there can be problems.

First, there is the question of pathogenic organisms, especially in untreated sludge. The Commission recommends that there should be no extension of the practice of spreading untreated sludge until further research has been carried out on the extent of survival of pathogens. Secondly, there is another problem which could not be foreseen when Moses gave his advice in 1445 BC—I do not know how such an amazingly precise date has been provided—and that is the presence of toxic metals arising from industrial discharges to sewers. The Commission commends the work of the Standing Committee on the Disposal of Sewage Sludge, which is run jointly by my Department and the National Water Council. However, it calls for further work to establish a scientific basis for the disposal of sludge on agricultural land and for much greater efforts to reduce contamination of sewage by industrial effluents.

The right hon. Gentleman has referred twice to advisory bodies. Can we have an assurance from him that some of these bodies will not be wound up as a result of the Government's great efforts to do away with quangos?

I do not think that a warm tribute from the Dispatch Box to the continuing value of its work is a prelude to the committee's disappearance. Since the bodies to which the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) has referred come within the province of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I will leave him to underline the value of their work. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will receive adequate assurances on that point.

There are important and difficult issues concerning sewage sludge. In addition to the recommendations I have mentioned, the Royal Commission argues for improved monitoring. There is a substantial research content in its recommendations concerning sewage sludge. We shall need to look at these alongside the recommendations for research in other areas and take a view on how to make the best use of the limited research funds that are available.

In total, the Royal Commission has made 80 recommendations and we are considering them all in the light of the comments we are receiving from many interested bodies. A further point that my right hon. Friend made clear in a letter that he sent to the chairman of the Royal Commission, Sir Hans Kornberg, when the report was published is that we are bound by present circumstances to give thought to the resource obligations of these proposals.

The Royal Commission has, in particular, drawn attention to the need for research in a number of areas. In our use of limited research funds we shall need to establish very clearly what the most important priorities are. This means that there may well be constraints on the speed with which we can implement desirable improvements. I think that that will be well understood by the House, and in no sense should it take away from the very warm and genuine welcome that the Government give to the report. We believe that it provides a sound basis for the development of future policy in relation to agriculture and pollution.

We hope that the House will take this opportunity to develop the points in the report which are of particular interest to hon. Members. The Government have provided this opportunity to take note, at an appropriate time before any final decisions are taken in the matter, and I hope that my introduction to the report of the Royal Commission will be helpful to hon. Members in identifying particular areas of interest. I shall listen with interest to the debate.

5.13 pm

On behalf of the Opposition, and, I think, of the whole House, may I say how grateful we are to the Minister and to the Government for providing time for this debate so soon after the publication of the report of the Royal Commission? This is rare, and I pay tribute to the Government for having provided what in this television-conscious age is called "prime time" so that we do not have to debate these issues in the middle of the night. The time has been provided even though the report was debated a few days ago in the other place. I am grateful to the Minister for asking this House to take note of the report and to take note of observations upon it.

I share the Minister's view of the report. When I learnt that I was assigned to the Front Bench to take part in this debate, I picked up the report as a matter of duty and began to read it. I became absorbed in and, indeed, fascinated by it. It is one of the best-written reports—from a purely literary point of view—that one could imagine. I congratule Professor Sir Hans Kornberg, the chairman, and all the members of the Commission on the excellence of the report and on the way in which it is presented. It is a highly technical document, presented in such a way that even I, a layman, can understand it.

There are important recommendations in the report which need urgent action by the Government. I do not necessarily mean action in this crowded Session, but many of these recommendations need legislative or administrative attention early in the life of this Government. Some of the recommendations concern administration and some require legislative action. A few of them do not require any expenditure. Advice would be sufficient.

Let me make it clear to the House—and I am sure that the Government accept this—that many of the recommendations will inevitably require public expenditure. I plead with the Government, despite their policy of restraint on public spending, to recognise that though many of the recommendations in the report will engender public expenditure, they will represent saving, not waste. I have often said from this Front Bench that public expenditure of itself does not equal waste. Public expenditure can result in considerable savings for farmers, industry and the environment and ultimately for the nation.

The right hon. Gentleman asks for the views of the House. In response to that request, I ask the Government not to be constrained in implementing some of the recommendations by the narrow limitations on public expenditure that must sometimes obtain. Public expenditure, under any Government, is often attacked for itself rather than for its purpose.

The report examines a fascinating subject. From the geographical and physical points of view, it examines the point of impact between agriculture and the rest of the environment. Agriculture is our biggest industry in terms of land and environment. The report also reflects a temporal interest, in that it deals with the point where past tradition and present practice and the enormous strides in technology meet. That is a fascinating departure point for discussion by a Royal Commission.

It may surprise hon. Gentlemen to know that I have nothing but admiration for our farming industry. I admire the way in which country-born farmers—I repeat, country-born farmers—without the necessity of planning control realise the effect of the interdependence of buildings and landscape, and so on. That interdependence depends very much on the farmer being a born farmer.

Too often today, the owner of land may not be someone who owns it in the Victorian sense of land ownership. It might be owned by a company registered in London. Often the farmer of the intensive farming unit knows nothing about the land. He may well be an accountant. When one is dealing with people of that ilk, it is different, in planning terms, from dealing with the traditional farmer to whom we are accustomed.

I join the Minister in the tribute that he paid—

Would the right hon. Gentleman care to comment on the change in the ownership of land and bear in mind that it might have been the taxation policies of the previous Government that caused land to fall into the hands of urban types and accountants?

I do not think so. Part of the land policy of the Labour Government was to prevent that sort of change. Unfortunately, some of the Acts which we were engaged in passing may soon disappear. However, in this rare and happy atmosphere I do not want to be drawn into polemics of that kind.

I join the Minister in paying tribute to agriculture for its enormous productivity. That is something that is often forgotten in the House. In another place, Lord Winstanley revealed what to me was a startling fact, namely, that the value in money terms of our agricultural production is greater than that of Australia and New Zealand put together. That is a remarkable tribute to our farmers, our agriculture and the agrochemical industry. That level of production must impose problems on a tiny island with a population of over 50 million. The British people are huddled together on a tiny island with scarce land resources. It is obvious that such a high level of production must have an impact upon the environment.

The report deals extremely well with some of the problems that have arisen and the way in which they have been handled. In paragraph 1.8 on page 3, the Commission says:
"We were not persuaded that sufficient attention was being paid to the pollution that might be caused by agriculture. That problems might arise was recognised, but we were left with the impression that such problems were regarded as secondary in importance and as unavoidable concomitants of food supply. The approach appeared to us to beg the real question: whether the changes that have occurred, or are likely to occur, in agricultural practices are such as to call for new attitudes in dealing with the consequential problems of pollution or even, perhaps, for some constraints on these practices."
That paragraph is a warning light that we must fairly quickly consider some of the problems that have arisen because of the intensive nature of our agriculture. The use of chemicals has enabled us to obtain extremely high productivity. Inevitably, that must have an impact on the environment, and that means an impact on us all, not least those who live in the countryside.

I shall concentrate on the environmental aspects of the report. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang), who will reply to the debate on behalf of the Opposition, will deal with the agricultural aspects. There is one environmental aspect that neither the Minister nor I can deal with, namely, amenity. It is of great importance and comes within the purview of the Department of the Environment. In paragraph 1.15, the Royal Commission observes that it was excluded from considering the amenity aspects of pollution and agriculture. We must not ignore amenity, even though it was excluded from the Commission's purview.

Tourism is another important factor. That includes tourism which attracts people from abroad, and that which prevents people from going abroad. It has an enormous impact on our economy. There is no doubt that the English countryside is one of the prime sources of amenity for British people.

The Minister will remember that shortly before the general election in May 1979 there was controversy about Exmoor. He will be aware of that because Exmoor is near to his constituency. Land that had been traditionally used as amenity land was being ploughed up. An inquiry was established under the chairmanship of Lord Porchester. Much consideration was given to the problem and it was being resolved. Difficulty arose when the election came along and the Bill that was being prepared passed into abeyance. I hope that the Minister will give consideration to the future of that Bill, the problem of Exmoor and the good balance that was achieved by Lord Porchester between amenity interest and agricultural interest in the area.

I support what the right hon. Gentleman says about amenity value. Does he agree that the impact of mass tourism may itself constitute a pollutant that is as damaging to the countryside and agricultural land as some of the pollutants that we are discussing?

I readily accept what the hon. Gentleman says. Mass tourism can well be a pollutant. Again, it is a matter of achieving the right balance. The British people have the right to enjoy the British countryside without damaging it and without being a nuisance in it. As a former education Minister, I think that a considerable amount should be done in schools, especially in urban areas, to teach children what the countryside is about. They should be taught its value. They should learn, for example, that a herd of cows are not a group of wild animals on a ranch but animals that are owned by someone who doing an important job.

That brings me to the first point that I intend to make on the report. I shall begin in reverse order, by considering the effect of the environment on agriculture rather than the effect of agriculture on the environment. That is dealt with towards the end of the report. Any disturbance of pollution that occurs has its impact on farmers, on the land and on the whole of agriculture. The effect in those areas is probably much greater than on the rest of us.

There was a problem in any constituency. Some petrol additive escaped into the River Mersey. That caused the death of thousands of sea and other birds, and there was a chain reaction. There were no birds left to eat the insects and pests that trouble the farmer. Such an incident has an impact on agriculture. Chemical factories near to agriculture can have a disturbing effect on foliage and on the farmers' crops.

Paragraphs 7.17 and 7.18 deal with the experiment carried out by the Countryside Commission to consider the interrelationship between agriculture and the urban fringe. The experiment was referred to by Lord Winstanley, as chairman of the Countryside Commission, in another place. It is vital that the experiment is continued. It must not be one of the casualties of the Government's axe on expenditure.

I declare an interest. The experiment is taking place not in my constituency but near to it—in fact, between Huyton and St. Helens. The authorities involved are Knowsley and St. Helens. There is no doubt that a great deal of farming land is affected when it is, in close proximity to urban areas. There is straightforward vandalism. There are thuggery, vandalism, and deliberate and malicious damage. Unfortunately, that takes place in this world. We can only try to eliminate that by punishment and education.

There is a tremendous amount of unwitting vandalism in the countryside. That type of vandalism is not restricted to gates being left open or the belief that if a field is not manifestly growing potatoes or cabbage, for example, it is waste land and one can do what one likes on it. Damage is inflicted by those who live in urban areas who travel into the countryside with the boots of their cars full of rubbish and tip it in the countryside. Some of it is eaten by animals. It sticks in animals' throats, and the result is enormous cost to the farmer. There is a need for much research to be undertaken in that area—for example, research into what leads people to do that and how it can be avoided. How can local authorities help to avoid it? How can the education system help to avoid it?

I am certain that the Countryside Commission's experiment in the St. Helens-Knowsley area will be of considerable value to farmers throughout the country and throughout Europe. Indeed, it will be of value to the whole of the world. It is a problem that concerns not only Britain but many other countries.

I turn to some of the specific recommendations in the report. Chapter III is especially important. It deals with crop spraying and aerial spraying. The Minister referred to the work of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I pay tribute to the British agrochemical industry. We have the most environmentally conscious and responsible agrochemical industry in the world. Its object is not merely to sell, regardless of the effects on the environment. A careful study is carried out before any product goes on to the market. The study having been made, the product goes through the British agrochemical system for supplying industry before it is let loose on the public. So there is a tremendous record there.

The report points to a deficiency, or a problem, in the application of pesticides, fungicides or herbicides and the quantities that are applied to the land. In this connection, a tremendous amount of work can be done by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and agricultural colleges. Farmers can be taught the importance of using just the right quantity of pesticides and no more. There has not been a great take-up of the pamphlets that have been produced, but farmers can be taught that just the right amount, and not one for the pot, so to speak, is what is needed.

Farmers could also be made aware that pesticides should be administered at just the right time, such as during the life cycle of the insect or the fungus, so that constant spraying is avoided. That is clearly important to the farmer from the point of view of cost. He does not want to spend a lot of money on chemicals that he does not need. It is important for Britain as a whole because of the cost of producing this material, which is largely petrochemical based. It is also important for the environment, as the report points out, because the spin-off from over-spraying means that the chemical runs off the land on to other people's land or into the water supply, with effects that we know nothing about at present. It is waste all the way along the line.

Some time ago I saw an excellent programme on BBC television called "Tommorow's World". Other hon. Members may have seen it. It portrayed a new spraying device which ensures that the liquid goes on to the leaves of the plant and does not run into the ground or on to the leaves of other people's plants. It may be something to do with the electrostatic process about which the Minister spoke earlier, but I am not technically competent to know whether that is true. The report points to a defect here, and by administrative means, and by using the advice and facilities of the Minstry of Agriculture in particular, much could be done without any expenditure.

I have listened with keen attention to what the right hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) has been saying. I agree wholly with his observations on the importance of timing the application of pesticides and fungicides, but does he accept that over the last few years the increased application of fungicides, especially on cereal crops, has had a remarkable affect on yield? As a consequence, farmers will be encouraged to apply more fungicide than they have in the past.

Unlike the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Cranborne), I am not an expert on agriculture. What he said may apply to one individual, but there are circumstances in which too much chemical can be sprayed on the crop, with unforeseen results for the environment. That is the central point that the report tried to make in an attempt to persuade farmers not to waste their own money.

Another point that comes out clearly from chapter III of the report—this must inevitably mean public expenditure—is the vital need for more research into the application of pesticides and fungicides and the interreaction of different chemicals put on to the same piece of land. More research is needed into the effect of chemicals running off the land and getting into the water supply or other places where they should not be. Clearly that will cost money, but it will be money well spent.

The right hon. Gentleman says that this research will cost money, and I have no doubt that it will, but does he not agree that most of the expense will be carried by the private sector, which is already investigating this?

If, when the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) mentions the private sector, he means the agrochemical industry. I agree that a great deal of research is done by that industry, but more needs to be done by others. There must be some public expenditure, whether by the Department of Education and Science, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of the Environment or all three. A lot of public money needs to be spent in addition to the considerable sums of money spent by the agrochemical industry on research and development.

The other matter that is dealt with in some detail in chapter III of the report is the vexed question of aerial spraying, which is becoming more prevalent because of its beneficial effects for the crops. However, aerial spraying must inevitably have its dangers. Some of that spray escapes from where it ought to be and goes on to neighbours' land, where it manifestly ought not to be. Many difficulties arise between neighbours because of aerial spraying.

The report suggests some form of licensing. I hope that the Government will look carefully at the proposal to license the pilots of the aircraft who do the spraying and licensing to control the conditions in which spraying should take place. I appreciate that it is difficult to give notice to a neighbour when one is about to spray. One may give notice that spraying will be carried out on Saturday morning, and on Saturday morning it is pouring with rain and spraying cannot be done, because the right conditions are needed. The wind needs to be in the right direction, and so on.

I entirely understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making. But when calling for licensing perhaps he would care to bear in mind that in 1976 there were approximately 116 complaints, most of which related to low-flying aircraft. On the other hand, the report clearly establishes that about 130,000 sorties are flown each year, so the ratio of complaint to sortie is very licensing.

I entirely understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making. But when calling for licensing perhaps he would care to bear in mind that in 1976 there were approximately 116 complaints, most of which related to low-flying aircraft. On the other hand, the report clearly establishes that about 130,000 sorties are flown each year, so the ratio of complaint to sortie is very small.

May I interrupt on exactly the same point? I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman says about aerial spraying in the circumstances that he has outlined. However, will he bear in mind that there are large tracts of land, especially in the eastern counties, where aerial spraying is probably the cheapest way of applying pesticides, particularly when the farmer cannot get on to heavy land? Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister, who mentioned his previous incarnation, will remember, when a decision is made to erect more power lines across the fenlands, that they prevent aerial spraying and are a great hazard.

Both the hon. Member for Grantham and the hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins) have great knowledge of farming. I fully appreciate that there are places where the most economic way to apply pesticides is by aerial spraying, especially where it is desirable not to have a heavy vehicle running over the land, making it heavier still.

On the other hand—this may be controversial—as well as considering the weather in connection with aerial spraying it is important, especially in a high amenity area, to ensure that aerial spraying does not take place on a spring bank holiday Monday, however excellent weather conditions may be. On such a day the whole area is usually full of tourists, who have gone to enjoy the countryside and do not want to have chemicals rained on them or the drone of low-flying aircraft spoiling their one day out in the countryside. That is a consideration to which regulations ought to apply. Town and country must try to live together, and licensing would assist.

May I return briefly to the point made by the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Cranborne)? He said that for certain cereal varieties it is necessary to go on and on spraying fungicides. That is partly because farmers are continuing to grow outclassed varieties of cereals. The development of new varieties that are resistant to, for instance, mildew is perhaps being held back by the fact that one area in which the Government are cutting back on expenditure is on plant breeding institutes. Will my right hon. Friend comment on that?

I should love to comment, but I shall leave such matters to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East and the Minister. Quite frankly, it is an agricultural question that I am not competent responsibly to answer.

The Minister slightly glided over a point of controversy, and that is perhaps understandable. There is the controversial recommendation at paragraph 8.20 that intensive factory farming should be subject to planning control. I agree absolutely. It should be subject to ordinary planning control. I am talking not about general agricultural development but about intensive factory farming units.

On page 27 of the report there is a map of the intensity of fowl production in this country. The Minister will note from that map that the most intensive areas coincide with the most populated areas—Merseyside in Lancashire, the West Midlands, the whole of the Home Counties and London.

Factory farming units cannot be regarded as farms, but they can be sited cheek by jowl with residential developments because of the loophole that they are agricultural. That should not be allowed to continue. The Minister should consider the problem as a matter of urgency, as he told us yesterday that he is actively engaged in considering the general development order.

The exclusion of these factory farm units comes about because of part 6 of the general development order. Having had the result of the Royal Commission's report and heard the views from the other place and this House, it would be helpful if, before the order comes before the House, measures were considered to exclude intensive factory farming, so that ordinary planning permission was required for that type of development.

It is a matter not for legislation but for an order laid before the House. Without prejudice to whatever our view may be about our intensive livestock units, it would be quite wrong to confuse an order that has to do with certain relaxations and normal minor domestic improvements with such a fundamental issue.

I can answer the right hon. Gentleman straight away. As a point of principle, we would not atempt to fuse the two issues in one order. They should be dealt with separately. There is no need for urgency to combine the two orders. It is positively desirable that they should be kept quite separate.

I take the right hon. Gentleman's point, but he is hoping to produce the consultation paper on the order within the next few weeks. Nevertheless, perhaps in the next Session measures can be introduced to deal with the exclusion of factory farms from the exemption provisions that agriculture generally enjoys.

I accept that there is a problem of definition, but I believe that the report is referring to the production of fowls, eggs, pig meat, and so no, which is virtually divorced from the land. A farm needs soil. If soil is not directly needed in part or in whole for any part of the year, can that establishment be called a farm? Surely, it is a factory.

Even in my urban constituency of Widnes, I have that problem. In the little bit of green belt that we have there is a mobile home site, which the local environ- mental health officer tells me is a model of its kind. It is superbly run, with expensive mobile homes and a happy and contented population. It is attached to a large house, which was once a farm. A firm came in that is not noted for its agricultural expertise and set up a farming unit for fowls within yards of the mobile homes. The slurry is carted away in wheelbarrows and dumped outside. Not only is there a problem of smell; in the summer there is an enormous problem with flies.

No responsible farmer would behave in that way, but with a factory farm of that nature there are immediate environmental problems. I wrote to the environmental health officer for Knowsley, but he could do nothing, because such a factory can be set up without planning consent. His powers under the Public Health Act 1936 are limited mainly to giving advice on keeping the slurry in tanks.

The legislation needs tightening up. There should not be that sort of development cheek by jowl with residential development. The report is right in its recommendations. There are problems of definition, but I have attempted in a humble way to define soil and land. I am sure that in consultation with the NFU and the industry, the Government am sure that, in consultation with the definition to cover factory farming.

The other problem with intensive livestock farming is the disposal of the effluent. In normal circumstances, the biblical injunction to return to the land waste from the land is right, good and proper, but it is a question of balance. The slurry from an intensive farming unit is often put on the land because that is the cheapest way to dispose of it. It is not necessarily for the benefit of the land. There are problems of pathogens, contamination, fouling water supplies, flies and smell. We must also consider the use of rain guns for the disposal of slurry which is mentioned in paragraph 5.55. Local environmental health officers have a key role to play.

To sum up, the report puts more responsibility on to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to be concerned not only with the production of food but with the environment. I agree. There would be severe difficulties if the man from the Ministry came from Marsham Street. He would not leave the same rapport with the farmer as the man from the Ministry of Agriculture. The farmer may disagree with him as a bowler-hatted bureaucrat, but he would disagree even more with the man from the Department of the Environment. I can see the force of putting added responsibility on the Minister of Agriculture to be concerned as much with pollution as with production. It is the Ministry responsible for dealing with pollution.

There is a way out for the Government—through the role of the environmental health officer. The report does not pay sufficient regard to the important role that local authorities could play, particularly in factory farms but also on the whole question of pollution by agriculture.

I declare an interest, although by no means a pecuniary one. For a number of years I have been the vice-president of the Environmental Health Officers' Association. The association would welcome the responsibility and opportunity to help farmers and the community by being more involved with the question of agricultural pollution. It has the advantage of being subject to local control. If it tried to be bureaucratic or offensive, there are elected councillors to whom the farmers or those complaining about the pollution could go. Those councillors are on the spot if a breakdown occurs—they do not come from the regional office or from Whitehall but they live in and understand the community.

The Government should look into the question of a more positive role for local authorities' environmental health officers to play on the question of agricultural pollution. I add the rider that if they are asked to do so, the money must follow that decision. The money must flow from Whitehall so that the job can be done by local government officers.

It has been useful to have this debate. I appreciate fully that the Government cannot make snap judgments or on-the-spot conclusions so early after the issue of the report. It would not be right and proper for them to do so. The debate has given the House and the other place the opportunity to express our views fairly. I am grateful for the opportunity that the Government have provided.

5.51 pm

I declare an interest; I am somewhat concerned with agriculture. I found the report not only interesting but extremely useful. However, it confirmed some of my fears. Changes are taking place. If you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, had been in agriculture for as long as I have—far longer than I like to think about—you would realise the enormous changes that have taken place over the last 30 or 40 years, particularly in stocking rates and fertiliser applications—letalone in sprays. One wonders what one did in years gone by without all the modern aids and the enormous application of fertilisers and sprays. It is true that yields were considerably down, and there would have been serious consequences for food production if we had not used these methods.

All the changes are bound to have an effect on the environment and to lead to pollution in some cases. We have to admit that. It is well to consider the problems and act where we can. When we look at the recommendations, we should be honest and admit that the large number of recommendations would entail considerable expense if they were carried out. That fact must be borne in mind in these difficult days.

I believe that it is a question of balance; that is the solution to the problems. If the balance were wrong in the South-West, other industry, attractions and people would be upset, let alone the effect on the environment in the area. The South-West is an area of great beauty and it has good facilities for the tourist industry. There is excellent fishing and little pollution, yet it is a great agricultural area. There is more intensive farming, more fertiliser application, more effluent, more silage waste—which is probably the most deadly of all waste products—more fencing and less freedom for the holidaymaker than ever before.

We should understand that, particularly when we consider how expensive agriculture has become, together with the need to protect. All these factors increase the rural smells and movement of waste products in the villages. They are to the detriment of urban people as well as those who live in the villages. Therefore, we have to think carefully about getting the balance right.

Let me tell the House a true story, which illustrates how inconsiderate some farmers are. In one village—I shall not name it—a large slurry tanker, which is commonly called a "smelly nelly" in the trade, did not have its lid screwed down. Those with experience in farming will know of the horrible smelly movement as the slurry goes up and down. When the driver of the tanker came to traffiic lights, he pulled up smartly and the slurry shot out all over people who were on the pavement. There is no doubt that many similar cases arise from people being careless and not considering other people.

The examples that I have given add up to stresses, possible clashes and some pollution. Getting the balance right is not easy, yet I believe that it has to be done. I believe that the report will help. It is important to realise that agriculture has to intensify and to produce as much as it can from a given acre. After all, we are losing between 60,000 and 70,000 acres of good land per year. A hungry nation must intensify; economic pressures demand it. It is no good going to the bank manager and saying "I am going to farm in a dog-and-stick manner." He will reply "No, you have to work hard and produce as much as you can. You have to reduce that overdraft, Mills." My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland) asks "Who is Mills?" Some people might know who he is.

There is no doubt that intensive production is here to stay. As a result, the consumer has cheaper and more abundant food. That factor must be considered as well. I believe that we can overcome the problems and difficulties by good sense and, above all, by tolerance. I agree with the right hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes) that farmers should be careful before siting intensive production units too near urban areas or coastal villages. I understand that most of the work is carried out on a voluntary basis but that some authorities insist on receiving planning applications.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will define the business of intensive production units when he winds up the debate. It is not an easy matter. The residents near such units must remember—this is a typical West Country phrase—that we cannot all live on fresh air and the view. Many people believe that we can. People have to work and produce agricultural products. It causes smells and effluent problems. People have to be tolerant.

I turn to the recommendation on page 189 of the report, which says that class VI of the general development order should be amended to exclude intensive livestock units. We shall need to have a definition of intensive livestock units. I ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to make clear the Government's view about that matter. It is important to know where we stand, and I am sure that he will give us a clear explanation.

I hope that voluntary methods will be used before there is any legislation on the matter. As one or two hon. Members have said, the NFU plays a big role in encouraging its flock—the farmers—to co-operate. Only one or two farmers on Exmoor have been difficult about those problems. If sufficient pressure is applied by other farmers and by the National Farmers Union, we can get those farmers to understand the problems and to act responsibly. That is far better than legislation.

I now wish to turn to two specific problems that have been mentioned. I hope, Mr. Speaker, that this will not be too unpleasent for you. I refer to the use of poultry manure as a cattle-feed ingredient. This is an interesting subject for those of us who are in the business, although perhaps it is a rather smelly and unpleasent subject for those who are not.

The use of poultry manure as a feed has a lot to commend it. We can use it, and it should be used. That would help to solve the problem. I am pleased that a new technique has been developed, called a "bio-fermenter". It takes manure and changes it by natural processes—under controlled temperatures and air conditions—into something that can be used as an animal feed and fertiliser. That might be a useful way forward.

I should like to hear from the Minister whether he knows of this method and whether he will give it his blessing. It can produce a substitute for proteins. Poultry manure can provide 30 per cent. of feed requirements. Waste material is converted and recycled and is then fed to cattle, pigs and poultry.

If my hon. Friend has time to visit the fens, in Norfolk, I can show him a recycling factory. That factory gave me a tremendous amount of trouble until the smells were corrected. Recycling can now take place without any smell.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for correcting me. I understood from the brochure that the products were free of all smells. It may sound frivolous, but much good can come out of recycling some of the waste products of intensive units. Valuable proteins can be saved and effluent problems can be overcome.

The problems of urban fringes are well known, and remedies must be found. If one looks at the acres of ground surrounding our cities and towns, one may notice a disturbing factor. Coming into London by train or car, one can see acres of land that are sterile and cannot be used for agricultural production. The test is that one can see horses grazing. That means that the land is out of production because urban dwellers roam all over it and leave their waste. They generally spoil any opportunities for agricultural production. That is a serious problem that should be considered.

There is a need for greater understanding and for stricter control over the tipping of rubbish. Dogs should be kept under control. Farmers cannot keep flocks of sheep anywhere near some urban areas. In the South-West we have a similar problem. Perhaps hon. Members do not realise that thousands of holidaymakers come into the South-West. They leave an appalling amount of rubbish along the roadside. One has only to go along the A30 or A303 to see that farmers are faced by a grave problem. People use the fields as toilets and picnicking areas. They leave their waste there. Cattle and sheep pick up that waste and some of them have to be put down, because they have eaten something that they cannot digest. That must be looked into, because more and more cars are coming into the South-West. The need for common sense and, above all, for more toilet facilities along the roadside is amazing.

I must tell hon. Members another joke that might interest them. Along the roads in the South-West one sees signs saying "Toilets three miles ahead". People pant on. They see a sign saying "Toilets two miles ahead", and then another saying "Toilets one mile ahead". At last one arrives. The problem is that there are not enough. If we are to have vast numbers of tourists coming into the South-West and other areas, facilities should be provided.

Finally, I turn to the problem caused by drainage to rivers. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food rightly gave many grants to improve the drainage of agricultural land. Water rushes off the fields and passes through small streams into the main river. This year—particularly in my part of the world—we have seen the effects of drainage in a way that we have never seen before. There is tremendous flooding and many towns and villages are flooded as a result of drainage higher up. Again, that must be looked into carefully. Perhaps we need a holding area for the flood water, in order to save some of the towns that lie alongside rivers. Farmers need that drainage. However, the water is drained off the land so quickly that it causes considerable flooding. That is a growing problem, and perhaps the Minister will enlighten us as to the Ministry's views.

I believe that the revision of discharge consent conditions comes under the Control of Pollution Act 1974. Angling organisations are worried that that Act will lead to a permanent downgrading of river quality standards, by legitimising all present sub-standard effluent discharges. Perhaps the Minister can answer that point. I am sorry to be a trial to him, but that is what he is here for.

I welcome the report. It is a good report and it is well worth reading. It reads well. Let us see what can be done by encouragement and by getting the balance right. Let us use tolerance before bringing in any more legislation.