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Urban Wasteland (Re-Conversion)

Volume 978: debated on Thursday 14 February 1980

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4.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will initiate an inquiry into the possible conversion back to agricultural use of wasteland in and around urban areas; and what representations he has received from the National Farmers Union or others on this matter.

13.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will initiate an inquiry into the possible conversion back to agricultural use wasteland in and around urban areas; and what representations he has received from the National Farmers' Union or others on this matter.

22.

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will initiate an inquiry into the possible conversion back to agricultural use of wasteland in and around urban areas; and if he has received representations from the National Farmers Union or others on this matter.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Mr. Jerry Wiggin)

Land in urban areas is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I would, however, be glad to hear of any opportunities to return such land to agricultural production. Land around urban areas is the subject of the Countryside Commission's proposed urban fringe experiment at St. Helens Knowsley. This would be supported by my Department. No starting date for this experiment has yet been fixed.

Is my hon. Friend aware that this is the first time that I have ever asked a question of his Department? I do so because of the immense importance of the subject. Is he aware that there is a vast amount of wasted land in the hands of public corporations in all urban areas, not least Harrow, which could well be used for horticultural purposes, even though it may not be suitable for agricultural use? Will he or his colleagues in Government cause this inquiry to extend beyond the boundaries of St. Helens and to look at the country as a whole?

I welcome my hon. Friend to agricultural questions, because I know that he has at least one farm in his constituency. He has made an important point. A vast acreage of land lies just outside built-up areas, which is not fit for agriculture and has not yet been developed. The purpose of the Countryside Commission's experiment is to look at this and to see what can be done about it. I believe that it is right to start with an experiment before going any further.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. Does he realise that in my constituency and others a great deal of this land is available? Will he do what he can to help the NFU to purchase that land, so that it can recover the land and rent it or sell it to its own members?

I am not aware that the NFU has made any proposals to purchase this land. I rather doubt that it is so funded. But it has said that it will support the experiment and that it supports the philosophy behind it.

Order. I propose to call first those hon. Members whose questions are being answered.

Surely the Minister agrees that it is far better to grow crops and vegetables, and to graze cows, on some of the 250,000 acres of dormant and derelict land in the inner areas of our great towns rather than allow them to remain idle in perpetuity. Is he aware that that would be a great source of job creation?

I know that my Department would look forward to assisting in anyway it could in such endeavours. However, my hon. Friend will appreciate that he is talking about privately-owned land. If developers believe that they can do better out of farming it rather than developing it, we shall seek to assist.

Is the Minister aware that it is possible to grow potatoes quite easily on that derelict land? Those potatoes could be used for making fuel for vehicles—not vodka—and the mashed potato that is left could be fed to the cattle. Does he agree that that would also help our energy problem?

I am sure that the owners of those 250,000 acres will listen with care to what the hon. Gentleman has suggested.

Will my hon. Friend pay particular attention to what occurs when, under public expenditure cuts, some new town corporations cut back the area of land that they require for development? Will he encourage them to remove development zoning so that such land can again become agricultural land?

This is a matter for which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is responsible. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are in close touch with him about it. The whole venture of seeking to save agricultural land is a co-operative one, and must be between at least two Departments if not more.

While I appreciate the need to use derelict urban land either for agriculture or development, does not my hon. Friend agree that it is even more important to reduce the annual loss of agricultural land—which is currently at a level of between 50,000 and 75,000 acres a year—in particular by making better use of derelict urban land?

It is a fundamental point that every acre of land which is redeveloped is one acre of new land which does not have to be developed. Indeed, that has formed the basis of discussions between officials and Ministers of our two Departments. Not only do we seek to save land but we also seek to increase the quality of life in the inner cities. Therefore, there is a good objective from both points of view.