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Registered Agricultural Holdings

Volume 407: debated on Thursday 19 June 2003

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What steps she is taking to arrest the decline in the number of registered agricultural holdings; and if she will make a statement. [120188]

The Government launched their strategy for sustainable farming and food in England last December to promote a competitive and efficient farming and food sector. A similar strategy was published by the Welsh Assembly Government in November 2001. The structure of the farming industry will be determined by the markets and the commercial judgment of individual farmers and growers.

I, too, congratulate the Minister on his elevation and you, Mr. Speaker, on your well earned doctorate. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear"]

Unfortunately the Minister did not answer the question that I tabled when I asked what was being done to arrest the decline in agricultural holdings. A written reply that I have just received states that in 1997, there were 77,829 holdings in England whereas in 2002, there were 69,000. The position is worse in Wales, where the number has decreased from 19,300 to 16,800—a drop of 13 per cent. That has a disproportionate effect on the rural economy of Wales. Will the Minister examine the current structure and consider, for example, assistance for new entrants and smaller farms? He shakes his head, but nothing has been done in the past 10 years. It is complacent of the Government simply to talk about marketing when farms are lost daily.

But those changes have been happening since farming began. The trend towards amalgamation has been accelerating since the 1930s; there is nothing new about it. It is difficult for the Government to set any industry in stone and say that it will never change again under any circumstances. It is not possible to do that.

All sorts of changes have occurred in farming. The same farmer may have several holdings that he has consolidated; that does not necessarily mean that farms have disappeared. I accept that there has been a decline—I would not want to pretend otherwise—but that has been in progress for a long time. However, other changes have occurred, with new people, who may have other sources of income, taking on smaller farms. They bring innovation and new ideas.

Farming is dynamic: it changes and adapts. We have a role to play in that through the help that we give farming—in research and development, environmental or marketing support. However, we cannot say that farming will never change: that is up to the drivers of society, markets and, indeed, farmers.

But does my hon. Friend agree that local authorities and other public bodies can recognise the importance of farming in rural economic development? Will he join me in congratulating Monmouthshire county council, which recently decided to invest in a new livestock market that will serve not only south-east Wales but the border areas of England.

I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating Monmouthshire county council on its work. We can do a great deal to support local sourcing, not only through supporting our farmers in the rural economy but in reducing food miles. There are sound arguments for that.