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Higher Level Stewardship Schemes

Volume 520: debated on Thursday 9 December 2010

14. What recent representations she has received on provision of funding for permissive access routes under higher level stewardship schemes in rural areas. (29451)

About 3,000 current agri-environment agreements support permissive access, contributing around 3% of the public rights of way network. As part of the spending review, we have looked very closely at how best to maximise the funds that we receive from the European Union for higher level stewardship. Funds will continue to be provided for permissive access under existing HLS agreements, and we will also continue to provide capital payments under new HLS agreements.

As the Minister will know, there are 129 higher level stewardship agreements in Suffolk. They help to provide an excellent link between rural and urban communities, and to interest young people in schools in issues relating to agriculture and food. Given the importance of such schemes in Suffolk, will the Minister agree to meet me, along with Suffolk farmers, to establish how we can develop the schemes further in the county?

I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend, and farmers in his constituency. We are keen to maximise the use of money from the rural development programme for England. For every pound that we put into biodiversity or environmental works through HLS, we receive £3 from Europe, whereas access is funded entirely through Government spending. That does not mean, however, that there is not an enormous amount that we can to do to encourage the kind of access to which my hon. Friend has referred. We will secure the capital spending, and we will make further provision to secure access in other parts of the country.

The loss of primitive access from future HLS schemes will have a very detrimental effect on the improvement of schemes under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, and various sorts of stiles and benches that are erected in the countryside to provide access for people. How is the Minister going to resolve that, and ensure that the countryside remains open to the entire British population?

I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that people will be able to claim for items such as stiles because they are capital items, as are car parks and the provision of access for disabled people. Those claims can still be made, therefore. The hon. Gentleman is a very strong advocate of HLS, and he and many other Members were worried that we might not be able to protect it under the spending review. We have done, however: we are going to increase it by 83%, but we are focused on reversing the decline in biodiversity and helping environmental works on farms. That is why we have taken the decisions that we have.