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Planning (Grade 1 Agricultural Land Protection)

Volume 527: debated on Wednesday 11 May 2011

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit local authorities granting planning permission involving the development of Grade 1 agricultural land other than in exceptional circumstances; and for connected purposes.

The Bill aims to reinstate the protection that was in place when food production was one of our national security considerations and was seen as a strategic asset. Although there is guidance on development on agricultural land, it does not provide a sufficiently robust defence of what I believe is a national asset. However, the Government have an excellent opportunity to include the objectives of my Bill in the forthcoming national policy planning frameworks. I hope that, unlike the previous Government, this Government do not see the countryside as merely a public amenity space or an aesthetic experience for urban dwellers to enjoy. Grade 1 agricultural land is important and has strategic implications for all our constituents, urban and rural.

Let us be clear that once highly productive land has been built on, there is no going back—it has gone for ever. Some might ask, “Who cares?” The reason why food production should be of interest to everyone is that we are increasingly vulnerable to global food price rises that have an impact on each and every one of our constituents. International protectionism, climate change and increased global population are all resulting in significant volatility in the food sector. We must therefore do what we are doing in the energy sector, and regard national food production as part of our national security agenda. An essential part of that agenda is ensuring that we do not reduce our ability to produce food domestically, and land use is at the heart of the issue.

Agriculture, food production and land use are distant concepts to many of our constituents. I myself was brought up in London, far from anything to do with the world of farming. Do the majority of our constituents worry about whether a farm is turned into a golf course or whether some fields are sold for development? That does not affect us, and if we gain a new business park or some new houses and the farmer can retire to the Caribbean on the proceeds, good for him.

Our lack of appreciation of food production is due to the fact that our capacity to produce food is not seen as a strategic asset. It is no longer considered to be important to our economy and the well-being of our population. As a result, the amount of arable land in the United Kingdom has decreased by 30% and food imports have increased to 47% over the past 20 years—of course, no one has been on the streets protesting.

The ideal combination of globally sourced food and reasonable prices was shaken in 2008. There was a perfect storm of bad weather conditions, crop failures, a change in global consumption patterns, a 50% leap in the cost of a barrel of oil and some speculation, and commodity prices rocketed by 66%. The food price spike was further compounded by a new phenomenon, food protectionism. Global variations in food prices fluctuated dramatically. Countries that withheld exports, such as Indonesia, were able to keep their domestic prices down, but those that did not experienced a much higher rate of food inflation, which created real political instability. Unfortunately, that experience revealed the short-term benefits of protectionism, and it has created a new political and economic reality that might lead to further protectionism and exacerbate food volatility. Much of this has passed us by, however. Food security and food prices are rarely, if ever, raised in the House, and few of our constituents are particularly concerned so long as the supermarket shelves are full of what they want to buy at a price that they are prepared to pay.

The price of food should be making the future of productive land an important concern for us all. The Foresight report on food security stresses that

“the past century of low food prices is at an end.”

Agricultural production will become a much more important industry sector, and at this time when food production is so important, we have no restrictions in place to stop developers tarmacing over our own highly productive food-producing land.

Price is starting to impact on my constituents. In my constituency, the average wage is just £17,000 and therefore more money as a percentage of income is spent on food than in many other areas. My constituents are noticing prices. I had a gentleman in my surgery this weekend who said that he had had a heart attack and was told by his doctor that good fresh food was essential to his health. As he is on jobseeker’s allowance, he cannot afford to eat good food and is now reverting to buying cheap junk food.

Supermarkets are extending their promotional offers, as they know more than anyone the extent to which prices are rising, but for how long will they be able to resist passing on the increased commodity costs to the consumer? Prices are increasing, nutritional standards will fall, the vulnerable in our constituencies will have to revert to the cheapest food possible, and—following on from those who have protested about fuel price increases—we will receive more post from people on the subject of food prices. There is a good reason for that. Commodity prices in April were 4.7% higher than in the same period last year. I hope the Treasury is looking into the impact that that will have on economic growth and inflation; the Bank of England certainly is. Kraft Foods has announced that it will be raising its food prices, which will hit every one of our constituents. The cost of food is also increasing, because of the high reliance on energy in agriculture, while the British Chamber of Shipping calculates that sea transport costs are increasing due to piracy, and the degradation of land due to droughts, flooding or urbanisation will put further stresses on existing productive land, yet we have no statutory defence against those who might want to build on our most productive land.

We must start to approach food security with the same zeal that we approach energy security. Domestic energy supply is seen as critical to our long-term energy security. We seem to understand that reliance on volatile suppliers of energy is bad for economic growth, stability and consumers, and for food security, too, we need to start to put in place the measures that will give us further certainty in terms of price, production and vulnerability of supply.

As the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), will know, according to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, by 2030 Kent will lose 10% of its productive land due to sea level rises, so we will be losing productive land in any case due to climate change and sea level rises. It would be mad at the same time to lose additional productive land when we have the powers to stop that happening.

I urge the Minister to take on board the genuine importance of this Bill for wider economic and social needs, to recognise that the protection it offers grade 1 agricultural land must be incorporated into the national policy planning frameworks, and to ensure that food production is seen as an increasingly important part of our domestic security. I realise that protecting grade 1 agricultural land is not the sole answer to food insecurity and price increases, and I am not proposing food sovereignty, but land use protection is one of the mechanisms that we must put in place in order to reduce our exposure to the volatility of the international market. Therefore, we must, at the very least, not lose more productive land than we have lost to date.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Laura Sandys, Zac Goldsmith, Mr Tim Yeo, Mr Roger Gale, Caroline Lucas, Rebecca Harris, Bill Esterson, Elizabeth Truss, Richard Drax, Priti Patel and Mr Dominic Raab present the Bill.

Laura Sandys accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 14 October, and to be printed (Bill 187).