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Food Prices (Planning Policy)

Volume 551: debated on Wednesday 17 October 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Karen Bradley.)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am delighted to have secured this debate on the effect of domestic land use on food prices.

First, I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. As a farmer in Nottinghamshire, I am of course affected by many of the issues around land use and the price of food.

I hope that Members will forgive me if I start by setting the scene about food prices, because the price of food is a complicated issue that crosses many Departments. I am quite aware that the Minister has responsibility for domestic planning and land use policy, but the issues that I will raise today cover a large number of other Departments. I shall try to keep my speech as focused as I can on the Minister’s responsibilities.

It is fair to say that past food prices have been stable in the recent past. I suppose that we have been fortunate as a nation to have been well fed for a number of years. Since the second world war, we have had a sustained period of level and quite acceptable food prices, but that has started to change over the more recent past. There have been a number of blips recently. In fact, in 2008, we actually saw a period when food prices came down again. We need to make our minds up really about whether this is a sustained issue or something that is just a blip in the pattern of things. In my opinion, we are facing something quite enormous in the challenges before us and the way that food prices will rise. There are a number of reasons for that, not least the price of oil, which is driving the cost for some farmers in their production methods. Anyone who is familiar with agricultural practice will of course recognise that the price of nitrogen fertilisers is based on the cost of oil and that, as their price goes up, the cost to farmers of producing food rises exponentially.

More importantly, what is really driving this process are issues around the world such as climate change, population growth and of course the change in diet for many people in other parts of the globe. Those three challenges are bringing this perfect storm together, which is a real challenge for us in the UK.

Let us look at some of those things. Whether people think climate change is carbon-driven or just something that is in the cycle does not really matter, frankly, because climate change is here to stay and is having an enormous impact on our ability to produce food; it is driving those production challenges.

Population growth, not only in the UK but around the world, is also having a big impact, which will get even worse as people on the other side of the world change to a more western diet. There have always been hungry people on earth, but all of a sudden we have hungry wealthy people who are able to pull food away from the European Union.

I think that we now recognise that an enormous challenge faces us, and the question now is how we in the UK deal with it, because the amount of domestic land that we have available is a flat figure. Without being flippant, we have stopped making land: the amount of land that we have is the amount that we have within the UK. It is imperative that, within the UK, we ensure that we use that land in the most effective way, to make sure that we are well fed and are kept warm. That is where some of the challenges on land use start to be felt.

What are the future threats? Clearly, the debate about biofuels is an interesting one. The use of land for the production of energy is not a new concept. Going back to the 1940s, my grandfather was farming and a third of his land was used for the production of hay to feed the horses that pulled his ploughs. That was, in effect, energy production at its most basic. As we have moved forward, however, farmers have found new opportunities, and as they have found themselves under pressure to increase their incomes, they have certainly looked to energy production to sustain themselves.

Does my hon. Friend agree that some farmers have found that they get less objection from planners when they submit applications for renewable energy projects than they do for projects that might relate to their own ability to produce food?

I do, and that is an issue. However, I actually welcome the opportunity for farmers to diversify their businesses, so that they can make them viable, but of course we need to be mindful of the impact. The example of anaerobic digestion is a good one. I welcome anaerobic digestion, as long as it makes use of waste streams that actually are waste streams, because we get something for nothing out of that process. However, what tends to happen, of course, is that farmers build anaerobic digesters but those digesters run much more efficiently when forage maize is put through them rather than a waste stream made up either of slurry, food waste or some other product. If Members were to drive down the middle of Nottinghamshire, they would see that the landscape there today is very different from what it was five years ago.

My hon. Friend is talking about an issue that has a major effect on dairy farmers. For many years, farmers have rented land to grow their maize. Suddenly, they find that they can no longer buy maize, because it is now being taken into biofuel plants. That will inevitably have a huge impact on the production of dairy products.

I am conscious of the fact that I said that I would try to focus on the matters that are relevant to the Minister, and we are in danger of straying into Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs territory, dare I say? However, it is difficult not to do so because these are cross-Government issues, and biofuels are one such issue.

The Minister is in control of planning policy. If we look at other renewable schemes, such as the siting of wind turbines, we might think that they do not have a large effect, but I am told that the current demand means that we will have to build 5,000 wind turbines. European targets will mean that we must more than double the amount of energy from onshore wind during the next 10 years and that we will have to build at least another 5,000 turbines onshore. Guidance for farmers provided by Wind Prospect advises that less than one acre of land is required for each turbine, including the access track, the tower itself and hard standing for the crane; the remaining land can be utilised as it was previously. However, 5,000 turbines equates to 5,000 acres, and 5,000 acres of productive arable land goes a long way to producing quite a lot of food.

We need to think about where we site some of these wind turbines. There are a number of examples of how we can put wind turbines on former industrial land, former collieries, old pit-tips and places like that, where they would not impact on the use of agricultural land. That is something that we should look at much more closely.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and I declare an interest in the agri-food sector.

Most commentators would say that the era of cheap food has gone, certainly for the medium term, and that the world has become a much smaller place, so that reactions in prices happen fairly quickly. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is imperative that we look at something radical to encourage the primary producer of food, because if things continue as they are they will result in more imports from other countries and the loss of jobs? We need to look at something radical to encourage farmers to grow more crops.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have achieved that before, with Government-led campaigns to improve domestic food production, and there are examples from the recent past, when the previous Government encouraged farmers to diversify and to consider adding value to their products, to get more from their production. That, however, brings with it anomalies.

I will draw on my own experience as a farmer on the urban fringe. We considered diversifying into farm retail, so that we could sell not only our own farm products but those of our neighbours, but I was told by my local planning authority that, because of the legislation in place to protect the green belt from out-of-town development, it was not possible to retail where we wanted to. Companies such as Halfords and B and Q want to build large retail units in the urban fringe, and a farm shop is, in effect, retail. I was told that most of my produce had to be sold through the farm shop and most of the shop’s produce had to come from the farm—I understand the logic of that—but if I asked my neighbours who live close to the farm, “Would you rather my farm shop retail the pork of one of my near neighbours, so that I could support both their business and the retail business, or would you rather I put 1,000 pig arks behind your houses and produce my own pork?” they would reply, “I would rather you sold another farmer’s pork than have an impact on the green belt with all those pig arks.” That is just one anomaly; there is a clear difference between agricultural diversification and major retail companies putting large warehouses in the green belt.

What can we take from the current state of food prices? We have a problem, frankly, because food prices have been rising for some time and we can no longer regard the increases as an anomaly. Whether we pin the hikes on oil prices, climate change, population increases, bad harvests or other developing industries in the green belt, it is clear that the rises are here to stay. We remain a nation dependent on imports, increasingly from all over the world, and we leave ourselves vulnerable to the storm that is raging outside our borders. We need, therefore, to protect ourselves, just like we did in the 1940s. We need to look at domestic production and ensure that we are making the most efficient use of our domestic land.

The percentage of agricultural land dropped from 39% to 25% between 1989 and 2009—a stark decrease. England has 14 green belts around its major cities, covering nearly 13% of the country, and 72% of the Nottingham and Derby green belt—1 million hectares—is in agricultural use. Overall, 66% of the green belt is used for agricultural purposes. The conclusion that I draw is that the green belt is fundamental to our ability to produce food ourselves. In Nottinghamshire, the green belt is under enormous pressure from local authorities, as they consider sites for residential developments, and it causes me enormous frustration that some of those authorities are choosing green-belt development over using the available brownfield sites.

This debate comes down to one thing, and my one request of the Minister is that he assure us that his inspectors—these things undoubtedly end up in front of an inspector—will be completely rigorous in their scrutiny of local plans. One of my local authorities, Gedling borough, has available to it the possibility of developing a former colliery site, but has chosen, for whatever reason, to develop the green belt in the villages of Linby and Papplewick, and around Hucknall, instead. That causes me enormous frustration, because most people in the borough recognise that the Gedling colliery site should be developed. There is some debate about whether an access road would allow for more housing, but clearly there is the opportunity to put between 600 and 700 houses closer to the urban fringe, rather than to tear up the green belt in Nottinghamshire.

Another example is that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has spent a lot of money on flood defences at a site called Teal close in Netherfield. I am led to believe that the site, which is close to the urban fringe and not within the green belt, is now protected from flooding, but it is not being developed, for whatever reason, and we are, again, pushing houses out into the rural areas. We need to look long and hard at that issue.

I cannot say often enough that brownfield before green-belt development is absolutely essential. I hope that that message seeps through and that at some point in the future, when we are all feeling much hungrier and cannot afford to import food, these things will come together. We will then wonder what on earth we were doing back in the early part of this century. We cannot go back. Once we have developed land and it has been taken out of agricultural production, it very rarely goes back. Probably the only examples of such land being returned to agricultural use are those involving open-cast sites that have had their topsoil removed and later put back, but even then it is very low-grade agricultural land that is probably used for grazing sheep rather than for arable production.

There are, nevertheless, some good examples of where we can get it right. Cemetery provision is a fairly contention issue, of course, because people do not really want cemeteries to be set up in the green belt, but natural cemeteries have been developed. There are no headstones and people are buried in a more natural state in a wicker coffin, so the cemetery can be used for grazing sheep and for livestock. That is a good example of things working together, and I encourage that sort of diversification.

One of my final points is that we do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater—if Members will forgive the cliché. Farmers need to be able to diversify, to consider other ways to support their income.

The hon. Gentleman has tempted me into the debate by ranging widely from anaerobic digestion to burials—no connection, of course, between the two. There is a role for Government intervention and planning controls, but farmers make commercial choices about land use, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does. They choose between biofuels, food production and development of other sorts. What does he think is the right balance between Government intervention, or Government control and regulation, and the freedom of the individual farmer—landowner—to make their own choices?

I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman. He is very clever in his thinking. It is a difficult tightrope that he has put there for me, and I almost hesitate to tiptoe down it. It is easy to come across as a hypocrite. Farmers clearly want to make the largest possible profit, and as a member of the Conservative party, I believe that the Government should not be interventionist and poke their nose into people’s private business.

The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is to look at the carrot and not the stick. Within the Government’s delivery of subsidies and support for different sectors, farmers are adept at finding the schemes that work for them. We need to tempt farmers back into food production, but Government support will be needed because there are commercial decisions to be made between producing energy, which is fairly heavily subsidised through the EU, or food, which has also been subsidised in the past. The Government could consider the way in which farmers retail that food and support them in getting more value from it, and there are currently plans for a grocery ombudsman to protect farmers.

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent case, and I apologise for missing his opening remarks. Further to the previous intervention, does he not accept that the planning system is, after all, fuelled by greed, rather than by need? If a farmer sees the capacity to convert his land from food production to something that is akin to £1 million an acre, what could be more profitable? Is that not the issue? He says he will not consider sticks, rather than carrots, but does not that incentive for going down the route of development, rather than food production, need to be addressed, too?

That is exactly where the ball lands in the Minister’s lap, frankly. There is a big difference between considering controls on developing land for residential or industrial use and considering variants of crops that may be produced on that land, because whatever crop is grown, the land can be reused for another crop. Of course, once land is converted to bungalows or industrial units, it can never go back. The Government, at whatever level, have a role to play in ensuring that we get those choices right. Again, that is the thrust of the debate. I do not hesitate to repeat myself: we have to develop brownfield sites before we start tearing up the green belt, which can never return. A number of colleagues wish to speak, so I shall leave it there.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I apologise to colleagues for my post-conference lurgy. They will be pleased to know that I am past the infectious stage.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on securing this debate. The matter is important across the country, and I am sure the Minister will reply diligently later.

One of the things I normally talk about when discussing food prices is connected to the weather: the combined effects of drought and deluge. Although Government policies may be able to do something about that in the long term, no one can kid themselves that the Prime Minister can control the weather specifically.

In Suffolk Coastal, there are similar concerns to those raised by my hon. Friend. The expansion of development in greenfield sites is displacing potential food-growing opportunities, whether that is for much-needed housing in our part of Suffolk or for industrial purposes, such as logistic sites, that take over not only grade 3 land but higher-grade land, too.

Picking up on something my hon. Friend said about energy towards the end of his excellent speech, it is almost a lack of planning policy that is starting to cause potential issues. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), in his previous role, which is currently occupied by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), told councils, “As part of your core strategy, you can now add a particular section to plan for renewable energy.” That recognises that, at the moment, there are many speculative applications, sometimes driven by financial desire for a return on investment.

Thank you, Mr Streeter. I think the hon. Gentleman was suggesting that financial carrots may be more worth while than actually growing carrots.

There is also a desire for lower-carbon energy, for which there is community support in parts of my constituency. Applications are starting to come in all of a sudden, and there is no question but that when a 7% or 8% return on land is offered for basically doing nothing, it is quite attractive to landowners who have hard lives working the land. As has already been mentioned, that might offer, among other things, biodiversification and allow landowners more time to focus on the quality of the food they produce on other parts of their land.

What are particularly starting to crop up—no pun intended—in East Anglia are solar farms. We are starting to see a significant number of applications, although the only application in my constituency was withdrawn because it is in an area of outstanding natural beauty. Although council officers recommended onshore turbines in the AONB, for some reason their recommendation was not to have solar farms in it. Outside my constituency—a couple of applications abut my constituency—we are starting to see a trend for significantly sized solar farms, which is of concern to local residents both because they are quite a change in land use and because of the effect on future food security.

Having addressed energy in AONBs, I do have a nuclear power station, and I hope to get another, so I am not saying that the two things are incompatible—far from it. We know that industry can co-exist with agriculture and nature without necessarily destroying them, but one of the big local concerns is that some of the subsidy is driving decisions on land use. As well as potatoes, Suffolk Coastal is best known for pigs and poultry, which are the two things not subsidised by the common agricultural policy. As an aside, there are more pigs than people in Suffolk, which shows how much we love that particular source of food for the future.

The issue is translating into other areas. We are starting to see planning applications for straw-based incinerators, and there may even be one in the Minister’s constituency. Farmers are worried that their local access to straw is increasingly expensive. We are trying to encourage better animal welfare, which leads to different use of such materials, so food costs are starting to go up, and many farmers are concerned that it will be more worth while to import food that we would naturally take for granted.

A mixture of things are going on, all of which seem designed, unintentionally, to hit the food bills that our constituents pay every week when they go to their local butcher or supermarket. A number of factors are coming together, so what can we do? My Government, quite rightly, do not want to prescribe the development of growth agendas to local councils, whether on housing or energy; they want to allow local communities, led by councils, to make such decisions for themselves.

The Government need to encourage, not compel, Departments to work with each other—the Department for Communities and Local Government working with the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—to ensure that our approaches have no unintended consequences and do not conflict.

Ultimately, I support the Government’s desire to build new homes, which is what we want to encourage local councils to do. DCLG has come up with great schemes such as the new homes bonus, which proactively rewards councils that recognise the need for more housing for their constituents. That is true in my part of the country, but for our longer-term security we need councils to think carefully about the displacement of land, whether for housing or energy, and planning policies that currently do not exist. We do not want to return to being an importer of food that we could easily grow ourselves; instead, we should focus on energy security, food security and creating a coherent message. We encourage our local councils to take full advantage of that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Streeter. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on securing this timely debate. As anybody who has canvassed recently will know, cost of living is the big issue on the doorstep. Whether it involves fuel prices or food prices, someone at every door has a view and a proper concern about the direction of travel of the cost of living.

Unlike everybody else, I cannot declare an interest. I used to have one; that is as good as I can get. In a former life—when I had a proper job, as my mum would say—I used to wholesale fruit and veg for a living in New Covent Garden market. I worked nights for 11 years and dealt with farmers daily. They were a joy and a pleasure. Never could there be a nicer group of people to do business with. At the other end of the equation, because it was a pure market—supply, demand and information—I dealt with buyers from very big companies as well as high-street grocers. I know how the demands of ordinary punters can change the market for farmers. They can grow one type of lettuce one year and lose a ton of money, and then grow a different type of lettuce the next year and make a ton of money. I understand the supply and demand issues of food, or at least I did when I worked in the business.

The Minister will be pleased to know that the business was set up by four Lincolnshire farmers in the late 1970s, and thrived through the days of the supermarket boom. The four farmers who helped set up that family business all diversified; in fact, in my lifetime, I have never known a farmer not to diversify. One went into transport. Two went into building things: one built homes, the other built offices that he rented out to local businesses. One ended up building a karting track, and people now hurtle on go-karts around fields that used to produce good-quality cauliflowers. It is difficult to find a farmer who has not diversified due to the market over the past three or four decades. Although food prices are now high, that cannot be said of food prices in our short-term history, which is why we started subsidising farming in the first place. We needed food, but there was not enough return on the goods being produced, so the Government started to subsidise it so that we would have enough.

Anyone considering a planning policy to encourage the production of good-quality food on a large enough scale to feed the nation would not start from where we are now, and I do not think we should try. We should support farmers a bit, but our planning policy should be much broader than simply worrying about food production. We live in a world market. If we want to encourage farmers in Africa to trade themselves out of poverty, they need a market to supply. I am not overly concerned about some of the issues raised, but we should paint the picture in historical terms.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; I am conscious that I have had more than my say. Does he recognise that although the market will flow when there is enough product, the product may cease? For example, on the wheat market, Russia basically said a year ago, “That’s it, we’re not going to export another grain of wheat.” It does not matter how much money we have; we cannot buy something that is not for sale. That is when there starts to be an impact on the UK.

I completely recognise that, but we still produce a decent amount of wheat. Five years ago, lots of the farmers who grow wheat were diversifying into an energy crop, miscanthus. There was simply not enough value in the market for them, so they decided there would be better value in growing miscanthus, which is pelleted for biofuels, trucked up to Drax and chucked into the coal-fired plant up there. Again, the market responded. Now fewer people in the United Kingdom are growing miscanthus, or seeking to grow it, than five years ago, because the market price of wheat is rising, not exponentially but rapidly, and there seems to be no basis for it to fall. However, that is not necessarily a planning policy issue; it is a different policy issue affecting the use of land. Ultimately, it is an energy subsidy, which is different.

As far as the Minister is concerned, though, we have a dilemma. We are an island nation with roads, homes and businesses, and we need to supply energy and food for them, but we have traditionally had a broad-based food production economy. We were very good at providing for ourselves until 30 or 40 years ago. The Minister must consider his portfolio in the broadest possible sense. There are legitimate concerns about food security, which have been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). People worry, properly, that if foreign supply of a particular good dries up, we will be priced out of the market, but we are fortunate in being a relatively rich western country, and we will almost always be able to buy the goods that we require. However, that diverts goods away from developing countries. There is a concern, but I am not convinced that it is the concern highlighted at the start of the debate.

The Minister must consider some areas that are within his remit. It is significant that one part of his Department incentivises farmers not to produce food through a policy enabling renewable energy production that is way more financially beneficial to farmers than the hard graft that goes into producing a decent arable or livestock crop annually. In my last couple of minutes, I want to bang on about something that I regularly bang on about, namely the delights of onshore wind energy, how it fits within the Minister’s portfolio and how it directly affects food prices, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood said. Any farmer who has not considered diversifying into renewable energy is slightly mad. The gains from doing so are phenomenal. Even the £1 million investment for a small 325-MW turbine, which is about 40 m high, might well be paid back in three or three and a half years, and subsidy is guaranteed for 25 years. A farmer who wants to put their kids through school and ensure that they can go to university will find a field—they do not care which one it is—and stick turbines on it.

The Minister will know because numerous local planning authorities have written to him—including at least one that I represent—as well as from his own experience of policy in Lincolnshire that local planning authorities are hugely concerned. They feel slightly under the cosh having to allow turbines and other renewable energy projects even when they know that the projects are not suitable for the land, whether for food production reasons or because of their proximity to dwellings. Will he help planning authorities around the country by advising us, them and the Planning Inspectorate how he intends to deal with the conundrum of super-subsidised energy production replacing less subsidised food production in areas where few people want it? Even where the parish council, local residents, the district council and maybe the local MP and MEP all object for good, solid planning reasons, a decision can be foisted on them, even though the energy production unit might be close to dwellings and so on.

Finally, I want to tell the Minister that the Planning Inspectorate that he directly controls, even though it is an arm’s length body with delegated powers, needs direction on this issue, which is causing great upset across the countryside. There is only one man who is made for the job of sorting it out, and I would like to think that it is my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles)—the Minister himself.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on securing the debate on such an interesting topic. I did not intend to speak—I came to listen to what my hon. Friend had to say—but a number of points have been made that are of sufficient interest to me and I am grateful that there is time for me to do so. First, I should declare an interest. I have been a farmer all my life. At the moment, my land is rented out, but the rent I receive depends on the profitability of the industry, so I feel that I need to declare an interest that will be recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

We are debating the consequences of land that is used for food production being used for other purposes. I accept the point—I think that we all do—that we are a trading nation and part of a trading world and that Britain has always been subject to change over the decades. I cannot help but feel, however, that we have reached a stage regarding land use where the change that we face is greater than we have ever faced before. In a sense, that is inevitable, but the Minister, the Government and all of us have to be aware of unintended consequences. Unintended consequences are always the problem—those things that happen that we are unaware of and do not give sufficient attention to when dealing with an issue.

The main driver for change in land use is population growth. During my lifetime, we have seen an enormous change in the projected number of people who will live in the United Kingdom. Before too long, that number will reach 70 million. Inevitably, if that happens, we will need more houses, more roads and more rail. How we live changes, and there will be more demand for leisure activity. All that uses a huge amount of land, far more than anticipated. We have to consider population increase carefully, because of its impact on the way we live as a nation.

I, too, want to touch on the use of land for energy production. I do not oppose that, but I am one of those stupid farmers who, because I detest onshore wind to such an extent, has decided that he does not want the additional income. I have no intention whatever of going down that road, and I advise most of my fellow farmers, if they can afford not to, to do the same. I must admit that in my Montgomery constituency, an awful lot of farmers take that view: they despise how my constituency could be destroyed by the ravages of the onshore wind business. This issue is more than just about that, however.

I have always supported biofuels, but in mid-Wales the potential for the development of miscanthus is huge. That is having an immediate impact—an issue that I raised in an intervention about maize. A new biofuels plant requires maize. For decades, dairy farmers rented land to grow maize to sustain their dairy stock. That was part of how they farmed. Suddenly, they can no longer do that. It is totally impossible for them to compete in the market, because there is a subsidised industry—biofuels—buying up all the maize and they have had to withdraw. Clearly, that involves reducing the number of stock that they keep—an unintended consequence.

When we talk about onshore wind—as my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) did, as always, in such an authoritative way—it is not just the wind turbine that takes up a certain area. I want to make two points on this. In mid-Wales at the moment, we are talking about a project that has a 35-mile line from Shropshire into the middle of my constituency. There will be 150-foot high pylons—steel towers—all the way along that line. That will mean sterilising a huge amount of land, and even the substation at the end of it will cover 20 acres. The impact on land use is huge, notwithstanding the 600 or 700 turbines involved.

We also have to be really careful about how the people of this country feel they are connected with government. In my constituency, the local authority has turned down all the large applications associated with this big project going ahead. If I have a public meeting on the issue, huge numbers of people turn up—probably a couple of thousand people. In fact, 2,000 people came to Cardiff with me, in 37 buses, to express our viewpoint. It is clear that the constituency feels that it does not want this imposed on it. Yet, my constituents also believe that, despite that being their comprehensive view, the Governments in Westminster and Cardiff do not care at all and will use every device that they have to ensure that those applications go through. It is dangerous for any Government to allow that democratic deficit to happen, in addition to the land use change, without being very careful about what they are doing.

For the Minister, the damage is to the localism agenda. When so many people who have a vital part to play in the communities that they represent are being ignored—this is the point that I was trying to make about the Planning Inspectorate—and overruled by one person who comes in from outside with delegated powers, that causes an issue for localism. Perhaps the Minister can give us some assurances on how the Planning Inspectorate will deal with future local plans that involve renewable energy elements.

That strikes a real chord with me. I very much support the principle of the Government putting localism at the heart of what they are doing. However, I must admit that if one talks to anybody in my constituency about the principle of localism at the moment, when we are talking about onshore wind, they will snort with laughter. The idea of localism has gone completely out the window.

Returning to the land use issue, there is one other point I want to make.

Once again, the hon. Gentleman is speaking passionately on behalf of his constituents about a cause that he believes in strongly and vehemently. On local planning and the democratic deficit, does he think that now is the right time to devolve the responsibility for large energy infrastructure projects to Wales? Would that do anything to reduce the democratic deficit, or is it an irrelevance? I am genuinely interested, because that seems to go to the heart of some of what he is saying—that some decisions could be made more locally, at least in Wales.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Indeed, I could probably speak for about half an hour on the issue, but I am sure, Mr Streeter, that you would not allow me to do so. In principle, I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the reality is that the sheer contempt for local opinion on this issue is greater in Cardiff, in the National Assembly for Wales, than at Westminster. Whereas previously, I may well have subscribed to the principle of transferring the power for over-50 MW onshore wind to the National Assembly, I would not support that now, if I were on this earth for another 100 years, simply because of the way in which the First Minister of the National Assembly has changed his views and shown total contempt for the opinions of the people of my constituency.

The final issue that I want to touch on briefly is planning. I make an appeal to the Minister regarding planning applications. It concerns not only onshore wind but energy crops. Permission seems to be granted for matters that would not even reach the planning committee if they involved anything else. Applications come through for wind farms, with no back-up, that would be thrown out without any trouble, yet they are approved. An application will come through to convert a building into a house to provide extra income on a farm, and that is turned down. We find a total difference in attitude towards genuine small businesses that want to use their property—often an empty building—in a way that would benefit the economy. That will be turned down and a totally alien application, which would cause huge damage, is approved. That balance needs to be looked at.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Streeter. I thank the hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) for securing the debate.

I had a few anxious moments when I thought I had wandered into the wrong debate, because it seemed to take some while for us to get around to looking at what domestic land use policy might have to do with food prices. I was interested that we looked at oil, climate change, population growth, bad harvests and renewable energy. All those things are, of course, relevant to food prices. However, I was not convinced of their relationship to planning policy in the UK. Perhaps we can talk more about that in a moment.

I was interested that some Members seemed to argue for more Government intervention in planning policy. At one point I thought the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) was arguing for more Government intervention in the markets. Sadly, he let me down by saying that was perhaps not the correct approach.

We did eventually return to the issue of food production. Members raised a number of legitimate concerns about land use policy. I was not so convinced by their suggested solution. They flagged up the central issue at the heart of planning policy: balancing competing interests for land that, as the hon. Member for Sherwood rightly said, is in finite supply.

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the distinction between short-term and long-term imperatives, which can conflict. We do not want to revisit some of the policies of the distant past. The peat bogs of the hills of Plinlimon were irrigated and freed for food production in the 1940s and 1950s, understandably at that time. We now have to undo the damage by blocking them up again to restore the carbon locked into the peat bogs. We need to focus on reconciling conflicting objectives and on taking a long-term view about what planning controls are for.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I was about to come to. Some hon. Members have suggested a solution. Part of the solution has to be a national, strategic plan to set out clearly where the priority areas are for farming and food production, and how we are going to manage the need for renewable energy in future. I do not think it is acceptable for us simply to stand up and say we do not want to have wind farms in a particular area. We need to say where and how we will meet the nation’s energy needs.

I had another few anxious moments when I thought the hon. Member for Sherwood was simply going to make a case against having new housing or growth in rural areas. That anxiety was again unfounded, because he did not say that. However, I know he has in the past argued against development in former mining communities in his area, saying that large five-bedroom houses are not appropriate. I am unclear why that is the case. I do not think it fits the Prime Minister’s aspiration nation to say that because currently there are no three or four-bedroom houses in those areas, there should be none in future.

Fundamentally it comes down to believing passionately in localism. We believe in those decisions being taken locally. There is enormous frustration. My constituents tell me, “These are our opinions. This is what we want to see. We want houses developed in our area that suit our community, that match our community.” For whatever reason, whether it is a National Assembly, county council or district council, they are not taking on board the views of our constituents. I ask the Minister to help by having his planning inspector step in and make local authorities deliver localism, as my constituents want.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. However, it is an argument in support of localism, not an argument in favour of not having any growth locally. The point of neighbourhood planning is to encourage local communities to think about where they want growth.

I digress a little, so I want to get back to the issue.

I want to pick up on my hon. Friend’s point on a genuine cross-party basis. Matthew Taylor, the Liberal Democrat, brought forward a good report while Labour was in power. He was commissioned to produce a report on housing. It went to the heart of how to reconcile local aspirations for housing with local opposition to housing. How can it be made to work? We are still struggling with that dilemma. Localism is all well and good but when localism both opposes and supports development, there is a bit of a conundrum.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, but that is exactly the issue that the planning system is supposed to resolve.

I fully recognise the important issue of food prices and congratulate the hon. Member for Sherwood on raising it. Last year about 130,000 people turned to food banks to meet their families’ daily needs. The number is growing weekly. I am sure a lot of hon. Members will have recently taken part in the FairShare campaign organised by Sainsbury’s to collect food in their local supermarkets. Such is the degree of need in our communities. Indeed, we see more and more families who are simply not able to feed themselves because of rising food prices. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation says that cereal prices could be 20% higher over the next decade, and that will eventually lead to higher food prices in our shops.

I am not sure whether the point was made by the hon. Member for Sherwood, but the UK produces about 65% of its own food, so domestic land use policy clearly has a significant role to play in keeping food prices low and, critically, affordable. We therefore need a planning system that supports vibrant communities and Government policy that encourages long-term sustainability—exactly the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies)—and builds on a sustainable rural community and economy. Things have to change somewhat if we are to achieve that, in particular in the face of some of the wider issues raised by the hon. Member for Sherwood, such as climate change and alternative land use challenges.

This year alone, the UK’s harvest was down 15% because of the unusually wet summer weather. Such unpredictability is set to worsen and will lead to a need for, possibly, a change in Government policy and, certainly, more intervention. The Government’s record to date is not good.

The hon. Lady said that the weather is set to worsen and that we therefore need Government intervention. Can she tell me what the weather will be like next Wednesday or in a year’s time? Weather is remarkably unpredictable, and I am not sure that it justifies Government intervention.

Sorry, I thought that was going to be a sensible intervention. Obviously, given that we will have more unpredictability in the weather—that is what we think, at least, because of climate change—I meant that we need to plan for it and perhaps look particularly at a policy that would support more food production on the land we have, or on additional land, which was another point made by the hon. Member for Sherwood.

I will not take an intervention from the hon. Lady because she has not taken part in the debate so far, and I am rapidly running out of time. I want to ask the Minister some specific questions about what he might do to support additional food production in this country.

Rather than simply messing about with the planning system and using it as a scapegoat for the Government’s economic failure, we should have a series of policies that look at how food production, communities and infrastructure will work together. We need a policy that encourages economic growth but at the same time puts the environment at the forefront. That means supporting green infrastructure, which can be defined as a network of green spaces that provide life-support functions including food, fibre, air to breathe, places for nature and places for recreation. The idea has been taken up by some of our local authorities. Birmingham city council has set out a whole range of policy goals, such as facilitating community food growing and orchards, but that is the exception. The hon. Member for Sherwood went some way towards giving a couple of examples to Government on how to encourage food production and better use of land in rural areas—in particular, dual use of land, such as green cemeteries.

It could be argued that, instead, the national planning policy framework has undermined the strategic basis on which local authorities can build upon and improve green infrastructure in their areas. For example, we are not clear about what nature improvement areas are supposed to do or what they are for. The Government should be doing more to encourage community land-share schemes or local food webs—taking on board growing produce locally, setting up local co-ops and selling produce to the local high street and independent retailers. That whole area of getting different bits of our planning system and our rural policies to work together has been taken up by the Campaign to Protect Rural England in an excellent report, which all hon. Members should read, “From field to fork.” The CPRE recommends that planning guidance is put in place for local authorities. The Minister has put planning guidance out to consultation, but the general drift of the Government so far has been against providing guidance to local authorities, which could do with some support and assistance in this area.

What are the Government doing to support other public bodies to form partnerships to develop food strategies and action plans in their areas? That could range from supporting local farmers to putting aside additional land for food production, or setting targets for local farmers to grow additional crops or to diversify. The whole area is not being looked at with the seriousness it deserves given what we know will happen to food prices.

Has the Minister any intention to work with local businesses or local food networks to promote awareness, access, affordability and availability of local food, or to encourage local supermarkets to source food locally? Does he intend to do anything to support local community groups and to engage in initiatives to shape food production locally? For example, that could be something that neighbourhood planning concentrates on, although it might be difficult without more direction to local communities. We also want to see greater diversity on offer on the high street, so that we are not simply relying on a couple of supermarkets but encouraging a range of local retailers with local connections and food networks, providing not only an advantage to local farmers but—this is important—support for local farmers. We want, therefore, a farming and land use policy that supports local communities and, in particular, looks at ways to reduce food miles while making good-quality food accessible to a wider range of people than is the case at the moment.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, in this, my first speech as a Minister—I hope that it is my worst speech as a Minister, in that things can only go up from here.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) on securing a debate on a subject that is very near to his heart and to that of many of his constituents. It is also near to the heart of many of my constituents and, indeed, of my own father, who has a small farm—much smaller than my hon. Friend’s—in the fine county of Devon.

I want to address the original subject, although the debate has been an excellent one, taking in almost every aspect of Government policy, for most of which, fortunately, I have no responsibility. The original subject, however, was the link between the planning system and the recent effects on food prices.

Perhaps the only part of the contribution from the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods) with which I could agree was when she doubted the direct impact of land use and the planning system on food prices. This country imports a great deal of food—nearly 50%, but fortunately not more—and most foodstuffs, but not all, operate in a global market. As the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) pointed out, the reasons for recent rises in food prices are mostly global energy prices, the change in the value of sterling relative to other currencies and the changing nature of the demand for food from the rapidly developing countries of Asia and elsewhere.

I do not believe that the planning system can be held responsible for the pressure on food prices. The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), pointed out that even if we cannot do much directly about food prices, we have a great interest in ensuring that we have a basic level of food security. Clearly, that is where the use of our land is important.

I hope that I can reassure hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, about the status of agriculture in the planning system, and particularly in the much slimmed-down planning policy framework introduced last year. Agriculture is the only industry—given how hard farmers work, it deserves to be called an industry—that has specific status in the planning system and explicit consideration in national policy. The policy framework is very clear about the importance of preserving agricultural land. Paragraph 112 states:

“Local planning authorities should take into account the economic and other benefits of the best and most versatile agricultural land. Where significant development of agricultural land is demonstrated to be necessary, local planning authorities should seek to use areas of poorer quality land in preference to that of a higher quality.”

That is an explicit indication to local authorities to try to preserve high-quality agricultural land where possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood said that much of the green belt is agricultural land, so any incursion into it for other uses is a particular threat to agricultural land. Here, too, I believe I can offer him reassurance that I hope will also reassure people who have other concerns about the green belt and the Government’s intentions. In the national planning policy framework, the Government have put in place very explicit and strong protection for the green belt. Paragraph 79 states:

“The Government attaches great importance to Green Belts. The fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the essential characteristics of Green Belts are their openness and their permanence.”

Agriculture is one of the few productive uses of land that preserves its openness by definition.

Paragraph 83 states:

“Local planning authorities with Green Belts in their area should establish Green Belt boundaries in their Local Plans which set the framework for Green Belt and settlement policy. Once established”


“should only be altered in exceptional circumstances, through the preparation or review of the Local Plan.”

My hon. Friend expressed concern that some authorities, including authorities in Nottinghamshire, have not attached sufficient priority to the development of brownfield sites. All I can say is that national policy is very clear about priorities. Paragraph 17 states:

“Planning should…encourage the effective use of land by reusing land that has been previously developed (brownfield land), provided that it is not of high environmental value”.

There are certainly strong indications to planning authorities that green-belt land should be preserved and that brownfield land, when possible and viable, should be developed in preference.

I hope that it will reassure hon. Members to learn that in 2010 only 2% of new dwellings were built on the green belt, and that the quantity of green belt has increased since 1997 because local authorities, which control the designation, have designated new land as green belt. Housing development on greenfield land, which is distinguished from green-belt land, has accounted for only 0.3% of the total land area of England since 1985. House building on green land has been on only 0.3% of the country’s total area. Some of the more apocalyptic visions painted not by hon. Members, but others outside, of Governments of various stripes concreting over the countryside have no basis in fact.

On a point of clarification, when the Minister says that so little greenfield and green belt land has been developed, does he include planning that has been granted, or just planning that has gone ahead?

I thank my hon. Friend. I believe that that applies to buildings that have already gone up. Obviously, some permissions have been granted and development has not yet taken place, but I do not believe that would change the picture dramatically, because most permissions apply to land outside the green belt—much of it, although not all, to brownfield land. Our planning policies provide protection for agricultural and green-belt land.

The importance of diversification in the rural economy has been discussed; we heard about it from my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood and others. Many of my constituents in Grantham make the journey to my hon. Friend’s farm shop, which is famous in those parts, so I know that that diversification has been successful. The national planning policy framework makes explicit the requirement for policies to

“support economic growth in rural areas in order to create jobs and prosperity…To promote a strong rural economy…neighbourhood plans should…support the sustainable growth and expansion of all types of business and enterprise in rural areas, both through conversion of existing buildings and well designed new buildings”


“promote the development and diversification of agricultural and other land-based rural businesses”.

I am happy to say that the Government are looking closely at the matter, and hope to introduce specific proposals to make it easier to convert agricultural buildings into homes and for other uses without having to go through the planning process. I believe that planning policies provide many of the protections that hon. Members seek. However, I am aware that much of the debate has focused on the balance between the demands on agriculture for food production, and other uses of land, whether agricultural or other, for renewable energy.

The national planning policy framework requires local planning authorities to have a positive strategy to promote renewable and low-carbon energy. We must remember the history of the energy situation in this country. We recently received a warning—I think it was from Ofgem—that we face a real risk of the lights going out in relatively few years. The main reason for that is the complete failure of the previous Government to grasp any difficult nettles—

Perhaps I could finish slating the previous Government before giving way. They completely failed to grasp any difficult nettles, whether in relation to building nuclear power stations or encouraging renewable industry and gas plants.

The Minister is making a brave fist of slating the previous Government, but he has just heard his hon. Friends, one after another, oppose renewable energy from onshore wind farms or solar farms on agricultural land. He should tread carefully. Can he explain why the Government have seen a fall from third place as an international destination for inward investment in renewables in the year when the previous Government left office, to seventh and still falling? Will he explain that to us as he slates the former Government?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The Government’s policies are very clear. We need a positive strategy for renewable energy.

However, I assure hon. Members that there is a clear policy on how individual applications should be decided. Policies should be designed to ensure that adverse impacts are addressed satisfactorily, and planning applications for renewable energy should only be approved if the impacts are, or can be made, acceptable. My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood is an indefatigable campaigner on this issue, and I am very aware that he, I, and many hon. Members on both sides of the House represent people who do not feel that all decisions—particularly about wind farms, but the point also applies to other renewable energy uses—have dealt satisfactorily with those impacts.

Hon. Members will be delighted to hear that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change recently launched a consultation and a call for evidence on how developers are engaging with local communities, and in particular, on how developers of wind farms and other renewable energy sites are sharing the benefits of those sites with local communities. A lot of lessons from elsewhere in Europe show that sharing the benefits is a good way to secure local consent for developments that are otherwise justifiable.

The Minister was in safer territory when he was praising the previous Government for protecting not only green spaces, but the green belt from development. We all accept that the planning community now thinks that under the present Government brownfield protection has been watered down, not strengthened. He was, however, getting to the heart of what we are discussing. I am not clear that what he is suggesting will help local communities and authorities—faced with a market that is promoting the use of land for renewable energy—to decide on other uses, particularly in relation to more land being given over to food production. How will the Government help local authorities and the Planning Inspectorate make those difficult decisions?

The hon. Lady is quite wrong; I never praised the previous Government for what they did to protect the green belt. They only ended up doing so by completely failing to build any houses and failing to meet the nation’s housing need, thus landing the Government with the difficult task of maintaining protections for the green belt and precious open land, while also increasing the rate of house building. As in so many other areas, we are trying to clear up the mess that Labour created.

I share the Minister’s experience, certainly with regards to Nottinghamshire. The regional spatial strategy, which was the flagship for development under the previous Government, put enormous pressure on the Nottinghamshire green belt. All the heartache I am experiencing now is caused by some of the sites that were brought forward under that strategy. Only the localism agenda and freeing up the planning process have given us a chink of light to defend some of those green-belt areas and to try to force local authorities to develop brownfield sites first.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s description of the effect of the previous Government’s policies on the green belt and elsewhere.

To return to the difficult planning balance to be struck on renewable energy, I hope that hon. Members and others are encouraged by the call for evidence from the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. When I visit the Planning Inspectorate for the first time next week, I will be happy to ensure that it is aware of the call for evidence, and that the result of that call is taken into account in the inspectorate’s judgments on how the impacts on communities are being managed, and whether those impacts have been managed satisfactorily before granting planning permission.

On the other hand, I do not want to be disingenuous. I do not believe that the Government can move to a position where wind farms are built with no objections from people who live nearby. I have a lot of sympathy for the attempts by Lincolnshire and others to define acceptable boundaries. It is right that things are dealt with case by case, because sometimes the distance can be more disturbing in a flat area of the country, as Lincolnshire largely is, than it would be in a hilly area. Although the wind farm might be close, there might well be a hill in between. It is not right for the Government to have blanket policies on such subjects, but the impacts should be properly assessed and accounted for in the decision making of planning authorities and the Planning Inspectorate.

I move on to the contribution made by the hon. Member for City of Durham. Mr Streeter, you may have heard, as I did, the Prime Minister’s excellent speech to the Conservative party conference, in which he talked of the “party of one notion”—that is, the hon. Lady’s party—and that notion was of course, borrowing. The Prime Minister is right to say that borrowing is the ready stand-by of the Labour party in response to any issue.

In planning, borrowing has a slightly smaller role to play, but a couple of other notions are the ready stand-bys of a Labour Government and Labour Ministers when confronted with any planning question. The hon. Lady is no exception; she calls for more guidance, more targets, and more direction of local communities, so that they know what is good for them. Well, I am delighted to say that Lord Taylor, the Member of the House of Lords whom the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) congratulated on work for the previous Government, is conducting a review of planning guidance. The aim is to reduce the guidance for local authorities from 6,000 pages, which the hon. Lady clearly feels is insufficient, to something more manageable. I look forward to receiving the results of that work.

In conclusion, my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood spoke of the importance of diversification in the agricultural sector, and of farmers being left to make their own decisions, while not being skewed excessively by the interventions and subsidies provided by Government and other branches. He left us with a particularly appealing image of natural, green cemeteries where people can be buried and which support a flock of sheep. As a son of a sheep farmer, I cannot think of any better way of ending my physical existence than as nutrition for high-quality grazing for sheep.