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Proposed Chicken Farm (Rushden Higham Ferrers)

Volume 631: debated on Wednesday 15 November 2017

[Ian Paisley in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the proposed high-intensity chicken farm in Rushden Higham Ferrers.

First, I would like to thank my researcher, James Shipp, who has been unwell in the past few days—I wish him well—and my other colleagues, Jordan Ayres and Helen Harrison, who picked up and finished his research and my speech. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that is of utmost importance to communities in my constituency: the proposal by Bedfordia Farms Ltd to construct an intensive poultry farm in the Rushden and Higham Ferrers area.

In this case, “farm” is a rather misleading term. This large-scale plant will be more like a chicken factory than a farm. Under the proposals, 10 sheds and a total of 540,000 birds would be crammed on to one site. Given that there are only around 247,000 indoor-reared meat chickens in the whole of Northamptonshire, this site in my constituency would represent a substantial increase, and it is unacceptable. Local residents are quite rightly appalled by the proposed new plant. The fantastic “Cluck Off” campaign has campaigned energetically ever since the plans were made public, and I know that a number of the leaders of that campaign are watching this debate closely.

On a sadder note, one of the people who was against the mega-farm was Councillor Glenn Harwood. I am sorry to have to say that Glenn died yesterday of a suspected heart attack. He was one of those local politicians who get so little credit yet do so much. He was in politics not for his own ego but because he wanted to do good in the community. He was a tireless worker for the people of Higham Ferrers. He was a leading supporter of the magnificent Rushden Lakes retail and leisure development. He was an integral part of my listening campaign and turned up to campaign across the constituency week in, week out. He was the excellent deputy leader of East Northamptonshire Council. He was a paratrooper who fought in the Falklands war and was quite rightly awarded the MBE. To his wife Jenny and his family, I send my sincere sympathy. I know he will be sorely missed by all.

This issue in my constituency is just one example of a worrying shift in the approach to livestock farming across the whole United Kingdom, and I hope to voice the concerns of many about the rising prevalence of intensive broiler chicken farms in our nation’s countryside. So-called mega-farms have been on the rise in Britain in recent times. Since 2002, 1,418 permits have been issued for farms classed as intensive by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. To be classed as intensive, a farm must have warehouses with more than 40,000 birds, 2,000 pigs or 750 breeding sows. Factory farming has increased by more than a quarter in the United Kingdom in the past six years. Some 86% of the permits issued for intensive operations went to poultry farms.

As we might expect, the USA does things on a bigger scale. To be classed as intensive there, a farm needs to have 125,000 broiler chickens, 2,500 pigs or 1,000 beef cattle. That seems like an awful lot, but at the last count, 789 farms in the United Kingdom met those American mega-farm criteria. Believe me, the people of Rushden and Higham Ferrers feel strongly that there should not be a 790th.

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who said on 20 July 2017:

“One thing is clear: I do not want to see, and we will not have, US-style farming in this country. The future for British farming is in quality and provenance, maintaining high environmental and animal welfare standards. We have a world-leading reputation based on doing things better, and that will not be compromised while I am in this Department.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2017; Vol. 627, c. 961.]

He is entirely right about that, as he is about other things.

I do not understand why the Department issued around five licences that will allow Bedfordia to operate this mega-factory farm. I urge officials to look again at the proposal and find legal reasons to revoke those licences. There are three reasons to do that. The first is animal welfare, which I will talk about later. The second is the one that the Secretary of State laid out, and the third is that it is unwise for officials to go against the wishes of their Secretary of State—especially this Secretary of State. Such mega-farms have no place in the British countryside, for a number of reasons. They have an appalling animal welfare record, they are notorious for polluting the local environment and they cause disruption to local communities.

I would like first to focus on the terrible conditions in which broiler chickens are kept in mega-farms. I think it is fair to say that most people recognise that a chicken is an animal with its own consciousness and capacity for feeling. DEFRA certainly recognises that animals have feelings, and article 13 of the Lisbon treaty enshrines that in law. The Secretary of State has already confirmed that that principle will be kept through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. In any case, the principle was recognised in British law long before the Lisbon treaty.

If we recognise that animals—chickens included—are able to think and feel, farmers surely have a moral obligation to provide them with a basic level of welfare. That means ensuring that animals are given the opportunity to live free of pain, a relative level of comfort and freedom to exercise their natural behaviours. However, intensively farmed broiler chickens are afforded no quality of life. They are kept in very tight spaces, in appalling conditions, in mega-farm chicken sheds.

Chickens farmed for meat have been bred selectively to grow bigger and faster. Chickens can live for six years or more under natural conditions. However, those reared through intensive farming are commonly slaughtered before they reach six weeks old. Free-range broilers are usually slaughtered at eight weeks, and organic broilers at around 12 weeks. Yet given the planned turnover for the site in Rushden, a fresh generation will be slaughtered after just 39 days. After three days for cleaning up the mess, the whole process will start all over again.

Chickens in those conditions are often slaughtered still with their juvenile feathers, as their body growth outstrips their maturity. They often suffer grotesque deformities in their legs because their bodies grow so quickly that they become too heavy to support. That rapid growth also puts a strain on the chickens’ hearts and lungs, and they suffer from fatigue and do not have much energy for exercise. Fast-growing broilers spend less time performing natural behaviours such as walking, pecking, scratching the litter and perching, and more time sitting and eating, than slower-growing breeds. In the UK alone, millions of chickens die in their sheds from heart attacks each year.

That said, the question of exercise is irrelevant for those birds. They live in such confined spaces that they do not have any room for exercise. Take the plans for Rushden and Higham Ferrers as a typical example of facilities across the UK. Each shed will have 2,440 square metres of floor space to accommodate 54,000 chickens. That works out as 22 chickens per square metre. In reality, a chicken in an intensive facility has less space than the A4 piece of paper I hold in my hand. Given their fast growth rate, it is hard not to agree that that is a cruel situation to keep an animal in.

The chickens in intensive broiler sheds are unable to move much and are therefore at the mercy of other pollutants in the shed. The birds suffer from a condition called hock burns: essentially, chemical burning of the legs and bodies by the ammonia produced by the accumulated droppings of the vast multitude crammed into a small space. There is litter on the floor to absorb some of the droppings, but that is cleared out only when each generation is sent to slaughter. Birds often suffer eye and respiratory problems due to the high pollutant content in the sheds. If a dog or cat owner kept their animals in similar conditions to these chickens, they would be prosecuted for animal cruelty. That surely seems like a double standard in our law. The conditions are simply abhorrent. It is no way to treat thinking, feeling creatures. To me, it feels completely un-British.

On top of those welfare issues, mega-farms cause plenty of disruption to the local communities that surround them. Sites like that planned for Rushden and Higham Ferrers have a poor record environmentally. Industrial-scale farming produces huge amounts of manure, carcases, silage and dirty water. All of that waste can have significant environmental impacts, even when disposed of properly. Local residents in my constituency are concerned that waste products from the farm will pollute nearby rivers and severely affect the ecosystem in the surrounding area. Air pollution will no doubt affect local residents as well.

People who live near other intensively farmed sites often complain of a horrible, sticky smell, which persists for miles around the sites. That can ruin the lives of local populations and spoil the enjoyment of the surrounding countryside for many more people. That is a very real problem for local businesses. For example, the brand-new nature and leisure park at Rushden Lakes, which has been a great boon for the economy in my constituency, will no doubt be badly affected if the smell should spread from the proposed large chicken farm. The farms also inevitably come with large increases in traffic to local areas. Heavy goods vehicles that support large facilities clog up country roads and cause problems with congestion and further increase the air pollution associated with mega-farms.

These facilities also do nothing for the beauty of our countryside. They are never pretty and blight our countryside with grey industrial buildings. Ten huge sheds will certainly not enhance the vista in Rushden and Higham Ferrers. These huge intensive farms are also bad for our countryside’s small businesses. Encouraging their growth is opening up the market to huge agri-corporations at the expense of small family producers. As intensive farms have spread, small farms have closed down. According to DEFRA, about 4,000 farms closed between 2010 and 2016, of which three quarters were in the smallest category.

The loss of small farms would be a great loss for the United Kingdom. They are good custodians of the countryside. Small producers are more likely to run mixed farms, which help to keep soil healthy and produce grain for animals. Intensive farms bring in grain, and dispose of waste, on HGVs going in and out. Pollution accidents from large intensive farms are on a bigger scale and much more disastrous. The rise of intensive farms is therefore not just a nuisance for local residents, but poses a real threat to the health of our countryside. I, like the local residents of Rushden and Higham Ferrers, feel very strongly that Bedfordia should not be permitted to build this mega-farm in our local area.

The Secretary of State says these mega-farms are wrong. The British people say these mega-farms are wrong. I say these mega-farms are wrong. Now it is the turn of the Minister to say the mega-farm is wrong.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) on securing the debate on an application that has been made for a new poultry development in his constituency. I am aware that it is contentious in his constituency, and indeed that a petition signed by many people is already doing the rounds. I join him in offering my sympathy and condolences to Jenny Harwood, the wife of Councillor Glenn Harwood, whom he mentioned. He gave a fitting, moving tribute to the councillor, who sadly passed away this week and who, like so many of our councillors, did much work and campaigning that does not always get recognised. It was right for him to note that today.

The proposal is currently the subject of a planning application, and it will not be considered by East Northamptonshire Council’s planning committee until December 2017—next month—at the earliest. My hon. Friend is familiar with processes and aware that this is a planning application and not an issue that either DEFRA or Ministers would lead on in the first instance. Local authorities act independently of central Government when it comes to planning applications. However, the Government have a role when it comes to developing national planning policy. We are clear in national planning policy that local councils should prevent existing developments from being put at unacceptable risk from, or adversely affected by, unacceptable levels of air or noise pollution. That can include emissions such as smoke, fumes, gases, dust, odour and noise.

Obviously, the weight to be given to representations on a particular matter is ultimately for the decision maker, whether that is in the first instance the planning authority, or indeed, if it goes to appeal, the planning inspector. I know my hon. Friend is familiar with all that; indeed, he did not ask me to intervene in a planning decision. Many of his points related to animal welfare, to which I will return.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the area where DEFRA has a role: environmental permits, for which the Environment Agency is responsible. Under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016, there is provision for large poultry units—as he identified, that is those with more than 40,000 places—to be permitted by the Environment Agency. The permit covers all aspects of farm management from feed delivery to manure management in order to ensure that farms take the responsibility to address risks of pollution to air, land and water.

Permits regulate the general management of the site, the operations that take place on the site, and emissions from the site while also ensuring that sites keep good records and are accountable. Permit holders must take appropriate measures to reduce their environmental impact. Those include, but are not limited to: the prevention of odour by restricting odorous raw materials, minimising quantities of odorous materials, and effectively containing any odorous materials; restriction, recovery where possible, and disposal of waste in a manner that minimises the impact on the environment; and the adoption of best-practice techniques to reduce ammonia emissions from the site.

In the case in question, Bedfordia Farms, I understand that the operator originally applied for a permit covering a poultry unit of 360,000 birds in 2016. That permit was granted in June last year. In January 2017, the operator applied to increase the number of birds to 540,000, to increase the site boundary, to increase the number of sheds and to install biomass boilers. Due to the scale of the increase, the permit was publicly advertised for consultation. I am told that no objections were received in response to that particular consultation, and the permit was subsequently issued by the Environment Agency in March 2017. At that point, however, the site expansion had yet to obtain planning consent or, indeed, be constructed, as is still the case.

I have looked at the environmental permit issued and the consideration given. A comprehensive range of issues were taken into account, including the change to the site boundary, the increased number of bird places and whether the additional biomass boilers were sufficient, with an assessment of those impacts. It gave consideration to groundwater and soil monitoring, it considered the impact on special protected areas—a Ramsar assessment—and also potential impact on a site of special scientific interest, and it looked at ammonia emissions. It was a fairly comprehensive review, as is normally the case with such applications.

Environmental permits are designed to regulate the day-to-day operation of the site to minimise pollution. That the site has been granted a permit by the Environment Agency means that the agency is satisfied that the operations at the site will not negatively affect the environment. It also means that the site has been deemed to have no likely significant effect on local sites of scientific interest, or on the local area through ammonia emissions. I will point out that, in general, intensive poultry sites are classed as a high-performing sector, and very few sites cause local amenity issues.

I make those points because there is an important issue here. My hon. Friend’s speech was predominantly dedicated to animal welfare considerations, which I will return to at the end. I point out to him that environmental permitting takes account of environmental considerations, as it says on the tin. It is not the role of the Environment Agency to consider animal welfare; that is an issue of national policy, set either through domestic national or EU legislation. There are rules in place on maximum stocking densities and so on, which I will touch on later.

I will say a little bit about the poultry sector. While I acknowledge and appreciate the concerns surrounding the proposal, we should not forget the importance of the British poultry industry. It employs around 45,000 people in the UK, is largely unsupported by subsidies and does not have a levy body. It is one of our more innovative sectors. The output of the poultry sector was worth more than £2 billion in 2016, and the sector has achieved quite impressive reductions, for instance in the use of antibiotics, through voluntary industry actions. It has reduced its use of antibiotics by—the last time I looked—over 40%. The UK chicken industry maintains an excellent level of salmonella control; it has one of the lowest salmonella prevalence levels in the EU and is well below the EU target.

We should also acknowledge that poultry meat consumption is increasing. Per capita consumption increased from 31.8 kg in 2010 to 37.3 kg in 2016 and the long-term projections are that consumption is likely to increase, as many people find themselves switching more to white meat and eating less red meat. Over the past 50 years, the poultry sector has developed and honed quite a progressive industry, committed to improving and expanding skills in the industry and looking for new markets. Of course, there is always more that can be done, and the public are definitely growing more conscious of the impact of agriculture on both the environment and animal welfare. The UK poultry industry, through the British Poultry Council, operates a climate change agreement that includes targets for the reduction of energy use. BPC member companies are also required to be part of the agreement for both their farms and processing plants.

I am most grateful to the Minister for much of what he says, but the Secretary of State has said that we will not have American-style factory farming. This is American-style factory farming, so why has it got its licences?

As I said, there are two types of permits being sought here. The first is the environmental permits. As I explained earlier, under the environmental permitting regulations, the Environment Agency looks at the environmental issues. It does not look at animal welfare issues, which was the point my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was making. The second issue is planning, and that is something for the local planning authority to look at.

Returning to animal welfare, it is something we are considering in the context of future agricultural policy. The Secretary of State and I have been consistent on that: we want the highest standards on animal welfare in the world. As we design a new agricultural policy, we are considering whether we can support and incentivise different approaches to farm husbandry that would be better for animal welfare. It is worth noting that we already have individual farm animal welfare codes on a statutory footing, and there is one for broiler chicken production. We already have regulations to ensure that our stocking density—as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough pointed out, they do not have a lot of room—in the UK is far lower than it is in the United States. Our standards of animal welfare here in the UK are infinitely better than those we would see in the United States. The reason we have debates around chlorinated chicken from the United States, which is always a contentious issue when potential trade deals are discussed, is that the chlorination of chicken in the US masks wider animal welfare problems.

While acknowledging my hon. Friend’s points, we should recognise that standards of welfare in Europe and the UK are already far better than would be the case in the US. I recently visited one of the FAI farms in Oxfordshire, which is dedicated to researching how we can promote and improve animal welfare. For instance, they have done some interesting work on using mottled shade, trees and bushes for laying hens, so that free-range chickens are more likely to venture outdoors. Sometimes, simple interventions like that can go a long way towards improving animal welfare.

I agree with my hon. Friend: we support the view that animals are sentient beings, and how we treat sentient beings is a hallmark of a civilised society. That is why I have always championed high animal welfare in agricultural policy. In conclusion, the animal welfare issues that my hon. Friend raised are issues that we are considering in the context of future policy.

I am thankful to the Minister, who has been most helpful in his response. Could he give the timescale for that review of policy?

It was in the Queen’s Speech that there will be an agriculture Bill later in this Session—possibly by next summer or autumn. We will publish further thoughts on future agriculture policy at some point in the new year. I assure my hon. Friend that a great deal of thinking on all these issues is going on. We are working with organisations such as Compassion in World Farming and with Peter Stevenson, its head of policy and a key advocate, and looking at ways to improve animal welfare. That includes looking at incentives to support different approaches to farm husbandry.

We are considering whether to divert more research to promoting high animal welfare. One of the issues my hon. Friend raised was that genetic research is currently targeted only at yield, which is also a common problem in the laying poultry sector. I want more genetic work to go into addressing other concerns such as prevalence of disease and animal welfare issues. For instance, we know that, using the right approach to genetics with laying hens, it is possible to reduce feather pecking, so that there is no issue of beak trimming for laying hens. That is just one example. I am sure there will be similar examples for broiler chickens, and I look forward to debating animal welfare with my hon. Friend when the agriculture Bill comes forward.

I am pleased that there has been such a surge of interest in our debate on poultry welfare and that so many people have come to hear about that important issue.

Question put and agreed to.