My Lords, we move on to the debate about the British uplands and highlands. They are, broadly speaking, more than half the country. They are an essential part of the great diversity of Great Britain and England. They are at the very centre of our history, culture, economy and society. They include most of our national parks and are the place people often refer to as “the great outdoors”. I declare an interest as a member of the Access, Conservation and Environment Group of the British Mountaineering Council.
We forget that, many years ago, before the Industrial Revolution, many of these places were great industrial areas. They were areas where copper, zinc, lead and other minerals were mined, and where small mills made all kinds of goods. Later, they missed out on the Industrial Revolution to the coal mining areas. The coalfields were often based in areas that were on the fringes of the highlands and uplands. They drew a huge amount of population to the new industrial areas in the 19th century from the old industrial areas in the uplands. Nowadays the coalfields suffer the same kind of decline and the uplands themselves continue to suffer multiple problems. They are more remote, their soils are less fertile and the terrain is difficult. There is a shortage of jobs and low wages, combined with an often higher cost of living and housing costs, exacerbated by second homes and people moving to these beautiful areas to retire. Very often there are also declining services, an ageing population and problems of access to modern services, whether they are traditional, such as railways and motorways, or more modern, such as broadband. However, these areas are full of opportunities which we could seize.
Where are the uplands? I will talk mainly about England. My noble friend Lord Roberts will talk about Wales. I hope other noble Lords who are taking part in this debate—I thank them all—will talk about Scotland. Traditionally the uplands are much of the area that lies to the north and west of the geological Tees-Exe line. They are the areas of the old Paleozoic rocks, although that is a rough and ready assumption. The Lancashire plain and the Cheshire plain are on one side and the North York Moors on the other. The point about the uplands is that you know you are there when you are there. You recognise them instinctively because you know what they are.
Last year Natural England produced the first of two reports which I want to refer to this afternoon—Vital Uplands: A 2060 Vision for England’s Upland Environment. It used the boundary of severely disadvantaged areas to define the uplands. As such, it defines them on the map as rather detached blocks of moorland and fell. I think the uplands are widely considered to be wider than this. They are sub-regions and smaller areas which have these areas of higher land at their core but include the valleys and market towns, and the communications going past.
I do not know what has happened to this vital uplands report. It may now be on the shelf with the change of government. When it was produced, there was a lot of concern that it had downplayed the importance of food production as opposed to environmental goods in the uplands, and substantial changes were made to it while it was in gestation to make it more balanced in the direction of food production. However, it includes a useful checklist and puts forward 10 top changes—not in order—which it wanted to see implemented in the uplands. The first is stabilised soils, which is vital. The reserves of upland peat and blanket bogs are absolutely crucial because of carbon sinks and carbon reserves. Secondly, it looked forward to diverse, open uplands with a distinctive landscape. This is important. These are decisions which as a society we can, and must, make. Do we want our upland areas to continue to be the open areas they are now, with not a lot of forestry in most parts, and what forestry there is concentrated in the valleys and on the slopes? Is it the open views, the wide open spaces which we want to see? To what extent are we prepared to allow wind farms to disturb this? These are crucial questions which continue to deserve debate.
The third item is grazing systems that produce food and much more. We have to remember that the great wide open spaces of the Lake District, the Pennines, Dartmoor and Exmoor and all the rest of the uplands would not be as they are if they were not grazed. Not everybody understands this, but it is the sheep, cattle, deer and other animals on the moors which maintain them as they are. Food production is not just important in itself but for landscape reasons as well.
The fourth item is more and better managed woodlands, carefully planted and located. The fifth item is green energy. It is not just wind farms to which the uplands can contribute. The sixth item is the importance of low-carbon growth in these areas in transport, tourism and the footloose businesses which, with modern communications—if they are available—can operate from anywhere. Provided you have your broadband and your communications, you can operate from Upper Teesdale or a valley in Exmoor just as well as you can from the middle of London, and you might have a much higher quality of life. Businesses, which are the other side of the coin, I suppose, can develop using local materials.
I must move on but an important vision of the report was the need for reward and recognition of what the uplands contribute to this country. It refers to the need for upland farmers and land managers to be,
“rewarded for providing a range of vital environmental goods and services”.
It is not just this country where this debate is taking place; it is happening in Europe as well. Last year, the Agricultural and Rural Development European Commissioner, Mrs Fischer Boel, launched a debate and investigation into mountain farming in Europe. We missed out on that as we were not considered to have proper mountains such as they have in Europe. However, the nature of agriculture and of communities in our uplands is exactly the same as in the much higher mountain ranges of the Pyrenees, the Alps and other parts of Europe. In a speech at Alpbach in Austria last December, Mrs Fischer Boel said that,
“in looking after the countryside, farmers and other people in mountain areas are actually providing a service of value”.
By carrying out their normal economic activities, farmers are contributing much more than simply farming.
A further report has come out very recently from the Commission for Rural Communities, which, ironically, is about to be abolished. The report, High Ground, High Potential—a Future for England’s Upland Communities, is excellent. I commend the whole of it, not just the summaries, to your Lordships. It was set up to provide policy recommendations,
“to enable and equip them”—
that is, the uplands,
“to move towards more secure, economically prosperous and sustainable futures”.
One of the benefits of this report is that it starts by setting out the assets. It does not start by saying how dreadful everything is and listing all the problems; it sets out the natural and cultural assets of the uplands, which are closely interrelated. As I have said before, the landscape in the uplands—our wonderful hills, fells and moors—would not exist were it not for the social and economic activity that takes place there. The report lists as assets the biodiversity of the uplands, supplies of drinking water, the upland peat lands and the necessity to use them better as a means of flood control, the producers of products and services, food and woodland products, fuel, energy, tourism and recreation. The foot and mouth outbreak really brought home to people that in many rural areas where people go for recreation and tourism, such as the Lake District, the tourism economy is far more important in terms of the amount of income it raises than is farming. I say from memory that in the whole of Cumbria the ratio is 2:1—tourism is twice as important as farming in Cumbria. I could not get the figure for the Lake District, but the ratio must be 10:1 or higher—perhaps a lot higher. However, those ratios do not in any way downgrade the agricultural industry in those areas because, as I have said twice—I think—without the activities of the farmers, particularly the hill farmers in the Lake District, the landscape would be very different.
The CRC report goes on to say:
“The greatest threat to these valuable assets, however, arises from a lack of recognition that these are embedded in social and economic systems—in other words, their sustainability is reliant on the sustainability of upland communities”.
The benefit of this report is its stress on upland communities because without sustainable communities the whole system will collapse—the ecosystem and the economic and social systems will collapse. At the heart of it all is hill farming. At present, we have the transitional period in which the upland entry level stewardship scheme is replacing the old hill farm allowance. There are alarming figures of the proportion of hill farmers who have not yet signed up to the new scheme. The Minister may have some figures on this and, if he does not, perhaps he can write to us with the up-to-date figures.
As we know, the whole of the common agricultural policy is due to be recast in 2013 in ways that are not yet known, although it is highly likely that there will be a substantial transfer from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2. The vital thing in my view is that this transfer, and whatever happens to the common agricultural policy in terms of its total allocation in this country, should not in any way disadvantage farmers in upland areas because without substantial subsidy in these areas, farming will simply not be viable.
The report talks about the representation and governance in upland areas that my noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market will discuss. It also talks about local services in upland areas and the difficulty of keeping them going. Bus services, affordable rural housing, normal council and health services and village services such as schools and post offices will be severely at risk, along with a lot of other local services, in the present round of government cuts. I hope that the Government will reinvent the term which was all the rage two or three years ago—rural proofing—and severely rural proof the cuts to local authorities which will take place. Local authorities in rural areas are often not particularly strong in terms of lobbying and are often not particularly influential. Many of them comprise small districts and small counties. They do not have the clout of the Manchesters, Liverpools or London boroughs, but it is vital that services in these areas are, as far as possible, kept going.
The report sets out a whole series of useful recommendations that I do not have time to go through. I am very concerned, not about the future of the CRC as a quango, but about the future of its work. The emphasis that it has given to research into and action on rural poverty and deprivation has been essential, because these aspects are very often overlooked. In those areas, they do not come in chunks, like they do in inner cities, but in small pockets here and there—but they are vital. Poor and deprived people in rural areas are very often the people whose families have been living there for ever.
I am pleased to propose this Motion. The uplands are special places and I look forward to the debate.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on securing this debate and on initiating it so comprehensively and engagingly. In the spirit of the coalition, I say that long gone is that joke of yesteryear when torrents of Liberal oratory were said to pour down from Welsh hills and leave deposits on the English plains. I also congratulate him on his serendipity in attracting speakers from all corners of the realm, except Northern Ireland. I cannot personally fill that gap, but Ulster also has its remote uplands in the mountains of Mourne, the Sperrins and the north Antrim hills in the constituency of the noble Lord, Lord Bannside. I am, however, conscious that the Commission for Rural Communities’ paper on England’s upland communities, helpfully provided today in the Printed Paper Office, is, by the laws of devolution, confined to England. I hope that my noble friend the Minister in his reply will indicate how upland experience is compared throughout the United Kingdom, especially as the Northern Ireland economy is so concentrated on agriculture.
I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on having attracted the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester to the speakers list. One of the great practical arguments for retaining the Lords spiritual in your Lordships’ House is that they are by definition regional voices for their dioceses. The canvas that the noble Lord offered us is very wide, but I always think that community shops are a particularly vivid index of the communities referred to in the Motion—doubly so, because they serve the community and derive that service from the community itself.
I shall not dwell with latitude on any particular one of the many standard rural issues—housing, jobs, energy costs or communications in all senses. However, I want to reiterate from earlier debates in your Lordships’ House on planning and housing that the present habit of urban and suburban incomers to seek immediately to marry more than one dwelling into a single one, or to seek planning permission for extensions, is not the most sensitive way of entering their new community, not least when they reduce the supply of apposite and/or affordable housing among their neighbours. If the coalition were to contemplate changing the right of housing association tenants to acquire their properties, I hope that it would think long and hard first about rural communities and the protection that will be needed for such housing in them.
On jobs, the Minister responded to the debate on the economic aspects of the Queen’s Speech and I shall not weary him by repeating what I said then about broadband, which is important to rural areas for multiple direct and indirect reasons. However, it is noticeable how social entrepreneurs in remote areas can enhance social capital there. Alston in Cumbria is far from where I live in south-west Wiltshire, but I am struck by the way in which it not only has embraced and exploited broadband in its community, but also, until recently, provided national publicity for homes “in the sticks”—the title of its magazine—all over the nation to increase the ubiquity of such entrepreneurs all over the country.
The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, who will follow me, will speak more eloquently and comprehensively about the particular issues of the south-west than I can, but I am struck by how the scale of the heritage, measured by scheduled monuments, listed buildings, parks, public gardens and conservation areas, enlarges the further west you go. It is noticeable that the counties of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, which are more remote, have a significantly larger part of the heritage than those counties directly to the east. This has a powerful effect in encouraging and providing jobs in the heritage skills industries, when agricultural labouring, with all its historical richness in country lore, is dying out so fast. I declare an interest as president of COTAC, an acronym that conceals the Conference on Training in Architectural Conservation. We are doubly blessed in the heritage by what it does for tourism and thus the economy.
I vicariously congratulate the right reverend Prelate who is to speak later and the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, who is proving to be so dynamic and imaginative a chair of English Heritage, for the emphasis that they place on the health of rural churches, both in fabric and in their communities. Anyone who expresses anxiety about the Church of England and other traditions in rural areas should unblind themselves to how much rural life is built around our churches and chapels, which also provide the setting for much extracurricular culture.
I close with a scattergun of unrelated questions for the Minister and shall of course be content if he answers only one of them today. I should first declare an interest—or, more precisely, a responsibility—as the former government Whip on the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Bill, which featured in the recent case brought by the Badger Trust on the legality of the Welsh Assembly’s badger cull. My question is of a supplementary nature. Can my noble friend tell us how much of the massive anxiety about the health of our bee population is caused by the liking of badgers, like the liking of Winnie the Pooh, for treating bees’ nests as a direct source of honey and how far that weighs in any consideration of the badger population? Secondly, given the coalition’s announcement on building in gardens, how satisfied are the Government about the clarity of the present definition of brownfield sites? Thirdly—I join the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in this—given that my understanding is that the Commission for Rural Communities is itself threatened by a cull, is it intended to substitute some alternative form of rural advocacy to fill the gap? If I may hark back to my references to churches and chapels, let me remark on the fact that the mode of address of the chairman of the commission, Dr Stuart Burgess, conceals that he is a clergyman by background—how apposite that has been to his pastoral role within a national community that still feels a little beleaguered. I am delighted that his contribution on our behalf has so rightly and recently been honoured.
My Lords, I must first declare an interest as a farmer and countryman. It is very easy to stand up and moan about the way in which the countryside is treated by government. There is, after all, a lot to moan about. First, there is the shortage of affordable homes. Families are being torn apart by the unaffordability of housing. Secondly, public services are more expensive to deliver and, without the proper resources, sometimes fall short of urban standards. Primary education, for example, costs 24 per cent more than in the towns, due to small schools and larger distances. Health costs are also greater because you need smaller and more frequent health centres and hospitals. We also have proportionally more of the expensive over-65s living in the countryside, while refuse collection costs between 70 per cent and 90 per cent more than in urban areas, and so on. However, what creates the imbalance is that, in spite of these extra costs, central government support for local councils, LEAs and rural health authorities can be as low as half the amount given to the urban equivalents per head of population. Frankly, that is absurd.
As I said, it is easy to moan on behalf of our rural communities, especially the remoter ones, but there is a lot that is good about country living. As one might expect, we enjoy better health. Also, in spite of the extra costs, our kids appear, from the results, to get a marginally better education. Rural families and friends tend to pull together more, thereby cutting the cost of social services and making better and more sustainable communities. There is a wonderful amount of self-help in our rural population. Locals of all ages and backgrounds team up to manage and maintain their village hall, church, playground and shop. They help their Scouts and Cubs and watch out for their elderly.
Rural communities are also entrepreneurial. The fabric of our countryside depends on successful businesses—not only farming but other businesses whose wages or rents often keep farming families going. There are more manufacturing businesses in the countryside than in the towns. There are also more service businesses. There are more businesses altogether per head of population in the countryside than in the towns. The statistic that I am most proud of, even if it is a few years since I saw it, is that, of those below the poverty line in the countryside, some 22 per cent are self-employed, whereas the equivalent figure in towns is a mere 8 per cent. In other words, where there is hardship in the countryside—and this is all too easy to find—and where finding a paid job is difficult, people do not just put out their hands for welfare but try to make ends meet through their own efforts.
Having pointed out that rural communities have a lot to moan about but on the whole do not moan, I realise that in these economically difficult times it is unlikely that government funding for our big problems will materialise. Rural communities are great at surviving—and the more remote they are, the better they are at it. However, one or two things could be done that do not involve spending much money. We could start with the fabric of our countryside.
Because of farmers’ vital management of the countryside, the UK should argue in the EU for all stewardship payments to come under Pillar 1. This would mean a reduction in the normal single farm payment but, rather than just receiving handouts, most farmers would prefer the state to reward them for doing something. At the moment, stewardship payments come from Pillar 2, where there is little money to go around. Pillar 1 would make such payments more widespread and certain. The CLA proposes that in this way our designated less favoured areas—mostly our uplands and more remote countryside—could become environmentally favoured areas, from which the whole nation could benefit.
As for other businesses, and indeed affordable housing, it is often a matter of planning rather than of funding. Every village should have its own workspace and its own affordable housing. Perhaps the time has come when local parishes should be able to demand the provision of space for such facilities from their local planning authority and to use the planning system to enable that development to take place. Rural planning should not be about saying no; it should be about facilitating local communities to plan their own future. If that means converting and using redundant farm buildings, so much the better.
The other essential feature for rural businesses and society is a fast broadband connection. I am afraid that this comes with a price tag, but it is cheaper than more roads, more public transport and more daily delivery of a variety of public and commercial services. If rural citizens can easily access all services through a modern IT network and get the training to do so, many rural disadvantages could evaporate. This would be a clear case of spend now to save later.
My final point concerns rural proofing, a subject mentioned by the two previous speakers. There is no doubt that, if you wish to improve the quality of life in the countryside, it is departments other than Defra that matter. It is vital that all civil servants understand the problems of the countryside: the distances and difficulties of travel and the deprivation that exists in what most people—certainly most civil servants—think of as a chocolate-box existence. Apart from the obvious problems of delivery of health and education, can BIS, for example, deliver an efficient advisory service to the large number of businesses that exist in remoter Britain? Can the DWP provide rural careers advice, having reduced the number of rural jobcentres by 56 per cent in the past decade? Does the DCMS realise that school sports and drama usually happen after the departure of the school bus, thus making these facilities available only to families whose car is not monopolised by the breadwinner? More flippantly, has the Ministry of Justice worked out how witnesses and even felons can get to the more and more distant courts system without stealing a car?
Getting these departments to think about their remote and badly served rural customers in an understanding way is vital, particularly now that further cuts are being made. Having tried to do the job of rural proofing, I am acutely aware that you need to be well informed, confident, tough, provocative, independent and sometimes even threatening. I am also aware that none of those adjectives is easily applied to Defra staff. So how, with the imminent demise of the CRC, do the Government propose that this essential rural-proofing crusade will continue? Perhaps we should have a rural-proofing committee in this House. I am sure that we could stir up a few departments.
In conclusion, in a period of cuts the countryside will survive. Life is not perfect and deprivation will become more widespread, but most people will get on with it, rally round and help one another. However, the Government have to show that they care, which nowadays involves every department having an understanding of the difficulties of remote rural living and positively promoting agendas to overcome them.
My Lords, the Motion refers particularly but not exclusively to uplands and remote communities in our country. I will broaden the perspective from my own diocese in Chester. It includes the western slopes of the Pennines and I look over the River Dee to the promised land of the uplands of Wales. However, the diocese is primarily on the Cheshire plain. It might be thought that the problems there would be quite different from those of the upland areas, but it is surprising how they overlap, particularly at a time of economic marginality for so many farmers, not least dairy farmers, through a long agricultural recession.
The advent of a new Government provides an opportunity to rethink rural policy in general, partly because the great majority of Labour MPs represent urban constituencies and the impression has been given in our flatland and upland rural areas that policy-making in recent years has defaulted too easily, and perhaps in unintended ways, to an urban bias. I often heard that view expressed in my diocese. The diocese of Chester consists almost equally of urban, suburban and rural communities. The rural areas often feel a bit neglected after a period in which urban renewal has been a government priority—perhaps understandably and rightly, provided that the issues facing rural communities are not neglected or ignored.
I will speak partly from my direct experience of rural Cheshire. I have read the recent CRC report and agree with everything that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said about its excellence, and about the wider work of advocacy that the commission has performed. I will begin with an obvious point: farming, and milk production in particular, have been through a prolonged and very difficult recession. I have seen the consequences at first hand. The farm-gate price of milk has been at or below the cost of production for around 10 years. After a rise in the past couple of years, it has slipped back again. Many farmers in Cheshire have gone out of business and there has been much rationalisation as less efficient producers have been taken over by more efficient producers, and production facilities aggregated. To some extent, that is inevitable and even right; but too easily the net effect is simply to increase supply further and maintain the downward pressure on prices. That is why recessions in agriculture last so long compared with those in other parts of the economy.
Alongside general economic pressures, the farmers of Cheshire have had to contend successively with BSE, foot and mouth and the increasing incidence of bovine tuberculosis. It is little wonder that the suicide rate among farmers has increased to such a worrying level. Life often seems to be lived on a knife-edge: a cow is taken ill or goes down and you lose at least a month’s profit. It is one of the laws of the Medes and Persians that farmers always complain, but it is easy then to deafen one’s ears to the very justified complaints of recent years. The problems have been genuine, and not only for hill farmers.
The churches in Cheshire have employed a full-time rural crisis officer—a Salvation Army captain who comes from a Cheshire farming family. He does marvellous work providing pastoral support for farmers all round the diocese. We have recently expanded that work and taken on an assistant for him, and that has been supported by the local primary care trust, which sees the benefits that the work brings to community health. I ask the Minister what the Government’s broader strategy is for supporting our farming industry, and not only in our upland areas—particularly, as has been mentioned, with the review of the common agricultural policy now in its determinative stage.
The second issue that I wish to raise is the future of planning policies as they affect rural areas—upland and elsewhere. I recognise that these are complex issues, not least near and in the national parks. However, in recent years I have been quite worried by the effect of planning policies, particularly the requirement for density of dwellings. That has produced highly dense developments, often on the edge of rural areas. That is certainly the case in the diocese of Chester, where there has been a proliferation of three-storey town houses with small gardens, which look to me like the slums of the future. These developments are often right next to rural areas.
On the other hand, planning policies in rural areas seem to be far too restrictive. Our rural communities, upland and lowland alike, need to breathe, with a degree of development and an influx of people to all types of housing. There is a case for affordable housing in particular but there is also a case for all types of housing. Young and old alike want to live in rural locations and will put up with the inconveniences that were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron. It is wrong to constrain this artificially. Increasingly, people are able to work from home in any area, but that underlines the case for high-speed broadband in rural areas being a policy priority. Of all the priorities that the Government could address, it seems to me that that one will be absolutely essential. The plans to finance this were withdrawn quite recently, but it is vital that it goes forward because more and more people will be able to work from home. I should be grateful for the Minister’s comments on that.
Finally, building on what the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said, I offer a comment on the role of churches in rural areas. There are nearly 10,000 rural parish churches in England alone and several thousand chapels and churches of other denominations. Many of the buildings have a special and significant place in their communities, and by no means only for those who regularly worship in them. Communities hold tenaciously to their churches—sometimes to the surprise of the bishop. A suggestion that a particular church should close is liable to spark a revival. I sometimes think that I should propose that all 360 churches in my diocese should be considered for closure and simply sit back and watch the results.
Church buildings in rural areas are often the last community building left open. One challenge facing the churches is to regain a proper sense of the local church building as being for the wider community. That used to be more the case before Victorian times, when churches tended to narrow their use to worship alone as other buildings were provided in the community. Nowadays, rural churches are used for post offices or even farmers’ markets. This, to me, is an entirely good development which we should all encourage. Therefore, I ask the Minister how government policy will support rural communities—particularly but not exclusively in upland areas—because it is only when communities in the totality are supported that rural communities will flourish.
I, too, thank my noble friend for tabling this Motion for debate today. I want to address my remarks to rural areas in general rather than specifically to upland areas. I am a country dweller. I have lived in Suffolk for many years and my village has about 120 inhabitants. Like many people in your Lordships’ House, I carry out a weekly shuffle between where I stay in London and my home in Suffolk. The journey from Liverpool Street to Stowmarket takes around 80 minutes by train—or at least it does if National Express East Anglia is having a good day—yet that short 80-minute ride takes you from one world to another.
I guess that we are privileged in a number of ways, particularly because every week we see urban and rural living very much side by side. Certain things strike you about the way that public policy is developed—for example, there is lots of discussion about choice in public services. When I walk from the flat that I rent in London to the House, I probably pass eight schools, so choice there is a very real concept. In a rural area, passing eight schools might involve an hour’s drive and, in more sparsely populated areas, perhaps a two-hour drive. Therefore, questions about choice in public services are very different in rural areas. That reminds us that a lot of policy-making and decision-making is very much London-centred, which is something that people in rural areas notice and feel every day.
I was struck very much by the fact that a lot of the public service investment that took place under the previous Government was tied up in central administration, management and target-setting. I am philosophically allergic to that but it has also created a problem in rural areas. Centrally driven solutions are highly ineffective in dealing with rural problems, because there the solutions often lie in local, small-scale actions which are very individual and do not respond well to central control. Therefore, 20 years after I first became a district councillor, we are still talking about the same problems in rural areas—those of housing shortages, post office closures, deprivation and so on—and we have not really made any headway in tackling them.
I want to pause to recognise the role of the voluntary sector, certainly in Suffolk, although I am sure that it is the same in all rural counties. As well as some of the large national voluntary organisations, many hundreds of small organisations work tirelessly, some of them just generally to improve the quality of life—for example, the local project that cleans up the river in Stowmarket, or HomeStart volunteers who visit people in their homes and, in particular, help young mothers with post-natal depression. Those are key services which are targeted, offer good value for money and are highly effective. For us on these Benches, localism is not just about devolving power down to smaller arms of government, although that would be welcome, but down to communities and individuals who know best what they need in their area.
That needs to be balanced by effective strategic planning—not micromanagement from Whitehall. Although I have no particular regard for and am not sorry to see the dismantling of the unelected regional development agencies, we should look out for areas such as planning for water, waste, transport and other key services. Having been both a county and a district councillor, I am a fan of county councils for delivering that sort of strategic function. After all, counties are based on historic boundaries which carry a certain amount of public support with them. They are also democratically elected.
A good county council will understand the complex interplay between rural areas, market towns and the larger centres of population. A simplistic playing off of one against the other leads to bad policy-making and poor service delivery. For the same reason, I have never been very convinced by the previous Government’s imposition of so-called strong leaders in local councils. A well functioning cabinet or even the old-fashioned committee system would be better suited to large rural authorities because then representation would come from right across the council area, from town as well as country.
Despite the appearance of timelessness, our rural economies are changing. There are some very impressive rates of new business start-ups which, in many cases, are driven by new technologies. Between 1998 and 2005, the growth in knowledge-intensive business services has been at twice the rate in rural areas than in urban. This is despite the patchy provision of broadband services offering reliable speeds. Can the Minister say something about the Government’s plans for improving broadband in rural areas?
Rural businesses face certain problems. Surveys tell us that many small rural businesses rely on home loans and credit cards for their business finance rather than formal business loans. Thus they are more vulnerable to high overdraft charges or extortionate terms and conditions. There are 500 face-to-face debt advisers, funded by BIS, but only 24 are located in rural areas and so waiting times for business advice have increased to about three and a half weeks.
If we are to have a private sector-led recovery, the rural areas will be part of the driver for that, but they need help. We need to get the banks lending again where appropriate. Last year, Stuart Burgess, chairman of the possibly doomed Commission for Rural Communities, published a report stating that the size of the rural economy could be doubled if some actions were taken to unleash enterprise. I think the Government need to pay that some attention, particularly with regard to young people in rural areas who may wish to improve their skills and qualifications but who do not get the proper advice that they need. Often, they will either move away or fail to reach their full potential.
I shall finish by agreeing very strongly with comments made by the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, about planning. I welcome the notion of moving away from a heavily target-driven system to one which responds better to local needs. In my experience, parish councils are not nimbys. Most of them are very pragmatic about the need for development which can genuinely create more sustainable communities. They want to have their say, but they do not pull up the drawbridge. Therefore, the accusation that devolving planning to a more local level will somehow lead to nimbyism is completely misplaced in these rural areas. My only plea to the Government is to ensure that any incentive system which they give to housing reflects real need and is not just “cash for sprawl” but rewards the development of genuinely sustainable communities and sustainable homes.
My Lords, I join others in thanking my noble friend Lord Greaves for gaining this important short debate. I remind noble Lords of my family farming interests, although we have no upland connections at all, and of our membership of the NFU, the CLA and the National Trust.
In preparing for this debate, I reread the Natural England 2009 publication which my noble friend Lord Greaves highlighted and the recent Commission for Rural Communities report of June 2010. I also went back to the EFRA Select Committee report on the potential of England’s rural economy. Certain themes emerge in common. First, as the noble Baroness stated, no one size fits all. These rural areas are very diverse and the needs of one will not necessarily be reflected in others. Taking up the noble Baroness’s point about planning, I was particularly taken with page 8 of the EFRA Select Committee report, which posed the recommendation that Defra carries out a review of the planning decisions by the national parks authorities, assessing whether they reflect the correct balance between protecting the natural environment and ensuring that communities located within national parks are sustainable and will survive long term.
Other noble Lords have touched on things that are generally accepted but, in an age dominated by urban majorities, it is perhaps worth repeating the message so that it gets home. There are extra costs when living in rural areas: it costs more to provide services there; housing is more expensive and out of reach of some of the youngsters who want to enter farming or take up other rural careers; the provision of broadband is inadequate and in some places inaccessible; post offices have closed; jobcentres are difficult to visit; and village shops and pubs have also closed. Yet the rural local government areas receive a significantly lower level per capita of public investment than their urban equivalents. Sparsity has not been taken into account and I hope that my noble friend will be able to tell us more about the Government’s plans for that.
I read with interest the report of the Commission for Rural Communities, published in 2010. At page 50, the hill farming key facts give a stark warning about the future viability of farms in those areas. They state that approximately half of upland farmers are in debt and that, of those who borrow, 11 per cent report that it is becoming much more difficult to obtain external finance. Furthermore, 21 per cent expect their businesses not to go beyond the next five years. That highlights the need for urgency in tackling the problems that we face.
If world populations continue to expand as predicted, we will need to produce more food rather than less. Hill farming has an important contribution to make and one should not forget that less favoured areas in England make up 17 per cent of the total farmed area in England. While some farmers are able to make a viable return, many cannot as they are subject to disadvantages resulting from farming in areas of natural handicap.
As others have suggested, the agri-environmental payment schemes are crucial to their future. I understand that a revision of the less-favoured-area designations across the EU is now ongoing, with the objective of establishing more consistent EU-wide physical criteria for these areas. Defra’s new upland entry-level stewardship scheme is to set a minimum stocking density on moorland, reflecting the importance of grazing animals and the need to avoid undergrazing. My goodness, if we had had this debate a few years ago, we would have said exactly the opposite. I also understand that the EU Commission has suggested that scheme payments should be made annually, not half yearly as they currently are. I would like the Minister to comment on that because, if it is so, it will hugely affect some of our upland farmers who rely on a half-yearly payment. The total income of some of them is just about £6,000, which is minimal.
I have three questions for the Minister. First, will the Treasury’s contribution to the £3.9 billion England rural development programme be cut, and, if so, by how much? What has happened to the underspend of £420 million, reported in June 2009, for Defra’s RDP schemes? Secondly, does the Minister know how many tenant farmers with fewer than five years to run on their tenancy have failed to obtain their landlord’s countersignature on an application for an upland entry-level scheme and what is the aggregate loss of funding as a result? Thirdly, is Defra monitoring the expansion of the densely growing bracken? It is a huge problem in Wales and other areas, and unless we keep livestock on the land we risk it getting totally out of hand.
The Natural England report published in 2009, Vital Uplands—A 2060 Vision for England’s Uplands, states that our uplands are a national asset, prized by many people as places of inspiration and enjoyment as well as a source of vital benefits such as food and clean water. It later states that our healthy upland environment, with its outstanding wealth of habitats and cultural landscapes, is crucial to everyone’s well-being. It is indeed. But agriculture and food production are equally key. Surely the primary purpose of uplands will remain food production—a source of high-quality meat and breeding stock for lowland producers. The one set of farmers relies on the other, and the chain between them is an important link that should not be broken. It is worrying that there has been destocking of livestock in some areas. For example, the raising of livestock units on Dartmoor fell from 46,000 to 9,000 between 1996 and 2006. If that is repeated elsewhere, that is worrying.
How will the Government resolve the many demands placed upon them in our uplands areas? Will environment schemes continue, and how will they be regarded to include the public good? Other noble Lords have spoken about the need for a rural voice and the work of the rural advocate. Will the Government create a cross-government public service agreement if the CRC is to be dissolved, rather than the existing departmental strategic objectives, because some of us would consider the former better than the latter? Again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and I look forward to hearing the response from my noble friend.
My Lords, I, too, am pleased to join this important debate, which covers such important issues as communities and remote parts of the country, and to have the opportunity to address a Minister who not only is involved in farming but comes from a fairly remote area. I also farm and run small businesses in tourism and printing in an LFA almost six hours’ travel from this House, and I declare an interest in both farming and those businesses.
Although I am based in Scotland, and many of my activities fall under the Scottish Government, remote and upland issues tend to be similar throughout not only England but the devolved regions, and Westminster is still our link with Europe. It is true that, often, the uplands and remote communities of the United Kingdom are forgotten in the rush of modern life, and come to the attention of the public only when there has been a sad case of an errant gunman, or foot and mouth disease.
However, the uplands play an important part not only in the agricultural sector but in tourism and small business. The diversity of business is often less than in other regions and often has considerably lower income levels—through either market forces, restrictions on development by planning authorities, or simply the weather. Notwithstanding that, the weather is now contributing to the uplands economy through the proliferation of wind farms, balanced by the impact on often unspoiled countryside. Upland farming tends to be extensive by nature, not a high-income generator, and a low employer.
However, in industry, uplands create the base for a wide spectrum of business, from suppliers to small manufacturers and niche businesses. Sadly, that often means that the size of the business is too small to sustain whole families, and low incomes are often the cause of the drain from rural communities to centres of population. Rural enterprises often also lose out because they are unable to compete due to simple things such as broadband provision and transport links. As a result, many younger members of the community often feel obliged to move. That depopulation does not help the retail sector either, and many small shops are forced to close. The convenience shop used to be in the village but increasingly the large supermarket or store, in the eternal quest for territorial domination, now sweeps many small shops in rural towns aside. Sadly, that is increasingly seen in towns, with rows of closed shops moving the heart of town centres to the peripheral areas. Indeed, that is so bad in some rural towns that closed shops have large landscaped photographs placed in the empty windows to try to camouflage them.
To my mind, the solution should be fairly straightforward. I am aware that the enterprise networks in Scotland have been changed, and I believe that there are alterations in England. I am a great supporter of forward-thinking and effective enterprise and development agencies to help to support and advise on business start-up and development. That needs to involve proactive and experienced advisers and focused funding for support with a degree of flexibility.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, made some interesting points about foot and mouth disease in the Lake District. I am not aware of what went on in the rest of the country but, without a doubt, the fast reaction of our local council in Dumfries and Galloway, along with the enterprise network, to source funds for loan support for small business, prevented many of the non-agricultural small businesses from going under at a critical moment.
I am aware that there are initiatives in Scotland, and I assume that there are initiatives in England, to supply broadband to outlying exchanges. My noble friend Lord Cameron covered the need for broadband very well. However, I recently heard of a business local to me that received a quotation in excess of £10,000 to complete the link from the exchange to the business. That is not an incentive for a business to develop in a remote area.
I also want to cover transport, but would prefer to come back to it later.
Over the next few years, the single farm payments system is being reviewed, along with other European funding. I urge the Minister to focus on discussions with the devolved Governments to discover exactly how remote communities can be best served before accepting any agreement from Europe, to ensure that we can rebuild our remote communities and stop further deterioration. Too often schemes are produced that focus not on the business but on the community, which can often result in an excessive supply of play areas and similar things, but without the business development there will be no young people to enjoy the playground. Without a doubt, successful communities rely on successful business. Perhaps we should look at local abattoirs built on greenfield sites and subject to full, up-to-date European regulations, which would demonstrate a complete interlink between upland food production and would, without doubt, be better for the welfare of the animals, which are otherwise transported for long distances.
Returning to transport, I ask the Minister to indulge me because he will know that the town I am talking about is in Scotland, which is under a devolved Administration. Stranraer is two hours west of Carlisle, is surrounded by sea on three sides and is in an area dominated by farmland. The only industrial employment comes from a cheese factory and two ferry ports. It definitely qualifies as a remote community. However, my example can be applied to many remote towns and villages, where the formula can be adjusted but the results are the same if one of the principal employers ceases. About five years ago, an economic assessment was commissioned to study the effect of the withdrawal of the ferry services on that route. Stranraer already had an unemployment rate of over 5 per cent, and it was predicted that unemployment would rise to almost 15 per cent.
The key to the survival of Stranraer was the ferry ports, and the withdrawal of the ferry companies was a real possibility, entirely due to the condition of the road approach. There are other crossings to Ireland, but none as short and therefore as fast. The road to the town and port is the A75, which is also a trans-European network link from Ireland to mainland Europe through Scotland and England. Although of European merit, it is funded by the devolved Scottish Parliament, which did not consider it to be a priority. As a result of lobbying the Scottish Parliament, some road-widening improvements have taken place, but not nearly enough. However, Stena Line, one of the ferry operators, now has the confidence to invest almost £240 million in the sea route, securing for the time being the future of this one remote community. This money has been spent on building a new port facility and purchasing two new ships. It demonstrates the welcome and continued interest in the British maritime industry of Dan Sten Olsson, the managing director of Stena.
While not asking the Minister to respond on what has happened in the past in Scotland, I ask that, when the Government reorganise whatever may follow the Barnett formula, special attention is given to funding for devolved issues that affect all the regions of the United Kingdom—for example, road links—and that may not be a priority for the devolved Government. If not, other remote communities caught in the middle will continue to suffer.
My Lords, I will follow the thinking and questioning of those who have already spoken this afternoon. I come from a very beautiful seaside resort: Llandudno in north Wales. I get no commission whatever from any tourist authority for mentioning that. When I go home, I see such a change. Shops on the very attractive main street and on secondary streets are often boarded up. The reason is out-of-town shopping centres, which have a great attraction because they have easy parking and a wide variety of goods for sale—far more than high street shops used to have. You now see the change and the problem of what to do with those empty shops, apart from putting postcards in the window to show what they might be like.
This is happening not only in the towns. This earthquake of change has also hit the valleys, because naturally young people want more life than they will get in a rather sleepy village, and they will travel to the town. Rarely is there any trouble when they come on a Friday and a Saturday to the more youthful areas. I live very much on the edge of the youthful areas, by the way. There is no real problem. For older people—I include myself, of course—bus passes have been wonderful, because they take you to the shopping centre and the town and away from the sleepy village. My folk were shopkeepers in the Conwy valley. There were things on the shelves, but nothing like what you will get in your major supermarkets. We can see the change.
This is not only changing the towns but emptying the villages. After the war, there were 39 shops in one village that will be nameless. Some of them were small. There were bakeries, two chip shops, two pubs and a number of chapels and churches. Now what do you see there? There is not one shop. The post office has gone and one pub lies derelict. You look around and see that the church has closed, most of the chapels have closed and people have gone. The hub that used to be no longer exists. Some of the villages become suburbs to the larger town and are no longer individual, independent entities. That is fine because you can travel—for entertainment and for work—but it leaves a countryside that is empty of people. You wonder how on earth we can reinvigorate that countryside.
I have some strange ideas that I doubt anyone will ever pick up. Could not the big stores that have emptied and closed the village shops commit to some sort of franchise arrangement in local villages? Could we not ask the Government to instigate conversations with these large supermarkets, with their multimillion-pound chains, to see what could be done to bring some of their sales, their retail outlets, to the villages that have been emptied by them? That might at least bring some hope.
The Plunkett Foundation is a national organisation that helps rural communities, through community ownership, to set up retail outlets in village churches, pubs and halls. That is something that we could do. Let us also put a halt to the closure of small post offices. Some 2,500 post offices were closed when the previous Government were in power. We, as a coalition, must look to keeping villages unique and with some sort of hub. The post office is one. It has sales; it is a small shop. I heard of one this morning that does bed and breakfast as well. It serves the community in many different ways. Let us ask the post office to do one other thing. When a postmistress or postmaster retires, there should be a review of the situation in that locality. Retirement often means an erosion of the hours and the services that are provided. Let us have a real look at that situation.
Indicative of the decline in villages is the reduction in the number of whole-time agricultural workers. Some are family farms but some used to employ workers. In 1950, there were nearly 38,000 agricultural workers in Wales. By 1970 that was down to 13,500, and in 1990 to 5,881. The latest figures indicate that there are 2,779 agricultural workers. They are no longer in the countryside. In my part of Wales, local quarries used to be part of the community. Where they used to have thousands of workers, they now have very small workforces. Young people have left to work elsewhere.
I have looked at local baptismal registers. One hundred years ago, the people who were baptising their children there were from that parish or community. There is still some of that, but in the registers now one sees a person from Australia, another from Milan, Italy, and even some from England who have brought their children to be baptised in those areas. The community has scattered, so some of the young people have been lost. But new people are coming in. On Monday, the local Daily Post quoted a report from a Bangor University survey which stated:
“Rural villages are dying out across North Wales as the young quit a region which is failing to provide them with decent jobs … Meanwhile hundreds of older people … are pouring in, seeking”—
some sort of paradise—
“and hastening the decline”.
It is not a new story, but it is a story that continues.
How are we to tackle this? If only I knew, and if only we had a magic wand. Could we not think of local action areas? Perhaps we could ask the community council or the parish council if they would be willing to lead a local action area scheme for special support for regeneration.
We also have to look at what the future holds. The local bus service has been saved by passes for older people. The routes have been saved and people’s lives have been enhanced. How will that continue in a time when there are serious cuts in local government and in Welsh Assembly subsidies? Where will the money come from? I hope that the Minister will listen. How will we tackle these problems in a time of difficulty?
I thank my noble friend Lord Greaves for initiating this debate on rural communities. It is appropriate that I should declare an interest as deputy chief executive of the Countryside Alliance and as a member of the National Farmers’ Union. My maiden speech was last Thursday and I look forward to a continuing affection for the Thursday country. A positive future for rural communities goes to the very heart of what we all seek to promote. I welcome this opportunity to draw particular attention to the role agriculture and game management in the uplands play in ensuring a dynamic countryside and helping to address the challenges of climate change.
I would, however, like to make a few general comments on rural communities and the threats they face to their long-term sustainability. Rural communities are often at the sharp end: there is a lack of affordable housing; they suffer poor public transport provision; they have an ageing population; and they are often the last to achieve broadband connection, which can limit the creation of new enterprises and jobs. This is something that we should all worry about and we should help to promote a positive resolution.
Each aspect of rural life is interdependent and the challenges facing communities must be tackled together. If there are no houses and jobs, communities lose young families, which in turn means that there is no longer the critical mass to support local schools and shops. People in rural areas travel around 10,000 miles per year to access essential services, which is 43 per cent more than in urban areas. The greater distances make families more reliant on having a car and therefore disproportionately affected by increases in fuel prices. The problem is exacerbated by the loss of local garages. Some people now have to travel up to 30 miles to their nearest forecourt.
I turn more specifically to the uplands. Farming remains central to the character of these tightly knit and resilient communities, but requires a new generation of young people who want to take over the farms and businesses. Somehow we need to address the exodus of young people from upland communities by ensuring that there are positive prospects for those who want to make their lives there. Yet still many upland farmers are now living below the minimum wage. We need to ensure that planning authorities, particularly in the national parks, have the flexibility to enable sustainability to be implemented in the broadest sense, to allow sensitive development of affordable housing and businesses to thrive while respecting the landscape and environment.
British farmers not only produce food to some of the highest standards in the world, but also play a vital role, as they have done for many centuries, in shaping and maintaining the very landscape for which Britain is so famous. Hill farming is an essential element of managing moorland habitats and contributing to the cultural identity of many upland communities, which in turn makes them attractive places to visit. Some 45 million visits are made per year to national parks in England alone, with tourist spending of more than £2.2 billion. The economic value of tourism in the uplands is underpinned by the essential land management currently being carried out by farmers and gamekeepers. Land abandonment surely must not be an option, and policies must be developed to continue to reward farmers adequately for the stewardship they undertake for the benefit of the nation.
The uplands are home to habitats of international conservation value and some of the most spectacular scenery in the UK. They are places that offer solitude from the stresses of modern life, a quality which attracts many visitors to enjoy a range of activities and brings in vital income. Those who visit the uplands are rightly attracted to these areas because of their natural beauty, and that beauty has been much enhanced by long-standing management practices. The fact is that heather moorland, an iconic upland habitat, is rarer than rainforest. Some 75 per cent of this moorland is to be found in Britain. Through sensitive grazing, managed heather burning and revegetating bare peat, hill farmers, gamekeepers and land managers continue to provide benefits to both the environment and the public.
Much of the uplands have been given special protection under EU conservation designations because of their biodiversity attributes. Moorland managed for grouse has been shown through scientific research to support greater diversities of breeding waders, in particular at Otterburn, which looked at the breeding successes of curlew, lapwing and golden plover. It was found that 60 per cent of these bird species fledged on keepered land compared with only 16 per cent on non-keepered land. Some 47,000 people a year participate or are involved in grouse shooting, which puts £190 million into local economies. This economic engine drives notable conservation benefits.
Perhaps I may focus on the role the uplands also play in providing wider environmental benefits. Approximately 70 per cent of UK drinking water flows from upland catchments. In this context, I draw your Lordships’ attention to the land management practices used by gamekeepers that help to ensure clean water supplies. By revegetating bare and damaged peat and blocking drainage channels, gamekeepers stabilise the peat and reduce erosion. These practices reduce sediment loads, discolouration and contamination of water. It is in the uplands where the greatest opportunities for mitigating climate change lie. Peatlands are the single largest carbon reserve in the UK and researchers have estimated that if all the peatlands in England and Wales were maintained in pristine condition, they could absorb approximately 400,000 tonnes of carbon a year. Land managers therefore have an essential role to play in ensuring that the uplands act as carbon sinks.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the other place has requested a review of farming regulations. This has been widely welcomed by rural communities. Over the years they have seen a complete onslaught of regulations. The benefit of the lighter touch should not be underestimated; we should trust people more. The Minister has a considerable knowledge of rural communities and the uplands in particular. There is a strong team of Ministers at Defra with a track record of rural roots. The countryside looks forward to hearing more of their vision of the future.
Our country faces testing times; we can, and must, rise to the challenges. The rural communities across the uplands of all parts of the United Kingdom may be small in numbers, working in tough conditions, yet they are in the front line for us all, helping to address the ever present challenges of climate change, energy supply and food security. They deserve our respect and support.
My Lords, as someone who was brought up in East Anglia—indeed, in Norfolk, which, as a talented playwright said, is very flat—it is with some trepidation that I join a debate on the uplands. However, the main problem for rural areas and the uplands is the same: small communities are losing their heart because of the better transport facilities that are made available to people by the car. When enough people take their economic activity to other places, the small local community tends to wither and, as has been said by many people, local shops disappear, which leads to a loss of local casual employment. If you have not got access to transport—usually a car—you cannot get a job; this in turn means that you have to leave, which leads to a contraction of the community. The further up and the more difficult the hills, the worse the problem gets. It is an underlying social problem.
I do not know how many noble Lords have a holiday cottage, but those who do are adding to the problem because they have an economic reason for ensuring that that house is not available to the local community for people to rent or buy at an economic level.
There is a series of problems that are not effectively addressed by the way in which modern society is organised. It all comes down to the way we use transport. What we can do to counter the current trend is the only real question. We have talked about information technology and broadband and whether it will encourage people to work in the knowledge-based economy at home. Potentially it will—many do—but do people want to be isolated and spend all their time working at home? Many people want to spend some time at home and some time being interactive with people face to face. Are we providing enough incentives and encouragement to enable people to be by themselves or to spend virtually all their time within the family unit? We have not got there yet. There is still the problem that, if you are by yourself, you will still be dependent on your car and may have to travel slightly further and so on. Unless public transport is easily available at a mass level, we are always going to have these problems; people will become isolated in a modern community.
We do not know how affordable car transportation will be in the future. In the debate yesterday on the low-carbon economy, the question was posed whether the electrical car would prevent us from being priced off the road in private small boxes. We do not know yet. The Government should encourage the private sector —or do it themselves—to take on the role of ensuring that there is some kind of accessible public transport available to rural areas. This is a fundamental problem for rural communities in any part of the country.
The uplands of our society have become a recreational resource for much of the rest of the country—I thought that I might be the first person to touch on this after my noble friend Lord Greaves, but the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, has just done so. That recreation takes the form of country sports, such as shooting, walking, mountain-biking, which is on the increase, and other forms of outdoor activity. Here, the uplands seem to have a real role. The problem, as has been pointed out to me, is that people may go there, have their sport and leave, but the economic spread is not as high as it could have been. Do we encourage people instead to go for several days’ walking or mountain-biking—those activities have slightly greater potential for this—to seek accommodation locally and to have at-leisure spend, for the pub or restaurant, after the main activity of the day? Are we doing enough to encourage this? Are we doing enough to encourage people to want go out there?
My noble friend Lord Greaves said that if we leave our hills spare, many of them will be covered in scrub woodland. Scrub woodland may look pretty, but just try walking or riding a bike through it. It is very easy to get lost in a wood. Will we have to invest in mountain rescue and more complicated forms of support if we do not maintain the type of landscape that has encouraged rural recreation? Walking over a comparatively open stretch of land with great views is a pleasant experience that has obvious health benefits. It is also a form of activity that is non-competitive, although one can often be very competitive with oneself, saying, “I’m going to try to get over that hill, see that view and get back again”. If we can encourage that type of activity, linking into the idea of making public transport more readily available, we would serve those communities. Local businesses, as my noble friend said, used to rely on a great pool of agricultural workers, who are simply not there now—modern agriculture seems to rely far more on mechanics than on people who have any great knowledge of the land. If we are going to encourage this type of activity, we have to make sure that we help rural people to be able to take on the business.
I will leave it there, because other noble Lords have dealt with this matter with considerably greater skill than I shall ever be able to manage. However, unless we start to look at this in the round and realise that recreation is also important to the survival of local communities, we will be missing a trick.
My Lords, I rise to speak in the gap because I was too late to put my name down for the debate last night. I shall be concise. I should like to declare the interests that I have put in the register.
I begin with the Commission for Rural Communities’ proposition that the uplands are an opportunity. That is because of the many changes taking place in the direction of the world—in digital technology, food security, the environment, climate change and tourism. I define rural communities in this context as being land-based, as opposed to being commuter-based near conurbations and towns.
The starting point for land-based areas in the UK is farming. Prosperous agriculture is the basis of prosperous uplands. We live in a controlled market for farming defined by the common agricultural policy, which is intended to take into account the public goods that it produces. In these circumstances, agriculture could perhaps accept that it should get the same rate of return on assets employed as the Treasury expects of government, while those engaged in agriculture should receive an equivalent at least of the minimum wage. Furthermore, as part of this, public goods should be paid for on a value basis, not a cost basis—after all, nobody expects Lucian Freud to sell pictures on the basis of the cost of materials and labour at an art teacher’s hourly rate.
The uplands contribute great value to tourism, ecology and the environment, and those should be recognised as the basis on which the rewards are distributed. The system that the Government deploy to deliver their policy requires complete overhaul, as we all know, which would save them and the farming community money. The development of digital technology provides huge new opportunities and I should be interested to hear what my noble friend the Minister has to say about that. I commend the initiatives of the honourable Member for Penrith and The Border. This is important, because this technology can improve the quality of life of those in the uplands and widen the scope of the business that can be conducted from them. In parallel, it is also vital that the planning policies recognise this change at the same time as honouring the requirement to protect—
My Lords, like others who have spoken this afternoon, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on bringing forward this important subject for debate today. His commitment to countryside issues, including access to our countryside, is well known. His characteristically knowledgeable introduction of the debate set a welcome tone from the outset, which has been followed by a number of important contributions as well as a large number of issues for the new Government to consider in the whole area of rural policy.
I was personally glad that the noble Lord chose the particular focus of the debate to be the future of our upland areas in particular, not least since I live in one of our most beautiful upland areas, the Northumberland national park. My nearest small town is Rothbury, which of course suddenly found itself at the centre of both police and world media attention recently because of the dramatic events surrounding the hunt for Raoul Moat. Perhaps I can take this opportunity to pay tribute to the people of Rothbury, which, in most normal circumstances, is a very safe and caring community, deeply committed to the future of our countryside and our rural way of life. Indeed, it is a good place to live for those of us lucky enough to live there; for that reason, I was pleased at the points that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, made in putting forward some of the positive aspects in relation to our countryside, as well as some of the problems and issues rightly raised by noble Lords this afternoon.
It was also good that a UK-wide perspective on our upland areas was evident in the debate. Despite the devolutionary age in which we live, or perhaps because of it, it is very good to share experience across the UK. Learning of good practices and what is happening in other parts of the UK is very important in a debate such as this.
Not surprisingly, reference was made right from the start, in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, to recent reports about our upland areas, including from Natural England and the very recent one from the Commission for Rural Communities, High Ground, High Potential. This report deals with many of the themes raised by noble Lords today. The national importance of our upland areas is highlighted in the report. For example, 75 per cent of our uplands are designated as national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty, and there are 40 million visitors to England’s upland national parks each year, with correspondingly important effects on spending in those areas and on the health of our tourism industry across the UK as a whole. The report deals with the importance of hill farming to the uplands, and measures to secure the future of hill farming as well as the challenges that people living in the uplands face in the modern world. The report’s recommendations are ones that we should all, including the Government, take very seriously.
As the Minister knows, I and the Opposition generally were concerned about the decision of the Government to abolish the Commission for Rural Communities and raised this with the Minister at Question Time last week. In reply, the Minister said that he would say something about this in due course, so I hope that he recognises that today is an excellent opportunity to make such a comment—and in particular to pick up on the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, on how to ensure that there is an independent rural voice on many of the important issues that we have debated today.
The importance of payments and subsidies for upland farmers has been mentioned. Looking at one of the recent NFU bulletins, I see that there are concerns, which I hope will be addressed by the Government. In particular, there are worries that upland farmers, who will be particularly reliant on the upland entry-level stewardship scheme following the loss of HFA, might be put under additional financial stress as a result of the proposed changes to the payment cycle for stewardship agreements. The NFU urges transitional payments, at least, to mitigate against this possible problem. Having said that, I have also looked at the information supplied by Natural England on the need to boost uptake of uplands ELS and the welcome advice given by Natural England to encourage take-up, to streamline the process and to avoid as many delays as possible.
I feel nervous taking issue with any statement from the Bishops’ Bench today. Indeed, I agreed with many of the right reverend Prelate’s points. However, when the Labour Government were elected in 1997, the size of the majority meant that many Labour MPs represented substantial rural areas. I assure the right reverend Prelate that when I was a Minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I was lobbied as intensively on countryside issues by Labour Members as by Members of all other parties, including, of course, Members of your Lordships’ House.
In December’s debate in this House initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, who also spoke in today’s debate, I paid tribute to how British farmers have increasingly adopted an environmentally sensible approach to farming. By doing so, farmers are providing a public good beyond the traditional and essential public good of providing food. Farmers who I know in my area increasingly appreciate and enjoy environmental responsibilities as part of their overall work.
Following some of the comments by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, I would like assurances from the Minister that the environmental schemes that have benefited farmers and rural areas more generally will continue and receive a proper level of funding. This is one area of policy where we want to continue making progress and not sacrifice many of the gains that have been made.
That leads me on to biodiversity, which was mentioned in the debate by the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble. It is an important issue in our rural areas. This is the international year of biodiversity. I was glad that in the Secretary of State’s first debate in the other place she said:
“We are absolutely committed to reversing the trend in the reduction in biodiversity”.—[Official Report, Commons, 27/5/10; col. 405.]
However, reversing the trend will not be easy. There are many worrying examples within our own country. My area of Northumberland is an important habitat for red squirrels, but we feel increasingly beleaguered by the encroachment of grey squirrels from both north and south. Local people of all backgrounds and professions feel passionately about this issue. Indeed, I chivvied my own Government about this on many occasions, so I assure the Minister that I will continue to chivvy him and his colleagues.
There are other well loved species that we are concerned about—the dramatic drop in the number of nightingales, for example, or the number of water voles in our streams or rivers. We certainly cannot preach about the virtues of biodiversity abroad if we fail to protect and enhance biodiversity at home.
This debate has, quite rightly, ranged more widely than agriculture. Indeed, it has looked at a number of issues currently affecting rural communities. My noble friend Lord Knight drew to my attention concerns in Cornwall about the lack of future convergence funding projects, including business technology and transport initiatives. Cornwall is one of our least well-off rural areas. What are the Government’s plans for the convergence funding scheme? Will the Minister at least write to me if he is not able to give me that information immediately? It will be of concern to many Members.
Rural buses were mentioned, not least in the transport issues referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Addington. If there are to be cuts in rural bus subsidies, we need to know how these will affect the upland areas in particular. The situation concerning broadband was also quite rightly mentioned by several Members. There is still concern about progress in ensuring that this is fully provided in rural areas. I know from my own area that mobile communications, too, are an issue. Many upland areas still have either no or very poor access to mobile communications. However, there is a great deal of initiative and enterprise in our rural areas, which we should recognise. I have seen many impressive examples of farm diversification and rural initiative.
In conclusion, I echo the points that have been made. To ensure the future of our rural areas, while the role of government is vital, we also need a good partnership between local government, the private sector, the voluntary sector and all those involved in our local areas if the priorities that have rightly been identified today are to become reality.
My Lords, I also declare my interests as set out in the register. I echo the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, who referred to the recent unhappy events in Rothbury, in paying tribute to the Northumbrian police for all that they had to endure in dealing with that matter.
In closing, the noble Baroness asked me a couple of extra questions. I have had rather a large number of questions put to me in the course of the debate, ranging from bees to bracken and brownfield sites to badgers, and then to bees and badgers. I have not had to deal with bees and badgers together before. The A75 from Carlisle to Stranraer came up, along with a whole host of other matters, including red squirrels. I do not think that I will be able to address all these matters now but suspect that I will be quite busy writing letters next week. However, I give the assurance that I will, as always, write to all noble Lords on individual points that need an answer.
I offer my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Greaves on introducing this debate and attracting such a high-quality list of speakers. It was good to be reminded of the industrial nature of some of our upland areas in the past. I think of the lead mining areas around Alston or the Lakes, or the coal mining areas in my part of north Cumberland, which has changed a great deal over the years.
I begin by stressing that the Government’s and my department’s remit for rural communities extends only to England. My comments will relate largely to English matters, rather than to those which relate to Wales, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts; to Scotland, as raised by the noble Earl, Lord Stair; or to Northern Ireland, which we are grateful to my noble friend Lord Brooke for raising. There are three matters that are not devolved—forestry, hunting and EU farm policy. Other matters are devolved, therefore it would not be right for me to deal with them for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I can give an assurance that we talk to colleagues in the devolved Administrations about these matters. We certainly listen to what they are doing, and I hope that they will listen to us. Obviously one wants to share good ideas and practices. I will certainly ensure that comments on matters for the devolved Administrations are referred to them in due course.
The first point that I will deal with is the abolition of the Commission for Rural Communities. I start by stressing that the Government’s number one priority, because of the position we are in, must be to reduce the deficit. However, that cannot and will not be achieved by neglecting or ignoring our rural communities —quite the reverse. We are committed to taking on a focused and active leadership role on rural issues within the Government. That means two things: first, we will work closely with the rest of government to ensure that everything we do fully and appropriately reflects the needs and interests of rural people. We will in effect ensure that things are rural-proofed. Secondly, that makes clear that there can no longer be a need for the Commission for Rural Communities to operate as a paid external adviser, watchdog and advocate.
As I have made clear, we are committed to doing what we can to ensure that people in rural areas and the uplands receive fair treatment, but we do not believe that policy advice should generally be carried out by individual departments’ arm’s-length bodies—that is a job for the department. Defra will be the Government’s rural champion and we will ensure that it is. I give an assurance that all Defra Ministers have a reasonably rural background. I stress my own, coming from north Cumberland. I am fully aware of the problems that the rural and upland areas face. I appreciate that this will be difficult news for the CRC staff. We are very grateful for all the work that they do and this action is not in any way a reflection on the commitment and quality of work that they, the commissioners and particularly the chairman, Dr Stuart Burgess—he has been referred to—have done over the past four years. As I say, we will certainly ensure that we continue to offer that role within government and throughout government.
The Government recognise that all issues affecting rural people, businesses and communities are important, but I want to highlight a few of them where we feel that particular effort is needed. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, was the first to mention the whole question of broadband in rural areas and the need for it to help create employment as society changes. This was echoed by a great many other speakers. We believe it is essential that rural communities and businesses not only get a basic level of broadband service as quickly as possible but that they are given equal priority as the next generation of high-speed broadband is rolled out in the future. Certainly my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and my colleague Richard Benyon, the Minister for Rural Affairs, are working closely with other ministerial colleagues, particularly in BIS, who lead on the wider broadband issue, to ensure that rural areas receive the basic broadband provision that they rightly want and expect as soon as possible; and that their interests are also fully recognised and addressed in the rollout of superfast broadband across the country in coming years.
The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and many other speakers referred to housing difficulties in rural areas. Those areas are some of the least affordable places to live in this country. We need to ensure that our rural towns and villages have the freedom to determine the scale and type of development that they want and need. We will certainly be working with the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that rural people and rural communities benefit from the Government’s new approach to housing and planning. The Government agree that local communities should be free to decide what they want to build, and want to make it easier for them to do so. This is part of our whole spirit of localism.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, underlined the need for rural transport and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, stressed how important it was to ensure that people could get around. Transport is regularly cited by people in rural areas as their single biggest concern. It is fundamental to so many other matters affecting people’s lives in rural areas. We will be working with the Department for Transport to explore ways in which the best examples of local authority practice in terms of bus services and other transport provision can be replicated by others, and how the excellent examples of community-based transport schemes that are benefiting people in rural areas all over the country can be supported, promoted and emulated in other places.
The same is true of rural community services. I think it was my noble friend Lord Brooke who talked about the importance of shops, pubs and post offices. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, stressed the extra cost of providing schools in rural areas. I certainly remember from my time as a county councillor in Cumbria the problem with one of the primary schools whose roll reduced to merely two. I gave up trying to defend it when most of the parents had moved their children away. Very often, parents want to move their children further in, to a bigger school that will offer greater services. That small school should have had between 20 and 30 pupils on its roll, but the other parents did not think it had a future. They left, and I have to say that it was very difficult to make much of a case for fighting for the school. The noble Lord can imagine the cost of a school with only two pupils. We understand that there are problems with not just schools but all other services, because fewer people use them. However, we also accept that all shops, pubs, post offices and village halls are very much the heart and soul of rural areas. Again, to identify and promote ways to maintain, support and improve these, we will work with partners in local government, local authorities and the civic sector.
It is obviously early days for us in government and there is much to do, but we will come forward with more detailed plans of how we intend to address these and other issues in the future—perhaps I should say “in due course”. The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, will upbraid me if I do not do that soon enough. However, we will certainly get on to it.
Perhaps I may say a little more about localism—something which I know the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and I feel strongly about. I want to reassure him that we are committed to localism both in planning and in other areas. We should not be frightened that this will lead to attacks of so-called postcode lotteries. I remind noble Lords that the uplands are not just one area but a series of different areas, all of which face very different problems and are different in their needs. By localism we mean that we want all levels of local authority—whether unitary, town, parish, county or district councils—which are democratically elected to know what their areas want and how to deliver it.
I give one example from my portfolio within the department—the question of waste and how it is collected. It is quite obvious that the service that will be offered in Westminster, where I live for part of the time, will be very different from the service offered in the remote parts of north Cumberland, where I live the other part of the time. It is quite right that the two authorities—the City of Carlisle and the City of Westminster—should offer a different service, because the populations in those areas need and require different sorts of collection. It is also quite right that if we do not like the service we receive, we have a democratic chance of disposing of that authority.
There are other benefits from pursuing that policy of localism, despite the so-called dangers of a postcode lottery. Those are the advantages that, by operating in different ways, different authorities can produce different solutions which can then be copied by other authorities as appropriate. One could almost describe that as the Maoist approach of letting 1,000 flowers bloom—not that Mao necessarily in the end followed his own advice in these matters. Anyway, that policy should be followed by local authorities. Rubbish collection is just one example, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will welcome that.
I turn now to hill farmers, the support that they need and the changes that will come about in the CAP. We fully recognise the vital role that hill farmers play in upland areas. I take this opportunity to welcome the recent announcement of the Prince’s Countryside Fund, which will provide an important additional means of support for hard-pressed farmers. The Government are committed to rewarding hill farmers for the environmental and landscape benefits that they provide. They provide numerous social and environmental benefits and are not fully rewarded by the market for the goods that they produce. We intend to ensure that they will receive the support that broadly reflects the value that they bring to society, and which will encourage them to remain farming in the hills so that all of us can go on enjoying the uplands in future. As has been made clear recently, we will try to reduce the regulatory burden on farmers by moving to a risk-based system of regulation, and will develop a system of extra support for hill farmers.
The uplands entry-level stewardship, which is the successor to the hill farm allowance, has now been introduced and recognises the role of upland farmers in shaping some of our most iconic areas, while better targeting funding for the delivery of those environmental and landscape benefits. If we achieve the maximum uptake on uplands ELS, that will take funding to £31 million per year. I understand that interest is in line with expectations. Some 1,800 applications have been received and 1,200 agreements are now in place. In response to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, I tell him that the area of eligible land is more than 200,000 hectares—nearly 40 per cent of England's target for uptake by March 2011. I say to my noble friend Lady Byford that we recognise that there would be an impact on farmers if the payment ceased to be half-yearly and became yearly, and I assure her that we will look at that.
Lastly, I will say a word or two about CAP reform, which is an important and very difficult matter that we will have to deal with in Europe over the next two years. We want to see a competitive, thriving and sustainable agricultural sector that is able to rise to the challenges and opportunities of the future. That means that we need genuine reform of the CAP to deliver good value for farmers, taxpayers, consumers and the environment. That will be difficult to achieve, but we are committed to working together with the European Commission, the other member states, the world of farming and all others to achieve reform of the CAP.
I conclude by saying that the rural areas of England, including the uplands and other more remote places, have been marginalised for too long. By forcing Whitehall to recognise and respect rural needs and interests, and by empowering rural citizens to solve their own problems, the Government believe that they will restore these prized national assets to their rightful place at the heart of our nation.
My Lords, I have time to make only two brief comments in response to the debate. First, I thank everyone who has taken part—particularly noble Lords who put quite a lot of flesh on the bones of what I initially set out to be a very broad and general introduction to the subject, rather than an attempt to cover everything. I am extremely grateful for the very high quality of the speeches of all those who took part, including the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, who jumped rather rashly into the gap but seems to have survived. I thank everyone and hope that the record of this debate will be something that people, including the Government, can use in going forward with rural policy.
I particularly thank the Minister for his very comprehensive reply. I always thought that the little red book that he had in his pocket was the Companion. It turns out to be the Thoughts of Chairman Mao, so perhaps I shall become more adjusted to calling him my noble friend after all.
The other point that I want to make concerns advocacy.
House adjourned at 4.35 pm.