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Rural Communities: Prince’s Countryside Fund

Volume 721: debated on Thursday 7 October 2010


Moved By

To call attention to the launch of the Prince’s Countryside Fund, and to the case for continuing support for rural communities; and to move for papers.

My Lords, it is a great privilege to introduce this debate, and I am conscious of the impressive list of speakers who will follow, all of whom bring with them such wealth of experience and knowledge of rural communities from all parts of the kingdom. Many other noble Lords have expressed much support and encouragement for this debate and regret that they are not able to be present.

I should perhaps declare an interest as the deputy chief executive of the Countryside Alliance and a member of the National Farmers’ Union. This debate has been an exciting prospect for me as a new Peer and, I hope, for my noble friends Lady Eaton, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor and Lord Younger of Leckie, who will be making their maiden speeches today.

I had also hoped to hear from my noble friend Lord Livsey of Talgarth, who was intending to speak today and with whom I was in touch but a few days before his sudden death. His staunch support for rural communities in Wales was ever constant, and he will be very much missed there, as he will be in your Lordships’ House.

His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales is a champion of urban communities as much as he is of rural communities. From the inner cities to the most remote hamlet, for more than 25 years the Prince’s work has been making an enormous difference for the better. From enterprise initiatives to the survival of the red squirrel, the Prince has led the way. He has been in the vanguard of early thinking on many subjects which are now mainstream. The Prince has a unique understanding of how the countryside ticks and is managed. It is born of years of experience and hands-on knowledge, and it is why he cares so profoundly about its future. Having attended the launch of the Prince’s Countryside Fund in July with the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and my noble friend Lord Plumb, I felt I should endeavour to draw to your Lordships’ attention its important work.

The Prince’s Countryside Fund seeks to raise money from a wide range of businesses to help rural communities directly. Grants will be given to projects which contribute to the viability of farming and rural communities and, in particular, in those areas of greatest need, such as the uplands. It is also intended to reconnect consumers with countryside issues and to support farming crisis charities.

Fifteen founding companies have together already pledged more than £1 million. These major companies represent a sizeable section of the food industry. If I may be so bold to say, it would do so much more good if other businesses in that sector, and other sectors, also played their part. It is after all in their own interest to ensure that rural communities flourish. Perhaps I may also venture to suggest that a product with the countryside fund logo on it comes from a publicly spirited company.

As in all areas of the Prince’s work, he has not just identified the problems but has brought people, communities and business together to find practical solutions to meet the challenges. This is a compelling feature of this initiative: a small investment can enable so much to be achieved by communities themselves.

The fund will have an independent trustee board chaired by Mark Price, managing director of Waitrose, with 10 other highly experienced trustees. The three initial recipients highlight the scope of the fund. It will pay for the hill farming succession scheme, via the farmers network in Cumbria, to encourage young people into hill farming. Eight young people over two years will be trained in hill farming skills and so help maintain the infrastructure of the uplands. If there is to be another generation coming into farming with real prospects of making a decent living, we must address that. If we do not, the consequences will be dire and it will be a great indictment of our generation.

The second project is a grant for Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Service, which will help to provide support and advice to 450 hill farming businesses, particularly with the increasing and complex paperwork with which farmers have to wrestle. IT training will also be provided to farmers. We should in turn welcome the Government's determination to reduce unnecessary red tape and bureaucracy.

The third tranche of funding goes to Pub is the Hub’s expansion into Wales. I am delighted that that has already been warmly endorsed by the Secretary of State for Wales. This project will enable 50 pubs to be developed into service and community hubs. The prospect of combining many services will keep the pub viable and provide a community resource.

Each of these initiatives at grass roots level will be a force for much good in sustaining communities. This fund has already hit the ground running and from these acorns, many oaks should grow, but there is much more to be done. Let us be clear about the value of rural communities. They are the guardians of the countryside in one of the most densely populated countries in the world. They produce much of our food, with a requirement to produce even more in future. The countryside is a resource for energy, carbon sinks, water capture and recreation, and has the potential to do so much more. It is the place where much of our flora and fauna exist—how wonderful that we now have the largest tree cover since 1750. So many other economic interests hinge on it.

In preparing for this debate, I read an academic report which questioned financial support to agriculture on the basis that tourism is a much more significant economic factor. That entirely misses the point about how our farmed landscape is the essential backdrop for rural tourism, let alone the uncertainty which climate change is putting on food production all round the world. Our countryside is admired throughout the world, and is also a home and workplace for millions, yet those who live and work there can be forgiven for feeling at times that they have not always received the backing they deserve. Divisive politics, misrepresentation and a lack of understanding can create a sense of alienation. Rural people have all too often been overlooked. They should have equality of healthcare, service provision and decent, affordable housing. Farmers and rural businesses should be able to compete in fair markets at home and abroad. If they are excluded from technological advances such as access to broadband, how can they diversify, modernise or even complete routine requirements such as VAT returns and animal movements online? Again, to be positive, it is to be welcomed that my noble friend and his colleagues recognise that.

If British agriculture is to remain at the forefront of an international and ever-changing scene and to be able to respond to the challenges and demands of the 21st century, it is vital that the need for investment in agricultural research and education is recognised. The entire rural economy turns over £300 billion a year and employs 5.5 million people, and farming and food production are at its core. With the right infrastructure, the countryside has the potential to create the small and medium-sized enterprises that are key to future jobs and our nation's future prosperity.

The rural population has grown by more than 800,000 people in the past decade, twice the rate of urban areas. The result has been to price many families out of the communities in which they work and in which they were often brought up. Provision of affordable housing must therefore remain a priority. If it is not addressed, and urgently, many of those communities on which our countryside depends will wither.

My visit during the recess to rural housing schemes in Buckinghamshire run by Hastoe Housing Association was inspiring, and up and down the country similar schemes are enhancing communities. It shows what can be done when everyone works together, and how these small-scale developments can make such a positive difference to village communities. Affordable housing bolsters the school roll and many community assets, be it the pub, the village shop, the post office, the church or the chapel. The Government’s recent announcements on how communities can be empowered to come to their own decisions about local housing are therefore to be much welcomed.

To put the challenges facing rural Britain in context, 62 village primary schools closed between 2004 and 2008, and 200 more have been projected to close by 2014. Thirteen rural pubs close each week and 400 village shops are projected to close this year. Rural England has lost half of its entire post office network since 2000. In parts of Cornwall, I am told, every village has lost its post office. It is a bleak record, and we need to halt this decline.

However, there are huge opportunities for innovation in the countryside. A few weeks ago, I visited the anaerobic digester plant near Southwold run by Adnams Bio Energy Limited. It will be the first in the UK to use brewery and local food waste to produce gas for injection into the national gas grid as well as producing vehicle fuel. It will generate enough renewable gas to powers Adnams brewery and its fleet of lorries, and the remaining 60 per cent of the output will go into the national grid. It is an outstanding and groundbreaking initiative, and much of the plant is below ground. In both Suffolk and Cornwall I hear of plans for solar thermal panels with photovoltaic cells which also will make a valuable contribution to energy supplies. The first biobaler in the UK has just been ordered in Cornwall and will deal with invasive vegetation and produce biofuel. So these are exiting times for new technology which we must grasp and encourage. I believe that we should congratulate these inspirational pioneers.

In the challenges our nation faces in the years ahead, I am convinced that the British countryside’s contribution will be absolutely essential in responding to those two global threats of food security and climate change. We will rely on rural communities more than ever. It is our responsibility now to enable them to play their part. Devolving power to local communities is a key part of the solution—trusting people, harnessing the endeavour, resilience and voluntary spirit which are still at the backbone of rural life.

This is a debate that affects the whole country. My intention is to highlight the compelling case for ensuring a vibrant future for rural communities and, as Country Life this week described it, for the place of the countryside in national life. The Prince of Wales has once again given us a lead. The fund is an example of what needs to be done and what can be done. The question is not if we back rural communities, but how. This is the challenge we all need to rise to and, I believe, for which we all have a responsibility.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, on securing this balloted debate. I look forward to the three maiden speeches. The noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, and I came into this House in June this year and have had many conversations on a wide range of issues outside this Chamber. There is no doubting his passion for the countryside and his support for British farming and rural communities. I very much support the aims of the countryside fund launched this summer by the Prince of Wales. It is good to note that so many leading companies have made contributions to it. I very much hope that other companies, other organisations and individuals will follow their example and support this fund and other initiatives.

Supporting farming communities and the rural economy is of paramount importance to us all. We want the communities to thrive and prosper. There have been difficult times, and we are all aware that there are difficult times ahead. Although I am a Londoner, I worked in the east Midlands for 13 years before returning to London in 2005. The east Midlands is a very rural region. There is no conurbation. It is a series of principal cities and towns in rural counties. Rural communities that you find in the east Midlands and around the rest of the UK need to be given the support to be sustainable. They must be able to have their fair share of the green jobs that we talk about so much and be able to access the fastest broadband and other cutting edge developments in the ever-changing world.

We will need to monitor closely the decision to move away from the broadband levy to a system that encourages private investment in next generation broadband. If this system does not bring the required level of investment, it puts rural communities to the back of the queue in being able to benefit from these developments. That means that government, business and local authorities have to work together to ensure that this does not happen. The Government have to review and evaluate, and be prepared to change. Working together with initiatives such as the countryside fund means that the countryside is protected for everyone to enjoy. Whether you live in an urban or rural area the countryside is for everyone. Making the countryside accessible to all is the way we ensure that it is preserved and protected.

We all want good quality food produced, bought and sold at fair prices. I support British farming in my purchases every week and in doing so support an industry that has quality as its hallmark. From the biggest farms to the smallest micro brewer in a rural hamlet they need to know that we are supporting them. But that is not enough: the supermarkets have their role to play in paying a fair price for good products produced by British farmers.

In conclusion, I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner. With his membership of this House we will be assured of returning to these issues many times. I have raised a number of points and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, for this wonderful opportunity to debate an important topic. I look forward to the maiden speeches, particularly from my noble friend Lady Eaton whose brilliant work in local government I am more than familiar with. With five minutes allotted, I will cut to the chase. My theme is the desperate need for affordable housing for local people in rural areas. Yes, the outlook for creating the necessary affordable housing appears bleak, but there are grounds for some realistic optimism.

I would identify the barriers to producing the affordable homes that are so badly needed in rural areas under four headings: first, fierce local opposition to development; secondly, restrictive planning requirements; thirdly, lack of funds to make homes affordable; and, fourthly, disproportionate costs and effort for organisations, particularly housing associations, to get involved. It is much easier to produce 60 apartments in an urban area than it is to build six homes in a village.

I believe that there are solutions to each of these problems and I shall take them in reverse order. First, rural housing enablers were invented by the Rural Development Commission in the 1990s with funding from the Housing Corporation after a report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. These individuals can really make things happen. They are the brokers, the go-betweens and the facilitators who work with the parish council, the land owners and the planners, and they bring in the housing association when all is sorted out. That prevents the need to go to endless meetings in the village hall—starting at six and finishing at midnight—night after night. The rural housing enabler does all that for you and housing associations can bring their skills in getting the homes built and meeting all the design criteria. At the end of the day, we need more of them, and they are very inexpensive when spread over a number of schemes.

Secondly, on funding, as part of the reform of the housing revenue account, with which the Government thank goodness are pressing forward, local authorities need to be entitled to retain all the proceeds from the sales under the right to buy of council housing, and the proceeds of any other sales of land or property, and recycle those proceeds into new homes. That does not add to the public sector debt. The Homes and Communities Agency, which will not have as much money in the future as it has had in the past, should still give some priority to rural housing in the grants that it gives out. But most important, the exception sites planning policy should be liberalised. This can represent the way to raise funds that make homes affordable without extra government grants.

Let me explain this in a little detail. If a couple of homes for outright sale are permitted in a place where planning consent would not normally be granted, the landowner can receive market price for the two houses that are sold—remember that market price may be £700,000 to £1 million an acre compared with an agricultural value of £5,000 to perhaps a maximum of £7,000 an acre—and then land for perhaps six homes for affordable housing in the form of rented or shared ownership can be provided without the land having to be paid for at all. The cross-subsidy does the trick and can make homes affordable for people in perpetuity.

The contentious issue is that of local opposition. It is one of the crucial reasons why development is currently being prevented in so many areas. People in the countryside often hate change. Sometimes they fear that young families will be bad neighbours, they do not want their view to be spoilt, and they believe that more homes may reduce house prices. Yet, as I know from many years of sometimes harrowing experience in getting new rural housing schemes going, after the new homes are built the fiercest former opponents are often the first to say how much better village life has become because of the young couples who have been able to bring up their families there.

I turn to how to change hearts and minds. The Government intend to introduce two new measures which I hope will make a difference. First, the new homes bonus will reward councils that are positive about new housebuilding, providing funds which will be denied to councils that block new housing. This should strengthen the hand of councillors who show the leadership to support new home building.

The second measure proposed by the Government is the community right to build programme, giving local communities the chance to give planning consent without any of the bureaucracy and delay that is built into the system so often today. Local housing trusts and/or local people working closely with existing housing associations, perhaps helped by a rural housing enabler, can pursue these schemes. But on how to decide whether the community really wants new homes or indeed even business premises, the Government’s first thoughts were for a 90 per cent yes vote in a referendum. The Housing Minister has subsequently softened this to a 75 per cent yes vote, but others have argued that this is still a huge hurdle when we know that it is very much easier to get a good turnout for a no than for a yes vote when the outcome is uncertain. Bodies such as the Rural Coalition, the CPRE and others have suggested instead that the planning authority should still be engaged in the process and, indeed, that if the parish council is on board, the scheme should proceed. It is well worth us all getting behind more rural housing, and there are other positive opportunities to get things done.

My Lords, I must declare an interest as deputy president of the Countryside Alliance. As Prince Charles has said, the countryside is a delicately woven tapestry: start pulling out the threads and the whole will unravel very rapidly. In the Yorkshire Dales, the Cumbrian Fells and the hills of Scotland and Wales, most farmers last year made an average loss of £3,000. Farmers and farm workers have declined by 26 per cent in the last 20 years. The average age of farmers is now 58. We need 60,000 new people to come into agriculture if only to stand still at the present level. Just because a farmer cannot cope with the bureaucracy, it does not mean he is a bad farmer. In particular, I would like to see the work of the Redesdale Experimental Hill Farm expanded to add to the work already being done by the Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Service, which has already been mentioned by my noble friend Lord Gardiner.

Sheep and lamb are the mainstays of the upland areas. Lamb production is down in Ireland and France, and there is a reduction in the lamb coming in from New Zealand. The breeding flock in this country has stabilised and will increase by 2011. As proof, at recent sales the price of a cast ewe was over £100. The threat of bluetongue has receded and the tagging of 33 million sheep has been put on hold.

The wool price must be stabilised. Last year’s clip cost £1.20 to the shearer, so most farmers actually made a loss when their sheep were clipped. Luckily, because of the work that has already been done by Prince Charles, the price of wool has begun to rise; in fact it has reached 120 pence per pound. The wool industry must maintain a price that is viable to the farmers and it is vital to educate the public about the real value of wool in many other products.

I am grateful to my noble friend for initiating this debate. There are many other issues affecting the countryside that we would like to discuss but there is not time to do so today. One of the most important things is to ensure that we have a good badger cull throughout the countryside. We must also face up to avian predator control, particularly of hen harriers. However, in this debate, the most important thing is to ensure that sheep farming continues on a viable basis.

On heather moorland, by far the most prosperous activity is grouse shooting. However, we need sheep on that land in order to provide a host for the tick, which can be removed by frequent dipping. As Prince Charles has said, the economy of the upland areas of Great Britain must include farmers, shooters, hunters and the public. They are all of great value to this country.

My Lords, William Cobbett—not a favourite politician among the Bench of Bishops at the beginning of the 19th century, but a great conservative reformer—was one of the closest observers of rural life in his times. In supporting greater awareness of, and support for, the Prince’s Countryside Fund, we can learn a lesson or two from William Cobbett—to whom we incidentally owe the initiative of the publication of parliamentary debates, which became Hansard—who naturally thought Guildford,

“the prettiest, the most agreeable, and happy looking town that he ever saw”.

In October 1825, Cobbett journeyed through Surrey, and his account is in his Rural Rides. He deplored the demise of the yeoman farmer and the increasing social and economic gap between the farm worker and the newly rich squire, due largely, he argued, to the economic protectionism of the Corn Laws—eventually, as your Lordships’ House well knows, to be repealed by Robert Peel. My point is not antiquarian: Cobbett not only observed, wrote about and deplored the increasing crisis of rural poverty at the beginning of the 19th century, but he also analysed its economic causes and campaigned for reform.

The Prince’s Countryside Fund, to which the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, calls attention, has three goals. The first goal is to improve the sustainability of British farming and rural communities, especially those in greatest need. We heard something about that in relation to upland sheep farming from the previous speaker. Analysis of the causes of contemporary rural deprivation—often hidden, even in affluent Surrey—will be part of this goal. Disparities today include the gap between the largely arable agricultural units, often in the eastern and southern regions of Britain, as compared with what is virtual subsistence sheep farming in the uplands and, again, the smaller, family dairy farming in the west and in Wales. There are also issues to do with the power of purchase of supermarkets and with rural housing, about which we have been eloquently addressed by an earlier speaker.

A further goal of the Prince’s fund is to support farming and rural crisis charities in emergencies. Before I was Bishop of Guildford, I was Bishop of Stafford, covering north Staffordshire from the border with Shropshire and Cheshire to the Peak park—the Staffordshire moorlands. That was at the time of the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001. Staffordshire, after Cumbria and Devon, suffered devastatingly. Local livestock markets closed permanently. Farmers lost all their animals. It was not always noticed that on farms peripheral to the outbreaks beasts could not be sold or moved but still had to be fed. A farmer in this predicament said to me in a black-humoured way that he wished that I had brought foot and mouth with my wellingtons. Then at least he could have got compensation. Farmers could not leave their land; children were sent off to relatives so that they could go to school; churches and halls had to be temporarily closed; depression and suicide haunted communities. Clergy, doctors, social workers and the National Union of Farmers all had vital pastoral roles of support. Curiously, after I moved to Guildford—I trust that it was in no way connected to me personally—Surrey also had a contained, accidental outbreak in 2007 from a research institute in Pirbright, which your Lordships may remember. Local churches sent small hampers of goodies to the farmers concerned, not because there was a real need of food but as a gesture of concern. A farmer wept when he received one. The wider community was thinking of him. Pastoral care in rural emergencies is essential. Rural chaplains and pastoral care networks are at the heart of such care. The Prince’s fund will support such organisations as can offer this.

The other goal is to connect consumers with countryside issues. Cobbett, born in Farnham, knew the countryside from the inside. Today, this is not a matter simply of “townies” on the one side and the Countryside Alliance on the other; it is more complicated. In areas such as my diocese, most of Surrey and north-east Hampshire, people who work in the City or Canary Wharf, or who commute globally from Heathrow and Gatwick, like to live in rural villages. But the gap between the “newcomers” and the old villages can be vast. Churches are one place where bridges are made, where mutual understanding can be fostered. I conclude with a cautionary tale. After the foot and mouth outbreak in Surrey, I went to the reopening of a farm shop. The farmer told me that after Defra’s closure of his farm had been effected, with perfectly clear markings and notices of closure of footpaths and bridleways, some people—I am sorry to say, living locally—still insisted on crossing over the temporary barriers to walk their dogs and to ride their horses over affected land in spite of the clear danger of cross-infection. That demonstrated the disastrous lack of connection between many who now live in the countryside and the farming communities who work and preserve the countryside that people wish to live in. That gap is serious and I especially welcome therefore that goal of the Prince’s fund as well as the others.

My Lords, it is a privilege to stand here today, a Bradford councillor who has been accepted to take a seat in this wonderful, historic building, joining so many learned and talented individuals.

I shall begin my maiden speech by briefly paying tribute to the people who have made my first weeks here so pleasurable and informative. As a rural councillor, I am much more used to seeing wool markets than woolsacks, and am more experienced in village halls than in Westminster Hall. Nevertheless, the staff of this House have done everything possible to make me feel at home, and for that I am extremely grateful. I must also thank my sponsors, my noble friends Lady Hanham and Lord Bates, whose expertise and wise words will stand me in great stead for the future. I also thank my mentor, my noble friend Lady Sharples, for her instructive insights, as well as all the other Peers who have kindly given of their time and advice.

I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble on calling today’s important debate. As a resident of Cottingley, in Bingley, West Yorkshire, and as an elected councillor for my ward of Bingley Rural, I hope that I may add some useful reflections to this highly topical debate on rural issues. People are often surprised when they find out that I am a councillor on the City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council but that my ward consists of five beautiful villages in the glorious West Yorkshire countryside. Perhaps the misconception comes from too much television watching and possibly from comparing our cities and urban areas with Coronation Street. Coronation Street is not part of my ward, but Emmerdale almost is. The fact that rural villages sit within metropolitan boroughs shows the sheer variety and diversity of geography and population that councils cover.

My rural ward has its own unique character. The annual Bronte vintage gathering takes place in Cullingworth. In Denholme, the mill used to sustain the population; it no longer does and we have issues involving young people. In Cottingley, the famous wood where the fairies were still attracts many visitors. Wilsden is an old, beautiful stone village whereas Harden, by contrast, quite clearly sits in the commuter belt. It is all very far away from urban Bradford.

Of course, my ward faces a unique set of challenges. The local transport infrastructure and the problems that stem from increasing traffic congestion on small rural roads are constantly raised by my residents, as are questions about affordable housing and the overdevelopment to which my noble friend Lord Best referred. Local community groups, which currently do such fantastic work with groups of people suffering deprivation, are understandably worried about their future.

For example, the excellent Cornerstone Centre project in Cottingley was created through a unique collaboration among the council, the church, Futurebuilders England and local residents. This wonderful project has offered a focal point for the whole village and incorporates public services, a doctor surgery, social facilities, housing and a church. The Cornerstone Centre demonstrates clearly the enormous potential within our communities and the challenge that we face in ensuring that such excellent community schemes continue to gain support.

All the issues raised in my ward are echoed in rural areas across the country, although the specific problems require specific solutions. Like all councillors that I know, I became involved in local politics because I wanted to make a difference locally. I wanted to help to solve the problems that my ward faced. I saw the role of local government as being the mechanism for bringing different parts of the community together in the pursuit of a common goal. I saw that in 1986 when I was elected, and I still see it now.

However, when I became leader of Bradford council, I was increasingly frustrated by the constraints placed on local government by national government. We were constantly having to do an Oliver Twist and ask for more money, more funding, more powers and more freedoms to allow us to improve the lives of our residents. Those constraints have curtailed innovation, stifled creativity and made local people in rural areas feel that they are unable really to make their voices heard and their opinions count. Clearly, this needs to change.

As chairman of the national organisation the Local Government Association, my work as a local politician on the national stage has been to demonstrate clearly to national politicians that local works best and to show that Whitehall must remove the shackles that restrict councils from being the best that they can be for the people whom they serve. I am grateful that I will have the opportunity to continue that work with my noble colleagues in this House. It is fantastic to note that, on all Benches, there are confirmed localists who have done much to improve their areas and will need no persuading. I look forward to debating the best ways of progressing localism in the coming years.

It is inarguable that it is at the local level that services and policies truly touch on the lives of individuals. This is where people feel most able and willing to make a difference, whether through community action, volunteering or planning for the future of their neighbourhood. People passionately care about their neighbourhoods and it is right that our Government should seek to empower these people further. The more people feel involved, the more they will come forward with innovative and useful ideas.

It is equally important that local government remains at the heart of these reforms. The LGA’s place survey showed that people trust their local council; they know that their democratically accountable councillors are there to take decisions based on what is best for the entire area and to offer their leadership and expertise. Councillors are practised in joining services together and in making a difference in projects that affect their communities.

I believe passionately that this new localism can make a lasting difference in Bingley Rural and in wards like it across the country, but it has to bring with it a real, sweeping reform to the way in which our systems work. I believe that this localism has three key attributes. First, localism is about giving all people the power to guide the development of their area. Secondly, it requires partnership working between business, charities, community groups and local service providers, which all have one thing in common: they want their local area to succeed. Thirdly, localism requires an understanding of how each local area fits into the wider picture. No community is an island and, inevitably, every decision made will have an impact across the area.

This radical work must be the goal of any truly localist Government. As a local councillor in the House of Lords, I look forward to playing my part in ensuring this freedom and to working with noble Lords on all sides of the House to make the idea a reality.

My Lords, it is not a duty but a pleasure to congratulate my noble friend Lady Eaton on her maiden speech. She and I served together on the board of the Conservative Party and have been saying for months—nay, years—that we must have lunch together. Now that her maiden speech is done and dusted to such effect, I particularly look forward to that pleasure. She comes to your Lordships’ House as chairman of the Local Government Association and from north of the Trent. I have always taken the view that Conservative Party policy on local government is best shaped by those who have had actual experience of local government and I look forward to many more contributions in this House from my noble friend on these subjects.

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble on having secured this debate so soon after having taken part in the rural debate before the Recess and on having persuaded my noble friend Lord Kimball to speak, so that we have had two Kimbles for the price of one. I also congratulate him on his admirable opening speech.

Sir Francis Burdett, who was for 30 years Member of Parliament for Westminster and a strong radical, eventually retired to Wiltshire, where he became Member of Parliament for North Wiltshire, hunted three days a week and became a high Tory. After 24 years as Sir Francis Burdett’s distant successor for Westminster, I, too, have retired to Wiltshire, although unlike Sir Francis I do not hunt three times a week and our hamlet is denoted as “Lower”.

It used to be said that, if Yorkshire cricket was in good shape, so was English cricket. I declare an interest not only in cricket but in West Yorkshire, which is the global centre of gravity for the worldwide network of Brookes. In the same way, I believe passionately that, if the countryside and the rural economy are not in good shape, the whole country is unlikely to be so. The principal beneficiaries of the Prince’s fund, to which this debate is devoted, include, as has been said, the programme Pub is the Hub in Wales. Although I am half Welsh—I, too, mourn the loss of the late Richard Livsey from our debates on these subjects—I live in Wiltshire rather than in Wales. In the local government parish of Sutton Mandeville, however, we have both a pub and a church as our community buildings. The pub, the “Compasses”, has several times been voted the best in the county, which I regard as a good omen for the Welsh pub project.

The second beneficiary, I note, is the farmer network which operates in Cumbria and the Yorkshire dales and will, over two years, use the fund’s contribution to develop a hill-farmer apprenticeship scheme in Cumbria. Some in your Lordships’ House today will recall the debate devoted to the rural uplands that my noble friend Lord Greaves initiated before the Recess, in which my noble friend Lord Gardiner also spoke. Whoever else does not read the debates of your Lordships’ House, His Royal Highness the Prince clearly does because of the way in which he has devoted this aspect of the fund to the uplands, and all credit to him.

Thirdly, in this 150th anniversary year of the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, whose financial appeal under my noble friend Lord Plumb is such a roaring success, the fund’s reserve for the farm charities is still a very prudent move. If my noble friend Lord Gardiner can do so at the end of the debate, I hope that he might confirm that with the personal contributions that individuals can make to the fund over the post office counter, which is said to be available as a scheme in the autumn, the first week in October counts as part of the autumn. I look forward to making my first contribution to the fund in our local post office over this weekend.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lord Gardiner on securing this debate. It is very opportune to talk about rural affairs and to link them with urban affairs in the context of the work that His Royal Highness himself is involved in. I do not know whether your Lordships are aware of the tremendous work that he has been doing, particularly in the field of mutton and wool, which my noble friend Lord Gardiner referred to earlier. He has made a world of difference to both, and we are beginning to see that represented through the price of them both. It is natural, then, that we are aware of his interest in and commitment to rural as well as urban affairs. He has created the brainchild of the countryside fund, raising money from more than 15 organisations, with founding companies already pledging well over £1 million with the objective of improving the status of British farming.

We all know that, in these days, practices in science and advanced technology have revolutionised farming, but farmers have limited access to the technology of many urban areas and are hampered by poor access to broadband, which quite obviously needs to be improved, as has already been said. Yet to create a fund which will, I am sure, grow over the years, it is essential that assistance is directed at areas in need for innovation. Many farmers, as His Royal Highness made clear when opening this fund, are invaluable and form a unique part of our country’s heritage and culture. He said that their intuition and wisdom, built over a long period of time, had been handed down from generation to generation, and he commented that as with their hefted flocks of sheep, there are hefted people whose future is linked to the whole of the country.

What is badly needed is the realisation that there is a rising problem of retaining the next generation on farms, particularly of family and livestock farmers in marginal areas where farming plays such a marginal role as part of the overall viability of rural areas. The main stumbling block is the difficulty in obtaining planning consent to build affordable houses on farms to stop the outward migration of young people, many of whom are currently training. Universities and colleges are full of young people who see an important future for production of food and energy and in the many related sectors. I am very interested in the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Best; I know he has a wealth of experience in that field. We look forward to his support.

The Prince's Countryside Fund is reserving a portion of funding to be used in times of crisis. We are all aware of the devastating impact of foot and mouth disease, floods, drought and now bovine TB, with the loss of 40,000 cattle a year. The existing farm charities welcome this, and have haunting memories of administering emergency relief in all those cases. The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution is celebrating 150 years of its existence this year, as my noble friend Lord Brooke said, raising funds in celebration for the benefit of many farming families and farm workers. One of the most encouraging responses to the Prince's initiative comes from supporting businesses, all of which believe and state that a strong, effective rural community is the bedrock of wider countryside prosperity. This strengthens the commercial relationship with the producer, which is good for the nation's economy.

The countryside as we know it is a living, breathing workplace for everyone to appreciate, and it is essential that we help to increase self-sufficiency in the food supply and products for energy production. We must safeguard jobs, care for the environment and ensure a stable and lasting economy. Farmers are the stewards of the environment.

My Lords, in making my first speech in this place, I put on record my appreciation of the extremely friendly welcome that I have had, and particularly the extraordinarily helpful offers of support from staff here. I only hope that my reception will be as friendly after I have made a few contributions as it has been in advance. I start by explaining my interest in this debate, not least in declaring some interests. I chair the National Housing Federation and, in an unpaid capacity, the Rural Coalition, which has been referred to and which brings together organisations such as the Country Landowners Association, CPRE, the Town and Country Planning Association, the RTPI, ACRE and the Local Government Association. Because I shall touch on some of the issues, I should also say that I chair the strategic partnership which is for delivering eco-communities—the so-called eco-towns—in St Austell in Cornwall.

I therefore have a very specific set of interests. However, my longest interest was to be a Member of Parliament for Truro and St Austell, which is not just a rural constituency but one of the poorest constituencies in the country, reflecting many of the issues that have been touched on in this extremely important debate, introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner. So I have experienced the pressures that we are talking about today close up in one of the areas hardest hit. I have seen not just the problems but the entrepreneurialism typical of rural communities, where people are more likely to be self-employed on a low income than unemployed. I have seen, too, the importance of self-help and community, which I want to return to in a few moments. I was also privileged to be asked by the last Prime Minister to conduct a formal government review on rural housing and rural economies. That was an extraordinarily useful experience and built many relationships between all those interested in these issues. I hope that it contributed in some way to making a difference.

I did not come today to speak in this debate just to introduce myself. I came to introduce my views, which were well expressed on these issues with the publication in August of the Rural Coalition’s report, The Rural Challenge. It is not a moan, and it is not about the neediness of rural communities; it is about the things that the Government need to do to empower rural communities, where there is a spirit of entrepreneurialism and self-help, to deliver for themselves. It is a report about the way in which the big society already exists in little communities but is held back in so many ways from delivering all that it could, and is at risk from decisions taken in a primarily urban context, from the context of a big picture of government, without addressing the real needs of small rural communities and how they actually work.

I have very little time and will skip through the five key themes. I can barely touch on them, and I hope that people will take the chance to look up The Rural Challenge and see more of it. This is a mere taster.

First, I passionately believe that in the last 10 or 15 years there has been a big change in attitudes in villages, from being pretty resistant to new homes—not least to new affordable homes—to what is almost a campaigning zeal to acquire affordable homes, providing that they are in perpetuity to meet local needs. Yet they have not found the mechanisms to deliver on that. If we empower communities, especially parishes through community-led planning, we can ensure that the small numbers of homes are built in each village that are needed to address the terrible long-term needs. In some places, immigration in from wealthier areas, combined with very low incomes and planning controls which have restricted affordable housing development in the past—though quite rightly in many cases—along with selling off what affordable housing there was, have come together to kill many villages as working, living communities. I welcome the Government’s commitment to right-to-build in that context, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Best, said earlier, although the Government have reduced the referendum requirement from 90 per cent support to 75 per cent and from all those on the register to only those who actually vote, nevertheless the hurdle remains too big for many communities. The parish and community might support a development, but to empower the nimbies in a referendum to get only the 25 per cent support needed to block it will mean that a very good government policy will not be as effective as it should be.

We cannot talk about the problems of housing and low incomes without addressing the issue of jobs. We need a planning system that is responsive to the world as it is and which recognises that a job in an office and the opportunity to have a small extension on the side of a home to employ a home-based employee for a home-based business is as important as having the sheds typically associated with old-style rural business. It must be recognised that rural market towns are at the centre of rural communities; we talk about villages, but we need to remember that the towns are important, too. There we need to deliver whole neighbourhoods and communities the workplaces and facilities—not just the houses—rather than continuing to ring our market towns with unattractive, unsuitable and ultimately self-defeating suburban estates of houses that do nothing to build rural employment and services.

Finally, in the context of the cuts that are coming—and I do not argue that cuts are not a realistic necessity in the present environment—we need to remember that in many rural communities it is a question of having any service at all, not of a choice of services. I beg the Government, in making decisions in the CSR, to recognise in rural communities that having some service, even if it is not the full service that you might expect in a large town, let alone a choice of services, should be a first priority when taking decisions in spending cuts. It is all too easy to say that a bus service, shop, community facility or extended service out into the countryside serves only a handful at high cost when it is the only service and facility. I ask that when cuts are made, if they are made, that is remembered and that if cuts need to be made in those rural communities some of those savings are offered to the community for the community itself to deliver alternatives. The bus service run by the local community with a minibus and volunteer drivers can be the solution, but even that takes money.

I thank noble Lords for allowing me to stray a little over my time, which was not intended.

My Lords, it is a delight for me to follow my longstanding friend, not only in the political sense in this House but from many years of campaigning together on these sorts of issues. When my noble friend Lord Taylor was first elected, he was for 10 years the youngest Member of the House of Commons. He won his seat at the age of 24, he took a senior spokesmanship at the age of 26 and he has just made a remarkable speech that I am sure will make us look forward to his contributions in the Upper Chamber. We are a little older than those he would have found in the other Chamber, but we will listen with great excitement and we look forward to the future. My noble friend followed another distinguished Member of Parliament in Cornwall, David Penhaligon, and both of them have kept that part of Cornwall at the forefront of our attention and served it remarkably well. We welcome him, and he knows that he is among good friends here in the Upper Chamber.

I am deeply concerned by a statement that has been made about the grants to 50 Welsh pubs. There is going to be a massive queue of applications for these grants, and they might need as a referee a teetotal Welsh Methodist minister to try to sort it out.

I shall concentrate on one or two subjects—briefly, because others want to speak. The first is the need for co-operation within the countryside. We are told that Defra does this, the health service does that and the Department for Transport does the other, but to serve the rural community we have somehow to bring these organisations together so that each knows exactly what the others are doing. People sometimes say, “They dig up the road for the gas people this week, for the electricity people the next week and for fresh sewers the following week”. We need co-operation and understanding between the various organisations that are part of community life. That applies not only on the outside but on the inside as well, within the communities. Many communities now are a shadow of what they used to be. Can we not somehow encourage local community councils in Wales and parish councils in England to work together and decide that certain aspects of their responsibilities are better attended to on a co-operative basis, working together on many of the issues?

I would also like to suggest that we need somehow to encourage local organisations to put their members up for election to the community or parish council. Often you find empty places in the nomination list. You will find that many people have come to live in the area, and they are very welcome to take their place, but we also want members of the Women’s Institute, the Mothers’ Union, the NFU, the FUW, the young farmers’ clubs or the Merched y Wawr in Wales—the community organisations—to be able to have their voices heard in the running of the local communities. In many villages and local communities, I do not think that party politics should play a big part. It is the individuals, the individual communities and the community organisations that should be listened to. The local community council or the parish council should be a forum where the young farmers, the older farmers, even the 50 pub landlords, the church minister and the others can speak as representatives and bring their own life to their communities.

As we have seen, certain communities are not viable in themselves. Perhaps there is no doctor’s surgery, the bank visits for only half a day a week or the school somehow has to come to some sort of relationship with neighbouring schools. All these things mean that those communities should work together by having an agreed hub. I do not mean in a self-interested way; rather, one village might be able to provide the facilities needed to keep a number of villages together.

Finally, we must ensure, as has already been mentioned, that agricultural workers are respected and shown that they are still a greatly valued part of their communities. The Agricultural Wages Board is threatened with abolition, and we need to discuss that in great depth. Often the smaller farms, and I speak only for areas with small farms, have only one or two employees. Without some larger organisation to speak for them, their negotiations and agreements will be very difficult to undertake.

This has been a valuable debate. There is much more to be said, and I am sure that in the coming months we will be able to say a great deal more.

My Lords, I am honoured to address this House for the first time and delighted to have the opportunity to do so in support of my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble, who has initiated this timely debate on the challenges facing rural communities.

With my background in human resources and recruitment, I have naturally taken a degree of interest in the induction programme for this House. I am most grateful for the professional help and support that I have received.

As the fifth viscount, I am acutely mindful of the profound shift in priorities that our nation has undergone as I look back on the maiden speeches of my immediate forebears. They chose traditional ground, my grandfather in 1963 raising the subject of British industrial policy, and my father in 1992 speaking of the challenges of defence and the impact of Options for Change—a theme that resonates today in this most difficult fiscal climate. It is a measure of our changing priorities as a nation and of how the Conservative Party itself has changed that I wish to indulge your Lordships’ time today on the more untraditional but topical subject of the big society.

I believe that the ideas from this new Government that have brought this theme to the public’s attention are important and relevant, not just to our inner cities but to our rural communities. I hope and believe that we are at the beginning of the cultural, moral and behavioural shift that is required to rekindle the community spirit in Britain. The big society, and the examples of its work around the country, will inspire and persuade responsible adults to open their front doors and reach out to help their neighbours and their neighbourhoods. Individuals are being liberated to rebuild their communities and to wield once more the power of voluntary association. Within my own political area of Buckingham there are examples of volunteers funding and building a youth centre. In Milton Keynes, food banks have been set up whereby donations from the public provide funds for emergency food preparation and distribution to the vulnerable.

Voluntary work and self-help are hardly new, though; the philosopher Edmund Burke spoke of “little platoons” that long formed the bulwark of civil society. Today there continue to be unsung heroes who work for no pay. They make up less than half the UK population, but surveys show that 11 million more would do so if only they were asked. This response may seem paradoxical in a supposedly time-poor society, with numbers of dual earners and long-distance commuters on the rise. However, there is also a growth of home workers and the part-time self-employed, which provides a countercyclical trend and a potential well of opportunity for the voluntary sector.

For decades now, many of our Burkean subdivisions and little platoons have suffered the negative impacts of technological progress and consumerism. Community work has waned. We have been increasingly persuaded to stay inside our homes by ever more complex and compelling communications gadgetry. We are, to borrow the title from the writer Neil Postman’s prescient book from 1984, “amusing ourselves to death”. Recently published figures show that the average Briton spends more than seven hours a day—almost half their waking hours—watching television, e-mailing, browsing the web or texting. Those volumes have jumped fourfold since 2004. There are now 12.5 million BlackBerrys, compared with 5.5 million just two years ago. Electronic social networking can be made to benefit local communities. However, it is as important to restore the physicality of community work, along with the personal, interactive and local bonds that stimulate creativity and action.

The remote areas of my native Scotland provide some examples of how the big society continues to operate well where infrequent or no local services prevail. Post offices—even islands—are self-governed, even as they struggle to overcome a host of rural challenges. To speak of the big society is to question fundamentally how we should lead our lives. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister emphasised yesterday, for too long now we have looked to the state for answers in providing services. The time has now come to look to one another and those closest to hand. The resources and funding can be found, whether through the generous pledges made by businesses in the Prince’s Countryside Fund, the release of funds in dormant bank accounts or the careful redirection of lottery funds. What we need are local leaders and champions who can step forward to translate ideas into action and form individuals into powerful groups. A cohesive group engenders trust—a trust that leads to harmony, action and results.

The big society is not about reducing expenditure for its own sake; it is a long-term process of behavioural change in the mindset of the individual that allows for taking responsibility. I hope that the growing debate on this subject can help us to reawaken, one “little platoon” at a time, our national community spirit.

My Lords, it falls to me to congratulate my noble friend Lord Younger of Leckie on his excellent maiden speech. I do so wholeheartedly. He comes to your Lordships’ House with great experience of both rural Buckinghamshire and rural Scotland, as his speech revealed, and he has clearly picked up his late father’s political mantle effortlessly. He also comes to us with an enviable track record as a headhunter, so he will prove more than adequate in assessing your Lordships. We have appreciated and enjoyed my noble friend’s contribution today. I know your Lordships will, like me, look forward to many more speeches from my noble friend in the years to come.

The whole House is in the debt of my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble for giving us this opportunity to debate rural matters—a subject that has been sorely neglected over the past few years. Indeed, it is splendid to see such a strong speakers’ list, reflecting the degree of expertise on the countryside that this House has traditionally had. I declare an interest as deputy chairman of the Countryside Alliance and chairman of the Standing Conference on Countryside Sports.

At the same time, we are being given an unusual but welcome opportunity to congratulate the Prince of Wales on the launch of the Prince’s Countryside Fund. The Prince comes in for a great deal of criticism, most of it undeserved, and not enough credit is given to him for the extraordinary, incredible network of foundations and charities that he has created, threading through so many areas of our national life. Over the years he has displayed a knack for identifying those issues and parts of society that have been abandoned by circumstances, or allowed to fall between two stools.

It is a fact of early 21st century life that for many people in Britain the countryside is a foreign country, in a way that it is not in most other European countries. The vast majority of our people have completely lost touch with their rural heritage. Although they seem to appreciate the country in the way that we appreciate a beautiful piece of art in a museum, they have no understanding of it as a living entity. In particular, we seem to have severed the connection between the food on our tables and the process by which it gets there. Farming and the rural way of life have become undervalued as well as misunderstood, which has led to many people who live in the countryside, particularly those working in agriculture and related industries, feeling that they are under siege in some way. In my village there is a young lad who works in the kennels but has college friends in London. He is a highly intelligent and articulate young man, but he told me that when he comes to London to a party with his old college friends, he lies about his job because they would not understand or would laugh at him. I suspect he is probably right.

Where I live, in Gloucestershire, is traditionally cattle country—both beef and dairy cattle. However, there are very few animals to be seen now. The older farmers do not want to get up to milk their cows at four in the morning, and their sons and daughters certainly do not. They have seen what happened to their parents. Milk quotas have therefore been sold and farmers approach retirement with no one to take on the farm. Unless we are careful we shall end up with farmhouses let or sold as weekend retreats, and the land simply ranched or used as toy farms for city dwellers’ recreation.

This year I have noticed more and more maize being grown as cattle feed—because it pays—but fewer and fewer cattle to eat it. I keep asking my farming friends why they are growing it, who buys it and where are the cattle to eat it, but I have not had an answer yet. This, I suspect, is farming as directed by central planning in Brussels, rather than in response to a local market. The growth in population and the pressure of climate change both mean that we cannot afford to allow our limited land space on this tiny island to go to waste. One of the reasons that this island is the envy of our European neighbours is because we have looked after our countryside so well. That has been achieved not by government diktat, but by the men and women who live on and farm the land.

By focusing on the problems of specialist farmers and farming communities, such as those in the uplands, and by identifying exactly what their most pressing needs are, and addressing them, the Prince’s Countryside Fund will help some of the most vulnerable farmers and farming communities in Britain, ensuring that the weakest but most important threads in the wonderful tapestry of rural Britain are strengthened and enabled to continue their work. If we ever lose that expertise, we shall never get it back, and as the pressure to produce grows in the years to come, we shall need that expertise more and more. At the same time, by connecting consumers to the issues that beset the countryside, the fund will, I hope, start to reconnect the British people to their rural heritage and help them to understand and appreciate its importance, as they used to naturally.

Rural Britain has had a pretty bum deal for the last few years. Foot and mouth disease was colossally mishandled by the previous Government. There have been bird flu scares; increasing and unaddressed bovine tuberculosis; the continual loss of rural services and amenities; rising unemployment; and a Government largely indifferent to these problems, but at the same time seemingly intent on imposing their own alien metropolitan agenda—even by means of the criminal law. Mr Blair’s confession in his recently published memoirs, that he knew the hunting ban was wrong but did nothing to prevent its passage, is quite extraordinary. The claim that he was personally responsible for the loopholes in the law is frankly just fantasy—an appalling and shaming example of government at its worst.

I hope that can now change. We cannot solve every problem overnight but what we can do is send a message to rural Britain that it has a Government who understand and care, and are prepared to listen and then act. As so often in so many areas of our national life, through his foundation of the Prince’s Countryside Fund the Prince of Wales has led by example. I look forward to my noble friend the Minister telling your Lordships exactly how the Government intend to follow his example.

My Lords, I declare an interest as both president of the Countryside Alliance and a small hill farmer living in a rural community. I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, for having the foresight to put his name down in the ballot for this debate. However, I have to upbraid him with the fact that this debate could have been sustained over five hours and we could all then have had the run of our teeth. We have all had to curtail what we would have liked to say because of the time restraints.

The first thing I want to say is: God bless the Prince of Wales. He is much criticised but thank goodness we have an heir who does not spend his time in waiting without giving a lead when he sees that something is seriously wrong. Something is seriously wrong because the greatest national asset that we possess—our countryside—is being eroded and falling away before our very eyes. I also say how lucky we are that supermarkets, which are so often criticised, have a leader in Mark Price, who has been instrumental in what has been done here. Both he and the Prince deserve great credit for bringing together such an impressive team of business leaders who also care about the countryside.

I do not know where we went wrong but somewhere along the line we stopped explaining to people why the countryside really matters, not just to those who live or work there but to every one of us. During the recent Labour leadership election campaign, I am sorry to say that not one of the candidates in any of the literature I received soliciting my various votes made any mention whatever of the countryside, yet all those people eat and drink, as do every one of us, and every mouthful they take is the direct result of the skill and effort of someone somewhere in the countryside rearing or growing that food, and living for the most part in a rural community. It seemed from the various addresses that there was very much concern about climate change, but the truth of the matter is that if the world population goes on growing a worldwide food shortage is likely to be the earlier of the catastrophes that strike us. Yet we seem to think that, as a rich nation, all we have to do is go out and get our food from somewhere else, and as a result year after year we produce less and less of what we need; I think that the present figure is down to some 41 per cent only.

Rural communities are suffering. The Prince provided us with figures at the launch. Last year farmers in the uplands made an average loss of £3,000 each, and even in the lowlands an average grazing livestock farm made a profit of £1,500, yet they produce superb food and work so hard. We need farms first of all for food. We need them now and will need them even more in the future. Then we need them above all for the landscape, which would not exist if farmers did not do what they do. Without those rural communities, living, working villages would be replaced by scrubland and ghost villages, shuttered and empty outside holiday times.

I agree with every noble Lord who has spoken in this debate, particularly those who spoke about housing, broadband and rural services such as post offices, shops and pubs. All those things are necessary but above all rural people need once again to have control over their way of life. However, in the long term the most important and urgent need that we have—I hope that the Prince’s Fund may be able to help with this—is for education. We are bringing up most of our children in this country with a layer of concrete between them and the earth. We must take the countryside into classrooms and we must get classes out into the countryside so that the next generation will understand better and value more what we have on our doorsteps, which, in my view, as I said, is our greatest national asset.

The countryside matters not just for food, recreation or its different way of life. Each of the leadership candidates spoke repeatedly about the need for change, but at least as important is the need for continuity, which nobody mentioned. The countryside is our continuity. The well loved places, the tranquillity, the feeling of going out there but feeling at home and finding our roots is what gives us a sense of belonging. The countryside is all our yesterdays. Unless we act now, it will no longer be there for the children of tomorrow.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble on securing this debate. I agree totally with the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, that we could have done with a five-hour debate. I remind the House of my family’s farming interests and of my association with several rural charities which are on the register. This debate reflects the concerns that many of us have about the future of the countryside and is very timely. The recent launch of the Prince's Countryside Fund aims to improve the long-term viability of the British countryside and its rural communities. I refer to a project that has already been mentioned as it is hugely important: that is, the hill farming succession scheme, which will train eight young people in hill farming skills. They will gain experience from working with farmers and will have the chance to attend local agricultural colleges.

In that vein, only three weeks ago I attended the graduation ceremony at Harper Adams University College and was struck by the diversification of courses and the range of ages of those receiving their awards. I am pleased to say that the pure agriculture course attracted 26 per cent of the students, the agricultural engineering course, which is the only national one left, 13 per cent and the rural enterprise and land management course 17 per cent. Other courses included animal and veterinary nursing, food business and environmental, leisure and tourism courses. For me that underlined the variety of jobs within the countryside and the need for all of us to work together to strengthen those communities.

The NFU briefing reported that the rural economy turns over £300 billion each year, employs 5.5 million people and, most importantly, has farming at its centre. Twenty per cent of registered farm holdings produce 80 per cent of the output value, which reminds us that we have many smaller farm holdings, some of which, as we have heard, particularly those in the upland areas, struggle to make a living. The Prince’s Trust offers them great opportunities. On my travels around farms one of the commonest gripes I still hear from farmers and others in business is about the amount of regulation and red tape that has dogged industry. I particularly welcome the steps this Government are taking to review regulatory burdens. The other gripe, which I am afraid is still ongoing, is about the continued failure of the Rural Payments Agency to deliver payments on time and about the maladministration and poor communication that only adds to farmers’ frustration.

This short debate gives me the opportunity to pose questions, as others have done, about the long-term sustainability of the countryside, and to ask how the Government see this objective being achieved. How will we manage to feed the expected growing populations, rising from 6.5 billion to 9 billion, on less land, with increasing climate change reflected in extreme droughts and floods worldwide, and at a time when we see natural resources being depleted? Certainly, the UK may well benefit from a warmer climate, with extended growing seasons, but that carries the increased risk of pest and disease outbreaks.

For me, research and development are key to the challenges we face and I know that my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach has been doing some important work on this issue, which we will, I hope, hear more about shortly. Scientific research is expensive, be it undertaken by governments or private businesses, but surely we should encourage co-operative work projects and research findings to be shared, which would benefit our country and developing countries.

As other noble Lords have suggested, I believe that there is an urgent challenge to tell people about their food, where it comes from and how it has been produced. It is a great sadness to me that too many have become detached from basic food production. Organisations such as FACE, the NFU, WFU and LEAF, with all of which I am associated, and others regularly engage in this work but it is a huge job. Some 180,000 people visited LEAF farms in June this year. That is a start but it needs to be replicated on many occasions. I hope that people will continue to visit farms and the countryside to gain that wonderful experience of understanding where their food comes from and how it is produced. I welcome the proposed national citizen service which is due to start next year and ask the Government please not to forget the countryside in that regard. It would be an ideal place for some of the projects to take place, even perhaps working with our wildlife trusts. This is a very important opportunity for us to speak on this topic. There is much more to be said. I look forward to hearing other contributions.

My Lords, I preface my few remarks in this debate—which has been so ably introduced, in a sparkling manner, by my noble friend Lord Gardiner—by declaring that I am a farmer in Cumbria, chair Carr’s Milling Industries, a FTSE company based in Cumbria, and am trustee of much of upper Teesdale.

In talking about poverty and deprivation in the countryside, we need to be clear about definitions. I am talking about that bit of rural Britain where the agricultural sector in one form or another is the basis of all that goes on there. I want to make a distinction between that and suburbia or commuter land.

Secondly, while obviously poverty is not confined to the countryside, I will talk about those who were described graphically by my honourable friend the Member for Penrith and the Border—to the sneers of some of the metropolitan intelligentsia—as those with binder twine holding up their trousers. In the Upper Eden Valley, it is a badge of honour.

I will start by looking at another place that has a single industry: Barrow-in-Furness, where they build Trident submarines. When there is work in the shipyards, there is prosperity; when there is none, there is poverty. Wealth is the basis of prosperity and prosperous communities. The problems in the countryside go back to Article 39 of the treaty of the European Union. We have failed,

“to ensure a fair standard of living for the agricultural community, in particular by increasing the individual earnings of persons engaged in agriculture”.

How does this happen? The output of a rural community of the type that I am describing falls into three parts: food and other physical outputs, the environment and food security. Over many years, the controlled marketplace for primary products has meant that producers have not been paid the proper value of what they do, but rather its cost and, if they are lucky, a tiny margin. The purchasers of agricultural products—one only has to look at the briefing document from the Prince’s Countryside Fund—pride themselves on using local produce, yet they pay the world price and ignore the fact that better and local products are worth more to them. The Government, as a clearing house for the rest of us, are the only purchaser of environmental services, which they do on the cheapest possible basis, disregarding the value of what they obtain and merely offering Hobson's choice, tied to the negotiating strength of a monopoly purchaser. Finally, food security is a form of insurance: you only need it when it is too late. I merely add that I wish that I could insure my house on the same terms as the country gets food security.

All credit to Prince Charles for being one of the first people to appreciate the characteristics and implications of the way in which the agricultural marketplace works, and for initiating a number of projects directed at some of its direr consequences. I think that I speak for all noble Lords in the Chamber when I say that none of us has been the heir to any throne. However, it seems that people are drawn towards the heir to the throne as moths are drawn to a candle. Businesses and businessmen enjoy being reflected in the penumbra of majesty. All credit to Prince Charles for drawing in these businessmen to publicly accept the problems engendered by the industries in which they are engaged. Good for them; but let us be clear that the sums of money that they are committing are, in the context of the businesses that they run, absolute peanuts. For them it is the equivalent of giving 1p to a beggar in the street.

If this is not mere tokenism and salving a guilty conscience, there is a further step. The businesses—the purchasers in this marketplace—must accept that fair trade, like charity, begins at home. Pay the worth of what you buy from British agriculture to enable it to have a proper margin, and not the lowest price that you can squeeze out of a controlled marketplace in which you are an oligopolistic purchaser. As a starting point, perhaps consider a price that gives the kind of margin and return on capital that your shareholders, and the analysts, expect from you.

To the Government, I say: what about making sure that the rate of return that the Treasury expects from publicly owned assets is granted equally to those providing environmental services?

I say to Prince Charles: I hope that you will stipulate that those who share your brand and support your initiatives conduct the rest of their businesses in line with the principles that they have espoused; because if not, they are hijacking your brand and debasing it, and leading you by the nose. However, if they do, many concerns that you have championed will be much closer to resolution, and you will be able to lead those with binder twine around their trousers towards the sunny uplands.

My Lords, when I was growing up in rural County Down, I never envisaged that there would come a day when rural living would come to be thought of as something exotic and unusual; something, indeed, to be protected and nourished. But that is where we find ourselves today.

The post-war generation was brought up on the slogan “Dig for Victory”. We took it for granted in those days that self-sufficiency was the natural order of things. Seasonal vegetables were just that—seasonal, not air-freighted. Rural practicalities infused every aspect of society in Northern Ireland. People were very close to the land. There were few who could not name a close relative who lived on, and worked, the land.

I moved to suburbia many years ago and have no plans to join the recent trend for country living, but I have not forgotten my roots. Nor do I imagine that sentiment alone will save the countryside—it will not. However, practical support and a proper appreciation of how rural life has shaped the national character will. For those reasons, I am very keen to welcome the Prince's Countryside Fund.

Some people will ask: “What is the problem? We live in an urbanised, service-based economy linked to global trading patterns. The countryside is not going anywhere. There are more pressing things to concern ourselves with”. We should be concerned, though. How often have we seen today's complacency translate itself into tomorrow's failings?

Anyone who visits Northern Ireland cannot help but be impressed by the rural beauty of the Province. Agriculture and rural life still play a more dominant role in this part of the kingdom than elsewhere, and our countryside reflects that stewardship. However, all is not well in the countryside. Currently, 80 per cent of the land in Ulster is used for agriculture. More than one-third of our people are rural dwellers, compared to just one in five in the UK as a whole. Agriculture's gross value add to the local Northern Ireland economy stands at almost 2 per cent—four times the national average—and our agri-food sector has been one of the few success stories during the past few years of global economic turmoil.

Maintaining the fabric of rural life is more important to Northern Ireland than to other regions of the kingdom. However, if you scratch beneath the surface and look beyond the tidy fields and hedgerows of Antrim and Londonderry and the orchards of Armagh, there has been a massive change. The relative importance of agriculture to Northern Ireland's economy has halved in the past 15 years. The number of farms in the Province has fallen by a third since 1980 and the number of people working on farms has halved; yet the average farm size is still about half that of the average UK farm size.

Fewer of our farms have diversified into areas such as tourism or direct produce sales—a poor 6 per cent compared to 20 per cent in England; higher value organic farming is seven times less prevalent; and a massive 87 per cent of our farmers cite practical experience as their sole basis for farm management. Incomes in the wider rural community remain lower than in urban areas, full-time employment is more difficult to come by, and access to public services and affordable housing remains a challenge.

When the Prince of Wales launched the countryside fund, he stated:

“I for one want to keep our countryside a living, breathing, working place so that it is there for everyone to appreciate”.

I agree wholeheartedly. I, too, want everyone to enjoy the countryside. But I also want Northern Ireland to achieve more from farmland, which I believe is our single greatest national resource.

In the UK, we need to learn to appreciate the long-term strategic and environmental benefits of producing a greater proportion of our food supplies locally. In Northern Ireland, in particular, we need to look at ways to push agricultural production further up the value chain. Maximising the potential of our countryside is not just about amalgamating farms or dispatching farmers off to college to learn about the latest techniques. It is also about sustaining and supporting rural communities. It is about creating an environment where the sons and daughters of today's farmers can see a viable and profitable future from the land, and imagine a community in which they would like to stay and raise their own families. This touches on issues of housing, education, local retail services, a local post office—the list is endless.

For that reason, I commend the countryside fund and congratulate those in business who have committed financially to its operation. I also trust that the fund will go on to provide practical support throughout the kingdom; and, perhaps more importantly, to act as a pathfinder to devise and develop new programmes and projects that will be copied and that will help to inform government policy.

I am delighted that we have been given this opportunity to draw attention to the Prince’s Countryside Fund, which is the latest of His Royal Highness’s countryside initiatives and probably his most ambitious. I have a personal reason for speaking today as for the past 11 years I have been Lord Lieutenant of North Yorkshire, and in that time I have accompanied the Prince of Wales on 18 visits to the county. Many of these visits have had a rural theme and during several of them he has launched rural initiatives. I should like to tell the House about some of the visits, which show how over a long period the Prince of Wales has been of enormous support to the countryside.

The prince is always tremendously welcomed everywhere he goes because people living in rural communities see him as their most determined champion. His visits always have a practical outcome for those whom he visits. He has the ability to bring people and organisations together for their mutual benefit, and frequently these are people who would not normally have a reason to sit down together at the same table. The Prince’s Countryside Fund is an excellent case in point. Who else could have persuaded some of the biggest food retailers and companies to contribute to the fund to help the farming community?

I am delighted that His Royal Highness has chosen to launch a number of his royal initiatives in North Yorkshire. In November 1999 at the Dales Countryside Museum in Hawes, he launched Dales Action for Rural Enterprise—DARE. This was part of the Rural Revival Initiative. In December 2001, I was with him when he launched the Pub is the Hub, which has featured in today’s debate, at a charming pub in Stainforth called the Craven Heifer. Here in this village pub, we have the post office, the village shop and the public house, and this concept has spread successfully across the country. I am pleased that one of the first grants from the fund, for £126,000, is to develop the Pub is the Hub scheme in Wales.

It is worth mentioning that on the same day that the Prince of Wales launched the Pub is the Hub in 2001, he also went to the Craven auction mart and met farmers and those affected by foot and mouth, which had such a devastating effect. He is wonderful at meeting people who have been in difficulties such as that. We also went to Knayton village hall that day and, as though that was not enough, we then went on to Settle for a meeting with small businesses set up under the Dales project, and he launched the Rural Opportunities for Self-Employment project—ROSE. All these visits were accomplished between 10 am and 4 pm with the help of a helicopter. I should also mention that he was one of the first people to give to the foot and mouth cause, donating £500,000.

The Prince of Wales visits agricultural shows all over the country and has been to the Great Yorkshire Show twice in my time. However, perhaps the most dramatic North Yorkshire visit was to the Nidderdale show at Pateley Bridge in September 2003. The weather was quite appalling, and at the end of the day I had never seen a pair of trousers with so much mud attached. As he said to one farmer who had commented on it, “It’s going to be a bit of a challenge for the dry cleaners”. Some of the comments in the press made it clear that the farmers who spoke to him were very impressed and absolutely delighted that he had been there. “He really knows his stuff”, one of them said.

On another visit in February 2004, His Royal Highness arranged a round-table discussion about the importance of the quality of school meals with teachers, caterers, producers and others. This theme, as we all know, was then taken up by Jamie Oliver. On the same day, he visited an affordable rural housing project in Kettlewell, and again there was a round-table discussion with relevant bodies about the importance of affordable rural housing. The Prince of Wales initiative on affordable housing was made use of in the important review of affordable housing chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, whose maiden speech we have just heard.

All of us today welcome the Prince’s Countryside Fund, which operates under Business in the Community, of which the Prince of Wales has been president for 25 years. The Prince’s Countryside Fund was launched in July and has made a splendid start. What is crucial, of course, is that more companies that share a concern for the future of the British countryside join this groundbreaking cause-related marketing campaign, be they retailers, banks, accountants, agricultural feed companies or the hospitality sector. They all benefit from a vibrant rural community, so I suggest that they should all be part of this new and very welcome initiative.

As has been said, we all owe His Royal Highness a great debt of gratitude for always having been so forward looking with his initiatives, for his passion for the countryside and its people and for his determination to make life better for those who work there. The Prince of Wales is one of the most caring and knowledgeable people I have ever met, and spending the time that I have with him has been both a privilege and a pleasure.

My Lords, I join in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, on securing this important debate. As a senior executive of the Countryside Alliance, he understands the complexities and fragilities of rural life only too well.

Let me say that I unequivocally support the enthusiasm, focus and foresight which His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales has brought to many vital areas of national well-being. The countryside fund is but the latest of more than 20 charities associated with the Prince, 18 of which he founded personally. Often he is able to venture where Governments, at least initially, are reluctant to tread.

In the 1990s, I had the privilege of chairing the Development Board for Rural Wales, which co-ordinated and provided leadership to a most beautiful two-thirds of the land mass of Wales, populated with some 250,000 people and 4 million-plus sheep. A major purpose at that time—indeed, before that time and even today—was to stem the flow of young people from the countryside into towns, so we encouraged, for example, job creation in rural areas by facilitating the location of manufacturing processes closer to the farm gate and we encouraged the development of sensitive tourism and the sustainability of resources.

Did we succeed? Partially. There is of course much still to be done, which, if not forcefully addressed, could well lead to a countryside which, in the Prince’s words—already quoted by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu—could become “scrubland” and “ghost villages”. Increased public, private and voluntary resources need to be harnessed to reconnect consumers with countryside issues. I, too, pay tribute to the late Lord Livsey, who provided a strong lead in much of what he did to foster successful rural life.

The Cambrian Mountains Initiative is the flagship of the Prince’s Rural Action Programme in Wales. It is a collaboration between the local authorities of Ceredigion, Powys and Carmarthenshire, the Countryside Council for Wales and the Prince’s charities. The initiative recognises that the future of this exceptional rural heartland depends on an economy strengthened through increased income from local produce, local ecosystem services and tourism, underpinned by the enterprise of the communities themselves and by a strong brand that guarantees quality, taste and welcome.

Peter Davies, the chairman of the Cambrian Mountains Initiative, has said:

“The premium brand ‘Cambrian Mountain Lamb’ is based on a set of quality principles that ensures the best, sweetest upland lamb produced to the highest welfare and environmental standards”. For the past three years the product has been sold through the Co-operative’s ‘Truly Irresistible’ range, delivering a premium to farmers and a return to communities with 10p from each pack of meat sold contributing to the sustainable development fund for community projects”.

So, it can be done. It requires vision, co-operation and enthusiasm from all partners.

The extension to Wales of the Pub is the Hub scheme, which is supported by the Prince’s Countryside Fund, has been mentioned. Incidentally, we should take up the offer of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, to act as mediator. He is very well placed to do so. The scheme is currently identifying 50 new opportunities for rural regeneration and it is the only national scheme working directly with licensees to involve both the public and private sectors. The project will identify pubs which can provide shops, post offices, older people’s lunch clubs, broadband hubs, prescription/parcel drop-off and collection points, citizens’ advice and information centres. The project will train supportive licensees and local authorities to work together throughout Wales to develop these opportunities. Other benefits already observed in England are improved social cohesion for local people, especially the elderly, those on low incomes, young families and those without transport.

It is essential that during this period of necessarily stringent measures to rebalance and restructure our national economy, the Government do not allow the smaller but vital voice of rural development to go unheard in the distribution of funding.

My Lords, one of the advantages in speaking for four minutes somewhat late in the debate is that you do not have too long to bore your Lordships by being too repetitive. Much of what I am about to say has been said, and I shall be very brief in my repetition.

I, too, begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord Gardiner on securing this debate which is timely and topical. I am also grateful to have the opportunity to express publicly the appreciation of the rural community for the remarkable support always given by His Royal Highness. The countryside has never had a more determined champion. I recall only too well those desperately dark days in 2001 when foot and mouth ravaged livestock. I saw at first hand the anguish and fear that gripped farmers in the south-west. It was the Prince of Wales who gave £500,000 to help farming help charities, matched by the Duke of Westminster, which was the catalyst for a fund-raising effort that saved many farmers from ruin and, indeed, suicide.

The help that he has given has always been of the most practical sort, whether it be his Pub is the Hub campaign, his affordable rural housing initiative which I know did much to inform the work on the excellent commission on affordable rural housing by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, or his farmers’ marketing initiatives that from Dartmoor to the Highlands have helped hill farmers to increase their incomes by better marketing of their produce.

The Prince’s Countryside Fund is his most important initiative for the countryside, which is the result of two things. First, he has a unique knowledge of agriculture, particularly of the smaller family farmer and of rural communities. I suspect that few people in this country have sat around more farmhouse kitchen tables than the Prince of Wales—be that with his own Duchy of Cornwall tenants, or as he has travelled the length and breadth of this country. I declare an interest in that my wife is a member of the Prince’s Council which advises the Duchy of Cornwall on rural matters, and she is also a farmer.

Secondly, it is the Prince’s extraordinary power to bring people together that has enabled him to create this alliance with some of the biggest food retailers and food companies—a group not known for co-operation. They have come together because they shared Prince Charles’s belief in the need for a vibrant farming sector and thriving rural communities. They recognise the link between the two and the value that that has to the millions who visit the countryside. They recognise, too, that with the uncertain future we are facing with climate change, we need farmers to farm as long as it is done in a sustainable way so that we are not overly dependent on imports. Already, the fund is making a difference, such as funding apprenticeships for young hill farmers in Cumbria and teaching farmers in County Durham to use computers so that they can better cope with the bureaucratic demands made on them.

I can only congratulate those companies that are the founder supporters of the fund, particularly Waitrose whose managing director, Mark Price, who many of your Lordships have already mentioned, is the chairman of the fund’s trustees and, of course, Duchy Originals. I am delighted that the south-west business community is represented through Ginsters Cornish pasties, and that CountryLife butter, made no doubt with milk from the diary farmers of the south-west, is among the supporters. We can now see the Prince’s Countryside Fund logo on the packs and it looks very good indeed.

The fund stands at £1 million, which is an excellent start, but I hope to see other companies recognising the responsibility that they have to secure the future of farming and rural communities. The point was made by my noble friend Lord Inglewood and I, too, urge the banks, insurance companies, estate agents, lawyers, country clothing companies, agricultural suppliers and valuers to step up to the plate. No doubt the hospitality sector can play its part too, let alone individuals and community organisations. While it is encouraging that Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, ASDA and Morrisons support the fund, there are some notable absentees among the big retailers. Surely nothing could say more about a company’s support for British farming than its decision to back this fund.

Our countryside is a fundamental part of what makes this country what it is. We depend on it for our food, leisure and increasingly, for the management of carbon and water. As concrete steals across the western world and disease and climate change remain a constant worry, agriculture suffers. Food and its scarcity assume ever increasing priority. For too long agriculture has been neglected by those in power. This must change. The Prince’s Countryside Fund shows how that can be done. Let us congratulate the Prince of Wales and do all that we can to support this fund.

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Arran and I join him in congratulating my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimball on securing the opportunity today to discuss these vital issues which will affect the viability of the countryside as we prepare to embark on the second decade of the 21st century. I have an interest to declare in that I am chairman of a property company seeking to develop a large brownfield site in Surrey which is an area of high housing need at affordable prices. With your Lordships’ indulgence, I shall refer to this later in my speech.

The timing of the launch of the Prince’s Countryside Fund has been masterly. I hope that it will bring a much-needed sea change in how the countryside is viewed and serve to be the catalyst for nurturing vulnerable communities. I fervently hope that it will drive forward a movement to recognise the vital role that our countryside has to play in contributing to the long-term viability and future of the UK plc.

I join noble Lords—in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Best—in believing that an important part of the equation is to provide sufficient affordable houses in perpetuity so that the younger generation can live and work there and no longer feel that the only option open to them is to migrate to urban areas. Indeed, I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with almost every word that the noble Lord, Lord Best, had to say on this subject, and I look forward to reading his speech in detail tomorrow. Sadly, the previous Government woefully undershot on their housing targets, which has exacerbated the problem that we face today.

A National Housing Federation press release last July made the telling point that the average house price in rural England has doubled in the past decade and now stands at £260,000, whereas the average rural salary is only £21,000, so the majority of people have practically no hope of ever being able to afford a home in their local area. The chair of the Local Government Association's Rural Commission, Councillor Andrew Bowles, made a telling point recently when he said,

“the proportion of affordable homes in rural areas is little more than half that in urban communities. If young families and low income households are not able to access houses in villages, services like schools, buses and post offices become even less viable”.

To come to my particular development, our aim has been to build an exemplar low-carbon settlement of 2,400 homes, 900 of which would be affordable in perpetuity, set in 350 acres of park land. Our plans include new carbon-free transport, on-site household waste treatment, solar energy generation for homes and businesses, water harvesting and the provision of high-speed broadband in every home. Regrettably, our application, which was the first of its kind ever to be supported by Friends of the Earth, was refused last year. We are blooded but unbowed, and we will continue to seek to achieve our vision of the future as it relates to new conurbations. It will come as no surprise to your Lordships to learn that I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and others, when they say that the planning referendum bar is still set too high at 75 per cent. I hope that the Government will take that on board.

My most important point is that the countryside not only feeds us but is the very place where the ability to meet the nation's 80 per cent carbon reduction commitment by 2050 can be met. I am thinking of such technologies as the production of green energy from anaerobic digestion, biomass CHP plants, solar farms and, in the right places, wind farms. We should not forget tidal lagoons and wave energy. They all have their part to play in creating employment and providing so much of our energy needs as we go forward, but without affordable homes, I fear that many of these new rural green industries will be stillborn.

Above all, the countryside must be maintained as a vibrant and viable place in which to live. Some difficult decisions will have to be made along the way, and I hope that nimbyism will not be allowed to prevent the many opportunities which present themselves from being realised.

My Lords, I apologise for striking a possibly discordant note in what has been a very harmonious and high-quality debate. I want to say a few words about food and agriculture. It is very widely accepted, especially by the Prince of Wales, that one way to encourage sustainable and local agriculture is to support organic farming. Unfortunately, very few, if any, of the claims made on behalf of organic farming have ever been upheld, because they have no scientific substance.

First, the whole principle of organic farming is based on the idea that synthetic chemicals are bad and natural chemicals are good, which of course is complete scientific nonsense, as there are many thousands of harmful natural chemicals and a very large number of extremely beneficial artificial chemicals.

Then it is claimed that organic farming is healthier because it is more nutritious. There has been a very careful scientific analysis of those claims undertaken by Mr Dangour on behalf of the Food Standards Agency, which went through every paper that has ever been produced on the question of organic farming and has, after the most meticulous and impartial analysis, found no evidence that organic food is any more nutritious than food which is conventionally grown. Then it is said, “It contains fewer toxins, because of the harmful effects of pesticides. Indeed, I remember reading an article by someone from the Soil Association claiming that one in every three mouthfuls we consume contains toxins. That is completely wrong. Every mouthful that we consume contains poisons of some kind, it is all a question of the dose, as was said a very long time ago. In fact, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has pointed out, one cup of coffee contains more carcinogens than one would consume in a whole year's consumption of fruit and vegetables because of pesticide residues. The level at which it is set is 100 to 1,000 times below the safety level.

Then it is said—and this is in some ways the main claim and the most relevant to this debate—that organic farming is good for the environment. Again, that is wrong. Indeed, in some important respects, organic farming is bad for the environment. Organic food costs more. Why? Not because organic farmers try to bilk the public, but because organic farming is a much less efficient use of land. That is why it costs more. Yields from organic farming are 20 to 50 per cent lower than from conventional farming. What is the result? It is a less efficient use of land. The world desperately needs more efficient use of land, and we need that in the United Kingdom as well.

It is an extraordinary fact that Defra spends £30 million a year on encouraging farmers to convert to organic farming—on making farming and the use of land less efficient. If ever there were a case for cuts, there is one. I hope that the Government will take note of that. Of course, I would not cut the £30 million; I would transfer it to agricultural research in excellent centres such as the John Innes Centre, Rothamstead and the various Scottish research centres. My point is that I hope that the Government will cease to subsidise the inefficient use of land and that the Prince’s fund will not encourage organic farming.

My Lords, I have explained to the Opposition that this is a timed debate. The overrun by noble Lords who have taken part in this fascinating debate means that there is no longer full protected time for both the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson and for the Minister. In the circumstances, I think that the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson should be permitted to continue with the full allotted amount of time. Unfortunately, that means that the House will not be able to hear a full response from the Minister.

My Lords, perhaps I should I begin by apologising for the state of my voice. Despite suffering the effects of a cold, I very much welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate, and to join in the congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, on securing it and on introducing it in the way that he did. It has been frustrating that so little time has been available, but I hope that the noble Lord will at least find solace in the fact that the debate attracted such a large number of speakers, and was therefore certainly the subject of great interest.

We have been privileged during the course of the debate to listen to three very high-quality maiden speeches, and I congratulate all three new colleagues who have spoken in today's debate. Besides bringing a great wealth of experience, in particular to the rural issues that we have been considering, it was good that they come from very different parts of the country and therefore gave a good overall perspective of the important issues that we have been considering.

As the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, pointed out, this debate follows and continues the themes from some of our previous debates just before the Summer Recess, including the debate on rural communities introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and the debate on biodiversity in the UK introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. However, this debate rightly focuses on the new and, we hope, important element in rural and countryside affairs: the Prince's Countryside Fund. We on this side welcome the fund and agree with its aims. As the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, said in introducing the debate, it is an initiative which presents an opportunity to draw attention to the very real challenges facing rural communities, and the importance of rural communities to the future economic and environmental well-being of our country as a whole.

The new fund has excellent precedents in the form of the Prince's Rural Action Programme and that other initiative of the Prince of Wales, a countrywide rather than countryside initiative, the Prince's Trust. The noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, said that the Prince has trodden where Governments sometimes fear to tread. I know from my experience representing in the other House a disadvantaged urban area that the Prince’s Trust was brave enough to go into areas where banks and other financial institutions had singularly failed. Its record of helping people, particularly to start new businesses, has made a huge difference to many people in many parts of the country.

It is good that this new fund is concentrating its efforts on the hardest-pressed areas. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, who has just returned to the Chamber, talked about defining more precisely the areas that are most in need of support and hit the right note in that respect. It is important that the fund helps areas where help is most needed. As a north-easterner, I was very glad to see that the Upper Teesdale Agricultural Support Services scheme is benefiting because it helps farmers with administration and making the best use of IT. Broadband was mentioned by a number of speakers. It would be good if the Minister could say something more about the rollout of superfast broadband that noble Lords are keen to see implemented. I also welcome the Cumbria and Yorkshire Dales scheme which, despite the current difficulties, looks to the future of hill farming and, in particular, to the needs of new entrants with high-quality training. A number of speakers mentioned the Pub is the Hub scheme. The noble Lord, Lord Crathorne, mentioned a pub that he felt is particularly worthy of praise, so I shall cheekily mention my local pub in Harbottle, Northumberland—the village where I have been living—the Star Inn. It is very much the village hub and, like many other pubs, plays a vital role in supporting the local area in enterprising ways and provides a range of valued services which would otherwise probably have ceased to be available to local people.

We know that problems in agriculture and in rural areas, such as outbreaks of animal disease or natural disasters such as floods and droughts, can crop up unexpectedly and sometimes with devastating consequences, as a number of noble Lords have pointed out. I am therefore glad that the Prince’s fund is also channelling resources to crisis relief, building on some of the schemes we have seen and on some of the acquired knowledge about how best to deal with some of these very difficult situations.

I pay tribute to the way that we have already seen farms and rural businesses respond to challenges to diversify. I was very impressed as a Minister—quite a few years ago now—by the way farmers and others were working at adding value to existing products or using modern methods, such as the internet, to link up with customers, despite being sometimes physically far removed from them as they were based in fairly isolated areas. The recent publication by the National Farmers’ Union, Why Farming Matters, underlines this point. It states that,

“some 51% of farms in England have diversified beyond their core farming activities”.

I hope the Government will support and applaud this initiative.

Given that a number of wider rural issues have been raised in this debate, I shall add a few thoughts on some of the Government’s recent policies and decisions in the rural sphere. There has been concern about the abolition of the Commission for Rural Communities, which was mentioned in our debates in July. This chimes with one of the questions at Question Time today when we looked at the work of outside agencies being incorporated into departments. I have heard it said that because some current Defra Ministers are farmers or involved in farming, they understand these issues, but I would be very worried if decisions about the future of advisory organisations were to be taken on the basis of who happened to be Minister in a particular department at a particular time. One thing we know about government in Britain is that Ministers come and go. For all Ministers, whatever their background, we need to have good sources of independent advice.

Over the summer, the Government also announced the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales. I am concerned about this because we want to see the skills of farm workers fairly remunerated and recognised, and we certainly do not want to see a drive downwards to poorer conditions or a poorer level of wages. I am sure we will revert to this issue in future. There is strong feeling on the Opposition Benches about this.

One of the aims of the Prince’s fund is to reconnect consumers with the countryside. I applaud that and also applaud the involvement of various supermarkets in this initiative. I hope that they will enthusiastically embrace the idea of the supermarket ombudsman and will look closely at the price relationship between themselves and the farming community. This was referred to by my noble friend Lord Kennedy. I have never accepted the rural/urban divide in the way that some people have described it because people in both areas have common problems: making a decent living, having access to affordable housing, transport, good local services and so on and we all have a common interest in the future of our country.

I conclude by wishing the fund much success with its various initiatives and goals, and I again congratulate the noble Lord on giving us the opportunity to debate it and wider rural issues today.

My Lords, I start by offering my commiserations to the noble Baroness on the state of her voice. I am in much the same position but, bearing in mind that I have only 13 or 14 minutes left, I dare say my voice will hold up.

I congratulate my three noble friends on their maiden speeches. My noble friend Lady Eaton brings great experience of local government, especially in Yorkshire, and of the Local Government Association. She emphasised the need for localism, which is important to all of us in the coalition. We will be committed to localism, and I hope she will look forward to seeing the localism Bill come forward in due course. My noble friend Lord Taylor of Goss Moor brings enormous experience as chair of the Rural Coalition. We welcome the report it produced and will consider it carefully. We are grateful for the various recommendations it makes which, as my noble friend said, highlight the importance of enabling local government and empowering local communities. That is entirely in line with the coalition’s thinking. The third maiden speech was by my noble friend Lord Younger. I now feel really very old in this House because he is the third Lord Younger who I have sat here with. We are grateful to him for all he had to say, and particularly for what he had to say about the big society. Recent research by my department has shown that social cohesion can be stronger in rural areas. It is therefore clear that they will be among the areas that we hope will take up the big society challenge most readily.

Like all speakers, I offer my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Gardiner on introducing this debate and on attracting such an impressive list of speakers. As many of them said, it would have been far better if we could have devoted five hours to this matter rather than the two and a half hours available for balloted debates.

I start by underlining the Government’s support for the Prince’s Countryside Fund and for the invaluable work that it has already started to undertake on behalf of rural communities. Defra will be fully committed to it, and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State met His Royal Highness to discuss it when it was launched. As other noble Lords have done, I offer our congratulations to all those firms that have agreed to offer support to the fund and join my noble friend Lord Gardiner in encouraging others to contribute. I think that we will all take up the point made by my noble friend Lord Brooke in considering whether we can make personal donations in due course.

We believe that it is a timely boost for a vital part of our society. Agriculture plays an important part within the food chain. In 2009, agriculture had a gross value added of more than £7 billion and employed more than 500,000 people in the United Kingdom. Agriculture is notable for the area of land that it covers. The noble Lord, Lord Rogan, emphasised the figure for Northern Ireland, which is considerably higher than that for England. Even in England it is 70 per cent. We also had a figure for the principality from the noble Lord, Lord Rowe-Beddoe, which again was higher than that for England.

In passing, I was particularly touched by the noble Lord’s remarks about the sweet lamb from the Cambrian Mountains. It reminded me of an earlier prince from Wales and a poem by Thomas Love Peacock, which included the lines:

“The mountain sheep were sweeter,

But the valley sheep were fatter;

We therefore deemed it meeter

To carry off the latter”.

It might be sweet meat that we want, but from the mountains it would be better.

Because of the limited amount of time, I should like to address some of the points that have been put to me. First, I was reminded by the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, of the issue of the Commission for Rural Communities. We have made it clear that, sadly, the commission must go. Our top priority has to be tackling the deficit that we have inherited from the party opposite. Where we can remove duplication and improve efficiency we will do so. Therefore, we will remove certain bodies. However, I want to make it clear that that is not a reflection on the commitment and quality of work undertaken by the CRC, its staff, its commissioners and, in particular, its chairman, Dr Stuart Burgess, over the past four years. We believe that we can do a lot of that work within the department. It is certainly not a reflection of the Government’s lack of commitment to rural issues.

Housing was raised by a number of noble Lords. It was first raised by the noble Lord, Lord Best, who probably knows more about this issue than anyone. I do not have time to deal with all the detailed points that he put forward, but certainly within Defra and the Department for Communities and Local Government we will look carefully at what the noble Lord had to say and will continue within those departments to work closely on the policy to support the delivery of rural housing and to ensure that housing and planning policy reflects the needs of rural communities. In response to the noble Lord and to, I think, my noble friend Lord Liverpool who raised the 75 per cent, obviously we have brought that down from its original figure, but colleagues in DCLG will consider that, as appropriate, in due course.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford and the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, talked about the need, as the right reverend Prelate put it, to connect consumers with countryside issues. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, talked about the need for education. I think that she referred to the need to remove that layer of concrete between, particularly, children and the land itself. I can assure her and the right reverend Prelate that we support a number of initiatives that try to connect people with the land. She will know about Open Farm Sunday where we encourage people to go to farms and discover what they do. As she knows, it is amazing how much ignorance there is about where food comes from. Certainly, we can look at improving access for schools to farms, which can be encouraged through various environmental stewardship schemes. My understanding is that approximately 1,000 farms make themselves available for those valuable educational trips.

The abolition of the agricultural wages boards was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, and the noble Baroness, Lady Quin. The noble Baroness will remember that we made the decision to abolish the AWBs in July of last year and to bring agricultural workers within the scope of the National Minimum Wage Act. Since those agricultural wages boards were set up, we have moved on. Employment legislation and protection for workers have changed, and there is no longer the need for special, separate arrangements for one sector. We want to reduce the regulatory burdens on the industry, and to allow it to decide on its own priorities, to ensure that there can be negotiations without the intervention of the agricultural wages boards. Again, it is part of the reduction in the fairly large number of arm’s-length bodies with which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is burdened. As a result of abolishing them and other bodies, we are reducing between 30 and 35 of those bodies from a total of 90, but there probably will be more to come.

Broadband was raised by my noble friend Lord Plumb and, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. They highlighted the fact that in this digital age too many rural areas still have limited access to broadband. Something like one-third of our farmers have no access at all. I believe that this is unacceptable, which is why we are committed to working with business and community groups to ensure the rollout of universal broadband with a clear focus on improving the situation in rural areas, on improving existing businesses and on kick-starting new ones. At this stage I cannot give any predictions of how fast we will be able to go in this matter, but I can assure the House that there is that firm commitment to making progress in this area.

My noble friend Lord Kimball and others stressed the importance of getting new skills into farming and encouraging new farmers. My noble friend Lady Byford also stressed the importance of succession in the smaller hill farms. I agree entirely and I appreciate the importance of providing encouragement. We will certainly continue to support the AgriSkills Forum, an industry-led project to increase skills in the farming industry and to improve the attractiveness of farming in order to recruit the best people in the future.

One is tempted to say that as most farms are small, family-run businesses, one should always remember that it is a matter for the parents in those small businesses to make the business attractive to their sons and daughters if they want them to join them. No doubt, that matter is beyond the control of the Government.

I am mindful of the time and I want to allow my noble friend at least one minute to wind up this debate. I conclude by confirming that we recognise and respect the varied, vibrant rural communities that exist throughout the country. We will do all that we can to assist those communities to prosper and improve. We believe that the Prince’s Countryside Fund is an exciting and welcome initiative, which will be an important catalyst in helping to achieve this objective.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for participating in this debate. I think we have covered much country from all sides of the House as well as all parts of the kingdom. I am also particularly delighted that three noble Lords made their maiden speeches during this debate. I want to endorse what all noble Lords have said about the Prince’s Countryside Fund, and I think that the contribution it will make is essential to our national life. The noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, mentioned all our yesterdays. My view is that the countryside is all our futures. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.