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Agriculture: Farming

Volume 726: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the sales of tenancy farms by local authorities, what plans they have to assist individuals to enter the farming industry and to encourage innovation in farming.

My Lords, the farming industry needs to encourage people into farming by making it an attractive, rewarding and dynamic career prospect for new entrants. Defra is supporting this aim by working with industry on its agri-skills strategy to improve career structure, skills and professionalism; supporting innovation through the Rural Development Programme for England; funding research and development through the sustainable agriculture and food innovation platform; and encouraging entrepreneurship by reducing the regulatory burden on farmers.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Is he not alarmed at the number of sales by county councils of valuable land and farm tenancies, thereby depriving new entrants from coming into the farming industry? Many of those new entrants are brimming with new ideas and innovations for the industry. Is he not also alarmed that the sale of this valuable land deprives county councils of important income? The land provides land banks that enable them to pursue other county council policies that are of benefit to council tax payers?

My Lords, I would not want to go as far as to say that I am alarmed, but I agree with the noble Lord that there have been considerable sales, particularly over the past 10 years, varying from around 3,500 hectares 10 years ago to about 600 last year. The figure varies from year to year. This is entirely a matter for local authorities as central government do not have any powers to intervene. It is for local authorities to make decisions themselves as to what is appropriate. Obviously, county farms can be a useful way of entering the farming profession, but a number of other ways are available, one of which is making sure that sufficient tenancies in the private sector come on to the market.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a farmer on our small family farm. Is the noble Lord aware of the activities of Gloucester County Council? It has consulted many farming organisations and has come to the conclusion that bringing young farmers into the industry and food production is more important than selling off land to get the capital from it? Could he perhaps hold up that council as a good example of what should be done by local authorities, because without food, we have no cities?

My Lords, all I would say is “good for Gloucestershire”, but it is for Gloucester County Council to make that decision itself, not for central government.

My Lords, on the innovation side of this Question, it is encouraging to note that the agricultural colleges seem to be attracting more students than in recent years. Can the Minister say how the Government are going to attract scientists into this area, which is very important? How are the Government going to give them the confidence to choose a career that will help us to solve one of the great problems of today, which is how we are going to feed 9.4 billion people in 30 to 40 years time?

My Lords, I am not sure that I can solve that problem in a 20-word answer. Obviously we will find it difficult to feed another 3 billion people within the next 40 years. Technological and scientific changes will all play their part, as will the Government and the industry. However, at this stage it would be rash of me to give the noble Lord too lengthy an answer.

My Lords, my noble friend has highlighted an important issue. Given that we want to increase food production and encourage new entrants into a profession which has a large number of older people in it, surely this is a matter for government as well as for local authorities. Local authorities may be tempted to sell because of their short-term financial constraints, but this may be against the long-term interests of the country. Does the noble Lord agree that Ministers should work with local authorities to ensure that this land remains as possible land for new entrants in the future?

My Lords, it is not only for short-term reasons that the counties have been selling off land. As I made clear, counties have been selling off acreages for a number of years, particularly under the previous Government. We have no powers to stop them under the Agricultural Act 1970; it has to be a matter for local authorities. However, there are other ways of getting into farming. Merely because the land has been sold does not mean that it has disappeared from agriculture; it may still be available for use under other means. That is why it is right to ensure that it is easy for people to rent land. The noble Baroness may be old enough to remember that a previous Labour Government introduced the Agricultural (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1976, under which all tenancies were made inheritable. As a result, we saw tenancies dry up completely and utterly. It was only with reforms from the later Conservative Government that more agricultural holdings became available for letting, to the benefit of new tenants.

My Lords, in order to increase the number of new entrants into farming, what steps are being taken to increase the very low take-up of government backed agricultural apprenticeships?

My Lords, I was not aware that there was a very low take-up. I shall consider what my noble friend has said and write to her in due course.

My Lords, I realise that the Minister has little power over local government, but what about the Prison Service and the National Health Service, which have been selling off farming land, where he has got some control?

My Lords, I realise that on this occasion I speak not only for Defra but for the entire Government. However, the noble Lord will appreciate that I have not been briefed on the problems of the National Health Service and the Prison Service. I shall make sure that I come to the House properly briefed in future and can deal with the question of agricultural land being sold off by those bodies should the question arise.

Does the Minister accept that after the First World War local authorities did an excellent job in providing a ladder for people to be introduced into the farming industry? Clearly, local authorities find it difficult now to assume this responsibility. What can the Government do to encourage the private sector to take up this challenge?

My noble friend is right to point out the fact that it is a ladder. Unfortunately, it has been a ladder which has amounted to only one rung. People get on to the bottom rung but they do not seem to move off it. It is important that we should do what we can to encourage more land to be let, in whatever size is appropriate, by private landlords, of which there are a considerable number. That is why I referred to the changes made by the previous Conservative Government relating to the letting of agricultural land.