Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  20. Surely you accept that rural areas could easily and very quickly be spoilt if inappropriate industry is allowed to develop in the countryside, particularly on farmers' land?
  (Mr Meacher) Absolutely. We are not suggesting a major factory should suddenly spring up around the countryside, it has to be compatible with the general character of the countryside, that is absolutely right. That is why planning departments do have to say no. Some proposals are, frankly, unacceptable. As I say, it is the manner in which you say it. If you explain to the applicant, to the potential developer, to the farmer, as to why it is not appropriate, what are the limitations of acceptability, try to get him to understand, hopefully he will look at alternatives.

  21. Having seen in the past some agricultural workers' residencies built as executive homes, as Crispin was talking about earlier, when we build these executive homes in the countryside should we not be laying rules down as to where these executives work? Certainly with agricultural workers' residencies there were strict regulations that they were for agricultural workers only. Should we not be looking at strengthening that on the question of executive homes?
  (Mr Meacher) My understanding is that planning departments would look at the location of a proposed executive home. You could not suddenly turn a barn out in a field into a massive new executive home. I imagine in almost all cases that would be turned down, that is not an appropriate development.

Mr Donohoe

  22. There are a number of reports of fairly major programmes on road bypasses. Can you just confirm, I know in the White Paper it says something like a billion pounds over the next three years, is that a figure which you would suggest is accurate?
  (Mr Meacher) It is part of the ten year transport plan. We do anticipate, I think, about 50 rural bypasses.

  23. Over the period of ten years?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  24. But over the next three years is that expenditure in the order of a billion pounds?
  (Mr Meacher) A billion pounds? I thought it was over ten, but correct me if I am wrong.

  25. The White Paper states that you are allocating a billion pounds over the next three years on rural programmes.
  (Mr Meacher) If the Rural White Paper says it, it must be right.

  26. You agree with that then?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes, I do.

  27. That is a step in the right direction, is it not?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  28. Can I just ask in connection with the situation of bypasses, I have visited a number of bypasses recently built and there are a number of issues, not least the environmental impact that they are making. Just what are you taking into account as far as that situation is concerned?
  (Mr Meacher) All new roads, including rural bypasses, are subject to the Government's new approach to appraisal which includes the five headings: safety, environment, which is the point that you have just raised, economy, integration, and one that I cannot recall. Those five tests have to be applied and they have to pass on each of those tests before the road can go ahead. There is no question that there would be a presumption against any new road development which in any significant way adversely affected environmentally sensitive sites.

  29. You are going to lay down, are you, specifications for the type of surface on these roads as well as everything else? Some of these roads are built of concrete which is absolutely unbelievably noisy. They will be laid down as well as everything else as far as conditions are concerned. You will also create a situation where if a bypass needs to be built near to a home, say within half a mile of that home, automatically they will be given grants to double glaze and triple glaze their properties, will they?
  (Mr Meacher) On the question of road noise, we are proposing, if I recall, 60 per cent of trunk roads will be resurfaced over the next ten years with, I think in most cases, low noise porous asphalt. With regard to double glazing where people are living within a certain distance of, say, roads which have a concrete surface, I think those are normally granted. I cannot remember the conditions, whether it is automatic. Certainly on the basis of application and certainly within half a mile, depending again on the contours of the land, I would expect grants for double glazing to be given. If you want a further note I would be glad to give it.


  30. Can I take you back to this question about industry development in rural areas. How do you get over the problem that very often you start with a small industry development which is perfectly appropriate for the rural scene but then it starts to get bigger and bigger?
  (Mr Meacher) You are raising a question of whether further planning permission is required if it is going to be turned from an acceptable small development into a possibly unacceptable large development. Again, I think it is true that—I am trying to think of the rules—there is no requirement for new planning permission for larger development or, indeed, for change of use.
  (Mr Cleary) I think we come here to one of the objectives of the White Paper which is to strike a balance between the need to achieve the level of business activity which will support rural communities, whether it is in market towns or on farms and, as you say, development which is contrary to the character of either the town or the open countryside. What the White Paper does is to illustrate some of the ways in which that balance will be achieved. Part of it is in relation to agricultural diversification, as we have heard already, part of it is in relation to market towns. For example, one of the changes which is heralded in the White Paper, is the changes to PPG13 which will aim to strike a balance between, for example, the demands that transport places on the rural infrastructure and the need to ensure healthy growth in towns but also in farms, which increasingly are going to have to diversify in order to survive as viable units.
  (Mr Meacher) The question, I think, Chairman, if I can say it is if you have a small development which has been approved how do we prevent it growing into a larger one which is unacceptable? I am not absolutely certain of the answer to that since I am not the planning minister.
  (Mr Cleary) I think the answer to that is that if you are on a farm, for example, if you want to change use from agriculture into an alternative use you must apply for planning permission.

  31. I understand that.
  (Mr Cleary) Part of that planning permission is actually setting limits.

Mrs Dunwoody

  32. The difficulty about that, I mean I have an instance, is that farmers are caught in this Catch 22 situation. If they try to diversify and they attract a certain amount of support then they are in danger of tipping over into a real industrial development and they become very unpopular not only with their neighbours but with everybody else. Certainly I have one unit which has consistently grown and it is right out in the countryside and it is now very specifically industrial development. Frankly no-one has put workable limits on that, so every time planning permission is refused they simply appeal and get it on the grounds that if someone else has done it so should they.
  (Mr Meacher) It is the case that original planning applications, if approved, are subject to certain limits.


  33. I understand the limit but the problem is that a firm sets up in an area, it employs perhaps 20 people locally, then there is the opportunity to expand to employ 40 people.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  34. The pressure on the local authority is very considerable. They say "if you turn it down and we cannot have permission to go up to 40 we will move away to somewhere else and you will lose the 20 local jobs". The temptation is to allow it to grow and to grow. In fact, most of our big companies in this country started off as small ones.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes, I do understand that, but it is also the case that if there is a limit on the size of the development which is approved, you cannot go over that without putting the matter back to the planning department.

  35. I understand that. Can I take you on to the rural enterprise scheme and the small business advice service. How far do they really give people advice and are they good at giving advice on what is an appropriate development on a farm to avoid these sort of problems coming along?
  (Mr Meacher) We are proposing, as I did say, to issue new planning guidance precisely to show how we are proposing to ease the problem of farm diversification but also to show the limits within which it will be allowed, namely that there is a need to maintain the basic character of the countryside.

Dr Ladyman

  36. I would like to explore some issues about wildlife and habitat, if I may, Minister. We have seen a lot of habitat lost, we have seen intensive farming and as a consequence we have lost a lot of bird species. How are you going to go about reversing the decline in farmland birds?
  (Mr Meacher) I am glad to say that we have begun to have some success and these things are long term, so I am not saying it is all this Government. I do think some of the proposals that we have put in place in the last few years are beginning to have an effect. In the last headline indicator on farmland bird population, I was able to announce that there has been a four to five per cent increase in bird populations, including some rare species like the Red Kite and the White Tailed Eagle, which is the first time we have been able to announce that. The basic causes are, I think, very widespread, basically to do with the intensification of agriculture over the last 50 years, changes from spring to autumn sowing which reduces stubble rich fields for birds because it is not available during the winter, the reduction in field margins, the extensive reduction of hedgerows and, over the last 50 years again, there is evidence that appears to have been arrested in the course of the 1990s and is gradually now increasing. It is a matter of addressing those basic causes. We are taking powers, and have taken powers, in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, as it now is, to protect wildlife in sites of special scientific interest. We have given statutory underpinning to biodiversity action plans for the first time. We have laid an obligation on Government departments and local authorities to take account of biodiversity in planning their policies. This is, I think, a collection of policies which is more extensive and goes further than ever before. I appreciate there is still a problem, I think we have turned the bottom but we have a long way to go up.

  37. The Government has decided not to go down the route of a pesticide tax. We know the agri-environment payments will cover a minority of parkland areas. Is that something that you regret? Is it something you will look at again?
  (Mr Meacher) On agri-environment we have, as you know—Nick Brown did make an announcement about a year ago, I think, as I am sure you are all aware—the England Rural Development Programme, the switch from the production of subsidies to agri-environment schemes amounting to £1.6 billion over seven years, so that is very considerable.


  38. It is not that considerable, is it, compared with the whole of the expenditure on the CAP?
  (Mr Meacher) That is perfectly correct. The amount which is paid to this country in CAP terms is about £2.5 billion a year and the proportion of switch increases from two and a half per cent to four and a half per cent over those seven years. I do understand, and I think the Minister of Agriculture would also agree, that we do need to go further. The point is modulation, as it is technically called, does produce substantial gainers and losers at a time when farm incomes are extremely low and in some cases still going down. It is very difficult to get a greater switch at this time. We do need to go further, I agree. On the pesticides issue, Government's clear position is that we want to reduce the adverse environmental impacts from excess pesticide use. The question is whether that is done through taxation or whether it is done through a voluntary approach. We have not excluded at some point the possibility of a tax if the voluntary approach does not produce the necessary result. We have been in touch with the British Agri Chemical Association—it is now I think the Crop Protection Association—who are, of course, opposed to the tax and asked them to produce their proposals on a voluntary basis to achieve that objective. I think it is fair to say that their first set of proposals were rather feeble, that is certainly my view. They consulted the relevant interests who took a similar view. They then produced a further set of proposals which we are currently examining which are better, but in my view still not adequate. As the Chancellor indicated in the Pre-Budget Report last month, we are having very serious discussions with them in the context of the period leading up to the Budget. That is as far as I can take it.

  Chairman: It is fairly blunt.

Dr Ladyman

  39. The Government has responsibilities under the Common Rules Regulations to try and focus more of our agricultural subsidies on environmental protection. Are you confident that you are going to be able to fulfil your requirements? Have you drawn any conclusions on how you will move that in the right direction?
  (Mr Meacher) This does come back to the intention to make this switch to support the Rural Development Programme which I have already referred to. Others may take the view it is still not adequate. It is a watershed in my view. It is a very significant switch, a significant switch in the direction of CAP funds away from production subsidies to the whole area issue of agri- environment, as I say, £1.6 billion over seven years. We would like to build on that but it does involve significant redistribution of subsidies which would otherwise go to farmers. I repeat there are substantial gainers and losers.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 10 May 2001