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4.58 pm

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): This is an important debate in terms not just of the regulations before us but of the wider debate about the nature and purpose of the countryside. That debate has permeated the Chamber this evening.

There has been some talk about how the regulations will affect land values. I am firmly on the side of the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) in believing that

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the NFU's assessment may be exaggerated. Like him, I think that there may be effects on particular farms, but in general I do not think that there will be any effect on land values.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: The figure may be exaggerated or it may not be. I was asking the Minister to make sure that he had formed a clear impression of the likely or possible impact on land values, given that they underpin so much in rural England.

Paddy Tipping: The Minister will speak for himself, but I see no evidence of agricultural land values falling. I accept that farming is in crisis and that farm incomes are very low, but I see no sign that land values will fall. I am certainly of the view that the regulations will have no effect whatsoever, except in the smallest case.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) spoke properly and wisely about adding value to the countryside, which is what I want to discuss. The real lesson to be drawn from the foot and mouth crisis is its effect on visitors to the countryside. When the footpath network was closed and people no longer visited the countryside, the rural economy was in crisis. Farmers who are concerned about the regulations—they have a right to be—should be concerned about the need to add value to the countryside so as to create a backdrop that people will wish to visit. In principle, it must be right that we should conserve high-value landscapes. We should build on work that hon. Members have done to safeguard hedgerows, look after stone walls and ensure that land that is uncultivated and has high value is maintained. We may argue about the scale, but in principle that must be the right thing to do.

I have two questions for the Minister. First, the principle of the regulations as they stand is right, but there is a lack of clarity. It would be helpful for people who have concerns if what is meant by the high-value land that is specified and which lies behind the regulations is spelled out more clearly.

Secondly, conservation bodies have a view about how they are to be consulted. The prime interest is the landowner, but other bodies will wish to be consulted. The regulations are clear. The Countryside Agency and the Environment Agency, for example, are to be consulted, but other bodies such as the wildlife trusts and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which have already been mentioned, have enormous significance and can contribute to the debate. Those organisations have been consulted about the preparation of the regulations, but will they be consulted as a matter of course when applications are made?

We should study the regulations carefully and get the balance right—the balance to create a living and changing countryside. The countryside does not stand still; it will always be changing. The farmer and the landowner are the major stakeholders, but they know that their livelihoods and interests depend on a countryside where the landscape is lifted and the environment enhanced. If properly applied, the regulations can help them. That is why I welcome the commitment that the regulations will be reviewed in 18 months.

It is important that we get right the balance between the people who live and work in the countryside and those who want to visit it and who bring wealth and prosperity

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to the area. One aspect of this debate that has concerned me is the persistent and misguided argument of those who try to set urban and rural interests against each other. That argument will lead to destruction and pain. A sensible way forward is to see and work for a balanced approach, which adds value to both parties.

5.4 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I have an interest, in that I became a farmer last year—as declared in the Register of Members' Interests. I was one of the people referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). I was extremely surprised; I had no idea that the environmental impact assessment regulations would be introduced this year until I heard about today's debate.

I use my farm as an example to illustrate the problems of other people because I am fortunate—I do not rely on farm income for my livelihood. Fortunately, the good burghers of Blaby keep voting for me to come to this place. I hope that they continue so to do. I want to farm my land in an environmentally friendly way that conserves and encourages wildlife and birdlife.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey spoke well, and I agreed with him. He and I go back a long way on this issue and have had many discussions about it in the past. I remind the House that he was an instigator of the Hedgerows Bill in 1993. It was not successful but became the basis for further measures. He has an honourable record on wildlife and countryside conservation.

When I was younger, I used to be outraged by the destruction that some farmers wrought on the countryside. They ripped out hedges wholesale. Many of us have seen how the landscape was changed by the work of farmers, but that is in the past.

Mr. Wiggin: Having seen the way the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food handled the foot and mouth crisis, does my hon. Friend agree that farmers plough up moorland and hillside because they are so frightened about the way that they will be treated? It may offer them their only route of escape.

Mr. Robathan: I agree with my hon. Friend. Unfortunately, the regulations point to that result. Farmers feel harassed by their own Department. The fact that it is called DEFRA rather than MAFF makes things seem even worse. Many people call it the Department for the End of Farming and Rural Activity.

I used to be outraged by the activities of farmers, but actually most farmers are just trying to make a living. There should be education and incentive, not over- regulation. My father-in-law was a farmer and my brother-in-law is a farmer and I know many farmers in my constituency. They are not all grain barons, riding about in Range Rovers; many of them are ordinary people who like working on the land. They are using their best endeavours to try to work the land, but they are under huge pressures to make a living—as I said earlier in an intervention on the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce). When they are going bankrupt, no one could expect them to do anything but maximise the potential of their land.

The regulations in this European directive bring a wry smile to my face because they amount to gold-plating. I do not think that the directive was intended to have that

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effect—although one might say that it is getting into the nooks and crannies of everyday life. The regulations are gold-plating that will make life more difficult for farmers.

The point that I want to home in on is the countryside stewardship scheme, which was mentioned by two of my hon. Friends. I want to pursue that scheme because I want to make my land more environmentally friendly. As the Minister knows, a large number of farmers throughout the country are also adopting the scheme, because almost all farmers appreciate wildlife. They appreciate hedges. They like to see the land farmed in an environmentally friendly way, but they have to make a living. The countryside stewardship scheme has allowed them to do that, and to reverse some of the destruction that has taken place in the past.

I want to pursue the scheme—as do many farmers—but I have been put on the back foot: I am concerned that if I take up the scheme, I shall end up tying my hands and the hands of farmers who farm my land in the future. The regulations mean that DEFRA will be able to interfere when anyone wants to make further changes on their land. That is a real concern.

Will the Minister tell us whether he believes that the regulations will discourage people from taking up the countryside stewardship scheme? I fear that they may. If so, what mitigation will he offer to encourage what has been a most successful scheme?

Overall, the great concern is that this further regulation will interfere with the livelihoods of people who are already on the cusp of bankruptcy. The industry is in real crisis. We are talking about ordinary people who work all the hours that God gave. I have seen the man who was ploughing my land working at 10 o'clock at night with headlights on. I, too, work at 10 o'clock at night, but not nearly as hard as a farmer does. These people work all the hours that God gave to make a livelihood, yet we are making their lives even more difficult.

I applaud the desire in Brussels and in London for greater environmental aspects to our farming. I applaud the desire for greater conservation, and greater help for wildlife in the countryside. I do not, however, want to see greater interference, and what worries me about the regulations is that they represent further interference that will—

Mr. Wiggin: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, particularly as he had not finished his sentence. I want to ask him a question about the compliance cost of this new environmental impact assessment. If we continue to farm land that is currently being cultivated, and which would otherwise have been set aside or used for other environmentally friendly purposes, we shall be putting more food into a market that is perhaps incapable of absorbing it, thus forcing prices down even further. Farmers would do that, however, because they would be frightened of getting hit by an environmental statement, which the Secretary of State estimates will cost between £2,000 and £3,000 to prepare. Would my hon. Friend care to comment on that?

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