Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  100. How much money do you have to throw at the economy of the countryside, for example through the Vital Villages programmes. What is the maximum value of the grant and how do they get it?
  (Ms Warhurst) There are four different grants on this one. The key point is, and I do understand many people have made the point about needing indicators, the Vital Villages programme and the health check we do in market towns are not about us telling towns and villages but about villages themselves with varying degrees of disadvantage or ability coming together and finding their common cause. There are parish planning grants which are £5,000 to pull together an action plan that needs to go to the parishes. There are community service grants where you can have between £500 up to £15,000. That is about do we need to do something about childcare, do we need to do something about the village shop, what do we need to do, hopefully as part of the parish action plan but not necessarily so, not constrained by that. There are parish transport grants that are saying to local communities come up with imaginative ways such as tax rebate schemes and scooter schemes for young kids to get to work, not just schemes for better use of the downtime on community transport. There are all sorts of initiatives and then of course there are the bigger ones up to quarter of million for the rural transport partnership, the Penistone-type of thing where again it is about making sure that people in urban centres can get to the countryside but, more importantly, people in the countryside can get to a decent quality of life, a social life and employment where they have not been able to do so before. It is a mixed bag of grants from the very small to the quite large but also working with rural community councils and ourselves to support a community to empower—I hate to use that word—to make them think "Hey, we can do something for ourselves."

Mr Todd

  101. What do you do about the inequity of the empowerment within rural communities? In my area and that of most of the other people around this table, there are villages where there are lots of architects, people with—I do not know about Jaguars—certainly BMWs, swimming pools occasionally, and other villages which are former mining villages which do not have those sorts of people available to them to help them put in bids for your schemes. The same problem affects Lottery funding, that the communities which have the professional resources available to them can put in incredibly impressive bids, and the other groups do not have the resources and self-confidence sometimes to do it. What do you do about that?
  (Mr Wakeford) What we do is actually to help fund rural community councils. There are 38 of them across England. They provide the assistance to help individual communities get themselves into a position where they can do that. It is a significant programme right the way across England. There is evidence which shows that it does not actually matter a great deal what the funds are, what they are to be used for, what the rules are, whether it is a Lottery grant, or a Vital Villages grant, or a Millennium Green or a Doorstep Green which is our current programme. These are modest grants. The availability of the grant, people seeing that there is something there to go for, will actually create a sense of strength in the local community, whether the people have got BMWs, or Jaguars or not. I have been to so many villages that have succeeded in putting Millennium Greens in place, have succeeded in getting their village shop back and so on. I have seen plenty of evidence of where that is possible without owning a BMW or a Jaguar.

  102. It is possible, yes, and it is possible in my area as well, but the difficulty is that it relies on unique individuals very often and communities to lead that process and those are not evenly spread, are they?
  (Mr Cameron) No.

  103. The qualifications that are necessary for quality bids are not evenly spread either, are they?
  (Mr Wakeford) The Agency is launching next year, working with the National Association of Local Councils, a significant training programme for parish councils. I said earlier that parish councils are very different, we must not regard them all as the same bodies. Some cover populations of only 50 and some cover quite large populations. There is a very strong thrust at the moment in government policy—and in the work of the Countryside Agency we believe we have been instrumental in achieving that—of building community strength at the local level. There are a number of our initiatives, whether they be the individual small grants or the Quality Parishes programme that we have worked on with the Government, or the training programme for parish councillors, or the funding that we are doing through the rural community councils to have people out there on the ground talking to communities, helping them to work out what is needed in their community and how they can get the resources to do it. There is a significant programme under way there. It may be that it is not enough, because in our world it is always easy to say, "We need more", but I think there is a significant programme there that we can be proud of at the moment.

  104. There is a real danger, though, that you and others will fund the middle-class villages for things they like and miss most of the others, is there not?
  (Mr Cameron) We recognise that. We are very conscious of capacity building to apply for grants. There is a serious problem. I mentioned the Business Recovery Fund. It is exactly the same. It is across the board.
  (Mr Wakeford) If I can come back to the ward database that we have of disadvantage—from the summer we now have that information available—we are going to be using that in the future tranches of the Vital Villages programme to go out and target communities who we think are missing out. So now we have the data we can actually start to focus in a way that perhaps was not so possible in the past. I think you probably have a point. If I look back to see who had done village design statements under the Countryside Commission's gold scheme, I suspect that what you said about those communities would be right.

  Chairman: We have quite a lot of questions coming up and we have 40 minutes to go. Quite a lot of the questions coming up we will have covered, so perhaps colleagues could clean up the ones we have covered already.

Mr Martlew

  105. The Department of Transport brought out a ten-year plan for England and Wales. What input did the Commission have into that ten-year plan?
  (Mr Wakeford) It was a document that was a long time in the gestation. We in the Countryside Commission and in the Rural Development Commission were involved at the start of that process. We had, and maintain, a good series of contacts with the Department and with the Highways Agency over the period of the preparation of that.

  106. So are you happy with the plan? Did what you want appear in the plan?
  (Mr Wakeford) We are happy with some aspects of it. We are concerned about the implications of some aspects of it. We are happy with the emphasis on investing in public transport. We are happy with the emphasis on the local transport plans, for example. We are certainly happy with the way in which significant investments will be made to make cities work well and serve the hinterlands. Some of the aspects of the roads construction programme that may flow through it in some parts may throw up dilemmas for us. For a long time the Agency—the Countryside Commission before it—has been concerned about some proposals to widen the A303 in Somerset through the heart of the Blackdown Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The plan is a bold concept. When I was talking earlier about what we need for the land use planning system, in a sense the concept of where are we going to be in ten years' time and how are we going to get there is something we welcome. As to the elements of it, the majority I suspect have pluses against them, but there are some that do not.

  107. Perhaps we can now turn to public transport. The Government put quite a lot of extra money into basically rural bus services. This is just an observation, but when I go round the rural part of my constituency I see more buses, but I am not sure I see more people on those buses. Is there any evidence that actually more people are using the buses? How do we get people to leave their cars at home, because of the extra money? It seemed a good idea at the time, to put the money in, but people are still using their cars and not using the buses, and we would be better off spending our money somewhere else.
  (Mr Wakeford) You have to think about the overall pictures and trends and the assumption that you are not going to be able to get around by public transport in the countryside, which many people take as their starting point. The evidence that we have is that when a new bus service is put on, it takes between 18 months and two years before people start to know that it is there. There is quite a long take-up period. So the evidence in our rural services survey certainly seems to suggest that public transport and community transport is now reaching parts of England that were not reached before, but what we do not have is evidence yet of the extent to which this is changing people's habits. In individual schemes the Government's funding for rural buses, the big chunk of it, goes, as you say, to rural bus grants, to county councils, and they are buying services that cannot be viable for the private sector operators. There is another, much smaller slice of money that comes through the rural transport partnerships that Pam Warhurst, the Deputy Chairman, was talking about earlier, where we are helping communities to identify what public transport needs they have and how they can be served. This has proved for the Agency to be a frustrating process, because the Government put money up for this, the scheme was launched and they rather assumed that there would be a very quick take-off of people coming in and saying, "Yes, we want this and this and this." In practice, it has taken much longer to identify how to put together the partnership of organisations that will identify what the public transport needs are and how they can best be served. What we are aiming to do is to encourage some quite innovative projects showing what works and what does not work. We are trying to get into car-sharing schemes, as well as into buses like the bus at Kirkby Stephen, the plus bus. This is a very exciting project where a specially designed bus is actually serving a market town, serving the needs of the less mobile who live around there in some remoteness, but also serving the railway station on the Settle to Carlisle line, which is bringing in visitors who will walk in the stunning scenery in that part of the world. So it is really serving lots of people. The comment I took away as being really so rewarding was from the person who said that they really valued the bus, because it meant that they could do their shopping on their own in the Co-Op in Kirkby Stephen, rather than having to go with their daughter into Kendal to Tesco's. That meant that they could actually buy their gin without their daughter knowing!

Mr Drew

  108. I would like to ask some fairly blunt questions, and probably Ewen is the obvious person to pick these up. In terms of management, how do you make farmers part of the solution to rural problems, rather than a set of problems in their own right?
  (Mr Cameron) The answer is, change the system. For too long the system has been targeted at farmers trying to compete in the global market place, and I believe that there are a whole lot of different arrows that you can add to their quiver, such as obviously things like organic farming, locally-produced produce, environmental services, flood-relief schemes maybe more downstream and so on, as well as diversification. At the moment the Common Agricultural Policy targets the production of commodities such as milk and wheat and what are recognised as normal farm products. I believe that the taxpayers get very little bangs for their bucks, as it were, under that system. I think that what we need is a change in the system, whereby the taxpayer, who is probably the largest inputter of funds into the agricultural industry, needs to say, "perhaps we want something in return"—in other words, instead of having a subsidy system you have a contract system. This could be done on a localised basis. I also believe that if you actually get farmers switched on to providing for the local market place, as we are trying to promote in our Eat The View plan, they also will understand that their profitability depends as much upon the brand image of the countryside that they are living in as it does upon necessarily the price of the product.

  109. I am going to mention some examples of the Forest of Dean. Clearly you are looking for good practice and to embed that into the change we want to see. How much is there going to be conflict between what could be termed pure environmental uses of the landscape as against farming it in perhaps different ways, but still farming it?
  (Mr Cameron) There could be conflicts, certainly, if the taxpayers think that they are providing money for one particular service and they are getting another. But I do not see it as necessarily being a matter of conflict. Taking my quiver full of arrows that I mentioned, global competitive farming remains a very strong, possibly a first, arrow within that quiver. Anyone who grows wheat, for instance, is growing a product that is a world commodity with different world prices, so they are automatically in the world market place. I also believe that you will get farmers who are doing a whole variety of things in terms of the services offered, some of which will be tourist and leisure orientated, some of which will be environmentally orientated and so on. So I see them as being—or they ought to be—complementary.
  (Mr Wakeford) The key is to re-target the subsidy, surely, so that the taxpayer who is putting about £3 billion indirectly into farming actually gets £3 billion worth of value in things that the taxpayer says that they want out of farming. Having done that, you could secure through that a contract with farmers in which farmers can actually make a profit out of providing that service that the public wants, and then on top of that they would be free to use the land to produce things in an unsubsidised way, in a way that would then compete in local and world markets.
  (Mr Cameron) The profit element is something that does not exist at the moment. There is no point in paying a farmer 80 per cent for rebuilding a stone wall in the Dales of Yorkshire which he does not want, it has got to be 150 per cent. At the moment it is done on a profits forgone basis, which is not as it should be.

Patrick Hall

  110. Can I just look at that £3 billion? Is that for England or the whole of British agriculture? The £3 billion is so often mentioned. I think the words were used "direct taxpayer subsidy".
  (Mr Cameron) The £3 billion is actually slightly less now because of the value of the pound to the euro.

  111. Is that England or Britain?
  (Mr Cameron) No, that is Britain. There is also more than that comes from the taxpayer, particularly this year with foot and mouth.

  112. Yes, but there is a special reason for that. The figure of £3 billion is British taxpayers subsidising producers, is that right?
  (Mr Cameron) Correct.

  113. Is there more money coming in from the EU, or is that under the EU scheme, the CAP?
  (Mr Cameron) That is the EU scheme. We are net contributors to the EU, so we are paying in.
  (Mr Wakeford) I may have misled the Committee in a sense by using a kind of journalistic shortcut. There is about £3 billion coming through the Common Agricultural Policy to farmers in the UK. I was making the point that in a sense it is our taxpayers who are paying for it, even though it is coming from the EU.

  114. I understand that point. You are arguing very strongly, and there are others also who are arguing, that there should be a switch from producer subsidy to putting money into looking after the countryside, rural development and environmental biodiversity goals. In fact, in your submission to the Policy Commission on Farming and Food, you are suggesting that the CAP be abolished and that it be replaced by a 100 per cent switch of all the CAP monies to those sustainable outcomes.
  (Mr Cameron) Yes. To an integrated rural policy part of which would continue to include payment for agricultural production. The sort of balance we see is possibly a one-third/one-third/one-third in terms of one-third continues to go into agricultural production—take the uplands, for instance, where farming subsidy is a very good way of maintaining the communities and the appearance of the uplands and it is very beneficial—one-third into environmental payments, and one-third into rural development investment pump-priming.

  115. So a more sustainable use of the CAP subsidy?
  (Mr Cameron) Yes.

  116. You are arguing that all that money should be switched to those different and better purposes, but are you aware that the Government thinks that the switch would lead to public expenditure savings?
  (Mr Cameron) That argument obviously has yet to take place. I would suspect that we are some way away from CAP reform or scrapping. The argument that certainly I am using outside to farmers is that, unless you believe that you are delivering something that society wants, then I believe there is a good chance that you will lose a proportion of that money. You have got to bear in mind that the CAP reform is going to be forced upon us by WTO talks and particularly by the incoming Eastern European countries. Poland, I believe, has more farmers than the whole of Europe put together at the moment. There are going to be changes and there are going to have to be different ways of supporting the countryside or rural land management. I am trying to persuade the Government, farmers and others about actually a more responsible way of trying to achieve continued funding, and that it will undoubtedly disappear unless we (I say "we", as I am a farmer) go along with the inevitable change in policy that I foresee coming over the horizon.

  117. Yet I think there is no doubt—and do you agree—that the Treasury view this change as an opportunity for expenditure savings?
  (Mr Cameron) I suspect the Treasury are always looking for savings in every aspect, yes, I am sure they are.

  118. If you do not believe that, then you need to be very clear in demonstrating how that quantum can be better applied, do you not?
  (Mr Cameron) Indeed.

  119. Not just in a submission to the Policy Commission, but messages to Government as well?
  (Mr Cameron) Yes, we are totally at one on that.
  (Mr Wakeford) There is another angle to this, because the Treasury tend to look at it in the way you are looking at it, in terms of expenditure. If we have a thriving rural economy, then more taxes will be paid, so there is another bit going into the Treasury account, and they ought to be able to benefit.
  (Mr Cameron) That can be clearly proven this year. This year a disease in agriculture affected the rural economy in a major way.

  Chairman: We have two former Treasury Ministers here, and I can see scepticism seeping out of their features on this one.

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