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12 Dec 2002 : Column 432—continued

Sue Doughty: The hon. Gentleman has been saying some very interesting and helpful things. Does he agree that one of our problems is that an increasing number of young people are growing up with no real understanding of how farming contributes to the countryside in which we live today? Furthermore, these children are growing up and buying food that may not have been produced on British farms. Might it be helpful to develop a programme for schoolchildren to visit our farms and see the high quality of food that is produced there, to give them a greater understanding of the issues?

Paddy Tipping: I agree with all that. Organisations such as the National Farmers Union, for example, know conceptually that this needs to be done, but have not been particularly smart at delivering the goods. I used to take youngsters out from the middle of St. Anne's in Nottingham—my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Alan Simpson) knows the area well. We would go out in the minibus and, as soon as we saw a stream, they would know we were in Derbyshire. I remember having many conversations about where the milk that arrived in St. Anne's actually came from. That is the kind of education that is necessary. That is why I am so concerned about the small group of determined people who, for their own ends, want to try to drive a wedge between the needs of urban dwellers and those of people who live in the countryside. It is in no one's interest to do that.

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We are not particularly strong on policy relating to the urban fringes. I am pleased with the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, but I visit the countryside regularly—

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has talked about not wanting to drive a wedge between the countryside and the urban population. Does he view with concern, as I do, the Government's proposals to reduce the size of the national parks? It is very important that those parks should have a wide variety of members on their boards. Implementation of the review that the Government published in July would lead to substantial reductions in the number of people serving on those boards.

Paddy Tipping: My criticism of national parks is that there are not enough outsiders on their boards. When I talk to people who are on those boards, they say that outsiders can often bring value. I was concerned, when the legislation relating to this issue was passed, at the dominance of the boards by large sections of parish councillors. They contribute something, but they sometimes do so in a negative way. What I want to say to my hon. Friend the Minister is, XGet on and designate some more national parks soon!" That is on the agenda; let us make sure that it happens, particularly before the next general election.

Let me return to the subject of urban fringes. As I said, I do not think that our policies on them are particularly good. Urban fringes are the places where old cars go to die, or to be burned out, and where people go to fly-tip. At the moment, we are just not clever enough at designing policies to help us with the transition from the built-up areas to the countryside.

I want to mention a particular experience that I had last week. I went to see the Hammond family at New Farm, at Redhill. They rent a field from the city council near Bestwood country park. It is a pasture, a piece of grassland. Local youngsters from Bestwood estate use it as a place for Tarzan adventures and bonfires. Dog-walkers also go there. We ought to design our policies and use our resources to provide imaginative opportunities to resolve the problems of the urban fringes.

I am also concerned about the fly-tipping that takes place around the countryside. We need to be clear, in our policies relating to the landfill tax, how we are going to manage and resolve that problem. I am particularly keen on an old colliery site in Nottinghamshire—the Gedling colliery—which is right on the eastern end of the built-up area. It is badly contaminated, but people aspire to turn it into a country park. At the moment, however, there is no real vehicle to make that happen. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is talking about the notion of a land regeneration trust. This site could be a prime candidate to provide a new country park. It would be a piece of alchemy to take the mud heaps of the old traditional mining industry and create part of a new Sherwood forest. We ought to have the ability and the imagination to achieve that.

We need to bring new opportunities into rural areas, and to acknowledge that farming is no longer the backbone of the rural economy. We need policies that

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will bring new investment into rural areas. I am slightly alarmed, as I see broadband develop across urban areas, at the difficulties that we will have in giving people in rural areas those same opportunities. I am also keen for us to review planning policies. PPG7 relates to diversification. I constantly struggle with local authorities in my area to try to persuade them to be more flexible about business opportunities—to let a wood yard grow a little more; to consider allowing the stables and the forge that provide specialist veterinary help; and to acknowledge that there might be a need for a house on that site. Our planning policies are far too restrictive. I know that they were reviewed 18 months ago, but if we are to develop the kind of enterprise that I want, we need to move further on this. As I have said, the countryside is not set in aspic, and we need to ensure that we have a strategy for change.

We also need to set the strategy in a wider international context. I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) about European legislation and directives. More and more of our work on waste legislation and environmental legislation will come from Europe. I was at the Commission recently, with some of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members, and it was interesting to note how enthusiastic members of the Commission were about British Ministers and British civil servants. Our problem is that we do not engage early enough in the emerging debate. We do not shape the debate or the future of the legislation at an early enough stage. The refrigerator issue and the nitrate directive particularly illustrate that point. We do not work through, at the conceptual stage, what finally the practicalities on the ground are going to be.

All this is achievable, but it is not going to be easy. The mid-term review is not going to be easy, and I think that the CAP reform is going to be almost impossible. We have the chance, however, to make the kinds of change that I am advocating. We can modulate farm policies in our own sector far more than we are doing at the moment. That is the message that I want the Minister to take away with him. We have made a good start through the English rural development programme, but there is much more to be done. We must move away from the notion that farmers can somehow rely on the state, and towards the notion that they can provide something more for the environment. We must also move towards the notion that we need more rural business. That is why the countryside has to change, and why change is inevitable. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that we have an agenda for action, and it is action that we want. It is time to put the theory into practice.

2.48 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes): I welcome the opportunity for a debate on the new Department, although I am sorry that the Secretary of State is no longer with us. The debate takes place against the background of the Select Committee report, to which other hon. Members have referred, and the publication today of the strategy for sustainable farming and food, to which I will return in a moment.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) called the Government motion Xself-congratulatory". The hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), some

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30 minutes ago, called it Xambitious"—a very creative term in the circumstances, if I may say so. The picture painted in the motion is perhaps not quite so blissfully wonderful as he might think. If I may be slightly rude to the Minister, the word that springs to my mind is Xsmug". [Interruption.] The Minister should wait, as I may say something nice in a moment. Liberal Democrats want his Department to succeed. It may be flawed, but it is the only Department that creatively and actively promotes proper sustainability in government. It is the only Department that takes environmental issues seriously and champions the needs of rural areas. All those issues are terribly important, so it is vital that DEFRA succeed.

The Prime Minister was right to change the arrangements and mechanisms of government to abolish the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, because it had run out of road. It was known in some circles as the Ministry for Agro-chemicals, Fishy Excuses and Food Poisoning. No Department with such a reputation should be allowed to continue. The creation of a rural affairs Department was right, and the Government should get credit for that.

However, DEFRA has had a difficult birth, and its first few months have not been without difficulties, whether it has been on the environment, the foot and mouth epidemic or other farming-related problems. I shall deal with the Department's internal record, and then briefly with its external record and how effective it is in persuading other Departments to adopt its sustainable approach. That approach is terribly important. The Secretary of State said that sustainability was her Department's overriding purpose. If she is rightly to put such weight on sustainable development, it is important that we consider how well it has done.

I shall refer briefly to today's Government reponse on sustainable farming and food. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) will catch your eye during the debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, as I know that he wishes to address that issue. Like all hon. Members, I have only been able to have a brief reading of the report. It is fair to say that, as with many Government documents, it is good on rhetoric but less good on action. It tends to push all the difficult issues over the horizon.

Sometimes that is not the Government's fault. All parties in the House are signed up to CAP reform, but the Government cannot deliver that themselves. If they could reform the CAP by themselves, they would have done so, but they must secure European Union agreement. The CAP is a drain on the EU budget, it is an unsustainable way of farming, it gives 80 per cent. of direct subsidy to 20 per cent. of holdings, and it is not something that any of us could sensibly defend, yet the Government's response is weak. It says that they will continue to press for change. We have been told that for some time. The Minister may say, XWhat else can we do?", but I think that the Government should press harder and more firmly. He should speak to the Foreign Secretary and consider the impact of enlargement. In my view, it is important to get some CAP reform before enlargement if possible, because it will be much more

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difficult to achieve that when euros are raining down on the new members in eastern Europe, who will have reason to keep the present system going.

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