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12 Dec 2002 : Column 466—continued

Mr. Hayes: I intervene only in case there is no time later for me to refute the crass points about our landscape that the hon. Gentleman has just made. He is a man of great experience and insight so he must know that the vast bulk of rural Britain is a manufactured landscape—it is not just mountains and streams. In any case, even streams have to be maintained. The countryside has to be husbanded and it is husbanded by farmers. We owe our countryside to farmers and I hope that the hon. Gentleman has the generosity and common sense to acknowledge that.

Paul Flynn: If the hon. Gentleman had been listening carefully, he would have realised that I was making the point that farming is not essential and that nature was beautiful before farming arrived and will be beautiful when farming ends. Compared to the way in which we use vast tracts of land at present, the future for farming will be entirely different in 50 years; as we can see, for example, in the plans for farming being developed at Delta park in Rotterdam. We must not fall into the trap of believing that huge tracts of land cannot be used for leisure purposes that are not necessarily connected with farming. I am sure that we shall see that in my grandchildren's time.

This is the first time that I have spoken in a farming debate in the House, although I represent a constituency where there were three outbreaks of foot and mouth last year. Some farmers no longer farm their land and use it as a large garden, but there are also a number of working farms. I want to cite one example to answer those people who say that we must never change anything and that if land has always been in production, it must remain so.

In one area of my constituency, two and a half farms employed no more than four people. The farms received subsidies and were a drain on the economy, like most farms. Nowadays, the land is no longer farmed but is occupied by an enterprise—a resort employing 400 people. The resort will host the Ryder cup in 2010 and will be of huge advantage to the nearby city. There has been a huge improvement in the use of that land.

Another farm that closed down was replaced by a golf course which employed 2,000 people. In many rural areas, when farmland is reused for other purposes, especially for recreation, more people are employed in almost every case. There are benefits to the local economy and there is no longer a drain on the Exchequer because subsidies are no longer needed.

We must have that change. The idea that we should continue farming hundreds of acres, employing only one or two people, is false. There is no economic need to do

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so. By the time the produce from most farms gets to the farm gate, it is already worth less than the cost of production. That does not make sense.

Mr. Jack: The hon. Gentleman's analysis misses out one element: the strategic need for agriculture. Within the past few weeks, because of drought in the United States and Australia, feed wheat from the United Kingdom is being exported to Australia. We need to take a world-strategic view on farming from time to time, not merely the hon. Gentleman's view.

Paul Flynn: Let us consider the most serious strategic view—the most depressing thing that happened during the foot and mouth epidemic, when the production of meat almost closed down in this country. What would have happened if that had been any other product in any other industry? There would have been shortages, price increases and queues at the supermarket. However, during the foot and mouth epidemic, there were no queues, no shortages and no price increases. The reason for that is a good one. We should look to a country where, in 1984, 40 per cent. of its income came from subsidies, yet by 1987 it had no subsidies. That country looks back to 1984 as the dark days of dependency. It does not want to go back to them. It does not want subsidies again. In that country, if I could draw the attention of the right hon. Gentleman to the strategic situation—

Mr. Jack: Tell us that it is New Zealand, and get on with it?

Paul Flynn: Yes, it is New Zealand. It is cheaper to bring meat from New Zealand to meat processors in Wales than to buy the cattle on the hills around the meat-processing firm. The right hon. Gentleman may well know that the Consumers Association analysed the price of food in Britain and New Zealand. There were no subsidises on the other side of the world, but the basket of all farm foods was half the price of our food in this country. That is precisely what Curry is saying in his report. The policies on agriculture that we have pursued for so long have given us high prices, a degraded environment and a farming industry that does not have the rewards that it should have.

5.1 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I have listened to all the speeches in this debate with great interest, and I have agreed with a substantial amount that has been said by virtually all hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), who always puts a very reasoned case on agriculture and rural issues. However, the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) has displayed why it is perhaps a good job that he has not spoken in agriculture debates before. Very few people who understand farming, the countryside and the rural economy would recognise the picture that he painted. He missed the point—this was touched on by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack)—that farming is about producing food.

The hon. Member for Newport, West referred to New Zealand, and I have huge admiration for the way in which it has changed its policy, but we have to recognise

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that proportionally it is a very large country with a small population—fewer than 4 million people, I think—to feed and its agricultural land area is much bigger than that of the United Kingdom, even if we include all the highlands of Scotland as prime agricultural land, which, of course, they are not. So there is a very great difference.

We need to consider how food will be provided in the future, which is why I intervened on the Secretary of State. To talk about taking vast swathes of the British countryside out of agriculture in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes raises the serious question, which I want to come to in a moment, about strategic food supplies in the long term—not just in the next few years or even the next decade or so—given the world population projections to which my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) referred earlier.

Before I make my own remarks, I must remind the House of my interests as declared in the Register of Members' Interests. I fear that I fall entirely into the category to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) referred. I have a tiny piece of land, which can only be described as a lifestyle farm, but, because it grows corn, I have to declare the issue to the House.

A number of hon. Members have said that farming is in its worst state since the 1930s. That is perfectly true. The hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst), who is no longer in his place, very clearly and capably encapsulated in a few sentences how we got into this situation and what has happened since the 1930s. He drew a distinction between the depression of the 1930s and what he called the recession of today, and he rightly said that the thing that differentiated the two was land values.

I would argue that it is only the value of the land that has stopped today's situation in agriculture becoming as bad as that in the 1930s, because it has provided farmers—at least owner-occupiers—with a significant asset. Agriculture is a very low-geared industry, so owner-occupiers can at least get out and buy a house to live in. Whether there is sufficient capital to generate an income to live on depends, of course, on the circumstances. Land values are now being held up for non-agricultural reasons: the most important being that, for individual reasons, large numbers of people from the more prosperous sectors of the economy espouse the ownership of land for its own sake. They want a nice house in the country, so they buy a house with farmland all round it, without being particularly interested in farming. They are prepared to pay very large sums, which inflates the value of land. The impact of roll-over tax relief for farmers in the south-east in particular—and for anyone else who owns land in the south-east, sells it for development and wants to roll it over—holds up the value of land, too. Were it not for those extraneous pressures, we would have seen a huge collapse in the price of land, which would have exacerbated the overall problems facing farming, because the asset value would have disappeared, and the gearing of many farmers, who today may seem relatively low-geared, would have gone up dramatically if the asset value had collapsed with it.

Relevant to the environmental aspect of the debate is the fact that in large parts of the country huge numbers of individuals have gone out of farming, but the land has

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not come on to the market—again thankfully, as it would have led to a collapse in land prices. Those are predominantly arable areas, where farms are now taken on by other farmers under some kind of farm business tenancy, contract farming or management farming arrangement. It is common knowledge that many farmers in arable areas now farm what are very large chunks of farmland in totality. In my part of the world, there are several farmers farming between 3,000 and 6,000 acres. That land is probably in the ownership of 10 or even 20 different landowners who were formerly small farmers but who have decided that it was not worth continuing and have come to an arrangement with another farmer who is prepared to invest in the high levels of machinery required to farm that sort of land.

That is not to the environmental advantage of the area, as some 200-acre farms are being farmed by contract farmers who come in with vast equipment—sometimes 300 horsepower equipment on four wheels or tracks—which rips up the farmland, ploughs and drills it, and is gone again within a couple of days. In the meantime, huge disruption is caused to wildlife and the local environment, which would not have occurred if there had been traditional farming, with a man using much smaller equipment and taking his time.

I want to refer to a couple of other small points. In her opening address, the Secretary of State did not show much humility, and, as other right hon. and hon. Members have said, the motion shows none whatever. It is strong on fine words but real commitment or action is woefully absent. Nowhere is that clearer than in relation to the foot and mouth outbreak and what happened in response to it. I had the privilege to sit on the Front Bench when the foot and mouth outbreak was at its peak and I witnessed the then Ministers being clueless as to what to do. The former Minister of Agriculture is a perfectly decent, nice man, but he was clearly totally out of his depth when trying to control and manage that crisis. Yet we have seen no humility, about its handling by the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or by the rest of the Government who were involved.

Contrary to the view expressed by the hon. Member for Newport, West, the vast majority of farmers accept the need for change, and most of them realise that it is bound to happen.

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