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Baroness Nicol: My Lords, I should like to add my congratulations to those of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Ellesmere. I had the pleasure of hearing him as an expert witness on one or two occasions on Select Committees and he was very impressive indeed; and this afternoon he has been no less impressive. I hope that we shall hear him very often.
The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, suggests that government attitudes are more important than clauses. I agree with that. He is indeed right. But well worded clauses are the only defence we have if a government's intentions seem to stray from the path. Therefore, when the Bill finally comes before us, we must do the best we can to make it watertight.
I give a cautious welcome to the Environment Agencies Bill. It has to be cautious, and I shall explain a little later why. Integrated pollution control is obviously better than the piecemeal approach we have had until now, even though, as my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, pointed out, there are serious omissions as far as we can tell. But I would feel much more confident if the agencies were described as environmental protection agencies, as the American equivalent is. I am sorry that it was not felt necessary or desirable to include that word. It would at least give the agencies the air of what so many of us hope they will be.
My confidence was not improved by the appearance in the draft of the weakest possible form of words for conservation duties, to which other noble Lords have referred, "having regard to the desirability of", instead of the much stronger responsibility which the NRA and others enjoyed before. The fact that the Secretary of State in a speech last week agreed to accept stronger wording does not console me since he did so only after assuring us that he considered the old phrases to mean the same as the new. That leaves us in doubt about which interpretation he will place on them or which interpretation will be placed on them by the new body.
The agencies will be required to minimise the burdens on industry. The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, had something to say about that. Given that, as far as I can see, business people seem to be in the majority on the list of names already announced, I am just a little uneasy about how this requirement may be balanced with the agencies' other responsibilities; and why does there not appear to be a scientist of any kind on the list of names? I could be wrong about that. Perhaps the noble Earl who is to reply will correct me if I am. We will need to examine this aspect very closely during the passage of the Bill and perhaps make some recommendations for improvement.
I am aware that this is not the time to embark on a Second Reading speech but I must mention one other aspect of the Bill and explain why I am cautious about it. I was delighted to hear that the long awaited legislation for national park authorities was to be
I particularly welcome in today's debate the grouping of environment and agricultureat last an acknowledgement that any discussion on conservation of the countryside cannot be separated from agriculture and its effects! In a briefing which I am sure many of your Lordships will have seen, English Nature stressed the importance of an integrated view of countryside management. It suggests that countryside management should include a holistic view and advises that agriculture should be environmentally sustainable. It suggests a redirection of CAP moneys to embrace environmental benefits if the industry is to move to more sustainable practices. I am quite sure that my noble friend Lord Carter will have something to say about that at the end of the debate.
The encouragement of organic farming was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont. I believe that it has a real contribution to make towards a sustainable farming industry, particularly towards maintaining biodiversity. Demand for organic produce in the United Kingdom outstrips supply by between 60 and 70 per cent. We have to import the balance quite often from doubtful sources and we are not sure just how "organic" the organic imports are. It would make sense at least to fill that gap with British produce. Of course, I understand that it may be many years before organic farming can make a substantial contribution to the needs of this country and I do not suggest that we should aim for that in the near future.
One way of encouraging organic farming in this country would be to take a more realistic view of its funding. As far as I can discover, the funding of organic farming in the UK is lower than in any other member state. The United Kingdom offers £70 per hectare in the conversion years one and two; £50 for year three; £35 for year four and £25 for year five. That is a pittance by any standards. Germany, by contrast, offers £200 per hectare for the conversion years and £150 per hectare thereafter. If we really want to encourage organic farming, we shall have to come to terms with the need to finance it better.
On the whole, however, I am encouraged by the noble Viscount's speech which opened the debate. At least he is saying the right things. We shall watch the Government's attempts to put what he has said into practice. I believe that the present Secretary of State for
Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, your Lordships' warm welcome to all new Members is known even beyond this House, and has been gladly received by me. I only hope that by the end of this short speech I shall not be craving your Lordships' indulgence because my voice is at that rather peculiar stage when one does not know what is going to come out when one speaks, a squeak or a groan.
As my noble friend said, I have spent the past 12 years mostly engaged in local government. In fact, I spent 10 years in local government and the rest of my time attempting to enter the elected House of Parliament. I tried most earnestly to achieve that end. Indeed, I tried quite recently to become a Member of the European Parliament. It was during that campaign that the suggestion was made to me that I might allow my name to go forward in order to join this House. That shows how providence may close one door, but opens another.
During my years on Surrey County Council, I was always a member of the highways and transport committee. I know that that is not considered to be a woman's subject, but I have always enjoyed it and found great interest in it. Indeed, I am now chairman of the highways and transport committee. I do not think that it is an accident that Surrey was one of the first counties in this country to draw up a transport plan. It resulted from the fact that in 1989, when we first began to consider drawing up such a plan, Surrey was already suffering twice the national average of traffic. We now have nearly three times the national traffic average, so the impact of traffic on the environment in every way is something about which Surrey's residents are deeply concerned.
I had the good fortune to servealbeit in a rather junior capacity as a member of a small groupon the first working group that produced that transport plan. The main principles of the plan were based on the realisation that we could not satisfy the apparent demand for road transport,
Obviously, we had a wide range of main objectives. We wanted to maintain our strategic network so that the heavy traffic would be encouraged to drive along that rather than seek ways round it. We wanted to achieve what is called, in the current terminology, "modal change", so we put forward methods of increasing public transport and promoting walking and cycling.
Perhaps I may say at this point how much we have all welcomed the recent policy guidelines discouraging out-of-town shopping centres. Such centres have led to an enormous increase in traffic in our county. When we drew up our structure plan, we had originally planned to have 12 such shopping centres, but we have 15 already and more are in the pipeline. When those have been builtif they are ever builtI hope that we shall be able to resist future such planning applications.
Subsequently, we have modelled our policy on those objectives, and have contributed to increasing the bus services. This year, for example, £0.5 million was put into our budget to increase the bus services serving our secondary schools. I do not think that I need to state the difference that is made to the volume of traffic on our roads in the morning peak when schools are working as compared with when they are not. If we can reduce the number of cars travelling to and from our secondary schools and, incidentally, make young people aware that there are other modes of transport besides the private carwe think that we shall be doing something useful. We have also supported a large number of studies into improving rail transport, particularly in south London, and relating to access to Heathrow.
Interestingly enough, in the course of some of our activities we have done a good deal of opinion sampling. Your Lordships might be interested to hear some recent results. The citizens of Surrey feel that road congestion, air pollution and crime against property are, in that order, some of the most important problems that they face. As a solution to congestion, they favour improving public transport and improving the facilities for walking and cycling. Many people feel that the roads are now so dangerous, particularly in our villages, that they dare not walk along them. Therefore, they use their car when going to buy a loaf of bread, particularly if they are taking a child with them.
Perhaps your Lordships will not be greatly surprised that the least favoured solutions are charging for the use of motorways in order to improve or increase the road network, and discouraging the use of cars by increasing the costs of travel for motorists. So, the two areas in which the Government have recently intervened are not very popular with motorists, especially the suggestion about increasing the cost of petrol. I should have thought that that was a statement of the blindingly obvious. If one is in government, I do not need to remind noble Lords that one needs to take popular opinion into account if one possibly can.
We are currently revising our transport plan, and among other things we are seeking to determine some targets against which to measure whether we have been successful. I find that an interesting concept. Although we were the first county to produce a transport plan, other countiesmany of them, as my noble friend said, with considerable input from the Liberal Democratshave outstripped us now. They have gone further down the road upon which we first started. It will be interesting to see whether we can set ourselves targets; for example, for modal change. Can we try to see that more people use the trains and buses and cycle, especially over short distances? Can we use those targets as a measure of our success in achieving our policy objectives?
Among other things that we have done, we organised jointly with SERPLANwhose chairman of course is a Member of your Lordships' Housea three-day conference last March which was well attended on all three days, and for which invitations were sent to a large number of people. As a result of that, we are developing a transport plan for the south-east, because today we lack a transport strategy for the country.
I regret that in the Queen's Speech we see no recognition by the Government that they have a role to play in setting a strategic context for the efforts of local government. I thank noble Lords for listening to me so patiently.
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