|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Whitty: My Lords, no I cannot say that. We are already obliged under European law to prohibit disposal on farms. My colleague Elliot Morley has said that in the initial months as people become used to the rules, there will be a relatively light-touch enforcement. That does not mean that the legal obligation is in any way suspended. We do need the participation and the commitment of farmers to deliver a national disposal scheme. The noble Baroness asked about TB. There are substantial efforts to eradicate TB but it is a serious programme, particularly in some parts of the country. It is our highest priority for animal health at the moment.
An aspect of agriculture that is dear to the heart of the noble Lord, Lord Palmerand was also focused on by others, including the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and the noble Earl, Lord Liverpoolis biofuels. We have not yet put our act fully together on biofuels but there is a strong commitment from the Government to do so, both on converting crops into liquid biofuels and on biomass. I do not believe that the noble Lord was right to say that the choice is one or the other, or that one is better than the other. We need to develop on both fronts and through caps in the fiscal regime and other support for biofuels we want to ensure that we can deliver on both the liquid fuel side and the biomass side.
I agree with those, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Miller and Lady Byford, who referred to the Arbre project. That was an unfortunate situation. It does not indicate any lack of enthusiasm from the Government. As we said in the energy White Paper, we wish to deliver 10 per cent of energy by renewables, of which biomass will be a significant part. I am glad that the liquidators have now reached an agreement for the sale of the Arbre plant to a new owner and I am hopeful that that can be brought back into commercial operation with the farmers who were supplying the plant under its previous owner. The DTI may well be at arm's length from the project, but officials from my department have certainly been in constant contact with both the farmers and the Arbre project throughout this difficult period.
The other problems of the countryside upon which most of the debate focused are importantparticularly the delivery of services to people who live there. The Government's rural White Paper published two years ago is being reviewed, as the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, requested, and we are taking stock of how far we have delivered on the strategy. A number of major government commitments have taken place in relation to support for rural transport. £239 million has been allocated over the current three-year period. There has been support for rural schools, with the creation of a formal presumption against closure. We have provided £450 million of support to at least slow down the process of closure of rural post offices, and we have supported rural businessesparticularly rural pubs, garages and shops. That is a significant and relatively new effort by the Government to deliver and retain a degree of economic activity within villages. That also needs to be put into the context of our general policy on vital villages and market towns, aimed at revitalising economic activity within those villages.
While it may be true that those who live in villages, whether incomers or ancient inhabitants, are attracted away from the village to the supermarkets and the town from time to time, it is important that that is not their only economic activity and that some of the money that is coming into those villages is spent in the villages and market towns. Our policy is directed at that.
The housing market in rural areas is the largest problem of service delivery in total. It is also the most difficult problem for our rural areasor at least some of them. In a sense, it is a symptom of their success in that far from being depopulated, which used to be the problem, far too many people are wanting to live in the villages and small towns of our countryside and are bringing in substantial amounts of money to purchase and develop properties in a way which takes them out of the range of local people. A large number of speakers focused on that, including the noble Lords, Lord Palmer and Lord Haskins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu. Throughout the debate reference was repeatedly made to affordable housing and the housing market within rural areas.
That is an important and difficult problem. The Government are looking at various moves in that respectfor example, at least to reduce the attraction of some second homes by allowing local authorities to reduce the council tax discount on second homes from 50 per cent to 10 per cent. More positively, we are delivering through the Housing Corporation affordable homes for approval in rural areas. The £250 million starter home initiative is also being designed to help rural areas where house price
We recognise that more needs to be done in this area by combinations of public and private sector activity and by new initiatives such as the designation of areas for affordable housing, perhaps along the lines referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. We certainly need new initiatives within rural housing. Some of that is the Government's responsibility, but some must be done in partnership with local authorities, building societies and building developers.
There is a bit of a contradiction in some of the comments made in this debate and elsewhere. If we are to cope with incomers who bring prosperity to villages and also keep people in villages with affordable housing, there will have to be new developments in countryside villages and in towns. We cannot say, "This is a closed area." As has been said, we cannot set the countryside in aspic. There will need to be more housing in country areas. They will not have to be huge developments or huge hacienda-type low-density housing, but there will have to be affordable housing in rural areas to keep local people in the area.
Transport is another serious issue. As I said, we have spent substantial sums on it. However, we also recognise that more needs to be done. The noble Lord, Lord Palmer, and other noble Lords referred to taxis and more flexible forms of transport. Some rural bus services have certainly been a success, and we have certainly spent a lot of money on them. However, we need to look at more flexible bus, quasi-bus and quasi-taxi services that will meet the needs particularly of those who do not have access, or rarely have access, to a car.
Law and order is another problem to which noble Lords have alluded. It is true that crime is at a much lower level in rural areas than in the rest of the country. However, it is a growing problem in rural areas, and there is a growing fear of crime particularly in isolated areas. Noble Lords both mentioned that and cited specifics of new types of rural crime and rural vandalism. Fly-tipping is hardly new, but it has increased in frequencyan issue which we discussed in the House not long ago. The Government have taken and are contemplating taking further measures in relation to fly-tipping of all sorts. As my noble friend Lord Hardy reminded me, I was slightly critical of the courts as regards the level of sanction that should be applied to serious environmental crimes involving people tipping huge amounts of building rubbish on to prime land.
I should say a few words about another service that manyperhaps more than expectednoble Lords mentioned: broadband. If the rural population is to participate fully in business and educational activities and developments, then broadband will need to be
I turn very briefly to what I have already referred to as the background to all of thisthe landscape and accompanying wildlife and biodiversity to which we are all devoted and which we all recognise is the major attraction of the English rural scene. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked about the biodiversity action programmes. We have made considerable progress in that respect. However, it is true that we have stabilised or improved just under half of the action programmes which we have undertaken and vigorously pursued, whereas just over half have not yet turned the corner. That includes some of the farmland birds to which she referred. The level of farmland birds is a PSA objective for Defra. Although that does not necessarily give it priority over everything else, it symbolises the importance that my department attaches to the restoration of wildlife in determining its objectives.
It is clearly important that any change in the CAP and in other support measures for farming and land management is directed at ensuring that the landscape provides a backdrop that is attractive to those who live in the countryside and particularly to tourists of all sorts who come into the countryside. Again, that does not mean maintaining the landscape in aspic. However much people may think to the contrary, the fact is that the farmed landscape does not look the same as it did 50 years ago. It will not look the same 50 years from now. Farming patterns and land ownership patterns will change. We want to ensure that, within that process, the landscape does not deteriorate into scrub and that the wildlife and positive features of our landscape are not destroyed.
Consequently, I believe that the single payment under the proposed changes in the CAP, the detail of which is still to be worked out, will help to deliver by ensuring that farmers and other land managers meet their obligations and receive support from the rest of the community via what has hitherto been called the common agricultural policy, but which should really be a policy for the delivery of our rural landscape.
I should like to mention just one other matterthe few sideswipes taken at Defra. I am not going to be exceptionally sensitive about those. The noble Earl, Lord Arran, was probably the most extreme, but there were others. I believe that we have turned the corner in our relationship with the farming community, although there is a long way to go. I also think that Defra's new initiatives in delivering this wide range of benefits to the countryside and in influencing the rural policy of other government departments are an important change in the past two to three years. However, that needs to go further. I shall be receiving the advice of my noble friend Lord Haskins on how better to deliver that programme.
I believe that we have made a good start. I think that the methods of delivery could be better, and they will be better. As a result of that commitment I believe that we will have a better countryside, a better landscapeindeed a better agricultural sectorand a closer partnership between government and those who live and work in the countryside.
I, too, should like to add my congratulations to my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk on a truly remarkable maiden speech. I am particularly pleased for once how many Back-Bench Labour Peers were able to take part today. It is interesting that among the list of speakers there were in fact 11 elected hereditary Peers. I know how disappointed some noble Lords were not to be able to take part, most especially the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and the noble Lords, Lord Plumb, Lord Vinson, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate and Lord Carter.
I am glad that I did not succumb to the pressure to change the wording of the Motion from "British" to "English", as we have had powerful contributions from noble Lords from all over the United Kingdom.
The Minister as usual did an outstanding job in trying to reply to such a varied number of contributions. Many of us will be delighted about the whole farm plan, and it will be widely welcomed throughout the agricultural community. I was also heartened by his encouraging words about biofuels. I hope that he will forgive me for banging on about them yet again. I was also encouraged by his words about affordable rural housing and the fact that he acknowledges that this is a major problem.