Tuesday 25th July 2023

(11 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness Mallalieu Portrait Baroness Mallalieu (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, I remind the House of my interests as president of the Countryside Alliance and as a very small-scale farmer up on the Exmoor National Park. I have the privilege of being one of the members of the Land Use in England Committee, chaired expertly by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, to whom we are all indebted for today’s debate. It is something of a rarity, in that there is no advisory speaking time—perhaps it is not necessary because, once we stop, we can all go on holiday.

I admit that, before I sat on this committee, I had considerable cynicism about the need for a land use framework. I was aware that Scotland and Wales already had them, but I felt that we did not need yet another body to tell farmers and landowners how to conduct their operations. I thought we did not need another quango, or a body that might well impose national targets without taking into account local conditions or views, and that might well be at the mercy of powerful lobby groups in the way that the strong environmental lobby, in my view, has had its hands around the throats of government during some recent legislation. Having heard a great deal of evidence on some of those things, I have changed my mind.

Thirty-two million acres sounds like a lot of land, but England is a small country and the brutal reality is that it simply does not have enough land to meet the demands of all those who wish to use it in the ways they wish to use it. This Government have already made commitments, as future ones no doubt will—some of them even statutory, such as those on nature recovery and net zero—and they have set targets to apportion a frankly inadequate cake. The noble Lord, Lord Cameron, has already reminded us of some of these, but among them are the promises to maintain our current self-sufficiency in food at over 60%, to increase woodland by 1 million acres, to build 300,000 new houses every year and to enlarge our national parks by 1.8 million acres—not to mention the solar farms and wind turbines necessary to obtain net zero, plus major transport infrastructure and the need to increase nature provision and access to the countryside. It is all very well, but each of those things needs land, and land is finite.

If ever there was an orchestra of different and completely incompatible demands in need of a conductor, it is England’s land use at present. Some body needs to monitor and keep tabs on what is going on, and alert government and local authorities if the balance is moving dangerously out of kilter in one direction, or to give information, encouragement and advice, especially on innovation and to landowners and farmers, and to collate and broadcast that data.

It cannot just be Defra that devises and maintains such a framework; it must involve the other major government departments that need access to land to fulfil their remits. Some have already been mentioned: the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which has housing, local government and some industrial and commercial infrastructure within its remit; DCMS, which deals with access to nature and tourism; the Department for Transport, which deals with infrastructure; and the departments dealing with business, energy self-sufficiency and so on. Defra is only one part of government which needs to be involved in the creation and work of an effective land use framework.

While I give the Government full marks for recognising and accepting the need for such a framework, I am afraid I have to give them nul points for their response to this report so far. In paragraph 1 of their response, they said that

“it may be necessary to assemble a group of experts to oversee the application of the Land Use Framework once published”.

Surely you need the expertise first, before the framework is published, and not after Defra officials have drawn it up alone. If this framework is to be effective, it must be cross-departmental. It needs to be independent and set up in a way that reflects the concerns of each government department that needs to use land to fulfil its role. The Government have so far turned their face against creating a commission, as the report recommended. If it is seen merely as a small part of the portfolio of one Defra Minister, it will not be able properly to fulfil a much-needed role.

As I have said, I readily understand the reluctance to create another quango, but the evidence we heard about how well the Scottish Land Commission works and how well received it is by landowners, who readily seek its advice, shows that a cumbersome and costly body is not necessary to fulfil this important function.

Another of my fears was that a land use framework might dictate. I am pleased that the Government accept—I think they do; I hope for reassurance from the Minister on this—that it will not prescribe or tell people what must be done or not done and where, unlike Natural England does too often. I want it to be about gathering and publishing existing data, promulgating best practice, giving advice in an open and user-friendly way, and working closely with stakeholders—if it is to be effective, not just with landowners and managers and not just in a Defra silo but across departments—local authorities and the relevant public bodies, taking account of and responding to local conditions.

When changes are needed—they could well be needed urgently, for example in relation to food security; we have seen some of that already—that body must be ready to advise Governments and land managers on what needs to be done to encourage greater production. Where trees are being planted on highly productive farmland—for example, as unhappily I know, down in the West Country by the National Trust, and in Wales, as those who listened to “Farming Today” would have heard—if future adjustments need to be made to the ELM scheme to ensure the survival of small family farms, which I suspect will have to be done, an effective land use framework has a vital job to do in monitoring the trends, and on occasion, advising government on the incentives needed to meet changing needs, not to mention the encouragement of innovation. Could the Minister please give us reassurance that this framework will be truly cross-departmental? If not, I fear it will be a missed opportunity.