Baroness Boycott (CB) [V]
My Lords, I am happy to be part of the debate on this group. I agree with almost all the sentiments that have been expressed, especially by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, as well as by the Green Party.
I am speaking today particularly to support the noble Earl, Lord Dundee. One thing that has not been talked about enough is the role of farmers. If the Bill is to do what I think everyone sitting in the Chamber and who is part of this debate at the moment wants to do, which is to ensure that healthy, affordable food is grown on our land and that our land becomes environmentally sustainable and healthy again, then we need a new generation of farmers, but the facts are pointing in a different direction.
The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, mentioned briefly that in 2017 one-third of all UK farmers were over 65. Almost more worrying than that is that, since 2005, those in the 35 to 44 age group have decreased. However, evidence from surveys points to people wanting to farm and to be involved in growing at a local level, on a big level and on a small level. But how are they going to do it? Land is too expensive and they struggle to scale finance and cover the high start-up costs. Responses to the Landworkers’ Alliance survey indicated that 61% of people responding to surveys wanted to access land, 46% needed finance and 54% struggled to access training. All believed that an average grant of around £20,000, which is not a fortune, would really set them on the road.
Another route for the young farmer is also being closed because of poor funding to local councils. Recent investigations have shown that county farms in England have halved in the last 40 years. This is a crisis. If we do not have farmers, particularly young farmers, then everything that we are talking about is not going to happen. When Michael Gove was Secretary of State for the Environment, he talked lavishly about equipping a new generation of farmers, but I am afraid the facts are now pointing in the other direction. You cannot be a farmer if you have nowhere to farm. If we value our farmers then we have to make some changes. With the right kind of investment and the right help, a lot of people could join our cause.
The other big issue is food security and local food. I mention briefly that for 10 years I ran the London Food Board. We instigated a scheme called Capital Growth, which enabled up to 100,000 people to have access to community gardens. In the process, we turned over 200 acres of London into small community farms where people could join in. We are now looking to take that scheme countrywide, but we need grants for that and land needs to be made available.
My final point is covered by the amendment in the name of the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, and concerns training. In my years in London, I spent a lot of time in schools. It strikes me that, unless you are at a public school and the idea of a farm, as something possible, is somehow in your blood, you do not even think about it. I spent seven days, as many of us did, watching the debates on the first stages of the Agriculture Bill. I am absolutely guilty of this myself, but it was quite noticeable that the people who feel invested in the Agriculture Bill tend to be white and middle-aged, and an awful lot of us own land and are quite well off. It seems to me that we are missing a great trick in terms of diversity.
This Agriculture Bill belongs to all of us. It is about our land, our food, our health and our environment. Unless we take some steps to try to change the lack of diversity, we will head towards a greater separation between town and countryside. People have talked about litter being dropped, and there will be more of that because people do not feel that the countryside is theirs and that it belongs to all of us. Schemes that enable people in inner cities to grow vegetables on rooftops, under pylons and in sneaky little corners can really start to change attitudes. It is fantastically cost-effective, and I urge the Minister to look at this as the Government move forward.
In the meantime, I am very pleased to be part of this debate and to see agroecology and food security registering so high up among people’s concerns.