English Horticultural Sector (Horticultural Sector Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 11:44 am ar 19 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Redesdale Lord Redesdale Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol 11:44, 19 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I start my speech introducing Sowing the Seeds: A Blooming English Horticultural Sector by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, because, without her persistence in lobbying for a horticultural committee, it would never have been formed in the first place. Although by rights she should have gone on to chair the committee, I am grateful that she graciously allowed me to assume the role.

The report covers myriad issues. Although there are 93 recommendations and the report is 180 pages long, its length and number of recommendations correspond to the breadth of the sector and the complicated landscape of interconnected issues. The overarching conclusion of the report is that horticulture is a successful sector that is vital to the British economy, providing food security and environmental benefits, and is integral to the way in which we interact with green spaces and the landscape in the UK.

The report engendered an enormous amount of work. I thank our clerk, Dr Jillian Luke; Francesca Crossley, our policy analyst; and Abdullah Ahmad, the committee’s operations officer. Unusually, I would also like to pay special tribute to Dervish Mertcan from the House of Lords Press Office. The committee got a great deal of press coverage, which is not unusual for a House of Lords Select Committee, but I would argue that it shone above all others in achieving a rare accolade: being able to host “Gardeners’ Question Time” in the Robing Room.

The horticulture sector is worth more than £5 billion a year and employs more than 50,000 people, although different measures put the value far higher. However, its importance as part of the economy has had little recognition by the wider public; it also seems to be politically undervalued. That is not the case in other countries. The committee’s trip to the Netherlands showed how the Dutch place far more importance on this sector—a position that we believe should be mirrored in the UK. The horticultural sector is vital in helping the country meet its food requirements with high-quality, low-cost produce and with world-leading innovation in areas such as the development of the vertical farming sector. However, there are real challenges, not least of which is that profit margins are low and risk factors such as energy prices and climate change threaten the viability of producers.

The perception that the sector is undervalued was expressed by many in our evidence sessions. If we are to secure food security and environmental goals, horticulture should have more proactive support from the Government. Therefore, the Government’s response to the report was profoundly disappointing. Although the response showed in general an agreement with much of the sentiment of the report, there was little commitment to policy change. The Government highlighted future publications and consultations that will report at some point in the future, but there seemed to be little appetite for urgent action.

The written and oral evidence to the committee painted a picture of a sector that is struggling to meet its full potential. The sector faces multiple challenges, including post-Brexit trade problems. In the supply chain, the rising cost of labour, linked to shortages, and energy price rises have led to an increase in the cost of fertiliser. There are also water supply concerns and certainty that water shortages will increase in future as a result of climate change—as will flooding, as shown last winter. While, on the demand side, low margins are linked to extreme price competition among the supermarkets, all these issues will need to be addressed if farms are to remain competitive and viable.

The most obvious recommendation of the committee, in order to bring direct oversight of the sector, was the creation of a dedicated Horticultural Minister. The proposal did not suggest that Defra Ministers are failing, but a Horticultural Minister could focus more clearly on the many issues highlighted by the report’s recommendations. As a recommendation, it was always going to be a long shot—I am sure that the Minister will argue that the sector is covered adequately by Defra; obviously, that is not a personal jibe at the Minister—but submissions from the industry showed a belief that the fragmented nature of responsibilities between different departments is a real impediment to the sector’s ability to operate and grow.

The one consistent ask by those giving evidence at almost all the sessions was for a comprehensive horticultural strategy. The Government’s response confirmed that despite past assurances that a strategy would be produced, they will not now be publishing a horticultural strategy for England. This has caused a great deal of frustration and the belief among many in the industry that this shows a lack of commitment from the Government. One bright spot is that the committee’s report clearly highlights what should be addressed in any future strategy. I am sure there will be much lobbying of the next Government, whoever they might be—almost certainly Liberal Democrat—to make the formulation of a horticultural strategy a priority after the next election, whenever that may be.

Horticulture in the UK is a very broad topic for a report. At the first meeting of the committee, when the parameters of the report were discussed, it was agreed, after a firm intervention by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, that a central component of the report should be the ornamental sector. The size of that sector would surprise many people. The Horticultural Trades Association stated that:

The UK ornamental plant and tree production sector directly contributed £880 million to the UK economy in 2019, employing around 17,800 people. By 2030 … this could grow to £1.3 billion in direct GDP contributions with the direct employment of almost 21,000”.

However, as the report points out, there are serious constraints on growth in the sector due to a lack of confidence in the procurement processes that has acted as a disincentive to investment, which has hindered growth.

The sector is not just about the sale of plants but has a role in protecting the environment. Climate change will all but banish the English country garden in the coming decades in the south of England, so the ornamental sector has a role in helping gardeners move to more resilient and less thirsty plants for gardens, at the same time making sure that the plants grown foster biodiversity. The committee was keen to look at green spaces, and it is impossible not to see how arboriculture—the propagation of trees—and tree nurseries are essential for the country’s parks and public spaces. I hope the Minister can say whether Defra is looking at funding commitments for tree nurseries beyond the grants made available by the Nature for Climate Fund, because the fund finishes in 2025 and at present there seems to be no replacement.

One of the most pressing issues faced by the ornamental and tree sector is the new border control systems necessitated by the hard Brexit that the Government adopted. At the time of the publication of the report, there had been a delay in the implementation of the new border controls through to April this year. They come into effect a week on Tuesday, when the current “place of destination” system of plant health import inspections will end. From then, checks will take place at border control posts. Using BCPs to conduct import checks on plants imported in volume from the EU is a unique and untested system. There has been a distinct lack of detail about how they will operate when handling plants and how much they will increase costs and delays for businesses forced to use them.

A few weeks ago, the Government finally announced the awaited common user charge for goods entering via the short straits, but charges do not apply to commercially run BCPs such as those at Harwich or Immingham, which will apply a different set of methods for charging when it comes to handling plants being presented to the Animal and Plant Health Agency for inspection.

A major concern is that businesses cannot forecast their costs because it is a lottery as to who gets charged and how much, and it is difficult to compare costs for using different ports of entry into Great Britain. The Horticultural Trades Association has expressed a concern that there is a lack of experience or training in handling precious plants and trees, and the way that border control posts are designed is not conducive to treating sensitive and perishable plants in the best way possible. This will almost certainly lead to losses and costs to businesses.

The current processes and plans have been developed in a vacuum of reliable and robust data. Systems have not been capturing the information needed to develop appropriate processes and infrastructure to cope. After 30 April, importers will be operating in a period known as the “pragmatic approach”, which means that if it does not work, solutions will have to be developed on the hoof, potentially harming the businesses involved and possibly costing much more, with the risk of compromising biosecurity. Checks are currently being conducted at nurseries, with plants unloaded only once by the experts and checked by the Animal and Plant Health Agency. Businesses will now lose control of their supply chain’s integrity and are anxious about accidental damages, destruction of healthy stock, delays of perishable plants and cross-contamination at border control points. There has been a call for the point-of-delivery system to continue in a dual system, with border control points operating as well as PODs so that learnings and improvements are made.

Considering the delays and concerns from industry about the lack of clarity of the system, is the Minister now confident that the scheme will run smoothly? Which Minister will be responsible for the implementation of a pragmatic approach if the system crashes? Can the Minister confirm that the Minister responsible will be from Defra, not another department? The Horticultural Trades Association has said that more than 90% of its tree and plant-growing members in the UK, the vast majority of which are SMEs, import plant products. There is a real risk to the viability of many companies if the new system fails. One element that is coming into play with the import of plant material and being exacerbated by climate change is the spread of disease and viruses. Biosecurity is essential, but funding by government for the research base was a real concern for the committee. We hope that the Government will review grant funding to put the research community on a more secure financial footing.

I would like to list all the areas covered by the report but that would take considerably more time than the 12 minutes I have been allocated, so I will leave them to other speakers. I am tempted to stop at this point, but I have a couple of points to raise. The first is water. There is little understanding of just how much climate change will affect the water supply in the UK. It has been predicted that we might have a 75% reduction in water supply by 2050. It is quite likely that demand will exceed supply in many areas in the next 10 years. Abstraction is a short-term answer that the Government are looking at, but do they believe that the £20 million set aside for water catchment at farm levels will be enough? This area will need to be funded at a far greater level if we are to carry on with water security.

Peat was a major concern for the sector. The Government’s report emphasised how healthy peat should be left in the ground. Nobody can argue with that, and the industry is on course to almost eliminate commercially available peat. However, there are still major issues for the professional sector in its use of peat for propagation. Defra has moved the timescale for removing peat from 2030 to 2026. While 2030 was always going to be difficult, 2026 will be impossible for some. What resources will the Government provide to cover this?

I must cut short at this point, leaving out issues such as the national curriculum, but I know that members of the committee will cover those areas. My final point, which I could not get away without raising, is allotments. My wife is a zealous user of allotments, which are incredibly important to the countryside. Their health benefits cannot be overestimated, and mental health is a real issue that came out of the report, although I got a double hernia from digging potatoes on my wife’s allotment so I am not absolutely convinced of this. One of the things that I hope the Government take from the report is that there should be increased protection for green spaces. I beg to move.