Eustice targets boost in productivity and profits

Defra minister George Eustice has told attendees of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Horticulture & Gardening annual reception that horticulture is a "Cinderella" to agriculture and its EU subsidies, and he wants that to change post-Brexit.

He said EU subsidies have been "focused around landownership and large farms" with horticulture neglected. The pro-Brexit campaigner added that he would like to see subsidies aimed towards "businesses that have got bright ideas", with the horticulture sector less likely to miss out.

Eustice added that he and fellow speaker Lord Heseltine have "always disagreed slightly on the EU" but added: "By leaving the EU we do now have the opportunity to recast our agricultural policy to think things through on first principles and we do have a chance, in my view, to genuinely add productivity and improve profitability."

The subsidy system had previously been focused around landownership and large farms, and horticulture was the "Cinderella", he added. There is now the chance to develop a system to allow for import substitution, greater exports and better support of enterprise. This could mean more grants and finance for "businesses that have got bright ideas and many, in my view, will be in the horticulture sector".

He said horticulture "had not benefitted from CAP (the Common Agricultural Policy)" but could benefit from a new policy focused on profitability. Eustice said he is keen to develop garden tourism, citing visiting that has resurged on the back of the Eden Project in recent years.

The Ornamentals Round Table 12 asks of Government have been "distilled" into three "key areas", he explained. On one, training, Eustice lauded the National College of Land-based Industries but said there is a struggle for credibility with vocational qualifications being seen as too disparate. "It remains an issue that some Government departments think agriculture and horticulture don't qualify as science. That surprises me," added the former Writtle College student.

He suggested that "really big organisations" such as retailers and the largest producers should be able to use some apprenticeship levy within their supply chain.

On innovation, Eustice pointed out that as agriculture/horticulture policy is redesigned as the UK leaves the EU there is a "great opportunity for the role of trees". The Government would have 11 million planted during this Parliament and he "would like to see more grown in the UK".

Eustice said "body language" is important when dealing with the EU. "They're still our friends". He added: "In horticulture there are probably still areas we'd want to work incredibly closely, for instance Plant Breeders' Rights (PBRs)." He said the UK might want to remain an active partner with the Community Plant Variety Office (CPVO). "It's important we don't kick the table over."

Grower Raymond Evison said keeping PBRs the same post-Brexit is important because "if we have to protect it separately in the UK there will have to be a lot of extra administration and cost, and hopefully that won't happen".

HTA horticulture head Raoul Curtis-Machin said: "I don't think anyone wants to set up a massive structure in the UK that costs double."

Plants for Europe director Graham Spencer said: "Remaining within the CPVO system is absolutely the best solution. However, that would mean we would have to remain within the single market and I'm not sure that's a given. If we're outside the EU and still in the CPVO system, we could have less say over future changes in rules as non-members of EU."

Key aims of action plan

The industry's rejigged Ornamental Horticulture Round Table Action Plan 2015-20 now has three aims - supporting the industry to grow; educating/training and securing the future workforce; and nurturing innovation.

The support "ask" was for senior representation in Government and investment in the supply chain. This is to "grow import substitution and increase the revenue from our exported skills". Eustice gave the example of The Hive installation at the Milan Expo and now at Kew showing the potential of British garden design exports.

Training's "ask" needs the Government to "commit to secure access to a sufficient labour force post-Brexit". The innovation ask was for investment in research and development.

Industry campaigners say the industry is "chronically undervalued and underdeveloped", "is ripe for serious growth" and could be worth £15bn by 2020 if Government departments join up to recognise the garden and landscape trade's worth.

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