Growers fear polytunnel planning rule could halve soft fruit industry

Herefordshire decision may have national impact

By Sophie Barnett Soft-fruit growers fear a decision to make all polytunnels in Herefordshire subject to planning permission could wipe out half of the UK industry. Growers and farmers staged top-level talks with Herefordshire Council when they discovered its environment scrutiny committee had last week recommended the Cabinet makes all existing and new polytunnels get approval. Now they are mounting a campaign to fight the proposals, which are a result of the council’s legal advisers interpreting the High Court decision for the Hall Hunter Partnership case (Grower, 11 January). The landmark ruling surrounded Waverley Borough Council’s enforcement notices served on the Surrey-based soft-fruit producer. Many, including the NFU, deny that this set a precedent. But Herefordshire Council disagrees and it is believed other councils may follow suit. It is now feared that any commercial business with polytunnels in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) or any kind of landscape designation will be refused planning permission. NJ Cockburn owner Neil Cockburn has been growing soft fruit for 30 years and had polytunnels for 14 years — but as his business is in an AONB, he fears for the future. He said: “We have to fight this. It’s business survival at stake here. The council officers are nice but they can’t see the difference between new projects and existing ones. If I have to take my polytunnels down that will be it — I’ll be out of a job. My business will be over. “I think the number of soft-fruit growers in this country will be halved within a year.” A Herefordshire Council representative said: “We have welcomed the Waverley case because it has given some clarity to the situation. At this stage, it is merely a recommendation that will be decided by the Cabinet.” It is thought Herefordshire has the UK’s largest number of soft- fruit growers, including S&A Produce, whose disagreements with residents about polytunnels have been well-documented.

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