Rooker backs changes to boards

Food and farming minister Lord Rooker has defended DEFRA’s plans to consolidate all levy boards at a single site in Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, from next year (HW, 19 July 2007).

Rooker said: “There will be disruption to people’s careers, families and housing. But the uncertainty that’s been there for the past nine months has gone now that there’s a clear timeline in place. “This offers the chance of a new start, a new future for levy payers. And the board will bend over backwards to ensure there is no cross-subsidy between the six sector companies. Each levy is collected to pay for the development of that sector, and that will be fully transparent. These changes will mean payers get a better return for the levy they pay.” He added that consolidation should help to raise the boards’ profiles: “Promotion is vital. Right now the public hasn’t a clue about what they do.” Chairman designate of the new board John Bridge said: “There is a strong case for sharing services on a common platform based at a single site. A strong consensus for this emerged from discussions with the existing boards earlier this year. We’re looking at a saving of £3.5m a year.” Bridge said the horticulture board “has carried out a lot of effective research and development, and now has the opportunity to do more, in an environment where it can exploit enormous synergies. Inevitably though we will need fewer people, and of the 294 people currently employed by the boards, 22 positions will be lost. “The research agenda is not expected to change. But we see enormous benefits in combined research activity.” When none of the existing sites was deemed suitable, a new green-field site was sought, and the best case — for Stoneleigh — was made by the West Midlands Development Agency, Bridge said. The new board, to be named the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board, will take over the functions of the old boards in April next year. Temporary offices will be erected on the site in time for the handover, with a permanent building in place by April 2009. Rooker gave assurances that the project would be delivered on time. Currently the boards occupy six separate headquarters and 13 other regional premises. Rooker said: “MPs with levy board headquarters in their constituencies will be concerned, but we are able to satisfy those concerns.” He said, on possible levy increases: “It’ll be a long time before I’m asked to raise levies.” HTA director general David Gwyther said: “We’ve been reassured that the horticulture levy has been ring-fenced, and that the cost base won’t increase from the move. We look forward to seeing cost reductions coming back to the horticulture sector so levy payers are better off than before. “The important people in the mix are the research and development providers. More money will flow to them, the R&D is likely to get better and it’s important that we develop relationships with them.”

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