Arguing the case for business expansion

Nurseries must be able to secure planning permission to move forward, says SEEDA's Andrew Colquhoun.

Growers from West Sussex have been feeding the nation and brightening up its homes and gardens since the 1800s.

The area developed over the years into one of the most important in the UK for protected cropping, as growers took advantage of its high light levels and mild climate. Today it accommodates the largest concentration of specialist glass anywhere in the UK and is home to world leaders in the production of both ornamentals and food crops.

But a new independent report, Viability of the Horticultural Glasshouse Industry in West Sussex: Prospects for the Future and Likely Scale of Development Over the Next 10 to 15 Years, commissioned by the West Sussex Growers Association (WSGA), underlines the need for nurseries to be able to secure planning in order to drive the industry forward.

"The report clearly shows that glasshouse growers do want to expand their businesses," said WSGA chairman Paul Sopp. "And that will mean seeking permission for new glass, particularly in blocks larger than 10ha.

'We hope that the up-to-date picture the report provides on the potential of the industry to invest and generate jobs will highlight the contribution growers make to the local economy to local government and other organisations."

The study gives a snapshot of the issues faced by West Sussex growers and their counterparts abroad and describes how they have been affected by major developments in the energy and labour markets. It estimates the wholesale value of protected crops production in the area at £120 million.

But if you add in field crops, the figure is nearer £200 million - and at retail prices that works out at about £8 for every person living in the UK. "In a way the glasshouse industry is the Cinderella of the local economy, whose contribution has been underplayed because it's always been there," said Sopp.

In a survey of the association's members, the report's authors found that growers had plans for significant investment in glasshouse expansion even though lack of availability and planning constraints had led to a high cost for suitable land.

Growers in the area intend to expand protected cropping by 34ha, most of which is for new glass. The demand is not just from the larger businesses but also from smaller family-owned nurseries that want to expand their existing glasshouses.

The survey also asked about growers' concerns affecting the future viability and development of their business. Respondents were united on the need for higher product prices. Energy costs, particularly for growers of edible crops, and labour costs and availability also figured highly as likely constraints.

The survey showed that the West Sussex industry employs more than 1,300 full-time staff and several thousand part-time workers.

Like other areas in Britain, it has had to turn to migrant workers in recent years to fill the shortfall caused by the area having relatively low unemployment. But the current recession has seen more local people finding work in horticulture.

The significant investment in automation and mechanisation that many sites have made means staff at supervisory and managerial levels are now in short supply.

Planning issues and constraints are of more concern to growers of edible crops because it is these businesses that have invested in larger areas of glass over the years to achieve economies of scale and efficiency in labour and energy use. It is also in this sector where most expansion is planned.

"Local planners are generally supportive of nurseries, with around 90 per cent of all recent development applications getting the green light," said Sopp. "But the larger developments that are crucial to the industry's future competitiveness are finding approval harder to come by. One of the main causes of opposition to development is connected with traffic movements, but records of complaint show that these can be resolved."

If planning allowed, the industry could play a future role in renewable energy and energy-from-waste schemes. As well as offering growers a source of cheaper energy, they also benefit the public good by helping local government recycle organic material and generate renewable energy.

Sopp said other grower groups across the country could also benefit from a similar survey to build up a picture of their contribution to regions' economic health. "All the signs from Defra suggest growers will be called on to grow more fresh produce.

"But to do that we need to keep our businesses up to date and efficient and that means being able to get the planning permission we need so that we can invest in the best technology and new glass."

Andrew Colquhoun chairs the South East England Development Agency's horticulture working group.

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