Bedding - Energy hubs

Growers in West Sussex hope to break the planning deadlock with a scheme for ecological glasshouses, Jonathan Tilley reports.

West Sussex: key issues of planning and land ownership formed the background to a regional growers’ report - image: HW
West Sussex: key issues of planning and land ownership formed the background to a regional growers’ report - image: HW

West Sussex is one of the foremost locations in Britain for growing horticultural crops and the area has about 170ha of glasshouses, producing crops with a retail value of £500m. However, the industry faces a challenge in trying to work with a planning system that has refused three major glasshouse projects around the UK this year and in a lack of affordable development land locally.

West Sussex Growers Association (WSGA) chairman Colin Frampton said at the group's recent annual dinner that the domestic market wants the products his region grows and he used the example of Sainsbury's, which has announced it wants to double the food supplied by British growers by 2020. "Nobody wants us to build large-scale glasshouses unless we are prepared to pay exorbitant agricultural land values," said Frampton.

These two issues of planning and land ownership form the background to a report commissioned by the WSGA examining the idea of combining horticulture and energy production. Combined Horticultural Production & Energy Hubs: A Review proposes developments that combine glasshouse production with renewable energy. Such development has already taken place in the UK and Europe, with large hubs in the Netherlands. Agriport A7, north of Amsterdam, has nearly 1,000ha of glass.

Common characteristics

The report, produced by Peter Danks and Andy Marchant of Reading Agricultural Consultants, identifies characteristics common to successful developments of this kind - as well as the less successful. "We have taken lessons from unsuccessful horticultural energy projects in order to ensure that the engineering, operational and ownership aspects of any West Sussex development will be sustainable," they explain. "The most successful energy hubs are where there is a clear inter-dependence between energy provision and users. This is considered to be so central to success that the models developed here have only been worked on that basis.

"We have also identified significant synergies within the combinations of grower businesses that can be achieved in this type of hub, including graded heat use, combined packhouse operations and provision of lower-cost cooling facilities."

The report argues that successful hub developments have to be established by robust business groupings and the best returns come when all the outputs are integrated to take advantage of the benefits.

It proposes three operational models. The Green model is based on a conventional approach to glasshouse development, where a number of growers buy the land and enter into one joint-venture company for maintaining the infrastructure and a second for energy provision and sales.

The Blue model is designed to fit in with a future energy-from-waste (EfW) plant. In this scenario, natural gas dominates the energy supply for the first stage because it would take a number of years for an EfW plant to come on stream.

The Purple model involves a significant role for the landowner and institutional investor. Growers would lease land and be partners in a joint venture for infrastructure and energy. Limited unknowns and good returns for all parties mean the Purple model is the most likely to get started within a reasonable time-frame, according to the report.

"A hub will occupy a large area of land, but by integrating activities it offers an unparalleled opportunity to create a development that will bring prosperity to the area, enable people to live and work in a sustainable community that can be integrated into existing settlements and establish a centre of excellence that will set the standard for all future horticultural development in Britain and possibly western Europe," the authors claim.

Positive reaction

WSGA executive consultant John Hall says the report has had a very positive reaction from growers and local authorities. "I've been doing presentations to cabinet members of district councils, telling them what the horticulture industry is all about, and I've mentioned this paper. We will be organising more visits to nurseries in 2013 and we can have more in-depth discussion on the research. I've also had discussion with other organisations, and utility and engineering companies have said they're interested in the concept."

He adds that the next stage is to implement the ideas of the report on a site. "We don't want to stop here," he says. "We can say it has been worthwhile when we get a system or part of a system up and running on a site somewhere. That's how we can judge success. There are elements of this in the area and many growers have energy generation such as anaerobic digestion plants, so there are various bits going on. I would like to see a much bigger development on an existing site."

Downs View Nurseries director Martin Brassfield says the area's growers in general are very positive about the proposals. "In principal, this is a good opportunity for growers and local authorities to engage." But he warns that there are difficulties. "It's quite a challenging vision and it will be down to local authorities. Planners are holding things up and it is hindering the growth of the industry. These proposals will rise and fall on that issue."

Hall agrees. "It all comes back to planning and land ownership," he says. "These are key areas. Slowly but surely, we're getting there on planning, and the next stage is finding suitable sites. Whatever we decide to do has to go through the planning system, but we hope to get broad agreement from local authorities about suitable land."

He argues that working with the local community is the key to navigating through the planning process. "You need to talk to the parish council and the local residents so they feel part of the process. I don't think you can do too much in the early consultations. You have to go that extra mile at the front end. It's all about being inclusive."

He instances the backlash that Starbucks experienced over its tax policy as a comparison. "Starbucks has had to back-peddle hugely. It is not just about what the law is. It's more to do with meeting the needs of customers - in this case, the local residents."

Growtrain director and WSGA vice-chairman Graham Bryant sees the report as a positive step. "The concept is an excellent initiative and it's now a case of putting that into practice," he says. "One of the biggest issues facing the industry in West Sussex is the planning system and we need a policy where we can move forward with the ideas in the report. Now we have an obvious working document."

He suggests that a criteria-based approach to planning applications will be the way forward. "As an industry, we need to look at the criteria for expansion, such as infrastructure for roads, fast broadband, labour and the market," he points out.

"The area is one of the best for horticulture because the light levels are high and covering areas with protection is maximising the potential and allowing for intensive production. But to develop, they need something to grow into. Using existing sites, there isn't a situation where you can make a go of it. You need areas where you can build a minimum of 10 acres of glass. One acre costs around a quarter of a million, so you need to see that return on investment."

- Combined Horticultural Production & Energy Hubs: A Review by Reading Agricultural Consultants and Hennock Industries was supported by funding from the Horticultural Development Company, Chichester District Council, West Sussex County Council, Defra and the EU.

Local benefits of the proposed hub development

Expected benefits for the West Sussex area likely to be associated with the project include:

- Sustainable production of high-quality produce.

- Creation of skilled employment opportunities and associated economic benefits.

- Reductions in waste produced by and emissions from the horticultural sector.

- Innovative development and integration of established methods for improving socioeconomic and environmental performance that can be viewed as benchmarks for future projects.

- Improvements to the financial viability of developments through the generation and trading of energy and utilisation of wastes.

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