Big cuts to regional development agencies raise worries over horticultural research projects

Southern regional development agencies (RDAs) are to bear the brunt of nearly £300m cuts, raising concerns for the future of much needed horticultural research carried out by the likes of the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA).

The formal announcement of the cuts made by chancellor George Osborne and informal soundings from business secretary Vince Cable that the north would be protected raised questions about how the aspirations of Food 2030 can be met, industry figures suggested.

Independent chairman of the Defra South East region sustainable farming and food board Shaun Leavey said: "SEEDA has been an invaluable source of funding in recent years so it would be a great loss to horticulture in the South East if that were to cease. If SEEDA and others aren't there it will be very much more difficult to achieve those aspirations of sustainable food for London."

He added: "Many of the recommendations in Food 2030 can be most easily delivered by the sort of funding that SEEDA would have made available."

The eight RDAs outside London have been told to save £270m in the current financial year by ending "lower-value spending." This amounts to nearly 20 per cent of their combined budget. Though it is not yet clear which programmes will be abolished to meet savings targets, Cable has said the North will be relatively protected. He said of the south east and east of England: "It is very questionable whether you need an RDA at all."

The coalition Government has pledged to replace all the RDAs with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokesperson told HW that a bill to create LEPs would be brought forward "at the earliest opportunity, with final closure expected in March 2012".

National Horticulture Forum chairman Andrew Colquhoun said he was pressing for support from land based agencies to help protect research work funded by SEEDA.

He added: "The South East is a very important region for ornamentals and food production, so in terms of making a difference for Food 2030, the horticultural sector in the South East has a big role to play. We haven't yet seen guidance coming down from Defra to the RDAs about the part it expects them to play. Until the guidance comes, SEEDA doesn't know how much to cut and from where."

Many industry figures lamented its potential demise. Local to London champion Vernon Mascarenhas said: "I never would have been able to do the work I did without SEEDA funding. We knew cuts were going to come, I just hope the more worthy projects can continue."

Workforce champion and grower Dr Alan Rae added: "The whole horticultural champion projects, of which there have been about 15 or 18, have effectively enabled industry-led considerations of some really important topics."

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