Coalition gives cut and thrust to industry

With Defra under a new leader, a restructure may provide opportunities for horticulture, Jack Sidders reports.

Last week was a surreal one in Westminster but by Wednesday the news had finally emerged: Caroline Spelman had got the top job at Defra. A surprise appointment, Spelman ousted fellow Tory MP Nick Herbert, who was bumped from the shadow Defra brief to become minister for police in the new administration.

The implications of her appointment will be many and muddled, not least because she takes power as part of the first full coalition Government this country has seen since World War Two.

How the relationship between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat bedfellows will play out is uncertain, but it may well throw up opportunities as well as challenges for horticulture. Trade associations have been quick to welcome the new secretary of state, perhaps grateful that there is one to welcome.

NFU president Peter Kendall said: "I look forward to meeting (Spelman) at the earliest opportunity. The Tories have promised to put the 'F'

- farming - back into Defra and I know that message has gone down well with farmers up and down the country."

HTA chairman David Gwyther praised the coalition: "There is the promise of some economic stability now and a proper addressing of our problems by the financial management talents within the Liberal Democrats and the Tories.

"This will be good for the economy and that must be good for our industry in formulating investor plans and reassuring our customers that it will be safe to continue to spend on their gardens."

Spelman is a new face to horticulture and the industry's interest groups will have to spend time and energy establishing contact and making themselves heard. But this should be made easier thanks to her background in agriculture - as deputy director of the International Confederation of European Beet Growers and as a research fellow for the Centre for European Agricultural Studies.

The fact that her Meriden constituency in the West Midlands is near Stoneleigh Park and Warwick HRI, and packed with growers, could also prove helpful - and her former role as shadow minister for communities and local government will undoubtedly play a part in informing her new role.

Crucially, Jim Paice will be her deputy at Defra and will also serve as farming minister. Paice is a well-liked MP who has a good relationship with various interest groups including the NFU, the HTA, the Crop Protection Association (CPA), the British Independent Fruit Growers' Association and the All-Party Parliamentary Gardening & Horticulture Group (APPGHG).

Lord Taylor of Holbeach knows Paice well and welcomed his appointment, adding: "Nobody knows the issues better than he does." However, according to APPGHG secretary and Bellenden public affairs managing director Mark Glover, with each Government department facing cuts of at least 15 per cent, the Defra budget will be at the top of Spelman's in-tray.

As CPA chief executive Dominic Dyer explains: "The Government may be focused only on economic issues for the next two years. We have to make sure that it keeps the focus on climate change and food security. With climate change you are already seeing the drop-off in interest after Copenhagen (the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009). With significant public spending cuts, the commitment to support growers and breeders could be in jeopardy."

Lib Dem Chris Huhne's appointment at the Department for Energy & Climate Change should prove a boon for green campaigners, but with the looming cuts, the onus will be on the industry to make the case for vital services.

Another bright spot may be the appointment of Vince Cable, who is considered a good friend to science. Glover said: "Research and development could be protected because of the need for it to be forward-looking. It fits into the agenda for creating new jobs."

Defra chief scientist Bob Watson will likely remain in post, says Dyer, who foresees few major changes to current strategy, at least in the short term. According to Lord Taylor, one of the first items on the agenda will be negotiations on the common agricultural policy (CAP).

The commentariat has already touted Europe as a major sticking point for the new coalition, but that might not be a bad thing for horticulture, says Dyer. "You have to have a serious attitude in Europe - you can't ignore it and take your ball off the table. If anything, the Liberal Democrats' involvement will help. The Europhobic wing of the Tory party won't be able to dictate policy."

There is a packed agenda ahead. As Stockbridge Technology Centre chief executive Graham Ward sees it: "The main problems are public spending, research and CAP reform. These are the issues that will affect us. The Liberal bit of the coalition is very green, so there will be some help on green infrastructure.

"The Conservative attitude to free trade will not help food security because for the past 10 years global trade has controlled food price inflation, and I can't see them wanting to do anything about that except encouraging it. "So I don't think we should be too optimistic - nothing shattering will occur. But it will be interesting to see what they do with Defra - how they restructure it - to see whether they put more food back into it and less birds and bees."

The Queen's Speech on 25 May and an emergency budget on 22 June will give a clearer picture. It is assumed that some form of tax increase will be included and the frontrunner at present is a rise in VAT.

While it may be more popular with businesses than the National Insurance increase, the employers' portion of which has been scrapped, a rise of three percentage points or more on VAT could be the first of many bitter pills the industry will have to swallow.

On the ornamentals side, much of the key work will be done with the APPGHG. Almost 50 former members have lost or left their seats, thanks to the unusually high turnover in MPs. But, according to Glover, both Spelman and Paice are familiar with the group, and he is confident it will move forward with purpose. It will be reconvened at an annual meeting at the start of June and the HTA will brief members at an event on 15 June.

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