Fruit business hanging in the balance after planners reject bid to retain polytunnels

A soft-fruit grower is in danger of going out of business after Herefordshire County Council's planning committee voted against his plans to retain his polytunnels.

Neil Cockburn submitted an application to retain 25ha of tunnels on his farm in King's Caple, but the planning committee rejected his proposal last month.

Prior to the meeting, a large group of local residents campaigned against the application because they oppose polytunnels in the Wye Valley area of outstanding natural beauty.

Two years ago, Cockburn's original plans were actually approved by the council, but then later rejected by the High Court after a local campaigner successfully sought a judicial review.

Cockburn, who has been growing soft fruit for more than 30 years, told Grower: "It's not possible to protect the crops from weather damage without covering them, so without any cover there's no business. I don't know what's going to happen to the existing tunnels now. It's quite a small area.

"People have planning permission to cover areas twice this size. The council could order me to take them away now and then all of the fruit would be wasted - and so would 150 seasonal jobs."

He added that there are also now 30 full-time jobs on the line and several millions of pounds worth of turnover. "We will continue to fight on, with appealing being one of my options," said Cockburn.

The NFU queried the council's decision given that the Government's National Planning Policy Framework places an expectation on local planning authorities to assess the needs of the food-production industry and its contribution to the economy.

NFU chief horticulture and potatoes adviser Hayley Campbell Gibbons said: "Given the important contribution this sector makes, the decision by Herefordshire County Council would seem to fly in the face of the Government's very clear agenda to seek out opportunities to promote economic growth, with specific reference given to the importance that food production has to play."

She added: "In a sector that relies on protective infrastructure such as polytunnels to grow its crops competitively, the balance between economic growth and the aesthetics of the countryside is keenly felt.

"However, it is extremely concerning, given the valuable contribution the horticulture sector makes to the region, that our grower members continue to cite planning constraints and costly delays as some of the biggest challenges they face."

Key facts Industry's economic contribution

- Fourteen per cent of the UK's entire horticultural output and 20 per cent of its soft-fruit output is produced in the West Midlands region.

- Horticulture represents 21 per cent of the value of the region's agricultural output, which amounts to more than £350m at the farm gate.

- Taking account of the further packing, processing and manufacturing of the region's horticultural produce gives the sector a gross value added contribution to the region's economy of more than £600m.

- The sector employs 13,000 permanent staff and many thousands more seasonal workers across the region - on farms, in allied industries and across the food supply chain.

Source: NFU

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