Minister rules out emergency cash for Kew

'It's down to Kew to manage its own affairs,' says Defra secretary of state Owen Patterson despite calls for financial aid.

Paterson: opportunities for Kew - image: HW
Paterson: opportunities for Kew - image: HW

Defra secretary of state Owen Paterson has told Horticulture Week that he will not bail out Kew with an emergency payment, saying instead the botanic garden must manage its own affairs.

Speaking at the Food & Environment Research Agency (FERA) "Plants Need Passports Too" display at last week's RHS Chelsea Flower Show, he said the Government is spending more on Kew now than during the previous spending round and insisted that the 125 redundancies at Kew (HW, 4 April) are not his responsibility.

According to Defra, the average annual Government spend on Kew between 2010-11 and 2014-15 was £27.216m, compared with £26.785m from 2007-08 to 2009-10.

Patterson said: "We came into Government with the country borrowing £300,000 a minute so everybody has had to tighten up." Kew director Richard Deverell has "got a grip" on expenditure and increased private income by £3m, he added.

"Kew is a fantastic asset - a sleeping giant. There are really brilliant opportunities in the future to grow in all sorts of areas. The seed bank is of world significance and we'll continue to support it but it's up to them to decide which jobs to keep. They have their remit and it's down to them to decide the scientific priorities."

He dismissed an emergency payment "because every other agency across Defra would want £3m to keep another 10 jobs", adding: "It's down to Kew to manage its own affairs."

Following on from this month's release of a biosecurity strategy and tree health management plan (HW, 16 May), Paterson said he also sees "great opportunities" for FERA despite industry fears of "offloading" costs from outsourced FERA work.

He said FERA, which is based in York, is a "massively underused asset" that he would like to use more but in an "efficient way" through private money.

The trade must play its part in cost-sharing outsourcing of FERA's work and import substitution of plants and food is a priority, he said.

Paterson added that food security is a priority, despite his deputy George Eustice's recent comments to a Parliamentary committee that at a low level of 62 per cent "the fact that it (British food self-sufficiency) has gone down slightly is not something that we should be unduly concerned about".

Paterson added: "I've made it absolutely clear that we should not be complacent as the preceding government was with unlimited cheap, safe food coming from out beyond our shores, which meant that we didn't have to bother too much about domestic production.

"I see it as an absolute priority to grow the food we can. Thirty per cent of imported food could be produced here. I'm very keen on import substitution on the products we can grow."

Paterson said Agri-Tech research is helping, as will the Bonfield report on public food procurement, which is due out in June.

In his interview with HW, Patterson also said he will look at stopping internet sales of banned trees from Europe (see box).

Internet sales Defra pledges to tackle loophole on tree imports

Defra secretary Owen Paterson and new chief plant health officer Nicola Spence have vowed to tackle internet sales of ash, Platanus and sweet chestnuts.

Majestic Trees owner Steve McCurdy said the Government allows landscape contractors, landscape architects, garden designers and the public to import the trees while banning UK nurseries "who have the most to lose, are the most vigilant and financially have been hurt by the Government's policies".

He added: "This is a serious lapse in Government biosecurity regulations that has resulted in a significant increase in importing tree stock directly, straight to job sites, that has dramatically increased the likelihood of new pests and diseases in the UK."

Paterson said the loophole "is a backlog from the past". He added: "I'm aware the regime needs massively improving. Within the constraints of European free trade, we want to make our borders as secure as possible. We will look at all areas to protect the country from the import of plant diseases. The point of this stand is to get the message across to the public that they too can help."

Spence said: "The potential is there, particularly in internet trade. There's a pathway for material coming in that is not registered because we're not aware of it. It's important we look at this with trade bodies."

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