Ornamentals groups seek to redirect levy funds via new vehicle to unlock R&D cash

The ornamentals sector is launching a pre-emptive strike on the question of whether levy money can be used to match funds available through the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) for R&D -- by creating an arm's-length funding body.

The TSB was still in talks over how the levy money — raised by bodies within the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board — could be used as HW went to press. But it has indicated that ornamentals research would be "out of scope" of its £75m agri-food innovation platform.

To tackle the dual problems of the classification of levy money as "para-fiscal tax" and the lack of research funding for ornamentals, industry bodies will now work together to develop a framework they hope will sidestep the issues.

In an initial meeting to be held in January, the Horticultural Development Company (HDC), HTA and NFU will thrash out ideas for how it could operate.

The idea is that by directing the levy money through an organisation not responsible for collecting the payments, the cash would shed its status as public money and thus be viable for match funding from the TSB, European funds and regional development agencies (RDAs).

HDC chairman Neil Bragg explained: "We need to find a mechanism that recognises the money does come from industry and allows us to access funds from the Government, Europe and the RDAs."

He added that there was "genuine enthusiasm" from bodies such as Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC), East Malling Trust and the HTA for the plan.

Most recently, HDC cash has been used to part fund a knowledge transfer project on ornamentals led by the HTA and the University of Reading. The project unlocked TSB cash.

HTA director general David Gwyther said the approach can be duplicated. "A new body would not be raising the levy itself and would be in the same position as if the HDC were contracting with a research station," he explained.

STC chief executive Graham Ward added: "Because of the way the funding arrangements [through the TSB] are biased towards food security, there is a fear that ornamentals will be isolated.

"There needs to be an organisation that can attract funding for ornamental research and to do that it is impossible to work within the present HDC system because of the ruling that it is a quasi-tax organisation. The para-fiscal tax issue applies on the edibles side as well, but ornamentals is the real crisis at the moment."

NFU chief horticultural adviser Phil Hudson said any new organisation or steering group must fully represent the levy payers.

"We need to derive as much value from the money available as possible. One of the ways we need to do that is to work as a single body of ornamentals growers rather than separate groups," he said.

An independent group to lead on project funding applications was appropriate, agreed East Malling Research head of science Chris Atkinson.

Lowaters Nursery managing director Ian Ashton added that in addressing market failure it was essential for ornamentals growers to multiply their levy payments through match funding.

Bragg noted that the tax classification was an issue for edibles too and said that long-term it would be examined. But he added: "We've put that to one side while we get the most critical part sorted out."

Brassica Growers Association chairman Phillip Effingham said: "Similar strategies need to be adopted across the board. What is affecting the ornamentals sector is affecting us as well."

British Leafy Salads Association chairman David Piccaver said: "I would like to see it expanded out."


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