Parliamentary group completes decade of awareness-raising to boost horticulture

It was 28 September 1999, while watching 2,000 farmers marching in Bournemouth, that the late and much missed former HW editor Pete Weston and I discussed the idea of creating an all-party group for horticulture.

We were standing among a group of Labour politicians and watching their negative reactions to the march. Both of us felt it was vital that horticulture created an identity, separate from farming, with parliamentary and wider political audiences.

We spoke to a number of people in the industry including the HTA's David Gwyther and soon after we went to Brian Donohoe MP, then secretary of the parliamentary gardening club, and raised the idea with him.

The new group, with a firm horticulture industry link, was constituted in early 2000 with Donohoe then and still the parliamentary driving force.

Ten years later, after more than 60 horticulture-specific events, the All-Party Parliamentary Gardening & Horticulture Group (APPGHG) has become a respected voice in parliament. Indeed, just this year two cabinet ministers attended the group's annual reception, sponsors met with the secretary of state at Defra as part of an ongoing engagement programme and the group conducted several visits and much activity during the course of this parliamentary session. Some examples of the outcomes of this work are:

  • The group was a contributing factor in the Government setting up a consultation into how drought orders are implemented. The proposed legislation removes many of the anomalies that the industry expressed concern about and APPGHG members are working with the HTA to continue to amend this.
  • Pressure from the group contributed to environment secretary Hilary Benn adopting the industry's position in Europe on the banning of pesticides and therefore adopting a sympathetic approach to applying this in UK law.
  • Pressure from the group helped to underline to the Olympic Delivery Authority the importance of early procurement for trees to be planted in the Olympic Park.
  • The APPGHG's work has encouraged the Government to take a joint approach with industry on peat and not impose draconian proposals.
  • The group ran a private members bill on Sunday trading in the House of Lords that has helped the industry understand the strengths and weaknesses of its arguments while keeping the spotlight on the issue.
  • The APPGHG has been quoted as a contributing factor to the Government supporting 80 horticultural apprenticeships.

Perhaps the group's most important contribution is the opportunity it presents for the horticulture industry to have a separate platform to raise concerns with the Government on a regular basis instead of seeing all of our issues raised as purely a subsection of agriculture.

We have not managed to win all of our battles, but without the APPGHG the industry's voice would be much less powerful. All of this has led to Benn calling the group an "outstanding and well-organised lobby".

HW and the HTA have been sponsors from the start, with BALI, the City of London Corporation and the Royal Parks also supporting the group over the majority of its existence.

Recently, Scotts has become a regular fixture as sponsor of the group's annual reception, which over the years has seen many ministers and shadow ministers attend. These include Benn, Baroness Royal, Hazel Blears, Lord Bach, Jane Kennedy, Malcolm Wicks, Jim Fitzpatrick, James Paice, Nick Herbert, Lord Heseltine, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, Ian Pearson and Angela Eagle.

Gardening celebrities in attendance at the event include regulars Tommy Walsh and Peter Seabrook along with Alan Titchmarsh, Charlie Dimmock, Rachel de Thame and Dan Pearson.

The chairs of the APPGHG have been Lord Walker, David Marshall, John Spellar and currently Ann Cryer. Donohoe, Brian Jenkins, Christopher Fraser, David Wilshire and Bob Russell have provided excellent officer support.

In the Lords, mention must be made of the Earl of Courtown, Lord Palmer, Lord Clark of Windemere and the most regular attendee of the group, Baroness Fookes.

Over the years, there have been many visits to sites of horticultural interest, each giving the industry an opportunity to brief the attending politicians on a specific issue of the time.

Indeed, the protocols of parliamentary engagement are such that the hard discussions often take place behind closed doors in direct exchanges between politicians, civil servants and industry representatives.

However, they are all conducted against a backdrop of pressure created by the industry and the politicians in the APPGHG.

Of the visits, I want to highlight some of the most memorable:

  • Trips to Lord Heseltine's Thenford Gardens, where the group has had an excellent viewpoint of the development of this arboretum over the years.
  • A visit to the Eden Project early in the group's existence, including a walk in the domes after visitors had left just as the light was fading. The visit was organised by the HTA and it involved 11 influential and senior MPs engaged for a full two-day programme. Relationships cemented on this visit have served the industry well over many years.
  • A tremendous visit to the City of London's Epping Forest. Also, a well-organised visit to Burnham Beeches, including lunch at Dorneywood, which generated considerable political interest. The City finds these visits ideal to brief politicians on how they are maintaining urban green spaces to service those living in and around the capital.
  • The fabulous trips to Richmond Park and St James's Park, among others, organised with the Royal Parks, where many politicians welcomed the opportunity to escape the confines of Westminster for an informative walk — capped this year, of course, with an exclusive view of the garden at number 10 Downing Street, which generated considerable publicity for the APPGHG.
  • Excellent trips to Hilliers and Notcutts Nurseries, where growers were able to put across their concerns on trading conditions and foreign competition.
  • Fascinating excursions to Canary Wharf in London and a chance to go to the roof gardens, a trip to the 2012 Olympic Games site and visits to look at landscaping projects across the capital and the surrounding areas. The Canary Wharf visit in particular enabled group members to flag up the benefits of green roofs and the advantages of green spaces to a local business community.

There is still much work to be done for the APPGHG to achieve all of its aims. Its objective must remain to provide the industry with a platform in parliament to address horticulture issues and develop relationships with decision-makers and their political influences.

These are the people who, with a stroke of a pen, can influence the UK horticulture market directly.

Mark Glover is administrative secretary to the All-Party Parliamentary Gardening & Horticulture Group 1999-2009.

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