Skip to main content

Community Orchards

Volume 530: debated on Monday 27 June 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Dunne.)

I am pleased, both as a Conservative Member of Parliament and as the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, to speak about this important subject of community orchards. However, I am more pleased still, because I am also a russet, which is not merely a type of apple, but the name given to those who originate from the tiny village of Weaverham in the centre of Cheshire, which is where the Wareham russet was first invented. I am a true Wareham russet.

It is a pleasure to talk about community orchards. My home village of Weaverham was once awash with them. They grew both apples—Wareham russets—and our famous damsons, but in the immediate post-war period, they were all grubbed up to make way for council housing, to provide accommodation for those who went to work at the great Imperial Chemical Industries plant in Northwich.

We lost our community orchards, but sadly, we were not alone in our loss. Since 1945, we have lost 63% of our orchards one way or another. Indeed, in the traditional fruit-growing counties, such as Herefordshire, Kent and Worcestershire, the losses have been greater still.

However, things are stirring in the orchard world—a susurrus whistling through the bows, that some in the House have not yet quite heard. I should like to pay tribute to a very large number of organisations that I have contacted in the past week which have helped me to put my speech together. Common Ground, which is based in Shaftesbury in Dorset, is a particularly worthwhile organisation that has done much to promote apple day, which falls on 21 October, the same day as Trafalgar day. In fact, that gives added credence to the idea of making Trafalgar day our new bank holiday. We could perhaps call it apple day. Other groups, such as the Orchard Network and the Northern Fruit Group—the list is endless—do sterling work to protect heritage fruit species that I feel so passionate about. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species has just completed the national orchard inventory as part of its work to protect the noble chafer beetle. That is an example of biodiversity in action, which encompasses much of what orchards stand for.

However, I am sure the Minister is wondering why I summoned him on a Monday night, to sit here at the end of the day to talk about community orchards. I am sure he is not overly amused, but let me explain why I have come here tonight. This debate is not just about orchards, but about the meaning of localism. There is a need to recognise the distinctiveness of our towns, villages and communities, and orchards are a wonderful way of doing that.

Many people, when they heard that I would have this debate, asked, “What is a community orchard?” and I had to explain that they are orchards that are in the community. Anyone can go in and enjoy them at any time, and those people can come together as a community. They can be the focal point for a village, an estate or even just a block of flats. The concern that animates our national debate on cloned town centres, with their identical chains of shops, is also behind community orchards. We need distinctiveness and difference.

I absolutely applaud my hon. Friend in his call for more community orcharding. I come from the county of Herefordshire, which is thrilled to be the largest cider orchard county in the country. Does he share my view that we should not restrict cider and other orchards to rural areas, but encourage them within urban and suburban areas, where they can also give so much joy to local people?

Indeed, and I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. My constituency has no green space apart from a golf course plonked in the middle of it, so I would welcome more green of any variety.

It is also important to recognise that the last Government—although no Labour Member is in their place now—did something to recognise that orchards were a habitat at risk, as they were added to the list of 15 biodiversity action plan habitats. However, as no inventory had been made, we were not sure of the starting point for the action plan. The work that has just been done by the traditional orchard inventory project, helped by Natural England, has allowed us to identify 17,000 hectares of orchards, many of them basic community orchards. One sad aspect of that work is that 45% are considered to be in poor condition, and that is where we start to get into the political remit of this issue.

The natural environment White Paper contained a sole, but welcome reference to community orchards, in relation to Tower Hamlets, which is a very urban area. The issue of protection for these orchards is paramount so, with the authority of many of the stakeholders for these orchards, I ask the Minister what more he can do to offer protection to the orchards. Many people have complained to me about the difficulty of obtaining tree protection orders. There is a failure to realise that many fruit trees grow for many hundreds of years. For example, I had no idea that a pear tree could still be maturing after some 300 years.

We also need to ensure that any fruit produced by these trees is not wasted. That means better liaison with the cider industry and within communities. I was pleased to see that the White Paper mentioned local nature partnerships and nature improvement areas, which could encompass community orchards. I hope the Minister will be able to confirm that organisations such as Common Ground and the Orchard Network will be able to start to bid for money to allow them to assist local groups to conserve their older orchards through small grants for insurance, fencing, stakes and gates—all those things that are needed to put the infrastructure together to help us to build a community.

I am sure that the Minister recognises the importance of these orchards to biodiversity. I recall them from my childhood days as being an edible hedgerow, with so many varieties of fruit on offer in the village, but they are also communal assets. Some of the concern stems from the need for more statutory presumption against the grubbing up of these smaller orchards for in-fill development. We often have debates in this Chamber about back-fill, in-fill and bungalows popping up everywhere. Orchards are very susceptible to this, and I hope that the Minister will be able to guarantee that he will give some consideration as to how they can be more protected.

I recognise that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs cannot do it all. Orchards have a great potential. Indeed, the Department’s fruit and vegetables taskforce came up with a multitude of recommendations for cross-departmental working that will be very helpful. I am one of the few MPs who has managed to wade through the gargantuan Marmot review into healthy living, which is a 300-page leviathan of nanny-state prescriptions, but which made an important observation:

“Improving the good environment involves addressing issues concerning the accessibility of affordable and nutritious food that is sustainably produced, processed and delivered”.

I have referred to the importance of not wasting the fruit that grows in community orchards. My constituency is the fourth most deprived constituency represented by a Conservative MP and includes a particularly poor estate called Grange Park. It was where the Conservative party held its social action project during the 2007 party conference. That is where the fruit trees in my constituency came from—planted by the party as part of that social action project.

The great lesson I took from that experiment was that for many children on the estate, fruit comes in a bag from Iceland. In this week of all weeks, with Wimbledon being played just down the road from here, the notion that fruit such as strawberries have a season would be incomprehensible to many of the children on that estate. The importance of orchards as educational tools should be considered as well.

Although the Slow Food movement is growing in popularity—I was in Ludlow, not too many weeks ago, enjoying a food festival there—it must not become the preserve of the upper middle classes, or something chichi or fashionable. It has to be something that my constituents can access as well. I am pleased, therefore, that at the recent civic trust awards in Blackpool, a fruit-growing project in Blackpool South, Grow Blackpool, won a civic award. I have many other examples from around Lancashire of people who have written to me about their small community orchards.

There is a recognition that fruits and community orchards have a role to play in our local communities, and that, more importantly, localism is not just about what we ask our councillors to do, and what decisions we allow councils to take; it is also about how we see our communities and about this very important idea of particularism. What makes this country special, in my view, is that we manage to cram so much diversity into such a small geographic area. It is that local distinctiveness that makes this country so special. We should never become estranged from the nature at the heart of our communities, and orchards, in the right places, cared for, nurtured and built up, link people with the place in which they live and the history of that place. It certainly linked me to the history of the village I come from, and I very much hope that the community orchard movement will strengthen and grow, with the Government’s support and protection where appropriate. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) on obtaining tonight’s debate. He wisely commented on—perhaps foresaw—my initial reaction when I saw the subject of tonight’s Adjournment debate on a non-voting night. However, having done the research that it is incumbent on me to do in order to reply—although I have some knowledge as well—I think that he has chosen a subject not only about which he clearly knows a lot, but which is of much greater importance than first sight might suggest.

I know that my hon. Friend has a close involvement with and interest in the subject, and I know that the Grow Blackpool project includes a community orchard and received a Blackpool environmental action award in January—I believe he was present. I also understand that two schools are involved in that activity, demonstrating some of the points to which he referred. He kindly furnished me with a list of some of the issues he was going to raise, so I have been able to prepare properly, I hope, for this debate. I will try to answer some, if not all, the points he made.

So many of the things that my hon. Friend described are encompassed by a phrase that will be close to his heart, as it is to mine—the big society. It is about bringing together a range of different benefits and community gains within the community. I am therefore pleased to have this opportunity to pick up his points. I am sure that he appreciates—he effectively said so— that DEFRA is committed to improving the natural environment and reconnecting people with nature and food. We also have wider responsibilities for Government policy on orchards and, as he and my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) mentioned, on the cider industry. Community orchards can contribute to all those areas. Obviously, there is no formal record of community orchards but we believe that several hundred have been established throughout the country, largely due, as my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys has rightly said, to the successful efforts of Common Ground and other organisations.

In the process of this research, I discovered that one of my predecessors in my office had been given a book written by Common Ground about orchards. I found the book fascinating and I thoroughly encourage my hon. Friend to read it if he has not done so. The main purpose of a community orchard is not just the production of fruit—although as my hon. Friend said, it should not be wasted—but to provide a valuable green space, a focal point for the community and the opportunity for relaxation. People of all ages and from all backgrounds are concerned about access to and the quality of local green spaces. Research has shown that they are frequently motivated to act together to develop and manage the spaces that they most care about, whether they be community orchards, parks, playgrounds, allotments or other places.

The recent “National Ecosystem Assessment”, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State published a few weeks ago, put the value of access to open space at about £300 per person, which demonstrates its benefits. My hon. Friend referred to the Marmot review, which also demonstrated that there is a benefit to communities and individuals—and, perhaps in particular, the less well-off, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged, whom the Marmot review targeted—in having access to leisure opportunities such as those provided by a community orchard. The Government’s programme makes a commitment to protecting green areas of particular importance to local communities, something that also featured in the natural environment White Paper. My colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government are taking the lead role in encouraging communities to take over the ownership or management of significant community assets, including community orchards. Under the Localism Bill, residents will be able to play a bigger role in planning, designing, managing and maintaining community green spaces for food growing and other purposes.

The vital importance of green spaces—both through their benefits to local communities and as part of our ecological network—is highlighted in the natural environment White Paper. The role of community orchards is recognised in that. Although we do not use the term “community orchard”—the White Paper uses the term “urban orchard”—the nomenclature is designed to cover the same types of orchard. The White Paper showcases the excellent work of Tower Hamlets Homes in providing access to green space and supporting healthy eating through resident-led community food projects, allotments and urban orchards.

The White Paper includes the proposal to create new nature improvement areas. We want to see such areas wherever the opportunities or benefits are greatest, driven by local partnerships. DEFRA will launch a competition for funding to contribute to the first tranche of 12 improvement areas in July. Each application will be judged by a panel of experts chaired by Professor Sir John Lawton against criteria that will be made available on the Natural England website. Among other criteria, the panel will look at areas that restore and join up priority habitats, and areas where identifiable benefits to local communities can be demonstrated. There is therefore plenty of scope for community orchards to be part of a nature improvement area and included in applications for the competition.

Another key feature of the White Paper is the proposal to introduce local nature partnerships. These will be inclusive partnerships working on a landscape scale, using an ecosystems approach. That, too, will give the opportunity to highly valued community orchards to be included in a partnership.

My hon. Friend referred to the superb work done by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species on behalf of Natural England in compiling an inventory of traditional orchards—not specifically community orchards—using aerial photographs. It will be used to target and restore sites, as he rightly said, and to monitor targets and inform local planning policies and development. The five-year project located 35,378 traditional orchards, which equates to just under 17,000 hectares of habitat. I was astonished at the scale of those figures, which demonstrate just how important community orchards are, especially as traditional orchards have declined considerably, as he said—they are believed to have declined by 63% since 1950. However, for the first time we now know their extent and location.

As my hon. Friend also said, traditional orchards are recognised biodiversity hot spots. It is recognised that, without proper protection and sensitive management, they can easily slip into decline. I can tell my hon. Friend that I have a community orchard in my own constituency; it is privately owned, but access is given to the community and the community has the fruit from it. These orchards embody all the things that we read about and see in picture books about a traditional old English apple orchard.

If we were to lose this habitat, we would also face losing rare English fruit varieties—another point to which my hon. Friend rightly referred. We would also lose the traditions, customs and knowledge in addition to the genetic diversity represented by the hundreds of species that are associated with traditional orchards. They are a haven for biodiversity. As I said, not all community orchards fall within the definition of a traditional orchard—indeed, many have been planted in more recent years—but they nevertheless have a very valuable habitat and biodiversity role.

My hon. Friend asked about protection and referred to tree protection orders. These are a matter for the local council, but he is right to say that some fruit trees, which are not normally the subject of tree preservation orders, can be very old and ancient trees that are worthy of protection in certain cases. As I say, it is a matter for local authorities.

Community orchards can also have a valuable place, as my hon. Friend said, in maintaining the cultivation of heritage varieties. I am not even going to try to repeat all the ones to which he referred, but there are many more. The book to which I referred earlier lists the origins of many varieties, explaining where they were first bred and listing the individuals who bred them.

Both my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool North and Cleveleys and for Hereford and South Herefordshire referred to the cider industry. It is probably true to say that relatively few community orchards grow predominantly cider varieties, but they can still have an important role in supporting small-scale, often local, cider producers. Most local cider producers will make cider from any variety of apple, not just the specific cider ones. As many of us, especially members of the all-party cider group, know, there is a growing interest in artisan or craft-scale cider making, which is attracting increasing numbers of people from all over the UK who are keen to make some cider or perry—or indeed something else—from their local fruit.

My hon. Friend also referred to education, and he was right to do so. Community orchards can support and enhance the curriculum by helping children to understand where their food comes from and, as my hon. Friend so aptly said, its seasonality. I am sure he is right that it is not unique to the people of his constituency not to know that fruit is seasonal. I fear that, as with much of our food production, many people are not very aware of its origins or how it comes to be. Community orchards can offer great opportunities to see food growing, for people to experience producing food for themselves and to understand the links between food and sustainability. They are also places where children can learn how food plots support biodiversity, including the important role of bees, about which the House has heard so much in recent years. Orchards have helped to revive British apple varieties, so children can learn about varieties not usually seen in the supermarket.

One of the other goals of Government food policy is to encourage people to eat healthily and there is some evidence showing that children involved in growing fruit and vegetables move towards more healthy eating. They have a greater understanding of the dietary composition of fruit and vegetables. As I mentioned earlier, there are also benefits from being outside and gardening—well known for both mental and physical health.

Finally, my hon. Friend will be aware of the Government’s initiative in what we call the big tree plant, which was designed for community woodlands. To the best of my knowledge, there is no reason why it could not also be applied to growing fruit trees. We certainly do not lay down the species of trees that could be grown. There is some assistance available in that regard for communities who want to get involved.

Let me conclude by saying to my hon. Friend that I really congratulate him and I respect him for the amount of research that he has obviously done and for the way he presented his points. I do not hold it against him that he has held us here this evening. Frankly, so many of the objectives of DEFRA—local food, fresh air, community spirit, biodiversity—are provided by community orchards. They have the lot to offer. I congratulate my hon. Friend again on allowing us to raise the profile of community orchards this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.