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Horticulture (Skills and Training)

Volume 590: debated on Wednesday 14 January 2015

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

Each year, twice as many people visit the gardens of England as watch premiership football—around 28 million versus 14 million. Horticulture is a great British success story, but it is an industry in crisis. There is not enough home-grown talent for the industry to sustain itself without increasingly importing skilled labour from overseas. Successive Governments, and the education establishment, can be blamed for this. Horticulture has not been seen as important; it is not something that young people have been encouraged to pursue as a career.

The coalition Government can take great pride in the way they have developed apprenticeships over the past four to five years in many areas of the British economy. However, there is still more to be done in horticulture. In 2010-11, only 1,060 of the more than 200,000 apprenticeships completed were in horticulture, and only 10 of those were in production horticulture. Elsewhere, there has been a renaissance for apprenticeships after the years of decline and failure by so many parts of industry and commerce, during which something that had stood the nation in good stead for centuries had become, in many respects, a neglected concept. While that decline has to a large extent been challenged and reversed under this Government, that has not been the case in horticulture, and the industry’s needs for skills and training are at a crossroads. I hope, however, that the Minister can bring good news on that front, because a little bird tells me that there might be an announcement during the next month.

Last year, in partnership with the Colchester Daily Gazette newspaper, the Colchester Institute and the National Apprenticeship Service in the east of England, I launched a campaign for local businesses to recruit 100 apprentices in 100 days. We soared past that target, and more than 150 young people were placed in apprenticeships. Sadly, not a single one was in horticulture, yet that is a part of the country where horticulture and food growing are still a major part of the landscape, so perhaps the industry should also be asking questions of itself.

There is some good news, in that across the border in Suffolk, Otley college has horticulture courses. It is now a good 55 years since I gained my gardening badge in the scouts—something that my wife, children and grandchildren find hilarious when they observe my current efforts. My excuse is that I lead a busy life. I love gardens, and we would be hard-pressed to find any better than those in the award-winning Colchester Castle park, or at Beth Chatto’s gardens a few miles to the east.

My town was once renowned for its roses. The Colchester rose show, at which my paternal grandfather was a leading member—he has a cup named in his memory—was once a major event in the town’s summer calendar. Today, it is a shadow of its former glory, kept going by a small group of enthusiasts, whom I commend. Professional rose growers from Colchester used to win many cups and prizes at national shows. Sadly, only one company, Cants of Colchester, remains, and I fear it will soon make its way into the history books as its rose fields disappear under a massive housing estate, following the dastardly decision to allow them to be lost to development, which the local community does not want.

Let me make a further local observation. The people’s choice garden at last year’s internationally acclaimed Chelsea flower show, “Hope on the Horizon”, which was created in association with Help for Heroes, was later taken to Colchester, where I can confirm it is an attractive feature in the grounds of the Chavasse VC House recovery centre for members of Her Majesty’s armed forces who have been injured. The garden was designed by a 29-year-old first-time exhibitor at Chelsea, landscape designer Matt Keightley. What a great role model for young people to look up to!

People love gardens, both their own and those they can visit. I am told that the Royal Horticultural Society is the world’s largest gardening charity, with a growing membership that exceeds 420,000—that is more than the combined membership of the UK’s mainstream political parties. In 2013, the RHS published a cross-industry report, “Horticulture Matters”, supported by 180 horticulture organisations, including the Chartered Institute of Horticulture, Lantra, the Horticultural Trades Association, Landex, the British Association of Landscape Industries, English Heritage, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and Grow. The report was launched by the then Minister with responsibility for agriculture and food, my good friend and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath). At the time he said the UK is facing

“a serious issue as we look forward in terms of food security and feeding the UK and the world. We have to have the best possible skills.”

That, of course, is what my debate is all about. He continued:

“We have got to invest in this sector—we’ve got to understand some of the messages in the report and react to that. We can work with the industry to massively improve its prospects.”

In June last year, the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs started an initiative to identify the key opportunities and challenges in the ornamental horticulture sector, with the aim that the industry should agree an action plan to take forward with Government support. So that we can have it placed on the official record, will the Minister this evening say where we are with the promised “action plan”?

Lantra, the land-based and environmental industries sector skills council—it covers horticulture—estimates that horticulture will need 595,000 more people by the end of this decade As 2020 is only five years away, the need is very urgent if overcoming such a large skills shortage is to be achieved. In doing so, it will be necessary to educate an educational establishment that undervalues the role of those who work in the horticulture sector. Perhaps that is due to a lack of understanding of the breadth of work that horticulturists do, and of its importance to the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants, by which I mean all forms of life.

The stigma that is attached to careers in the horticulture industry was recently underlined by a survey by the RHS, supported by the wider horticulture industry, which showed that 70% of 18-year-olds believe that horticultural careers should be considered only by people who have failed academically. Almost 50% of under-25s are of the opinion that horticulture is an unskilled career—that is insulting and ignorant in equal measure. With horticulture wrongly seen to be lacking career appeal, increasing numbers of horticulture businesses struggle to fill skilled vacancies and are being forced to recruit from overseas. British jobs for British people are available—more than 100,000 each and every year over the next five years, and not exclusively in the horticulture industry, but across the land-based and environmental sectors. It is essential that we act now to change the public perception of skills and careers in the horticulture industry. Horticulture contributes £9 billion to the UK economy each year. Gardening plays such an important role in everyday lives that garden products make up 1.7% of all UK retail sales.

Gardening centres in Colchester, which I visit at weekends, are always busy. Local economies benefit from a thriving horticulture sector as the “green” appeal of parks and other green spaces attracts businesses, residents and customers to an area. Horticulture also benefits the tourism industry by attracting millions of people to our nation’s stately homes, nature reserves—I recommend those of the Essex wildlife trust—and public, private and charitable gardens.

A strong horticulture sector provides employment, but, as I have mentioned, there is a serious shortage of workers, which could be addressed through the promotion of skilled apprenticeships. When it comes to career opportunities, the sector provides a huge variety of roles, all of which require a diverse set of professional and practical skills. I am talking about crop growers, gardeners, scientists, tree surgeons and turf specialists to name just a few.

By the end of this century, it is estimated that temperatures in major UK cities could rise by as much as 4%. However, increasing the amount of “green infrastructure” by 10% could entirely offset the impact of rising temperatures in such high-density urban centres. Horticulture has the power to mitigate the consequences of environmental change. It can help combat the harmful effects humankind is having on the environment. I support the concept of “greening the urban environment”. Indeed I promoted it and had it approved at a Liberal Democrat party conference. I want to see more trees in our towns and cities. Indeed, growing trees is something that I practice as well as preach. I have been growing trees, mostly oaks from acorns, for more than 25 years.

Planning policies of at least 70 years that include concreting and paving open land within commercial and residential developments must stop. Surface water run-off could be mitigated by an increased amount of vegetation and “green space infrastructure”, helping to reduce localised flooding during heavy rain. In the spirit of joined-up Government, does the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs discuss such matters with the Department for Communities and Local Government? How much better it would have been if the new housing developments in Colchester on the former cavalry barracks, the former Paxman’s factory site and the Solus estate had had considerably less paved areas and more trees, shrubs and gardens.

The time allowed for this debate is sadly too short to cover all aspects of the subject—for example, how horticulture has a vital role to play in helping to overcome Britain's chronic failure to grow more of the food we eat. At this point, I pay tribute to the National Farmers Union for its work in this area. It is a founding member of the agri-skills forum, which addresses skills and training issues throughout agriculture and horticulture. Today, we are only 63% self-sufficient in vegetables and salads, and the figure is declining, and only 40% self-sufficient in fruit. The spirit that rallied the British people on the home front during two world wars is needed now.

We had a gardening class at primary school, but not at secondary school, which brings me back to what this debate is all about: promoting skills and training in the horticulture industry. The Government need to work with the industry on three priorities: improving the perception of horticulture among the population; supporting horticulture in education and training; and safeguarding UK horticulture with financial support for research into plant science and other initiatives. A positive response from the Minister will give the British horticultural industry the boost it needs, particularly in respect of skills and training.

I apologise for it being me again. I seem to be dominating proceedings in the House this afternoon, representing the Government across a range of fronts, from steel to vegetables. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) on an important and timely debate on the horticulture industry. He is quite right that we do not have enough time to go into all the issues that we could cover under the auspices of this debate. Certainly, I could have carried on listening to him for a great deal longer, particularly his pun-tastic approach in talking about home-grown skills.

I was interested to hear about my hon. Friend’s boy scout gardening badge, which shows that we are never too old to learn a new skill. He was slightly modest in outlining his horticultural achievements. I have been informed by a good source that he has made a prize-winning blackcurrant jam.

I am unaware of whether the hon. Member from a Scottish constituency who stands poised to enter the Chamber has sampled this jam, but it is depressing that 60% of the Members present have sampled it and that I am in the 40% who have not. I trust that my hon. Friend will rectify that as soon as possible.

This could lead on, Mr Speaker, but I know you will want me to get to the nub of the argument. I could start talking about the Prime Minister’s prize-winning vegetables, but it is an important point to make that even those at the very top do take their horticultural skills seriously. I know that my right hon. Friend is very proud indeed of the prize-winning marrow that often wins prizes in his local village competition. My hon. Friend mentioned the farmers markets, and I am asked by an influential Member of the House to point out that the first farmers market took place in Bath.

My hon. Friend also talked about the need for joined-up government, and it is important that the points that he has made in the Chamber this evening are communicated both to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, particularly with reference to the points my hon. Friend made about the impact of the horticulture industry on climate change, and to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, who will want to hear personally about the points that my hon. Friend made about skills.

As my hon. Friend made clear in his excellent speech, the horticulture industry is important to the UK, contributing £9 billion a year to our economy. It often appears dry and desiccated constantly to refer to important industries in terms of their economic value, but Ministers have learned that to get some of the things that we need for the industries that we look after, when we knock on the door of the Treasury, we have to provide some kind of economic justification for the support we seek from it.

My hon. Friend made a good point, which I make about a lot of the creative industries that I represent in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport as well as in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, about the wide ecology that is supported. One talks about horticulture and one may simply be talking about planting plants and trees, but a whole industry surrounds that that benefits from horticulture. That is why one comes up with the figure of £9 billion. It is a diverse industry and it is closely linked to farming and agriculture, which get a great deal of prominence.

My hon. Friend’s speech focused mainly on skills, and that is entirely appropriate because he identified a skills gap and urged the Government to act as soon as possible to try to close that gap. I am grateful for his remarks in recognising that the Government have put an enormous amount of effort into the skills agenda. I referred earlier to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and a personal passion of his has been both apprenticeships for young people and for adult education. When he was fighting for his budget during the regrettable reductions in expenditure that we have had, skills were very much at the forefront of this thinking.

We have also adopted an employer-led approach to skills. It would be absurd of the Government to identify the skills that are needed. We need employers to come to us, as my hon. Friend indicated, and tell us where they think the skills gaps are, and then to work in partnership with us to look at how we can remedy that skills gap.

We welcome the agri-tech strategy, which aims to ensure that the horticultural sector is equipped with the knowledge and skills that are needed by horticultural employers. We are facilitating employer engagement across a range of sectors, including horticulture, with our employer ownership pilot schemes, which are pilot schemes owned by employers, giving them even more opportunity to take greater control of the skills agenda. For example, the G Growers project has given £1 million to employers to train their staff in cutting-edge research and agricultural techniques. We have made £20 million available through the Skills Funding Agency for adult vocational training in horticulture, an increase of 11% on the previous year.

I hope that the perception to which my hon. Friend referred—I stress that it was not a perception that he shared in the slightest—that working in horticulture is a menial job which one can do if one has no qualifications could not be more wrong. The climate is changing. In some of the industries that I represent, such as the fashion industry, there is a return to craftsmanship and old-fashioned skills. The crafts industry has achieved notable success, and the “Made in Britain”, “Made in England” and “Made in Scotland” tags are all becoming measures of quality and authenticity. Although I do not have specific evidence to bring to bear on this point, I suspect that the horticulture industry will benefit from that. I would like to work with my hon. Friend and Ministers to ensure that we change the perception of the horticulture industry. As I said, we made £20 million available through the Skills Funding Agency. That is an increase of 11% on the year before, so the investment is going in.

The “Horticulture Matters” report said that job candidates often lack basic workplace skills and practical experience. We have put together traineeships to tackle that gap. As my hon. Friend knows, we have a new Trailblazer project in the horticulture sector, which focuses on a level 2 technician doing horticultural, fresh produce, arable and glasshouse work, a level 2 pack house operative, and a level 2 stock person for dairy, sheep and pigs, which is not strictly horticulture, but the project covers agriculture and production as well as horticulture. These traineeships are an education and training programme which includes work experience to give young people the skills and vital experience they need to help them compete for apprenticeships or other jobs. The G Growers employer ownership pilot that I mentioned should deliver 10,000 learning opportunities at level 4 plus in the horticulture sector.

The latest figures show that a step change is taking place. We now see almost 5,000 horticulture apprentices at work. That is an increase of almost 250% since 2009-10. The latest figures for higher education show that over 19,000 are studying an agriculture-related subject in higher education. These are the graduates who will lead the profession well into the 21st century.

My hon. Friend mentioned the food and farming plan, which we hope to publish at the end of the month. He wanted me to put that on record. It will look at food enterprise zones and potentially local development orders for local enterprise partnerships in food and farming businesses. It will also look at apprentices. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is planning a round-table conference in March to look at increasing competitiveness and increasing growth in the food and farming industries. DEFRA is also working alongside us in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. My hon. Friend, who talked about the need for joined-up Government, will be pleased to know that DEFRA is working with BIS to promote apprenticeships in the industry.

As Minister for the creative industries, I am not in a position to annex the horticultural industry, but I think there is a close link between the two. Those of us who occasionally go to the Chelsea flower show will know how unbelievably popular it is. Funnily enough, it is popular with some of the elites in our society. I go there occasionally—I am not referring to myself as part of one of those elites, I hasten to add—and one sees captains of industry, as I think we can still call them, flocking to it. We see there the nexus of advanced, innovative and creative horticulture alongside architecture and design. In rather the same way as London fashion week sits at the apex of the fashion industry, the Chelsea flower show sits at the apex of horticulture but is not remote from it; it acts as a bellwether. Just as the catwalks of the London fashion show will be translated into high street shops and the wider ecology of make-up, photography and magazines, the ideas piloted at the Chelsea flower show will percolate through the horticulture industry. In talking about the image of the horticulture industry, we should recognise that the crowds that gather at the Chelsea flower show represent a snapshot of the passion that exists in this country for gardening and horticulture.

I should also say, in my role as heritage Minister, that we fully recognise—in working with the heritage lottery fund, for example—the very important role that the gardens of historic houses play in drawing in tourists and enhancing the role of those houses as visitor attractions. One only need visit Chatsworth, with the landscapes of Capability Brown, and, closer to my own home, the amazing landscapes of Blenheim to see that this country has taken the role of horticulture very seriously for many centuries.

This is a timely and important debate. I think that those involved in the horticulture industry all over the country will praise my hon. Friend for bringing these important matters to the attention of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.