On 30 March 2022, the House of Lords is due to debate the following question for short debate:

Baroness Fookes to ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to support (1) the provision of careers in the horticultural sector, and (2) the role of that sector in protecting the environment.

The UK’s horticultural sector

Horticulture is the sector of the agricultural industry that is responsible for the production of fruit, vegetables, and ornamental plants. The Chartered Institute of Horticulture has said that business, production, and food in the UK horticulture industry is worth over £5 billion each year. It has estimated that businesses growing fruit and vegetables employ over 50,000 people, with the ornamental plant nurseries and garden centres that produce and sell millions of plants generating thousands more jobs. It also noted that the sector provides opportunities for various careers, including technical and sales roles.

This article considers the workforce challenges facing the horticultural sector in relation to seasonal labour shortages and the skills gap in horticultural skills. It also briefly examines the potential role of the sector in tackling climate change and achieving net zero and government plans relating to this.

Workforce challenges

Seasonal workers

The UK’s horticultural sector has traditionally relied on seasonal foreign workers to supplement its workforce. In its December 2020 report, ‘The UK’s New Immigration Policy and the Food Supply Chain’, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said that European Union (EU) workers had accounted for “as much as 99%” of seasonal labour recruited by the edible horticulture sector.

Following the UK’s exit from the EU, the Government has said that it wants to become a high-skilled, high-wage economy and has introduced a new points-based immigration system to support this. Examining the potential impact of the new immigration policy, the Commons committee reported that the horticulture industry had raised concerns about securing the workforce it needs. It also noted differences in estimates of the number of seasonal horticultural workers required: the National Farmers Union (NFU) told the committee that 70,000 workers are needed to fill 80,000 roles, while the Government said that the figure was about 40,000. The committee also reported fears that a shortage of seasonal workers could lead to the production of some crops moving overseas.

Data taken from the Government’s Labour in Horticulture Survey 2021 (quarter one for England) showed that approximately 30% of respondents needed seasonal labour. It also showed that the average shortfall was 10% in quarter one of 2021 for survey respondents who needed seasonal labour, with the average shortfall ranging from 17 (January and March) to 28 (February) person days.

In summer 2021, various press reports highlighted concerns about labour shortages, with anecdotal evidence that crops were going unharvested due to a shortage of staff. For example, a Guardian article in August 2021 quoted Tom Bradshaw, vice president of the NFU, stating that reports of such problems “are coming from up and down the country”. The Metro reported similar problems, citing the chairman of British Summer Fruits, Nick Marston, who said that the soft fruit industry was facing decreasing numbers of seasonal workers from the EU and the “impossibility of recruiting a significant proportion of our large workforce from UK residents”. Previous press reports have focused on issues in recruiting British workers to the sector.

Horticultural skills gap

In October 2019, the Ornamental Horticulture Roundtable Group—“a body of industry leaders and innovators, including retailers, gardening charities and industry bodies”—published its ‘Horticulture Sector Skills Survey 2019’. The report set out research which determined that skills shortages and skills gaps are prevalent in the UK ornamental horticulture sector. It also quantified skills levels and future skills needs and investigated approaches to staff training.

Following a survey which received 1,101 responses, the group found that:

The sector is facing a critical skills challenge (skills gaps and shortages), manifesting in an ageing workforce, difficulties in filling skilled vacancies and challenges in recruiting apprentices and a general shortage of labour.

To address these challenges, the report said that the sector would need to:

  • tackle issues linked to skills shortages and gaps;
  • promote recruitment; and
  • acquire improved and more local access to relevant training along with a sustainable talent pipeline.

However, it said that these challenges “may not be met by the sector alone”, but would benefit from external support from the Government and stakeholders in education, careers advice and careers promotion.

More recently, in July 2021, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) reported that applicants for its work-based training programmes had reached its highest number in decades as many people consider their post-pandemic career options. It said it had seen a 58% increase in applicants for its work-based training programmes. Focusing on three of its programmes, it noted an increase in numbers across two, by 60% for its entry-level apprenticeship scheme and 81% for its specialist horticultural placements programme. Applications for the diploma in horticultural practice remained stable.

The RHS also reported that a significant number of apprentice applicants were career changers, with 25–34 year olds accounting for 37% of applicants and 35–44 year olds for 17%. Around half (49%) were women. It argued that demand for skills is set to grow in the future, particularly for more specialist, technical and supervisory roles. Factors responsible for this include: an ageing workforce; the relatively low number of apprentices across the sector; and the increasing importance of skills such as soil science, landscape design and biosecurity. Commenting on the numbers, Suzanne Moss, RHS head of education and learning, said:

There is a long way to go if we are to face down the skills crisis within horticulture but the growing appetite for gardening based roles shows the importance of the sector and benefits of continued investment in adult education.

Government action

Responding to concerns about workforce shortages, in December 2021 the Government announced that it would be continuing the seasonal workers visa route which began in 2019. Under the plans, the scheme would be extended until the end of 2024 and would allow foreign workers to come to the UK for up to six months to work in the horticulture sector. It said that 30,000 visas would be available in 2022, with the option to extend this number by 10,000 if necessary. Looking ahead, it said that it had demanded a plan from the sector to cut reliance on foreign labour. It also said that the number of visas would begin to taper down from 2023 and that the sector would have to improve pay and conditions. However, the plans have received some criticism. Julian Marks, managing director of West Sussex-based grower Barfoots, told the Guardian that the scheme was inadequate and that its extension to cover ornamental crops as well as fruit and vegetables in 2022 would cause tensions.

The Government has also announced other work to reduce the sector’s reliance on foreign labour and attract more domestic workers to careers in horticulture. It set out information on this in response to a recent written parliamentary question on what steps it is taking to ensure adequate labour supply for the sector in the long and short term. Responding, Victoria Prentis, Minister for Farming, Fisheries and Food, said that “the Government has been clear that more must be done to attract UK workers through offering training, career options and wage increases”. To support this, she said that the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is working with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to raise awareness of career opportunities within the sector among UK workers. She also said that there should be investment in increased automation technology. She highlighted that DEFRA is undertaking a review of automation in horticulture which is due for publication in early 2022. Ms Prentis said that these efforts would together “support the overall aim of reducing the sector’s dependency on seasonal migrant labour”.

In addition, referring to recent events in Ukraine, Ms Prentis said that DEFRA is engaging with the operators of the seasonal worker visa route to prepare and advance emergency plans. Press reports have highlighted NFU estimates that Ukrainian workers have accounted for 60% of recruits under the UK’s seasonal workers scheme.

In a further written answer, the Government gave information on steps it is taking to support companies in the horticultural sector to expand and develop. Ms Prentis said that in November 2021, DEFRA launched the farming investment fund “which provides grants to farmers and horticultural growers to improve their businesses and bring further environmental benefits”. She said that demand had been unprecedented and that as a result, the Government had approved a significant budget increase for round one of the farming equipment and technology fund (one strand of the farming investment fund) from £21 million to £48.5 million. Ms Prentis also noted that the Government supports research and development in the horticulture and wider agricultural sectors through the farming innovation programme and said it was contributing to the establishment of a new professional body: the Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture. She explained that:

This initiative is aimed at removing the fragmentation that exists within current learning and skills landscape for farming businesses, enabling the industry to drive forward greater uptake of skills (including basic business management), creating clear career development pathways and promoting the sector as a progressive, professional and attractive career choice.

In addition, Ms Prentis said that the Government is working with industry bodies to improve access to the talent and skills required by the industry and is taking action through “our apprenticeship programme and post-16 skills plan to reform technical education and new careers strategy”. She also mentioned the Government’s ‘help to grow’ scheme which she said would “help small business across the UK learn new skills, reach new customers and boost profits”.

The sector’s role in protecting the environment

Various groups from the sector have highlighted the importance of horticulture in protecting the environment. For example, in November 2021, writing in the House magazine, the Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) said that the nation’s natural capital provides cooling and insulation, flood control and improves air quality. It also noted social capital benefits, saying that it contributes to positive mental and physical wellbeing and improved community cohesion.

However, it has been argued that more could be done to take advantage of the benefits the sector can offer. The HTA has said that policymakers are “underestimating the significant role that the UK horticulture sector can play in tackling climate change and achieving net zero”. Groups within the horticultural sector, including the HTA, have therefore encouraged the Government to work with them to make policy changes that would support the sector in reaching its full potential.

In September 2021, the Ornamental Horticulture Roundtable Group released its report ‘Growing a Green Economy: The Importance of Ornamental Horticulture and Landscaping to the UK’. The report “builds on previous analysis that found the industry was worth £28.8 billion in 2019”. It said that the British public’s interest in outdoor green space during the pandemic, as well as the industry’s role in combating climate change, are contributory factors which could mean that the industry is worth £13 billion more than in 2019 and support an extra 100,000 jobs.

Alongside the report, the group also published its action plan, ‘Unlocking Green Growth’, which set out what policy changes are needed and “how the industry and Government can work together to bring the socio-economic research findings to reality”. This included increasing UK plant and tree production to “build back greener” and wider ambitions on how the industry can help the Government meets its environmental sustainability targets. It also outlined areas for future potential collaboration with the Government, including looking at how: ‘green trade’ can be increased; planners can better incorporate green space; outdoor space can lead to urban renewal and improved health; and future workplace skills can be developed.

Highlighting this work, the HTA called on the Government to recognise the potential of the industry as a driver of green growth and work with it to deliver a realistic and sustainable peat removal plan. It also asked the Government to enable a UK-wide increase in plant and tree production through developing grower-positive policies, such as:

  • including the sector in the seasonal workers pilot and extending visas from six to nine months to ensure tree producers have the labour they need;
  • allowing the sector to access sustainability improvement funds currently only open to farmers—such as reservoir construction and rainwater capture systems;
  • improving the planning system to back UK growers to expand their plant and tree production facilities;
  • developing a collaborative cross-border trade strategy that enhances the value of UK-grown plants and trees—allowing the sector to contribute to the Government’s green trade strategy; and
  • establishing a greater proportion of British-produced plants in public sector projects.

Government work to protect the environment

In recent years, the Government has announced various plans to support its environmental aims, many of which are relevant to the horticultural industry.

In October 2018, the UK Government published its ‘25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment’ (the HTA said that the horticultural industry underpins half of the plan’s ambitions). The plan set out government action “to help the natural world regain and retain good health”, with aims relating to cleaner air and water, the protection of threatened species and an approach towards agriculture, forestry, land use and fishing that seeks to put the environment first. It also contained plans relating to ending peat use, stating that if by 2020 it had not seen sufficient movement based on the voluntary measures already in place, it would look at introducing further measures. In December 2021, the Government acted on these plans, announcing a consultation which contained measures to phase out the sale of peat and peat-containing products in the amateur horticulture sector by the end of this parliament.

In the Government’s 2021 ‘Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener’, it committed to increasing investment in industry-led research and development into solutions to help deliver net zero in agriculture and horticulture, including through the Farming Innovation Programme.

In addition, in May 2021, the Government published its ‘England Trees Action Plan 2021–2024’ which set out its long-term vision for trees, woodlands and forest in England and the actions it plans to take during the current parliament. Last year the Government also launched the Tree Production Innovation Fund (TPIF) which was designed to “encourage the development and adoption of new technologies and ways of working that will enhance the quantity, quality and diversity of tree planting stock available for planting in England”. The Government reopened the fund recently. However, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has raised concerns that the Government will not achieve its tree planting goals.

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Cover image by Kaur Kristjan on Unsplash.