On 13 October 2022, the House of Lords is due to debate the following question for short debate:

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

1. 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 £5bn 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 for decorative rather than practical use 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.

2. Workforce challenges

2.1 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. The committee 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 were 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.

The government’s labour in horticulture survey for England was commissioned in 2018 to demonstrate the scale of any shortfall in seasonal labour and aimed to help the government make decisions on the reintroduction of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme (SAWS). Data taken from quarter 2 of the 2022 survey showed that approximately 33% of survey respondents needed seasonal labour. Of these, the average shortfall was 8% of the total person days required. Each person day represents eight hours of work. The average shortfall ranged from 24 person days in April to 46 in May and 44 in June. The government has explained that quarter 2 will be the final edition of the survey, saying it has met its initial purpose.

In summer 2022, 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 2022 reported that a survey by the NFU had found that £22mn of fruit and vegetables had been wasted so far this year. It also said that as the survey only represented around a third of the UK’s horticultural sector, as much as £60mn of food could have been wasted. Focusing on the reasons behind labour shortages, the article cited high employment levels in the UK and the higher pay and better job security offered by alternative sectors. It also noted a reduction in temporary workers coming to the UK from the EU because of the end of free movement following Brexit and a decrease in workers from Ukraine and Russia due to the war in Ukraine.

Sky News highlighted similar problems with labour shortages and focused on reports of delays in visa processing for seasonal workers. Responding to the article, a government spokesperson denied there were any delays. The article also considered the future viability of labour-intensive crops such as berries. Commenting on this issue, the director of the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory, Madeleine Sumption, said that if in the long run fewer workers are available, “we might expect the UK to return to a position a little closer to how it was in the early 2000s where we weren’t producing as much labour-intensive produce”. Ms Sumption said that in the short-term this could be disruptive for farmers whose business models rely on the availability of a substantial number of seasonal workers.

2.2 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
  • acquire improved and more local access to relevant training along with a sustainable talent pipeline

However, it said 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.

In July 2021, the Royal Horticultural Society reported that applicants for its work-based training programmes had reached its highest number in decades as many people considered 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 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 39% 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.

2.3 Government action

Responding to concerns about workforce shortages, in December 2021 the government announced that it would be continuing the seasonal worker 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. In its June 2022 food strategy, the government announced that the additional 10,000 visas would be released. However, 2,000 visas were for the poultry sector. The plans have received some criticism. The NFU’s horticulture and potatoes board chair, Martin Emmett, said the delay in announcing the extra visas had led to a pause in recruitment that would have “significant consequences” on certain crops.

Looking ahead, the government’s December announcement explained 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. More recently, on 8 September 2022, the minister for migration, Tom Pursglove, said that the government has “no plans to introduce a general immigration route allowing recruitment at or near the minimum wage with relatively short or no work-based training requirements”. Instead, Mr Pursglove said that the “investment and development of the UK’s domestic labour force should take priority”. He also encouraged those businesses that are facing recruitment issues to engage with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) about what support it can provide.

The government has 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 written parliamentary question in March 2022 on what steps it was taking to ensure adequate labour supply for the sector in the long and short term. Responding, Victoria Prentis, the then minister for farming, fisheries and food, said “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, Ms Prentis said that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) was working with the 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 was undertaking a review of automation in horticulture. This has since been published. 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 the war in Ukraine, Ms Prentis said that DEFRA was 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 February 2022, the government gave information on steps it was 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 the first round of the farming equipment and technology fund (one strand of the farming investment fund) from £21mn to £48.5mn. Ms Prentis also noted that the government was supporting research and development in the horticulture and wider agricultural sectors through the farming innovation programme. She said it was contributing to the establishment of a new professional body: the Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture. Ms Prentis 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 the government was working with industry bodies to improve access to the talent and skills required by the industry and was 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”.

3. 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 provided cooling and insulation, flood control and improved air quality. The HTA also noted social capital benefits, saying that it contributed 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 £28.8bn 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, were contributory factors which could mean that the industry was worth £13bn 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 were 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 meet its environmental sustainability targets. The group 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
  • establishing a greater proportion of British-produced plants in public sector projects

3.1 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.

The plan also contained measures 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 the current parliament. The government published its response to the consultation in August 2022. It said that the results had demonstrated “strong public support for introducing a ban on the sale of peat and peat containing products when compared to other options”. Therefore, it said that a ban on the sale of such products by the end of the current parliament remained the preferred option.

In the government’s 2021 paper ‘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 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 in March 2022, although it is currently closed for applications. The House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has raised concerns that the government will not achieve its tree planting goals.

4. Read more

Cover image by Kaur Kristjan on Unsplash. This article was updated on 4 October 2022.