Recent case reignites row over use of polytunnels

THERE is perhaps no other industry which defines Kent more than agriculture.

But the rural economy has suffered hugely in recent decades due to a boom in cheaper foreign imports and a squeeze on cost margins.

It is perhaps, ironic therefore, that as the trend to buy locally grown produce hits a new high, it finds itself facing a new challenge as it looks to capitalise on it.

According to recent figures, the demand for UK-grown soft fruit has blossomed – leaping up some 130 per cent in sales over the past four years.

To fulfil that demand from the top supermarkets and retailers has meant adopting some practices which put producers on a collision course with locals.

Enter the polytunnel.

A familiar site in recent years on our rural landscapes, the plastic contraptions allow farmers to grow fruits to the demanding conditions the market requires and safe from the elements.

But the arguments for and against cast a long shadow.

For the farmer, they provide a controllable and reliable environment. Pest control is limited, watering can be carefully managed and the unreliability of the British weather somewhat mitigated.

As a result, it safeguards – and indeed creates – jobs for struggling rural areas which, in turn, ploughs money back into local economies. Some would argue it has given rural industry a new lease of life.

Yet for many it is a step to far. The other side of the argument is that they present nothing more than a blot on the landscape. Wave upon wave of plastic sheeting that obscures the real beauty of Kent.

What’s more, they argue they present issues with water usage – claiming that with rain unable to access the plants beneath, extra water is required to keep them in optimum condition. Others point to the way rain water is distributed and point to flood risks.

There are no hard and fast requirements when it comes to getting planning permission, with much reliant on the positioning of the tunnel – something that sets the NIMBY brigade into attack position and farmers facing confusion.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) is considering getting a protocol agreed with planners on exactly what is required for a polytunnels application, with a view to reducing the costs and making the process more streamlined.

Advisors recently urged farmers to prove “polytunnels are not a luxury but essential” and to heavily promote the positive benefits.

Yet while doubt remains, protestors will continue to draw hope.

Hugh Lowe Farms, based in Mereworth, near Maidstone, sought retrospective planning permission from Tonbridge & Malling Borough Council to continue to use its tunnels, which it uses to grow strawberries, raspberries and blackberries to supply the likes of Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and golf’s The Open, as well as Wimbledon.

It was pushing for one of the biggest uses of polytunnels in the UK – stretching to some 400 acres.

Residents nearby set up an action group and were vocal in their opposition; with nearly 200 letters of complaint submitted to the council. They pointed to the fact the polytunnels are eyesores and said the polythene covered ground meant rain water could not be absorbed so well and presented a flooding risk to West Peckham.

In defence, the farm produce a landscape and visual impact assessment, as well as looking at the flood issues.

It was granted permission, much to the farm’s delight, but it angered many.

Harry Rayner, from Protect Kent, the local branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: “Polytunnels can be a useful aid to farmers, particularly for increasing production in the right places. However, I believe the decision taken on Hugh Lowe Farms was poor and not well considered. This is because the application was over-intensive and there was insufficient attention to flooding.”

But is it just a case of NIMBY-ism? Mr Rayner disagrees: “The situation is a controversy countrywide, particularly in soft fruit areas such as Kent and Herefordshire. It is a particular problem for Kent as the local authority has no planning policies towards polytunnels, whereas in Herefordshire they have clear guidelines.”

A recent polytunnel development in Herefordshire also angered residents nearby as it was to be placed in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. A local action group took up the case, and it went to the high court.

The implications of such a legal battle resulted in Herefordshire issuing a Code of Practice for Polytunnels. This involves a ‘checklist’ being completed three months before erecting the tunnels, where neighbours, the local authorities and the local council are notified.

Many organisations, including Protect Kent, believe that although polytunnels have their place, they should always be subject to planning permission. Kent usually only asks for this permission in individual situations. This prompts the question of whether Kent councils need to follow the example of Herefordshire and put some stricter guidelines in place to avoid future disputes.

The NFU, which represents growers and farmers in the UK, deems the verdict on Hugh Lowe Farms “a victory for common sense” and is fully supportive of the decision to use the tunnels across the UK.

It says some 90 per cent of British strawberries are grown under polytunnels. Chief legal adviser Nina Winter said: “Polytunnels are important to the soft fruit industry as they allow farmers to provide locally grown fresh fruit for longer, rather than consumers having to rely on foreign imports.”

British Summer Fruits, an organisation promoting UK-grown soft fruits, argues that polytunnels are necessary. It believes polytunnels increase employment and security of quality, and only actually cover 0.01 per cent of agricultural land as a whole.

But campaigners vow not to be silenced.

The group Strawberry Fields Forever explain: “The total British berry fruit market is valued at £639m, with strawberries at £380m, raspberries £127m, blueberries £99m and blackberries £26m.

“The growers are obviously committed to maximise their output by continuous innovation and the application of new technologies, it is an important and lucrative industry.

“The countryside is a working landscape that helps to feed the nation but it is much more than that. Created by centuries of farming it plays a unique part in defining British culture, the countryside is also a place of recreation and contemplation which everyone has access to.

“A balance therefore needs to be struck between conserving it’s intrinsic beauty and character whilst ensuring that it also plays it’s part in feeding us as efficiently as possible.

“The planning application by Hugh Lowe farms raised the opportunity for necessary debate to explore the relationships between food security, agriculture, land use and environmental protection.”