Tom Hulme, of AC Hulme & Sons, based just outside Canterbury, and soft fruit grower Marion Regan, of Hugh Lowe Farms, near Maidstone, are members of the Horticulture & Potatoes Future Statutory Levy Working Group, which came together voluntarily “to work together for the benefit of all levy paying businesses”.

A statement from the group stressed: “We believe in the fairness and value of a statutory levy and that our industry should work collaboratively to achieve market-led innovation, near market applied R&D, increased productivity and a world class sustainable industry.

“The Group presents considered alternatives and draws inspiration from the successful levy models established in Australia and New Zealand.”

The group has had discussions with senior members of the under-fire development board, including Chairman Nicholas Saphir, and has said it “commends the changes he is trying to make, especially the introduction of an automatic five yearly ballot”. The statement continued, though: “It is our belief that the proposed changes need to go further and faster.

“Levy payers must ‘take back control’ of their investment funds and provide the strategic leadership within a lean and agile decision-making framework. The levy organisation should work to support this.”

The working group is taking a more conciliatory approach than that proposed by the self-styled ‘AHDB Petitioners’, who have called for an end to the levy and whose views have been well covered in past months.

“The petitioners just want to end the statutory levy immediately,” said Tom. “I can see that in some crop sectors there is a general feeling that the levy is just not required, but across the whole of horticulture this isn’t true, and it would be a loss to the industry if the ‘H’ dropped out of AHDB.

“We’re just trying to encourage growers voting in the forthcoming ballot to engage in the discussion that we have started with the AHDB and be aware that there is an alternative route to the current status quo.”

Following considerable pressure over many months, the board has agreed to hold a ballot on the continuation of a statutory levy in horticulture that will in effect be a ‘yes or no’ vote on the future existence of AHDB Horticulture. That will be followed by another ballot on the future of the potato sector levy.

Tom said that while the working group “sees the statutory levy as the fairest and most valuable way to deliver the work that our respective crop sectors need to do to meet the many challenges we continue to face,” members were as “battle weary” of the AHDB in its current form as the petitioners and were “seeking a change agenda to make it fit for purpose”.

He also warned that since any fundamental change would need Ministerial approval, a ‘no’ vote could see the AHDB in limbo for some time, perhaps as long as two years.

“We want to see the organisation become more accountable, treating the levy as an investment by members and operating under new governance structures. It also needs to cut its operating costs because they have been out of control in recent years. At its best, though, it does a fantastic job of supporting the industry.
“The AHDB has said it is committed to reform and we want to work with the board to help create a grower-led body serving levy payers through proper governance and transparency.”

Amongst other things, the working group is calling for root and branch reform of the existing levy organisation for horticulture and potatoes; transparency and proper scrutiny around levies, budget and costs; more focus on near-market research and development (R&D); easier online access to R&D reports and new co-funding mechanisms to help secure additional funding.

It also wants levy-paying members to elect their sector board and panel members and wants levy payments to receive R&D tax relief

The working group believes its proposed changes would deliver “a world leading, investor-funded service which returns significant and measurable benefits to levy paying investors in a highly challenging and fast evolving primary food and plant production landscape”.

The AHDB Petitioners, meanwhile, have repeated their claims that proposed reforms to the levy body “do not go far enough and are too little, too late”.

Flower grower Simon Redden commented: “Despite six months of consultation, AHDB has failed to come up with reform proposals that satisfy even its most ardent supporters within the industry. The fact that those who are already most involved with the current AHDB structure say their plans don’t go far enough shows just how out of touch the organisation is. AHDB simply doesn’t understand the modern horticultural industry.”

Pictured: AHDB Petitioners