16th Oct


TFA Blog #19- What Future for the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board?

This blog is the full (unedited) piece, written by George Dunn, TFA Chief Executive, for The Cumberland News and Westmorland Gazette, published on 25 September 2020.


Two years ago, the Government called for views on the role and remit of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB).  The expectation was this would lead to a long overdue review of the organisation and the statutory levy which provides the bulk of the organisation’s £67 million of annual income.

Fair minded people might say that the distractions around Brexit and having to deal with a global pandemic are the reasons why we have had to wait until just recently to hear what changes AHDB plans to make.  However, cynics might say that the recent informal ballot held by horticultural and potato growers, finding that over 90% of respondents felt that AHDB provided little or no benefit to their businesses, is the real catalyst to the recent announcement for fear of other sectors taking the initiative in the same way.

£67 million per year is a sizeable budget in comparison to other organisations within the sector.  Of course, it could be argued that it is small by comparison to the business development budgets within other sectors of the economy.  However, most of this money is taken on a mandatory basis either directly or indirectly from the profits of hard-working farmers and growers who need to be assured that it is being well spent and invested to deliver value for the industry into the long term.

As we move beyond the Brexit transitional period which ends in December, bringing both opportunities and challenges for the UK agricultural industry, for AHDB to have any relevance at all, it is vital that every penny of the budget at its disposal is used to drive the progressive sustainability, resilience and profitability of UK agriculture and horticulture.  It must do for the industry what individual businesses cannot do for themselves.  To that extent, it must be at the leading edge of agriculture and horticulture rather than at the trailing edge, dealing with issues that individual businesses should be taking responsibility for themselves.

Too much of AHDB’s time is spent on interventions around benchmarking, technical skills, succession and business planning to which, in the main, there are plenty of routes in the marketplace.  However, much too little of its time is spent on market development both at home and abroad.  The ability to expand existing and find new routes to market both domestically and internationally is an important need for the industry, particularly as we leave behind our historic links with the EU and have greater opportunities for trade deals with the rest of the world.  This is so much more than a bit of promotion of British products here and there.  It is hard work, with long lead in times and something which individual farm businesses struggle to do on their own.

The levy payment system will need a complete overhaul, particularly to ensure that it is better balanced across the sectors.  For livestock farmers and growers in particular, it is a very onerous levy, representing a considerable percentage of the profitability of individual businesses in those sectors.

The watchword around any future strategy for AHDB must be accountability.  The current structure of AHDB is a limiting factor in its performance given that there is no central control of the activities of the organisation.  Too much power rests with the sector boards.  The strategy for AHDB should reflect the overarching needs of the agricultural and horticultural sectors and implemented through the Sector Boards rather than the Sector Boards themselves dictating the strategy.

Finally, if any sort of statutory levy is to remain, AHDB must improve its governance, external scrutiny and its ultimate accountability to levy payers.  At the very least, this must include making itself open to a regular poll of its levy payers to determine whether it should continue in its current form, become voluntary or cease to exist altogether.

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