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Brogdale Fruit Station

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Garel-Jones.]

10.33 pm

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham) : I am glad to have the opportunity tonight of raising on the Adjournment the question of the proposed closure of the Brogdale fruit station and the future of the national fruit collection.

In the House on 14 December 1989 I said that, as the Member of Parliament for Faversham for nearly 20 years, I have never been as badly treated by Labour or Conservative Ministers of any Government as I have been on this issue. I still remain angry and bitter, as much about the way in which the decision was reached as about the decision itself. I feel that resentment not only behalf of myself, but much more on behalf of the people I represent and the many dedicated people who have been working constructively and energetically towards an exciting future for the Brogdale fruit centre, and who suddenly found all their efforts guillotined by the Government's announcement of their decision to close Brogdale and to transfer the collection to Wye college.

I accept that there is little to be gained by recrimination, although I advise my hon. Friend the Minister that I intend to pursue further the manner in which this matter was concluded in other ways because I feel thoroughly dissatisfied with the way in which I personally was treated, together with my constituents and others. There is, however, a lot to be gained tonight and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to help us greatly. We can gain something of the utmost importance because if my hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will now give us their positive support, we can ensure that we can establish for posterity a splendid national fruit centre on the Brogdale site--a fruit museum in the heart of the garden of England that will be a heritage centre of national and international importance and contribute to the commercial future of the British fruit industry. However, if my hon. Friend and the Government do not provide us with that assistance, posterity will curse us for our failure to see even a little further ahead.

All that we really need from my hon. Friend at the moment is an assurance that the Government will give their encouragement to the establishment of a privately funded trust on the Brogdale site. That has real meaning because tonight I want my hon. Friend to give the assurance that there will be no grubbing of collection trees or even of trial trees in the immediate future. An assurance from the Government means that they will allow us time to assemble the resources that would secure the trust that I have mentioned. That will take time. It means that we want the Government actively to encourage the establishment of the trust.

We attach such importance to the Brogdale centre because of the number of things that it represents. It represents a remarkable fruit collection-- indeed, one of the most remarkable in the world. It also engages in variety testing. It is, in a sense, the patent office of apples and many other fruits. It is of immense importance. It also engages in fruit trials that contribute greatly to the future of British fruit.

The national fruit trials are a unique collection of fruits, including apples, pears, cherries, plums, soft fruits,

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quinces, medlars, and nuts. It is an international gene bank and a world resource of fruit varieties for plant breeders and horticulturists. It is part of Britain's agricultural and gardening heritage. The collection is a living reference library and contains 2,300 varieties of apples, some of which can be dated back to medieval and Roman times. It contains 500 varieties of pears, 300 varieties of plums and 220 varieties of cherries.

Its location in the Faversham area is of particular importance. It is appropriate for historic as well as for horticultural reasons. The first British centre of fruit growing in the 16th century was nearby at Teynham. Here, around Sittingbourne and Faversham, Henry VIII's fruiterer, Richard Harris, created orchards of cherries, apples and pears and planted the first pippins that were subsequently distributed all round the country. For today's purposes, the Brogdale site, with its range of soils, its coastal position and its freedom from late frosts, is admirable for growing all temperate fruits. It is a site of particular significance and the decision to move this national collection away from Brogdale makes no sense at all on scientific, economic or heritage grounds. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell me that the Government remain open-minded about the decision.

I have explained why the matter is so important. I should like to ascertain from my hon. Friend why the Government have decided to close the centre. Even on financial grounds, it does not make sense. What will be the cost of moving the collection? I have seen a figure of between £300,000 and £330,000. What is the point of trying to sell this asset when it will take five, six or seven years to transfer the collection and, therefore, there can be little immediate commercial value attached to the land? What will be the lost resource value of retaining the collection there and, ultimately, of transferring it to Wye college?

What will be the grubbing costs? What asset value has the Ministry placed on the value of the buildings, which are of crucial importance? We believe that the Government have placed an entirely disproportionate value on the buildings. They believe, perhaps, that the land has great development potential. There would be tremendous local resentment if it were assumed that the site would be the subject of major commercial development. The land is completely unsuitable for development.

Mr. hon. Friend the Minister has probably not seen an interesting and important article in the New Scientist dated 13 January. The headline is :

"Britain uproots the world's biggest fruit collection." That is an appropriate title and an important way of presenting the Government's extraordinary decision. They propose to move the world's biggest fruit collection 12 miles away to Wye college. They are doing that in spite of a proposal by local interests that would give the Government everything that they want and protect the scientific interest and the collection without the nonsense of moving the collection 12 miles away. I ask the Minister carefully to consider the New Scientist 's article.

When the Government announced their decision, Swale borough council was leading a group of dedicated experts and people ready to raise the funds necessary to create the trust that I have described. The Government's decision interrupted the negotiations. If the Government decide

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--despite all the requests not to do so--to move the collection, that group will still be willing to establish the trust to create a magnificent new fruit heritage centre in Swale.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, as a contributor to the New Scientist for 21 years, I found that that article was extremely carefully researched?

Mr. Moate : I accept absolutely what the hon. Gentleman says. Not only was it well researched : it represents the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg is a large body of expertise and well-backed knowledge that believes that Brogdale is the right site at which to keep the collection.

If we can generate locally the resources necessary to acquire the site, does it not make sense that the collection remain where it is? Will my hon. Friend reconsider the possibility of leaving the collection exactly where it is? He will know that the local proposal has immense and widespread backing. If we can produce the financial resources to acquire the asset which will satisfy the Treasury's desire to dispose of the land within the immediate future, and if we can provide the opportunity to protect the scientific future of the site, what is the point of moving it 12 miles away?

Does it not make much more sense to allow the new trust to be established, I hope with powerful patronage ; for the scientists from Wye college, if that is what the Government want, to continue to supervise that interest while at the same time allowing the new trust to exploit all the many other opportunities that exist for education ; for the public to proclaim, as I readily concede that we have never done in the past, the immense attractions and virtues of this great national fruit collection ; for other experimentation ; and for offering commercial growers opportunities to develop new fruits on a commercial basis?

It would be a tragedy if we threw away that opportunity simply because of the mistaken belief that somehow the Government have to adhere to their decision. I hope that tonight my hon. Friend will be able to give me some assurance that the Government will now, despite the recent sad experience, put their weight behind a commitment to help us to create at Brogdale near Faversham a national fruit centre, privately financed and, I hope, retaining the national fruit collection.

But if the Government do adhere to their insistence that the fruit collection must move to Wye, I hope that they will wholeheartedly enter into negotiations with the Swale borough council, take no immediate decisions that in any way prejudice the viability of either the national fruit collection or the national fruit trials, and give us time to assemble the resources to create something that is of tremendous importance to us and to the future of this vital part of our national heritage.

I do not intend to go over the many arguments that can be deployed. I have made the point that really matters. What I really want from my hon. Friend tonight is an assurance of his support in the future for the establishment of this new trust in Kent. It will need his help. If we can have that assurance tonight we shall have achieved a great deal.

I am not on my own. There are many throughout the country who feel passionately, as I do, that we could be making a dreadful mistake if we continue along the path that we appear to be taking at present. But we still have

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time to change. This is a matter of immense importance and the attitude of my hon. Friend and his colleagues tonight could determine whether we still have on this superb site, which climatically, geologically and in every other sense is the right site, a fruit centre that is an essential part of our national heritage in the garden of England where it rightly belongs. We have tremendous support for this and we depend a great deal upon my hon. Friend to make sure that we can achieve that.

10.48 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : As I am an hon. Member from Scotland at the other end of the country, it may seem strange that I should so passionately support the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate). My interest started some 25 years ago when I was taken by Sir Gordon Fox to East Malling.

This is a national issue. Ghillean Prance, the director of Kew, told me that it was the most important horticultural issue of the moment, and so it is.

I am told by the former fruit trials director, John Ingram, that it would be disaster to move to Wye. I know that Wye college is upset about the criticisms that have been made of the move to Wye. None the less, this is a basic national issue of considerable interest to those in the field and I hope that the hon. Gentleman's pleas will be answered.

10.49 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Curry) : My hon. Friend the Member forFaversham (Mr. Moate) and the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) have both spoken passionately about their passion for this issue. I have an equal enthusiasm for the importance of the national fruit collection. I am a keen amateur gardener and horticulturist and come to the issue not coldly but with a great deal of determination to ensure that the decisions that we take are in the best interests of the national fruit collection and its associated activities. I am sure that my hon. Friend will thank me if I seek to be as helpful as I can when I genuinely can. When I have to disappoint him, I am sure that he would prefer it if I said frankly what the position was rather than pretended to offer openings which I was unable to provide. If the debate is a frank exchange of views it will be helpful to my hon. Friend, his constituency and me.

We must close Brogdale. The largest part of the work at Brogdale is fruit variety trialling. Trialling, as my hon. Friend will know, is rather like Which? testing : it provides guidance to growers on the best varieties for the future. It is valuable work, and Brogdale has deservedly earned a high reputation for it. Those trials are clearly near-market in nature. We sought industry funding for them but it has not been forthcoming to support the scale of the variety trialling at Brogdale. Therefore, we have concluded that the station will have to close at the end of March this year.

The national fruit collection is situated at Brogdale station, together with the associated plant variety rights testing. The Government have made it clear all along that the national fruit collection will not be disposed of but will be preserved for the future. That is a firm commitment which I intend to honour in its entirety. Once we had

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decided on the closure of Brogdale, we had to consider where the collection should be located and how it should be managed. Three options emerged : first, to stay at Brogdale under the management of Swale borough council ; secondly, to move to East Malling ; and, thirdly, to move to Wye college. Each of the options had strong attractions and disadvantages. We discussed the proposals with each party and considered all their suggestions carefully. I shall try to explain why we reached the final decision.

Why not leave the collection at Brogdale? I realise that that is the central question in my hon. Friend's mind. We would have liked to do so. We did not doubt that Swale borough council would care for it properly and develop its potential as much as it could. However, once Brogdale had closed as a research station, the collection would be isolated from other scientific and horticultural expertise. We had to consider what was in the best interests of the collection. In our view, its long-term position would be best secured if it were adjacent to a centre of scientific and horticultural research. In the end, that factor outweighed the advantages of leaving the collection at Brogdale.

My hon. Friend raised the matter of costs. I shall write to him with the detailed breakdown for which he has asked. We examined the comparative costs of leaving the collection at Brogdale and moving it, but cost was not by any means the most important factor. However, we believe that over a period the costs of moving will be

counterbalanced by the savings resulting from the economies of scale.

Mr. Dalyell : Lady Trumpington did me the courtesy of ringing me about the matter during the recess after my hostile questions. I understood her to say that she had to find money in order to make the £30 million savings required by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I thought that money was the determinant factor.

Mr. Curry : The decision to close Brogdale was taken because of the policy to terminate Government involvement in near-market research. When we came to estimating the costs of the relative advantages of moving to one place or another, money was not the determining factor. If I have time, I shall talk about the costs later in my remarks. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham suggested that Swale had not completed its proposals before the decison was taken. Swale had submitted estimates of costs, which it knew would be compared with other options. It had close contact with my officials, who made the position clear. It also knew that my noble Friend the Minister of State was anxious not to delay the decision in the interests of securing the collection's future and ending uncertainty for the staff. We understand that Swale subsequently continued to develop plans to adopt the collection as a heritage feature and, perhaps, provide trialling facilities. There has been a certain lack of precision about the proposals up to now.

I am more than happy to continue discussions on Swale. The borough council is to have a meeting with my officials tomorrow to discuss ideas for a site at Brogdale after the collection has moved. I am open to suggestions and will explore plans for a future museum that would entail acquisition of the site. However, any proposals must be substantive, comprehensive, and made quickly. The time scale for alternative suggestions is short.

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I stress that none of the trees and bushes in the national fruit collection will be grubbed up until new plants are properly established and correctly labelled at their new home. The move will be made with great care. My hon. Friend will know that trees are regularly repropagated in the normal course of events. The collection itself has been moved before, from Wisley to Brogdale, so the proposed move will be the second in its history. The root stock has already been planted in a nursery area at Brogdale, and the grafts will be budded in August and the young trees moved to Wye when they are about two years old. The whole process will take about three years.

What about the other work at Brogdale? Plant variety rights testing will be moved with the collection. The Government-funded fruit variety trialling will come to a close for the reasons I gave, and it is now up to the industry to decide on the work that it wants to support and where. We shall be interested to learn of Swale's plans for the trials, and we have suspended the removal of the trees until after discussion with Swale. I emphasise that only trees that have completed trialling have been removed so far. None of the trees currently the subject of trialling has been grubbed up. While substantive negotiations continue, and until we are sure that Swale has had a fair hearing for whatever case it wishes to put, no grubbing up will occur.

We could not leave the trial trees on the site, because they belong not to us but to the owners, whose authorisation must be sought before the trees can pass into other hands.

If not Brogdale, where? We could have established a collection at East Malling or at Wye, and we recognised that each location had drawbacks. The disadvantage of East Malling relates to plant variety rights testing transferred with the collection. Much of that work is undertaken for international fruit breeders, who would have been concerned if valuable new materials were to be tested on the same station at which our own breeders work. There was a risk that the United Kingdom would lose the confidence of international breeders in fruit variety rights testing, however strictly the two varieties were segregated.

Another problem is that the collection is not entirely free from disease, which would have posed a health risk to research and development by scientists at East Malling. I accept that Wye is not without disadvantages. First, we wanted assurances that the standard of husbandry there was capable of meeting the required level, to give us confidence that the collection would be well looked after.

Mr. Dalyell : As to the question of disease, I have a handwritten note from the former director of national fruit trials in which he states that the health status of the collection does not seem relevant. He details the apples, pears and plums situation.

Mr. Curry : If the collection is moved to a site where international testing is to be undertaken, our fear is that international clients will be concerned about any potential health risk. That is why we felt that a risk might be posed to the United Kingdom's international reputation in fruit variety rights testing. Wye has taken steps to meet the requirement for very high husbandry standards, and we believe that the changes made will prove successful. We plan to establish an expert

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advisory committee--a light, not heavy, committee--to supervise the care of the collection and to ensure that all requirements are met.

Mr. Moate : If we are successful, as I believe we will be, in establishing a trust to take over Brogdale and make it a national heritage centre for fruit, would it not make more sense for Wye college to leave the collection where it is and instead continue its scientific administration of the collection in situ?

Mr. Curry : I appreciate the question of distance, because I was a governor of the centre for international and European studies at Wye for a number of years. An association between the collection and the centre where research is currently undertaken would be an important plus. However, if the Swale bid succeeds, the fruit collection would continue to exist. We would have a national fruit collection extablished at Wye, and the parent stock would continue to exist at Brogdale and would be developed for the slightly different purposes that my hon. Friend outlined tonight.

It has been said that there is a frost risk at Wye. The site is certainly not a frost hole ; it is part way up a slope, and it is largely protected by an established shelter belt, which could be supplemented by further wind breaks before the collection was moved. People who have experience of growing fruit on the site at Wye do not recall any evidence of frost damage there. Obviously there must be some risk in exceptionally severe winters, as there is at all three sites. We have decided that the risk is slight, and it should be emphasised that the trees are kept primarily not for fruiting but as a gene stock. Therefore, frost is less of a problem than it would be for a commercial grower who wants fruit which is affected by frost damage to blossom.

I know that frost damage is important, because of my own fruit trees, which grow on an exposed slope in Essex. They tend to get damaged by frost rather more frequently than I should like. Balancing all these factors, Wye college offers, in our view, the best prospects for developing the scientific and educational potential of the collection.

That is the background to our decision. It was reached after much careful consideration, and I emphasise that the Government are committed to the national fruit collection as part of the national heritage, and as a genetic resource for the future. Any sale of land at Brogdale will be conditional on a rent-back arrangement, so that land will contain the existing national fruit collection until we are absolutely certain of establishing the new collection.

We are committed to providing financial support for the management of the collection, and to ensuring that it is properly cared for, not just as a museum piece, but as a living, growing collection. The move to the new home, at a cost of approximately £300,000, which will be borne entirely by the Government and includes the estimated loss in full value of the land, will be carried out with the greatest care under my Department's expert supervision. The parent trees at Brogdale will be retained until the new collection is established, or until they have a new future under any plans that my hon. Friend and his colleagues on Swale borough council will explain to us.

I am confident that the collection will have a stable and successful future at Wye college.

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Mr. Moate : My hon. Friend has mentioned the importance of time. He has put pressure on local interests to come up with something urgently, yet that could be unreasonable. Will my hon. Friend give an assurance that unreasonable pressure will not be put upon local interests and others who are concerned to create this exciting new trust? We must have Government help and understanding that it will take a little time to evolve.

Mr. Curry : If Swale council proposes a substantive plan, and we have a clear indication that it can be followed through, I will certainly listen most carefully to what it has to say.

Time is rather short. We gave an indication to Swale about our intentions a long time ago, and we have been in constant discussion with it on the subject. Therefore, I

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shall leave the door open, but I cannot say that I will hold the door open permanently, because that would be misleading.

If Swale can come up with a substantive proposal that can be developed within the time scale envisaged, I shall ensure that it has a fair and full hearing.

Mr. Dalyell : I am told by Dr. Ingram that the collection is not virus-free. Infection has been acquired from past propagation, but it is not progressive. The only means of spread is by propogation. In time, varieties could be heat-treated--

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order. Adjourned at three minutes past Eleven o'clock.

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