8 September 2022
Aldous leads debate on local food infrastructure investment

Peter Aldous highlights the need for local food infrastructure investment all along the supply chain to bring about a sea change in how we produce, sell eat, and celebrate our food which will build self-sufficiency, embed long-term resilience and enhance community pride.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of support for local food infrastructure.

It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate. At the outset, I should declare my own interests. For many years, I have been a partner in two family farms in Suffolk, and from this June I chair a community interest company called REAF—the Renaissance of East Anglian Fisheries—which has the objective of reinvigorating the East Anglian fishing industry for the benefit of local communities such as Lowestoft in my constituency. REAF’s objectives very much coincide with the issues that will be raised in this debate.

On the farm where I grew up and still live, we have a pig unit. Forty years ago, pigs were conceived, born, reared and fattened on the farm, with feed milled and mixed there, and when the time came they went to an abattoir that was also in Suffolk. Today, things are very different; the piglets are born on different farms, moved to ours for rearing, then sent to abattoirs that are often a long way away. There is a risk that I will become dewy-eyed and sentimental—yes, the new way of doing things may be more efficient, but it is also of less benefit to local economies and communities, and an enormous number of food miles are generated. In many places local food infrastructure no longer exists. This needs to be addressed, as research carried out by Sustain confirms that local food systems provide better environmental, economic and social returns.

While much of this debate is focused on the long-term structural improvements that are needed to local food infrastructure, it is necessary to highlight the enormous pressures that currently impact all aspects of food production: the dramatic rise in energy prices, the supply and crippling cost of fertiliser and carbon dioxide, and the acute shortage of staff. If Government policy promotes the development of greater local supply, with the necessary supporting infrastructure, then we can embed greater resilience against these punitive outside forces.

It is important to provide some background information on the current state of the food sector. The groceries market in 2020 was worth £200 billion. The nine largest food retailers control over 90% of the market and, on average, farmers get only 9% of the agrifood gross value added. The 2021 Groceries Code Adjudicator survey showed a backwards slide on fairness: some 39% of fish caught by UK boats is landed and processed abroad, with little benefit coming back to local fishing communities such as the one in Lowestoft. To improve the situation, there is a need for investment in food infrastructure, including hubs for collaborative produce marketing, processing facilities, storage and refrigeration premises, abattoirs, dairy and creamery facilities, better signage and promotion of markets, improved digital and IT systems, farmers’ markets and grain and oilseed pressers.

Hubs can be provided at showgrounds, as the Suffolk Agricultural Association and the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association are doing. As the drought persists in Suffolk—but perhaps not at the Oval—it is important to highlight the need for improved water infrastructure.

Caroline Ansell (Eastbourne) (Con)

I wholly support all the very important infrastructure investments that my hon. Friend has detailed, but on water, which is a vital ingredient in the mix, I want to raise my concern about local food partnerships. Because they are not commercially operated, they are suffering in this drought due to the water restrictions. I believe that some water companies are using their discretion, but South East Water is not. Is my hon. Friend sympathetic to my request to South East Water to revisit its policy and provide the relevant level of water support to local food partnerships, such as mine in Eastbourne, so that they can truly take their place and be part of the local food infrastructure?

Peter Aldous 

Yes, I am sympathetic to that, and I will touch on water infrastructure a number of times during my speech. We probably have not realised its significance and importance up until the past few weeks, when it has become apparent. The harvest on the farm I come from was okay, but as these conditions persist, what will next year’s harvest be like? These problems will not just be here for this season; they may be here for some years to come.

The Countryside Alliance highlights five challenges that we need to address. There is a need for enhanced food security, which is particularly important given the appalling ongoing war in Ukraine. We need to bear it in mind that the UK produces some of the best food in the world, with the highest standards for safety and animal welfare, and we must build on that sound foundation.

A network of local abattoirs is vital, both to shorten the food miles and to enhance animal welfare. There is a need to improve public sector procurement, as highlighted in the Government’s food strategy. Last year, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee recommended that access to procurement contracts be widened to smaller local suppliers without delay. There remains a need to improve food labelling, as that can empower the consumer. Finally, it is absolutely vital that digital infrastructure be improved in rural areas, as good connectivity allows businesses to find new and local markets and enables customers to access local produce online.

The Groceries Code Adjudicator, into which the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is currently carrying out a review, plays an important role in monitoring, ensuring compliance and enforcing the code, which helps strengthen the food supply chain of suppliers, retailers and consumers. Although that is not a matter directly for this debate, it is vital that the Government retain the adjudicator.

In Suffolk and Norfolk in 2019, the New Anglia local enterprise partnership set up its Norfolk and Suffolk Agri-Food Industry Council, to which REAF is making a presentation next week. The council’s role is to provide a strategic direction for the industry, which has a gross value added in the two counties of £3.1 billion and a workforce of 71,700. It produces 16.6% of the UK’s fruit and vegetables and 17.6% of our poultry.

The local infrastructure issues into which the council believes there is a need for strategic investment from the Government are as follows. As we have heard, there must be investment in water infrastructure to tackle the shortages that fruit and vegetable growers are increasingly facing. Shortages of electricity at key sites are blocking development opportunities. That is a problem at Ellough, on the outskirts of Beccles in my constituency. In transport and logistics, there is a need to improve key infrastructure routes and enhance cold chains—refrigerated facilities right along the supply chain.

The council highlights the need to ensure farmers and rural communities still receive the same level and quality of support, whether financial or through advisory services, under environmental land management schemes and the UK’s shared prosperity fund, as they did before we left the EU. Under the Government’s current proposals, Suffolk will receive less through the shared prosperity fund than it did through the previous EU structural funding. The allocation under the previous regime was estimated at between £18 million and £24 million, while under the shared prosperity fund it is proposed that it will be about £12 million. Anecdotally, there are reports of other areas receiving uplifts. Suffolk MPs have written to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to highlight this iniquity, and anything that my right hon. Friend the Minister in his new position can do to address it will be greatly appreciated.

It is important to showcase examples of good practice, where local initiatives are strengthening local food infrastructure. Three examples that I will mention come from very different backgrounds. First, in 2012, just outside Beccles in my constituency, Josiah Meldrum, Nick Saltmarsh and William Hudson founded Hodmedod to supply grain, pulses, flour and other products from British farms. They wanted to get local food systems working, to challenge the dominant just-in-time distribution systems and to bring more pulses and wholegrains back into the British diet as crucially neglected crops. They work closely with farmers, processors, packers and manufacturers to produce the crops, pack them after harvest and create the ever-growing range of products that they sell to customers online and in shops. The business relies on close relationships between farmers, buyers and those in the supply chain in between to ensure that the system delivers good livelihoods. They have invested in processing machinery to support that.

Secondly, while water companies are very much under the microscope at present, it is important to highlight the work of Anglian Water in providing latent heat from its sewage treatment plants to industrial-scale greenhouses at Fornham near Bury St Edmunds and at Whitlingham near Norwich. It is also making fertiliser from the sewage treatment process.

Finally, last week, the Government committed to making a significant investment in the Sizewell C nuclear power station on the Suffolk coast. Much work remains to be done before EDF can make a final investment decision and work can start on the site; it is carrying out preparatory work that includes the provision of a desalination plant, which in due course could help address the water challenge we have touched on. The energy and agricultural sectors need to work together to provide for our future water needs. That involves ensuring that groundwater is not extracted to such an extent that it exacerbates the biodiversity challenge that we are already facing.

As to how we can deliver meaningful investment to local food infrastructure, to benefit not only local businesses and producers but local people and communities, it is important to mention that the Government are coming forward with initiatives to improve the situation. Those include the fisheries and seafood scheme and the rural England prosperity fund that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced last week. Its launch of the review of the pig supply chain is also to be welcomed, as the industry is currently loss-making and clearly not working in a fair and transparent way. That said, however, my sense is that more can be done. The National Farmers Union highlights the need to improve the planning system. With regard to investment, it points to the need to make the UK the go-to place for investment in agriculture and food production. It proposes a regulatory system that protects consumers and the environment while incentivising innovation and investment, through both planning and fiscal policy.

The Government can take a number of steps to boost local food infrastructure. They include targeted productivity grants, which allow farmers to secure the win-win of more profitable and more sustainable food production that uses resources more efficiently; and investment in research and development and in agri-tech, involving effective two-way knowledge exchange, so that British farmers and growers can have access to the best tools and technologies. The NFU highlights the need to increase procurement opportunities for regionally produced food and prepare local food strategies. The strategies should be developed with LEPs, which have the best understanding of local food supply needs.

Sustain highlights the need to use “all the tools in the box” to promote local growth in shorter supply chains and with innovation at local and national level. It emphasises the need for public money for start-up funding to get new businesses established. That in turn would act as a catalyst for private sector investment. There is also a need for tax relief and low rents on local authority-controlled properties for local SME food businesses to help get them established in those difficult first two years.

Sustain also proposes that the UK Government should use the existing budgets and pots of funding—such as the UK shared prosperity fund and the community ownership fund—to create a £300 million to £500 million local food investment fund to provide strategic support across the UK for investment in localised agrifood infrastructure and enterprise.

Mr Robertson, you will be pleased to hear that I am coming to a conclusion. While these are troubled times and the immediate outlook is very uncertain, there is no reason why, working together, national and local government, public and private utilities, businesses all along the supply chain and local communities cannot bring about a sea change in how we produce, sell eat, and celebrate our food. That, in turn, can build self-sufficiency, embed long-term resilience and enhance community pride. If we do that, we can provide an exemplar, which can be a flagship for global Britain.

I welcome the Minister to his place. He is very much the right person to be answering this debate. I look forward to his reply and hope he will endorse that ambition and commit the Government to working with a very wide range of interested parties to deliver that truly sustainable future.


At the conclusion of the debate

Peter Aldous 

It is great to see you in the Chair, Dr Huq. We have had a wide-ranging debate, so I will quickly go through some of the issues we have discussed. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) took me back nearly 40 years to one of my favourite films, “Trading Places”, which is all about speculation on the commodities market. That might have been funny, but she raised a serious point. With local supply chains and local food, we can insulate ourselves against such speculation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) reminded us that supply chains extend right into urban areas—they go a very long way. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) reminded us of the importance of water as an ingredient in the food infrastructure that we must provide for. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in his own passionate way set out the importance of supply chains, reminding us how far those supply chains extend, and highlighted both the worries and distress caused by food insecurity and the great work of the Trussell Trust.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Selaine Saxby) promoted the importance of the British bacon sarnie—as a pig farmer, long may that continue. However, when we have that bacon sarnie, I sense that it might not be British bacon in there at the moment. We need to make sure we get back to that. My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) reminded us of the support the food industry provided during the pandemic. Indeed, the industry is now very much stepping up to the plate so that we are well prepared for the cost of living crisis and the challenge over this coming winter.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), who is probably the Member I have known longest in this House, very much welcomed the Minister as being a round peg in a round hole. My right hon. Friend also reminded me that—Father, I have sinned—we do have a solar farm on our farm, but he made his point well. I was a surveyor before I came to this place; in those days, it was much clearer cut. We knew what we could put and where. I sense that the planning system has got blurred at the edges, and we need to address that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) went all French, which I never thought would happen, but he made a good point. The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) emphasised the importance of short supply chains; her point was made well, too. The hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), with whom I work very closely in an East Anglian environment, highlighted that local food production is a model that we can and should build on. He emphasised the environmental, economic and health reasons for that. He also reminded me of something I omitted: the great work done by care farms. In my constituency, we have the Pathways Care Farm; just outside it is the Clinks Care Farm. They are doing great work—in not only food production, but supporting people and getting them back on their feet.

Finally, it is great to see the Minister in his place. Let us swap the South Molton sheep sales for next year’s Suffolk Show.