Apprenticeship Levy could help fund food and farming skills training : Environment Secretary Liz Truss

Apprenticeship Levy funding from major supermarket chains and food manufacturers could deliver a boost to skills training for smaller food businesses and farming, a senior Government minister has said during a visit to Suffolk.

Liz Truss, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was speaking at the Suffolk Food Hall at Wherstead, near Ipswich, where she had received an update on the Orwell Food Cluster, one of 17 Food Enterprise Zone (FEZ) areas launched around the OK.

Babergh Distric Council has been awarded £50,000 by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to establish the zone, with Mid Suffolk council awarded a similar sum for another FEZ, the Gipping Valley Food Cluster, on land off the A14 at Stowmarket. The Orwell cluster brings together three existing operators – the Suffolk Food Hall, Jimmy’s Farm and the East of England Co-op – with the FEZ designation aiming to boost collaboration and encourage the creation of new businesses and jobs.

During visit, with South Suffolk MP James Cartlidge and Babergh council leader Jennie Jenkins also among those present, Ms Truss heard about plans including the potential development of a site near the Suffolk Food Hall which served as the construction base for the Orwell Bridge when it was built more than 30 years ago. She was also given a tour of the food hall’s Cookhouse restaurant and small business units, which received European Union rural development funding in 2011 and has now far exceeded its original targets in terms of training, job creation and visitor numbers.

However, Suffolk Food Hall director Oliver Paul said that while the development plans for the FEZ were welcome, there was also an on-going need for support for skills training in the food and farming sector.

Mr Truss said she recognized that this sector currently had fewer than average employers with apprentices, with the large proportion of small and medium-sized food businesses representing a challenge in terms of training.

She suggested that funding generated by the Government’s new Apprenticeship Levy, which from next year will require some employers to contribute to skills training, could see the major supermarkets and large food manufacturers fund apprenticeships within their supply chains. “I will take this forward with the local MP and the LEP (New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership) to see how we can make this happen here in Suffolk,” she added.

Also discussed yesterday was the prospects for adding grant or loan schemes to the package offered under the Orwell Food Cluster project. From Wherstead, Ms Truss moved on to join Suffolk Coastal MP Therese Coffey on a visit to the Butler family’s award-winning Blythburgh Free Range Pork business at Blythburgh, near Southwold. The trip was designed to highlight the value of the pig industry to the area – it is worth £1.8bn a year to the UK economy as a whole – and also included a question and answer session with local farmers and businesses.

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