Temporary homes for 430 foreign workers as Co-op aims to bring strawberry growing to Fenland

PUBLISHED: 14:13 27 November 2009 | UPDATED: 09:24 02 June 2010

Map showing Co-op farms across the country

Map showing Co-op farms across the country

By John Elworthy THE Co-op today announced plans to site 108 mobile homes for up to 430 foreign workers on a Cambridgeshire farm - together with 69 acres of poly tunnels- to help them grow 1500 tonnes of strawberries a year. If approved they want the dev

By John Elworthy

THE Co-op today announced plans to site 108 mobile homes for up to 430 foreign workers on a Cambridgeshire farm - together with 69 acres of poly tunnels- to help them grow 1500 tonnes of strawberries a year.

If approved they want the development to be phased in over the next five years to provide fresh fruit to Co-op stores in East Anglia, parts of the south east, and the East Midlands.

Neil Culkin, head of planning for Strutt & Parker, has submitted the plans on behalf of the Co-op to Fenland District Council. He says consent is also being sought for a 1,000 square metre communal building.

The development, if approved, will be built on land owned by the Co-op at Rutlands Farm at Coldham near March and will mirror the Co-op's Scottish site in Perthshire.

Mr Culkin says much of the UK strawberry and other fruit consumption relies heavily on imports from the European Union, especially Spain, and the Fenland application is a bid by the Co-op to stock locally produced food, support local communities and reduce carbon emissions.

"This development is a key part of helping to achieve a sustainable agricultural development," he says.

Mr Culkin says the scheme cannot proceed at a reduced scale "as the Co-operative would be unable to take advantage of the economies of scale that are available from the operation as proposed. It would compromise the overall profitability/ viability of this strategic proposal.

"This would ultimately prevent the Co-operative's main goal of bringing the vast majority of its strawberry production to the UK."

Workers will be taken on mainly during the summer, from the last week in June through to the first week in August, with staff numbers building up to this amount from early May and declining down by the end of October.

From October to May the Co-op says just 20 seasonal staff living in the temporary cabins will be required on site.

"The use of foreign labour is cost effective, puts minimum strain on local services, and provides a source of revenue into the local economy," says Mr Culkin.

"Overall foreign labour is considered more productive as it is predominantly student aged people who come to work. These students are extremely keen to earn as much money as possible as they get paid bonuses relating to how much they pick and so will come to site to work and take money back to pay for their studies, so there is an incentive very much to work hard."

Mr Culkin says it's impossible to find inexpensive local homes to buy to house the workers, and it would mean houses staying empty for much of the year.

He also feels that if the workers were to be scattered around various towns and villages "this scenario may result in social problems in the towns where they would live".

Local councils and residents are now being consulted about the proposals.

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