THE company at the centre of an ongoing dispute over polytunnels near Penshurst is being backed by the agricultural union after warning it could lose hundreds of thousands of pounds if it is not granted permission to renew their use.

Clock House Farm has invested £574,000 on improving irrigation and other works since taking over the Salmans Farm near Penshurst in 2013.

The tunnels themselves predate the acquisition, but were originally only intended to be a temporary structure.

However, recent attempts to make the 37 acres of polytunnels permanent have been met with opposition from local residents and the parish council.

More than 300 letters of objection have been submitted, with Sevenoaks District Council due to make a decision at an unspecified later date.

“The alternative is to risk losing contracts to larger producers”

Farm Manager Oli Pascall said a failure to get planning permission would be a ‘massive blow’ to the company, which produces 300 tonnes of raspberries and 40 tonnes of blackberries a year at the Salmans Farm site.

The success of the farm is also beneficial for area, he said, pointing out that approximately 100 people are employed throughout the year to pick fruit, meaning a total wage bill of just under £1million, over a quarter of which ends up as tax.

“A large part of what’s left will be spent in the local community,” Mr Pascall added.

His position is backed by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), who have contacted the planning department at Sevenoaks Council to offer their ‘support’ for the application.

Tom Ormesher, Environment and Land Use Adviser at the NFU South East, said only through using polytunnels can smaller enterprises hope to produce enough to sell to British supermarkets.

“UK growers are being asked to provide increasingly greater volumes of produce of the same or better quality at lower prices, throughout a longer growing season.

“The alternative is to risk losing these contracts to larger producers or to cheaper overseas supply. The sum effect is that unless a producer can continue to meet the rigorous demands of their supply contract, they risk going out of business entirely.”

The ‘vast majority’ of soft fruit supplied to supermarkets is now produced under polytunnels, he added.

Campaign group Protect Penshurst, which opposes renewing the planning permission, argue that making the tunnels permanent in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, will mean there is ‘nothing to stop other acres of plastic appearing’ in the surrounding areas.