Bridge over troubled waters

24 November, 2006

Levies have alway been a divisive issue in the trade but the new chair designate is already winning friends.

Keren Sall reports

John Bridge, chair designate of the new UK levy board, is a shrewd, tough operator. Four weeks in the job and he is already making statements that will undoubtedly win him allies, particularly among levy payers and government. Levies could fall, he says, as a result of the government's overhaul of the existing levy board structure.

"The over-riding issue is one of the structure which will emerge and should result in immediate savings. I see it as a process that will make the whole system much more effective. We will stabilise those levy rates and make them less of a burden for the levy payer."

EXPERIENCED

Like Rosemary Radcliffe, Bridges is an economist with more than more 40 years

experience in the public, private and academic sectors and, like

Radcliffe, he too sees research and development as an area where savings can be realised. "All levy boards undertake it and I personally would like to see greater synergies across the sectors in this and other areas."

At the beginning of the interview, he warns that he might not have all the answers to the questions being posed as the situation is constantly evolving, but he says, he knows the goal is stripping inefficiencies and pruning costs.

I'M LISTENING

A strategist, Bridge is keen to show he is listening to levy payers, emphasising the work currently being conducted by consultants Accenture which will be used to shape the new structure. Entitled Fresh Start he describes the study as a bottom-up review. "It will provide a clean sheet, paper analysis of the levy board structure and levy payers. The study will give us an insight into what services producers and processors value."

The executive summary will be ready in December. In the meantime he will meet with the various levy boards including BPEX, EBLEX and MLC and says "they will no doubt have their views about the new structure".

BOARD STRUCTURE

Bridge is hoping to have the shadow levy board, consisting of 10 members - four independents and six sector chairmen - will be in place by February or March.

Each sector will have its own board which will bring the whole process much closer to the levy base. The meat sector will have two sector companies - one for the pig industry and the other for the lamb and beef industries.

NO NOVICE

Despite being an economist, Bridge is no novice when it comes to the meat industry. His credentials include supporting and improving the red meat supply chain when he headed a Regional Development Agency in the North East of England. He is also chairman of the National Trust, which supports domestic production. And if there are gaps in his knowledge he needs to plug, he reveals the night previous to our interview he was pouring over statistics that showed over 70% of expenditure in the pig industry went on product promotion and performance, exactly where he expects the emphasis to be with other sector companies.

ALL ABOUT LEVIES

Levies in the meat industry - general and species promotion - will merge. But the level of those levies, he points out, will be down to the dialogue between the sector companies and the new board. "Sector companies will develop a business plan for their own activities, cost them and, out of that process will drop a number. The board will then scrutinise their plans and performance."

Aware that he could be seen as just another bureaucrat introducing another layer of bureaucracy, Bridge points out there will only be one reporting mechanism into government which represents an improvement on the current system. "It will be more powerful as it is representative of one of six sectors and it will be able to deliver to ministers some powerful messages about the agricultural and horticultural sectors as a whole."

It remains to be seen whether Bridge who claims "to be stubborn person who doesn't like to lose" succeeds in providing the £1 million savings in three years that Rosemary Radcliffe mooted to the government in her report while successfully lowering or stabilising levy rates.

THE LOW DOWN

? The results of the Fresh Start Review, currently being undertaken by consultants Accenture to identify the needs of levy payers and determine a set of value for money activities, will be available at the end of December

? The deadline set by Bridge for the appointment of a shadow board and sector chairmen is February/March

? Statutory legislation is currently being prepared for changes to existing structures consultation to take place in March with a view to getting shadow board into formal statutory form by December 2007

? In April 2008, the five existing levy boards will be replaced by one levy board and six sector companies





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