THE owner of a fruit farm at the centre of a polytunnel planning battle claims there will be job losses if Herefordshire Council succeeds in “driving” him out of business.

Neil Cockburn, who produces soft fruit at Pennoxstone Court Farm in King’s Caple, this week told a planning inspector at a public inquiry that polytunnels were integral to the success of his business.

The inquiry is the latest in a long line of appeals and court orders that date back to 2006 for the business that is sited within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

Last year, county planners rejected Mr Cockburn’s application for a 10-year permission to erect and rotate polytunnels on a 25-hectare area in the Wye Valley AONB.

Since then, he has been served an enforcement notice for “siting polytunnels without planning permission” and he has appealed to the secretary of state against the refusal of the development.

He told the inquiry this week his business would not be sustainable without the polytunnels which allow him to produce the best “class-one” fruit.

“Growers in Herefordshire would not be able to produce the quality and quantity of fruit without these tunnels,”

he said. Without them, fruit would be “extremely vulnerable”

to bad weather and disease, the inquiry heard, while they also reduce the amount of pesticides used.

“If we don’t reinvest we will start to go backwards as competitors overtake us,” he said.

“If the enforcement notice is upheld this will occur partway through a season and cause huge financial loss.”

Mr Cockburn also answered alleged breaches, and told how he had been unable to complete screening due to criminal damage.

He employs around 14 permanent staff and more than 100 seasonal workers, the inquiry heard, and many jobs would be lost if polytunnels could no longer be used.

The six-day inquiry is set to hear from residents who have concerns about the impact of the polytunnels, noise and an increase in traffic.

Herefordshire Council has also told how the development is “large” in relation to the sensitive landscape, with a negative visual impact.

The inquiry continues.