A minister has said there is a “good economic reason” for setting up a centre of excellence in Norfolk to fight ash dieback disease.

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Environment minister Richard Benyon made the comments in the House of Commons after being questioned on the issue by Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman.

Ash dieback, caused by the chalara fraxinea fungus, has been found at 155 sites across the UK with East Anglia one of the worst affected areas.

Speaking during the debate, Mr Freeman said: “The key now is to focus on what we can do to prevent the spread of the disease. We must use the British science base to explore all possible avenues.”

Mr Freeman highlighted that older ash trees in the UK population have developed resistance to the disease.

The MP told the Commons: “The scientific research into resistance offers us an important opportunity to identify genetic markers and traits that would allow us to establish a breeding stock of clean, new ash strains.”

He added: “I should like to make a small plea to the minister on behalf of Norfolk. It is perhaps the worst-affected county.

“It is also home to the John Innes Centre and the Norwich Research Park, and if there is any scientific work to be done in this regard, I should like us to be at the front of the queue. Our county has a lot to offer.”

The John Innes Centre, based at Colney’s Norwich Research Park (NRP), is recognised around the world as an international centre of excellence in plant science and microbiology.

The government has already confirmed the NRP’s status by backing it with £90m of funding earlier this year.

Meanwhile, it has attracted £6.2m from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, plus a further £2.5m from the government, for research into wheat that is less fertilizer reliant.

Responding to Mr Freeman in the debate, Mr Benyon said: “[Mr Freeman] gave a responsible message from one of the areas most affected by the disease and talked about the importance of a science of resistance, promoting a centre of excellence in this country that can take forward work in UK plant sciences. There is a good economic reason for doing that.”

A spokesman from the John Innes Centre said: “We are exploring how we can apply our relevant expertise to support those already active on the ground working to manage and reduce the long term impact of this national epidemic.”

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