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Gardening centres could open almost immediately as industry faces £1.6 billion loss

Britain’s garden centres could reopen almost immediately – with strict social distancing rules – under proposals being considered by Ministers.

Businesses have warned that £200 million-worth of seasonal plants will be destroyed if centres are forced to stay closed until June.

That would mean an overall loss of £1.6 billion due to the lockdown, so the industry has devised a rescue plan which it sent to officials two weeks ago.

It details how the UK’s 2,000 garden centres could open their doors for the rest of the crucial spring and summer season without putting customers and staff at risk. The three month period between April and June is the equivalent of Christmas for the horticulture industry.

Ready to sell: Plants waiting for gardeners at a centre in Essex. Businesses have warned £200 million-worth of seasonal plants will be destroyed if centres are forced to stay closed until June

Ready to sell: Plants waiting for gardeners at a centre in Essex. Businesses have warned £200 million-worth of seasonal plants will be destroyed if centres are forced to stay closed until June

Ready to sell: Plants waiting for gardeners at a centre in Essex. Businesses have warned £200 million-worth of seasonal plants will be destroyed if centres are forced to stay closed until June

Garden centre bosses insist they could shift stock quickly and start paying suppliers if the Government approves the new arrangements, which would allow the public to buy plants, essential gardening equipment and pet care products that are being sold elsewhere in stores that stayed open.

Restaurants, cafes and areas selling non-plant products in the complexes would remain closed.

Under the plans, customers would only be able to use car parks in limited numbers, with an empty space left between each parked vehicle.

Entry to the centres would be strictly controlled, with one-way walking, one customer for every 1,000 sq ft of floor space and tape marks on the floor to enforce social distancing. Perspex screens would protect staff and trolleys would be disinfected regularly.

Sarah Squire, chairman of major chain Squires, said: ‘The timing could not be worse for our sector. It’s all about the spring for us, and if we can catch a little bit of that, it would make a very big difference.

‘We make 40 per cent of our annual takings from the middle of March to the end of June. So you don’t need a degree in economics to know that for the rest of the year it will be difficult for us.

A sign in front of closed gates at Squire's Garden Centre in Farnham, Surrey, during the lockdown. Garden centre bosses insist they could shift stock quickly and start paying suppliers if the Government approves the new arrangements (file photo)

A sign in front of closed gates at Squire's Garden Centre in Farnham, Surrey, during the lockdown. Garden centre bosses insist they could shift stock quickly and start paying suppliers if the Government approves the new arrangements (file photo)

A sign in front of closed gates at Squire’s Garden Centre in Farnham, Surrey, during the lockdown. Garden centre bosses insist they could shift stock quickly and start paying suppliers if the Government approves the new arrangements (file photo)

‘You need to make your profits in the spring to carry the business through the rest of the year.’

Simon Burke, chairman of the country’s second-largest garden chain, Blue Diamond, said: ‘If the summer bedding plants aren’t sold between now and the end of June, they are dead.

‘Obviously there is absolutely no room for compromise on safety. But garden centres are large spaces so customers could come in and keep their distance, much more so than they would in an average food store, where the aisles are not very wide.’

Boyd Douglas Davies, president of the Horticultural Trade Association, warned that unless action was taken promptly, millions of plants would be heading towards compost heaps instead of gardens.

He added: ‘This is a quick and easy way for the Government to give something back to the public. If you’re asking them to stay at home for a long time, give them something to do in their garden.’

The garden centres have missed out on much of the sales they would normally generate from spring plants but bosses are hopeful that they could avoid more serious financial pain if they are allowed to offload stocks of summer plants.

It is thought that independent nurseries that supply the larger stores could be worst hit, as some of them make up to 80 per cent of their yearly sales at this time.

In signs of a Government strategy shift, B&Q has been allowed to open 14 stores to trial new social distancing measures. Since the lockdown, DIY stores have been allowed only to sell items for emergency repairs through click and collect services.

They have been told to narrow their ranges to stop shoppers from buying items that could let them start a home improvement project or any home decoration.

Shoppers order online and drive to stores, where supplies are loaded into the boot of the car by staff.

But industry representatives said the rules should be relaxed so shoppers could start projects without fear of judgment.

Andrew Goodacre, chief executive of the British Independent Retail Association, said: ‘We do know from our members who run hardware stores that there has been a huge demand for DIY products, especially paint, and most of them have chosen to stay open.

‘There is a sense that if you are asking people to stay at home and don’t want them to go stir crazy, then they should be allowed to do something in the house whether it’s DIY, painting or gardening.

‘Some of our members are taking to delivering their stock and people are very happy to receive stuff at home. It helps lift the national spirit to have something to do.’

A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said last night that the Government ‘would keep the policy under review and guidance will be updated as required’.

Get Britain Blooming again: Unlock our garden centres – and feed the nation’s souls, says ALAN TITCHMARSH 

By Alan Titchmarsh for the Mail on Sunday

Like the majority of the population, I have been hunkered down at home for the past month, determined to do my bit to reduce the spread of Covid-19. Aside from the odd walk for exercise, I have been nowhere, but seldom have I felt more in tune with nature and ‘real life’ thanks to my garden.

Here, in glorious spring weather, among the daffodils and tulips, the cherry blossom and the fresh-mown grass, I can stay sane and reconnect with nature and the wider world, seemingly untouched by the troubles of humanity.

My garden has been my saviour, as it is for so many: a place to unwind and enjoy birdsong and flowers, to retain a sense of perspective and proportion, to grow vegetables and fruit which, we tell ourselves, taste so much better than those bought in the shops.

My garden has been my saviour, as it is for so many: a place to unwind and enjoy birdsong and flowers, writes Alan Titchmarsh, pictured in 2019 (file photo)

My garden has been my saviour, as it is for so many: a place to unwind and enjoy birdsong and flowers, writes Alan Titchmarsh, pictured in 2019 (file photo)

My garden has been my saviour, as it is for so many: a place to unwind and enjoy birdsong and flowers, writes Alan Titchmarsh, pictured in 2019 (file photo)

Gardening – often perceived as a suitable pastime for the old or those incapable of more intellectual pursuits – is rather more than that. It allows us to be interactive naturalists, rather than just spectators.

We sow, we plant, we take cuttings and we grow things – most often for our own delight but almost always with an eye to the wider benefits for birds, bees, butterflies and the secret world of insects upon whom our very survival depends.

In a garden, children have their first contact with nature – a journey of wonder that will lead to a greater understanding of their responsibility for the natural world. For gardeners not only beautify their own patch of earth, they contribute to the ecological value of the wider landscape – all these little patchwork squares, joining up to make an enormous and valuable tapestry.

But gardens need plants, and for the past month – thanks to the closure of garden centres and nurseries – all the plants that have been raised across the UK with a view to supplying a market whose peak activity is between March and May have been unable to leave their growers. They are sitting where they have been raised, going nowhere. We are told they have a value of about £200million and that laid side by side they would cover the City of Liverpool.

There will be those who scoff, claiming that bedding plants are of little significance in the greater scheme of things. They are wrong.

Bedding plants, with their brilliant flowers, raise our spirits as well as feeding butterflies and bees. They let Britain bloom from May to October – half our calendar year. They light up dreary towns and cities when planted on roundabouts and traffic islands, lifting our spirits and supporting a centuries-old tradition which is at the very core of the British psyche.

Mr Titchmarsh on BBC Breakfast, calling for Government support of plant nurseries and growers to prevent 'irreparable damage' to gardens and open spaces

Mr Titchmarsh on BBC Breakfast, calling for Government support of plant nurseries and growers to prevent 'irreparable damage' to gardens and open spaces

Mr Titchmarsh on BBC Breakfast, calling for Government support of plant nurseries and growers to prevent ‘irreparable damage’ to gardens and open spaces

Right now – with the country confined to its homes and gardens – we have never needed our summer flowers more. But it is not just the annuals, such as tobacco plants and petunias, French marigolds and busy lizzies, that are unavailable to us. We need the longer-lasting perennials, too, and the shrubs and trees that go towards making our gardens the best in the world.

We need seeds and compost, which, along with plants, we are unable to access except from over-stretched mail order companies – bless them – who are struggling to keep up with demand. There are economic implications, too. UK horticulture contributes almost £25billion to the national economy.

You could argue the case similarly for the economic values of the steel industry, for haulage and airlines, for bookshops and clothes shops all affected by lockdown.

But, when lockdown ends, all these industries will still hold their stock. The horticultural industry will not, for its goods are perishable, and in just a few weeks’ time they will have outgrown their containers, be past their sell-by date and have to be dumped.

Plants keep growing, regardless of man’s inconveniences, and by mid-June many growers will have faced such tremendous losses that they will be unable to survive.

Family businesses will fold. Folk who have grown plants for generations will have to find another way of earning a living – not that the basic horticultural wage has ever been a reason to grow plants.

We grow them because we have a feel for them; we enjoy greening up the planet; we regard plants and flowers as food for the soul as well as the body – part of life’s essentials. Gardening is a vocation, not just a job.

Government loans, which might save other industries, would place an unsustainable pressure on growers whose cash flow is such that they will be unable to pay off their debts. When they go out of business – as so many of them will – the plants they supplied will, in future years, have to be imported from Europe – so much for Brexit.

For all these reasons it is time the Government took the sensible step of allowing garden centres and nurseries to re-open and feed the nation’s souls as well as their stomachs. Protocols must be put in place – we have not come this far to throw it all away. But garden centre customers can be regulated in exactly the same way as those in Waitrose or Tesco or Asda or Sainsbury’s – rather easier, I would argue, since at this time of year the plant areas are outdoors, rather than under an air-conditioned roof which, surely, contributes its own hazards.

Plant areas in supermarkets have expanded – sales over the Easter weekend at Waitrose increased by 102 per cent. And yet those who make their entire living by growing or selling plants are not allowed to open their gates.

It is not only a grossly unjust state of affairs, it is a slap in the face for those whose lives are spent greening up Great Britain.

In seeking for a way to ease lock-down and provide an exit strategy, the reopening of garden centres and nurseries (never forget these smaller, family-run outlets) provides the perfect opportunity to lift the spirits of the nation and allow some kind of respite from domestic incarceration without compromising their health any more than a visit to a supermarket.

Social distancing can be maintained – we all know it is vital – but this need present no difficulty if sensible conditions are put in place.

In the quest to maintain the health of the nation, mental health must also be taken into account, and the ability to grow plants in our gardens – especially in the current circumstances – is a valuable engagement with nature that must not be overlooked.

It is high time that, as well as paying lip-service to the importance of mental health, those in power showed a practical commitment to it and recognised the value of gardens and open spaces as having a profound impact on the three areas considered the most vital concerns of society: health, law and order and education. Our gardens impinge on all three and it is high time that this was acknowledged.

If, in assessing the essentials of life, we can think no further than loo rolls and toothpaste then what was once a nation of gardeners will have entirely lost the plot.

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