Plant and flower growers in the UK have warned that plans to introduce new post-Brexit border checks will hit the gardening industry, pushing up costs and reducing choice for customers.
The Horticultural Trades Association raised its concerns after the government announced last month it would introduce long-delayed customs checks on all goods coming from the EU into Britain, starting in October.
Speaking ahead of the opening of the annual Chelsea Flower Show, the premier international gardening event which starts on Monday, HTA chair James Barnes said the government’s draft border plan would heap unwanted costs on to plant nurseries, most of which were small businesses.
“The government’s plan is not detailed enough, it’s too late and has gaps that risk causing uncertainty and piling more costs on to growers,” he said.
The introduction of border controls has been repeatedly delayed since the UK officially withdrew from the bloc on January 31, 2020, because of concerns they would create unacceptable backlogs at Channel ports and put pressure on food supplies.
The Cabinet Office has said it is the “firm intention” of the government to start phasing in the controls from October, but many industries have raised concerns during the consultation about the lack of information, according to insiders.
The HTA said that imports of plants, cuttings and tissue cultures came to £759mn last year, with the bulk coming through Europe. Together, these accounted for more than half of the total UK production sector for trees, plants, seeds and bulbs, worth more than £1.5bn a year.
Because of the risk of bringing pests into the country, plants, unlike most other goods arriving from the EU since Brexit, have been subject to biosecurity controls since January 2021, but until now checks have been carried out at importers’ premises.
Under current government proposals, from January those biosecurity checks will have to be conducted at official border control posts before clearing customs, leading to higher costs and delays.
The HTA estimated that the new controls will add £42mn a year in red tape costs for businesses, for no economic gain. It called on the government to delay introducing new checks for a year after the final border plan is published.
Bruce Harnett, the boss of the Kernock Park Plants nursery in Cornwall which produces more than 13mn plants a year worth £30mn at retail prices, said that hauliers were already warning that it would be impractical to continue importing some items.
He explained that most lorries contained grouped consignments, for several different plant types and customers, with each one taking an estimated two hours to unload — even before UK officials had conducted their inspections.
“We risk plant casualties, destruction and increased costs. Hauliers have already stated that, given additional hurdles, they simply will not import the items that we require,” Harnett told the government consultation the new border arrangements.
Under the plans, businesses can apply to become an inland “border control point” but Harnett said the level of investment required was far beyond the budget of a business the size of Kernock Park Plants.
In a sign of those concerns, the trade body Logistics UK put out a statement warning of the “urgent need for the government to provide greater detail” after a meeting last week with the Cabinet Office minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe to discuss the plans.
One insider on the call said government officials had insisted that industry has given a “universally positive response” to the draft border arrangements, irritating many present. “The trade WhatsApp groups have been pretty angry,” the person added.
The government said it was confident its plans to introduce the new border controls would support businesses importing goods. “We have been listening closely to the feedback we have received from stakeholders and will carefully consider what more we can do to support business readiness for the introduction of new controls.”