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Garden Centres

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 29 April 2020

Question

Asked by

Lord Cormack to ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to compensate garden centres closed due to restrictions addressing COVID-19; and when they will allow those centres to reopen for the sale of plants.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, the Government are acutely aware of the challenges facing garden centres and the horticultural industry. In addition to the financial package of government support, we are working closely with the Horticultural Trades Association to analyse how effectively the Government’s package is meeting its members’ needs. The timing of any reopening is subject to medical and scientific advice on when it will be appropriate to change the current arrangements.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend that Answer, but I am very disappointed by it. The future of many growers and garden centres hangs in the balance. More than one-third could be gone by the autumn. We are talking about an industry that employs close to 500,000 people and is worth £24 billion a year. It is deeply disturbing to see plants destroyed at a time when people need the therapeutic calm of their gardens as never before. Is it right that supermarkets are allowed to sell plants while garden centres are not allowed to make outdoor sales? I make a plea to my noble friend to take action soon. Other countries have done so.

My Lords, with a name like mine, of course I understand the importance of garden centres and horticulture. As I said, we are working very closely with James Barnes, the chairman of the Horticultural Trades Association, and we have had some very productive discussions. The HTA has drafted a traders’ protocol on social distancing. I am working very closely with the HTA and I am very conscious of what my noble friend said.

My Lords, I echo strongly everything that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said. The situation is really confusing and clarity and logicality are needed. We have a local business that has a pet shop where you can go in and get bird feed, for example—socially distancing and safely—and alongside it you can collect pre-ordered compost but you cannot buy plants. This does not make any sense. There is an urgent need, especially since most garden suppliers and nurseries actually make all their money in these spring weeks in order to sustain them over the year, and they are not able to sell their plants. It really does not add up and the Government must act with real urgency.

I understand what the noble Lord says. That is why I am working very closely with the Horticultural Trades Association. I am particularly conscious of the bedding plant issue at this time. We are obviously dealing with a health crisis and social distancing is going to be essential. That is why I am very pleased that the traders’ protocol on this has been presented to Public Health England. We are waiting for its feedback, but I do understand the urgency of this.

My Lords, I first declare my interest as co-chairman of the gardening and horticulture group. I urge my noble friend to impress on his Government colleagues the serious implications if garden centres and the growers behind them were to collapse. What will happen, for example, to our wish to lessen imports of plants that may carry very serious pests and diseases and for the Government’s major policy on planting trees?

My Lords, as Minister for biosecurity, I am very conscious of the importance of home-grown plants and trees. We need to plant the right trees in the right places. That is why I am looking forward when the time is right to the reopening of garden centres and nurseries. We are conscious of the medical and scientific situation, but clearly we are working with the HTA to ensure that when it is the right time it is ready to react with social distancing.

Yes, thank you. I would like to thank those garden centres that continue to serve customers by delivering both plants and seeds, either by post or carrier. Rumours that garden centres—

There are rumours that garden centres are to reopen soon, which would be good for customers wanting to choose their plants—good for garden centres and customers. It is an easy place to keep social distance and it is good for our mental health. Will the Minister tell the House what is holding back the decision?

As I said, this is subject to the five tests that the Government have set in terms of dealing with the health crisis. I have been working on ensuring with the HTA that, when it is deemed correct, we are in a position to open and for garden centres and nurseries to fulfil what I agree is a great function to help with our well-being.

My Lords, I agree with previous noble Lords who have spoken that there is no real logic to the Government’s current position on this. Hardware stores can be open but garden centres cannot. On behalf of the 300,000 or so allotment holders in the UK, perhaps I may remind the Minister that, in this time of crisis, we are making a great contribution to feeding friends, neighbours and the local community, and indeed are giving surplus produce to local food charities. So there is an urgent need to free that up. We rely on garden centres to replenish our stocks. I hope that the Minister can give us some guarantee that we will be put at the top of the list in the next stage of the lockdown so that people can have access again.

I thank the noble Baroness. Obviously, we want to keep this under particular review. I am very sympathetic to all the points that noble Lords have made, which is why I am working closely with the HTA so that, when it is deemed appropriate, we can reopen garden centres as soon as possible.

My Lords, garden centres play a great parte in the supply of fruit and vegetable plants for the whole of this year; that is why it is important that they are open now. Local authorities and the police have powers under the emergency legislation to shut down any business that does not comply with Covid health protections. Why, then, cannot the garden centres open and be treated just the same as all the other important businesses?

I understand what the noble Baroness is saying. That is why, as I said, I have been very keen to address this, and why we have presented the traders’ protocol on social distancing to Public Health England, so that when there is a review, I can feel confident in saying that the HTA has a very strong protocol.

I call the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara. He is not here, so I call the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington.

My Lords, I declare, as always, my rural interests as detailed in the register. The question of garden centres is clearly important, and I agree with so many opinions already expressed on this subject. However, does the Minister agree with me that there are other activities and outlets, particularly in rural areas, which Ministers could also consider reopening, such as equestrian centres, angling clubs and golf courses?

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Duke. As Minister for Rural Affairs, I will take that back as part of our discussion. In dealing with the health crisis, we will see what matters can come forward at the review times.

My Lords, we are in danger of losing public confidence in our approach to social distancing. I can buy plants from the Netherlands in my nearest supermarket, which is five miles away, but my local rural garden centre, where I have always bought them, to which I can walk in 20 minutes, is having to lay staff off, throw plants away and deny people like me perfectly easy access using social distancing. Please can the Minister urge Public Health England to understand how inappropriate the current guidance is?

I say to the noble Baroness that that will be part of the review process, and it has been helpful for me to have the contributions of noble Lords.

The Earl of Shrewsbury. He is not there, but in any event that concludes Oral Questions. I thank everyone concerned. If I may say so, that was a better session than the one we had yesterday. Virtual Proceedings will resume at 12.15 pm for a Private Notice Question. Proceedings are now adjourned until then, with many thanks.

Virtual Proceeding suspended.