British gardeners say new border controls will reduce choice and increase costs

UK plant and flower growers have warned that plans to introduce new border controls after Brexit will affect the horticulture industry, increasing costs and reducing choice for customers.

The Horticulture Trade Association raised concerns after the government announced last month that it would introduce lengthy customs checks on EU goods to Britain from October.

Speaking ahead of the opening of the annual Chelsea Flower Show, the premier horticultural event, which starts on Monday, HTA chairman James Barnes said the government’s draft boundary plan would pile unwanted costs on nurseries, most of which were small businesses.

“The government’s plan is not detailed enough, it is too late, and it has gaps that create uncertainty and pass more costs on to producers,” he said.

The introduction of border controls has been delayed several times since the UK officially left the bloc on 31 January 2020 amid fears it would create unacceptable backlogs at Channel ports and put pressure on food supplies.

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The Cabinet Office said it was the government’s “firm intention” to start phasing in controls from October, but insiders said many industries had raised concerns during the consultation over a lack of information.

The HTA said imports of plants, cuttings and tissue cultures totaled £759m last year, most of which came via Europe. Together, these accounted for more than half of the entire UK tree, plant, seed and bulb production industry, worth more than £1.5 billion a year.

Due to the risk of pests being introduced into the country, the plants, unlike most other goods arriving from the EU since Brexit, have been subject to biosecurity checks since January 2021, but until now checks have been carried out at importers’ premises.

From January, current government proposals require biosecurity checks to be carried out at official border posts before customs clearance, leading to higher costs and delays.

The HTA estimates that the new controls will increase bureaucracy costs for businesses by £42m a year, with no economic benefit. He called on the government to postpone the introduction of new controls by one year after the publication of the final border plan.

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Bruce Harnett, boss of the Kernock Park Plants nursery in Cornwall, which produces more than 13 million plants a year worth £30 million at retail prices, said carriers had already warned it would not be practical to import some products.

Bruce Harnett of Kernock Park Plants in Cornwall

He explained that most of the lorries contained group shipments for several different types of plants and customers, each of which took an estimated two hours to unload – even before UK officials had carried out checks.

“We risk operational losses, destruction and increased costs. Carriers have already said they simply won’t import the items we need because of additional barriers,” Harnett told the government’s consultation on the new border arrangement.

Under the plans, businesses will be able to apply to become domestic ‘border checkpoints’, but Harnett says the level of investment required is far beyond the budget of a business the size of Kernock Park Plants.

In a sign of these concerns, trade body Logistics UK issued a statement warning that “the government urgently needs to provide more detailed information” following a meeting with the cabinet minister last week. Baroness Neville-Rolfe to discuss plans.

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An insider said on the call that government officials insisted that industry had given a “universally positive response” to the draft border agreements, which irritated many in attendance. “The commercial WhatsApp groups were pretty angry,” the person added.

The government said it was confident its plans to introduce new border controls would support businesses importing goods. “We have listened to feedback from stakeholders and are carefully considering what else we can do to support business readiness to implement the new controls.”