Horticulture industry calls for urgent clarity ahead of ‘cliff-edge’ border changes

The Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) and its members are pleading with the government to act swiftly and responsibly to secure the future of environmental horticulture.

Harwich Border Control Post

As of today, the industry calls for business-critical information and details on the costs, capacity, and capability of Border Control Points, as urgent questions remain unanswered. The HTA has clearly set out the now imminent risks to the UK’s horticultural businesses and urges immediate government intervention ahead of the 30th of April Border Target Operating Model (BTOM) changes.

The sector seeks a solution allowing Border Control Posts (BCPs) to open while sustaining the current Place of Destination (PoD) scheme and unlocking barriers to Control Point access. This would enable BCPs and easements to be fully tested, functioning, and accessible to businesses in the environmental horticulture sector.

James Barnes, HTA Chairman said: “Environmental horticulture imports nearly £800 million of plants and plant material that services all stages of production and the supply chain in the UK. The April changes turn on its head how we currently operate. Being one month away and lacking information on the fundamentals of how the UK border will work for plant movements is untenable, particularly when you think there have been over four years to plan since Brexit took place. This threatens the UK’s biosecurity and sector viability and increases the likelihood of reduced choice or empty shelves just when we see the peak time for people to prepare their gardens for summer.

“The HTA and its members have made a huge amount of investment and upskilling on trade, but without the details, we do not know how their business will operate beyond 29 April. We are beyond too little, too late, and in planning for the worst, hoping for the best territory. As a sector, we will be the largest single user of Border Control Points, but it seems little heed has been given to the hours of consultation. This is extremely disappointing for a sector contributing £28.8 billion to GDP and employing nearly 700,000 jobs critical to health, wellbeing, environment, and net-zero target delivery. We need urgent action, and we hope the government shares our interests in successful and secure trade.”

Adam Whitehouse, Head of Operations at Robin Tacchi Plants explains: “The potential financial impact to the industry created by the government’s determination to press ahead with plant inspections at the new Border Control posts from 30 April cannot be underestimated. We speak regularly with our suppliers in the UK and on the continent. We are all concerned that the delayed release of the Common User Charge (CUC), combined with unknown waiting time charges from hauliers spending additional time at the ports, will make the expense of importing plants unsustainable for many traditional plant varieties. Loading, offloading, and handling all different plant types and trees is a very skilled process. It can take years to train a nursery operator to achieve the skill and experience required to safely and efficiently handle the full range of plants coming through the BCPs.

“Several small nursery businesses have told me that it will no longer be feasible to import their normal relatively small orders from abroad, given the additional costs and potential delays.

“Our interactions with the new Border Control Posts have been positive, and they are keen to work with the industry to make the process run smoothly. However, there are still so many questions they can’t answer about the process. We are particularly concerned as we enter our main import period when many small plugs are being delivered to the nursery. These small plants cannot survive sitting in lorries for even short periods or the various likely temperature changes.

“I haven’t met anyone in the industry that doesn’t think we should protect our borders from potential pests and diseases entering the UK; we take biosecurity seriously. However, there must be some common sense that also protects the horticultural industry. A delay in the new BCPs being brought in (keeping the POD system in place) to a time in the year when the imported plants are much reduced would seem a good compromise. This allows the businesses time to process the additional CUC charges and work with our suppliers for a more streamlined launch.”

Rachel Blakey, Plants Limited said: “My biggest fear is that with the introduction of BCPs less than five weeks away, the industry is still in the dark over the new additional costs involved. How can we even start to quote planting projects after this date when we have no clue from the government whether we will be charged per consignment or per commodity code. Our IPAFFS declarations vary from pennies to hundreds of plants per commodity line. On lower value lines, the talk of charging up to £43 a line would make it impossible and unaffordable to import from our European suppliers to complete orders.

“I don’t believe the current BCPs will be equipped and experienced in the current time scale to deal with the flow of traffic at peak season or to handle the larger Italian loads and mature trees for inspection. The PoD system works for the industry, enabling nursery owners with years of experience in plant health and tree handling to unload their own consignments. On full loads of mature trees and Italian stock, this can take as long as 5-6 hours. To think BCPs are planning to unload, inspect plants, and reload consignments with no damage to goods, I believe, is asking the impossible. Currently, when trees and shrubs reach us, they are kept in our own safe Bio-security environment, where it is in our best interest to look after plants and ensure they are kept in tip-top condition until APHA inspect or releases them. The thought of my precious load of plants sitting at the docks out of my control makes me extremely nervous.

“I did initially apply to become a Control Point but was turned down at the very first stage. After doing further research on the size of the building involved to comply, we wouldn’t even start to get planning permission at our site in Chobham—nor can I see the cost implications being viable to us when we still have no indication of additional importation costs post 30 April. As an industry, it is in all our interests to protect pests and diseases entering the UK; I believe the current system works until we are proven that BCPs are up and running and practically capable of keeping the movement of plants into the UK with the least disruption. I believe a soft approach to the introduction would be in all our interests until we all have the confidence in the system and to readdress/reevaluate in 18 months how successful the BCP system is for our industry.”

Peter & Helleentje Walker, Wack’s Wicked Plants: “We import plants from the Netherlands and Italy several times a year, usually at the start of the season, while we are waiting for our own plants to develop. Having experienced other changes since Brexit, we are not overly confident that rolling out the BCPs without retaining the PODs is going to go smoothly, especially at the height of the season. Why not phase it in and after September? To give some examples: Software changes, including PEACH (which required an ancient internet explorer, which was not mentioned anywhere), and the new CITES software (Pegasus, I believe) rolled out at the height of the season last year with what sounded like simultaneous training and a live system. Not to mention the sudden application of CITES without informing the people this would affect. We heard about it from our suppliers!

“So far, we have not been told of the additional stevedore costs; we have not heard anything about potential cross-contamination. Our plants are fairly pest- and disease-free; could our plants be destroyed because of cross-contamination in a BCP? Who takes the risk for that? Is there a compensation scheme in place? What about time scales? What happens if it all backs up? Are more trucks let through uninspected with potential diseased plants, or are plants simply going to die on a truck waiting to be unloaded? Again, at whose cost/risk. Again, is there a compensation scheme in place?

“Some of our plants (despite being tissue culture plants) fall under CITES, and so far, every delivery has been held at the border despite all the paperwork being in order. Are we facing even more delays as the trucks are caught in long queues waiting to be unloaded?

“So for us, as a tiny nursery, we have had to decide to combine all orders we would potentially have this year into one big delivery, taking place at the end of March. We have had to invest in a polytunnel because these plants come from a heated greenhouse. We do not have electricity on our nursery so as a minimum they need cover. The risk is huge, as the plants are used to a heated greenhouse and may go back into dormancy if the weather is poor. The layout is enormous for us, and we won’t recoup this money until summer at the earliest.”