Chelsea sponsorship woe blamed on Brexit worries

Uncertainty and nervousness over Brexit cited as reason for slow show plot backing.

RHS Chelsea Flower Show: concern over sponsorship but more applications received for 2017 than spaces to fill - image: HW
RHS Chelsea Flower Show: concern over sponsorship but more applications received for 2017 than spaces to fill - image: HW

The RHS Chelsea Flower Show appears to be struggling for show garden sponsorship ahead of the 2017 event, with corporates' nervousness around Brexit being cited as a possible reason for the lack of money available to pay for plots.

Sponsor and long-time media partner The Daily Telegraph commissioned a show garden from designer James Basson to be built by Crocus several months ago but pulled out this month.

Show sponsor M&G has now taken over Basson's garden and re-employed Crocus to build it. Crocus director Peter Clay said: "It was commissioned by The Telegraph but they then pulled out of Chelsea. It may be a very lean year - Brexit?"

Cityscapes and Stuart Towner are among the designers who have had their designs accepted by the RHS only for sponsors to pull out. Lucy Summers and Dan Newby also failed to find suitable sponsors after announcing their plans for next year's show.

Darryl Moore of Cityscapes has had a design for a public space garden accepted by the RHS "rather than a private garden - this is for ordinary people, bright and colourful", but is waiting to confirm sponsorship. He said: "Sponsors are a bit thin on the ground this year. Brexit is a big thing. There's too much uncertainty about the future and people are holding back, it seems. But in some ways it offers sponsors the opportunity to be bold and step out. I think people are too hesitant."

Society of Garden Designers (SGD) chairman Pip O'Brien said: "Chelsea has now become the preserve of financial institutions, which is interesting, but not real life. Sponsorship is a nightmare. Building the garden is the easy bit. Getting the money is the awful bit." The SGD is normally approached by potential sponsors looking to do a garden but there have been no approaches this year, she added.

In 2009, Chelsea was hit by the credit crunch and had 12 gardens, down from the usual 17 or 18. Three credit crunch gardens designed by Sarah Eberle paid for by the RHS filled the space.

Landform Consultants contractor Mark Gregory said sponsors are "spooked", adding: "There seems to be some lag. I've heard that quite a bit and in my experience they're late getting final approval. I've heard people say sponsorship is down. It's not the heady days of 10 or 15 years ago. Money is tight and these days people really have to justify a big-money spend. I'm sure it's a Brexit issue."

He said the landscape industry remains buoyant, unlike during the recession of 2009, and the RHS will be able to fill any spaces so the public will not notice a lack of show gardens.

Imported trees for the 2017 show are likely to cost up to 20 per cent more because of exchange rate fluctuations, but Hampshire-based Hillier director Jim Hillier, Chelsea record gold medal winner, said his sales, including exports, are going up because British growers now have better prices. "We have a little bit of an advantage so people are finding us more competitive when they look at Dutch prices, and equally we're able to sell to the Dutch. It's like coals to Newcastle."

An RHS spokesperson said: "As always, we've received more applications than we have space to fill."

In 2017, Darren Hawkes will be designing for Linklaters, with Bowles & Wyer building. Andrew Wilson also has a garden planned for Wellington College.

Mark Straver, owner of plant supplier Hortus Loci, said gardens are being finalised "later than normal". He expects to supply three main avenue show gardens in full. "Sponsorship is always up and down. But Chelsea won't be downbeat or miserable. There will be lots of exciting things."

One leading figure said: "I don't think they've got a lot of entries and thought this even more with the story about anyone being able to apply." Another added: "It's an unusual year. I'm sure they'll pull it out of the bag but sponsors are proving difficult to find."

The RHS has advertised for new designers for its shows, adding: "You don't have to be famous to submit an idea for a Chelsea garden."

Leading show garden designers from 2016 such as Andy Sturgeon, Diarmuid Gavin, Matthew Wilson, Charlie Albone and Jo Thompson have confirmed they are not returning for 2017. Juliet Sargeant will not be back either. Catherine MacDonald is designing an artisan garden for Seedlip.

Sponsor Brewin Dolphin is also not believed to be returning with a show garden, after six consecutive appearances. Chelsea had a bumper year in 2016, with a full list of show gardens and trade stands such as Gaze Burvill selling the world's most expensive barbecue at £17,000.

The RHS said: "Sponsors of show gardens change year on year, some only sponsoring a garden for one or two years and some being involved with RHS Chelsea for longer. After winning best in show again this year, The Telegraph have decided not to sponsor a show garden for the time being."

Crocus has built gold medal-winning gardens for The Telegraph since 2006, with 10 golds and five best in shows, including last year's for Andy Sturgeon's garden. The Telegraph has won best in show eight times in all. A Telegraph representative said: "Our business objectives are changing and the focus of our activity is shifting, and we have taken the decision not to commission a garden in 2017."

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