Why the horticulture sector needs to maintain water dialogue

Restrictions unlikely but industry advised to keep talking to water firms.

Dry: Britain has experienced parched weather conditions in the six-month period between October and March - image: Pixabay
Dry: Britain has experienced parched weather conditions in the six-month period between October and March - image: Pixabay

Following a dry winter and spring the horticulture industry has been advised to maintain relationships forged with water companies during the last hose pipe ban. Water restrictions in 2012 saw plant sales fall by 20% in garden centres but led to measures to stop the situation hitting the industry so hard again.

Although water restrictions are not expected, Britain has seen parched weather in the six-month period between October and March - the driest since 1995 and 1996, according to the Met Office. The Environment Agency says it is prepared.

Former HTA business development head and current International Association of Horticultural Producers (AIPH) secretary-general Tim Briercliffe was at the forefront of industry efforts to stop a ban during the last drought in early 2012. "The 2012 hose pipe ban had a big impact especially for garden centres in the South East, with plant sales down 20% or more for some," he recalls.

"The main problem was that water companies were promoting the message that you shouldn't water your garden. As news of the ban came early in the season (even though it was not introduced until late May) many people would have decided to give their gardens a miss that year.

"We worked really hard that year to try to change the message that gardeners were getting as well as improve the situation for the industry. We successfully gained access to all the affected water companies who were implementing the law in differing ways.

"We managed to persuade virtually all of them to permit watering with drip irrigation and we agreed joint messages for promoting good gardening without having to use hose pipes. I think it was a great year for water butt sales. We gained the support of Waterwise, who were a valuable advocate for us. We did a lot of political lobbying too and provided advice to retailers on how they could encourage the public to keep gardening despite the restrictions.

"We managed to pull together industry associations and persuaded water companies to exempt landscapers working on domestic properties. However, for the longer term this was not guaranteed so we established a group, with funding from water companies, to develop an online course for landscapers to demonstrate competency in water- efficient landscaping and maintenance. This is up and running. It was always my intention that in the next ban we could persuade water companies to exempt landscapers that completed the course.

"The problem for both the water and horticulture industries is that when the rain comes it is easy to forget the issue. It is definitely worth investing in retaining these important communications with the water industry to ensure there is a clearly established way to work together next time it happens. It almost certainly will happen again."

No guarantee

However, Briercliffe says he would be surprised if there is a hose pipe ban "as normally there needs to be at least two very dry winters before this happens although some smaller water companies do work on shorter-term water collection". The HTA says there is "no guarantee" but in an "ideal world" landscapers who have the certificate would be exempt from hose pipe bans because it shows they take water-saving seriously. The HTA remains part of the water stakeholder group.

Industry group Water UK says: "Recent months have been relatively dry and therefore some water resources' levels are lower than normal for this time of year. The Environment Agency and water companies will continue to work together to minimise any potential impacts to people and the environment should the dry weather continue. We always advise that everyone use water wisely but there are not currently any plans for water restrictions to be placed this summer."

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