Garden centres enduring worst March for years decry Easter Sunday trading law as sector gets behind petition plan

As the Easter holiday weekend draws near, frustration over Easter Sunday trading law among centres hit by tough trading conditions during March is at its height.

Petitioners will be canvassing the public in their bid to get 100,000 signatures in favour of Easter Sunday opening.

Garden centres say they are a special case because it is the gardening season and gardeners will need plants and seeds available to buy.

Burcot Garden Centre owner Neil Gow said: "I continue to maintain that garden centres can trade on Easter Sunday. They can trade their outdoor areas and they can trade their catering operations provided they can satisfy themselves on an operational front that it is sensible and that they take steps so as not to compromise the safety of their staff and customers.

"From the point of view of their outdoor areas what is the difference between this and every Sunday market in England and Wales? From the point of view of their catering, what is the difference between this and every pub and larger eatery in England and Wales?

"Internet retailers have no restrictions on trading for as many hours as they want every Sunday of the year including Christmas Day and Easter Sunday, I am sure a good case can be made for proving the current legislation is unworkable as well as unfair."

Horticultural Trades Association policy manager Gary Scroby said: "There are some grey areas. If garden centres intend testing the law they should write to the local council or trading standards to ask if it is legitimate and get that surety.

"Some councils class uncovered retail areas as contiguous with the main area. I can see the temptation to open but it would be foolish when there have been incidents where people have been fined. The law is the law, though we will do all we can top change it."

Fines of up to £50,000 are payable for shops with more than 3,000 sqft of indoor selling space which open on Easter Sunday.

GCA chairman Peter Burks said: "We have spoken to many of our members and the majority feel strongly that they should be able to open fully on Easter Sunday.
"Traditionally the Easter weekend is one of the busiest gardening weekends of the year. Easter Sunday trading could be worth 25 per cent of the total sales for the Easter week.

"Most customers don’t realise that by law retailers with 3,000 square feet of selling space cannot open on Easter Sunday and are upset that they can’t pick up essential gardening supplies. We want to change this and ensure gardeners can have four days of uninterrupted sowing and planting.

Nearly every garden centre in the country is unable to open on Easter Day and the GCA says this law is costing the horticultural industry at least £10million.
Burks added: "Our members want to be able to serve their customers. It is silly that a garden centre’s restaurant can be open on Easter Sunday but no other sales can be made.

The 200 GCA centres will have forms out to sign and a website.

One of the country’s largest garden centres will be open this Sunday at Bridgemere in Cheshire, because Easter Sunday trading laws allow retailers which grow more than 50 per cent of the plants they sell to trade on Easter Day.

But garden centres with over 3,000 square feet of selling space, are subject to the Sunday Trading Act 1994 which prohibits large shops in England and Wales from opening on Easter Sunday and limits them to a maximum of six hours trading on other Sundays during the year.

The 1994 act superseded the 1950 Shops Act. But retailers in Scotland can trade on Easter Sunday and with smaller format chain supermarkets, which can open on Easter Sunday, opening, advocates for change say the law is becoming obsolete.

Keep Sunday Special campaigner John Ashcroft said: It’s important to protect Sundays for shared time and family and community life and to protect the rights of shop workers. It’s difficult to separate different shops – you would have to de-regulate the while retail sector including DIY shops and supermarkets, because they increasingly sell gardening goods."

The Government’s Red Tape Challenge consulted on the issue in 2011 but the law remained untouched.

HTA director general Carol Paris said: "The Sunday Trading laws cause a high amount of confusion for gardeners and garden centres alike. It is time for change and we will work with the Garden Centre Association and other stakeholders, to influence government to amend this outdated and unnecessary legislation."

She added: "For many people the weekend is the only time available both to garden and to shop for the garden, and the long Easter weekend, during a peak gardening time, is clearly a premium time for this.

Furthermore, garden centres play important roles as leisure destinations and as a focus for families and others within their communities. More fundamentally, the existing laws increasingly look out of place in an era of 24 hour internet trading."

HTA policy manager Gary Scroby said: "We recently cited the problem of Sunday Trading restrictions as an example of barriers to economic growth in a paper submitted by the Institute of Directors to No10 Downing Street.

"We have also suggested lifting the restrictions with Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury as an easy way to provide the national economy with a significant boost."

This Easter, the Garden Centre Group will be opening restaurants on Easter Sunday for breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea. GCG has also decided to extend its opening hours during the Easter weekend to allow customers the option to shop at more convenient times.

Some 55 centres will be offering Easter breakfast, while all 95 restaurants except Stevenage, Sudbury, Country Gardens Handcross, Keynsham, Heathlands, Country Gardens Winnersh will be open on Easter Sunday.

All GCG centres will be closed on Easter Sunday, with the exception of Bridgemere Nursery and Garden World. Loopholes in the law allow centres to open restaurants and outdoor areas, and if they are nurseries rather than garden centres.

CEO Kevin Bradshaw said:  "We are looking forward to celebrating a fun and traditional Easter by inviting our customers and their families along to one of our centres. We hope to see a number of our customers dining with the Easter bunny and participating in our Easter hunt."

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