Image: Nigel Long Managing director, Longacres (left) and Chris Churchman of Churchman Landscape Architects
Brexit and labour are overwhelmingly the biggest challenges identified for 2019 by this year’s Horticulture Week Business Awards winners, with more than three-quarters from all sectors saying Brexit and associated labour issues will potentially impact business.
However, when asked to assess opportunities for 2019, several also identified a potential upside — in the case of production businesses, to grow sales through import substitution post-Brexit.
Farplants managing director Brett Avery says just as Brexit will throw up challenges it could also hold opportunities for Farplants and others in the sector. "Once we have some clarity on what’s happening, we might be able to reap benefits from growing and supplying more UK-grown products to our retail partners."
Other key opportunities highlighted by this year’s winners included a greater awareness of green issues by Government and clients as well as the publication of the Government’s environmental plan — of particular importance to those working in landscape markets.
Among business leaders interviewed, Tong Garden Centre managing director Mark Farnsworth’s view of the key challenges is typical: "As a sector, economic uncertainty caused by Brexit is worrying for garden centres. We are a non-necessary product category and if consumers fear about their jobs and income it could have a knock-on effect." Long-acres managing director Nigel Long agrees that consumer uncertainty over Brexit is a worry: "Whatever happens, we could end up paying some form of duty, which will push up prices."
Wyevale Nurseries managing director Andy Johnson says his business is thriving but Brexit and biosecurity remain at the forefront of his planning: "Brexit and all its ramifications, and the challenges of staying ahead with ever-changing biosecurity concerns, are further challenges."
Wyevale Nurseries, Longacres and Tong all have expansion plans, although Wyevale says availability and costs of employment are a challenge to that, as does BDP landscape architecture director Mehron Kirk:
"We are very busy and going from strength to strength, so maintaining quality will be a challenge. This is especially so as we are struggling with recruitment and want to ensure the right people come on board. But there is a skills drain and the issue of who is coming through the system is a big question mark. Brexit isn’t helping."
Ground Control national training manager and technical support manager Neil Huck says the rapidly ageing workforce is his biggest issue. "We have a lot of talented people who are retiring and cannot replace them. That’s why I’m working hard on trailblazer apprenticeships to try and fill these skills gaps. Newcomers need the right skills and the right amount of training."
Mee Farmers directors Zoe and Peter Mee agree that Brexit and labour are their biggest issues looking ahead. They add: "Everything else is fine — demand for our product is great, there are no shortage problems and the warm summer was excellent for growing crops. The problem we have is will we have anyone to pick them There are mixed messages across the entire food sector, which is very worrying."
Like Farplants, Majestic Trees managing director Steve McCurdy also sees a potential positive side to Brexit. "The biggest opportunity could be a ‘hard’ Brexit," he suggests. "EU quarantine and movement-of-plant rules have been a disaster, so a hard Brexit could give buyers security and help UK growers sell their plants. Sales could jump by double-digit percentages, but the flip side is it could become a pain for importing stock and make follow-on growing difficult."
Landscape architect Jon Sheaff says Brexit, hard or soft, "will have a massive impact on the economy". He adds: "Most of our clients are public sector and though Theresa May says austerity is over, she has yet to flesh that out. If the economy takes a Brexit hit of billions of pounds, this could impact funding for our clients."
Looking at the biggest opportunities for 2019, he says: "The Government’s 25-year environment plan throws up opportunity. We have been working on concepts of natural capital for two years, so are industry innovators. We will be looking to take that agenda and thinking forward into 2019 so it coalesces with Government policy. Then we will need to persuade clients this is the way the world is going."
Similarly, Chris Churchman of Churchman Landscape Architects says "the continued growing awareness of green issues in all areas of life is a great opportunity for our sector". Meanwhile, the biggest challenge in his practice is "employing staff at a more junior level", he adds. "A bad Brexit would make a very difficult situation 10 times worse".
Peake Fruit managing director Robert Rendall says labour is the biggest issue. "We have massively resourced our recruitment. We recruit from Bulgaria and Romania but the 2,500 from the seasonal agricultural workers scheme is not even a drop in the ocean. We have upgraded accommodation and central heating systems, so hopefully we can retain pickers for longer, and we even pay for plane tickets to try and tempt workers here."
AR Neaves agrees that labour issues caused by Brexit will be a challenge, as does Angus Soft Fruits: "The biggest challenge facing the entire agricultural sector is the labour shortage and the changes that Brexit will bring."
North One Garden Centre founder Beryl -Henderson says: "With uncertainty created by Brexit, we anticipate new challenges in the supply of goods from Europe and higher costs. We purchase a lot of stock from European suppliers, so we will need to be ready to make adjustments after March 2019.
"With the struggle of the high street to remain relevant, it is important we promote ourselves as a specialist plant centre with expert staff on hand. To continue to be a destination shop, we need to find new and exciting ways to entice people in."
Kew retail head Imogen Driver adds: "Brexit and all its unknowns will be sure to affect us in some way — quite possibly our overseas visitor numbers and in turn our retail income."