Interview - Bernard Burns, managing director, William Sinclair Horticulture

Growing media firm William Sinclair Horticulture's decision this summer to back calls for the Government to legislate to force a switch to peat-free in the UK lost it the business of top UK grower Majestic Trees.

Bernard Burns, managing director, William Sinclair Horticulture
Bernard Burns, managing director, William Sinclair Horticulture

HW met managing director Bernard Burns at Bolton Fell in north Cumbria, which is running down to its closure in 2013 before English Nature takes it over.

Q: Do you regret signing the RSPB letter saying the white paper's voluntary approach to peat reduction will not work?

A: No. In five years' time the shit will hit the fan. The Government will legislate in haste and do a lot of damage. I'd rather work in a consistent and timely way.

Q: Defra peat task force chair Alan Knight says Government cannot legislate against peat. Do you still think an England peat ban is enforceable?

A: There is nothing to stop you from taxing peat and if you put a 500 per cent tax on it you would effectively ban it. But I would not go down the ban route. I would tax imported plants. You could put a 20p-a-pot tax on plants. If there is to be an exit from horticultural peat it will only work as long as UK growers are at no disadvantage to foreign producers and that means if you can grow something in peat abroad and bring it into the UK at no extra cost, you completely undermine the UK growing industry.

Q: How could UK growers be better off without peat?

A: UK manufacturers have more expertise in peat-free than anywhere else. If you are using a peat-free growing media and there is no tax on it, then you're going to be paying a price per litre. If you pay tax on peat at 20p per plug, that makes it not cost-effective. But for big trees, 20p is neither here nor there. The Dutch are almost industrialised in production of bedding and 20p would make a huge difference to them. If the customer base wanted 100 per cent peat-free we could probably provide it if the Government committed now, but the reason there aren't the alternatives about is because it takes investment. We aren't going to invest enough without legislation.

Q: How has the wet summer hit the harvesting of peat?

A: We haven't harvested as much as we would have liked, but can probably harvest until the end of this month (September). We were caught out in 2008 with not enough peat and forced to buy in the wholesale market, which costs an arm and a leg. We decided not to go in that direction again so we developed drying techniques and the Supafyba material that, between them, should deliver 130,000cu m in the next 12 months. Between what we've harvested and what we need, we are fewer than 200,000cu m behind.

Q: What is happening at your Chat Moss site regarding planning issues?

A: We have three areas. One has no planning issues. One has planning permission until 2040 and the third renewal came up this year. Salford City Council won't give permission, so we're appealing. Wigan Council is yet to decide. The council rejected the planning request on three grounds - habitat, hydrology and greenhouse gases. We can produce evidence for the first two, but the carbon dioxide issue is really interesting. Fifteen years ago, two-thirds of the peat used in the UK was harvested here, but planning refusals and the purchase of bogs (by English Nature) have taken a number of sites out of the equation. The Government thought people would put alternative materials into a bag, but the same amount of peat is being used now as 15 years ago, though it is now being brought in from Ireland and the Baltics. This brings a massive carbon footprint, so the argument that closing Chat Moss would reduce CO2 is wrong.

Q: Would you be short of peat if Chat Moss shuts?

A: We have seven bogs in Scotland. Two we don't harvest, so if Chat Moss planning is refused, we'll reopen Drumbow and Drumbreck.

Q: What is happening at Bolton Fell regarding closure?

A: Its main importance is that it is cheek by jowl with the factory, so we don't have to move material for packaging. We're closer to market here. Customers are 70 per cent south of Birmingham and often retired. We close at the end of 2013 here. The agreement has production tailing off. We've always harvested as much as we could, but have given up some areas as a result of the agreement. More compensation from English Nature is subject to long and complicated negotiations that are important to me and the shareholders. We have to move the factory, so we need money for that.

Q: I hear Alan Knight visited Bolton Fell. Is that right?

A: Yes, Olly Watts from the RSPB was coming and invited Alan Knight. I think he's being sensible, saying little and listening a lot.


1980s-2005: Poole Pottery, Silentnight Holdings, Silentnight Furniture, Churchill Tableware, Coates Viyella, Bluebird Toys, Marks & Spencer

2005 to date: Managing director, William Sinclair Horticulture.

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