Interview - Sheila Thomson, director of services, Perennial (Gardeners' Royal Benevolent Society)

Perennial is there to help everyone in horticulture who has fallen on hard times - not just gardeners. Getting that message across to the industry's disparate groups is a challenge but also a priority for the occupational charity. As is ensuring younger people know they can turn to it too.

Sheila Thomson, director of services, Perennial (Gardeners' Royal Benevolent Society) - image: Perennial
Sheila Thomson, director of services, Perennial (Gardeners' Royal Benevolent Society) - image: Perennial

Q: What is the biggest threat to people in horticulture now?

A: Without a doubt, it is debt. What is happening across the horticulture professions is a reflection of what is happening across all sectors - job losses, budget cuts, fewer working hours. When we get a referral to see someone about the need for a recliner chair or stairlift, we find that the basic problem is often trouble with fuel bills or something other than what was identified by the agency. Visiting clients helps to give you a more rounded picture.

Q: What is it that makes Perennial unique?

A: We have a person to work with you for as long as it takes. Most statutory agencies work on a certain part of a problem and have strict time limits. They can help with debt but cannot advise on bankruptcy because they ration services. We have four debt advisers who will lead you through the process from start to finish without passing you through departments, agencies and a series of various advisers. We handle form-filling, application processes, appeals or tribunals and we can help smooth through care packages and home help.

Q: Who do you find is most desperately in need?

A: Sadly, these days it is younger people. Perennial was originally formed in 1839 for retired gardeners, but in recent years our profile has changed. Just over three-quarters of those who come to us for help are under 60 years of age, which should blow the idea that we help only old head gardeners.

Q: What is the charity's biggest challenge?

A: Blowing that myth. It's a throwback from our past days as the Gardeners' Royal Benevolent Society, which targeted retired gardeners in tied cottages. In fact, we help greenkeepers, landscapers and people who work in grounds care and nurseries. Ensuring people know we exist is still a problem. Horticulture is disparate with lots of trade groups and getting the message out to all of them has been hard. We are still nowhere near reaching them all.

Q: What are you doing to change this perception?

A: We are more actively telling companies about us now, so human resources departments for larger businesses, for example, can disseminate information to their staff. If someone is long-term sick there are limits to what even a fantastic employer can do. We can step in to help people through the benefits minefield. We recently appointed a services development manager to get out there and tell employers and referral agencies about us - the Citizens Advice Bureau, social services and charities such as Macmillan Cancer Support. A big problem we face is that generic advice agencies often don't ask what you or your spouse do for work. They can't therefore refer to an occupational charity.

Q: What is the charity's financial position?

A: We are prudent and absolutely okay on finances. But as demand increases you can't sit on your laurels. We are seeking donations and hoping to build relationships with a number of horticultural employers who could provide regional financial support as part of their corporate social responsibility. They can also offer us industry data, so we can help the companies to help those who work for them.

Q: What are the sources of the money that you get?

A: Entirely donations - we get no statutory funding. Much is in the form of willed legacies, amounts from which you can't predict, of course. Last year we raised around £250,000 in donations and are hoping for the same level this year.

Q: Tell us about someone you have helped?

A: A landscaper in his early 40s was diagnosed with kidney disease but had to carry on working as long as he could to support his young family. We helped him sort out benefits and pointed him in the direction of a grant to cover fuel costs, which were substantial because he lived in a rural area and relied on oil central heating. He was worried that without heating, his immune system would not have stood up to the transplant and recuperation period. The story has a happy ending - he's alive and well.

Q: What would you tell horticulture employees who are in need?

A: Don't forget, we are not just there for older or retired gardeners. We will help them, of course, but we can and do help younger people working in all forms of horticulture.


1973: Degree in biology and psychology

1978: Working for small independent voluntary organisations

1981: Working for various housing associations

2002: Director of services, Perennial.

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