Garden centres could open within days as industry faces £1.6BN loss amid coronavirus crisis

garden centre

Britain’s garden centres could reopen almost immediately – with strict social distancing rules – under proposals being considered by Ministers.

Businesses have warned that £200 million-worth of seasonal plants will be destroyed if centres are forced to stay closed until June.

That would mean an overall loss of £1.6 billion due to the lockdown, so the industry has devised a rescue plan which it sent to officials two weeks ago.

It details how the UK’s 2,000 garden centres could open their doors for the rest of the crucial spring and summer season without putting customers and staff at risk. The three month period between April and June is the equivalent of Christmas for the horticulture industry.

Garden centre bosses insist they could shift stock quickly and start paying suppliers if the Government approves the new arrangements, which would allow the public to buy plants, essential gardening equipment and pet care products that are being sold elsewhere in stores that stayed open.

Restaurants, cafes and areas selling non-plant products in the complexes would remain closed.

Under the plans, customers would only be able to use car parks in limited numbers, with an empty space left between each parked vehicle.

Entry to the centres would be strictly controlled, with one-way walking, one customer for every 1,000 sq ft of floor space and tape marks on the floor to enforce social distancing. Perspex screens would protect staff and trolleys would be disinfected regularly.

Sarah Squire, chairman of major chain Squires, said: ‘The timing could not be worse for our sector. It’s all about the spring for us, and if we can catch a little bit of that, it would make a very big difference.

‘We make 40 per cent of our annual takings from the middle of March to the end of June. So you don’t need a degree in economics to know that for the rest of the year it will be difficult for us.

‘You need to make your profits in the spring to carry the business through the rest of the year.’

Simon Burke, chairman of the country’s second-largest garden chain, Blue Diamond, said: ‘If the summer bedding plants aren’t sold between now and the end of June, they are dead.

‘Obviously there is absolutely no room for compromise on safety. But garden centres are large spaces so customers could come in and keep their distance, much more so than they would in an average food store, where the aisles are not very wide.’

Boyd Douglas Davies, president of the Horticultural Trade Association, warned that unless action was taken promptly, millions of plants would be heading towards compost heaps instead of gardens.

He added: ‘This is a quick and easy way for the Government to give something back to the public. If you’re asking them to stay at home for a long time, give them something to do in their garden.’

The garden centres have missed out on much of the sales they would normally generate from spring plants but bosses are hopeful that they could avoid more serious financial pain if they are allowed to offload stocks of summer plants.

It is thought that independent nurseries that supply the larger stores could be worst hit, as some of them make up to 80 per cent of their yearly sales at this time.

In signs of a Government strategy shift, B&Q has been allowed to open 14 stores to trial new social distancing measures. Since the lockdown, DIY stores have been allowed only to sell items for emergency repairs through click and collect services.

They have been told to narrow their ranges to stop shoppers from buying items that could let them start a home improvement project or any home decoration.

Shoppers order online and drive to stores, where supplies are loaded into the boot of the car by staff.

But industry representatives said the rules should be relaxed so shoppers could start projects without fear of judgment.

Andrew Goodacre, chief executive of the British Independent Retail Association, said: ‘We do know from our members who run hardware stores that there has been a huge demand for DIY products, especially paint, and most of them have chosen to stay open.

‘There is a sense that if you are asking people to stay at home and don’t want them to go stir crazy, then they should be allowed to do something in the house whether it’s DIY, painting or gardening.

‘Some of our members are taking to delivering their stock and people are very happy to receive stuff at home. It helps lift the national spirit to have something to do.’

A spokesman for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said last night that the Government ‘would keep the policy under review and guidance will be updated as required’.