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How will Brexit impact the supply chain?

Deal or no deal, there will be changes as a result of Brexit. But what will those changes be, and will they be as bad as first thought? With uncertainty still lingering, Pro Landscaper spoke to those likely to be impacted by new import rules

Talk about cutting it fine. With less than two weeks to go until the UK leaves the single market, there is still no deal in place with the EU – and it doesn’t look like there’s going to be, either. Boris Johnson recently admitted it was “very likely” that a deal would not be reached before the deadline at the end of the year, with both the UK and EU in a stalemate on certain issues, particularly fishing rights.

Meanwhile, those importing and exporting within the EU are stuck in limbo. Both sides could impose tariffs on the other’s goods if an agreement is not met by 31 December, which could lead to rising prices – and tempers.

“I can’t explain why they’ve extended the timeline, giving everyone more pain,” said Richard McKenna, managing director of Provender Nurseries, after an agreement was still not met last Sunday (13 December). “Whatever happens, horticulture is in for a shock because of the phytosanitary rules and PEACH engagement.”

Richard is referring to the new rules which come into place on 1 January, irrespective of a deal. Those importing ‘high-priority plants and plant products’ from the EU will need to have a phytosanitary certificate, confirming that the plant has been inspected and is free from pests and diseases. They will also need to register as an importer on Defra’s PEACH (Procedure for Electronic Application for Certificates from the Horticultural Marketing Inspectorate).

Following the rules

“Phytosanitary is what’s going to slow us down, but that is what is going to make importing safer and more transparent, so I don’t see that changing,” says Richard. “What does concern me is that if [the department issuing phytosanitary certificates] decides to ban something, they can, which could leave thousands of plants in production no longer viable.”

Pieter Van den Berk, managing director of Dutch tree grower Van den Berk Nurseries, says he has similar concerns and would like to see this addressed in the deal, should one be met. “The nursery industry is a very long-term business; we plant our trees with the expectation that we can sell them to wherever we want over the coming years and that’s it’s not subject to sudden change. This is an important thing that can be arranged in a trade agreement – some kind of steadiness.

“Deal or no deal, there will be a formal import/export situation, which means – with plant health care – that the plants will have to be physically inspected here before leaving. We will also have to announce that the trees will be arriving and where. The cons are the extra paperwork but, on the other hand, you can also make sure that people can rely upon good nurseries who have all the right procedures in place.”

Steve McCurdy, managing director of Majestic Trees, has planned for a no-deal Brexit since the summer and started to bring in new stock from 11 November, with five trailers in that week and 54 through to Christmas. “I decided to buy enough trees to almost fill my nursery…If worse comes to worst, if sales don’t do anything special next year, I’ll have pretty much enough stock to keep us going until the autumn, if nothing else comes on.”

Other imports

The pressure is on, then, for those importing plants and trees – but what about other goods? Giles Heap, managing director of natural stone suppliers CED Stone Group, has also been preparing for a no-deal Brexit, but admits that the impact on his business either way could be minimal. “A lot of our stuff comes from outside the EU anyway. Although we have increased the volume of European goods over the last two or three years, the reality is that there will not be a lot of difference importing from Europe as there is importing from China, for instance.

“The biggest issue for us is delays at the port. When we’re quoting for goods, we tend to let people know that it’s going to be a certain amount of time; we’re truthful about it and we sometimes lose work over that.

“In many ways, we’ve got it easier because our goods can sit in the shipping container as long as they need to. The challenge is managing the customer’s schedules and expectations on when goods can and cannot arrive.

Tony Lindhout, UK sales manager for Dutch bulb supplier JUB Holland, says he is also not too concerned about the impact of delays on the actual product. “We know for sure that bulbs and plants will need to be inspected in Holland and on the point of arrival in the UK, which will probably delay the ordering and packing system by about three or four days, altogether.

“Fortunately, with bulbs, it’s not so drastic; it just means that customers need to bear it in mind when they place their orders. At the moment, they can place an order on Monday and it could be in the UK on Wednesday or Thursday. After Brexit, if an order is placed on the Monday, we can have the bulbs ready for Tuesday and then we need to inform the inspectors, who might come by on Wednesday and sign off the paperwork on Thursday. By then, it’s too late to ship them, so it’ll probably be delayed until after the weekend.”

For some, though, delays at the border could be costly and there could be an impact on transport. “If there are queues at the docks then those trucks will be tied up waiting, and are there enough trucks to be left tied up waiting and to move stock around? If there are going to be delays, then it’ll be down to transport rather than availability,” says Richard McKenna.

“Things may take a little longer until the ports sort themselves out which isn’t particularly an issue for our business, but those concerns will really hit the horticultural side of landscaping,” says Giles Heap. “If plants coming in from Holland or Belgium get stuck in a port for weeks, they’re not going to be alive when they arrive.”

And these delays could double the price for nurseries bringing truckloads in from the continent; if it costs around £3k per truck now, an additional day or two could incur hundreds of pounds worth of charges. The value of the contents of that truck would therefore need to be significant to be cost effective, possibly deterring small nurseries from ordering stock from Europe.

Bigger the better?

“Many smaller nurseries don’t have time to plan for Brexit and haven’t needed to worry about it with sales going through the roof. With sales so good, they can choose who they sell to, based on payment history, disagreements of previously rejected stock, loyalty to them and attitude. We’re a small nursery, but we plan ahead,” says Steve McCurdy. “There are certain businesses set up to ship outside the EU that are used to phytosanitary certificates and customs paperwork. For them, it’s not going to be a big deal; it’s just another thing they have to do, and they have to charge you a nominal fee.”

Understanding the problems smaller nurseries could face, JUB Holland took action a couple of years ago to be able to help with new rules and regulations. “We set up a business in the UK with Brexit in mind so that if things got complicated for our customers, we could send bulbs over from Holland to the UK and continue to supply customers as a UK business – but that’s Plan B; we’d prefer to directly supply customers,” explains Tony Lindhout.

It’s not just UK nurseries that could struggle, though. “It’s the same in Holland; a lot of smaller nurseries exporting to the UK will probably stop doing so because it is a nightmare to find out how the system works and to register for everything,” says Tony. “If you’re a small nursery in Holland, it would probably be easier to stop trading with the UK and find another market elsewhere.”

Keep it local?

Is the solution, then, to increase UK production and become less reliant on imports? “There is an awful lot of talk about buying more British plants, so the UK having its own market – and I totally agree, the opportunity is there,” says Richard McKenna. “But the industry just isn’t big enough to supply and grow all the plants that we sell. And it’s a huge investment to build these facilities. It takes time, planning permission, building it, getting the water to sustain it. You can’t just click your fingers.

“We have already invested by building a whole new goods receiving yard and offloading facilities. We’ve invested hundreds of pounds over the last 18 months building a whole new part of the business allowing us to import, offload and reload trucks much more efficiently.”

Pieter Van den Berk also feels availability will make trade with the EU crucial going forward. “Every nursery would rather sell their own plants than buy them from someone else, from another country. On the other hand, there is a shortage of trees. After the financial crisis, a lot of nurseries produced less, and that’s not only in the UK; it also happened on the continent. And it takes time – a tree is different from a perennial; we have trees which are 50 years’ old. Trees will be very necessary for the future to improve air quality. The role that trees play in general will be bigger than it has been in the past, and I think producers will not have to worry.”

Change and adapt

For all the concerns over the problems Brexit could cause, all of the suppliers Pro Landscaper spoke to are remaining optimistic that the issues will be ironed out in the first half of the year.

“The first six months are going to be a real steep learning curve,” admits Richard McKenna. “But maybe once we get used to the process it’ll be normal. Maybe it’s change we’re all frightened of. Our business is being driven by other people’s decisions and how we can adapt to work around it. And landscapers and designers will have to consider the same. Will they design gardens with the plants they want to put in them, or the plants that are available?”

Giles Heap is hopeful it may even take two or three months to see improvements. “I suspect we’ll see a lot of it easing by springtime, certainly by summer anyway. It may never be quite the way it was, but businesses have a way of working these things out, it’s why we’re here after all these years. We change and adapt through circumstances.”

However, the new rules are due to reviewed again in July, and this could throw a few curveballs. “Our main worry is that it will all change again in July,” says Tony Lindhout. “At the moment, for the first six months of the year, all bulbs and plants need to be inspected on arrival at the customer’s premises, which means that customers need to register their premises as a Place of Destination (POD), but that system is only in place until 1 July. The government might then think they have enough inspectors and facilities to do spot checks at the borders.

“Luckily for us, spring season is not the most important. For us, the autumn is when we have 80% of our business and maybe 20% is in spring so we can get ourselves around the new rules in the quiet time of year. But if they change the rules in the summer, that will be our busiest time of year, and it’s difficult enough to run a busines at this time.

“Last year, we had the same thing with plant passports, though, and we’ve been using that for a year now and it’s completely normal and there have been no issues with it. So, hopefully next year we will think the same about Brexit.”

There’s a collective crossing of fingers, it seems, and planning ahead as much as possible. The deadline looms, though, hopefully bringing the end to uncertainty and the start of a ‘new normal’ for trade.

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