Mike Burks, The Gardens Group and GCA Chairman sends this New Years message to GTN Xtra readers: "Writing anything at the moment is fraught with danger as within a few hours it can be out of date and even inappropriate!
"Many times, over the last few months have Iain Wylie, GCA CEO, and the GCA team prepared a newsletter or post only to be scuppered by an unannounced change in policy from governments around the UK.
"As I write our members in Northern Ireland are closed and are grappling with the complications of Brexit, members in Wales have been closed since before Christmas and are having to cope with not being classed as essential by their government despite much lobbying, and members in Scotland are also closed but with the advantage of being classed as essential. Luckiest of all, but it doesn’t quite feel like that, are the members in England most of whom now are in Tier 3 or 4 restrictions which has led to very quiet trading. Those of us in England really feel for the members elsewhere in the UK and we have responsibility to keep trading and to keep standards up which hopefully will help persuade the other administrations how important garden centres are and how we play an important role in keeping people at home and mentally and physically safe.
"However, we must put the restricted trading and current closures is in perspective and it still holds true that had we known what situation we would be in now when lockdown first happened in March, we would have grabbed it with both hands.
"If we are to be closed and/or trading in limited circumstances, then we would have chosen January and it does mean that we can get the centres in really good shape for when restrictions start to lift and when the weather should be better for us too.
"It seems likely to me that if the vaccines do their job that we will still be in covid limited conditions at least until the summer but also probably with it lurking until this time next year with masks, controlling numbers instore and many of the new ways of trading still in place even if they are a “just in case” precaution. Such restrictions mean that holidays abroad will be limited, and the 3 million plus new gardeners will still be gardening in 2021 and we have the opportunity to show them that gardening is the best hobby to have and so good for one in many ways.
"This all assumes that we will have enough stock to sell. Suppliers and manufacturers have been working incredibly hard with getting orders processed and pre -seasons out to centres but with Brexit uncertainties, issues with shipping containers being in the wrong place and the costs involved with this, hold ups in the docks along with new phytosanitary regulations nothing feels very certain at the moment.
"Some of this is likely to feel like we were worrying over nothing as we get used to the new importing rules and regulations, and hopefully the balance of containers around the world will sort itself out in time for the Spring.
"Other issues will then come to the fore and for certain we will need to address the environmental challenges facing the world which have not gone away. Peat will be the first we have to deal with and the industry needs to be on the front foot with this. I believe that gardening is environmentally a force for good. The more people that are gardening, the more that notice weird weather events and that means they will be aware of climate change. They will then want to do something about it and we need to be in the right shape to help with this. The work that the HTA are doing with their Sustainability Roadmap is very positive and the GCA are supporting this and working closely alongside the HTA in putting it into action.
"Conference in January 2021 was to be a continuation of the strong environmental message of the 2020 conference in Bristol. We still hope to have a conference in 2021 but its more likely to be an early summer event now.
"So I am looking at 2021 with optimism – it will be challenging but we have shown as an industry how well we work together – not just garden centres but with the whole industry including growers and manufacturers and suppliers liaising and sharing ideas, we have fought our way through. The GCA, HTA, GIMA liaison has been incredibly powerful and I would like to thank those organisations for their support and co-operation, particularly the HTA in their incredibly professional lobbying of government.
"But that’s not the only reason for optimism; customers trust us to do the right thing and to be a safe place and that hasn’t just been from how we have put together the gold standard in covid secure retail protocols in 2020, its been formed over many, many years of working with our communities. A demonstration of this is the way that Thetford Garden Centre was looked after by the community that it has been supporting for years – a testament to how the industry carries itself.
"So, we need to work hard over the next few weeks, which could be the toughest of all in the covid crisis, but we also must feel confident that we will find a way through and will come out stronger the other side."