Why are MPs keen for garden centres to re-open?

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Garden centres in some European countries have reopened

The Welsh government has announced garden centres will be allowed to reopen under the first minor changes it is making to lockdown restrictions.

At Westminster, support seems to have been growing on the backbenches for the UK government to do the same in England.

But why garden centres in particular?

It’s a move that is certainly likely to be popular with many voters – especially for the Conservatives, whose traditional supporters are often older home-owners in rural constituencies.

But there are a whole (garden) variety of reasons.

Former Minister for Loneliness, Tracey Crouch, said she believed it could bring a potential health benefit.

“Gardening and wider horticulture is often used as a means of improving physical and mental well-being so it’s unsurprising that, with the right measures in place and good hygiene controls, many would like to see nurseries re-open soon,” she said.

The Tory MP, who regularly posts on social media about what she’s growing on her allotment in Kent, also pointed to the popularity of gardening programmes on TV and radio during lockdown.

“It provides a small window of relief from all the bad news, which in itself is good for mental well-being,” she added.

‘Time sensitive’

Conservative MP Mark Pritchard, who represents the Wrekin in Shropshire – the home county of the original television gardener Percy Thrower – raised the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions recently.

“Shropshire really put gardening on the map,” he said.

Mr Pritchard said the industry employs thousands in the county, adding: “The supply chains are very important; it’s not just the retail, it’s all the workforce behind that: the logistics, the suppliers of things like fertiliser, haulage, all of these are linked to these businesses.”

And he warned it’s a business that can’t wait many more weeks.

He said: “Decisions are time sensitive; a lot of horticultural products, and therefore work and employment, is seasonal. A lot of customers purchase items around this period and then there’s the planting season.”

The MP said he was is “hopeful” the prime minister’s address to the nation would “iron out some of the anomalies and contradictions with the current lockdown rules”.

‘We never had a debate’

For Sir Desmond Swayne, the Conservative MP for New Forest West, garden centres are a “bellwether” for a “general lightening of the touch”.

Nurseries and garden centres tend to have large outdoor spaces, which could lend themselves to social distancing.

He said: “If you can practise sensible social distancing while at a supermarket, why not a garden centre or a nursery?

“In my own area, we’ve got nurseries unable to furlough their staff despite having no customers and getting rid of plants that they grew.”

He says it’s these sort of issues that “you would have expected to have been teased out” in any debate over the lockdown restrictions, but “we never had a debate”.

‘What’s the difference?’

While the public calls from MPs have largely come from Conservatives so far, it was Jim Shannon, the DUP MP for Strangford, who first raised it in the Commons.

He too sees it as way of rationalising the rules, saying he doesn’t see why hardware shops can open but nurseries can’t, adding: “What’s the difference?”

He said his local hardware stores run a system “where you phone up, make your appointment” then your order is left out and you pick it up.

Mr Shannon suggested a similar socially distanced system could work for garden centres, although the decision for his constituents will rest with the Northern Ireland Executive, rather than Westminster.

There is some support on the other opposition benches too though.

Rosie Duffield, the Labour MP for Canterbury, said her office had been examining options.

“We really think that some kind of drive-through service, click and collect or similar, could easily be set up,” she added.

While garden centres may not be top of everyone’s list to reopen in the first phase, there will certainly be some who are disappointed if the PM doesn’t follow Wales’s lead.

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