Written Evidence submitted by the Horticultural Trades (LS0025)


1.1 The Horticultural Trades Association (HTA) is the trade body for the UK gardening and horticulture industry, representing garden retailers, plant and tree growers, domestic landscapers and manufacturers of garden products.


1.2 We welcome the opportunity to provide written evidence to the Committee on labour shortages in the food and farming sector. The issues of labour shortages (and post-Brexit trade) and some of the solutions in ornamental horticulture are very similar to those in the food supply chain sector, so ask that our submission is considered in the same way.


1.3 Given the crucial and immediate need for UK horticulture growers for seasonal labour our submission is primarily focused on this issue, rather than setting out the much wider full time, skills and careers needs of the industry. We have covered off the issue of post-Brexit trade as well, which the Committee indicated that it was interested in hearing about – ornamental horticulture has been one of the sectors most negatively impacted by the post-Brexit trade restrictions the Government have put in place.



2.1 It is a sector that makes a significant contribution to our environment, supplying the plants and trees that play a crucial role in tackling climate change and carbon reduction. The horticultural industry underpins almost half of the goals set out in the Government’s 25-year environment plan.


2.2 The industry is worth over £28bn to GDP, supports around 674,000 jobs and generates £6.3bn in tax revenues. UK plant and tree production is worth around £1.6bn, supporting over 31,000 jobs. According to the Oxford Economics/Foresight Factory report, Growing a Green Economy by 2030 the industry can deliver a £13bn boost to the UK economy, supporting an extra 39,000 new jobs – with UK plant and tree growers contributing £2.4bn of this and an extra 7,000 jobs[1].


2.3 Gardening and horticulture play a significant role in the nations mental and physical wellbeing, making a hugely positive impact on peoples lives. From 2019 to 2020, 3 million more people took up gardening, nearly half of who are under 45. 30 million people now garden regularly making it the UKs most popular hobby[2].


Executive summary:


3.10 To help avoid duplication of our arguments and given that the questions are focused on the food supply chain, we have provided an overview of the key issues impacting the UK horticulture sector, rather than answering each individual question.  


Recruitment into and composition of the horticulture sector:

4.1 Around one third of the UK horticulture workforce is made up of seasonal workers.

The industry has a proud record of hiring and investing in UK workers. Part of the industry’s success has been how it has nurtured the technical skills of its workforce, including supporting apprenticeships and T-levels.


Making horticulture a career of choice:

4.2.1 The industry is continuing to seek to do more to bring in new employees into the sector and making it a career of choice. The sector needs workers of all disciplines – entry, developing and advanced levels, equipped with the skills to design, construct and manage a diverse range of landscapes and horticultural processes to drive the ‘green revolution’.


4.2.2 We know that there is more that the industry can do to challenge these perceptions and the recent Unlocking Green Growth report by the Ornamental Horticulture Roundtable Group (OHRG), of which the HTA is a key member, has set out a number of industry commitments to do so. These include continuing to work with the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) to recruit domestic seasonal workers, improving diversity and inclusion, developing existing careers outreach programmes and continuing to contribute to the development of ornamental horticulture educational programmes, including apprenticeships and T-Levels.


4.2.3 These measures will take time to develop and grow, just like measures introduced by Government and colleges. The T-Level for agriculture and horticulture won’t be ready until 2023. Colleges too struggle to offer horticulture courses as they can’t make them commercially viable, as seen with the recent closure of Newton Rigg College. 


4.2.4 However, we believe that there is a significant opportunity to improve this situation and encourage more young people into a career into horticulture. With the continued increase in the popularity of gardening more people are connecting with nature and the environment than ever before and there is an opportunity for the industry to work with education providers and Government to increase the option of gardening and horticulture as a viable career for young people. 


4.2.5 But this will take time and the development of a world-class, skilled workforce needs to be done in unison with an integrated immigration policy to help support the sector in the short term. 


4.2.6 Our industry and the future of our planet relies on developing the next generation of horticulturalist, however, in the short term it is not viable to rely entirely on domestic workers. The ability to attract workers – both seasonally and on a permanent basis – in a flexible manner is critical to enabling the industry to thrive and grow.


Challenges in recruiting seasonal labour in rural areas:

4.3.1 The horticultural industry is already doing all it can to reduce its reliance on overseas labour. However, significant challenges exist around attracting sufficient staff in a predominantly rural based sector, barriers to small firms achieving greater automation and historical misconceptions of working in the industry.


4.3.2 Plant and tree growers have a presence in 382 parliamentary constituencies across the UK. Growers are concentrated outside of major population areas, in locations such as Lincolnshire, Worcestershire, the East of England, the South coast and the south-west of England.


Low unemployment in key grower areas is making recruitment very difficult:

4.4.1 Competition for workers in general in these areas is highly competitive. For example, in two key local authority areas Arun in West Sussex and South Holland in Lincolnshire between July 2020 and June 2021 the unemployment rates were 3.9% and 4.3% respectively. Well below the national average of 5.0%[4].


4.4.2 Many businesses already are doing all they can to recruit from their local areas, working closely with the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) and local job centres, introducing programmes with local schools and rehabilitation programmes with prisons, but ultimately in rural areas the available labour pool will always be more limited.


4.4.3 Drawing on available labour pools in larger urban areas is also difficult if there aren’t sufficient transport links or if potential employees don’t have access to personal transport.



4.5.1 Our industry already has high levels of automation but increasing this further requires considerable research and capital investment which takes both financing and time. It is also often the smallest businesses, 92% of our industry has less than 10 employees, who face the biggest barriers to automation[5].


4.5.2 Requiring small seasonal firms to make significant capital investments in technology that will only be used for several months of the year is currently unfeasible and not cost effective.  Those smaller businesses therefore have the highest demand for seasonal labour.


Increased wages:

4.6.1 Increased wages have been introduced by growers to help recruitment, but there is a concern of wage inflation impacting small businesses - who make up the majority of our sector and membership. Our members have said that they want to recruit more as their businesses are expanding, with gardening continuing to be a growth sector, but it’s key to get the labour into the businesses to help meet this demand.


Seasonal labour in horticulture:

5.1 By its very nature, gardening and horticulture is a highly seasonal industry, with the main growing season running between March and June each year for plant producers and through the autumn and winter for tree growers.


5.2 The HTA recently carried out a survey of UK plant and tree growers seasonal labour requirements. The wages and benchmarking survey found that the sector used 6,000 FTE seasonal workers in the last year, accounting for 33% of total FTE labour input. Members told us that they need an additional 1,200 FTEs. 79% of growers said they require seasonal labour, 68% of whom report a shortfall in the seasonal labour that they were able to recruit, with an average shortfall of 14%. They reported an additional 8% vacancy rate on top of this for other roles, adding further pressure on these businesses. 49% of the total seasonal labour the industry recruits are EU-citizens, with the ‘right to remain’ in the UK, 48% are British citizens, with 3% from other countries[6].


5.3 The shortage in workers is impacting businesses potential growth. 85% of growers who reported a labour shortage say that the shortages have impacted their business’ productivity and 56% have reported that their revenues have been impacted[7].


5.4 The shortage in labour is not only having an impact on businesses competitiveness but also the sectors ability to produce more plants and trees, with 52% of growers reporting that the shortage is impacting their ability to deliver business projects, such as enhanced tree production schemes[8].


Seasonal Workers Pilot (SWP):

6.1 Seasonal worker shortages are hampering the sectors potential for growth and its ability to contribute to the fight against climate change. The new immigration system has led to significant shortages of seasonal staff for plant and tree growers. The SWP only applies to workers picking edible crops meaning that there is no access to overseas seasonal labour for plant and tree growers under the scheme.


6.2 The Government should expand the SWP to include ornamental horticulture or create a new scheme to better reflect the broader nature of the sector’s seasonal labour needs. The HTA’s survey showing that the sector needs an additional 1,200 FTEs to fulfil its current seasonal labour vacancies.


6.3 In practice extending the SWP to ornamentals would only mean a very modest increase in the number of new visas as many of the seasonal workers required by ornamental producers will already be in the country under the SWP to pick edible crops.


6.4 In the real world the line between edible and ornamental seasonal labour does not exist. Seasonal workers in the farming sector usually work multiple farms and premises in a season, moving between ornamentals and edibles sites. Likewise, many British growers produce both edible and ornamental crops from the same site. Meaning that under the current scheme workers can pick edibles on one part of a site but cannot move to another part of the same site, or another site close by, to pick ornamentals.


6.5 A modest extension in the length of time the SWP visas apply would also help the horticulture sector. The average length of time plant and tree growers require seasonal labour is 25 weeks spread across the calendar year – so not in one single amount of time, given the different seasons for plants and tree production. This means that the current 6 months visa would be restrictive and not meet the industry’s needs.




What not being included in the Seasonal Workers Pilot means for horticulture:


Economic contraction:

7.1.1 The recent Oxford Economics and Foresight Factory report into the future growth potential of the industry has highlighted that while plant and tree producers could grow from £1.6 billion in 2019 to £2.4 billion by 2030, if its labour supply issues remain unresolved then it would lead to a drop in GDP annually of £210 million and £80 million in lost tax revenue.


7.1.2 The report also illustrates that without Government support on seasonal labour and other areas, including importing and exporting, the UK plant production sector will contract by almost £100m by 2030.


7.1.3 This not only means a total potential loss of £900m to the UK economy by 2030 but also a significant reduction in our nations capacity to produce the plants and trees needed to tackle climate change. 


7.1.4 While the shortage of seasonal labour is not the single reason, it is a significant part of it.


Sector’s ability to support the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan:

7.2.1 Shortages are being seen across the sector, including tree growers, jeopardising the ability to grow the trees needed to meet the Government’s tree planting targets, which are already proving unlikely to be met due to the lack of consultation and surety giving to the industry when they were launched.


7.2.2 With ever increasing need for trees and plants, due to labour shortages growers cannot keep up with demand with one grower alone stating that they could produce 2 million more plants if it had an adequate number of seasonal staff.


Unable to maximise the benefits of Brexit:

7.3.1 Brexit provides the opportunity to produce and enhance our own UK horticulture sector substituting some level of imports for ‘home grown’ plants and trees. While this needs much wider support from government, having the necessary workforce to help to deliver this vision and ambition for growth is crucial.


7.3.2 There is also the opportunity to expand our exports – to sell the very best and iconic British plants and trees abroad. A grower who produces daffodil bulbs would usually expect to employee 200 pickers in the Spring, but this year they were only able to recruit 25 seasonal workers. This has meant lost sales, particularly in export markets. 


International comparisonHorticulture in the Netherlands:

8.1 As mentioned, horticulture is seasonal by nature and UK horticulture isn’t unique in needing seasonal and overseas labour to support its growth and contributions to the environment.


8.2 The horticultural industry in the Netherlands, the world’s leader in the sector, also relies heavily on seasonal labour, despite its high productivity and skills base and its advanced position in terms of adoption of technology and automation.


8.3 The labour supply and skills needs for the Netherlands horticulture industry are supported across the education system from secondary to post-graduate knowledge and skills Development, including a secondary system where the needs of the horticultural industry are embedded into secondary vocational education.


8.4 Around a third of the labour input into pot and bedding plant production and other ornamental horticulture is provided by seasonal workers, helping to ensure its continuous production[9].


Post-Brexit trade: Border challenges:

9.1 The Committee has also asked what impact the timetable for introducing physical checks at the border on imports from the EU will have on the current issues being experienced by UK farming.


9.2 Unlike the food production sector, ornamental producers have already had to introduce import inspection fees and checks. With extra regulations and restrictions adding a £25m-£30m burden to British horticultural businesses[10]. New red tape introduced since EU Exit means that importing a petunia now needs 59 steps, when it was previously 19[11].


9.3 Importing is worth over £512m to the UK horticultural sector and is a crucial part of the plant and tree supply chain[12]. 92% of British plant and tree growers rely on importing early-stage plant material which our climate isn’t suited to producing here in the UK. These are then grown on to full size by growers in this country. Fair access to imports is a crucial part of our sectors competitiveness and provides us with the raw materials needed to expand the sector and produce the plants and trees needed to meet our environmental ambitions.


9.4 The post-Brexit trading environment offers a huge opportunity, but a more proportionate regulatory regime on plant, trees and seed imports and exports is needed for our world-class horticultural firms.


9.5 Maintaining biosecurity is of vital importance to our industry. The industry already has robust biosecurity standards and auditing systems in place, such as OHAS and Plant Healthy, and has implemented Plant Passporting, which is mandatory to maintain traceability for all plants moving in trade and ensuring a level of competence in plant health, pests and disease amongst all professional operators.


9.6 These restrictions are leading to price rises, adding a pound to every £10 plant, simply to cover admin costs. The overburden some restrictions are also leading to less range and availability, with many Dutch suppliers – a key trading partner considering their position of whether to continue to send products to the UK at all due to the comparatively more competitive markets in other EU nations.


9.7 We want to see both the UK and EU find a level of recognition and are inputting our constructive views to government. We have proposals for what needs to change in the immediate – a review of the current inspection fees regime, plant restrictions list and how we can emphasise a more self-regulatory approach. 



October 2021

[1] Oxford Economics and Foresight Factory, Growing a Green Economy: The importance of ornamental horticulture and landscaping to the UK’, Ornamental Horticulture Roundtable Group, September 2021. https://hta.org.uk/uploads/assets/a4e1bad2-866b-4623-aa33ef712689d52a/Industry-growth-report-OHRG.pdf

[2] Ibid, p38.

[3] HTA Wages & Labour Benchmarking Survey, September/October 2021. 39 ornamental growers responded, accounting for over £120m of turnover. The response rate is robust and representative of the whole industry, allowing findings to be extrapolated and presented as industry wide figures.

[4] Nomis, Official Labour Market Statistics, Office for National Statistics, https://www.nomisweb.co.uk/reports/lmp/la/contents.aspx, accessed Tuesday, 12 October 2021.  

[5] 2019 Horticulture Sector Skills Survey: A report for the Ornamental Horticulture Roundtable Group, Pye Tait consulting, October 2019. https://projectblue.blob.core.windows.net/media/Default/Research%20Papers/Horticulture/CP%20189%20Skills%20surveys/OrnamentalHorticultureSkillsSurvey-Main%20Report-FinalReport-29Oct19.pdf, p18.

[6] HTA Wages & Labour Benchmarking Survey, September/October 2021. 39 ornamental growers responded, accounting for over £120m of turnover. The response rate is robust and representative of the whole industry, allowing findings to be extrapolated and presented as industry wide figures.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Horticulture in the Netherlands: an engine for the national economy and environment, Ornamental Horticulture Roundtable Group, September 2021.

[10] HTA survey of members in Summer 2021: Plant health agreement could turn £multi-billion horticulture industry into a Brexit success story, claims HTA https://hta.org.uk/news-current-issues/news-current/news/plant-health-agreement-brexit-success-story.html.

[11] HTA analysis of the current and previous plant health trading regimes. 2021.

[12] Horticulture statistics – 2020, Defra, https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/latest-horticulture-statistics, accessed Thursday, 14th October 2021.