Gavin Parker, who employs seven people at the Old Mill Garden Centre and Farm Shop in Dromore, says the Protocol also costs him around six hours per week to do online paperwork. He was also forced to start buying his roses from the south, which caused an immediate increase of 20% in costs.
He says that the Protocol administration is so burdensome that if the Government’s Trader Support Services (TSS) is wound up - as speculation suggests - he will be unable to bring in any food from England and will lose over 30% of products crucial to his business.
“The difficulties I have had with the Protocol are first of all financial,” he told the News Letter.
“Every pallet of produce coming in from a specific agency in England is costing me an extra £125. That is £125 we didn’t have to pay before the Protocol on a pallet worth about £1000. So that is about £12.5% I have to add onto my prices which is ridiculous.”
The food he is bringing in from England includes things like biscuits, custards, and other artisan food - prepackaged foods that do not require any refrigeration.
The extra 12.5% in costs kicked in immediately after the Protocol was put in place.
“This happened immediately after the Protocol. There has been a more recent hike in the cost of living, but the Protocol hike was long before that happened. This is an added cost on top of that.”
He has not been able to mitigate the Protocol costs and have had to pass the costs onto customers.
“I have paperwork to do online and it takes ages,” he says. He has to find a code for each different type of product that he buys and fill it into a database. This applies not just to food products but even to wooden display shelves that he buys in from London. Then he has to send it to the Government’s Trader Support Service.
“It takes a couple of hours that I can’t spare with every delivery. So in total it probably works out at about six hours a week.”
The garden centre side of his business has also been disrupted.
“I buy in vegetable seeds from England and that was an absolute nightmare. We still get them but, again, it is the same process as with the food products. There is a lot of paperwork.”
Unlike some larger garden centres he does not buy plants direct from England. But he is still feeling the disruption when buying them indirectly from NI distributors as much of their supply “has dried up”.
“They just can’t get it [anymore]. They can’t bring in roses in soil, for example. I have had to switch to buying from suppliers down south.”
This caused an immediate hike in his buying costs.
“Before the protocol I would have got some roses from a local supplier. It immediately put the price of my roses up by about 20% to buy from the south. It was just overnight - due to the Protocol.”
There is also a loss of supply for some other products coming from England. One example he gives is a well known brand of garden hoses and accessories.
“Nowadays we can only get that brand in drips and drabs.”
He rejects any suggestion that the problem with the hose brand is due to wider economic difficulties. The problem arose immediately after the Protocol was launched, he says, and is because of the Protocol.
“That is what I have been told by my distributor”.
He is anxious at reports that the TSS could be wound up this year or next. The government could not confirm or deny this when asked by the News Letter.
“I wouldn’t know what to do if that happens because TSS are the only people that are standing between me and the Protocol. They keep me right. They send me all the information.”
The TSS also has a useful helpline to guide him in filling in his Protocol paperwork, he says.
“They were saying I had to fill things out in such a way and I didn’t understand it because it is so complex. So I asked them how long would it take to explain it - and they said two hours. And I said ‘this ends now because I don’t have two hours to spend’.”
Instead he says TSS now partially fills his forms out for him.
“I give them my consent to do that and it eases the burden a little. It is just so complicated.”Without TSS he says he would no longer be able to buy products from England and would lose all his international artisan foods lines - over 30% of his products.
“But I can’t afford that to happen - the whole ethos of my shop is local farm produce with world foods - that is what people come here for.”
Others he knows in the food and garden centre business are in “exactly the same boat”.
“It is definitely hitting us all. I know of one large garden centre that is being hit badly because of the difficulty in bringing in plants and seeds. It has not been widely reported in the media. I want to do business with everybody - including the south - but Northern Ireland does the vast bulk of its business with Great Britain.”
Asked what solution he would like to see in place, he replies: “Scrap the Protocol and start again. Replace it with something sensible where everybody is happy.”
He wants to assess the situation purely on commercial terms.
“There are far too many people looking at this Protocol through political eyes,” he adds.
The Consumer Council says it is aware of at least 130 companies that have stopped supplying to NI since Brexit, while Secretary of State Brandon Lewis says he is aware of 200.
UFU president David Brown says that while the Protocol is working for several commodities “it is causing havoc for others”.
Stuart Anderson, Head of Public Affairs at the NI Chamber of Commerce & Industry, said recently that the “big problem” with commentary on the protocol is that its trade advantages and disadvantages are being “used as competing narratives when they don’t need to be”.
He affirmed that buying goods in from GB is posing real problems. “Let me be absolutely clear, GB-NI issues are real,” he tweeted.
Presbyterian Church spokesman Rev Trevor Gribben said recently the Protocol “is not working” and that it has “unbalanced the delicate settlement that is the Good Friday Agreement”.
:: Are you finding difficulties bringing in goods from GB due to the NI Protocol? Please email us at [email protected]