Poor communication from water companies is adding to the plight of landscape contractors whose businesses are starting to be hit by the hosepipe bans.
Several contractors complained of conflicting messages from the utilities and a lack of response to queries on issues such as bans, permits and standpipes.
They spoke out after the latest round of talks between industry bodies and utility firms last week failed to lead to new exemptions. This was followed by an extension of the drought into 17 counties early this week (see box).
Bradley Goodman, director of Harlow Garden Services in Essex, said: "Our water company has not been proactive. I've phoned up twice to find out about exemptions and permits and have been unable to speak to an expert. I want everything in writing, but no-one has called me back."
RMB Hydroseeding managing director Franklyn Melville-Brown agreed: "Utilities are not keeping us in the loop. Nobody has kept up a regular dialogue on things such as hiring standpipes if the need arises and we are relying on BALI to inform us."
Meanwhile, a commercial manager for a contractor in Oxford said: "We have a non-commercial job for 4,000sq m of turf and as far as I know we can't water it. I get conflicting messages and Thames Water is not making it clear."
BALI chief operations officer Wayne Grills said a film studio had been told by its water company that it could not irrigate a £200,000 plant scheme, only for a closer look at the legislation to reveal that it could.
Palmstead Nursery sales and marketing manager Nick Coslett added: "Water companies have made a dog's mess of the restrictions, saying 'yes' one minute to exemptions on turf and 'no' the next. We're right to be angry. We're the victims of 20 years of underinvestment."
This view was echoed by Association of Professional Landscapers chair Mark Gregory. He accused the utilities of "victimisation" and "continued and disproportionate" treatment following the recent meeting.
Thames Water is looking into providing access to non-potable water for landscape businesses.
Landscape designers and installers, meanwhile, said the bans were starting to hurt. The Plantation, a garden centre and installation service in Surrey that forms a division of Gavin Jones, reckoned that the hosepipe ban could dent turnover.
Senior contracts manager Paul Cook said: "Customers are putting back planting until later in the year, which could lead to a backlog. This would affect the flow of work well into 2013, hamper planting schedules and have to be budgeted for.
"This will have an impact on the bottom line on domestic projects and nursery sales. The effect on our business, which totals £22m turnover, would be significant and could be around £1m."
Ebsford Environmental managing director Nick Hartley said business for green roofs would be hit because they needed plenty of irrigation.
Thames Water said: "We are hugely sympathetic but these are matters beyond our control. For as long as it stays dry we need to consider an increasingly precious and finite resource. Sanitation, washing and cooking are priorities over lawns and shrubbery. Landscape gardeners are not going to like that but it's an unfortunate fact."
Key drought issues - Latest status update, exemption U-turns and management advice
Seventeen counties in south-west England and the Midlands have moved into official drought status, the Environment Agency announced this week. But hosepipe bans are unlikely because public supplies are more plentiful than in the South East, according to the agency.
Exemption back tracks
Following the U-turn by South East Water over its garden hosepipe ban exemption for watering in newly-laid turf, and backtracking from Southern Water over a similar deal, Sutton & East Surrey has also withdrawn its concession for newly-laid turf, the only remaining such deal in place across the garden hosepipe ban-hit regions. However, drip irrigation is allowed in all areas.
Dealing with drought
Landscapers say they are working more closely with plant specialists to choose the best plants for dry conditions. Increasing levels of mulching and organic matter are also advised. Tips for sports facility managers include adding an iron-based tonic for fine turf as a hardener for drought and heat, leaving more length on cutting heights and monitoring turf surface and root zone moisture levels more closely, especially on golf greens. See feature, page 20.