Horticultural trade stays upbeat despite warning of a slowdown

The horticulture industry remains upbeat about 2008's outlook despite prime minister Gordon Brown's sobering New Year warning of a tough year ahead.

International credit problems, housing market volatility, rising oil and commodity prices have led to warnings about an economic slowdown.

But retailers say having the right weather at the right time will help sales regardless of the economy. HTA retail group chairman Caroline Owen said good weather would be key but retailers needed to offer good customer service during more difficult times. "Customer service makes all the difference because you can get people coming back and increasing footfall."

Landscaping sector representatives believe it will take time for any slowdown to have an impact.

But Horticulture Week has learnt that at least one major house building firm has taken "urgent action" to manage costs by forcing subcontractors to slash five per cent off all existing and future orders.

Norris & Gardiner landscape contractor managing director Richard Gardiner believed that, while his firm would not have a "rip-roaring year", it would be protected because most of its work is for councils and is seen as necessary.

Boningale managing director Tim Edwards said he was worried about the summer: "My bigger concern is with commercial landscaping and I suspect there will be a downturn in construction, though it may hit the sector after 2008."

He added: "The housing market is fairly robust and even when things are tough more money tends to go on show homes and landscape to sell the houses."

Ground Control senior contracts manager Neil Huck said house building would not slow because of the need for housing. "I'm worried about commercial development, although major projects for the Thames Gateway and the Olympic 2012 site may boost the sector."

He said financial pressures could see local government finances being squeezed and warned that could lead to more multi-disciplined management teams that are not horticulture specialists.

SGS Environmental & Management Consultancy parks consultant Sid Sullivan believed the parks sector could benefit. "People use parks more during a recession so it's an opportunity to prove their worth." Yet Oldham Council head of parks and open spaces Steve Smith disagrees. "If there is a countrywide squeeze on council budgets the park sector will be one of the first hit."

- See vox pop, p17.

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