The spring Budget and autumn statement both featured infrastructure as somewhat of a buzzword. Although it can mean many things, some of it has been clearly earmarked for investment in our roads. In the autumn statement, chancellor Philip Hammond bemoaned the UK's poor productivity and announced £23bn of infrastructure innovation investment in his National Productivity Investment Fund, which included £1.1bn to upgrade local roads. In November, £27m was allocated to develop an expressway connecting Oxford and Cambridge
In the spring Budget he said £90m of this would go to the north and £23m to the Midlands "from a £220m fund that addresses pinch points on the national road network". He also allocated £690m for local authorities to get local transport networks moving, with a further £490m to be made available early in autumn 2017.
This investment comes on the back of several years during which rail was the focus. HS2 and Crossrail have provided business opportunities for growers and commercial landscapers. Discussions continue concerning HS3 and Crossrail 2 that, alongside other rail lines such as The East West Rail Link between Oxford and Norwich, promise more work down the line.
"There's lots going on," says idverde sales and operations director Alistair Bayford. "We've just finished a project for Morgan Sindall on Crossrail at Pudding Mill Lane station, we've done shelter belt planting at Stratford and we're finding lots more infrastructure projects associated with Crossrail and HS2." The type of work coming through on Crossrail, for example, is a mix, from high-end landscape builds such as the Gillespies-designed Crossrail Place Roof Garden to "a lot more soft landscape shelter belt planting and linear corridors for biodiversity".
Crowders Nurseries won the contract to grow the first tranche of up to seven-million native trees and shrubs that will be used to create more than 1,000ha of woodland habitats alongside the HS2 rail link. The 10-year advance procurement contract for phase one of the project is the largest contract for trees and plants ever let by Government to our sector, with Crowders first growing instruction comprising 1.8 million plants with more than 500,000 container-grown items and 130,000 trees over 2m tall, both bare-root and root-balled.
Planting will be integrated with the construction programme and designed to help blend the train line into the existing landscape. Lost woodland will be replaced and new planting will help to create "green corridors" linking currently isolated wooded areas with new ones. When all these come to be planted it will keep a lot of landscapers busy, according to Crown Group managing director Gareth Emberton, who says there are concerns in the market about capacity on the build side.
"Some major projects are going to suck the life out of the industry, things like HS2 and Hinckley," he adds. "We've had companies coming to us from the South West because they don't believe contractors there can deal with the demand. HS2 is going to suck a lot of land construction jobs into that project as well. Those two are going to define the industry for the next five-to-ten years. At the same time you've still got housing, education and health, which is business."
Emberton says education health, housing and infrastructure are all "hot at the moment". His firm has benefited from a buoyant market, doubling both its revenue and staff over the past year, and recently launched an apprenticeship scheme with 12 new hires to ensure that it has enough talent coming through.
Boningale Nurseries chairman Tim Edwards agrees that infrastructure work is keeping the construction industry busy. "That infrastructure work is going on and that is a good thing. I think the Government has understood that it needs to spend on infrastructure of one sort or another. All of us amenity guys had a pretty good year. Some were disappointed immediately after Christmas but we are all finding it busy now."
Johnsons of Whixley is another company that recently launched an in-house training scheme. Joint managing director Andrew Richardson has found that the 96-year-old amenity nursery's north Yorkshire location has helped it draw in a lot of work from north of the border, including a recent £100,000 Glasgow Airport landscape build for Ashlea Landscapes and three out of four phases of a growing contract for Willy Huston, a landscape firm based near Glasgow that has the contract for the Aberdeen bypass, worth around £200,000. Johnsons is growing trees, container plants and hedging to specific regional provenance.
The company also supplied a new stretch of the A1 last year. Richardson says the Aberdeen project spend is "three or four times" that of England. "When the Scots put a road scheme in they spend a lot of money on the plant side. In England they'll put in a small plant with a guard. In Scotland they put a much stronger plant in because it's got a better chance of surviving."
He explains that contractors are rushed off their feet because they thinned staff during the recession and have not yet replaced them, particularly in back office roles. "They're all hands on. It can be an advantage as one of the ways we've been successful is taking the pain away." He advocates thinking more like Amazon in terms of supply and demand than a traditional nursery.
Bayford reports that idverde is certainly very busy. "When I came back in January it was like someone had turned on the tap and we had to find a vessel big enough to catch it. It's very buoyant. That doesn't mean it's not as tough as it's always been to win the work. We are utilising our synergies to find the most efficient delivery model that provides the best value for the clients. We're finding that we're just finishing a project and already starting the next one or two. The team has grown, opportunities are coming left, right and centre and that hasn't changed in the past year. It's tight."
Current idverde projects include working on the North West Cambridge Development, the University of Cambridge's mixed-use community vision, for Farran Construction, building a courtyard designed by Sarah Price. The £200,000 project is "soft landscaping, significantly sized trees, lots of herbaceous and shrub planting. It's quite intricate in terms of species," says Bayford. One welcoming aspect is that clients are heavily weighing quality over price, he adds.
There would be concerns in the market about labour supply and the skills shortage even without the new elephant in the room - Brexit. Edwards says it is a big worry that looms over the industry. Emberton calls it "the hand grenade that goes off". Richardson says there is a lot of work out there but he remains concerned about the future because so many of the infrastructure projects for which Johnsons grows have EU money behind them, particularly in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
"That's a real concern for the future. We're talking to the HTA as Brexit happens. We're trying to push through the HTA, NFU and BALI that we get as good a deal as possible for the UK industry. The HTA and the round table group are trying to find out the size of the industry. Once we start getting that information we can go to Government and say we're as big as the car industry, for example. We're also working with the HTA on how we can become self-sufficient on oak. It's such an important plant for the UK. A lot comes in from the continent."
Edwards agrees: "In the distant future we won't be getting money out of Europe, so where will it come from? For the past 40 years most of that has come from Europe. Once we're out we have to make the best of it. The UK needs to increase production of nursery stock. It needs an improvement in biosecurity. That's the sort of logic that influences Government strategy. The various different parts of the industry need to get together, which it is doing, to lobby Governments.
"Everything is going to change. What concerns me is that a lot of that work needs to be done now. There is an awful lot of it. We don't have a Government strategy on this at the moment but we have the opportunity to develop one now. All of this is going to happen in two years and that's a big ask."
Richardson says it is positive that infrastructure has climbed up the Government's agenda but it is now up to industry to "keep pushing Government". He adds: "It's alright that sound bite - it's like the Northern Powerhouse that has gone very quiet. I think the Government is starting to realise that there's this massive benefit in plants."
AECOM director of landscape architecture Eric Hallquist says: "Green infrastructure is rising up the agenda but at present in a fairly limited way through a number of small projects. Big ideas looking at how to address resiliency issues such as sea level rises or flash flooding are still needed, along with increased investment for watershed management, shoreline protection or initiatives that re-imagine the role of urban watercourses."
Micro-solutions can often be sold as green infrastructure, he points out, with the term overused and often under-delivering as a result. "Green infrastructure has to pay for itself and provide a competitive alternative to grey infrastructure. Industry must therefore better sell green infrastructure to Government, identifying the economic benefits. There aren't currently many discussions about below-ground utility upgrade costs or offsetting insurance premiums."
Bayford says green infrastructure is "absolutely rising up the agenda". He adds: "I think there's a collective effort from both decision makers and planners - and design teams." Edwards says the new "metro mayors", due to be elected on 4 May, will change the landscape. "They'll give us somebody else to speak to and give the message to, and if we're successful that will be good." But he warns that the opportunity is a double-edged sword. "We've got to get ourselves together pretty quickly to get our message across."
Pricing - Weak pound and rising National Living Wage both having an impact
The weak pound continues to have an impact, as do Government policies on labour such as the National Living Wage rise.
"We're all seeing cost going up quite dramatically - the pound, minimum wage, raw materials. Pretty much everything we do is seeing costs going up and we have to work very hard to contain them," says Johnsons of Whixley's joint managing director Andrew Richardson. "We're getting half the price of 20 years ago for a plant. The sort of market we're in you're not able to put prices up at all. The council market is not there at all."
Boningale Nurseries chairman Tim Edwards says: "We're hammered by what we're buying from Holland. There's every justification to put up prices."
Alistair Bayford says idverde's focus on the UK supply chain means it has not yet been impacted by currency changes. "You have to sensibly pass that on to the client. You can't take a risk of not getting that conversion rate right. As a sector we need to work together to maximise opportunities for the UK market. Crowders' HS2 contract is a great example that we can do it."
HS2 Cheshire East Council taking advantage of infrastructure investment with quality landscaping key to its vision
Cheshire East Council is primed to take advantage of infrastructure investment when HS2 comes to Crewe in 2027. Multidisciplinary practice Arup is working with property consultancy CBRE on a mixed-use masterplan due to be revealed next month. The local authority forecasts that the regeneration will create 37,000 jobs by 2043.
The council's director of infrastructure and highways Andrew Ross says landscape is central to its vision and its Quality of Place agenda, with some key components of the masterplan built around the idea that high-quality landscape can add both to commercial value and to the quality of the regeneration.
"Arup has been at the heart of this," he points out. "There are quite a few lessons that we've learnt from the impact of other regeneration schemes. One of those is that landscape is a very important aspect.
"Clearly if you were somebody who was told what Cheshire was like as a county you would think about peaks and plains. You would think about a lot of historic gardens and landscapes we have. If you landed in Crewe you wouldn't necessarily believe that you're in Cheshire. You can arrange regeneration to integrate landscape."
He adds: "It's about adding value. It's about respecting the context within where you sit. If you get these things right they add value to a development and make things more commercial. Most importantly of all, you create places that people enjoy more and will be a more pleasant environment to be in for well-being and health reasons."
East Cheshire is pursuing a raft of measures aimed at improving its residents' health outcomes. In March it ran a Ride to Work week with Travel Cheshire, a project the council set up to promote active travel. It offered the prize of a trip to Cuba for commuters who committed to ride to work.
At the same time the council is using landscape to improve air quality, says Ross. "I think that's more and more of an important issue going forward whether it's Crewe or other places. We're working up ways in which we can address those issues not just in Crewe but across East Cheshire. We're all trying to come up with innovative solutions."
Last month the council also consulted on two major road schemes that it says will relieve pinch points - a reshaping of Crewe Green roundabout and proposals to replace the signal-controlled single-lane Sydney Road Bridge with a bridge to accommodated two-way traffic as well as cycle and walking routes.
Ross says his team tries to "strive and deliver on all the sustainability principals and wider environmental factors" with its infrastructure plans. "We've got several road schemes, we'd look to introduce things like SuDS and we try and design schemes that avoid water run-off that include adapting habitats for wildlife. We engage with stakeholders such as Cheshire Wildlife Trust. These are all key elements that should be respected in future. I think as an industry we are improving all the time in terms of trying to create that respect between the man-made natural environment and built environment."