Leading industry figures at last week's BALI National Landscape Awards hailed a "renaissance period" this year for the landscape sector, but attendees also highlighted the stark contrast between the South East and the rest of the UK.
Frosts Landscape Construction, which won the Grand Award for its hard landscaping work at Merchant Square in London, has certainly benefited from the South East's buoyant construction market. Commercial director Aidan Lane said: "There's so much work about that people are really choosing what they want to do. They're not pricing a lot of work. Four or five years ago prices were tight and everyone went for the same jobs. Now there's a range of projects going on at one time so everyone is finding their own part of the market."
Podium projects have become Frosts' niche area and the company often advises clients on where they can save money because most still have tight budgets. High numbers of residential and commercial blocks going up in London also mean steady demand for green roofs. Frosts is finalising three roof gardens on the South Bank Tower and five at a residential Sloane Street complex. A huge new play area is also underway at Hampton Court.
At Willerby Landscapes, which won a Principal Award for London's Sky Garden, communications manager David Witham said trade is "probably" back at pre-recession levels, with landscape "enjoying a renaissance period". That means the company can be choosy about work, although the best contracts, such as the Garden Bridge, still invite competition. Other jobs on the go include several London roof gardens and the University of Cambridge's 10-year development project.
At The Landscape Group, which won two Principal Awards for jobs at the Olympic Park, business development director Sarah Hughes-Clarke said work has "definitely" picked up. "There's a lot going on, a lot of interest in construction, long-term maintenance and parks management."
However, the BALI awards also highlighted the geographic divide, with around three-quarters of the winning projects from the South East. Ground Control construction director Alistair Wallace said while the company has a good order book and plenty of bids in overall, further north "there is more and more competition and less and less work". The South East has more of an emphasis on quality and direct-to-client jobs rather than subcontracting work.
Although some northern clients are approaching pre-recession spending, they are more frugal, with jobs such as school refurbishments replacing new builds, added Wallace. For Grace Landscapes, which carries out commercial jobs primarily between the Midlands and the Scottish Borders, the market remains "very competitive", said commercial director Jo Hardingham. "We used to get more design and build jobs - we are still not getting as many. On the whole we are being brought on board once the scheme has been finalised."
Student accommodation schemes, city centre regenerations and new retail centres are providing work for the firm. Grace has just landscaped Glasgow Fort Shopping Centre and Kirkstall Bridge in Leeds, and has won a £140,000 contract for Silverlink Retail Park in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Blakedown Landscapes Operations senior contracts manager Phil Townsend said the market further north is "holding its own but it's certainly not in boom time". He added: "We're not in such a bad position at the moment but our forward order book is not as buoyant as we'd like. It takes a while for any improvement to hit the industry. We're following the trends of the building market and at the moment that's tough."
Amenity Growers say market has returned to pre-recession level
Amenity growers have said the market is back to pre-recession levels. The downturn of 2008-09 lasted five quarters and was the deepest UK recession since the war, with manufacturing output declining by seven per cent by the end of 2008, unemployment rising to 8.3 per cent and construction falling 13 per cent in 2009.
Johnsons of Whixley director Andrew Richardson said the landscape plant supply side of the business is now "flat out" as delayed and new projects come on stream. He added: "We’re now back to the stage up to where we were before the recession, though we had 120 staff then and only have 75 or 80 now, so we are more lean. We’re very pleased with the way it’s going. It has been a very tough few years."
Crowders Nurseries owner Robert Crowder said: "It has been a very good autumn in the commercial landscaping market. We’re having the best autumn since 2007, which was the peak before the recession. It has been a long recession in terms of commercial landscaping, but we’re now at full throttle."