The Professional Gardeners Guild (PGG) is to survey its members on accommodation issues amid concern about evictions and the rising cost of housing. Guild chairman Tony Arnold said there has been concern among members about housing for some years, an issue that dovetails into the profession's other perennial worry, low pay.
"Our members are telling us that some are having to pay rent when they didn't before and that varies between a token rent and the average market rate. Quite often they don't get a raise," he said.
"A lot of them are on less than £15,000 a year. The wages that many gardeners are on, they won't be able to get a mortgage. You can't save enough to even get the deposit. A lot of them are in very expensive areas and a lot of them are in prime tourist hot spots." But he added: "We have some members who do get a house for life. They might have to move after retirement but they still get somewhere to live. It varies."
The survey will ask professional gardeners what type of accommodation they live in, who owns it, what it costs, where it is in relation to where they work, whether gardeners are entitled to tied accommodation and what responsibilities go with this, and how pay compares between those who benefit from tied accommodation and those who do not.
Arnold said members would be asked their opinions via Survey Monkey in mid-to-late October - the time of year the PGG finds it gets its best response rate. "We'd like to know how secure gardeners feel in their accommodation," said Arnold.
"Some of them have to live on-site and we'd like to know the reasons why that is. Often employers say we don't need you to do, for example, on-site security anymore so you don't need the house. We'll ask: 'Have you ever been evicted and what was the reason given?'"
The issue is a tricky one for employers. Professional gardeners are employed in the public and private sectors, and many in the third sector for the National Trust, English Heritage and the National Trust for Scotland. In line with their charitable status, the trusts are focused on making the best use of resources as well as the issue of fairness with regard to other members of staff.
National Trust for Scotland has had a policy to move away from tied accommodation since 2010, unless it is vital to the job role. A spokesman said: "Part of the problem was huge contract variations. Some odd deals were done going back over the years - for example, when tied accommodation was in lieu of a higher wage.
"It's an old-fashioned practice that's being phased out slowly but surely over time as people leave. When new people join we have different arrangements. What we were finding was that particularly for long-service staff, when they came to retirement age if they hadn't been paying market rents or got a mortgage or built up savings, it's not the best preparation for the next stage in their lives."
The National Trust instituted a staff housing review in 2012 to "ensure its approach was consistent and fair to all employees in similar roles" and to ensure its policies were tax-compliant. HMRC regards some tied accommodation as a taxable perk. "Our previous approach had become out-of-step with that of similar organisations," said a representative for the trust.
"The provision of staff housing is now based on a clear business need and has to be consistent across the trust. In making any changes, which will be fully implemented at properties by February 2017, we consulted with staff and worked closely with the Prospect trade union. We have agreed a financial support package with the union for those leaving staff accommodation."
In 2012 the trust had 538 posts of all kinds - not just gardeners - with staff housing. Of those, 349 posts have been approved as continuing to need it. It has repurposed some former staff housing as holiday homes. The trust took in £9.5m from holiday home rentals in 2015 and ploughed £2.9m back into trust coffers.
English Heritage and the National Trust for Scotland also rent holiday cottages, some of them once occupied by staff, although this may have been decades ago when the house was in private ownership. National Trust for Scotland has 72 holiday lets, not all owned by the trust, including Ardlochan Lodge in the grounds of Culzean Castle & Country Park in Ayrshire.
It was once used as staff accommodation but had been empty and uninhabitable since 1991 until it was brought back into use as a four-bedroom holiday cottage this April. Such properties earned £282,000 net in the financial year 2015-16.