What's in store for horticulture in 2017?

Matthew Appleby, Sarah Cosgrove, Gavin McEwan and Sally Drury examine the key challenges and opportunities awaiting horticulture in 2017.

Parks: hope that government inquiry will provide shelter from ongoing austerity - image: City of Edinburgh Council
Parks: hope that government inquiry will provide shelter from ongoing austerity - image: City of Edinburgh Council

PARKS

The Government response to the parks inquiry report, funding, staffing and public profile

For parks, a key feature of 2017 will be the eagerly awaited Communities & Local Government Committee's report into its parks inquiry, what it recommends and the Government's response. Parks professionals have been cheered by the pledge from parks minister Andrew Percy - the first minister to add the title to his job description on the Department for Communities & Local Government website - to establish a cross-governmental group of policymakers and stakeholders to look at the recommendations during his inquiry evidence session last month.

Overall there is a great deal of hope and even optimism about what will come out of the inquiry to provide shelter from what parks consultant Peter Neal calls "the fierce headwinds of austerity". But, as Rugby Borough Council parks and grounds manager Chris Worman says: "We could be in a very serious situation. It could go either way."

Strong response needed

Heritage Lottery Fund head of landscape Drew Bennelick hopes for rather than foresees "a strong Government response and good news for the most used public service after GPs and hospitals".

State of UK Public Parks 2016 author Neal says the report "highlighted that parks have reached a tipping point and hopefully 2017 will be the turning point. Leadership is urgently needed at all levels".

The committee could recommend that parks be made a statutory service. If this is taken up by the Government it will have huge implications for how parks are run, particularly those that rely on commercial revenue-raising. But the committee heard mixed views on whether this would help.

Watford Borough Council head of parks Paul Rabbitts said: "There are plenty of statutory services that are crap. Making parks a statutory service is not really an answer. The answer is we need more money but there is no more money. We're going to get something out of the inquiry, but I'm not sure what that is."

The call for some kind of national "centre of excellence" to collect and share data, best practice, innovation and training was one the committee could not fail to have heard. Neal said achieving such is an aspiration rather than an expectation, but would be "incredibly valuable and important" if it came to pass. He also hoped for a task force to take forward the issue of funding challenges and alternative funding models.

The idea of a corporate minister to cut across ministerial boundaries is "a sound recommendation" and "incredibly important" he added. "There's real concern that things will increasingly start to unravel in 2017 unless the issues are properly addressed. They can't be put off."

Landscape Institute president Merrick Denton-Thompson agreed, saying: "Without that corporate responsibility urban parks are going to continue to be undervalued with a disastrous impact on society. At the moment it's a pig's breakfast. I am confident that the select committee would have listened and understood that need."

There is a hope that the committee will recommend a broader, more imaginative answer to parks funding, diverting money from other departments to help pay for the multitude of societal benefits parks provide. Worman wants to see some of the estimated £520m raised by the sugar tax on drinks to go to parks, which "can make a huge difference to children's lives", rather than all going towards sport in primary schools. Funding parks "will make a difference to the obesity crisis and the spending crisis in the NHS".

Independent trust models

Alternative funding models, in particular trusts, were an important theme of the parks inquiry. Chief executive of The Parks Trust Milton Keynes David Foster said: "If the Government can develop an initiative that provides an incentive and supports local authorities to set up independent trust models to manage their parks that would be a really good start. Locally driven solutions are the answer but for them to take hold they will need a strategic, national approach to the parks problem."

New Parks Alliance chairman Matthew Bradbury, who is chief executive of Nene Park Trust, says trusts and other models "will always be part of the mix" but there is "no silver bullet". "To attract additional investment, public parks and open spaces need to benefit from a secure core grant. The experience of The Parks Alliance is that capital and specific project funding can, in many cases, be obtained but it is revenue funding that is under pressure." Without core funding and skilled parks professionals, creative solutions will be impossible.

At the coal face there will be no getting away from a really tough year for parks. Worman says issues will really begin to come to a head in 2017. Rabbitts adds: "There will be fewer of us. Over the next two-to-three years, with the revenue support grant taken from Government, it will really hit us. The lottery funded parks will continue to do well, but it's the older parks that will really struggle. There will be much more commercialisation. People are going to have to start paying more. People are not happy but you either pay for it or lose it."

Loss of specialism

Head of parks, gardens and cemeteries for Edinburgh City Council David Jamieson says the sector's greatest problem in 2017 will be the loss of specialism and professionalism, which will further diminish the importance of parks within local authorities. Bradbury agrees. "I expect the loss of experienced park staff will continue to be a significant issue," he says.

Jamieson says we will see more naturalisation of parks to save costs on maintenance but despite being driven by economics there are positive side effects. "We're getting more climate-resilient parks, biodiversity improvements and green networks in cities are getting more effective."

Neal says some local authorities will buck the trend, realise the importance of parks and continue to invest. "Those will be the winners in 2020," he points out. "Those that end up disinvesting will have an immense challenge to bring their parks back into working order."

At the same time, experts talk about 2017 being the year of the politicisation of parks. While friends groups and local campaigners have been very active on their local parks, this year could see more of a national movement, as councils draw yet more funds away from non-statutory services to fund social care, a crucial service but used by a narrower section of the population.

Worman says 2017 will see "a sea change" in how the public views parks. Neal adds: "Residents and local communities will increasingly wake up to the fact that they continue to pay their council tax, and at a higher rate in many cases, and realise that they are getting less for that money. They will become more vocal. Parks, because they are incredibly popular, will be a very powerful political policy agenda."

Elections for the seven city region mayors on 4 May could prove significant, if candidates choose to make parks a priority in their campaigns. May also brings local elections in Scotland, where Greenspace Scotland is planning to lead a campaign to galvanise voter lobbying. Jamieson says: "Elected representatives will listen more to their voters than their officers at a time when plenty of people are crying out for funding. For me that's where we as a sector need to focus our attention in helping our communities to help us."

The sector's access to data will also improve in 2017. Based on pilot studies in Manchester, Cumbria, Devon and East Anglia, the Natural Capital Committee is due to produce a form of toolkit to help people start the process of putting a monetary value on the benefits parks can bring, a factor that has not traditionally been costed.

The Royal Parks will merge with The Royal Parks Foundation this year to become a charity shaping its own destiny away from Government control. Chairman of The Royal Parks Guild Mike Fitt sees "a great future for The Royal Parks as the organisation becomes a charity and able to chart its own way forward".

Whatever the impact of the parks inquiry, parks will enjoy a higher profile in the public consciousness in 2017, and maybe this will even, finally, be the year they begin to get the recognition, if not the money, they deserve.

Ornamentals: the prolonged 2016 season has helped to fuel optimisim for 2017

ORNAMENTALS

Rising overheads, exchange rates, export opportunities and labour restrictions

Ornamental plant growers face continued overhead rises but have the benefit of imports costing more. This means exports are an option for some and there is less competition on price from imported stock, ranging all the way from poinsettia to trees.

After Brexit caused sterling to weaken by 20 per cent, Woodlark Nurseries' Colin Edwards says poinsettia is on a level playing field in price with Dutch imports for the first time, while Hillier's Jim Hillier says the grower is in a "coals to Newcastle" situation, by starting to export to Holland.

Simon Earley of Earley Ornamentals says Brexit means "it should be better for British growers, make exports easier and give opportunity. But success in 2017 still boils down to the right weather at the right time."

The British Protected Ornamentals Association's Simon Davenport suggested that growers could produce more poinsettia, for instance, in 2017, helped by exchange rates.

Kilworth Conifers' Derek Spicer says: "The exchange rate is helping with Ireland. We do a reasonable amount over there. We import a bit from Poland and Holland and we might now buy a bit less. This is curtailing Dutch imports."

New Leaf Plants' Andy Jeanes says the prolonged 2016 season has been great after a poor start, leading to optimism for 2017. "Exchange rates are limiting the supply of Dutch product coming in. A lot of buyers are now looking for the equivalent UK product."

Newey Group director Alex Newey says "our mantra is 'steady away' for 2017". The nation's biggest ornamental grower adds: "There is nothing groundbreaking planned for 2017, only to do what we do and do it better. We remain acquisitional and are actively looking for businesses." The group has restructured to try and get the right people in the right jobs. "There's lots of pressure on price," adds Newey. "We need to be as lean as possible. There's still no middle management in our group."

Competitive trading

David Ball of Britain's second biggest grower, Neame Lea, sums up the overall view aside from import-export: "Trading will remain extremely competitive, with the National Living Wage and the fall in value of the pound causing cost inflation with a reluctance of customers to increase prices.

"I'm expecting this to lead to further consolidation within the industry, as supply chains are forced to become more efficient and companies spread overheads across a larger production base. Continued investment in the industry will be crucial to maintain profit margins and keep production costs low."

Mark Taylor of Allensmore Nurseries says Brexit, the euro, potential changes to phytosanitary rules and possible restrictions on East European workers are growers' biggest concerns. "It's a worry what effect Brexit may have on East European workers. We hope that there won't be any restrictions on that."

The euro is a "conundrum" for many growers, says Taylor, and "stability" is the most important factor with exchange rates. He added that traded plants' prices could go up by 10 per cent but retailers expect growers to be more efficient so they can hold prices on home-grown plants.

On the amenity side, Majestic Trees reeled from the shock of Brexit in June 2016. The company's Steve McCurdy says Autumn 2015 sales were up 63 per cent, but later the daily deluge about the EU referendum started to take their toll.

"Dire forecasts by politicians created a lot of uncertainty prior to the June referendum and scaremongering became pronounced, with the IMF declaring that a vote to leave would be financial Armageddon. To the average person it sounded like a vote to leave would destroy our economy.

"The knock-on effect is that especially after the UK voted to leave many people put off major spending. This resulted in our year-on-year sales for July through September dropping by 27 per cent and we closed out our financial year in September one per cent lower than 2015 - not the 10 per cent plus growth we had planned on.

"Thankfully sales have really rebounded in October and November primarily as consumer confidence has rebounded, house prices primarily held firm, retail sales are up and the 'experts' including the IMF now say that the UK economy will still be the strongest-growth economy in Europe over the next 12 months.

"So I am fairly confident about 2017. The only problem we have to deal with is the exchange rate and the fact that at EUR1.16 to the pound it is not what it was in the spring. This is driven by currency traders who predicted parity. Some 98 per cent of the trades they make are based on speculation and not currency exchanged to pay for imports, but we will have to deal with it until the pound rebounds."

Trentham Gardens: attraction has been open all year round since 2004 reopening

PROFESSIONAL GARDENING

Increasing visitor numbers, more self-employment, training developments and disease risk

An uncertain world is good news for garden attractions, according to National Trust head of gardens Mike Calnan, who says changing times make people cherish their heritage more.

"Period dramas are part of this trend as are National Trust visitor and membership numbers, now a staggering 4.6 million, with many of these attracted by our gardens, which are more popular than ever." He expects to see the rise in visitors attracted to National Trust gardens by last year's Capability Brown festival to be sustained this year.

A more recent example of garden heritage at Standen is due to reopen in February, on the completion of a five-year £500,000 project to restore the original arts and crafts-inspired garden. Work will also start on the fifth RHS garden in Bridgewater, and the first RHS flower show will take place at Chatsworth.

The last quarter of 2016 was boom time for many gardens and arboreta, with many recording their best autumn colour and best visitor numbers to date, with the Brexit effect being seen as a factor, particularly for foreign visitors. Michael Walker, head of garden and estate at Trentham Gardens, expects more people to holiday in the UK this year as a result.

"Maybe gardens will be increasingly recognised for the value they offer to developing the economy of the UK's tourism. We should be well prepared to see visitor numbers grow further as it seems the public have an increasing interest in visiting the UK's gardens.

"I sense an increasing interest in finding new ways to make the garden offer more relevant and interesting to their target audiences. Trentham has opened the garden all year around since it reopened in 2004. However, we are now seeing many other gardens experiencing that visitors continue to enjoy their annual ticket arrangements all year around - particularly when this is supported with a wider offer."

Professional gardening itself will become more professional in 2017, with an increasing move towards self-employment, according to senior consultant Alan Sargent. Gardeners may work for one property or several but are less likely to clock up multi-year tenures. "When people are retiring they aren't being replaced in the way they were before," he said.

Dovetailing with this trend, The Professional Gardeners' Guild 2017 revamp will present the organisation in a more corporate way. Chairman Tony Arnold hopes this will help the guild appeal to a wider audience, especially younger gardeners.

There will be a continued drive towards training and encouraging new people to professionalise their interest in gardening. The National Trust's heritage gardening programme gets into full swing this year with a formal structure to provide better training and career development opportunities.

Volunteers can also train with the connected Heritage Skills Passport scheme, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. This gives the opportunity to acquire a wide range of horticultural skills by tracking the user's development and linking to available training courses.

Walker says: "The value of skills and experience continues to underpin the way forward for our profession and the business it supports. It is important that training schemes continue to be delivered to ensure that our gardens are able to grasp the opportunities ahead of us all."

There will be an increasing trend for more on-site training by visiting consultants, according to Sargent, especially in an environment where senior staff may have retired and the experience is no longer in the garden to pass on.

PESTS AND DISEASES

Gardeners and consultants alike will continue to be vigilant with regard to pests and diseases in 2017. National Trust plant conservation specialist Simon Toomer says Xylella fastidiosa, plane wilt disease (Ceratocystis platani), emerald ash borer and sweet chestnut blight have not yet reached the UK but there is a danger that they will in 2017.

He expects to see more incidents of sirococcus blight of cedar, oak processionary moth, ash dieback, box blight, box tree caterpillar, agapanthus gall midge, aquilegia downy mildew, narcissus leaf scorch and Oriental chestnut gall wasp. The trust had further raised biosecurity standards in its gardens, he adds.

The reality of disease risk means that gardens and arboreta must carefully consider their choice of species where the original planting in a historical landscape is now highly susceptible to disease. Toomer says: "We don't want to lose the heritage of these landscapes but we need to adapt them for a more risky world of plant diseases, which is not without its challenges."

Retail: gardening market is set to grow

GARDEN RETAIL

Impact of Brexit, inflationary pressures, houseplants gaining popularity and online market

Brexit uncertainty and online developments could be two trends heading into 2017 in garden retail, after a 2016 season that started badly but turned out fairly well. Verdict Research's latest report says the UK gardening market is predicted to grow by 8.2 per cent from 2016-21, despite any Brexit concerns.

Garden Centre Association chief executive Iain Wylie says garden retailers are yet to implement price increases caused by exchange rates and Brexit but wholesaler price rises from autumn 2016 will kick in from the start of 2017. There is still uncertainty around exchange rates, particularly since Donald Trump's election as US president and falls in the value of the dollar. "There will be changes afoot and rises to deal with, but I don't think garden centres have to deal with them yet."

Christmas sales started early and "money was in the bank" with trade four-to-five per cent up year to date overall after a trade recovery from a slow start to have steady gains later in the season across the board, Wylie points out.

But he adds: "The challenge is the uncertainty. There doesn't seem to be a clear direction with currency post-Brexit and Trump." Wylie says garden centre buyers will have a "more challenging job" in 2017 because they may have to look "further afield" for product "if certain products don't meet the right price to sell at the volume and margin they require".

Resisting inflation

Hillier purchasing head Andrew West is "well aware of inflationary pressures in the market", which Hillier is resisting. "Companies should not increase prices just to reassure their investors," he says.

Managing director Chris Francis sees houseplants as home accessories and the "return of the British nursery" as trends in 2017. "We've got to capitalise on Brexit in the UK and think about how to appeal to the market."

Many garden centres tweaked their offer in 2016, particularly in catering, which is the big growth area. Another potential place to add sales is online and Wyevale is finally entering the market in 2017.

YouGarden managing director Peter McDermott says a "challenge" for all bricks-and-mortar retailers going online is their "methodology of offering their in-store range online" and how to manage price competition and supply. He says the customer journey is very different online, with service, price and quality all "prerequisites", adding: "Quality and service have been the major challenges for new entrants."

McDermott welcomes Wyevale entering what he calls a "stagnant" direct-to-consumer gardening market, where he predicts further consolidation. It has been slower than most other retail sectors to embrace online. "Some businesses have not been financially thriving in our sector and some are marginally profitable," he adds

"If Wyevale brings in more online consumers and creates more traffic, that's a good thing. Then it's a question of where their loyalty is." He says many garden centres have "dramatically" moved from selling gardening as "the be-all and end-all" to just a "feature" over the past 10 years and the online garden market is also being hit by "cyclical" changes after a peak with Alan Titchmarsh's Groundforce and Gardeners' World 15 years ago. Customers buy fewer smaller plants and more medium-sized instant ones.

McDermott adds that the online consumer has never been served better and they have never had it easier to compare prices and review product quality. This means online quality, service and price is even more important.

He says 2016 "feels like an average year. There are no indications to say 2017 will be drastically better or worse. But I think euro pressure is an increasing factor unless it steadies. Price and margin pressure are the biggest concerns." There is nothing anyone can do about exchange rates and spring prices may rise sharply, he warns. Even the "catastrophic consequences" of the last crash may be replicated.

Urban Forestry WTCS

ARBORICULTURE

Biosecurity, contractor scheme, electric equipment, flood mitigation and pest threats

Arboricultural Association technical officer Simon Richmond says: "We will be pushing hard on biosecurity in 2017. We have support from other organisations for our biosecurity position statement, published last year, and that will be followed with guidance notes on best practice for practitioners in the field. We are also lobbying Parliament on this and have some MPs and Lords onside - and it will also be the key topic of our conference in September, one day of which will be in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Ecology & Environmental Management, with whom we share aims on this. It will be the first arboriculture conference to address the topic at an international level."

The association will also run events around the country this year on BS5837, the British Standard on trees in relation to design, demolition and construction. "This is a hot topic and it has been challenged by some who say it isn't working well, and that's generated a discussion that we are keen to take forward," says Richmond.

"We also have funding to prepare five technical guides, the first of which will be out later this year, on basic tree access and tool use, followed by works on rigging, dismantling, and use of MEWPs (mobile elevating work platforms) and cranes. There is also a move in the industry to the stationary rope technique that a lot of climbers are experimenting with now that the equipment is available here, though being from the US it isn't CE-marked. This raises training and safety issues that we will address.

"We are expanding our Approved Contractor scheme to include utility contractors. Apprenticeship standards for arboriculture are now being approved and the colleges will be introducing them this year. In equipment, there is an ongoing move from petrol to electrically powered kit, thanks to improved battery technology."

Great opportunity

Barrell Tree Consultancy managing director Jeremy Barrell says leaving the EU "is a great opportunity to rebalance farming policy" in favour of catchment management to address the increasing threat posed by flooding. "I hope Government has the vision and leadership to bring back some wilderness into managing our countryside," he says.

Another aspect of climate change and the increasing pest and disease threat is the need for appropriate amenity tree selection. "Most species will grow on a site but we need potentially big and long-lived species, not pretty or small or short-lived, which is often what we get. The idea of single-species landscape features has to be removed."

Meanwhile, the commercial development of cultured antagonistic fungi "has the potential to be used to control some of our most lethal tree-decay organisms such as Armillaria (honey fungus), and Ganoderma", against which there are no effective measures currently available, says Barrell. "They will revolutionise how we manage our ageing trees, and provide us with a means of retaining many old trees much longer than currently possible."

Image: HW

EDIBLES

National Living Wage, seasonal labour, apprenticeship levy, automation and robotics

NFU horticulture and potatoes board chair Ali Capper says: "The list of frustrating things is getting longer. It's still a priority for us to get some mitigation from the Government on the National Living Wage, which is due to rise further in April. But the number one concern is seasonal labour - not just post-Brexit but this year and next. We have already seen a definite drop-off in labour supply last season. We are currently awaiting dates with the Home Office to discuss this."

On other Brexit matters, she adds: "We are helping to shape thinking on the future support for producer organisations, which we would like to see not only continue but also expand into other crop areas such as potatoes, which are not currently covered. There is also a lot of concern in the industry about the revision of the Red Tractor assurance scheme, 50 per cent of which has changed. That's something we have responded to quite robustly."

Within the NFU, Dr Chris Hartfield has become senior regulatory affairs adviser, having served as acting chief horticulture policy adviser, a role now resumed by Hayley Campbell-Gibbons following maternity leave.

British Growers Association chief executive Jack Ward says the AHDB's strategy review, on which it has just concluded a consultation, "will set the scene for how it delivers over the next few years". He adds: "The AHDB has an important role to play as research, development and investment in areas like automation and pest control are essential to our sector. It's critical we get the spend correct and so get tangible results."

On the question of seasonal labour, he says: "We need some sort of scheme. The danger is we now go into limbo at a time when growers need to firm up their labour requirements. The strawberry and asparagus seasons are not far away. Let's get a pilot up and running and it can be refined at a later date."

Also on Brexit, emerging trade arrangements "will be enormously influential" to the UK fresh-produce sector, he points out. "There is also the opportunity for a little inflation to feed through to growers' returns. Everyone could use some respite from the downward pressure of recent years.

Free movement essential

National Fruit Show chairman and now Avalon Growers Produce Organisation general manager Sarah Calcutt says of Brexit: "We need free movement of people for the hospitality and health sectors as well as farming. Without that we will have crops rotting in the fields."

But she says the forthcoming apprenticeship levy, in force from April, could benefit the sector. "From the growers' perspective we need to attract people into the industry. It would be great if our guys could benefit, so long as the cost is realistic.

"There is a lot of interest in automation and robotics, with the aim of reducing labour but also increasing product quality. That now includes infrared Brix (sugar level) testing, which allows you to make quality guarantees to customers. You don't want to lose the order, so if 25 per cent of a consignment is below grade you can choose not to sell and juice it instead. Big growers like AC Goatham are looking at this."

Intelligent One: robotic line-marking machine introduced by Rigby Taylor - image: Rigby Taylor

TURF

Labour shortage, loss of chemicals, robotic mowing, new grasses and plant nutrition

A shortage of skilled labour and the continued loss of chemicals for use on turf are just two of the issues facing turf managers as we enter 2017. But solutions to both may be nearer than we think.

Without the volume of trained operatives coming up through parks apprenticeships, the grounds care industry has looked to Europe to find the workforce needed to maintain pitches, courts, courses, lawns and other grassed areas. With concerns over immigration limits in the future, some in the industry are wondering who will drive the mowers and tractors needed to maintain sports and amenity turf.

The answer is likely to be nobody. That does not mean the grass will simply be left to grow. In the future we could see mowers and tractors leaving the shed and doing a day's work with fuelling up being the only human intervention. Make them electric and even the fuelling stage is eliminated. We are not talking about the small randomly mowing mini-robotic mowers that work within a boundary set by a buried cable. We are talking fairway and municipal mowers.

It may seem far-fetched, but already Fendt has demonstrated the driverless tractor for spraying in orchards and in the grounds care sector we have Rigby Taylor's Intelligent One robotic line marker. Turflynx and Precision Makers, part of Dutch Power Company, are two companies developing autonomous mowing and programmes for other turfcare operations. Advantages are clear - 24/7 working, straight lines every time, minimal overlap and no labour costs.

Richard Campey, managing director at Richard Campey Turfcare Systems, has already witnessed autonomous mowing. "The technology is there," he says. "Every employer has the same problems - finding staff, training staff and then health and safety rules and regulations. I can see a time when people simply will not do manual type-work, especially outdoors in all weather. Mowing without an operative has to come."

When it comes to plant health much has been said over the past decade or so about the holistic approach to maintaining a healthy sward. Eliminating compaction, dealing with thatch, managing water and appropriate feeding go a long way to giving strong plants that can stand up to threats from pests and diseases. But using suitable grasses is the starting point. Recently we saw a major advance with the development of tetraploid perennial ryegrasses. These benefit from having double the number of chromosomes compared with diploids, ensuring fast germination to fit short renovation windows, and are tolerant to stresses and some diseases including microdonchium patch, leaf spot, red threads and rusts.

Granulation technology

Plant nutrition has taken on an important focus in regards to innovative granulation technology and Rigby Taylor's Microlite range has given groundsmen a super micro-size granule that achieves a high level of size consistency across the turf surface.

To address concerns over the sulphur content in some fertiliser ranges lowering pH levels in certain soils, a number of low-sulphur analyses have been added to the company's Microfine range. Attention is now given to products with a high organic base, low salt index and the incorporation of Polyhalite - a naturally occurring source of potassium, magnesium and calcium.

Chemical withdrawals continue to affect turf health, as well as the income of manufacturers who want to invest in research and development. The last product for effective control of casting earthworms will go this year. Rigby Taylor director Richard Fry says: "The sword of Damocles is hanging over some industry 'standard' fungicides, selectives and glyphosate, while few alternatives are being made available."

With many chemical developers reluctant to incur the cost of adding an amenity to a label, more emphasis will have to be put on cultural control and seed breeding for stress relief and disease resistance. But watch this space. There could be new chemistry appearing at BTME.

Mosaic of approaches: contractors are increasingly working with the third sector - image: Bluesky

GROUNDS CARE

Cost reduction, market consolidation, glyphosate licensing and invasive weeds

Grounds care contractors working with local authorities are braced for a tough year. Some parks professionals say this is the year when the effects of austerity will really show and contractors report being asked to find yet more imaginative ways of cutting back on costs.

Frosts managing director Ken White says: "We're being asked to cut prices but clients are still expecting exactly the same standard of work that they had before. There is such a challenge to find savings."

Some clients are suggesting stopping some services altogether, which brings up the issue of public perception of contractors' work. White says even though increasing complaints from the public would go to local authorities in the first instance, it is easy for them to be passed on to contractors. "More of us operate in some kind of real-time reporting. There is an increasing administration burden for us."

Alistair Bayford, sales and operations director at idverde UK, says 2017 will continue to be challenging as budgets continue to be stretched and remain under threat. "We will work closely with our clients to deliver efficient and high-quality services to meet the budget constraints," he adds.

Mixed picture

Commentators expect to see more consolidation in the market. As conditions become tougher, although continued austerity will mean some councils bring services back in-house, people believe it will be a mixed picture and other local authorities will contract out more. The increase in the National Living Wage will also hit those locked into low-margin, long-term contracts.

Downward price pressure will mean a risk of more contracts being taken by facilities management giants, but it is not all about price, according to consultant Peter Neal, who says we are moving away from the old binary relationship between contractor and local authority into a more multifaceted approach.

Contractors need to be adept at working with other organisations - environmental, conservation, health, third sector, culture, education, volunteer groups - and there will be more variation in how services are delivered, with room for more creative small and medium-sized enterprises to succeed in a rapidly-changing market.

Rugby parks head Chris Worman talks of a "mosaic of approaches." "One size no longer fits all. You'll have a jigsaw of groups involved and more third-sector input."

The 18-month moratorium on the EU's glyphosate licensing approval is due to end in December, which will lead to continued uncertainty about the continued use of the pesticide this year. Many in the sector feel that once Britain exits the EU, UK users will be on firmer ground. This year is likely to see more councils exploring or adopting a glyphosate reduction policy, putting more pressure on contractors to deliver services, particularly when alternatives can cost more than using chemicals.

White is not confident that glyphosate will get approved but "I am confident that we will come up with a solution as a sector. If we come up with another mechanical applied solution we could control it, but if you're looking for armies of people to be doing hand weeding that will be more expensive."

Edinburgh is one council that will change weed killing methods in 2017 following a trial last year. Head of parks, gardens and cemeteries David Jamieson says: "There's a definite trend that all councils wish to be environmentally conscious."

This trend also benefits contractors with deep horticultural knowledge and the staff to match, as does the drive towards "naturalising" areas to save on mowing costs. Instead of being engaged to mow or weed a certain number of times a year, contractors will increasingly need to work in partnership with local authorities to develop creative methods of cost reduction.

Jo Mullett, director of Japanese Knotweed Control in Swansea, says: "If glyphosate goes then we are all a bit stuffed, although in the long run I don't think Theresa May gives a stuff about the environment so she won't ban it. It has to be used sparingly. A lot of contractors are using it just because it's the cheapest option."

Japanese knotweed

Invasive weeds will continue to invade the public consciousness in 2017. Mullett says she can see no slowdown of "mortgage companies getting their knickers in a twist about Japanese knotweed."

This provides more opportunities for contractors, but there is concern among established operators that new companies without the relevant experience and knowledge will take market share. "There's going to be more people out there and more people botching it up. Even now there's so much bad information," says Mullett.

"We're finding people employing companies and they realise after that they need Property Care Association accreditation for the mortgage company. Also, the work might not be on their property and then it is difficult for them because you can't guarantee someone else's work for the purposes of insurance. Things are getting more complicated."

She thinks aquatics are going to become more prevalent with mortgage companies beginning to take notice of invasives other than knotweed, especially as they can cause flooding. Species to watch out for include water hyacinth, water primrose and water fern.

Potential for post-Brexit labour shortages remains a key concern - image: Ground Control

LANDSCAPE

Healthy forward orders, major projects, infrastructure, housing white paper and mechanisation

Landscape firms entered 2016 with a buoyant market and a great deal of confidence and, despite a momentous year, firms are reporting busy order books for 2017, although currency fluctuations and price rises remain a concern.

Willerby Landscapes contracts director John Melmoe says the market has "calmed down a little bit compared to 2016" but will still be "buoyant" in 2017, with hesitation seen following the Brexit vote not translating into a long-term downturn. "Residential is slowing, high-end residential isn't, but general residential is and commercial has slowed a little."

Frosts managing director Ken White says he is getting mixed messages from architects about the strength of the market, depending on their focus. "Our forward-order book is very healthy and we've got some forward ordering into 2018, but I do have some concerns when we're asked to price projects that far in the future. The main contractors are looking to protect their costs." Willerby forward buys currency to hedge its bets.

"Brexit has put a lot of us into a spin. What will it do ultimately to the pound? We're starting to see an awful lot of price increase in suppliers. We could be talking as high as 20 per cent on some products. Brexit is being blamed for that. Uncertainty causes doubt and makes people do all sorts of strange things. We live in uncertain times."

Nine Elms regeneration

Other big projects for landscape companies include the 195ha Nine Elms regeneration in London, the focus of several firms' attention, but that has led to pricing being "a bit depressed", says Melmoe. Landscape Institute president Merrick Denton-Thompson says things are "unusually buoyant" and not just in London, with a shortage of available landscape architects for projects.

Boningale chairman Tim Edwards is "still staggered" that the UK did not go into recession following the Brexit vote. "It's going to be a very interesting year. Even the people who voted to stay in the EU are probably surprised at how the wheels haven't fallen off. I expected a lack of business and consumer confidence and I've been proved wrong and that bodes very well."

While there will be short-term issues with buying from the eurozone, he says UK growers will benefit long term. "If the confidence doesn't dive then the landscaping market will be fine. Despite voting to stay in the EU, I'm very happy with the way the world is. I think the outlook for nursery stock in this country is remarkably good."

The first Crossrail trains will run and the first Crowders-grown trees are due to be planted along the HS2 line this year. HS3 and Crossrail 2 are in the pipeline. The East West Rail Link between Oxford and Norwich was given a boost by a £110m pledge in the 2016 Autumn Statement and the Scottish Government is spending on its Infrastructure Investment Plan.

Infrastructure will also be needed in the 17 new garden cities, towns and villages now approved by the Government. Network Rail and the Homes & Communities Agency are also working with councils on projects to build 10,000 homes around rail stations.

"The growth areas in the market in 2017 are going to be in infrastructure projects," says Melmoe. The focus is moving slightly away from the South East. There have been improvements in different parts of the country, especially Cambridge and Scotland.

This year could be the year when the concept of green infrastructure finally enters the public consciousness. London mayor Sadiq Khan included pledges to make London the first "national park city", plant trees, improve public spaces and create green corridors, walking and cycle routes in his election manifestos and the election of seven city region "metro mayors" this May gives an opportunity for the strategic and integrated approach to green infrastructure in our cities long advocated by landscape architects and parks professionals to begin to gain a foothold, especially if it features in the parks inquiry report.

Consultant Peter Neal says: "There's going to be an increasing understanding of green infrastructure and it will become more prominent in the city region agenda. The leadership and the role of mayors provide the opportunity to plan and invest strategically at a city regional scale of green infrastructure to tackle climate change. Flood risk management has to be done beyond the boundaries of a local authority."

Arup global landscape architecture leader Tom Armour, says: "It seems that landscape is always a hard sell, but what we're working to do is make sure it's integral and fundamental as part of wider combined efforts with other professions to address a range of urgent contemporary challenges." There are "huge concerns" about rapid urbanisation, the health crisis, well-being and the devastating effects of climate change, he adds.

White says green roofs and walls will continue to be a growth market next year. "Green roofs are here to stay and are becoming more legislated in other parts of Europe. I think we'll see more and more. "There are lots of environmental issues it solves and the main thing is to slow down water run-off. I think we'll see more SuDS and permeable paving - that has to happen, although I'm not sure I see a day yet when my children walk through the city and it is clad with plants."

The housing white paper is also due, bringing further opportunities for landscape designers and builders, although Denton-Thompson says it is vital to reverse the quick-fix housing "race to the bottom" and lobby for at least a rise in adequate housing and open space.

It will also make the green belt a big issue in 2017, he adds. Current legislation is dysfunctional and predates sustainable development policies, leading to some negative effects, including the "strangulation of towns and cities" and "stifling of the best use of infrastructure". He says: "We need to be much more nuanced. We think that landscape masterplanning is what is needed for the green belt."

Licensed industry

Senior consultant Alan Sargent says landscape construction will move towards being a licensed industry this year, following the lead of building construction. "We should embrace it - we are professionals," he points out, adding that it would "get rid of the cowboys".

The apprenticeship levy, due to come into force in April, will be positive for landscape firms, or have no impact at all, according to commentators. Melmoe calls it "a political gesture" with no teeth.

However, the potential for a hard Brexit to limit free movement of labour between the UK and the EU is a concern. White says: "For many people there's already that labour shortage. I think you will find more mechanisation in other sectors of horticulture but we've yet to automate how to plant a tree."

Ground Control managing director Marcus Watson says: "About 20 per cent of our workforce is foreign. If our EU workers disappeared overnight we'd be in trouble. That won't happen, but I would be concerned if they start to feel that they are not welcome." Commentators agree that Brexit makes recruiting and retaining the right people even more of a priority in 2017.


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