What's in store for landscape in 2017?

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

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

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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