Analysis: Reversing the green to grey turnaround

The swing from soft to hard landscaping is being exacerbated by the recession, warns Matthew Appleby.

Hard landscaping: has continued to increase at the expense of plants. Image: HW
Hard landscaping: has continued to increase at the expense of plants. Image: HW

Concern over the decline of soft landscaping in new development is deepening, with one leading grower this week warning that the credit crunch is making things even worse.

Johnsons of Whixley director Andrew Richardson says the split between hard and soft landscaping has switched from 75 per cent soft and 25 per cent hard to 75 per cent hard and 25 per cent soft in the past 10 years — and planting is declining even further.

He adds: "Since June I have been spending a lot of time on the road visiting larger landscape contractors and landscape architects and the feedback I'm getting is frightening."

Help is at hand from the HTA and CABE Space. They both brought out studies last month, almost simultaneously, designed to put pressure on politicians to incorporate plants in new developments.

HTA Greening the UK chairman Tim Briercliffe says the Greener Planning document (see provides a case for local politicians and planners to stipulate planting in development plans. He adds: "There are fewer plants going into new developments, which has to be wrong when environmental issues are becoming so important."

Briercliffe points out that storms this winter and the Copenhagen climate change summit have brought the issue to a head because planting moderates the effects of extreme weather patterns and reduces the risk of flash flooding. He notes that developers are reducing planting "to save money and maintenance costs".

One recent example where planting is thin on the ground is Springside, a £200m Edinburgh development of 600 homes and 1.86ha of commercial space. It is the biggest scheme in the Scottish capital's city centre for decades and features public squares linking with the Union Canal.

The 3.6ha site includes residential, commercial, retail, cultural and leisure uses with underground car parking. Of £2.4m being spent on landscaping, more than £2m is for hard landscaping - mostly granite paving - and the remainder on planting.

An additional problem identified by Briercliffe is a decline in the number of people involved in specifying who have adequate horticultural knowledge. "Landscape architects are not always knowledgeable about plants so the whole scheme suffers," he says.

Richardson agrees: "I think that we as the growers have allowed this to happen. In reality we haven't, at an industry level, come up with a mechanism to make it easier for landscape architects to specify our product."

Environmentalist Chris Baines's HTA report finds that new developments have "considerably less planting than 10 years ago". He explains: "This is because less seems to be demanded as a condition of planning permission and even when planting is required much of it fails to be delivered by developers."

Some 71 per cent of councillors surveyed have noted occasions in the previous year when developers have failed to deliver on planting commitments outlined in approved planning documents.

An HTA survey of planning officers and councils is due for release in early 2010. It will give an update on attitudes following 2008's HTA Greening the UK model motion, which more than 20 councils have signed.

Briercliffe says: "I would hope this will raise awareness of the issue and we will see more councils taking it seriously, but I think we may find that things have suffered as a result of the recession."

CABE's Grey to Green campaign ( grey-to-green) is calling for a shift in funding and skills from grey to green infrastructure. This means moving a proportion of investment in projects such as road building and heavy engineering to networks of green spaces to provide flood protection and cut carbon emissions.

Richardson says trees, turf and hard landscaping have increased at the expense of shrubs. "It is incredible that on a lot of jobs we do there are very few shrubs used if any, but then as many as 10 big trees," he adds.

He points out that Dutch new town Hengelo, which has planting characterised by low-growing Cotoneaster, has its planting driven not just by planning legislation but because "both businesses and the public like living in a nice green environment". A change in attitude is needed and not just changes in policy.



BALI president elect Paul Downer, owner of Essex-based Oak View Landscapes, says: "There are fewer big planting schemes at the moment, which could be to do with the recession. Over the past few years design briefs have been for modular street scenes and smaller gardens. If we keep doing that we're in for more run-off and flooding.

"There's a lot more new-build high-density housing now. Developers are being told by councils to include more homes in schemes, which means a lot less soft landscape to create. This is coming from the planners."

Edinburgh-based Premier One owner John Gillan adds: "There's been a huge turnaround — very, very marked. Over the past few years plants have become very much an add-on. If it keeps going like this, some nurseries will go out of business.

"We have to get the government interested in environmental projects and the idea of soft landscape. We know we can get a better margin because of our expertise in soft works.

"In France, the Government has set up hundreds of public environmental projects. Here the lottery money that was going into parks is going to the Olympics. That's not a gripe — you can't have both. More to blame is the credit crunch. The banks are gobbling up the Government's money."

Association of Professional Landscapers chief executive officer Jason Lock says: "There is something wrong in having a garden devoid of plants."

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