Comprehensive Spending Review Analysis - how will horticulture fare?

Industry specialists give us their reactions to the spending review and assess the implications for horticulture - sector by sector.

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Garden Design
Professional Gardening


Landscape Contracts forecast to get smaller as competition grows tougher

Large-scale landscapes are out for designers and new contract models are in for contractors after the comprehensive spending review.

British Association of Landscape Industries technical director Neil Huck said: "Central and local Government contracts for maintenance will become a different animal - lower frequency and standards, therefore fewer staff needed.

"Will the private sector follow suit? I think yes in terms of new-build projects. Large-scale redevelopments are a thing of the past, but work will continue on a smaller scale. This trend could last for 10 years. There will be a big fallout as projects such as the Olympics finish, but there are still opportunities. A few large schemes, such as Crossrail and the M25 widening, will throw up work for landscapers."

Landscape architect Noel Farrer added: "Amazingly, there could be a net gain of landscape work. The public sector can no longer build big - schools, hospitals, houses. But there's a political imperative to build certain things and landscape fits that bill. It can be retrofitted into existing housing and the retention of the Playbuilder scheme suggests the Government is hinting that it needs to be seen to be doing something. Landscape professionals can pounce on that.

"Building booms can yield a boring monoculture that benefits the big boys and gives us heavy-handed procurement and design - think Building Schools for the Future. Most landscape practices have fewer than 10 staff. And when times are tough, competition hots up, which spawns diversity and allows talent to sparkle."

Frosts Landscapes director Aidan Lane said: "It will hit the public sector and therefore will have repercussions on private work. Small and medium-sized firms are likely to feel more pain. But it's too early to forecast job losses and closures. Everything may get very cheap as competition forces people desperate for work to win it at a loss. Local authorities will tighten their belts. It will get tougher and more competitive."

Landscape Institute chief executive Alastair McCapra said: "Public-sector commissioning is going to shrink drastically and there are few indicators that the private sector will pick up the slack.

"The one hope is the drive to cut bureaucracy in local government procurement. I hope it will soon be simpler for small firms to bid for work."


Garden design Uncertainty persists

Until consumer confidence in the economy returns, garden designers say they are uncertain when work in the sector will pick up.

Former Society of Garden Designers chairman Andrew Fisher Tomlin said: "The uncertainty over the past six months has stopped people making decisions. Middle-income purchases of garden design have dropped. Now it is all about consumer confidence and the jury is out on that."

He added: "Orders with us have been better than the past two years because of recommendations and repeat business. There is a little bit more confidence from some people because they have got through this year, but it is fragile."

The society's vice chair Amanda Patton said clients had typically cut projects from £30,000 to the £15,000-£20,000 range, but wanted to keep the same specification by using bigger areas of cheap materials such as lawn. "The spending review is a worry and people have been having to work harder to get clients," she explained.

She added that the economic downturn had not impacted as much as expected over the past year but clients were demanding better customer service and a complete job rather than just ideas, consultation or concept design.


Edibles Agency loss will be keenly felt

The need to invest in technologies and equipment could be hampered by the budget because growers fear they will be unable to get the funding they need.

English Apples & Pears chief executive Adrian Barlow said: "The discontinuation of regional development agencies will be disadvantageous. The South East England Development Agency, for example, put a lot into the development of new packhouses and other equipment.

"There's no clarity about the future of the School Fruit & Vegetable Scheme. Its retention is important because its bound to have an effect on consumption of fresh produce in the future."

Stockbridge Technology Centre chief executive Graham Ward added: "I find it difficult to understand how the industry will be able to communicate with central Government without the development agencies. Our office in Leeds is our link with Westminster, such as business development money available to growers. But that will cease to exist next year."

Halsham Salads director Les Deeley said: "The biggest concern for us is whether the cuts affect banks' confidence and the banks do not lend us money." But Chris Atkinson, head of science at East Malling Research, said the industry should at least be encouraged by the Government's pledge to protect investment in science.


Parks Some optimism as value of green spaces recognised

Parks managers are weighing up the implications of the spending review, which could mean job losses and trust status for some parks but a smoother ride for others.

Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council parks manager Steve Smith said: "I'd like parks to stay with councils, but feel authorities will now have to look much more closely at different service delivery options like trusts or social enterprises.

"We are relatively unscathed. We have to lose four staff out of 80 and hope to do so through natural wastage. Councillors of all parties have been supportive and recognise the role of good-quality space, especially in recession.

"Parks departments will have to look at anything to reduce costs - such as utility bills. Every £5,000 to £10,000 saved is a job saved. The good thing is that good-quality parks are more important in recession, especially with more jobless people.

"With changes to the benefits system, green spaces offer a platform for training to get people back into work. Studies show politicians who support parks enjoy more popularity, which is a strong card for us."

Liverpool City Council head of green space development Tom Duckworth said: "We await further guidance from the centre, but we have a contract with Glendale to 2018 and that will follow through.

"We have invested heavily in parks, which takes off some of the pressure. By investing in capital works we have reduced revenue spending on repairs. There's no gloom and doom here - we know how to bob and weave and we are positive."

London Borough of Hillingdon senior green spaces manager Paul Richards said: "It's too early to say how the review will affect us, but we are looking at how we can deliver services more effectively.

"We will focus more on the back room than parks staff. Maybe the way we operate means duplication of effort between ourselves and contractors can be streamlined. But with 16 Green Flag spaces, we don't want to jeopardise quality."

Parks consultant Bob Ivison said: "This will inevitably mean a reduction in jobs and authorities will look at external provision of services. The trouble with some areas, such as trusts, is there are too few to gauge their performance, so it's risky.

"I'm not sure there will be a big north-south divide in parks provision. It comes down to individual authorities, some of which are pro the in-house approach and others not."

GreenSpace chief executive Paul Bramhill said: "Non-statutory services such as parks and green spaces will be most vulnerable. Whatever delivery models are explored, sustainability, quality and easy access must be at the heart."


Retail VAT is key cause for concern

The spending review may have less impact on garden centre retailing than the VAT rise planned for January 2011, according to centre owners.

Sidmouth Garden Centre owner Ian Barlow said: "Most of my customers are retired and although no-one is exempt from the pain I think they have got off lightly. People who work for the council may lose jobs, but in this area we have got away fairly lightly. I can't see it making a big difference. It's not a surprise.

"We're more worried about inflation going up, with VAT set to rise in January to 20 per cent. That is cutting into margins and is more likely to stop people coming in. We have to concentrate on what we do well - customer service. Customers may be making trips out twice a week instead of three and we have to make sure that we are one of the places to which they come."

Wholesaler and importer Solus Garden & Leisure, which supplies 2,000 garden centres, said more than 250 buyers had visited its Droitwich showroom in the last fortnight and most were "positive and optimistic" about 2011. Product development manager Dean Winters said: "We'd rather have a recession year when the sun shines to a boom year when it rains."

HTA director of business development Tim Briercliffe said: "These are difficult economic times and serious actions need to be taken. Clearly the detail will need to be examined as it emerges to understand the full impacts of the cuts in each department, particularly in Defra, which has suffered heavy budget losses."

He added: "In general, we support the coalition's intention to eliminate duplication of effort within Government and to remove, reduce or provide for better regulation that enables the private sector to lead the economic recovery".

Meanwhile, HTA retail committee chairman Philip Evason said: "The impact of the review will be marginal in our sector. I'm quite positive. When there are tougher times there is a return to simpler things in life and gardening is maybe going to grow because of that."

Frosts managing director Paul Wright added: "It won't affect us any more than the climate in which we have been trading since the fall of the banks."


Ornamentals Market success will depend on communities

Amenity growers are waiting to see whether funding earmarked for education and transport infrastructure will translate into planting schemes, while those supplying the retail sector expect to see sales affected in areas hit by mass public-sector job cuts.

Coles Nurseries managing director James Coles said it was too early to know the full impact of the comprehensive spending review and it was a question of waiting to see when the private sector will pick up. He said: "At the end of the day we have to be realistic and say that the next two years are going to be hard but interesting."

Brian Fraser of Oakover Nurseries said the cuts were not as bad as he anticipated and said he was relieved that Defra funding will continue for projects like the Farm Woodland Scheme. He said: "Defra was something we were quite worried about, but it would appear that the high-level schemes with joint funding stay as is, which is quite positive."

Johnsons of Whixley joint managing director Andrew Richardson said he expected the Scottish and Northern Irish amenity markets to be "hit hard", but felt positive about the retail sector. He added: "The past 18 months have been good for the retail market and that is set to continue."

Hillier Nurseries managing director Andrew McIndoe said the impact on the retail sector will depend on cuts in local communities, adding: "If there are a lot of jobs cut in your area among your customer base, I think it's going to hit home harder."

Bransford Webbs Plant Company managing director Geoff Caesar expected sales of higher-value goods like barbecues and garden furniture to suffer but was positive about retail plant sales. He said: "I hope it has less of an impact on plant sales because the unit cost is lower and the feel-good factor from the spend is positive." He was more concerned about January's VAT increase.


Nations Cuts put more pressure on local authorities

The comprehensive spending review has hit Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland hard. The Treasury estimated that money paid out to Scotland will fall by £0.9bn, although the Scottish finance secretary reckoned that he will have £1.3bn less to spend next year.

The Welsh Assembly Government will lose £400m a year - 7.5 per cent will be cut from revenue budgets and 41 per cent from capital expenditure. In Northern Ireland, capital expenditure will be cut by 40 per cent. It is estimated that Northern Ireland could lose £2bn of its block grant.

Commenting on the impact in Scotland, Growthforth managing director Stan Green said: "It's early days, but the situation is looking pretty grim. The capital expenditure will be very important."

He added: "At the moment people are very reluctant to build anything, so our sales to landscapers are down. We don't think things will be disastrous, but we can't see any signs of a quick improvement."

Green suggested that innovations such as the Green Bank, which the Government hopes will encourage more money to be put into environmental research, could be a real opportunity. He also said schemes to encourage adult apprenticeships could help the industry.

Pentland Plants owner David Spray was more upbeat. "We'd been led to believe that the cuts would be far more stringent. I think we've got off lightly," he said.

Meanwhile, the National Trust for Scotland was adopting a wait-and-see attitude. A representative said: "The Scottish Parliament will be having its own budget in a few weeks time. Only after that will we really understand the situation."

Scottish local authorities were left facing increased pressures following the spending review because plans for new one-year budgets will leave them with a £630m shortfall. In addition, the plans for one-year budgets to replace the former three-year budgets will leave the local authorities unable to plan for the future.


Contracting Positive outlook as opportunities are created

For grounds care contractors, the Government's spending review was seen as the dawn of a new age. Not only will it offer them a chance to use their expertise and drum up new business, but for some it was also seen as a chance to restructure the industry.

Tony Hewitt, chairman of Parkway Holdings, which owns grounds maintenance firm Glendale, said: "This is not a short-term measure. We will need a strategic review of all departments. We will have to work hand in hand with public bodies." He envisaged new methods of procurement - "the procurement process is currently very arduous and expensive" - and even a transfer of assets.

In future, companies might take over parks, finding uses for underutilised buildings such as changing rooms or old sheds or creating new revenue streams by exploiting public golf courses or renting out parks to circuses and funfairs.

He explained: "We have access to funds from the financial markets. We need imagination and good marketing, but we can achieve great things."

ISS managing director Phil Jones pointed out that most grounds care companies have already been involved in extensive discussions with their contractors. He said this would increase: "Public bodies will have to come to us to discuss how to get things done. It offers a lot of opportunities."

He added that the transfer of assets would not be a big issue and said some services would have to be reduced: "With this level of cuts, service levels will have to go down," he said.

Contractors working in the private sector were also positive. Simon Morrish is managing director of Ground Control, which works for private-sector organisations such as water boards and property management companies.

"It is good for the labour market and we might want to get more involved with public organisations," he suggested. "But it won't have any immediate impact on us."


Arboriculture Review throws up contrasting opinions

Starkly contrasting views of the future for arboriculture professionals were emerging after the spending review. Some believed everything in the profession was likely to take an economic hit, while others thought legislation and a better understanding of the role of trees could mitigate potential cuts.

Myerscough lecturer Dr Mark Johnston said: "I'm reasonably optimistic: the Conservative Party campaigned on green issues and has a tree logo. We've moved on from the Thatcher cuts era when tree departments were decimated. But we must drive home how crucial trees are to urban areas."

By contrast, former chair of the Consulting Arborist Society David Lloyd-Jones predicted a fall in workforce numbers by a quarter and that every company offering tree services would be hit. He said: "Tree budgets are the first to be cut and this could have an ironic plus. The need for cuts will focus the mind in local authorities on how miniscule a risk trees are to people, so there's likely to be less drastic intervention."

Southampton City Council senior tree officer Mike Harris said: "Parks and trees are seen as prima donnas against social services and education so it's hard to see positives. But councils have legal duties on tree safety and amenity protection.

"I don't envisage serious cuts in Southampton - funding has to be found to meet our legal obligations. But if the cuts do start to bite we may have to change how we handle areas such as good neighbourliness on matters like encroachment."

Arboricultural Association director Nick Eden said: "The parks department is the Cinderella of local government and trees the Cinderella of the parks department, so an easy target for cuts. Tree officers must fight their corner like never before.

"Their work could be lumped into general grounds or infrastructure upkeep. And with less money around there's always a white van man offering a cheap service, which is not good for anybody.

"Public and private sector professionals will be hit: half a million people on the dole is half a million not spending on trees. But there are opportunities. Technical issues need specialists and I can see a growing market for outsourced consultancy work."


Professional Gardening - Pledge to protect front-line services at key bodies

Professional Gardeners' Guild chairman Tony Arnold said it was not clear how the review would affect gardeners at this stage but he was worried because they were "usually the first to go" in cutbacks and hoped "people would have sense not to go down that route."

Many organisations were still awaiting confirmation of future funding allocation, with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew among those facing cutbacks. The level of Kew's cuts were yet to be finalised, but head of arboretum Tony Kirkham previously said he was anticipating a decrease in funding of 20%. A representative said they were unable to comment at this stage due to "lack of information".

English Heritage survived the bonfire of the quangos but has had its Government grant cut by 32%. Chair Baroness Andrews said the cuts would be "exceptionally challenging to manage" and translated to a £130m funding cut over 13 years.

She said the will do all they can to protect front-line services and a clearer picture will emerge following an upcoming meeting of English Heritage commissioners. The organisation has 11 sites with dedicated gardening staff. It is estimated that there are around 56 permanent posts.

A representative from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, one of the biggest employers of gardeners in the country, said its budget was under discussion but "because a budget goes a certain way it does not necessarily mean an impact straight away on gardeners - they are just one part of our budget".

Historic & Botanic Garden Bursary scheme co-ordinator Fiona Dennis said professional gardeners were keen to take on trainees, but "some potential host gardens are challenged by budget constraints and by staff recruitment freezes".

She said applications for the scheme were increasing and "Government cuts have not affected people's willingness to increase their skill level with practical experience in historic gardens".


Turf - Lower incomes will hit golf

Faced with the Government spending review, the turf sector is adopting a "wait and see" attitude. While some thought things will get worse, there was also expectation that firms will be able to ride out their problems and economic conditions will eventually get better.

Turfgrass Growers' Association chief executive Tim Mudge said: "It's too early to tell. Some projects - particularly those int eh public sector - will be postponed or cancelled. But we're not expecting to see firms going out of business. Most will be able to adapt."

He pointed out htat in addition to Government cuts, his members were also worried about the 20% VAT rate, which is set to be introduced in the new year.

A British & International Golf Greenkeepers Association representative said the golf industry expected to take some hits over the next couple of years. He explained: Golf is not seen as a necessity. People have less disposable income and less money will be spent on golf. This will undoubtedly affect us."

The Institute of Groundsmanship also predicted a challenging future. A representative said: "Things aren't easy, but we will have to wait to see the fine details."

He added that groundskeepers employed - directly or indirectly - by the public sector would be at greatest risk. "We are working closely with local government and with contractors, some of whom are members of the institute, to ensure that expertise is not lost and that standards are maintained."


Changes to further and higher education could have an impact on new entrants to the industry, according to the heads of several horticultural colleges.

Capel Manor College chief executive Madeline Hall said further education was "worryingly absent" from the comprehensive spending review and "it would be iniquitous if the funding for vocational students is reduced while schools are protected".

She said the statement from the Department for Education failed to recognise the large number of 16-18-year-olds benefiting from further education and warned that higher education was likely to take a "massive hit".

Writtle College was anticipating 40 per cent cuts in higher education and 25 per cent cuts in further education. Head of faculty for land-based studies Tom Cole said he was concerned about spending budgets for learning support and the removal of educational maintenance allowances.

He said changes to funding for level two and three courses would impact on over-24s, who would have to pay fees. "Unemployment is rising and people want to retrain. I expect this will be a problem for career changers," he said.

RHS director of science and learning Dr Simon Thornton-Wood said increased funding for adult apprenticeships was a good opportunity for colleges. He said the review offered the opportunity to get more gardening into schools, but Government expectations of the industry to support training would be difficult.

He added: "Horticulture is clinging on by its fingertips in university-level education and I do wonder where the support is for the future."

A representative from Hadlow College said there were too many "grey areas" within the review to fully anticipate its impact. They raised the issue of the 60,000 new entrants needed in the industry over the next 10 years and said they were concerned because "the land-based sector does not seem to be given any special funding opportunities".

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