Garden structure manufacturers are hoping that relaxed planning regulations will lead to more work with new garden centre developments being approved by councils. After bad weather caused a drop in plant and core gardening sales of around a fifth in 2012, owners are thinking more about weatherproofing and what products they can sell when it rains.
Sales of gifts, food, catering, clothes, toys and concessions cannot be easily done from leaky glasshouses, so while centre owners have been wary about spending money in the economic downturn, some think it is now time to take action because gardening sales are so unreliable.
Highfield Garden World in Gloucestershire is an example of a garden centre that is expanding on its open countryside site to become a destination retailer. Malcolm Scott Consultants won permission for owners Joan and Tim Greenway for a restaurant expansion and 2,800sq m of additional unrestricted A1 retail/covered heated sales space, to which they hope to attract concessions for a steady rental income.
Tim Greenway says contractor Hodges, which is building all the structures itself, moved in on 4 March and hopes to complete work in November. "It got to the stage with our current business that this is the next stage of growth," he adds. "There's never a good time in the gardening trade, especially with the bad year we've just had, but a lot of things have fallen into place."
These include Malcolm Scott helping win planning permission and the expiry of lease for the Highfield World of Water aquatics outlet, which created the opportunity to move them into another building. Greenway adds that the build will mean making some areas such as machinery smaller while it is going on, but insists that is the best way of allowing the work to take place without closing.
Highfield reported a 10 per cent rise in restaurant sales over the past year, thanks to sales of cakes and breakfasts. Cakes sales have increased by 16 per cent since Highfield employed a dedicated cake maker. The business is considering extending its restaurant serving times to open earlier in the day and catch the "early birds".
Greenway says: "It would seem that whilst the recession and weather have diversely affected many areas in the leisure industry, consumers are still keen to treat themselves to the more affordable, less weather-dependent pleasures in life."
Hodges business development manager Graeme Jones says he also has work scheduled at Fosseway garden centre in Gloucestershire. "A few jobs were deferred last year but there are more happening in 2013. Restaurants are seen as a stable investment."
At Pontarddulais Garden Centre in Swansea, local builders and landscapers are doing the work. National Polytunnels is supplying an unheated but walled-in canopy for plants, furniture and Christmas trees.
Garden centre owner David Evans says: "Northern Polytunnels has supplied a steel structure painted white with a canopied roof and glass walls on a dwarf brick wall. The flooring is block paving and it's to house more bedding and specimen plants and outdoor living undercover.
"We're doing it because we need more indoor space due to the adverse summer weather conditions and to make the garden centre more of a destination. We have a restaurant but need more undercover space. We're on a B-road so we need to make people want to come to us and know there's plenty of indoor space when they get here."
Raising the roof
In Horsham, West Sussex, Hillier used Newspan Building Solutions to raise the roof level of the main shop to create a brighter and more spacious feel. Newspan also carried out other works including new curtain walling and entrance doors, while NP Structures created new plant canopies.
The revamped centre, which features a new foyer, new roof that improves its eco-status, new plant centre and revamped Cafe Rowan, launched in March with star of BBC TV drama The Vet Richard Hawley, garden centre manager Terry Clarke and chairman Andy McIndoe presenting a cheque for £35,175 to the Alzheimer's Society, raised while the improvements were carried out.
Newspan also provided an extension to Nottingham's Brookfields Garden Centre late last year. It has a parabolic roof, the covered garden a gabled roof and the restaurant a flat roof. Malcolm Scott planning consultant Chris Primett says steel portal framed buildings are being stipulated by garden centre owners these days, with very few glasshouses being built any more for retailers.
Garsons in Surrey gained consent this year to have a glasshouse curved-roof structure to site the restaurant under a glazed octagon. Glasshouses can suffer from too much heat loss with new building regulations, says Primett.
He adds that plans for Esher-based Garsons give a horticultural feel, going back to the roots of the business but incorporating a more up-to-date steel-clad structure. Garsons initial restaurant revamp will be by Pleydell Smithyman and there will be an eventual 120 per cent increase in covers to 225 in a couple of years.
Primett says: "This will end up as one of the best in England. Garden centre design can get a bit conservative - all from same production line - but this octagonal restaurant brings things on."
One of a few examples of glasshouses being built at centres is the curved roof by Smiemans at Squire's in Woking. The Dutch manufacturer, which also built RHS Wisley's glasshouse, is working on Dunbar Garden Centre for Berwick Garden Centre owner Nick Crabbie. The new build is a HighLight Construction with a curved roof.
Another Dutch company, Thermoflor, set the trend for covered planterias in 2007 with Bents' "Open Skies" structure. It has recently completed the first phase of the Bents' masterplan - a new greenhouse in which the plants delivered to the garden centre will be prepared for sale in the outdoor retail area's new Venlo-type greenhouse, which comprises two parts.
The plants can be delivered at floor level and at the height of a loading platform (1.1m). The greenhouse is roofed with transparent polycarbonate plates to ensure that the plants receive sufficient daylight.
Thermoflor also rebuilt Klondyke Wilmslow in 2012 after a fire. The garden centre has a parabolic roof, the covered garden a gabled roof and the restaurant a flat roof.
Thermoflor's big new project is at Forest Lodge in Farnham, Surrey. Forest Lodge is an independent garden centre managed by the Head family, who also run a large bird park next to the garden centre.
The owner, Roger Head, has developed a masterplan for renovating his entire garden centre, the first phase being increasing the number of seats in the restaurant. Part of the adjacent outdoor area is going to be covered with a roof. The resulting roofed area can be used as a patio for the restaurant and for the presentation of products.
Thermoflor's Pauline Kouwenhoven says: "A good restaurant is an absolute must for British garden centres, both for the customers' shopping experience and for the garden centres' turnover. The extension will meet the most stringent energy-saving requirements. We have a lot of experience in the field of airtight construction. The work we previously did for Klondyke Wilmslow and Haskins Roundstone fully complied with the strict British part L regulations. The use of appropriate materials and smart engineering enables us to efficiently construct sustainable buildings.
"The garden centre will remain open during the extension's construction to allow active sales to continue as usual. The work has been planned so that we will be able to carry it out quickly, with as little inconvenience to customers as possible. The extension will be a beautiful, sustainable first step in Roger Head's masterplan."
Meanwhile, Graham Van Der Hage, owner of West Sussex-based Polybuild, says the low-cost option of polythene and PVC tunnels for walkways is popular. The firm has done a lot of work with Charles Stubbs at Woodthorpe Hall, Arcadia and Spring in Beverley. At Ruxley Manor in Kent, it has supplied a timber walkway canopy that is 100m by 9m wide sited between a retail area and its offices with a trellis hoop. Polybuild laminates its own hoops in timber and is also working on a contract at the Eden Project.
"No one's looking for the same thing. People are using their imagination a lot more," adds Van Der Hage. "Polythene and PVC lend themselves to the type of structure we do and are a lot less expensive than glass."
Primett says one recently rebuilt garden centre that set some trends is Perrywood in Tiptree, Essex, which at its heart has a tall, glazed, heated structure called Market Street. Perrywood was built by Hodges with a Newspan structure.
"As garden centres become bigger they get a bit dark and use artificial light so we try and introduce a light, glazed structure," Primett explains. "Perrywood was one of the first to do that. You get to the restaurant through the structure. It's a fantastic way to bring plants to the middle of the centre and make you feel outside, but you are heated and protected. That's what we're doing at Garsons."
The future of new builds
Garden Centre Group chief executive Kevin Bradshaw says "it's hard to see big swathes coming in" because of planning. Malcolm Scott's Chris Primett adds that greenfield new builds are difficult although brownfields and extensions are possible.
"But there's a danger too much new building will mean you can get saturated with floor space and drive sales per square metre down. There's a limit on the amount of roses and slug pellets you can buy. Gardening is a finite sale.
"We will see a development of the food offer - supermarkets such as Waitrose moving into garden centre sites - as well as ice rinks, circuses and summer holiday attractions. These are very exciting times."
A good time to look for planning approval
Malcolm Scott, owner, Malcolm Scott Consultants
"We are getting more enquiries from owners wanting us to get planning approval for new development. They know it takes time to get planning and now is a relatively good time to get planning because of the Government mood to try and encourage job creation. Having got planning, an owner can delay the implementation of the construction and fit-out - the expensive part - until he or she feels comfortable with their financial circumstances."
Impact of changes
Scott says changes in garden centres that may impact on planning include changes to the old style of garden centre retailing, which Scott says are unsustainable:
- The cost of building and operating an attractive garden centre cannot be sustained on the present mix of products that are related so strongly to the weather.
- First-class concessions can contribute a high level of sustainable rent and make garden centres profitable.
He suggests that the garden centres of the future may well have:
- Larger and centrally-placed restaurants that have separate entrances. These may be seen as ancillary from a planning view and may need specific justification.
- Bigger concessions that may have separate access and being outside gardening use may trigger a sequential test for their impact on town centres.
- Food and bakery expansion may need a retail impact assessment.
- More leisure attractions including seasonal ice rinks and circuses plus year-round paid-admission attractions.
- New warehouses for e-sales and click-and-collect customers' pick-ups.
- Home interior sections growing, which planners may see as ancillary and should be in the town centre.
- Clothing and footwear sales increasing, which planners may say belong in towns.
Plant sales areas may shrink but there will be more investment in canopies and glasshouses, says Scott. These will cover more of the outdoor area to give 365-day sales, but could trigger planning regulations, especially in green belts.