Interview - Jo Watkins, president, Landscape Institute

Jo Watkins considers himself a lucky man. The Swansea-born, lifelong landscape architect started his two-year term as president of the Landscape Institute in July 2010, and reflecting on the organisation's financial struggles of late, he believes he has got away lightly.

Interview - Jo Watkins, president, Landscape Institute - image: HW
Interview - Jo Watkins, president, Landscape Institute - image: HW

"When I took up the presidency the Institute had already been through the mill," he says. "My predecessor bore the brunt of it and he was the right man for the job. I suspect I would just have gone to pieces."

What Watkins terms "the mill" refers to the various measures overseen by former president Neil Williamson to drive down the institute's then escalating debts.

A raft of efficiency measures introduced since 2008 has seen the organisation shed seven employees to reduce staff numbers to 15, get rid of monthly publication Vista, cut Landscape journal from a monthly output to quarterly and most recently, in October 2010, relocate its pricey Soho headquarters to a more affordable central London home.

Watkins says the new building, owned by a consortium including the British Ecological Society, is a breath of fresh air and a fantastic opportunity to share space with like-minded organisations.

An earlier controversial cost-saving plan to hand the institute's archives over to another organisation was sidelined following tough lobbying from campaigners. The valuable resource collection now resides in the secure, climate-controlled surroundings of the Garden Museum in London. Watkins approves: "It gives the public access to our archive for the first time."

That Watkins, who has served on the institute's council for 12 years, believes the organisation is now in a strong position is confirmed in his new year letter to members, in which he describes a "degree of financial and organisational stability we have not enjoyed for some time". He adds: "We are financially stable, very optimistic and have a growing membership."

But he says landscape architects are not out of the woods yet: "I think it's going to be tough this year. If we can get through the first 12-18 months of the coalition while things are stabilising, the money will start to flow again. There won't be as much of it, but it will start to be better targeted. Local authorities need the confidence to spend money and it will take that time for them to do that."

Watkins' focus this year is on promoting landscape architecture to encourage public investment, but he says the Government needs to be more flexible about how it spends its money. Rather than spending huge amounts on big one-off developments, he believes it would be more beneficial to spend smaller amounts on more sustainable, low-scale projects: "We want to get them to see the sense in spending £500,000 very wisely rather than chucking £50m in one direction."

He says the institute's strategy going forward is to be more interactive with its members, particularly those geographically isolated, to help them survive the lean months ahead. As part of this, the institute is planning an overhaul of its website and online news service and in February will publish a new promotional booklet for the sector called Why Invest in Landscape?

"We need to be more outward-looking, increase our contact with members and produce more publications to keep them informed," says Watkins. "We have to get past landscape architecture being an expensive afterthought and get better at promoting the profession to Government by showing them how we can tie in with their policies and deliver value for money."

He believes marketing and commercial awareness are essential to surviving the tough times. "The ones that are very commercially aware will do well," he says. "We want to raise standards and show members how they can sell themselves and their skills - not so they compete against each other but so they compete against other professions and people who are not as well qualified as landscape architects."

A future growth area for the sector, Watkins says, will be in green infrastructure. "It was very theoretical and policy-led last year but I think once we get through this next year green infrastructure will become much more about practical implementation."

With legislative changes ahead, such as the proposed community infrastructure levy and greater community planning rights included in the Localism Bill, Watkins says the future is unclear but new agendas will create opportunities for landscape architects.

"Local authorities are shedding jobs and don't have the skill set for what we do," he says. "People will have to work up their own plans under the Localism Bill and will need someone to advise them. There are opportunities for us out there - we just have to know where to find them."

1983: University sabbatical to work at Glasgow Development Agency
1985: Graduated as landscape architect from Thames Polytechnic
1995: Set up landscape architect partnership Watkins Dally with Des
2009: Left business to become private consultant
2010: to date President, Landscape Institute

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