Interview - Paul Cowell, chairman, British Association of Landscape Industries

He was there, but where were you?

Paul Cowell, chairman, British Association of Landscape Industries - image: Bali
Paul Cowell, chairman, British Association of Landscape Industries - image: Bali

Paul Cowell talks about a recent symposium on biodiversity with some frustration. What should have been an "international highlight" was attended by him alone, with no other landscapers in a room full of allied professionals.

This disappoints Cowell, who designs domestic gardens. Many professionals are desperate for advice, especially if, like him, they own a small business at a time of deep recession.

He believes the sector must seize every chance to beef up knowledge and make contacts. It also needs a stronger, unified voice, and right now his voice carries far.

"I would like to see industry working together at two levels," says Cowell, who, as the new chair of the British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI), has to balance running his small business with making big noises on policy and practice. He wants designers and contractors to work together to swap best practice and experiences, good or bad.

He would also like to forge a hotline to the policy makers who set the kind of targets raised at that conference. The muted response may not be a one-off. How many in the sector are up on the natural environment white paper, the recent flood and water management act or agreements at last month's COP10 biological diversity convention in Nagoya?

"The meeting in Japan valued the rainforest at £1bn a year in what it gives back to the environment," says Cowell. "If we valued our green spaces, the individuals creating and maintaining them would be valued more and be seen as asset managers, a job title more commonly associated with wealthy financiers."

And yet: "We failed our biodiversity targets in July. Did you know that? I didn't. How are we to meet them if we are not fully informed? It's the transfer of information all the way down the line that's not being addressed. If we fail to meet the next targets, the Government will have a big enough excuse to use us as scapegoats."

So it is a two-way thing - industry can only raise its game if policy makers do likewise. This hits a raw nerve with Cowell. As a small-scale domestic contractor, tuning into clear, concise information from the top down has always been a problem - and it still is a problem "knowing which department is doing what".

One of his objectives for his two-year stint as chairman is to strengthen BALI in the regions, but also to take it to a wider audience. This ushers in potential new members, allied professionals and policy wonks in Westminster to the Cowell catchment. BALI, he insists, is not just for big companies and becoming a member really is a "no brainer".

He explains: "This is like your own R&D department and you get your money back in consultancy terms alone. Smaller companies have neither the cash nor the time to spend on development. Yet BALI's local regional committees run seminars on everything from health and safety to insurance and the latest technology if there's enough demand."

Networking with members or popping along to the next biodiversity conference is good business, he says. Bigger firms subcontract smaller ones, while new guides and targets give pointers on how to develop business. Cowell is big on sustainable drainage, but can only win over clients by arming himself with all the latest policies.

A skilled-up sector working tightly together can punch much harder, he points out. Communities secretary Eric Pickles, for example, is ripe to be challenged after launching a New Homes Bonus that "panders to the construction industry", says Cowell. Offering councils more money to build houses ignores green space.

"Landscape is left at the mercy of construction," he adds. A European measure that set aside, for example, 30 per cent of land for green space and 70 per cent of land for buildings is more his bag. Yes, he acknowledges that such a split is probably unlikely, but the token percentages we have in England are "pathetic".

"We need to be more collaborative as an industry and then look at interaction between other built-environment sectors. We know from the comprehensive spending review we are largely on our own, so we need to get our act together, be a more united industry and approach the Government in a far more aggressive way.

"It has cut funding on research in ornamentals, which will affect biodiversity, and policy makers have shown a lack of foresight and vision. If we are galvanised we can be that vision. If 'Big Society'

is down to localism, they will need us more than we need them. It's our expertise that will be used and our knowledge that will help them meet targets and inform policy."

1985-89: Apprentice/head gardener, Roydes Hall, Bradford
1986-89: City & Guilds horticulture qualifications
1990-93: National certificate and diploma, Merrist Wood
1993-95: Part-time lecturer, Merrist Wood
1995-96: Landscape manager, Australia
1996: Launched PC Landscapes, Surrey
2010: Chairman, BALI

- The BALI Awards are on 3 December at Grosvenor House, London. See

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