In his autumn statement, chancellor George Osborne announced that £6bn is to be pumped into infrastructure projects across the UK. So how much benefit will the initiative bring to the landscaping industry? Will most of the money be parcelled off to the bigger corporations and the major multinational firms, as many in the sector fear?
Under the proposals, at least 35 projects will be given the go-ahead. These include a new rail line between Oxford, Bedford and Milton Keynes as well as various road-widening schemes. Some £5bn of the money will come directly from Government coffers and a further £1bn from Network Rail.
The investment is generally seen as a positive step. Landscape Institute chief executive Alastair McCapra certainly believes that the industry will benefit. "After the 2012 London Olympics there's not much large-scale work going on. These sorts of initiatives could be vital for us."
Development of the Olympic sites will finish over the next few months. Elsewhere, the Government is no longer prioritising the development of wind farms and solar energy farms, which were heavily reliant on landscapers to reduce the visual impact. And public schemes, such as building new schools, have been cut savagely.
Richard Ford, contracts director of Ashlea Landscaping, which has a turnover of more than £7m, suggests that Government investment would be very welcome. "We used to do a lot of work on schools, but that has now finished. Six months ago, things were looking very difficult, but we've actually picked up some new contracts since then. We still have 65 direct employees, but we are no longer supplementing our staff with subcontractors. We're not reliant on a Government boost, but it would certainly help the industry." He points out that 85 per cent of his firm's work is for major civil engineers. "Many of the contracts will go to these sort of companies and this will have a positive impact on us."
Expenditure on road and rail schemes could benefit firms in a number of ways. Before any of the major infrastructure schemes go ahead, landscapers will have to be involved in planning and assessment. "You can't just lay down 120 miles of railway track," says McCapra. "You have to think about planning, otherwise you're going to have tremendous opposition from local people." Any road or rail scheme will involve environmental assessment, visual impact studies and community consultation.
There will also have to be extensive works done on remediation to reduce the environmental impact of new roads and rail lines and offer screening and soundproofing. One landscape architect who is involved in road schemes explains: 'There will be a huge number of trees involved in any road scheme. We've been working on the A30. In a few years time you won't be able to see the road. You will just see a linear corridor of trees."
Dealing with waste
Landscape contractors and designers will also have to deal with waste materials. Every tunnelling, railway cutting or road levelling scheme produces thousands of tonnes of spoil that have to be used somewhere, says McCapra. "If you look at areas such as Cambourne in Cambridgeshire, waste has been used to make landscape features. This sort of work requires an awful lot of landscaping."
But a major concern is that the Government's plans do not appear to include any formal requirement for green infrastructure. No money is being set aside for parkland. "The Government should be criticised for this," says McCapra.
The Landscape Group chief executive Nick Temple-Heald likewise highlights the lack of focus on the public realm. "The Government doesn't seem to be interested in creating public piazzas or using landscaping to improve townscapes.'
More significantly, there is a genuine fear that the biggest contractors will be called on to do most of the work, with smaller firms or those without links to the major contractors simply frozen out. McCapra suggests that the construction giants, working with the major consulting engineers, will be responsible for the lion's share of the work. These big companies will dominate the procurement process.
Noel Farrer, director of Farrar Huxley landscaping design consultancy, believes that this will be a serious issue. "The contracts will be carved up by large multinational companies. Smaller businesses will not get in on the act," he warns. Future development is likely to mirror the construction of the Crossrail link spanning London from east to west, he adds. "The new infrastructure projects might be limited to a few chosen partners."
As a small consultancy, it is unlikely that he is going to get the work, says Farrer. "The big firms will want to work with other firms that have a large turnover and a full range of health and safety and policy assurances, which are simply not practical for a small firm. And it's much simpler for the Government to work with the large firms because they want a one-stop shop."
However, the Government should be looking for local employment and local expertise - not just offering the work to the big boys, he adds. "Local people have a better understanding of local conditions and the local landscape. But it is unlikely that their expertise will be used."
Temple-Heald agrees that the projects will not directly generate work for small firms such as his. However, he believes that they will have a beneficial indirect effect. "Because times are tough, the large landscaping firms have been tendering for relatively small projects, such as the ones we normally do. If there's a lot of work around, it will ensure that they are fully occupied, so competition might not be quite so severe."
There is also scepticism about how the work will be parcelled out. Paul Cowell, chairman of the British Institute of Landscape Industries and director of PC Landscapes, says although Government guidelines indicate that good landscaping should be part of all major projects, there is no specific undertaking to ensure that this happens.
"We need to see the details," he says. There is also concern within the industry that contracts are not always distributed fairly, he says. "We are always happy to tender for work but often we don't hear about contracts until they've been awarded. Contracts seem to go to people in the know. We feel that procurement should be more transparent."
Among suppliers to the landscape industry, however, the mood is hopeful. James Coles & Sons sells a lot trees and shrubs to local authorities and public bodies. Director James Coles says: "There is a good prospect of making more sales out of this. It depends what the contractors want and where the work is being done."
At the very least, there is a feeling that the Government expenditure will give a psychological boost to contractors and customers. Landform Consultants managing director Mark Gregory says the initiative might dispel some of the doom and gloom surrounding the industry. "It might not directly create a great deal of work, but anything that creates a sense of optimism is good for us."
How to get the work
At least some of the £6bn announced for infrastructure projects will go on landscaping and landscape consultancy. BALI chairman Paul Cowell suggests the following steps for firms wanting to find work:
- Follow the news carefully. Make sure that you know what is being built.
- Make sure that you know where projects are being constructed. Is it in a geographic region where you can supply goods or services?
- Ensure that you have a high profile. Send out details to all prospective customers. Make sure that your name is included on all tender lists.
- Find out where tenders are being advertised.
- If you do not get a job that you tender for, ask why. Make sure that there is good reason. And make sure that you do better next time.