Prices continue to be forced down in the landscape market as more firms compete for fewer contracts, according to sector specialists.
Mark Gregory, chair of the Association of Professional Landscapers and director of consultancy Landform, described the market as "very volatile". He added: "It's a buyers' market - pricing is aggressive and everything is price-driven. There is plenty of top-end work, but the bottom end of the market is in the doldrums."
Landform received a lot of enquiries in the summer, Gregory added, but it is getting squeezed on price because competition for work is increasing, with up to eight firms competing for each contract. "We're having to put more effort into converting sales leads into work, but we're busy into the new year, with our order book 12-16 weeks out," he said.
"Confidence is coming back in London but it's very price sensitive; there's not many companies making a lot of money. I'm cautiously positive, but I don't think there'll be much change for the next three to five years."
LDA Design senior partner Neil Mattinson said the UK market was "mighty tough", with fewer work opportunities, which meant pricing was being forced down. Big-ticket masterplanning and urban design work, as well as parks and public realm work was "thin on the ground".
According to Mattinson, there is no sign of recession in the London market, but there are more firms competing for jobs. "We are seeing some mothballed sites coming back in the regions, but we are heavily reliant on renewable energy work and long term commissions in our regional offices. Generally, we're holding our own, but there is no growth and we made redundancies last year."
At design firm Fisher Tomlin, director Andrew Fisher Tomlin said his firm, which serves the high-end garden market, had been "flat out" since the spring. "We're over 50 per cent up on last year, which was a five-year low - I feel we've turned the corner, but everybody who is more commissioning is circumspect about budget."
Tomlin added that, last year, only 60 per cent of what Fisher Tomlin designed was actually built, but now it is up to 85-90 per cent. "Price is now fixed at the outset, whereas people used to be more flexible on price," he said. Tomlin added that clients are taking longer to make decisions when they receive quotes, due to fears about having to make redundancies. "The outlook is reasonably encouraging, but it's a bit of a rollercoaster," he said. "We're normally inundated with landscapers wanting to talk about quoting for the winter, but that hasn't happened this year, though the landscapers we work with are booked up for 10-15 weeks, which is better than last year."
Farrer - Procurement issues on the rise
Farrer Huxley Associates founding partner Noel Farrer said procurement practices were making it increasingly difficult for landscape architects to win contracts. "Procurement is more and more precluding landscape architects from bringing their best to the job. To be able to qualify for public sector work, you have to be a multi-disciplinary organisation, which means that work that should be done by landscape architects won't be - you get mediocrity in multidisciplinary teams."