Landscape's two biggest trade groups should merge, says one of the industry's most influential leaders who was instrumental in the breakup and redefinition of the sector in the 1990s.
Alan Sargent urged BALI and the Association of Professional Landscapers (APL), which he founded 19 years ago by breaking away from BALI, to draw a line under past differences and merge into one super group.
In a letter sent to Horticulture Week (see p18) he suggested that a newly named British Association of Professional Landscapers would boast more than 600 members with established training programmes, a long list of awards and proven best practice in projects right across the board.
In 1995 Sargent and a group of domestic contractors broke from BALI to form the APL, which has around 250 members while BALI boasts around 350. However, many members belong to both groups.
Sargent told HW: "I know this will cause ructions and may upset a few diehard BALI members. But the industry has moved on since 1995 and with so much social media offering simplified solutions to problems and business issues it is now time to strengthen professional landscaping.
"A combined group with 600 contractor members could have massive potential - it would be bigger than BALI ever was and bigger than the APL ever could be. That size alone would make it a very powerful beast.
"Landscape is one of the only growth sectors in an industry including nurseries to plantsmen and it is no longer logical to have two trade associations. In 19 years I have never heard a sour word between the two and it's time for a sensible, grown-up conversation."
Sargent suggested that there are logistical hurdles such as annual re-vetting, currently undertaken by the APL. However, BALI is moving towards this - one more example of the two groups already coming closer together, he added.
BALI chief operations officer Wayne Grills said the decision is for the associations' members to take. However, the two groups are already working jointly on several initiatives such as the Landscape Collaborative Working Group and The Parks Alliance.
"The important thing is the organisations are seen to be coming together with a united voice, which is something we are beginning to look at with the HTA and APL along with other institutions," said Grills.
"But when the issue was raised at a recent regional AGM, the response was 'no'. I think some members see the benefit of having a strong, independent voice - membership is increasing and combined annual turnover is £4.8bn, making ours a considerable voice in the industry," he added.
APL chairman Mark Gregory said: "I'm all for bringing together the industry. The APL made the split several years ago, which I can understand although it put a wedge through the association. I'm 100 per cent behind one voice again - the APL has changed and so has BALI.
"But it should be under the umbrella of the HTA, which is a powerful body with a strong voice, large turnover and lots of resources. I would like a road map laid out that encompasses the whole of an industry that is still fragmented. Interiors, for example, is almost forgotten."
Gregory called for a proper board structure based on four categories - commercial landscapes, domestic landscapes, grounds maintenance and interiors. Fragmented trade bodies are weak, meanwhile members are spending money "stupidly" to belong to two groups, he added, and pooled resources may cut membership costs.
"But sensitivity is crucial," said Gregory. "If a merger is bulldozed through with an ill-thought-out strategy and without open dialogue it will prove destructive. A merger won't happen this year but I suspect in the next couple of years we will continue to move closer together."
Timeline - Landscape sector's trade bodies
1972: Landscape contractor members of the HTA leave to form BALI, representing domestic, interior and commercial firms as well as affiliated companies.
1995: Domestic contractors split from BALI to form the Association of Professional Landscapers (APL). Membership includes suppliers and APL is run under the HTA secretariat.
2014: Alan Sargent, who helped launch the APL, calls for a BALI/APL merger in a formal letter, insisting that one voice will raise the industry's profile and make it stronger.