Special Report: What lies ahead for the horticulture industry in 2019?

Read on for an examination of the key challenges and opportunities for UK horticulture in 2019 - including garden retail, landscape creation, ornamental production, green space management, fresh produce, arboriculture, grounds care and more.

JUMP TO:

ORNAMENTAL PLANT PRODUCTION
LANDSCAPE CREATION
ARBORICULTURE
GARDEN RETAIL
FRESH PRODUCE
GROUNDS CARE
GREEN SPACE MANAGEMENT

Import substitution: buying British is a big theme for 2019 due to Brexit, presenting opportunities for growers - image: Double H Nurseries

ORNAMENTAL PRODUCTION

Key themes

  • Brexit and import substitution
  • shrub replacement
  • peat-free bedding
  • indoor plants

The first three months of 2019 will be dominated by Brexit, just as the first three months of 2018 were dominated by bad weather. But once uncertainties over the nature of the UK’s exit from Europe become clearer, many expect Brexit will spell opportunities for British growers. Meanwhile, shrub replacement could prove big in 2019 thanks to last year’s "Beast from the East" and the damage done to plants by last summer’s hot weather.

Import substitution is a hot topic, with the likes of Wyevale Nurseries and Hillier upping production as imports become more expensive. Many shrubs and trees bring plant health risks — ash, oak, chestnut, plane, prunus, pine, olives, palms, box — so that means tighter import restrictions. Gardeners, retailers and specifiers are looking for alternatives.

Hortus Loci’s Mark Straver says shrubs are back because while herbaceous borders looked good in May most looked a mess by October. Shrubs will "give order to the chaos". Darby Nursery Stock’s Hannah Darby adds: "Shrub sales will be strong if the weather is on our side with people replacing plants after the Beast from the East and the prolonged drought in the summer."

Wyevale Nurseries retail sales manager Colin Stanley points out that while bad weather in 2010 turned gardeners off phormiums and cordylines, this year that has not been the case. "People garden differently now," he says. "They will replace plants."

Impatiens returns

Imara downy mildew-resistant impatiens will be available for all growers after being a B&Q exclusive, selling six million in 2018. Some growers such as McGrane’s will get back to 20% of previous production before downy mildew hit the plant hard in 2011. Others will reach much more, meaning tens of millions will be available. Syngenta is the breeder.

Garden writer Peter Seabrook says Sakata’s petunia/calibrachoa cross, BeautyCal, will make an impact in 2019 after trialling well this year. The colours are "different and eye-catching" and the plants are tough, having survived the heatwave in mid 2018. The plants also recover faster from rain than petunias, says Sakata, making them look better on retail benches. There will be displays at Gardeners’ World Live and Seabrook adds that New Guinea hybrids such as SunPatiens in lavender (Sakata) look good, as does Wild Romance New Guineas (Dümmen Orange/Thompson & Morgan): "As well as Imara, there will be a greater emphasis on bizzy Lizzies with New Guinea blood in them." Seabrook also backs Wharton’s fragrant Florist roses and Farplants’ Nemesia ‘Lady Penelope’ for 2019.

Hot colours

After the hot summer of 2018, hot colours are in. Colour trend specialist Pantone says spring/summer 2019 reflects our desire to embolden ourselves as we face the future, turning to colours and colour stories that provide confidence and lift our spirits, embracing a colour and design direction filled with creative and unexpected combinations. Turmeric, jester red and fiesta (also red) are top shades, along with pink peacock, mango mojito and living coral. A plant catalogue such as Hayloft’s is full of bright helianthus, Fritillaria imperlialis auremarginata, kniphofia and rudbeckia.

Sunbelieveable sunflowers reflect the yellow trend, following 2018’s clothing fashion, which John Lewis said was led by royal wedding frocks. B&Q’s Tim Clapp says colourful bedding like the Imara will be popular.

Ferns are structural and trendy. Dryopteris ‘Jurassic Gold’ is a UK-bred fern that will be entered for the 2019 RHS Chelsea Flower Show new plant award and will take the indoor plant trend outside. Fiddlehead figs and Pilea peperomioides (Chinese money plant) are the world’s "it" plants, says US plant trend watcher Chris Beytes. Cheap succulents, easy to grow and slow to die, remain popular as does indoor foliage. Cheese plants were in short supply last year. Indoor plant sales were 15-20% up in 2018.

Peat-free pot bedding or peat-free indoor plants are hard to get and expensive but could be a big market. There could be moves towards fulfilling this in 2019 from the likes of B&Q.

Import substitution

Buying British is a big theme because of plant health issues — and Brexit. Wyevale Garden Centres and Hillier are among those that have switched to British herbs from Albenga aromatics, Hillier is growing its own, while Wyevale is using Glendale.

Xylella and oak processionary moth are among plant health risks, and the UK is likely to look more at its own production because of exchange rates and possible import duties. Some garden centres such as Hillier are dropping olives because of Xylella risks.

Syngenta’s Neil Fishlock says a compact dahlia such as Happy Days and Dahlegria from its Verwer arm will be prominent. Dahlias did well in 2018’s prolonged summer.

Plant breeders, meanwhile, will gain greater prominence for the influence they have in promoting gardening. A new book featuring the methods and innovations of the likes of buddleia expert Peter Moore, rose king David Austin and clematis breeder Raymond Evison is underway.

Taupe pots will be everywhere. Plastic has probably been the biggest talking point for many growers in 2018. The kerbside recyclable taupe-coloured pots (replacing unrecyclable black ones) will be widely available from British growers, and even the Dutch have caught on to the idea. Any colour apart from black is good.

On the other biggest grower issue, plant health, the Plant Health Assurance Scheme will roll out early in the new year, showing provenance of plants from British growers. Brexit could mean Defra has the confidence to restrict Xylella-risk plant imports, such as lavender and rosemary, after already tightening up on olives and polygala in 2018.

Biosecurity

Majestic Trees’ Steve McCurdy says biosecurity has to be more of a story in 2019, especially oak processionary moth. Hertfordshire-based Majestic is in the buffer zone and McCurdy will not buy any more deciduous oaks because he is worried he will be banned from shipping them to customers.

WD Smith & Son’s Michael Smith says there is more propagation by UK growers going on, and for a variety of reasons, including greater flexibility and control over your production. "If you have got the equipment and the environment then it should be a lot more cost-effective. For us, plants in packs are selling again now so we have more seed-raised propagation space in the glasshouse. We were still buying a lot of rooted cuttings, so we converted an area to root our own cuttings and that has been really successful this year. You can bring things forward or back by growing your own plugs when you have space to do it."

This January’s British Protected Ornamentals Association annual conference has a propagation theme, with international speakers discussing both cuttings and seed-raised plants. Smith says: "More people are doing it themselves again. There are a lot more people sticking their own cuttings again, and seed-raised as well."

Ongoing uncertainty over Brexit risks slowing the market as construction sector plays a waiting game - image: Barratt Developments

LANDSCAPE CREATION

Key themes

  • Brexit 
  • housing 
  • margins
  • Defra consultation on housing 
  • Environment plan 
  • plant health

Brexit beckons and everyone is playing a waiting game across industrial sectors including landscape construction. Not only has Brexit hit future pipelines of work, but it is having an effect on current projects with many landscape contractors, landscape architects and plant suppliers rushing to make hay while the sun shines — and before it sets on the UK’s membership of the EU. Milton Keynes’ contractor Kings Landscapes is completing a soft-landscape contract at Battersea Development podiums and a few years ago worked on public realm plots for the athletes’ village at the 2012 London Olympic Games. Managing director Dave Houghton is enjoying a strong trading period and thinks it will continue.

"It’s mad for the landscape sector because there’s so much work out there," he says. "Our order book for 2019 is the biggest we’ve ever had, with £4m of work confirmed and £6m secured. It should be good for everyone in the sector and it’s no longer just about London. There are plenty of opportunities in places like Birmingham."

However, there is a but: "I think the market will plateau and trail off in 2020, but there will still be work out there. Brexit is already having an effect, with projects being put on hold and one or two major ones such as Earl’s Court being shelved for the time being. Meanwhile, Battersea development is due to end around 2020 and some of the legacy work with the Olympic Park will wind down."

Nurture Landscapes in Windlesham, Surrey, is also enjoying steady growth in design work, installation and maintenance of commercial projects. But managing director Peter Fane sees clouds approaching sooner than 2020.

Note of caution

"At the moment it’s very strong and there are plenty of projects on the ground, but there is less work than we’d usually have for the second half of 2019," he says. "There are a lot of projects around but you need to be aware of what you do, who you do it for and at what price. Many large companies like Carillion are in financial difficulties."

Landscape contractors therefore need to be very careful on large main-contract jobs, and Fane has decided to focus more on working for clients direct. Landscape construction amounts to £13m to £14m of the £80m work Nurture Landscapes undertakes and Fane is not expecting growth in this area in the next three-to-five years. He may even scale back slightly and be "ultra cautious".

Brexit is affecting both project pipelines and current schemes, he adds. Clients are cautious and "just want certainty either way", says Fane, who is lukewarm on December’s announcement that the Government was consulting on "mandating biodiversity net gain" in housing developments — in other words, to design and build more green spaces to protect and improve habitats. "The trouble with a lot of those projects is they are very high-profile and good to have," he explains. "But if you are not careful the margins get chased down and down, so we have made a decision not to work below a certain margin. If that means we lose work over the next few years, so be it. We won’t be a busy fool."

Scotscape Group in Surbiton recently installed 230sq m of living walls for a school in Camden, topped with green roofs installed by Bridgman Landscapes. Scotscape managing director Angus Cunningham says the market is "very buoyant" and Brexit uncertainty "does not seem to be affecting us". He also feels Defra’s A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment and consultation will help the sector.

Dann Jessen, director of London-based architecture, landscape and urban design practice East, agrees on the environment plan but is no warmer on the Government’s housing consultation. He suspects these kinds of developments have not surfaced on the drawing board yet and he does not see them doing so for some time, so it is hard to assess the impact of the "interventions".

Public realm

"There’s not so much public realm work, which is not surprising given there’s less money about, and while there’s a bit of housing, landscape is rarely the highest priority. We will have to wait and see if the Government’s plans make any change on the ground, but it could be wishful thinking, especially when you factor in the Brexit palaver."

Projects that were put on hold in the immediate aftermath of the in-out vote have "picked up again", albeit with "changed variables", he says. But a continuing squeeze on housing has made fees even more highly competitive.

Robin Tacchi Plants supplies landscape contractors, landscape architects and designers from its base in Diss, Norfolk. Finance director Gill Tacchi is optimistic but cautious: "It’s very, very busy. The general market is buoyant, but nobody knows what’s happening going forward, and it’s a bit hairy."

In terms of Brexit, Tacchi is expecting a heavy impact on imports and haulage. Her company does not export plants, but it does import them, and she is playing a waiting game. Brexit, however, could be a "huge opportunity" for UK horticulture, prompting main contractors and other clients to focus on home-grown stock, with Britain taking more control of potential pests and diseases.

Highways authorities must comply with Government-endorsed environment guidance for trees - image: Flickr

ARBORICULTURE

Key themes

  • National planning policy framework
  • Trees & design action group
  • austerity
  • tree-planting budgets

"My biggest hope for 2019 is that the current government survives and Michael Gove remains championing the environment," says Barrell Tree Consultancy managing director Jeremy Barrell. "For the first time ever, national Government is showing glimmers of real leadership and vision, with the updated NPPF [National Planning Policy Framework], the 25-year environment plan and, most importantly, the net gain consultation proposals just published."

He says including the concepts of capital accounting and net environmental gain within mainstream policy "could dramatically turn around our declining environmental prospects", adding: "Without these overarching strategic changes in mindset, the detail of making the most of trees cannot even begin to be realised."

Barrell sits on the board of the Trees & Design Action Group (TDAG), whose drive for a national tree and woodland strategy could and would "fit neatly" into the wider process outlined in the net gain proposals, he says. TDAG also intends to publish its trees, planning and development guide in summer that "will effectively be an extension of the existing British Standard, but providing the flesh to that structure from the people making the existing planning system work on the ground, making it accessible for others to follow".

Barrell adds: "We think it is a model that Government should be endorsing and promoting." He also points out that on highway tree risk management, Government-endorsed guidance for highway authorities on tree inspections and training for highway inspectors carrying this out came into full force in October 2018, two years after its initial publication. Barrell has discovered that a "significant proportion" of highway authorities have not yet complied with the guidance, and says he will continue to investigate such compliance in the coming year. "As a result of this work, I anticipate that highway authorities will have to begin to comply with this guidance in 2019, which will directly reduce the number of deaths and injuries from avoidable highway tree failures."

The London Tree Officers Association (LTOA) began collaborating with the National Tree Officers Association in the latter part of 2018 and is likely to have a greater voice in tree matters nationally this year. It will also publish an updated risk limitation strategy for dealing with subsidence risk by trees and an update to the related joint mitigation protocol, an agreed method of subsidence claims management where trees are implicated in building movement. It also plans to publish advice by the National Tree Safety Group regarding the landmark Cavanagh v Witley Parish Council judgement, "to stop over-reaction to this ruling".

Continuing austerity

More widely, the LTOA executive says that it anticipates "increasingly wide acceptance of the ecosystem services of trees in addition to the amenity and cultural and heritage values which have long been accepted", as well as "increased interest in tackling the barriers to diversity in the arboricultural profession".

But it warns that austerity in local government will still impact budgets for tree planting and maintenance. While recent national policy proposals seek to strengthen protection for trees, the LTOA is concerned about the proposed duty to consult on the removal of individual street trees — first mentioned in the last Conservative Party manifesto and among the priorities of tree champion Sir William Worsley, appointed in June.

It described the proposal as "inappropriate", saying: "It potentially increases the risks posed by trees due to delay in their removal, and diverts already overstretched local authority tree officers into needless dispute."

Garden centres: looking to meet consumer demand - image: HW

GARDEN RETAIL

Key themes

  • children’s gardening 
  • capturing the millennial market 
  • outdoor show campaign at Chelsea

Major gardening chains saw mixed fortunes in 2018 and their challenges continue into 2019. Wyevale’s sale dominated the second half of 2018 and will continue to mid 2019. Forty of 145 sites were sold in the first six months of the sale process in 2018. Homebase is re-establishing itself after Hilco bought it for £1 from Wesfarmers in 2018 and could be sold again in 2019. Dobbies bought six Wyevales in 2018 and Blue Diamond bought nine, consolidating the top end of the market somewhat just as the biggest player downsized.

Gardman going into administration after a fire in 2018 meant garden retailers switched to other suppliers such as Smart, Tildenet and Garland. Westland is seeking to re-establish the £60m brand, but the market has moved for 2019 to a wider supplier base. Garden supplier Garland says its sales rose by 90% in October post-Glee and by 50% on the overall year.

Well-being trend

Mintel says a 2019 trend is "total well-being". Consumers are treating their bodies like an ecosystem and seeking solutions that complement their personal health and evolving needs.

Suttons and Mr Fothergill’s have expanded organic seed ranges, recognising some gardeners’ requirement to know their produce will be synthetic chemical-free from seed to plate. Franchi Seeds has started labelling its products with vegan accreditation and says three million flexitarians in the UK present an untapped market.

Millennials are into houseplants, healthy growing and eating, and everyone is trying to capture that market, even though the mass core market is 55 and over. They are moving away from chemicals to biological controls and they want bigger plants in 9cm, one- or two-litre pots, more instant gardening and to move away from plug bedding.

At Chelsea 2019, an outdoor show campaign feature on children and gardening is set to have royal involvement, possibly from the Duchess of Cambridge. The HTA will have a National Children’s Gardening Week themed garden in the Discovery Zone, designed by former Blue Peter gardener Chris Collins, that will feature new plant launches and child-friendly gardening ideas. Kate Gould is set to design for the Greenfingers children’s hospice garden charity. Kew is also opening its children’s garden playground, 10 years after opening the last one, which it wanted to replace with a more "natural" version.

Buckingham Garden Centre’s Chris Day says the big plan for 2019 is to try and get more focus on the centre’s gardening club. It will roll out with 20-30 local schools. Horticulture is now on the syllabus and schools want to grow their own with children learning about plants and where food comes from. "We can do what we’re good at — educating and bringing on a new generation of gardeners," says Day. Tong Garden Centre in West Yorkshire will build indoor play to add to its successful outdoor areas, showing an ambition to provide a diverse destination, family-led attraction.

Brexit

Alton Garden Centre director Andy Bunker says ‘D-Day’ on 29 March may not have as big an impact on the sector as feared: "If the weather is right in March and April, people will be back on the nursery buying again. We didn’t have that replacement market of plants like Photinia or Italian stock this year. But by March, people will have money in their pocket after Christmas. If the weather is awful they spend it on DIY, but if they can get outside then we can hook them. There’s a lot of talk about Brexit at the moment, but for us there’s enough stock out there. For the Dutch, what is the UK market for them — 25%? It’s too important so they will do what’s necessary within reason to make it work."

All garden centres are expected to have to pay a 10p plastic bag tax from January 2020. Plastic  has overtaken peat as gardening’s green issue over the past year, but peat reduction is sure to come back onto the agenda in 2019 ahead of the Government’s target date for ending consumer peat sales in 2020. Big retail developments are happening at RHS Wisley, while Wentworth Garden Centre and Selby Garden Centre, both in South Yorkshire, are undergoing developments. Bents in Cheshire could start work on a cookery and horticulture school in 2019.

Malcolm Scott Consultants planner Chris Primett says the various parties who have bought the 40 Wyevales sold in 2018 are initially more likely to tweak the offer to ensure sales increase to industry norms per square metre rather than make major redevelopment plans.

For example, at Hereford Wellington, new owner English Salvage has replaced furniture and opened up a view from the coffee shop, as well as retraining staff. These shop environment refreshes do not need planning permission and can make an instant difference.

The banning of the slug killer pesticide metaldehyde for outdoor use is to be introduced across Great Britain from spring 2020.

Fresh produce: pressure on price remains relentless - image: Pixabay

FRESH PRODUCE

Key themes

  • Brexit  
  • Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme 
  • retail 
  • Veg Power TV initiative 

The UK’s exit from the EU, whatever form it takes, will have widespread ramifications in fresh produce as in the rest of farming in the year ahead, from labour supply to chemicals registration and importing of plant material, and possibly bringing with it the threat of cheaper imported produce from beyond Europe.

British Growers Association chief executive Jack Ward says: "Brexit will dominate matters for a long time to come and that relentless uncertainty is not doing anyone any favours."

The Government’s pilot seasonal agricultural workers scheme, due to launch in spring, will have only a modest impact initially, with just 2,500 work visas up for grabs. But industry figures are optimistic this will grow as the scheme beds in. "It will show that people will go home again so they don’t add to the overall migration figures and that will pave the way for discussions to increase that figure," says Ward.

Adding to pressures on the sector is the demanding and competitive retail environment. The proposed £7.3bn merger between Asda and Sainsbury’s "raises the issue of how other retailers will respond", says Ward. But this is not imminent. The Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) has said it will publish preliminary findings from its inquiry into the merger in January, with a final report due in March.

Even this timetable has been contested by the two retailers, which say it "does not give the parties or the CMA sufficient time to provide and consider all the evidence given the unprecedented scale and complexity of the case". It comes amid what Ward describes as "the already relentless pressure on price", adding: "With Tesco opening its Jack’s discount stores, a bigger share of the weekly shop is already going to discounters."

Levy bodies

Meanwhile, AHDB Horticulture, along with the other statutory farming sector levy bodies, concluded a consultation in November on its structure and priorities, and is due to publish a summary of responses early in 2019. AHDB horticulture board chair Hayley Campbell-Gibbons said recently: "There will almost certainly be change. How bold and significant is the only question. The outcome of Brexit will likely influence that."

Ward says: "There are alternatives around the world that we can look at as we consider how best to deliver research and development. Horticulture is very diverse and the needs of mushroom growers are very different to those of brassica growers or ornamental growers, and every crop has a different problem. Some do feel the AHDB model is already fit for purpose though — there are views along a spectrum."

The Veg Power initiative, which will include primetime advertising on ITV in January, "is the biggest single opportunity to promote fresh produce in a generation and we as an industry need to get behind it", adds Ward. "It’s the first step on a journey. Changing habits won’t happen overnight. This will be a long-term effort." On the weather, he adds: "In 2018 it ranged from -15°C in February to 35°C in June. It would be good to have a more straightforward year in 2019."

Robotic line markers: new models such as Rigby Taylor’s Tiny use technology to reduce waste and save money - image: HW

GROUNDS CARE

Key themes

  • new equipment and fresh thinking 
  • GPS technology 
  • grass seed development

Challenges are set to continue throughout 2019 for groundsmen and gardeners maintaining sports facilities and lawns. The shortage of trained and skilled labour is likely to intensify. The impact of climate change will require quicker decisions and faster reactions. The restrictive choice of chemical products will make tackling pests and disease more difficult — and all the time pressure will increase to produce world-class swards while reducing the carbon footprint and working within tight budgets.

Last year’s weather events saw turf managers battling to restore healthy turf after heavy rains. Lying snow and frosty winds in the spring damaged grass plants, and drought in the summer caused more despair as swards turned brown for the want of rainfall. The conditions, leading to stressed turf and annual meadow grass die back, were perfect for infestation by weeds, moss and diseases. There is talk of this winter being equally cold. Will there be another drought in the summer? The turf-care industry needs to think and react quickly to tackle the effects of such weather events and be ready to adjust mowing regimes and cutting heights, postpone matches or roll out the barrier tape to prevent footfall (and picnicking) causing more damage.

Public expectations

Science and technology are supplying solutions to help overcome the challenges and aid groundsmen to present turf in the condition the public expects. Expectations are increasingly high, with television showing turf at its best —internationally renowned golf courses, pitches and splendid lawns around stately homes — but they are often a far cry from the reality of the local school playing field or park.

New equipment and products, including grass seeds, should be tried and taken up, along with greater use of monitoring and fresh thinking about how jobs are done. The number of skilled drivers required will reduce in the future with the continued and rapid development of autonomous kit. Most notable is the rise of robotic mowers. Working on swards ranging from pitches and school grounds to cemeteries and lawns in National Trust gardens, the mowers look after themselves and the turf 24/7. Trials by Husqvarna have shown sward quality to improve under robotic mowing.

Such mowers lie at the heart of Husqvarna’s concept Zero — an off-the-grid, autonomous solution built around a sensor-equipped solar charging hub for robotic mowers. Husqvarna brand design director Rajinder Mehra says: "To reduce cities’ carbon footprint, we have to explore new and untested ideas. Design concepts like our concept Zero is a great catalyst that energises us to develop new people- and planet-friendly solutions. In future, as city authorities consider banning diesel vehicles, robotic mowing is likely to become more prevalent."

But it is not just mowing where technology can deliver solutions to the labour crisis. The adoption of GPS technology has made line marking quicker. Robotic line marking should also be taken seriously, and not just by Premier League football clubs. Once sites are mapped, a contractor would be able to continue with inspection, monitoring and assessment work while the robot marks out a pitch. Technology helps in precision applications. Whether using GPS-guided sprayers or benefitting from apps such as Sherriff Amenity’s PrecisionPro, money can be saved by reducing wastage.

Monitoring and assessing grass is now key to turf health. The lack of chemical products for use on turf is a major concern, with some insecticides, fungicides and selective herbicides under threat and few alternatives being made available. For pests such as leatherjackets, greater consideration should be given to biocontrol methods such as BASF’s Nemasys Leatherjacket Killer. Combating disease will require a holistic approach, using cultural methods and selecting resistant cultivars.

Perennial ryegrasses

Thankfully, grass seed development has seen some major advances in breeding technology, and more thought should be given when selecting cultivars for over-seeding or new areas. The arrival of tetraploid perennial ryegrasses has provided turf managers with the increased benefits of double the number of chromosomes, including chloroplasts, compared with diploid grasses and so providing enhanced chlorophyll production, high vigour and faster establishment — so important when the renovation window is short and repairs are urgent.

Tetraploids are also extremely stress-tolerant plants and there are indications that tetraploids have higher tolerance to turf diseases such as microdochium patch, leaf spot, red thread and rusts.

Seed choice can also help with the industry’s green credentials. Rigby Taylor, in association with its seed-breeding partner Top Green, has studied the capacity of different grass species and cultivars to store and lock-up carbon within the leaves, roots and soil profile.

A range of grasses that exhibit unmatched rates of carbon sequestration has been identified and is now available as Carbon4Grass (C4G) mixtures for sports and amenity projects.

Green spaces: the Government’s forthcoming spending review will be a crucial time to make the case for parks

GREEN SPACE MANAGEMENT

Key themes

  • Parks Action Group
  • petitions
  • partnership deals
  • monetising parks

Green spaces will be on the political agenda next year thanks to a surging media focus on the dire state of our parks and the emergence of the fledgling Parks Action Group (PAG).

While 2018 saw the PAG find its feet — formed following a Communities & Local Government Committee parks inquiry — this year will see the group focus on rolling out a comprehensive communication package to hone its message and target power brokers.

So says Rugby Borough Council parks and grounds manager Chris Worman, who is the PAG "parks practitioner representative". The spending review will be a crucial time to make the case for parks, and PAG is building a business case on how green spaces meet several Government agendas on healthy, active communities. "

That said, 2019 will still be hard on maintenance budgets and staff," he says. "There’s little evidence [creating] parks trusts will help. There is no silver bullet and some authorities simply can’t raise the income from their facilities. Another way is the foundation model such as in Bournemouth where people can gift money for capital improvements. This model may take off in 2019."

Green space consultant Peter Neal agrees the foundation model is one to watch. "It is interesting to see the prominence of park foundations, which are starting to be trialled and tested. This is an established model in the US that provides a charitable arm to parks services and could offer a real opportunity to vary and extend funding opportunities beyond traditional public sector services here in the UK."

The sale of green spaces may continue, but expect a political firestorm, he adds. Liverpool City Council’s recent plans to sell part of Calderstones Park immediately triggered a petition that generated 60,000 signatures. This "is a massive political issue", says Worman, who remains cautiously optimistic thanks to wider political developments.

Environment plan

These include the Government’s environment plan and more recent £1m pocket park fund. Meanwhile, The Mail on Sunday’s Save our Parks campaign raised the debate through mass engagement with voters and will continue to rattle not just local but central Government well into 2019, he says.

Dacorum Borough Council is drawing up business plans to target local investors and businesses. Parks and open spaces officer Robert Cassidy says the authority wants to build on partnership deals that this year saw local firm Henkel sponsor a £35,000 park gym and Affinity Water pay for a £150,000 river restoration project.

Carlisle City Council green spaces and bereavement services manager Phil Gray is "cautiously optimistic" for 2019. He welcomes "positive indications" from Government with the environment plan, but "we have to wait and see what fallout there is from Brexit". Carlisle has cut summer floral displays, Britain in Bloom and Green Flag. The focus for 2019 is health, with new free-to-use outdoor fitness centres.

Funding will involve developing links with the NHS and Public Health England — Carlisle is a World Health Organization "Healthy City". Other funding will come from "earned income" or "increasingly important" section 106 planning agreements. Gray concludes: "The PAG hasn’t made much impact here and its manifesto is pretty much in line with our own strategy. But I wish some of the resources could be directed straight to the grass roots. But it is great Government is talking about the parks and green spaces agenda."

Consultant Sid Sullivan says: "More than any year I’ve witnessed, 2019 threatens to be the year when parks will have to be more commercial than ever before. Monetising parks however will always be fraught — too much footfall and insufficient resources to repair the inevitable damage. I’m not sure on PAG. With many people working longer hours, volunteers’ time is rather limited. But parks must become more sophisticated in how they manage contracts and contractors. Despite all the challenges facing parks managers, 2019 has some interesting and rewarding possibilities."

Consolidation

Meanwhile, more consolidation is likely among contractors operating in the sector, says Richard Burton, regional managing director at idverde UK. "I’m not sure Brexit uncertainty will affect parks maintenance too much, but private-sector companies that also operate in Europe and beyond may put a hold on budgets, which could affect upkeep," he suggests.

"Continuing local authority budget squeezes will make wages an issue in 2019. However, Brexit won’t affect our company strategy to grow organically and by acquisition. There’s plenty of sector consolidation, and that will continue in 2019."


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