The Future of Domestic Landscaping and Garden Care in England

I have been asked for my opinion on the trends, market place and future for the landscaping industry in Britain. Although I have been in the business of designing and building gardens for nearly fifty years, including some in Wales and Scotland, the vast majority have been in England, and as there are many variations in English Law when set against those  passed by the Welsh and Scottish Assemblies, I do not feel confident in commenting on those regions.

I start by mentioning Laws, as the future of the landscape industry is very much bound up with legislation – indeed, it is difficult to even think about the next few years without recognising the impact that  so many recent Laws and Regulations have had on our working practices. Some have their roots in European Courts, but many others are the products of our own Government – or are implemented and administered mainly in this country  – whilst other countries blithely ignore them!

Over the past twenty years we have seen regulations restricting the purchase and use of a range of tools and equipment – top handled chain saws immediately spring to my mind – and the withdrawal and outlawing of many chemicals. A very wide range of skills based ‘tickets’ are now required for using even the most basic of day to day tools such as strimmers, chain saws and disc cutters. Most of these restrictions on Safe Use are to be welcomed, as they undoubtedly help to make the work place safer both for operatives and the public.

For many years, the ‘Commercial’ sector of landscaping and grounds maintenance have been subjected to very strict rules, and only those companies that can demonstrate their total commitment to these strictures will be included in Lists of Selected Tenderers. Without this inclusion, they will not be permitted to tender for Local Authority projects.

Firms wishing to gain Selected Tenderer status must comply with a very comprehensive range of regulations, not only concerning Law, but also demonstrating their compliance with matters such as insurance, staff training programmes, employment (including equal opportunities, CRB checks etc) Safe Use & Handling, Waste Regulations, Transport Laws including trailers etc. All of these items have become second nature to the commercial sector, and many companies belong to either The British Association of Landscape Industries and/or The Association of Professional Landscapers, both of whom carry out strict and comprehensive annual checks on their members, who are therefore generally acceptable as bona fide contractors having shown and proven their compliance.

I mention these facts as a background to my vision of the future of the Domestic Contractor. It is perhaps appropriate to establish some facts regarding what may be described as a ‘Domestic Contractor’. There are in excess of 100,000 people in England working as self -employed gardeners. The vast majority are individuals who have had no formal training, but are perhaps highly competent and skilled artisans, working for one or more employer during the course of the week. Many thousands work as self-employed in one garden, for one employer, despite the fact that such arrangements may be contrary to various Tax Laws.

Thousands more work as ‘One-Man-Bands’, offering their services to the general public, as ‘Gardeners’ (or Landscapers or Garden Designers – or a mixture of all three). These micro firms may or may not be properly insured, and often take on extra assistance when required without first taking out Employers insurance. A percentage of these ‘firms’ are only in business in the short term or quickly become disillusioned by rain, mud and low rates, and look for an easier life.

Many others are striving to build a genuine business out of their skills, and determine to operate legally, ensuring that all matters regarding insurance, accounts, appropriate skills and certificates are gained, seeking to expand and become bona fide firms, applying to join either The Association of Professional Landscapers, The Professional Gardeners Guild or  The Gardeners Guild. Some will extend their personal status by joining The Chartered Institute of Horticulture and continue to further their careers.

Some Domestic Contractors operate fairly large firms, turning over many millions of pounds. They too will have every legal issue covered, and be aware of the increasing and changing nature of the aforementioned Laws.

Every gardener, designer and maintenance contractor is facing a new range of unknown difficulties, and we all need to look into the future and take a critical evaluation of likely and potential problems, and seek to adapt our businesses to meet the challenges.

LABOUR.  I know that many people are concerned about the fact that ‘gardening’ is seen by some as an easy to enter business. Anyone who can stand up and push a wheelbarrow can be a gardener and earn a living, even if it is as a £5.00 per hour pusher of a lawn mower. Anyone can place a postcard in a local shop window and become a Gardener. ‘No income tax, no VAT, no money back, no guarantee’ (with due acknowledgement to the writers of Only Fools and Horses) Add to that, no insurance, no PPE, no legal status whatsoever. They will happily cut down trees, having no concept of Preservation Orders, and go on to dump the rubbish in the nearest lay-by. Yet still they manage to find garden owners willing to have them on site, just because they are cheap.

As an industry, we will never beat them. There will always be the ‘bottom end’ of the market, and the best thing to do is not try to compete with them. Even the smallest firm can and should be looking at working as ‘Professionals’ and eschew such poor quality clients.

Why should you try to compete on price and be ‘the cheapest of the cheap’!

Good labour will always be hard to find, and more firms are offering their staff ‘in-house’ training, including secondment to other ‘friendly’ companies who are willing to teach new skills to their competitors on a mutual assistance system, thereby adding to the pool of available talent in a low cost manner.  Loaning labour for training, and receiving labour in return is a very effective method of inter-company improvement.

REGULATIONS. Looking to the future, which is the primary purpose of this article, and having due regard to the past (and current) legislation, I would expect to see not only more and more regulation taking place in England, but consolidation, by the Government, of those rules that are already in place.

Consider for a moment, those areas designated as National Parks. Many contractors have been astonished and alarmed to find the powers that the Regulatory Bodies (usually Local Authorities, but often with a second tier of Officers employed by National Parks) are potentially all encompassing. No reasonable sized landscape project can go ahead without the express authorisation of the ‘Authorities’, and even basic items such as walls and fences are subject to their demands.

Changes of soil levels (e.g. following the installation of a pond or pool, spreading the spoil on site) are not permitted, and heavy fines may be imposed. Designers as well as contractors must be aware of these rules. Consider too, that there is nothing to stop ‘The Government’ from extending those areas to include most or all of the country. By definition, National Park status would bring in much greater scope for interference simply by claiming it is the best interests of the Region and may be broadly welcomed by residents (until the powers of the Officers becomes tiresome for home owners – too late!)

Regulations do not stop at ‘Horticulture and Design’. All self-employed persons – not only ‘Gardeners’ will soon have to submit quarterly tax returns – bringing even the smallest firm into line with Limited Companies. Anyone employing staff is now obliged to pay into and administer a Company Pensions Scheme. All this at our own expense as unpaid Government Agents.

It is only a very short step in one’s imagination to envisage the Government regulating the Landscape Industry, enforcing each and every one of these recent ‘Laws’ and legislation brought in to demand that each and every person offering their services as a Garden Designer, Landscape Contractor or Garden Maintenance Contractor must be LICENSED to carry out such work.

In order to obtain the necessary licence, one would have to apply to the Local Authorities  and submit written proof of insurance cover, including Public, Employers and (in the case of Garden Designers) Indemnity Insurance, plus of course Waste Carriers/Chemical Storage & Handling/Safe Use of Machinery/etc – as many ‘add-ons’ as you require to carry out your chosen sphere of work.

The Licence would be administered by your local District or County Council, renewable annually on production of various documents including and especially appropriate insurance cover and of course – a fee for admin costs. Anyone who is unable (for any reason including No Fixed Abode) to obtain insurance cover would not be granted a licence.

In the same way that only qualified gas fitters, electricians (even window cleaners and chimney  sweeps in some cases) and mechanics are able to operate and obtain insurance, so it will be with Gardening. I envisage that you would keep the same Licence number for use on your headed paper and business cards, presenting both your licence and current insurance when quoting for work.

No License equals no work – legally at least. Homeowners may be obliged to ensure that they have been given a copy of your License before they are permitted to use your services, or risk become subject to a rising scale of Court fines in the event of a problem with works carried out by an unlicensed operative (much the same as anyone using a rogue tree surgeon is treated currently).

THE FUTURE?  Who knows?  But I am positive that new legislation will be brought in, and existing Laws consolidated, ensuring that only bona fide firms are permitted to operate.

Sanctions already in existence e.g. destruction of vehicles and equipment as directed by a Court (e.g. Fly Tipping cases) could be brought to bear on unlicensed garden contractors.

Contractors accepting cash payments – no invoice, tax avoidance etc would be stripped of their licence and therefore lose their business as well as paying any HM Inspectors penalties.

Those unable to pay their tax/VAT bills could be similarly threatened.

Please don’t think I am preaching doom and gloom!  I am sure we would all welcome a world in which Cowboy operators were put out of business, and that we are competing against other professionals and not the ‘cash in  hand’, ‘dump it in the lay-by’ brigade.  I have no problem with competing against good contractors. At least I know I am quoting like for like and not expected to down grade my offer to beat an artificially low price.

A wise person would keep a close eye on the trends concerning legislation, and move quickly to adapt and use any changes to their advantage by keeping one step ahead, and turning what could be considered meddlesome intrusion into your own Unique Selling Points by reinforcing your credentials and professionalism to your potential clients.