As the dust settles on last week’s Autumn Statement, we asked three landscape architects to share their thoughts on the potential implications for the profession.

The Chancellor George Osborne
The Chancellor George Osborne

Last Tuesday’s Autumn Statement saw the Chancellor slash Britain’s 2011 growth forecast to 0.9 per cent, outline £5bn of capital infrastructure projects and unveil a national infrastructure plan for the next ten years. Here, three landscape architects consider the challenges and opportunities for the profession.

Ian Lanchbury, landscape architect, Arup

The Autumn Statement outlines a huge opportunity for landscape architects, but it also poses a potential threat to the quality of our natural and built environment.

Opportunities for the profession lie within the £6.3bn (£1.3bn of this was announced earlier in the autumn) of additional government spending, and potentially a further £20bn of external investment, announced on infrastructure projects ranging from major and local transport to renewable energy, water, waste and communication.

If the profession could obtain just 1 per cent of this new investment in fees, it would result in £63m-worth of work. The statement also indicates that the government will begin to invest in green infrastructure projects from April 2012, although it is unclear how this investment will be allocated.

The danger is that this money could be spent quickly and without detailed consideration of wider integration and environmental issues. This new investment in grey infrastructure needs to embrace a green approach that can reduce the potential impact of these projects on the environment, while also achieving the aspirations set out in the Natural Environment White Paper of “net biodiversity gain” and “creating a resilient ecological network”.

Tony Edwards, director of PLACE Design+Planning

The Localism Bill received Royal Assent on 15 November 2011. The implications of this Bill and how it will affect the ownership and management of open spaces has yet to be seen and additional and further guidance is awaited. What is clear is that the diverse values of green space are increasingly recognised by society, that the difficulty of funding green infrastructure in capital and maintenance terms is an increasing problem, and the movement for communities to take leading roles in the ownership and management of community assets is being given government recognition. There is now a Right to Challenge for local communities to bid to take over the management of open space to serve community goals.

Only 13 days later, the Autumn Statement also had implications for development and communities. Its 98 pages were far ranging, but there were a number of areas of interest for landscape architects.

The implications of housing revenue changes remain to be seen. If receipts from public housing sales are fed back into the system there may be a growth of housing schemes. However, if there is no confidence in the future (and with 700,00 job losses predicted for the public sector there may well be a lack of confidence) the take up rate for new housing may be depressed. The £1.2bn for schools, however, may see a more energetic take up for schemes, as population growth makes education provision a necessity.

Compliance with the Habitats and Wild Birds Directive is being reviewed to ensure it does not lead to extra delays and costs. It is not clear why this directive is being picked on, but it can only be assumed that whatever strengths it has to constrain development are going to be diluted. What message this sends about the government’s intentions for sustainability and biodiversity remains to be seen.

Schemes where the demands of S106 obligations agreed before April 2010 are seen to be holding back development can be reviewed. It is hoped that some obligations can be diluted and encouragement given to developers to commence schemes that have “in principle” planning consent. The bigger infrastructure schemes will enjoy funding to the tune of £5bn, but much of this will go to roads and civil engineering projects. This will not bring general cheer to landscape architects, although those employed in larger multidisciplinary practices may feel some relief.

If the only thing holding back practice growth is finance, borrowing may be made easier. However, with the gloomy prediction for the economy as a whole, the ability to more easily get into debt may not be a particular attraction for landscape practices. Borrowing money without the certainty of jobs and profits to service the debt does not enjoy wide appeal.

It is going to be tough out there in every sector from 2012 onwards, and across all types of development, but then we all knew this didn’t we?

Luke Engleback, landscape architect, Studio Engleback

I don’t suppose many landscape practices will benefit from the Chancellor’s measures for small companies, but perhaps this is the moment to shout loudly about our expertise in delivering value with minimal means – not only good at a time of austerity but also when the world is challenged by resource depletion and as concerns over climate change are being aired in Durban this week.

On a more positive note, Osbourne said that investing in infrastructure is a key part of this government’s strategy”. He may have been referring to heavy infrastructure, but what if we were to look at infrastructure that reduces energy use and the problems associated with flooding? Better still, if this promotes biodiversity as, for the first time, the value of the ‘commons’ –that is, ecosystems, air, water and raw materials that are rarely factored into conventional economics – are now being monetised.

Following Nicholas Stern’s ground-breaking tome The Economics of Climate Change in 1996, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) has set out the value of these ‘commons’. Taking the long view is essential in re-shaping our economy and the government’s National Ecological Assessment published in the summer outlines a moniterised value of the underlying environmental system. So it is right that this ‘infrastructure’ benefits from early and sustained investment in an ecological approach to planning and design. The cumulative benefits of many small interventions, suitably coordinated, can have major benefits on our mutual resilience in a world of significant change.

Landscape architects have great expertise in planning and designing environmental infrastructure that delivers a series of environmental services. These ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ elements  can be integrated into a design that works as an extension of cities and of architecture. I believe that it is possible to create an extraordinary ‘ordinary’  21st-century vernacular that increases wellbeing and human comfort, and reinforces natural systems that have been degraded in recent decades. Investment in these areas can be modest, yet deliver significant rewards, as our work on the Swindon Triangle has shown.

By the standards of heavy infrastructure projects, environmental infrastructure, is relatively low cost, so the Chancellor could achieve more ‘bang for his buck’ if these types of projects were brought forward. The knowledge base and ingenuity in a myriad small landscape practices has the potential to bring real rewards, and I urge Mr Osborne to think differently – think landscape architects!

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