Arboricultural contractors are feeling the squeeze - from the economic downturn hitting domestic and commercial work on one side and now from the anticipated cuts in public spending on the other.
"It has been incredibly difficult," says Beechwood Tree Care managing director Neil Wilson. He explains that the Berkshire-based company does "a bit of everything", which has helped.
"The commercial sector - doing tree clearance - died a death and now local authority work is expected to dry up too," he says. "We may have to rely on the work we do for the military to see us through."
Arboricultural Association technical officer Paul Smith agrees that times are tough for contractors. "Margins have always been tight and we have already lost some contractors from the industry," he reports. "Hopefully the current squeeze will put more pressure on white van man than on established, reputable companies."
But rather than despair, Smith says there are steps companies can take to stand out from the crowd. "We acknowledge that external accreditation is an additional cost, but it's one we find people are prepared to pay," he points out.
Smith runs the Arboricultural Association Approved Contractor scheme. "We've seen a marked increase in applicants," he says. "Usually we approve about one new company every month, but over the past eight weeks it has been more like one a week."
He puts this partly down to the media. "Thanks to TV programmes such as Rogue Trader and Watchdog, there's greater public awareness of industry bodies awarding seals of approval to contractors," he says.
Frosts Tree Surgery contracts manager Graeme Codd says the year so far has been "a mixed picture" for the Milton Keynes-based contractor. "We are extremely busy right now with both commercial and domestic clients, but generally we have had peaks and troughs," he says.
"On the commercial side, it's mostly money that has already been committed, and that can tide you over the lulls, so we are wearing it well. But I know of companies that have nothing at all on right now or in the pipeline."
The domestic side has been generally hampered by the economic downturn and uncertainty over future government policy, he adds. "It has made people wary of committing to work, except emergency work and dangerous trees."
However, he says a number of failures of Robinia and Aesculus have kept the company busy in tree removal. "Periods when you are not flat out are a good time to be looking at training and accreditation, as well as looking at new services you can offer," he points out.
The firm is not currently contracted to carry out any local authority work. "We are finding that smaller companies are picking up those - I assume it's all price-driven and they have smaller overheads as well as some degree of 'buying' contracts to keep their teams employed," says Codd.
Tree Advice Trust director Derek Patch says he "wouldn't be surprised" if local authorities spend less on tree maintenance in light of the Government's announcement of across-the-board spending cuts. "If we're talking 25 per cent cuts, then something has to give somewhere," he adds.
"They have a responsibility for safety but the tragedy would be if they cut back on tree planting, of which there is already an enormous backlog. Our stock of trees in streets and parks is ageing."
However, cuts in local authority funding may actually benefit some commercial contractors, according to Acorn Tree Surgery founder and managing director Kevin O'Rourke. "Pressure on spending means they are moving away from in-house teams - the only way to save money is to privatise," he says.
"That's an opportunity for the likes of ourselves, and that's where we're aiming our marketing. A private company can do the work more quickly and more effectively." The West Midlands-based firm has contracts with 11 local authorities and eight housing associations. "A contract like Coventry is worth about £650,000 a year," says O'Rourke, adding that this calls for contractors who are not just big but certified.
"It helps that we are quite well established and we have a lot of accreditation - ISO 9000, 14000, and 18000 as well as Sector Scheme 18, which lets highways work. It proves you are a bona fide professional." Indeed, the company has taken on 11 new staff within the past month - an increase of around a quarter.
"Where arboriculture companies have been affected (by the downturn) is in the private sector - people haven't got the money to spend - but we are too big for that." O'Rourke explains that "we can offer secure long-term work" for practitioners who have worked in that sector. Acorn Tree Surgery also carries out work at construction sites, he points out, adding: "We have seen an upturn there too."
ENSURING PEACE OF MIND
For small contractors, being accredited provides one way to encourage business from domestic customers, says Arboricultural Association technical officer Paul Smith. But this has been hampered by a lack of public awareness of schemes.
But the recently-launched Tree Care Approved (TCA) scheme may overcome this. It forms part of TrustMark, the Government-backed initiative to ensure reliable and trustworthy tradesmanship.
TCA managing director Andy Burgess admits: "The public aren't fully aware of TrustMark, but we are getting there, through the media. It does a lot of PR at a level that our industry couldn't afford to do on its own."
There is some overlap between TCA and the existing Arboricultural Association Approved Contractor (AAAC) scheme. But Burgess says: "I want to see one common standard for the industry."
The Arboricultural Association is already "in serious talks" on how to come to a system of dual accreditation, which would allow practitioners to gain both - TCA and AAAC - from a single assessment process, says Smith.
An online consultation with existing approved contractors on how to take the proposal forward was completed last week, with an Arboricultural Association board meeting this week expected to discuss findings from the exercise.
The TCA scheme is currently offering a 25 per cent discount on its £450 annual subscription for applicants using its website, TreeCareApproved.org.
A BREATH OF FRESH AIR
Arboricultural Association technical officer Paul Smith puts the AirSpade among the services that contractors might consider offering in order to diversify.
Developed in the USA, the AirSpade uses a high-pressure jet of air to clear soil from around tree roots. This leaves them clear to be analysed to detect causes of problems visible above ground - for example, fungal attack.
"At long last we are looking at the causes of tree problems rather than simply treating the symptoms - often the cause is at or below ground level," says Smith.
The technique can also be used to address decompaction, he adds. "For residential customers, it's one of the more affordable treatments. And for utility companies, it allows service installations through tree roots without having to sever them. Fortunately, the construction side is starting to pick up again."
Andrew Cowan has established a niche both in providing the AirSpade himself and helping other contractors get started in the field through his company, Arborecology. "We are promoting it as an additional service for contractors to offer their clients," he says.
"In fact, we are setting up a package, providing them with everything they need - equipment, specialist safety clothing and training - for under £10,000 and that can be reduced further by hiring the compressor initially. That compares quite well with the cost of a new chipper, for example."
The idea "is still at the early stages", he adds. "We haven't massively promoted it. The market is a bit constrained but we are also providing people with marketing tools that we use ourselves. We hope eventually to have a network of contractors around the country, accessible through a single website."