We have had a bad experience bringing in a tree surgeon to do work on our campus. How can we be sure we are using a good contractor when we need work doing in the future?

If you want to hire the services of an arboricultural contractor, you must be prepared to do your research beforehand - there is a lot more to selecting a contractor than just looking for the cheapest quote.

Tree surgery is a highly skilled profession but there are people offering to undertake tree work when they have little or no training. There is often no insurance cover. The work can be poor and the ultimate result can be costly.

You can search for potential arboricultural firms in your local phone directory, newspaper or on the internet but then comes the important vetting procedure. This starts with asking for a quote. Reputable arborists will be happy to quote for work rather than fob you off with "ifs" and "buts". And the quote should be given in writing, not verbally.

Ask if the firm works to a British Standard. The reply should be BS3998. If they can't state the number, look for another contractor. An arborist who is fully trained will be pleased to show you their certificates. Ideally, there will be National Certificates and/or National Diplomas in arboriculture, but you also need to check that those doing the work hold NPTC certificates for chainsaw use.

Equally important is insurance. You must ask the tree surgeon to show evidence. This should be employers' liability and public liability insurance, and should be for a minimum of £5m.

You can ask if the tree surgeons and/or firm are members of a professional organisation. Being a member will not guarantee work standards, but it does show commitment to the industry. In the UK there are two voluntary schemes certifying the competence of arborists through examination and assessment, plus reassessment and continual professional development.

The Arboricultural Association (AA) maintains a directory of quality-assured arboricultural contracting businesses. The contractors and consultants in the directory are regularly assessed for their health and safety procedures, office and business practices and, of course, the quality of their tree work. These companies normally display the AA logo. Details can be found at www.trees.org.uk.

Individual arborists may be certified by the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA). It also assesses its members for their knowledge and ability. Certified arborists will display the ISA-certified Arborist logo.

If you are shown either the AA or ISA logo by a contactor, it is important to check that it is bona fide and current. And remember that there are also competent arborists who are not members of either organisation - that's why it is important to check through the quote.

The quote should make reference to BS3998 and detail the work to be undertaken. There should be information relating to which party is responsible for obtaining permission in the case of protected trees and details relating to the protection of residents, the property and the public. The quote will also state what is to happen to the debris - even the woodchips if chipping is necessary. Also, it should be clear whether VAT is included or not.

It would also be wise to ask for a reference - and then follow it up.

- Sally Drury has reported for HW and its forerunner GC&HTJ for 25 years, and has spent more than five years testing machinery for HW and What Kit? The advice in this helpline is independent.


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