Highways scheme stirs up contract debate

The National Highways' Sector Scheme 18 was officially launched at IoG Saltex. Matthew Appleby reports.

Lord Hestletine at IoG Saltex 2008 - photo: HW
Lord Hestletine at IoG Saltex 2008 - photo: HW

The Highways Agency launch, in co-operation with BALI, of the National Highways Sector Scheme 18 at IoG Saltex last week at first appeared to be a relatively uncontroversial affair.

BALI, one of three organisations that have co-ordinated contributions from industry to the scheme, invited Haymarket chairman Lord Heseltine, publisher of Horticulture Week, to unveil the document. While backing the sentiment behind the plan to improve the consistency of standards of landscaping along Britain's trunk road verges, he warned against the increasing bureaucracy that is stifling private-sector businesses.

Heseltine said: "Society demands higher standards. There's always someone waiting for something to go wrong. So I welcome this document.

"But I'm uneasy when the public sector gets involved in private-sector work. It means forms are around the corner. I salute the very large number of trade associations involved, but say to private companies: 'Fight your corner and don't give in to forms and checklists.'"

He added that private-sector companies "can't bring themselves to challenge the might of bureaucracy. Private-sector representative bodies must protect their members from public-sector bodies and more forms."

BALI chief executive Sandra Loton-Jones said that the "dynamic document" for improving and creating more consistent standards for roadside landscape and environment was the result of years of collaborative work with other industry bodies.

Glendale challenge

Then things began to heat up. Outspoken Glendale executive chairman Tony Hewitt made a statement from the floor, voicing his concern about how big corporations, backed by the government rules that govern the Highways Agency contract awards, are stifling the landscape industry.

Hewitt said that landscape contractors are being "bashed" by civil engineers because of the Highways Agency's contract awarding systems.

"We don't work with the Highways Agency," Hewitt said. "Amey and Carillion in the construction sector are in trouble financially and make money by bashing contractors like us. It was better when the Highways Agency awarded contracts directly and not through intermediate companies."

Highways Agency environmental manager Tony Sangwine, who looks after the 29,000ha trunk road verges, responded that the system was designed as "a one-stop shop". "It is the responsibility of large civil engineering companies to deliver," he said.

Ground Control senior contracts manager, and former chairman of BALI, Neil Huck said: "I agree with Tony Hewitt. Balfour Beatty looked after the M5 and my friend lost the contract overnight. It was taken in-house, with the specialist landscaper losing out. The system should go back to direct award but that is unlikely to happen. In this round of contract negotiations, the Highways Agency or main-term contractors cut budgets by half this July/August."

Huck bid for the Transport for London red route bus route landscape contract. Civil engineer Balfour Beatty subsequently took the contract in-house.

Huck said: "That's a civil engineer trying to manage grounds maintenance. My fear is that this happens across the whole sector. Facilities management companies are buying grounds-maintenance companies because they want the contracts the grounds-maintenance companies have.

"For instance, ISS is buying lots of grounds maintenance companies so as to get into other contracts. They're using landscape as a loss leader and that makes us not competitive."

A Balfour Beatty representative said: "We don't usually do landscaping in-house. It's a bit of a mystery."

Amey, Carillion and ISS did not respond before HW went to press.

NATIONAL HIGHWAYS SECTOR SCHEME 18

The new National Highways Sector Scheme 18 for Landscape and the Environment, including ecology, is one of 23 such schemes covering all aspects of highways work.

The scheme is designed to:

- Provide an industry benchmark;

- Ensure that all processes are planned;

- Provide a basis for continuous improvement;

- Focus on quality as an objective;

- Reduce overall costs for the client and supplier;

- Provide and maintain a properly trained and competent workforce;

- Involve all sides of the industry in scheme ownership within a partnership framework;

- Ensure that certification bodies use auditors with technical knowledge and experience of the sector concerned;

- Promote confidence in quality management systems by the provision of a robust, transparent system.

A tri-party working group, consisting of the British Association of Landscape Industries, Lantra Awards and City & Guilds NPTC, was responsible for co-ordinating industry contributions to the scheme for the landscape sector and is responsible for its administration.

While having been officially launched at last week's IoG Saltex exhibition, the scheme began operation on 1 August.

Contractors currently working for the Highways Agency will have a period of grace during which time they must gain full certification through one of the approved certification bodies.

Other organisations in the UK, such as local authorities, utilities companies and developers, may adopt the new scheme.


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