Could a new 'pooled' local authority arb contract be a model for others?

Hertfordshire-based Gristwood & Toms' "jointly procured single-supplier framework contract" for three London boroughs could serve as a model for other authorities wishing to make efficiencies in an age of ever tighter public spending.

Image: Crowbot (CC BY SA 2.0)
Image: Crowbot (CC BY SA 2.0)

Led by the borough of Islington in collaboration with Waltham Forest and the City of London Corporation, the contract begins this month and covers all aspects of public tree care including pruning, felling and planting. The total value is "up to £14m", says the contractor, with a potential term of seven years.

Islington’s tree service manager Jake Tibbetts says: "This joint procurement shows that by working together councils can reduce costs and resources needed to procure contracts. Whilst the boroughs will call off individual contracts, some aspects of the on-going contract management will be shared, delivering further efficiencies."

Likewise the contract enables Gristwood & Toms, one of the UK's largest specialist arboricultural contractors,  to "implement mobile technology to improve operative and public safety, and invest in new equipment to enhance standards and productivity", explains head of sales and marketing Darren Kilby. "We will also support apprenticeships, training and work-experience programmes across all contract areas."

Councils in jointly procured Gristwood & Toms contract:

  • London Borough of Islington (leader)
  • London Borough of Waltham Forest
  • City of London Corporation

He points out that by offering a larger contract the three authorities are more likely to achieve efficiencies and savings. "A single supplier framework contract with a potential value of £2m per year for up to seven years means that a contractor has the security of revenue to invest in that contract from the outset — new vehicles, equipment, innovation, community initiatives, apprenticeships and so on. Both the contractor and client can adopt a longer-term view."

Kilby adds: "City of London, as a smaller partner, will benefit from the economies of scale and achieve better rates than if they tendered and managed the service independently." He explains that among the contracting methods that local authorities employ "it is a mixed bag in the arboricultural contracting world".

"A number of London boroughs have certainly been looking at, or have already implemented, shared services or joint procurement to achieve internal efficiencies in sourcing or contract management," he says. "Many county councils are pooling services too, for example, outsourcing the management of all highway services to a provider such as Balfour Beatty or Skanska, who will in turn outsource to specialist providers. Arboriculture often falls within this."

In general, though, he adds: "The vast majority of local authorities will self-procure and self-manage arb works. However, council tree departments are shrinking in size and tree officers are being put under increasing pressure and strain, due to budget cuts. Therefore, we may see more of a move towards pooling resources.

"The obvious criticism of this method is that only the larger players have the financial and operational resources to tender for the work, effectively eliminating smaller contractors."

But he points out that "forward-thinking" authorities such as Barnet "write into their contracts that the successful contractor must place a percentage of the work with smaller local businesses, so building the local pound".

On the other hand, he notes: "Too many authorities still procure under ‘framework contracts’, appointing multiple suppliers — often up to eight contractors — who are continually pitched against each other through mini competitions, cherry-picking the cheapest tendered rate for each individual job. We have worked on frameworks where two or three contractors could turn up in the same estate to carry our different tree operations because the tree officer picks the cheapest rate for each task. How can that be called efficient?"

The executive committee of the London Tree Officers Association (LTOA), of which Tibbetts was formerly chair, adds: "In times of austerity local authorities are inevitably forced to adopt cost-saving measures, and pooling resources between councils is sometimes one of those measures.

"Whatever course of action is followed the LTOA believes that tree officer roles must be protected and supported wherever possible, ensuring that they are empowered to fulfil their roles as the custodians of the urban forest."

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