Tendering troubles

Writing in Horticulture Week in 1991, nurseryman John Ravenscroft lamented the impact of compulsory competitive tendering on amenity horticulture.

Nurseryman, John Ravenscroft - image: HW
Nurseryman, John Ravenscroft - image: HW

Competitive tendering has led to a situation which must cause great sadness to those people who are long-term producers of native trees and shrubs. I believed that, in producing these plants, we were engaged in something worthwhile and were making a contribution to the improvement of the urban environment.

A typical buyer was someone who knew their plants, cared for them and who was trusted to use their own judgement in purchasing and then maintained an interest in the development of them.

I now see the results 20 years on, of the efforts of some of those people. It cannot be argued that public bodies should not spend public money as frugally as possible, but today’s unwieldy apparatus of tender documents and many layers of management are surely coming more as a percentage of the money spent than previously.

At one stage there was a clear career path open to most employees culminating in park superintendent, so at the top of the heap was someone with a practical background who cared for plants. As a result of the tender system, plants have been reduced to commodities to be traded by young men in offices.

At the same time, the average price obtained has steadily declined. For a while, labour saving techniques could compensate for this but that stage has now passed. Plant producers are now expected to tender the same low prices not only to what is left after privatisation of local authority purchasers whose payment for the goods was certain, but to commercial organisations often with little asset backing and a short history of trading. The result for growers as opposed to traders is ever higher investment, low stock turnaround averaging once every two  years, reduced prices and now the uncertainty of payment. Plant purchases are a very small part of the cost of most redevelopment schemes which in other respects continue to use very expensive finishes such as tinted glass and quality hardwood fittings.

The heart has been taken out of the local authority parks and reclamation world at a time when there has never been greater public concern about trees and the environment.

Simultaneously with the decline of the profitibility of native and amenity tree and shrub production, there has been a vast increase in the sale of such things as Christmas decorations, bogus home-made confectionery and so on, and it saddens me that we need to be involved in a trade in profitable trivia.

Taken from Horticulture Week, 4 January 1991

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