The National Highways Sector Scheme (NHSS) for highway landscape and vegetation management was launched with much fanfare at last autumn's IoG Saltex exhibition. Scheme number 18 is one of 25 such schemes covering all aspects of work on the trunk road network, overseen by the Highways Agency. The network accounts for over one-third of all traffic and nearly two-thirds of HGV traffic.
All environmental aspects of road work, from badger tunnels to bat-boxes, are covered, as well as design, planning and contract specification of roadside landscapes including all arboricultural works.
Highways Agency contracts and specification expert Lance William explains: "The aim of the National Highways Sector Scheme is essentially to ensure the works to which each scheme relates are carried out to the highest standards of professionalism, using properly trained staff, and with the emphasis on health and safety.
"We want to ensure that as many organisations as possible achieve certification, from larger contractors to individual skilled tradesmen gaining certification as sub-contractors."
William adds that the agency wants local authorities and utilities companies to adopt NHSS18 "as the minimum standard required of their contractors".
Technical director Neil Huck of BALI - which sits on an advisory committee of around 30 organisations including the Arboricultural Association (AA) - says uptake of the scheme has been "slow, but growing". Fortunately, he says, existing contracts are not affected, which gives the industry time to step up to the mark.
"There are some very large companies involved and a lot of small ones working directly or indirectly for them," Huck says.
Companies such as Global QA provide certification for the scheme. However, with costs estimated at around £6,000 for ISO certification, this has proved to be an obstacle for smaller contractors.
"It would be financially impossible for these micro-businesses to do ISO 9000 so we have set up a scheme through BALI," says Huck. "It also checks that contractors are up to standard on health and safety, business management and technical qualifications. We had a long discussion about this until the Highways Agency agreed that was probably the best way forward."
Six companies have completed NHSS18 certification through the BALI scheme, which is open to companies with staff of five or fewer, which need not be BALI members.
According to a BALI representative: "NHSS18 certification is based on quality management systems and training. Therefore, if your company has these in place then it is a pretty straightforward procedure."
Huck sees the scheme extending beyond the trunk road network. "Councils have taken it on board and are starting to look at implementing it," he says. "And Network Rail has shown a lot of interest, as it brings together all the aspects of the work."
AA technical director Simon Richmond says: "We are supportive of its aims of setting agreed arboriculture standards."
The draft scheme originally proposed that only AA-accredited contractors would be eligible for the work. "This has been diluted," says Richmond. "We are now looking at a matrix of qualifications for different work, which should still be adequate.
"The qualifications are not that onerous. One consequence is that people will recognise the need to improve skills in order to carry out work to a given standard, and that will draw in people who have perhaps not seen that as necessary."
Richmond adds that other areas of arboriculture already have high operational standards. He says: "We have a utility arboriculture group and railside contractors, which face similar issues, already engaged with that.
"We have agreed a set of basic arboricultural principles with the Electricity Networks Association that all the electrical companies have signed up to, although it's taken a lot of work to achieve."
Structures in place
Because of the nature of utility arboriculture, contractors tend to be larger companies, with fewer opportunities for smaller contractors anyway, according to Richmond. "With road work, smaller contractors now have a national standard to work to, but not one that's so high they can't reach it."
The AA supports moves to improve technical competence in the industry, Richmond says. "Raising academic qualifications is a long-term aim, but these are largely craft-level qualifications, which the AA doesn't offer directly."
He points out that only around six people are killed each year by falling trees, compared with the average of nine people killed every day by road traffic accidents. The scheme is being implemented separately in the devolved administrations, via Transport Wales, Transport Scotland and Roads Service Northern Ireland.
A Transport Scotland representative says: "We are working to adopt the National Highways Sector Schemes in line with the Highways Agency to further improve quality assurance. The accreditation process for horticulture management for road schemes is a welcome method of ensuring the quality of workmanship. Although we are halfway through our network operating contracts, we will look to introduce this accreditation scheme to our network operating companies in due course."
Problems en route
From contractors' point of view there are a number of issues that need ironing out.
UPM Tilhill was the first to be certified under the scheme. Commercial manager Phil Hymers says: "It's not been enforced or policed strictly as yet. At the very least, highway managers should be ensuring contactors are registered. It would be naive to suggest they're not aware of the scheme."
Further clarification is required in the scheme's documentation, Hymers says. "Competencies are not clearly laid out, and it's still too open to interpretation.
"With operations such as brushcutting and chainsaw work, specifications have been available for some time and everyone knows what's required. But with elements, such as 'communication' and 'customer care', there are no external competencies."
He adds: "Health and safety standards are already vigorously enforced in utility and rail work which is, if anything, more hazardous than roadside work."
According to the NHSS suppliers website, the only other company that has so far registered to carry out arboricultural work with the scheme is Thompson Estate Maintenance, which carries out highways work for maintenance company Carillion.
Quality administrator Dena Kirkpatrick points out: "We already had systems in place, but needed to be qualified under the scheme to keep going in highways work. We are audited internally every month and externally every six months to a year."
Meanwhile, the spread of the scheme to locally managed roads may not be a foregone conclusion. Oxfordshire County Council has recently appointed seven smaller local contractors to maintain the tree stock along the 4,200km of highways that it manages, following an e-procurement process last year.
Arboricultural manager Tim Shickle explains: "The contractors were not chosen in line with the National Highways Sector Scheme but on quality of workmanship and geographical location in relation to the areas that they bid for, to comply with our sustainability policy.
"All the contractors have qualifications to work on the public highway and fully comply with notification procedures required under the New Roads & Street Works Act 1991. But we found that the larger companies that fit in with NHSS18 did not offer the same level of quality or health and safety standards as smaller local companies."
But he adds: "Oxfordshire County Council is aware of (NHSS18) and we will be working with our contractors in the future to help them comply with the scheme while retaining the quality of service."
Soft estate that's hard to manage
The Highways Agency is responsible for more than 50 million trees and shrubs, most of them the result of the Ministry of Transport's tree-planting programme, which began in 1958.
The agency's principal environmental adviser, Tony Sangwine, says: "Originally, it was envisaged that 80 per cent of the roadside estate would be grassland. Now it's only 45 per cent. We have lost 2,000ha of grassland to scrub."
There's a big backlog of work to maintain the estate, he adds.
Britain has the busiest roads in Europe and they are "grossly overworked", he adds. This makes road closure for routine maintenance even more problematic for drivers.