Grounds care contractors working with local authorities are braced for a tough year. Some parks professionals say this is the year when the effects of austerity will really show and contractors report being asked to find yet more imaginative ways of cutting back on costs.
Frosts managing director Ken White says: "We're being asked to cut prices but clients are still expecting exactly the same standard of work that they had before. There is such a challenge to find savings."
Some clients are suggesting stopping some services altogether, which brings up the issue of public perception of contractors' work. White says even though increasing complaints from the public would go to local authorities in the first instance, it is easy for them to be passed on to contractors. "More of us operate in some kind of real-time reporting. There is an increasing administration burden for us."
Alistair Bayford, sales and operations director at idverde UK, says 2017 will continue to be challenging as budgets continue to be stretched and remain under threat. "We will work closely with our clients to deliver efficient and high-quality services to meet the budget constraints," he adds.
Commentators expect to see more consolidation in the market. As conditions become tougher, although continued austerity will mean some councils bring services back in-house, people believe it will be a mixed picture and other local authorities will contract out more. The increase in the National Living Wage will also hit those locked into low-margin, long-term contracts.
Downward price pressure will mean a risk of more contracts being taken by facilities management giants, but it is not all about price, according to consultant Peter Neal, who says we are moving away from the old binary relationship between contractor and local authority into a more multifaceted approach.
Contractors need to be adept at working with other organisations - environmental, conservation, health, third sector, culture, education, volunteer groups - and there will be more variation in how services are delivered, with room for more creative small and medium-sized enterprises to succeed in a rapidly-changing market.
Rugby parks head Chris Worman talks of a "mosaic of approaches." "One size no longer fits all. You'll have a jigsaw of groups involved and more third-sector input."
The 18-month moratorium on the EU's glyphosate licensing approval is due to end in December, which will lead to continued uncertainty about the continued use of the pesticide this year. Many in the sector feel that once Britain exits the EU, UK users will be on firmer ground. This year is likely to see more councils exploring or adopting a glyphosate reduction policy, putting more pressure on contractors to deliver services, particularly when alternatives can cost more than using chemicals.
White is not confident that glyphosate will get approved but "I am confident that we will come up with a solution as a sector. If we come up with another mechanical applied solution we could control it, but if you're looking for armies of people to be doing hand weeding that will be more expensive."
Edinburgh is one council that will change weed killing methods in 2017 following a trial last year. Head of parks, gardens and cemeteries David Jamieson says: "There's a definite trend that all councils wish to be environmentally conscious."
This trend also benefits contractors with deep horticultural knowledge and the staff to match, as does the drive towards "naturalising" areas to save on mowing costs. Instead of being engaged to mow or weed a certain number of times a year, contractors will increasingly need to work in partnership with local authorities to develop creative methods of cost reduction.
Jo Mullett, director of Japanese Knotweed Control in Swansea, says: "If glyphosate goes then we are all a bit stuffed, although in the long run I don't think Theresa May gives a stuff about the environment so she won't ban it. It has to be used sparingly. A lot of contractors are using it just because it's the cheapest option."
Invasive weeds will continue to invade the public consciousness in 2017. Mullett says she can see no slowdown of "mortgage companies getting their knickers in a twist about Japanese knotweed."
This provides more opportunities for contractors, but there is concern among established operators that new companies without the relevant experience and knowledge will take market share. "There's going to be more people out there and more people botching it up. Even now there's so much bad information," says Mullett.
"We're finding people employing companies and they realise after that they need Property Care Association accreditation for the mortgage company. Also, the work might not be on their property and then it is difficult for them because you can't guarantee someone else's work for the purposes of insurance. Things are getting more complicated."
She thinks aquatics are going to become more prevalent with mortgage companies beginning to take notice of invasives other than knotweed, especially as they can cause flooding. Species to watch out for include water hyacinth, water primrose and water fern.
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