'Work together' urges contractors' chairman

Grounds maintenance contractors and their local authority clients are essentially on the same side, and their search for another way forward for parks will be much more effective if they can work together.

NCF chairman Phil Jones
NCF chairman Phil Jones

That's one of the conclusions reached at a seminar held by the BALI National Contractors' Forum (NCF), which brought together some 70 senior local authority officers and their service delivery partners at Kew Gardens to discuss the challenges facing the UK's parks and open spaces.

The seminar, entitled 'Managing our Green Spaces: Are we Fighting a Losing Battle?' sought to promote collaboration between the private and public sectors.

Speakers included Mike Windsor of Mike Windsor Associates, who delivered a no-holds-barred view of the barriers facing the industry, and Steven Brown of Ricardo Consultancy, with an in-depth look at the state of the local authority market.

NCF chairman Phil Jones said the challenge of the meeting was to force local authorities and contractors to jointly recognise the problems the industry faces: and on that front it was a success.

Jones - who is also managing director at ISS Facility Services Landscaping - said the seminar showed that "many local authorities have the interest and passion as well but they don't know what to do for a solution". They also recognised that contractors have borne the brunt of the cuts, as council often are unwilling to change the service despite lower budgets.

Many contractors in the room had cut margins to the bone and are "maintaining quality at their own expense".

"There are so many people in our businesses who want to do a good job. I don't think people are going out of business, but the consolidation which we're seeing in the industry is, I think, a symptom of it becoming more and more difficult ... People are trimming costs to achieve the end outcome."

Cutting staff is the quickest way to cut costs, but that brings standards down. He believes that the industry must instead market itself better and work to educate elected members on where cuts can be made sensibly to low-priority areas.

It was agreed at the meeting that contracts should not be based on historic specifications; consultation with residents and other stakeholders can help decide which services are really required.

In 10 years' time the funding situation will not have improved, Jones predicts. "I don't see it coming back. No-one is waiting around saying "Okay, we've got the money now, let's put it straight back into parks. Because actually they'll say 'Okay, we've got it (down) to that level; let's keep it at this standard'. They can't see the benefit so why channel the money back in?"

That means the industry must work with the way things are, he said.

"Some in the industry have taken the view that bigger, then, is better because they can work more effectively with that scenario. I think to a certain extent the commercial dynamic say that if you're bigger you can leverage our overheads better. It remains to be seen, because really this is the first time this has happened on this scale."

Those companies that are publicly owned are under pressure from shareholders to make a profit, though that can be a good thing, he added.

"It would be wrong to say we've got loss-making companies, as far as I can see. Although there are one or two that I wonder how the hell they are making ends meet. It's going to be a challenge."

Some councils are bringing contracts back in-house, while others are just now outsourcing. Jones believes there are arguments for both, as neither council nor contractors have a monopoly on doing a good job. But he is "skeptical" about some councils' reasons for bringing contracts in house.

At the moment, the question is "who can do it best for the money", but while contractors must be transparent about how much their contract is worth, the costs of in-house working are less clear, which can put contractors at an unfair disadvantage.

The Kew meeting also threw up the much-touted idea that more proof is required of parks' benefit to society before those in power will listen. And the message still needs to be marketed better, Jones believes.

One of the discussions at Kew was how to engage with elected members directly when ongoing cuts have led to fewer grounds maintenance experts within the council staff.

Jones said BALI-NCF will continue to lobby the government as well as gather evidence to raise the profile of green space.

A further seminar is set to be held in the north of England, and the NCF also hopes to hold a seminar for council chief executives.

Progress - BALI-NCF working towards objectives for the industry

Red & white diesel

The NCF originally wanted the law changed to give landscape contractors the same concession as farmers by letting them fuel machinery with white diesel, but has realised it must ensure contractors comply with the law before pushing for a law change. It will release a consultation paper, including reminding members of the need for using the correct red fuel.

Health and safety statistics

The NCF is on the point of consolidating statistics on the most common cause of accidents. Contractors have been protective of their company accident data, so the NCF is focusing on working out the most common causes of accidents with the aim of reducing them across the industry.

Standardising the contracting process

This was a major theme of the March event at Kew. Local authority procurement people in attendance were not sold on the idea of standardising PQQs, Jones said. "Every authority sees itself as different and wants to specify slightly different things. But we still believe there is a place for common PQQs."

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