This July, more than 100 delegates from both contracting and network management attended the first ever Utility Arboriculture Conference to hear how tougher standards in the sector are ensuring both greater safety and enhanced opportunities.
One estimate puts the size of the industry at £75m a year and the Arboricultural Association's (AA's) Utility Arboriculture Group, which contains representatives from network operators and regulators as well as contractors, has grown alongside the sector it represents since its establishment in 2004.
According to AA technical officer Simon Richmond: "Utility arboriculture has grown very quickly in the past 10 years, to a stage where it can now justify its own conference."
Feedback from July's event has been positive enough to enable the AA to organise a similar event at the same venue next July.
"It's an opportunity to get the contracting industry in the same venue as the network operators and so to standardise the level of work and the way contracts are issued, allowing contractors to work around the country more easily," says Richmond.
"There used to be a lot of 'lopping and topping' - it's much more tightly regulated now, as increasing requirements for continuity of supply have raised standards.
"Prolonged loss of power in areas affected by storm damage at the start of the decade prompted requirements on network operators to ensure greater continuity of supply, with funding then made available to protect the power-line network.
"No one would claim that we have arrived at an ideal state - of course, there's a constant programme of raising and achieving standards.
"Operators have to deal with close control of costs, there are commercial drivers to do the work as quickly as possible and competitive tendering makes it very tight. But there's also a very strong commitment to improve standards, including safety standards. These are higher than for the rest of arboriculture, but the sector is still working to improve them."
Contractor UPM Tilhill enhanced its reputation for safe working by winning the Safety, Health and Environment Award from Central Networks the week after the conference, ahead of 26 other entrants.
UPM Tilhill commercial development manager Pete Jackson explains: "Companies have matured in their approach to safety and to environmental management and that has been driven by clients."
He describes utility arboriculture as "high-volume, high-value work" that is still advancing. The industry has come on leaps and bounds in the past decade, "but it's still a volatile market that has yet to reach a plateau", he says.
"The industry was only really established in 1987 after the great storm, and still has a long way to go," Jackson continues. "Within arboriculture, utility is seen as a high performer - we are significantly ahead in areas like risk assessment. But it doesn't compare so well with engineering and construction firms, whose standards are world class."
Electricity Safety, Quality and Continuity Regulations (ESQC) compel network owners to clear trees to within defined distances of power lines.
Climate change has also pushed utility arboriculture up the agenda, says Jackson. "The predictions are all for extreme weather becoming more frequent. Not only storms and high winds, but also intense rainfall that will soften soils around tree roots."
The changing climate's effects on tree growth are already apparent, Jackson continues. "In southern England we are seeing longer seasons and incredible growth rates, particularly in ash and willow - it's a real problem."
Partly as a consequence of this, the old model of five-yearly assessments of risk is no longer viable, he adds. "There used to be a very formulaic cyclical approach, but the industry has moved away from that towards something more sophisticated that takes into account local conditions, soil, tree species, visibility, the voltage in the wires and other factors."
For example, one region managed by UPM Tilhill for CE Electric, the Northern Electric Distribution (NEDL), consists of around 37,000 individual vegetation sites of up to 100m in length, each of which has been assigned its own frequency of treatment.
"We use geographic information systems (GIS) and other data-management techniques that allow us to understand each site, come up with optimal patterns of deployment and minimise travel times," says Jackson. "The data-management side of the work is becoming at least as important as the physical side."
The absence of off-the-shelf software for the task has led to UPM Tilhill and other large operators developing their own packages for this purpose, Jackson adds.
"We haven't found anything that translates across from the amenity side. It's managing linear networks of trees, which you might think would be like managing street trees, but the scale of it dwarfs anything that local authorities have to deal with. Fortunately the network owners already have a rich data set of known hazards, that we are adding to."
One recent development in the field is for network operators to take vegetation-management work in-house, employing their own operatives to care for trees. "These companies will have the same level of expectations of them as with their other workers," says Jackson.
One example is Scottish & Southern Energy, whose decision to take network maintenance in-house in areas such as the Scottish Highlands has left the area with few independent contractors, he says.
Other areas such as the Central Networks, covering much the English Midlands, have seen investment in contractors over a number of years, which "is now coming to fruition", Jackson adds.
"There are still network operators using quite small contractors, but others outsource the management too. In areas like the South West and Wales it's predominantly mid-range contractors. Three-man teams couldn't undertake the work - though they could be sub-contracted by larger companies.
"Some contracts are so large, though, that there are only three or four firms in the country that could service their requirements."
Besides UPM Tilhill, other large contracting companies are Fountains - recently taken over by integrated services provider Connaught - and BTS Group.
Though still developing as an industry, utility arboriculture can serve as a model for managers of other networks, Jackson believes. "There are parallels with Network Rail, who face similar problems, and also British Waterways, who have traditionally managed trees themselves," he says.
"Phone companies, too, have to manage networks - even when they're transmitting via microwaves rather than along cables, they still have to keep lines clear.
"Each is still in a state of evolution, and I hope the Utility Arboriculture Group will help pull these threads together. If you consider them all, it becomes very large - a sector worth £200m to £300m a year."
TRAINING AND SKILLS
The Utility Arboriculture Conference gave crews the chance to demonstrate their skills, with the award for star performers going to West Coast Network Services. But according to UPM Tilhill's Pete Jackson: "There is a shortage of skilled utility arboriculturists in the UK, and we face a significant requirement to up-skill staff when we recruit them.
"Like most contractors, we have our own in-house trainers to achieve this."
Part of the reason for this, he says, is that relevant training consists of acquiring certificates of competence for individual tasks, rather than overall qualifications, which would attract funding.
"The sector has identified a need for more well-rounded training that would fit into the National Qualifications Framework," says Jackson. "That is one lesson that we have learned."
Currently the NPTC is undertaking a consultation on updates to its utility arboriculture units.
According to Myerscough College arboriculture tutor Dr Mark Johnston: "Utility arboriculture is definitely becoming more important in the industry. We teach craft skills generally, but work by power lines isn't something we could offer, for obvious reasons."
However, he adds that the Preston-based college does bring in Dealga O'Callaghan, vegetation manager for E.ON, to provide students with a session on utility arboriculture.
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