Grounds care industry leaders at a Horticulture Week-led debate have urged hard-pressed local authorities to make the most of contractor and supplier expertise and modernise their approach to contract specifications.
A panel of leading practitioners addressing a packed audience at IoG Saltex last week highlighted a lack of technical knowledge within cash-strapped councils, over-prescriptive contracts and declining maintenance standards as key problems.
The discussion, led by HW technical editor Sally Drury, aimed to share ideas to help practitioners deal with reduced local government grounds maintenance budgets.
Members of the panel included Landscape Group head of assets and fleet Angus Lindsay, Campey Turf Care Systems director Richard Campey, parks consultant Sid Sullivan and arboriculture consultant Jonathan Hazel.
Lindsay cited a number of contracts he had dealt with specifying equipment that was no longer manufactured. "This is an inherent problem in local authorities. Contract specifications need to be brought into the 21st century and they have a great responsibility to ensure that happens," he added.
Hazel also criticised contract details and described one document that specified services that would have amounted to providers carrying out around 160 hours of work per week each.
"The classic mistake in trying to procure tree-work services is that you don't apply enough thought at the outset. Think about the service you actually need," he advised.
There was a general consensus among the panel and audience that a lack of communication between suppliers and clients was causing industry standards to fall below those of other European countries.
Lindsay said the UK was very slow at adopting different technologies. "Things haven't changed much in 20 years, while on the continent they have developed all sorts of different ways of doing things," he added.
He maintained that better communication between clients and contractors was the key to managing the issues.
This was echoed by Sullivan, who said local authorities needed to recognise that contractors, suppliers and manufacturers were an invaluable source of knowledge.
"Clients are purchasing the contractor as well as their expertise - it comes with the package. They must enter a dialogue together," he urged.
But Campey said far fewer local authorities were communicating with suppliers directly or attending shows such as Saltex.
"At other shows in Europe there are far more people enquiring at the supplier stands. You can read magazines and look online, but you'll learn a lot more by coming to talk to us," he maintained.
Lindsay said the grounds care industry needed to collaborate to change attitudes and modernise. "We need to become more efficient, value-engineer our contracts and work with manufacturers on promoting the adoption of new technologies."
Expert views on current challenges facing the grounds maintenance and green space sector.
Sid Sullivan, parks consultant
"We are failing to sell the benefits of parks. Local authority parks departments must recognise the useful partnerships that they are in with other service providers and ask them to help defend spending on public parks. We need to harness all the good ideas that we have and work together. We must also have serious discussions with people who support these vital public amenities and use their expertise to persuade the politicians that we can do better."
Angus Lindsay, head of assets and fleet, Landscape Group
"There is a worrying skills shortage approaching the industry. There is no new blood coming through - nobody wants to cut grass. We need to work harder to make the sector a more attractive work prospect. There is a huge void between the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and cutting grass on the Leeds ring road - it's still horticulture and both are equally as important. Our industry is getting devalued because we aren't promoting it enough."
Richard Campey, director, Campey Turf Care Systems
"We are the underdogs of Europe when it comes to standards of maintenance. We have to go through far too much paperwork before we even know whether we are qualified to do the work required. We need to alter our processes. It's not rocket science and some local authorities are showing that it can be done. There's a lack of pride and we don't seem to know who is accountable."
Jonathan Hazel, arboriculture consultant
"There are many services you might want, but you need to think about what you, as a customer, actually need. Work out the contract agreement you are happy with and then let us deliver it. Don't tell me how you want a tree to be cut down - that's insulting and it's my business. What I want to know is why you want it cut down. If you tell us what you want, we will help you get there."