Sargent's solutions - why landscape designers must ensure aftercare regimes are written into the contract

Ensuring that aftercare instructions are followed is essential for the long-term success of any scheme, says Alan Sargent.

This is a true story, slightly amended to avoid mentioning the site or client. It is a common tale that affects many designers and landscapers, reflecting as it does on the integrity of our trade.
Some time ago, a large city council decided to create a high-profile living space surrounding a block of flats with mixed housing including private ownership, council/tenant co-owned homes and some social housing. It refurbished the building and commissioned landscape architects to design an attractive and unique scheme including hundreds of "non-council" plants that would perhaps be more readily found in an expensive large private garden.

The effect was quite dramatic and the whole of the surrounding area was enhanced. Indeed, the complex won awards for the value it produced for people’s general well-being and the positive impact that it had on the neighbourhood. Naturally, the project was subject to planning permission and the whole gamut of officialdom was employed. The plans had to be approved, with full details of the proposed planting and, crucially, detailed aftercare instructions produced as a written manual for future maintenance.

The maintenance and aftercare contract was awarded to the local council authorities, won at open tender, and all was well for the first season. However, as time went by, councillors resigned or failed to win re-election. Council staff left the area or were promoted to other departments and it was not too long before the original garden, once attractive all year round, became somewhat neglected. The plants were not maintained correctly and instead of being properly pruned and shaped were simply attacked with hedge cutters. Ornamental grasses were strimmed to the ground and the beds scoured by leaf blowers, removing much of the soil around the clump-forming root systems.

The ground became compacted and "desire line" footpaths appeared across areas once filled with ornamental vegetation. Watering was not carried out and plants that succumbed to the heavy machinery style of maintenance were not replaced. Beds became overgrown with wild grasses and weeds.
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Turning point

However, proving the value of record-keeping and having some knowledge of local government, a new owner occupier appeared, became aware of the rapid decline ?in the condition of the scheme and resolved to do something about it. What was once an award-winning scheme was in danger of becoming a desert, filled with litter and detritus.

This person formed a residents association and tackled the local authorities regarding the sorry state of the grounds. They were informed that the grounds staff had been employed as professional gardeners and assured that they were working to the highest industry standards.

Not satisfied, the association ?then required the council to provide them with the original plans and demanded sight of the planning application that must have been submitted for the scheme. After much prevarication, the council conceded that these documents had been "lost" over the years — the scheme was less than five years old.

The residents then went to the architects, who were able to provide them with the necessary documents (after much persuasion) that clearly set out the maintenance regime that had been demanded by the council before granting planning approval. This package included the original planting plans and fully detailed aftercare instructions.

These instructions were quite explicit and each plant and type of plant was given an express set of seasonal requirements that should have been followed to ensure the success of the project. Naturally, these instructions did not include neglect, hedge cutters, strimmers and blowers.
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Challenging work

When confronted by this documentation, the council became defensive and claimed that the amount of labour required to carry out the necessary work was too expensive. When the residents offered to pay an extra premium on their rents, the council decided that its skilled workforce was not qualified to carry out such horticulturally challenging work.

They finally managed to come to an arrangement — only by many threats of breach of contract — to persuade the council to reduce its rents and allow the residents to directly employ their own chosen private contractor to carry out the work, paid for by the association. The lengths the residents had to go to achieve their goal were complex and extreme, and it was only through the tenacity of one individual that they were successful.

The reason for relating this tale is to prove the value and importance for designers to produce detailed aftercare instructions that should accompany their sets of drawings and layout plans, and this vital element should be written into any design contract, and duly paid for.

With the advent of Construction (Design & Management) (CDM) Regulations, this type of scenario should, hopefully, become rare. I appreciate that CDM does not yet include "planting" unless the work involves heavy lifting or the use of mechanical equipment, but the fact remains that aftercare instructions are vital to ensure the integrity of your schemes.

Hopefully, everyone will one ?day be aware that such records are essential, especially for large-scale private and all commercial schemes, and they must be kept and passed on to new owners or managers when a property changes hands or new staff are appointed. 

Alan Sargent’s latest book, Employing a Gardens Manager or Head Gardener, is now available (email sargent396@btinternet.com).


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