Tree contractors urged to raise standards to compete for local authority contracts

Consulting arborist Ken Linford has called for tree care contractors to "wake up and smell the coffee", urging them to raise their standards and combine resources to compete for parks and street tree contracts from local authorities.

Linford was reacting to the news that Buckinghamshire and Nottinghamshire are to market test their park and tree work services (HW, 13 August). He suggested that many more local authorities may also look to outsource arboriculture to save money under new operational management, creating a big area of work for well-placed contractors.

"If a local firm can offer the service, price and delivery and better the performance of the council's present arrangements, it has got to be good for everybody - the council staff who would have to be protected and might still be employed under the new operational management, the council budget reflected in the charge payers' pockets and the trees themselves," he said.

"Most of all, the local tree care firms would benefit by having long-term contracts to buttress what is an often fluctuating business cycle and helping to give a kick start to the local economy."

To achieve this, Linford said private firms would have to get bigger through growth or combination and would need recognised standards such as Arboricultural Association approved contractor status.

He added: "Councils would also have to recognise that going private would not be cheap but would rid them of the myriad of overheads and liabilities of tree care contracting and enable them to do the real job of managing tree stocks. They would have to avoid a return to the days of compulsory competitive tendering. Local work should have local people doing it - a big challenge for all parties, but it could be a win-win-win situation."

But local authority tree officers expressed doubts about outsourcing tree contracts. Greenwich Council arboricultural manager Joseph Woodcock said: "(Outsourcing) is not likely to happen at Greenwich. We have a first-class direct labour team here."

Another tree officer, who wished to remain nameless, said: "If something goes wrong then as a local authority we have to have recourse and all of a sudden that consortium (of contractors) could fall apart. If people want to work together they need to form companies."

He pointed out that contracting rules stipulate that companies must not derive any more than 25 per cent of their turnover from any one contract, arguing this would make such consortia unfeasible.

But Consulting Arborists Society chairman Mark Chester argued that Linford's idea could help raise standards. "I'm certainly aware of a number of tree officers who are in positions where they are looking to develop private practice work because they are aware that their jobs may not be there much longer," he explained. "Anything that can raise standards is a very good thing. Local work for local people is an excellent aim."

However, he added that the need to open tenders to all EU-based companies could present an issue, pointing to Birmingham's recent award of its tree care contract to a major French firm.

Arboricultural Association director Nick Eden said local authorities would expect contractors to be Contractors Health & Safety Assessment Scheme accredited. London Tree Officers Association chairman Dave Lofthouse added that most London borough tree contracts were already outsourced.


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