The State of Play
Local authorities used to be the breeding ground for well-trained and mentored grounds staff and horticulturalists but, since the arrival of CCT and outsourcing there has, some would say, been a demise of the craft and skill of groundsmanship and the abundance of trained professionals from one of the country’s largest employers. Today, say the critics, most of Britain’s public spaces are being maintained by unskilled, casual labour directed by financially-driven, corporate contracting companies and often bundled in with ‘unskilled’ services such as waste, recycling and street cleansing. Siobhan Harper spent time with staff at East Herts Council in an attempt to determine the state of play
Contracting services in East Herts Council is not just a cost-based exercise,” says Ian Sharratt, Environment Manager for Open Spaces. “Prior to entering the tendering process, we spent over a year liaising with council members and identifying the key performance indicators and the required level of standards for various elements within the contract - we also assessed what resources we felt would be needed to deliver the contract successfully and what skills and qualifications were essential for staff. Although a lot of the staff are transferred with contracts under TUPE, you need to know about their investment and their approach to bring staff up to the required minimum levels.
“Another key factor is ‘organisation’; as a minimum the contractor should be working to a standard such as ISO 9001 and ISO 14001, and we would want to know what was behind that - for example, management programmes, approaches to day-to-day management and supervision. They also need to be familiar with the area, so that they know just what they could be dealing with as they construct the tender.
“It was important to involve councillors because ultimately it is they who are answerable for the quality of the open spaces and they who agree the budgets.”
During the tendering process, Ian says he also worked with a consultancy which advises on average prices for various elements of the contract, so tenders could be compared against national and regional averages.
Ian is also in touch with a couple of regional groups of local authority parks and open space managers, and the group meets regularly to share information and to discuss and resolve issues. Ian has been at East Herts Council for nearly eight years, after working for eight years at Milton Keynes Council. He also has experience as a landscape manager in the private sector, building and maintaining ponds and waterfalls, and retailing in garden centres.
Last April, East Herts Council embarked on a new relationship with contracting firm John O’Conner (GM). “The relationship with our previous contractor became a bit of a struggle,” says Ian. “Performance wasn’t up to scratch and we were receiving a lot of complaints from the public, so most of my time was taken up micro managing the contract. We’re a small team and that level of involvement resulted in us being pulled away from more constructive areas of our work. The real issue was that the contract had been underpriced so after much deliberation we injected additional funds into it 18 months or so before it was up for renewal, and that did improve things. The alternative was a lengthy and expensive litigation process. Its important for Council Members and the public to realise that you get what you pay for.” Ian was not involved in tendering the previous contract but was determined to ensure that this time, they got it right!
John O’Conner took over part way through last year and so far things have worked well. “It is a very open company and, although expanding, is still small enough to be properly involved - which means I have direct and regular access to senior management who know and understand the contract.”
The Council’s Parks and Open Spaces department works closely with Waste and Recycling, Cleansing, Pest Control and Business Support, overseen by a Head of Service, and each area also has a departmental manager. A team of Area Environmental Inspectors operate within allocated geographical areas and work generically across the department monitoring work, resolving issues while also acting as the day-to-day contact between the contracts managers and departmental managers like Ian. He also directly manages the Contract Compliance Officer, Arboricultural Officer, Landscape Officer and a Grounds Assistant, and finds that working together with all the departments across the Council helps this small team to deliver some real results.
Keith Warden is John O’Conner’s Contracts Manager for East Herts, and having moved over from the previous contract, he is very familiar with the task. Keith meets every week with the Council’s Contract Compliance Officer, who oversees the Area Monitoring Officers, to review the week’s schedule as well as any outstanding work. The senior managers from both sides meet every month, when issues from the previous month are reviewed. Queries or complaints from the public are logged on the Council’s Mayrise database then passed to the relevant Area Environmental Inspector. Mayrise is accessible by all parties and it tracks activity from start to finish.
The operational staff are in teams covering grass, sports surfaces, shrubs, hedges, flower beds, hard surfaces, playground inspectors, annual bedding, OAP sites, footpaths, dog bins and litter picking, plus ad-hoc areas such as woodlands, and each specialist team covers its own section. John O’Conner has an annual programme of works from which weekly work/job sheets are generated and, upon completion, the subsequent job sheet is issued. Mayrise monitors all work, so real-time information is always to hand. Ian’s team receives copies of the job allocations by 8 am each morning, so he has a complete view of contract status.
Although Keith believes that trust is the key to a good relationship between contractor and client, he also advocates an audited trail such as that produced by John O’Conner’s Programme of Works and Mayrise. “At the end of the day, we all want the same thing – the council wants a good service and we want to provide one. The previous contract was problematic at times due to the lack of systems and checks, but the new approach has rectified that and we are now able to work as a team. I have nothing to hide, so if I can convince the client of that by working with the system and providing daily reports, then I’m happy. The company also works like that – anytime I want to speak to the MD or any member of John O’Conner staff, then I just pick up the phone.”
How would Keith describe the average groundsperson employed? “Capable,” he says, without hesitation. “Grounds maintenance, gardening or whatever you want to call it, has to be part labour of love. Contractors who believe in training and staff development attract the right calibre of person, and they retain them.
“Most companies will say they are ‘big’ on training but in many cases this relates to in-house programmes. To train via external sources, as John O’Conner has done, is much more transferable, with qualifications from known names like the IOG and Lantra, and it means more to employees.”
To the critics who might say that contractor staff are often unskilled, casual labour who are uninterested in groundsmanship as a profession, Keith replies: “There is a huge requirement for staff between seasons; we employ 12 seasonal staff each summer on a contract which runs on 20 permanent staff for the rest of the year. That is the nature of the job. About half of those seasonal employees will be generally uninterested in groundsmanship as a career. But the saddest thing for me is that the other half will invariably shine – and having to say goodbye to them at the end of the season can be difficult. East Herts has been very good though, and last year it issued us with a considerable amount of ad hoc works which allowed us to keep on some of the better seasonal employees through the winter. We have been able to show that we are capable of delivering these works to a good standard and to the economical price tendered in the schedule of rates. That is just one example of the benefit and rewards of having a good relationship with the client.”
Having a contract in place that works well and the Area Monitoring Officers dealing with day-to-day issues allows Ian to focus on the wider management and strategic matters, as he explains:
“We have designed a Parks Planning Programme that is working towards Green Flag status, Britain in Bloom and engaging with our ‘Friends’ groups. Central to this is the creation of a workable management plan for each of our main open spaces. We are very proud of the fact that we have achieved two Green Flags and I am keen that we engage with the contractors to achieve more.”
Run in partnership with Countryside Management Services (CMS), the Friends groups are targeted at engaging with the public, as volunteers, for the benefit of the local area. A good example of the initiative can be seen at Southern Country Park, near Bishop’s Stortford. This 23 hectare Green Flag site is the newest major open space in the district, which East Herts Council took over ownership and management of in 2001.
Together the contractors, CMS and Friends group volunteers carry out a variety of tasks including creating and restoring wildlife habitats such as woods, hedges, ponds and grasslands by planting, cutting, mowing, raking and digging. They also improve access to the park by constructing paths, gates, bridges, seats and signs.
“It gives the public a sense of ownership,” says Ian. “They get involved and make suggestions, for example the volunteers at Southern Country Park requested additional seating and dog bins. We took their feedback on board - they are the people using the facilities – and we actioned their request.”
How do today’s Parks and Open Spaces departments work compared to pre-CCT days? Is it all doom, gloom and unskilled labour? Ian doesn’t think so: “There are definite benefits to the way many local authorities work. By contracting services such as operational maintenance, then our time is freed up to focus on the wider issues associated with the strategic development of parks and open spaces. For example, building better relationships with our other clients such as the County Council, town councils, Britain in Bloom and volunteer initiatives, to name just a few.
“The key is tendering a contract well and working more cleverly with the company you are outsourcing to. If it has the skills and knows the business then it should work well and the public will benefit.
“Are there skills lost? Possibly, however planting schemes and other such specialist skills are being left to the experts – in our case the nurseries and suppliers have taken on this role, so the beds are still there - the end result is just being achieved in a different way. However, I do agree that skilled horticulturalists and grounds staff are essential and I would like to see more companies taking the initiative and investing in staff through training. This will become a requirement for many contracts in the near future, so contractors that don’t will fall by the wayside.”
So, what is the state of play?
Those on the inside – the contractors and the local authority staff, think it works and East Herts Council and John O’Conner are proof of that – as are other councils with Green Flag and In Bloom awards, volunteer partnerships and strategic alliances. In terms of delivery, too, it is obviously achievable. But the real key to success is in the tendering and selection process; getting the right contracting company, at the right price and one that has the right approach to meaningful staff development. An emphasis on the latter will ensure that skilled and dedicated operators maintain our parks and open spaces to high standards for the future.
What is a Green Flag award?
The Green Flag Award is the national standard for parks and open green spaces in England and Wales. The award scheme began in 1996 and is now run by the Civic Trust. The award lasts for 12 months and must be re-applied for on an annual basis.
Flying the Green Flag means a park is:
- a great place to visit
- safe and healthy
- managed to agreed standards for cleanliness and maintenance
- involves the community in its care looked after sensitively, taking into account its wildlife habitats.
What is Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT)?
Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT) was introduced in the UK by the Conservative Government throughout the 1980s, in an attempt to bring greater efficiency to local government and health services through the use of competition. While it is generally recognised that strong incentives were needed to stimulate reform, compulsion resulted in resistance by local authorities, an immature market and poorly-conducted procurements which focused on price at the expense of quality and employment conditions.
Services identified for CCT may be carried out by a local authority’s own employees only if the in-house organisation wins the tender (bid) for the contract against private sector competition. Local authority in-house organisations are known as direct service, or direct labour, organisations (DSO/DLOs).
Services subject to CCT through the 1980 Local Planning and Land Act were: new construction; building maintenance; and some highways work. Activities defined for CCT through the 1988 Local Government Act were: refuse collection; building cleaning; street cleaning; schools and welfare catering; other catering; grounds maintenance; repair and maintenance of vehicles; and management of sports and leisure facilities.
Why was CCT introduced?
Public sector services are usually financed from taxation, which means people do not have a choice about whether to pay. If they think the services provided are not value for money, they can’t take their money elsewhere. Consequently, if value for money is to be ensured, some additional mechanism is required to see that public sector organisations have incentives to cost-effectiveness. For certain defined activities, CCT imposes the requirement to test in-house organisations (or parts of them) against the private sector market. The activities can only be carried out in-house if the in-house organisation (DSO/DLO) wins the contract for the work against private sector competition by offering better value for money.
Who is John O’Conner?
John O’Conner, chairman of John O’Conner Grounds Maintenance, is from an agricultural background then worked as a GPO engineer before starting the ground maintenance company in 1969. The company is now the largest independent grounds maintenance company in the UK.
Today, the company is run by Managing Director Matthew O’Conner, who graduated with a degree in Horticulture before joining the family business in 1995. Matthew works alongside three directors – Contracts Director Ian Pitkin; Operations Director Neil Cain; and Company Secretary Martin Walker; plus a senior management team of seven.
Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, the company is gaining a reputation within the industry for being at the forefront of staff training and development, having recently embarked on an ambitious programme to have around 300 employees trained to NVQ Level 2 over the next three years. 60 employees are currently in the process of gaining the qualification.