When Compulsory Competitive Tendering was introduced into local authorities it quickly led to a decline in groundsmanship skills. Now, councils are, once again, in control of their own workforce and beginning to train their staff.
They say life goes round in circles. Well it's true. I'm starting to see it happen in our industry. I recently attended a training day with Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council which had set up a programme to teach basic Groundsmanship skills to their workforce. This came about as a result of the efforts of the Borough's Parks Supervisor, Peter Clifford, to find skilled labour to maintain areas of fine turf, shrub beds and sports pitches in recently refurbished parks in the borough.
Peter and Roger Nicholls, the District Parks Manager, had recognised a shortage of labour skills when the department took back the responsibility of maintaining the parks and open spaces in 2003. They decided the only way to bring quality back was to have their own workforce in place and train them with the appropriate skills.
Roger had witnessed first hand the local authority CCT (Compulsory Competitive Tendering) process that began in 1988. Over the years this lead to the steady decline in horticulture skills being undertaken in parks and public open spaces.
Previously, parks staff learned from working alongside skilled people who, like themselves, had been part of an apprenticeship scheme. Traditional practices, required to maintain the park to the highest standards, were handed down by all those who worked within these areas.
Before the introduction of CCT, most local authorities had permanent staff employed in their parks. During my time with Birmingham City Parks, back in the early 1980s, we had over twenty five members of staff working in Cannon Hill Park alone. Today you'd be lucky to find half that number.
The introduction of CCT brought in a whole new way of working. Costs were attributed to maintenance tasks, with the work being put out to tender. This often resulted in work being given to the lowest bidder and not always with enough emphasis on quality.
Even if a specification was written down it was rarely adhered to. At the same time the Parks Client Departments were looking at ways of making savings on the contracts by reducing the level of work being undertaken, mainly in the form of downgrading work frequencies and tasks.
The net result meant that contractors had to find new ways of working to reduce overheads. The two most 'efficient' ways at the time were to change the working pattern by taking people out of parks and turning them into mobile working units, and employing less qualified staff.
The net result was a downward spiral in the maintenance of parks and open spaces. For example, most local authority football pitches today receive very little in the way of maintenance other than mowing and marking out. The same can be said for fine turf bowling green facilities. Specifications have been reduced to the bare minimum. Some councils have even off-loaded the maintenance back to the clubs themselves.
Another problem was that, for most councils, parks and open spaces were, by now, part of a bigger contract, usually as part of highways and street scene contracts. This led to the contractors requiring a more multi-tasking workforce resulting in the further decline of horticultural skills, particularly on fine turf facilities.
Roger was determined to stop the rot by taking the responsibility for maintaining these facilities back in-house. The process was accelerated with Walsall's New Deal Partnership Programme which saw the refurbishment of several parks, notably Leamore Park in Bloxwich.
The council undertook a £1 million makeover of the parks, with the addition of new play areas, five-a-side courts, skate park, shrub beds and a brand new bowling green. But, there were no experienced staff to undertake the maintenance of the bowling green or the newly planted shrub beds!
This led Peter to seek approval from Roger to employ the services of David H. Bates Agronomy Services. David had carried out training of local authority grounds maintenance staff for a number of years, and he devised a training programme for Roger's staff.
Three trainee Groundsmen completed a training programme on the basics of fine turf maintenance over a ten week period. The course was based around seven modules that included the understanding of grass plant physiology and sward management, aeration techniques, fertilising regimes and pest and disease management along with appropriate machinery operator training, practical projects on cricket wicket treatment and bowling green management throughout the year.
David also took the trainees to see other working environments including a trip to Edgbaston, home of Warwickshire County Cricket Club, to meet with Head Groundsman Steve Rouse, and a trip to Campey Turf Care Systems where Simon Gumbrill demonstrated a wide range of specialist maintenance equipment for sports turf. This culminated in a trip to Dennis Mowers where the trainees were able to observe the whole production process of mower manufacture.
At the end of these visits, the staff were able to trial various machinery and make recommendations to their management. This has led to Walsall's New Deal purchasing a full range of cassettes to equip the Dennis FT510 mower, partly for the Leamore Bowling area project.
The net result is that Peter and Roger now have three well-trained, committed members of staff who are keen to set themselves high standards of workmanship and ensure the facilities in the park are maintained for the benefit of the users.
A six month project is now moving forward financed by Walsall New Deal and Walsall Parks Department staff. With David's training, the staff have now started remedial work on the bowling green at Leamore with the intention to grow it through to full availability to the local community for casual bowls in 2008, and full league use by 2009. It is hoped that a top bowls players will attend the opening in July 2008.
Following the training, David said "Although it is key to allow individuals on the ground to gain knowledge and understanding, it is also critical for the Purchasing Departments to provide the equipment essential to achieve Best Practice."
"In my opinion, there is only one way to produce the pitches or greens to yhe standards required for players and that is to prepare the best possible surface that you can by using the correct materials and equipment, and having the knowledge to achieve those standards. Roger's staff now have those skills resulting in better value to all!"
Walsall MBC managers, namely Peter Clifford and Roger Nicholls, had the foresight and commitment to stop the decline in maintenance practices, and credit goes to them for doing something positive to put the basic skills back into grounds maintenance.