Street cleansing and Groundcare may appear unlikely bedfellows but they are buddying up well in Blackpool. Greg Rhodes talks 'integration' to Grounds Maintenance Coordinator Nick Horner
Aerial view of Stanley Park, Blackpool's jewel in the crown
Blackpool Council became a unitary authority in April 1998. Flanked by Lancashire, Fylde and Wyre councils, it manages an extensive portfolio of sports pitches, playgrounds and parks.
"We have a dedicated grounds maintenance department of twenty-one staff," explains Nick Horner, the council's Grounds Maintenance Coordinator, "but the complement has been reduced significantly due to nationwide austerity cuts over the last ten years."
Split into bespoke sections covering arborists, playground technicians, gardeners and groundsmen, the maintenance team has adapted and evolved in the wake of budgetary constraints into a morphed organisation managing an even broader operational remit.
"Blackpool Council has had to adapt and react proactively due to austerity measures," Nick notes, "integrating the grounds maintenance service with the street cleansing department has been a key element of this, bolstering the combined workforce to over 80 staff."
"The Streetscene body created allows us to cater more for the needs of residents as a unified department," he explains, "caring for the operational needs of parks, green open spaces, grass verges, playgrounds, trees and sportspitches, whilst taking responsibility for street cleansing, refuse bin emptying, removing fly tips, enforcement, weed spraying, gritting and beach maintenance."
The scope of the task may sound daunting to traditional grounds teams but local authorities enjoy an enviable track record of evolving as times and climates demand.
"Under our new unified amalgamation with Street Cleansing, we're finding this multi-tasking approach works very well," Nick reports. "Staff still retain their specialist fields of expertise but we can develop staff members' skill sets further and have multi-tasking individuals rather than a one-dimensional approach."
Keeping Blackpool beach in pristine condition
"Streetscene has also brought a managerial coherence around the operational role of grounds maintenance, with the broader strategic role of Parks Development and the longer term vision for improving green open spaces sitting separately within the Parks Development Service ."he adds. "A clear, direct line of management exists under unification. The senior grounds maintenance coordinator works alongside the senior cleansing coordinator, reporting directly to Head of Waste and Environmental Operations Service Jez Evans.
Blackpool was already managing a welter of sports and amenity provision before Streetscene emerged. "We have over thirty playgrounds," Nick states, "and more than fifty sizes of football pitches, all-weather surfaces, bespoke 400m athletics arena, which hosts the Lancashire School Games, skate park and international BMX track venue, netball and tennis courts, even a model village."
"We have a vast number of green, open spaces and parks, including consecutive 'Park of the Year' for 2017/2018 Stanley Park alongside the ecology site Marton Mere Nature Reserve."
Elements of Blackpool's iconic development in the Victorian era of the 1800s up to the Art Deco period of the 1920s (Stanley Park being one) rest with the council to manage sensitively, as it seeks to sustain the town as a major tourist destination and sustainable place for its local community.
New amenity areas have arisen too. Marton Mere is an SSSI site replete with hundreds of species. "A biodiversity hotspot," says Nick, who reveals a startling truth. "The Mere was part of a landfill site in the 1940s."
Within the Parks Development Service, the Parks Development Manager, who also undertakes the statutory Tree Officer role, and the Green Infrastructure Development Manager, who is overall responsible for the Parks Development Service, work closely with the operational team. Nick explains: "The focus of the parks development service is to work with friends groups, wider community groups and partners to develop Park Development Plans and secure funding to improve the green spaces across the town."
"The Green and Blue Infrastructure Strategy highlighted the low tree canopy across the town, so the focus has been on developing a Tree Strategy which focuses on 'the right tree in the right place' to create a greener environment and increase the tree canopy in the longer term," Nick reveals, indicating the scope of the plan.
The team can feel rightly proud of their part in creating the 'UK Park of the Year' two years on the bounce. The 250-acre Stanley Park - the borough's "Jewel in the Crown" - presents an exciting, uplifting and satisfying setting that embraces several contrasting green environments and varying topography.
Opened in 1926 by the Earl of Derby, the Grade II listed site appears on the register of historic parks and features Art Deco designs, Italian gardens, with extensive bedding plants and Italian marble fountain, period café and bandstand, visitor centre and a 21-acre boating lake.
Looking after the ten pitches that spread across a good proportion of the park, the grounds maintenance team also have their work cut out keeping them in prime playing condition.
"We've selected machinery for its ability to manage large areas sustainably," Nick confirms. "The Major TDR16000 batwing mower, towed by a John Deere 6110MC tractor, delivers the job for us."
Grounds maintenance operative Tasos Lambrou, who's busy tending Stanley Park's pitches, continues: "We're managing 100 acres of striped grass in the middle of a rundown area, he says, "proof that we are working hard for the community to deliver quality sporting provision."
"The batwing stripes brilliantly and we can run it seven hours a day and it doesn't miss a beat," he adds: "The staff love the machine as it never goes wrong"
"The switch from cylinder mowers to rotaries has worked well," Nick confirms. "Like night and day in terms of running costs, and the mowing techniques produce a high quality of cut, be it a grass verge or sportspitch."
Nick Horner has been very impressed with the new purchase of a Major TDR batwing mower
"The biggest benefit is shaft-driven blades as opposed to belts - a notoriously weak spot on a rotary machine. When we kick off in the morning, the team feels reassured that nothing is going to go wrong."
"We dealt with cylinders on our large open spaces for years prior. You'd spend an hour setting up the machine only to hit something in the grass and the machine would be off the road. That's something we can no longer afford to happen. A cylinder could go over a pound coin and you'd be in trouble. A brick wouldn't trouble a machine like the batwing."
"We cannot afford for our pitches to be overgrown. The longer the grass, the more chance of running over hidden objects that could damage the machinery but, even then, the batwing cuts brilliantly. You can be tackling grass a foot high then, after a slight adjustment, be back mowing pitches. The Major is seldom off the road. I've rarely come across machinery that is so reliable and versatile."
"A full end of season regrinding on cylinder machines can run into thousands. The winter service for the batwing is coming in at a few hundred pounds."
"That's a minimal outlay, especially as winter servicing hits every council like a bomb every year and can rack up £20,000 to £30,000 in servicing costs. When we're not using the batwing to mow, we disconnect the tractor to use it all year round for other Streetscene tasks"
The policy switch to rotaries has brought another huge benefit. "Grassroots football is very important to Blackpool Council," Nick notes. "We didn't have the right machinery to deliver the right standard of presentation, given the challenges of mowing grassed areas of a local authority, but we do now."
Major TDR batwing being put through its paces
"The quality of presentation we can achieve has increased demand hugely. We have seen an increase in the number of clubs that use the pitches now compared with previously."
"When the goals are up and we've marked out, the pitches look out of this world. Walking to the top of the hill and looking down at the different boxes and shades of stripes makes you feel you are on Match of the Day."
"The kids are loving it and the frequency of cut on sportspitches is now weekly in peak growing periods."
The team also runs a fleet of five Toro LTF3000 ride-on flail mowers along with the batwing, Nick adds, "as they cope so well with the inevitable debris we encounter but still provide a quality finish".
Dennis cylinder and Etesia rotary mowers cover off the close-mow areas, whilst handheld machinery the team use includes Stihl strimmers, hedgecutters and chainsaws alongside Eliet shredders and flatback transit tippers.
Blackpool Council has rationalised its services in response to the austerity measures introduced in 2011. "The cuts have forced improvements of the kind that merging departments brings," Nick says.
It is keen to encourage as many resident visitors to its open spaces as it can - an ambition that remains as strong now under Streetscene, as before, Nick stresses. "The merger has worked really well for the staff on the ground and the community as a whole. We can work as a team on a far wider remit that includes tackling litter and fly tipping, alongside managing the grass. As a unified department, we can hit all the elements in one fell swoop as a single force. Rather than running separate services, the focus has become a unified response."
Alongside the Operational Streetscene Team, the Parks Development Service is highly proactive, in terms of funding, grants, engaging community, Better Start initiatives. They work closely with bodies such as Sport England to secure external funding for various initiatives across the authority.
Some sporting provision has shrunk over the years due to lack of demand (crown green bowling for example) and, whilst the team still use cylinder mowers to mow fine turf, their application to a traditional Northern stalwart is dwindling.
"Bowling suffers from a lack of patronage going back twenty-five years," Nick states. "We had to rethink things." Blackpool could once boast more than twenty-five rinks but the sport has slowly declined since the 1960s.
Staff numbers have taken a hit too. The 300 that so splendidly showcased the borough sixty years ago now number just twenty. "Today, councils have to think on their feet and adapt," Nick states.
The workforce who knew only groundcare and garden care are being retrained with more emphasis on multi-tasking, "but we still retain twenty specialist groundcare/gardeners," he confirms.
That shift applies on 'both sides of the street', he adds. "All hands were applied to the pump recently to grit when the cold snap hit us."
But, he stresses: "integration has massively improved our logistics and ability to react. The cleansing team were able to complete the green and open spaces herbicide application on their quad bikes for us, instead of on foot as before, for example."
The green strategy is alive and kicking in Stanley Park. "We're very much about recycling - a huge deal right across the borough," Nick states. "Green waste is regenerated in a bespoke compost site in the park, whilst wood is chipped and shredded before the team apply it directly on to beds and borders."
Whilst the maintenance shed at the council's main depot includes a wood chip bay with 30-tonne capacity, segregating different materials in different bays.
The full-size 3G rubber crumb pitch at Stanley Park which S&C Slatter installed in 2018, thanks to funding from the Football Foundation is heavily used for football, so regular sweeping is key to maintaining optimum playing conditions. "The contractor replenishes the crumb every six months," Nick reports.
With the sand-based hockey pitch sitting alongside, the two facilities are major elements of Blackpool's sporting provision, together with another two full-size natural turf football pitches and rugby pitch, multiple 9-a-sides and a 7-a-side, situated in parks across the borough. "Part of our remit is to liaise fully with the junior and senior teams hiring the facilities," Nick confirms, "as to their requirements."
Streetscene vehicles ready to clean up! / A fleet of quad bikes are used for spraying duties
Besides its council-managed sport, leisure and amenity sites, the authority owns a couple of club grounds. Blackpool Cricket Club is an outground of Lancashire Cricket, whose own maintenance team tends the turf for the venue, held on long lease from the council.
The McKenzie-designed 18-hole parkland golf course came under Blackpool's upkeep until last April when that too was leased out.
Working within the Parks Development Service are seven park rangers, some of whom are funded via the Blackpool Better Start Programme, whilst others are funded through the HeadStart Inititative and innovative partnerships with local community organisations. Prince William visited the Better Start Scheme in Revoe Park, where two former bowling greens have transformed into a community garden and bespoke dog-walking area. "Another example of a council engaging with the community and adapting proactively to the changing times," says Nick.
Fresh thinking on a monumental scale though is the newly completed project within Anchorsholme Park, which reopened in July after being closed for five years.
Water provider and treatment company United Utilities have built an £80m underground wastewater storage basin and pumping station there.
United Utilities spent some £4.5m improving the park to house top-edge fully inclusive play area, café, multi-activity games area, bowling green and clubhouse and performing arts space.
"Councils have to be more resourceful than ever nowadays and the integration here at Blackpool demonstrates that in a positive light," Nick declares.
Given that, the surface area devoted to gardening on the one hand and sportsground maintenance on the other are about equal, as is footfall, Streetscene has some key decisions on treatment options.
Spraying is a necessary part of the maintenance mix but has to be managed sensitively, within the borough's green strategy and taking due account of those using Blackpool's outdoor provision and amenities.
Blackpool's famous tower overlooks its equally famous beach
Streetscene issues social media posts to alert the team of "bespoke dog wardens" about imminent activity. "We inform the community about which areas we are spraying, due to the concerns about using glyphosate," Nick explains. "Starting in March, it's a boroughwide programme covering pavements, streets, parks, hard areas, grassland amenity areas and the parks."
"Whilst we carry out chemical treatments, we do limit glyphosate application as much as we can. We're leaving more open spaces wild, mowing less often, and planting more wildflower areas," he continues. "The team mow green paths through the wild areas to ensure access, and leave the rest - twenty acres of grass are left long."
Pressing issues such as invasive species have to be addressed. "Japanese knotweed is present in Marton Mere, plus some giant hogweed," Nick reports. "Our in-house management programme is in place to help keep the outbreak in check."
The merged departments maintain a mini battalion of Cooper Pegler and Berthoud 15l knapsacks for spray duties, alongside a fleet of quad bikes. "The UK wholesaler, Spindrift Sprayers, supplied them. Based in Garstang, near Preston, they are an example of supporting local companies, and also service our Glider linemarkers from Rigby Taylor, which give a nice quality finish using Impact paint."
All staff are armed with PA1/2 PA6 certification, so spraying is shared across all the team. But the clock is ticking on what herbicides can be applied. "Glyphosate is under constant scrutiny and review," says Nick, "so we are already introducing alternatives such as a 'weed ripper', which can be attached to our street sweeping machine - a way of removing weeds without using chemicals."
Nick communicates daily with Head of Street, Waste and Environmental Operations Jez Evans to ensure smooth Streetscene services. Life is never perfect though, something invariably turns up to challenge the team, but with a greater combined resource than before they are much better placed to react.
"Fly tipping blights our parks particularly," Nick explains. "Now we are part of a combined Streetscene team, we are enjoying more success with combating the problem because members of the grounds team are now qualified local enforcement officers and can meet the culprits head on. Another example of how the Streetscene integration has had a positive effect."
Nick himself is well versed in sector specifics. He spent three years at Myerscough College qualifying with National Diploma in Sportsturf and Turf Science, alongside fellow academic peers Jonathan Calderwood, Ian Kinlay and Craig Aitken, who have all gone onto have successful careers in the industry.
"Born locally, I left school at 16 and started at Myerscough full-time straight after my GCSE's," recalls Nick, still only 41, then worked seasonally for Blackpool, taking in a six-month spell of work placement at Manchester City's then Maine Road stadium under the experienced eye of Head Groundsman Lee Jackson.
Covid-19 hit the borough hard, as with all of the industry, says Nick but the team responded brilliantly.
"It's been tough. We had to adjust rapidly. One initiative was that staff were able to have a vehicle each, so that we ensured we did the best we could for the workforce isolated in their bubbles."
"Patronage of our parks and open spaces shot up massively during lockdown, with record numbers using the parks," he adds. "It was recognised, at an early stage, the importance of our department in ensuring these areas were well maintained, for safe use by the public, even when most of the country was in lockdown.
Friends groups continue to play an increasingly important role in site maintenance; a national trend upwards that shows no sign of letting up.
"We are fortunate as Blackpool has so many willing people only too pleased to help within the local community," says Nick. "We are more than happy to support those in the community who wish to become involved. They don't disappoint."
"Whether litter picking across our Green and Open Spaces, assisting with maintaining parks and teaming up on the town's famous stretch of beach, armed with gloves and bags, volunteers form part of the borough's maintenance fabric, and we actively support those who wish to volunteer by offering as much assistance as we can, providing PPE to ensure a safe working environment for our volunteer groups and working alongside these groups by way of support whenever possible."
What's in the shed?
Toro LTF3000 3 unit flail machines
Major TDR16000 batwing
Major Synergy front deck
John Deere 6110MC
Barber Surf Rake
Dennis pedestrian cylinder mowers
Stihl and Husqvarna chainsaws, brushcutters and hedgetrimmers
Etesia pedestrian rotary mowers
Honda Quad Bikes
John Deere Gators
Johnson and Hako Sweepers
Multiple Ifor Williams Trailers
Peugeot and Ford Transit flat-bed fleet