July 2020 signalled a new era for Ealing Council grounds maintenance team. After twenty-five years of working with outside contractors, the decision was made to form a local authority trading company in the shape of Greener Ealing Ltd (GEL) to reinstall an emphasis on green space and waste management in the borough.
In February 2021, Ealing Council had been operating as the new regime for seven months, and already the changes are apparent, both aesthetically and within the organisation.
Between them, Grounds Maintenance Supervisor for GEL, John Carpenter, and Contract Planning Officer Brad Decker, have fifty-five years of experience, dating back to 1983 when John started as an apprentice on the grounds team. They experienced first-hand the shift to contractors and the problems it has created but, more importantly, they will be a significant part of the solution.
Minutes into our interview, it is clear that both John and Brad are very passionate about what they do and what they can achieve with GEL. Rather than lamenting the past, their joint focus concentrates on getting the best out of a department that has been on the periphery for over two decades.
Brad explains: "I think the savings Ealing have had to make over the last decade put pressure on our contractors and us, and you have to keep trying to find money and keep squeezing the contract, and eventually, you don't have guys out there cleaning the streets to the spec that the public expects. And there were fly-tips all over the borough because you have to charge for people to bring their waste. Things like that have a knock-on effect. Instead of just getting the job done and everything looking good, you start cutting costs, and we have pressures on us when we have to find another one hundred thousand pounds in savings. So you do things like reduce weekly cleaning from once a week to once every six weeks and things like that. All those things have a gradual knock-on effect, so I think the public had gotten a bit fed up with it, the council were not happy with it and decided it was best to form their own company that they could have a bit more control over."
"As John said, when he started, he was a council employee. Then, in the mid-nineties, the work went to outside contractors. So everyone working for the council got moved over. We had a succession of outside contractors, up until last year, for twenty-five years, and it was really getting to the point where it was becoming unsustainable from the council's point of view."
Grounds Maintenance Supervisor John Carpenter / Contract Planning Officer Brad Decker
"We weren't getting what we were hoping to get out of the payments, and the big push really in these contracts is with waste. The contracts were together, i.e. all lumped so it was street collection, bin collection, recycling, and all that part of the contract is quite a bit of money. Then you have grounds maintenance, which has always been a side issue for most of those contract managers because they come from a waste background. A lot of them don't understand the complexities of grounds maintenance and the sensitivity of doing things at the right time."
John adds: "Even the guys on the ground were getting frustrated with how things were going because they knew they could give a better performance; they knew they could provide a better surface, but they weren't being allowed to. Partly because they were being told exactly what you do here and exactly what you do there, and it was frustrating for them because they know we used to be doing this at this time of year or we need to finish the job off by doing this. But it was, no let's move on to the next bit. As a supervisor who started on local authority as a contractor and now going back, I hope we can get partway back to how we used to work. Doing the work when it needs it, not because you're trying to tick a box on your contractor's list, you're doing it because it needs doing and you're doing it at the right time. I believe it will happen, but it will take some time."
"As a contractor, you're getting pushed to finish by a certain time and not a certain quality. As long as you can do a job 'good enough' and the client says yeah, that will do, then it ticks the box. Now we say, let's stay here and get this right, we're being encouraged to operate that way by GEL Management as well, so even our upper management is starting to take that approach. Go out, do the job once and do it properly."
Brad continues: "I think it's a great thing. As we're on our new learning curve, there's always going to be things that come up that we weren't ready for, but we knew that was going to be the case and knew it was going to be about a year to get everything the way we wanted it on both sides. As John said, the guys don't feel pressured to get a job done. My philosophy and John's is the same, and it has always been, let's do the job right and move onto the next one, not just knock it out to get to the next one because you're under pressure."
John Carpenter (left) and Brad Decker
"We'd rather deliver the best we can for the public, and that was the reason for changing it into a local authority trading company in the first place - to try and deliver a service for the public, not just as a private contractor. The goal is to make things better as we go along."
No one at GEL could have foreseen the long-lasting impact of COVID and its effect on amateur sport and the pressure it would put on parks. For many in the borough, going to a park is one of a very limited number of options for enjoying time outside during lockdowns, and this was reflected in the number of people using them, with the total almost quadruple the normal amount.
Waste collection became the central issue during this time, but being ready for sport to return was another consideration always waiting in the background. Having to prepare for a last-minute cricket season in 2020 highlighted how important having their own machinery was, as well as bringing the issue of a lack of skilled workers to the surface.
A large part of the improvements on the sports side will come through new machinery and the gradual addition of skilled staff. John estimates that only thirty percent of the seventy-four strong grounds maintenance team are classed as skilled workers. This is compared to seventy percent being skilled during his early years when three hundred and seventy staff were employed.
Building on both these areas is crucial for the success of this project going forward, especially with fifteen sports sites hosting football, Gaelic football, rugby, bowls and cricket, as well as meadows, nature conservation sites and other green areas around the borough. Having machinery that can be used to prepare multiple surfaces is a must with a team of four working on sports. Still, with GEL investing in their own machinery and forming new partnerships, the quality is quickly improving.
One of Ealing's new Major TDR mowers - brought in to multi-task
"Having our own kit has already been a massive benefit with the stopping and starting of sport during Covid," Brad begins. "Last year's cricket decision took us completely by surprise when they wanted to start in June. We had to say it's going to take us at least three weeks to get it ready, and you've only given us a week's notice. So we were caught short with cricket, and we got it ready for maybe the last weekend in June, and then they basically had an eight-week season until the first week in September."
"We went right out to do the reinstatement, and luckily with the semi-in-house company we've formed, we had bought a lot of nice kit, and it was the first time we were able to knock out a really nice reinstatement without calling any outside contractors in. And it's having that machinery that's important going forward."
Brad explains: "One thing we were lucky enough to do was lease a section of Rectory Park to West Middlesex Football Association, and they built two full-size 3G pitches, and they've made that their headquarters because they were moving out of the park they used in South London."
"They've leased that space off us, and that has brought in all of the youth football to that location and, in doing so, they gave us a £100,000 grant to buy a tractor, slitter and verti-drain. That was all kit that we didn't have, and that grant meant we didn't need to buy that on the contract, so we were able to buy some nice kit using that grant for sports and then putting the new contract together, we got a couple more tractors and a few other bits as well."
"It's a combination of being able to cover the bigger areas but also the different types of grass cutting you can get out of one machine. So, rather than having cylinders that can only do cricket boundaries or your football pitches, we've got machines like the three wide-area Majors TD1600s that can take it down to a cricket boundary, or we can go and cut a meadow which is seventy centimetres plus high with that one bit of kit. Your driver can go out one day, and he can do three or four different types of cut just by adjusting the height - and get a good finish as well."
One of the many wildlife areas the team are responsible for / An area of wetland which still requires management
"GEL has invested in some good new equipment, and that is part of enabling us to take those skills back. Now, it's about us giving people skills that have possibly been here for fifteen years but never had the experience of using the verti-drain, sand slitting or anything like that."
"The sad thing is we've lost the percentage of skilled workers. The number of unskilled workers on grounds maintenance now is around seventy percent, whereas before that would have only been thirty percent. I've recently lost two guys that ran sports, and one of them had done nearly fifty years service, so he knew the job inside out, and now I'm down to one person and myself who can mark out a running track, for example. Whereas, years ago, you'd look at a board and say I've got fifteen guys that can do that. Operationally, trying to figure out what is going to happen can be difficult because you are falling back to the same people. Unfortunately, the older guys within the group are still doing the major works because the younger ones haven't yet got the skills."
"We saw it coming. About fifteen years ago, you see it isn't going in the right direction, and then suddenly, when it happens, you think you should have done something about that earlier. But trying to get the contractor interested in apprentice schemes for grounds maintenance when, as Brad said, the bigger money is on the contract's waste management side is hard. They overlooked the grounds maintenance side because we have five percent of the overall contract. I think the way to describe it over the last fifteen years is we've coped, and that's come from the guys on the ground because they are the ones that care about it. Over the years, we've felt like the contractors have held us back; we know what we should be doing, and we know what we can do, but we just weren't being allowed to do it."
Walpole Park where over 9,000 trees were planted / One of Rectory Park's new 3G pitches
Brad interjects: "If we can get some good quality people on board through apprenticeship schemes who want to learn - whilst we still have those last few people that can do most jobs - they can learn from some of those guys before they are gone."
John continues: "In coordination with Ealing, GEL are setting up new apprenticeship schemes, so we are trying to sign up people. We've got one young lad who worked at a golf course for two and a half years, had a year out and came to us with a bit of sports knowledge and an NVQ Level 2. So we're trying to get him a level 3, but trying to find a specific course to cover just sports is quite hard. We've got a local group called Capel Manor College, and they cover horticultural training, including sports, so they are trying to set-up a course, and we're hoping to upskill everyone on the team."
"There are courses out there, but they are very specific, so it might be to maintain a bowling green or cut a wicket, and they are quite short courses as well, about a week-long, so it's more of a refresher. We really want to cover the whole spectrum of sports and horticulture at one time. It would be nice to get back to the old style apprenticeship where you did all your shrubs, grass cutting and maintenance, sports maintenance, and trees all in one apprenticeship. But whether we get back to that, I don't know because everything has become so specialised."
Seven months in, GEL's short-term objectives are being met inside and outside of the company. Working reactively without constant time pressure is paying off, and the benefits of working that way will become more evident as time goes on.
Those of a certain vintage will remember Nicky Hopkins, a session musician who toured extensively with the Rolling Stones until his untimely death in 1994. He also worked with The Beatles (both collectively and solo) as well as The Who, Rod Stewart, Elton John and many more / Signage at Perivale Park
But, not ones to settle with the progress they've made, both John and Brad are already looking two or three steps ahead to what GEL can offer going forward.
"One of the aims with GEL is to hopefully be able to go out and find work with schools and other sports clubs once we have all the kit we need and get some people trained up," Brad explains.
"We had quite a few schools, but we lost the bigger ones that have more sports pitches over the years because we weren't able to deliver the service they wanted, but hopefully, we will be getting there shortly."
John continues: "It's trying to find little bits of work as GEL to create extra funding for us rather than trying to go to Brad for everything all the time. But hopefully, the ultimate is to take the schools back on and maybe even go outside the borough into other boroughs where they struggle as well."
"We have been getting contractors in to do end of season football renovations, but it would be good if we could do our own and then say we've got the scope to go into Hounslow to do some of their pitches. It's a bit more ownership for the guys as well. If they feel like they own their round or that bit of work, then suddenly so and so over the road has heard about our cricket renovations and they've asked us to do theirs next year."
"I don't think we will get to a place where we are happy, because I think you always want to improve. The place to be is one hundred percent of your staff are skilled. You're never going to do that because you're always going to have a turnover of staff, but if we can get back to seventy percent or higher, then that will be going in the right direction."