"It is not just about the standard of academic provision, but other factors, such as the grounds, standard of accommodation, safety of the environment and local 'attractions' play a part in a student's final decision"
I first met Martin Grayshon a few years ago, when he was heading up the grounds department at the John Moores University in Liverpool. We kept in touch via the Pitchcare message board (where his input has been invaluable to other members), and at various seminars and industry trade shows.
Having spent a number of years working in Liverpool, Martin decided he needed a new challenge and a change of scenery. So, last July (2011), he applied for the vacant Grounds Manager's position at Edge Hill University.
His timing could not have been better; the university had agreed a programme of major refurbishments, with over £55m being invested in new buildings, accommodation blocks and sports village.
After an exhaustive interview, he was taken on to help implement the 'new vision' for the university. One of his first tasks was to write a new Grounds Management plan covering 2012-2017. Part of the plan was to ensure the university continued to develop and, with higher standards of grounds maintenance, be in a position to put itself forward to compete in the National Green Flag Awards.
The university is situated in the town of Ormskirk. It is both a contained learning environment and a community leisure facility in itself, in contrast to most universities which are spread over various locations across a town or city.
The campus is, in effect, a small town where people live, work and play. Therefore, it suffers all the generic problems and issues associated with any small town, such as traffic, vehicle parking, deliveries, service installations and logistics, litter, building developments and roadworks, but inside a green, landscaped environment. It is one of only a handful of universities set up in this way.
The university's governing body, through its continued development to meet learning needs and community leisure, has always demonstrated its commitment to safeguarding its landscapes (including both hard and soft landscaping) in many ways, particularly by protecting its green spaces.
In 2006/7, after a long consultation period, the fabric of the campus changed from areas of natural turf and post war wooden buildings, to the development of specific buildings for the various areas of learning. In conjunction with this was the creation of a substantial man made lake, wetlands and supportive landscaping. The central areas of the campus were also developed as part of a continued programme, with the addition of an international standard sports complex, conservation environments, improved parking and road system and additional landscaping.
All of these sites are maintained to a high standard by the in-house grounds maintenance team, led by Martin. His team undertakes all routine grounds maintenance work, including some minor arboricultural work. Where any high climbing is required, an approved contractor is employed.
Non-horticultural work, such as hard landscaping, buildings maintenance, fencing, repairs to roads, paths, or street furniture etc., is carried out either by the property services team or by contractors.
There are six further staff in the Grounds Section looking after the various sites; Chris Birch (supervisor), Andy Hoskin, Nicola Paulden, James Morgan, Thomas Skachlady and Peter Forshaw.
Martin takes overall control and, along with Chris, deals with day-to-day operational requirements and technical matters, such as health and safety, machinery and training.
Two members of staff are routinely involved with the work on the western areas of the campus, with additional work on lake maintenance; two others care for the central areas of the campus; with the remaining two responsible for the sportsfields to the east of the campus.
Like most universities, there is a lot of competition to attract students. Martin understands that it is not just about the standard of academic provision, but that other factors, such as the grounds, standard of accommodation, safety of the environment and local 'attractions' play a part in their final decision.
Edge Hill University is a busy environment, with over 27,053 students and 3,359 members of staff on campus. On weekdays, these numbers are swollen with an 'invasion' of additional students and community users. Very few one campus locations have such large numbers of users and inevitably, on occasions, the pressure of this usage shows.
Martin is very keen on gaining Green Flag status by raising the standards of maintenance at the campus. In the short time he has been there, the staff have already reinstated a number of areas around the university. Martin has earmarked further areas for refurbishment and, like his staff, will be heavily involved in the multi-million pound investment programme now coming on line.
Martin sees many benefits from being involved and trying to secure the Green Flag Award.
The award is the benchmark national standard for parks and green spaces in the United Kingdom. The scheme was set up in 1996 to recognise and reward green spaces in England and Wales that met the laid down criteria. It is also seen as a way of encouraging others to achieve the same high environmental standards, creating a benchmark of excellence in recreational green areas. Any public park or green space is eligible to apply for the award.
Sites for a Green Flag Award are judged against eight key criteria:
- A welcoming place
- Healthy, safe and secure
- Clean and well maintained
- Conservation and heritage
- Community involvement
In practice, Martin sees the award as a national bench mark for the university to gauge itself against; to set specific agenda for standards, best practice, value for money and recognition for the grounds team within the physical framework of the university.
The Green Flag scheme will enhance, but also enable the university to welcome the wider local community to explore and enjoy this diverse campus.
There has been a realisation that this can be further developed due to the planned expansion, which will incorporate a vast area of natural woodland, flora and fauna.
Landscaped areas have always been regarded as an essential marketing asset, promoting the university, attracting students and generally providing an aesthetically pleasing environment. The high standard of provision and maintenance appears to be widely appreciated. Feedback received from students over the past few years would certainly bear this out.
Edge Hill is a vibrant and welcoming environment, not untypical of the free flowing American styled educational establishments. Within its many components are rolling grassland pathways, individual and clumped trees, various shrub groups and numerous water features.
The jewel in the crown is Waters Edge which, in many people's opinion, is the most aesthetically pleasing area of the campus. This man-made lake has become the most photographed area, due to a mixture of new buildings, fine reed beds, a filter bed and marginal planting that supports a vast range of fauna and flora. During periods of nice weather, this is the most popular area for people to relax and enjoy the views and the wildlife.
The paths around the lake lead students and visitors to three of the university's main faculties. It is a traffic free areas offering pedestrian access to the Graduates Court and beyond. The area includes a café and other food facilities, which are accessed via an ornate curved footbridge, creating the perfect viewing point for the waterfall which is providing one of the water sources to the lake.
Within this area are two water collecting tanks that double up as modern hard landscape features, which feed a water course and, subsequently, the waterfall. A further feature is a reed filtration bed which leads through pipework to a swale designed to cope with periods of excessive water. We are in Lancashire, don't foget!
All the university's sports facilities are based in a thirty acre site known as Sporting Edge. The main building houses educational labs and teaching spaces, and is surrounded by an athletics track, two rugby pitches, a sand filled artificial pitch, a multi-use training area and a football pitch which are, again, surrounded by mature planting schemes and trees, some over twenty years old. All these facilities will be upgraded as part of the new expansion programme.
This will include new sports provision, new landscaped areas around the buildings and beyond, plus the creation of a significant woodland and conservation area, which will double up as a working teaching resource for ecology students, local schools and wildlife groups.
The new sports provision will comprise 3G/4G artificial pitches, eight lane artificial running track (with a full size, sand based football pitch within the oval), two rugby and four football natural grass pitches, and various tennis courts.
The first facility to be constructed will probably be the 3G/4G sand based pitches, replacing the recently lost artificial pitch that gave way to the accommodation phase, and followed on by the natural turf areas. Tender documents are currently being put together for this work, with a timescale for completion within the next five years. Once finished, Martin will be looking to assess the full impact of the new development, to put in place the appropriate measure and resources to look after these new areas.
With so much investment in new surfaces, Martin has put in place a training policy matrix to ensure that all his staff recieve the appropriate training.
The Grounds section is well equipped with good modern equipment, tractors and vehicles.
Although certain equipment is allocated to specific maintenance sections of the university, the grounds team have access to whatever is required from the overall pool. Most of this equipment is purchased and maintained in-house, and supported by a service plan.
Fleet leasing may be the preferred option for vehicles and tractors, primarily because Martin does not have suitable facilities to maintain them.
During the last twenty-four months, a major appraisal of the university's machinery and equipment stock has been made, with a rolling replacement programme now in place.
Martin and members of his senior team attend industry exhibitions and shows to keep up-to-date with new equipment trends.
Major purchases are put out for competitive quotation. The current changing environment of the campus means that machinery needs will be constantly reviewed to ensure that the correct equipment is in place.
Martin's new role is certainly set to challenge all his skills but, having listened to and met all the staff, and seen the work being undertaken, he is already making a difference in the short time he has been on board.
It is still early days, but everything appears to be in place for Martin and his staff to help the university win that coveted Green Flag Award.