University grounds programmes are rarely more diverse than those at Leeds, where sustainability issues assume top priority. Greg Rhodes met with Grounds and Gardens Team Leader James Wright to discover just what falls under his remit, and it's an extensive list!
The University of Leeds enjoys expansive sports provision for its 35,000-40,000 student population and the local community. It owns more than 450 hectares, including the 10+ hectare city centre main campus and 40 hectares devoted to sport - on campus and at two sportsgrounds - plus a farm at brewing town Tadcaster.
One of Britain's traditional 'red brick' universities, Leeds is evolving into an educational setting committed to biodiverse, sustainable strategies for its groundcare, gardening and landscaping practices.
Leeds boasts one of the UK's largest single site campuses. A smoking-free zone, it has developed over the last ten years or so to include multi-million pound landscaping schemes that present a welcoming city centre setting for home and overseas students.
Part of a significant investment in sports facilities by the university over the last ten years, the Edge sports centre houses an eight-lane 25m pool, sports hall, climbing wall and squash courts, claiming to run the largest fitness suite of any UK university.
Whilst the campus is home to some outdoor sporting provision, the vast majority sits on two sites. Three miles north is Sports Park Weetwood, where international teams, including Scottish rugby's, train, and the university Gryphons teams, social leagues, and the local community play.
Weetwood's 15-strip cricket square hosts the Leeds/Bradford MCCU cricket team and the Yorkshire Cricket Club Academy junior and 2nd X1 sides. The site is also recognised as a junior regional performance centre for hockey.
The Weetwood facilities comprise: County standard cricket pitches, a FIFA quality and World 22, 3G rubber crumb pitch, Two Lano international standard water-based hockey pitches, a new 3G training area with 3 x 6-a-side pitches, a world class rugby pitch regularly hosting international and professional teams and two high-class football pitches used regularly for professional football team training.
Next door to Weetwood is Bodington Playing Fields ('Bod'), the second main sporting hub and home to the Brownlee Centre, named after Olympic medal-winning triathletes Alistair and Jonny Brownlee, two of the university's most celebrated alumni.
The UK's first purpose-built triathlon training centre, it sits alongside a one-mile cycle circuit, one of the longest in the country.
The university created the high-end facilities to stage student, staff and community football and rugby - not forgetting Ultimate Frisbee competitions. FC Halifax Town train there on what is a premium quality surface.
Wide remit: Grounds and Gardens Team Leader James Wright oversees management and maintenance of the university's green estate. His sprawling remit includes sportsground maintenance, managing the university's extensive tree stock, gritting and snow clearing, maintaining campus landscaping and internal floral planters and decorations (also supplying the latter for events), removals and general transport, drains and gulley clearing, external building maintenance at University Farms, Cloth Hall Court, Sports Ground and Selside.
He began his 24-year career volunteering at Dunnington Cricket Club before taking an HND in Turfgrass Science and gaining his BASIS certificate in Crop Protection (Amenity Horticulture).
James spent several years working at golf courses in the US and Spain before taking up the Golf Superintendent's post at Galway Bay GC, Ireland, returning to England to "rebuild the journey".
This is his fourth year in the post at Leeds and, as a manager committed to making a difference to the future of groundscare in the UK, he has joined the board of the Grounds Management Association, after becoming a GMA member nearly ten years ago.
"Being on the board helps my personal development, skills set and allows me to link with top people of the sector such as Neil Stubley and Dave Roberts," he says, "with whom I spent twenty to thirty minutes on the phone just recently, discussing the challenges of the sector. And it can also help develop your team."
James played his part in attracting the Association's AGM to Weetwood two years ago, and he promotes the cause of grass culture as a member of its Natural Turf Improvement Programme.
There's media work too. "I was interviewed on BBC Radio York in August, with Jason Booth and Geoff Webb, as well as BBC Look North's Back Into Play report, filmed at Dunnington," he reports.
Such activity is not about bigging up his own status, he stresses, but helping attract fresh blood. "If ten new recruits enter the sector, the effort has been worth it. We have a host of ageing volunteers out there and they can only go on for so long."
High standards: James links with the divisional heads of sport to tune pitch schedules and requirements. "Ultimately, we are a service provider," he says, "so we need to deliver what students, staff, local leagues and elite teams require."
He is busy powering forward with the university's green agenda. All handtools on campus are battery powered except Stihl BR600 blowers, he explains.
"We no longer have any petrol 2-strokes on the sportsgrounds and have just purchased the university's first electric mower."
The maintenance van fleet is halfway to becoming all electric. "I'm mindful of the way forward but it may need more money to achieve the goals," he adds
Drainage issues: The boulder clay native soil delivers "zero infiltration rate", states James, so drainage and aeration is critical.
"Scarifying, vertidraining, vertiquaking is undertaken regularly and we apply 25mm to 50mm MM45 medium fine sports sand [supplied by North Lincolnshire Aggregates] above the native substrate, amounting to 500 tonne at Bodington and 220 tonne at Weetwood and a £25,000 outlay."
"Slightly acidic, it helps fertility uptake," James explains. "We check particle size annually to ensure it's compatible with what we've planned."
"By late November through to February or March, we could suffer zero infiltration," James continues.
"The wet January, then a prolonged dry period, proved a real challenge for the team. Staging the wrong fixture on the wrong day can take a pitch out for up to six weeks. Clearly an untenable position, in normal times. That said, the pitches are in a far better state than ten years ago, but they are hungry," adds James.
Keeping communication channels open with those running the sporting programme is a key strand of James's role, he believes. "By keeping the operations manager and their team informed about pitch conditions is one way to help educate them about the impact that playing in adverse conditions can have on the maintenance programme."
"The operations manager understands it from our perspective, and taking him to Saltex to hear a couple of seminars on winter games training and managing synthetic pitches was a good decision."
"After the wettest winter on record and a spate of cancelled fixtures - then complaints from students - he sees things from our position more fully."
In the wider scheme, James reports to both the head of sport and assistant as well as the operations manager - each with a brief to monitor student health and wellbeing, which the grounds team function feeds into.
"I don't hesitate to pick up the phone to keep them updated so they can report on customer use to the senior leadership team," he states.
Rethinking landscape: James' remit extends to landscaping work on the city centre campus. "I work with the Sustainability Service team to help them reach their 2025 targets. Under their Living Land project, we're planting more perennials and hedgerows to create wildlife corridors for invertebrates."
"The university called in landscape architects to discuss the scheme, which involved removing metal fencing and planting hawthorn, yew and hedgerow flowers. The result is a big improvement that helps pollinating insects and boosts biodiversity."
This is all part of developing biodiversity on campus - and there's another major benefit. "A good external estate helps student health and wellbeing," states James, particularly important when student populations across Britain are increasingly confined on site.
"It's all about joining the dots," adds James, "and promoting habitat rather than pure amenity." The traditional lawns and bedding still serve a purpose though for official events such as graduation ceremonies, he says.
The university has conducted research on the balance and benefits of soft and hard landscaping. "Brutal, hard landscapes encourage surface water runoff that can lead to flooding," James explains, "whereas soft landscaping offers a better environment for pollinators and helps improve carbon capture."
The 1,300 trees on campus, including specimens with tree preservation orders on them - one, a giant redwood gifted by the Chinese. They are surveyed regularly to help ensure optimal health and preserve a valuable built realm benefit.
Cycle routes through the main campus fall under the university's programme of sustainable travel targets and seem particularly relevant in the fallout from Covid-19 public transport strictures. Accordingly, Leeds City Council has provided facilities such as showers, geared to greater green travel.
Team diversity: Diversity issues of another kind can raise barriers for James, whose mission is to build a balanced team, James reports. "Diversity needs to improve across groundcare and the industry doesn't do itself any favours. You can't turn people down because you don't have an appropriate toilet."
The current team of thirty-two are split into five smaller groups, based across the university estate, working from two sheds at Weetwood and one on campus.
Five section heads report directly to James monthly to deliver their team updates. Head Groundsperson David Thackray is based at Weetwood, running four staff. Head Gardener Edward Hicken manages a team of three off campus, with counterpart Sean Craven running fourteen staff on campus.
Maintenance Co-ordinator Paul Taras and four staff handle duties such as pressure washing, lifting, shifting and sanitising, with Zonal Maintenance Manager Steve Molloy completing the quintet managing the buildings.
The entire team then meet annually in winter around January or February.
James' modus operandi is to hand responsibility to those working more on the ground than he does, given his own extremely diverse role overseeing health and safety, human resourcing and infrastructure planning.
"It must be more than a year since I rode on a mower," he declares. "I'm trying to get my team to specify the machinery and equipment we need, as I did when I was based at Weetwood a few years ago."
"The team knows what it needs as they use the kit day to day. I believe it's better for them to decide what they want and take some ownership of that process."
"We have networks in place regarding staff," he continues. "I do my best as a good manager to support them and help them progress, using my work contacts when possible." To that end, one of the head gardeners met the York Racecourse team to learn ways to develop new skills.
James was seeking to bolster the team when we spoke. A skilled gardener, Level 2 qualified, arboricultural/horticultural groundsperson and two assistant gardeners were on his radar.
Team diversity and inclusivity encourage a strong dynamic and interaction, which also create mutual respect, he adds.
Meanwhile, Sam Robinson arrived three years ago and has completed his apprenticeship with a Level 2 Horticulture qualification from Myerscough College. "He's now grounds assistant but is keen to develop his knowledge base," James explains.
The career path available at Leeds allows him to aspire to head gardener or groundsperson, then to James's level, which includes additional responsibilities such as health and safety training.
Apprentice Adam Gallagher, who started on site last year, has completed his first year of a Level 2 in Sports Turf. "He's usually based at Sports Park Weetwood, although I swap team members between sites when necessary - when someone's off sick for example."
Is there an age barrier to working within the team? "Well everyone is different," says James, "but the work is very physical. Increasing sickness and absenteeism is the first trigger point that something isn't right. That's when I work with HR support and engage with the trade union with a view to modify working hours and provide support to the employee."
"The university is a good employer and looks after its workforce, running occupational health and counselling teams for staff as well as a robust HR policy."
The recruitment process typically takes four to six weeks and attracts up to forty inquiries, James explains - "usually plenty of low-quality response to sift out". Sportsground staff are qualified to Level 2 in Sports Turf or equivalent, while gardeners hold Level 2 in Horticulture.
"Our last grounds/gardens assistant came on board last January after we received thirty applications, reduced to eight for interview," he recalls.
The head of gardens position attracted fewer than ten applicants - "an easier recruitment process with approval from the top given in November 2019."
Maintaining team numbers is crucial to the big picture of provision. "The university understands how vitally important the strategy for its external estate is going forward as people are spending more time outside."
Involved in higher-level estate meetings, James understands the strategic roadmap for the university. "We are aware of where it wants to go so can plan sporting provision accordingly," he says. "It's about focusing cash in the right areas."
If any issues arise, James knows who to call on. "I don't have a deputy as I go to one of the section heads when needed, so if it's sportsground-related, for example, I speak to the head groundsperson."
Covid and beyond: When we spoke, James was busy preparing signage across the estate, ready for the students' return. The impact of Covid on the university was huge of course, and James had to respond in a host of ways as lockdown came and went.
The pandemic brought one or two blessings in disguise though. Empty sports buildings were put to other uses. "We have NHS property on site. One sports hall functioned as a Covid testing centre and, from March 2020, we stored NHS critical care equipment. Now vaccine research is underway," James explains.
"We were in a good place pre-Covid," he recalls. "Now it's about mitigation budgets and risk adversity to protect the budgets we have."
"Freshers week in late September was eerily quiet and it's been a strange first eighteen months for head gardener Sean Craven.
"Team members normally would be driving or working in pairs but social distancing meant everyone working on their own, making monitoring that much more difficult, although every team member has a business phone."
"The resource is spread more thinly and there's a bigger area to cover. You could have driven an artic through the campus, it was that quiet."
James comes on site three days a week to mostly handle paperwork - reports, updates and the like, he says.
Many in Britain look set to work permanently from home as employers rethink established office-based practices. "Remote homeworking is fine," says James "but most team members cannot do that for obvious reasons, but my meetings are usually done using Microsoft Teams which, because of the format, means you have to really focus on the screen all the time."
His daily zoom time for maintenance meetings is a little less rigorous that way, James adds. "Staring at a screen for twelve hours a day, you need to take a break."
"We are living in a totally different world now and it's a challenge. At senior level, the university will be thinking how they can make better use of all the building space created with home working."
"Hot desking is certainly one way forward. Do academics need an office to themselves any more if they work from home? There's a conversation to be had about space utilisation - and a big change post-Covid."
Does he see an adapted future involving less human resourcing on site? "The big push comes from the agri sector. Harper Adams University's autonomous farming project is fascinating. We have demos planned for GPS-operated linemarking machines and I can see a future involving robotic turf mowing."
But technology only goes so far, he believes. "We're looking at a hybrid model. A mixed model of how we deliver services."
That model will embrace the university's sustainability values throughout the estate, James says. More tree planting at Weetwood and Bodington, a hedgehog-friendly campus and sustainable gardens are all part of that plan.
Environmentally, big plans are afoot. "The academics are testing natural flood management schemes and one factor in these is the role trees play. A total of 4,000 of them are set to go in the ground, also part and parcel of carbon sequestration targets involving tree values."
Arb research at the farm, with its poplar plantations, stretches back twenty years. "We were looking at agriforestry," says James, "but that has stopped and pig breeding, husbandry and research is underway now. The grounds maintenance is straightforward - it's the other aspects that need studying."
White gardens and plans to pull nitrates from the water all figure in the university's mission to be net carbon neutral by 2030. "The Living Lab work helps inform our operational decisions," he concludes.
Sporting strategy: His conversations with senior management, like the university's director of estates, include the vision for ongoing maintenance, which is clearly extensive.
"They know our capabilities," says James, "and we are well respected for what we do." - with due cause as they reached the GMA awards' University/College Team of the Year finals in 2017, and the sustainability awards finals the same year.
The sport played on the surfaces across the estate is varied and demanding. Two hockey and three grass pitches have been resurfaced in the last couple of years. A Lano Sports pitch is due to stage international action later this year, while a rugby pitch is used by England women's rugby league squad to train on for this year's World Cup. Originally laid in 1930, the pitch benefits from herringbone drainage.
The team maintains the cricket ground to ECB guidance, says James, receiving controlled release pre-season feed in March.
Outdoor sports provision on the main campus is largely taken up by the 5-a-side 3G pitch. Replacing an existing synthetic surface next to the sports hall, the Desso DMX surface, installed three years ago, matches the specification of its full-size counterpart fitted around the same time at Weetwood.
Small it may be, but the surface is the scene of intense activity. "Open from 9.00am until dark, the pitch is hammered all year round," says James. "We brush regularly and 'Verti-Air' annually in September before rain is due."
Given the controversy over synthetics, does James see a place for them long term? "Yes, they bring key benefits to sports provision. They are playable in pretty much all weathers, fit really well our mix of provision and are great for training. All we can do as an industry is be best-informed as best we can."
Not everything is managed and maintained in-house. James brings in the same external contractor who tends Leeds Rhinos' ground to service some of the maintenance needs. PSD Agronomy provides "independent oversight" on soil and pitch condition and quality.
Next phase: The next phase of sporting investment will see three full-size 3G pitches going down, but such facilities are coming under ever greater scrutiny," James reports. "The university is considering the whole-life costing of projects like these, applying sustainability tracking to assess the carbon footprint. More and more of this is coming in, with the Sustainability Service challenging the project manager to justify the investment according to their criteria."
Some building responsibilities fall to James, who is briefed on the university project team's commitment to renewable sources and construction methods such as Passivhaus, utilising BREEAM top specification materials.
He meets Sean Craven to discuss the main campus realm, and Ed Hicken regarding peripheral grounds such as the Tadcaster farm. "That may take up two or three hours a month, which will include any health and safety updates or issues," he says.
With so much going on, work/life balance is critical, James explains. "Last year, we worked flat out with no holiday until July. I enjoy getting away for a break with the family and love sitting on the clifftops at Filey with a cold cider, taking in the view."
Reflecting on his career to date, he notes. "Looking back, would I have ever dreamt that I'd be studying tender documents for drainage, buildings maintenance and farming practice? Probably not."
What's in the sheds?
Enduramax Highway 1200l towed water bowser
Overton SB2c-EHD Street Barrow c/w 75mm vacuum unit
EGO Power+ LM1903E-SP cordless mower
Clubcar Carryall 710LSV
Spider Mini II slope mower
Kubota L5740 compact tractor
Kubota F3680 outfront mower
Kubota L2 Series tractor
Kubota G26HD lawn tractor/mower
Kubota B3150HD tractor
Kubota W819-PRO rotary mower
Kubota RTV900 utilty vehicle
Kubota LA854EC loader
Hayter 48 Harrier pedestrian mowers x 3
Major Swift roller mower
Amazone EKS 260 spreader
Orec PICO SFG50A ride-on brushcutter
Nugent GP64 trailer
DW Tomlin trailer
Billy Goat F180SPV leaf blower
Billy Goat KV650H vacuum
Charterhouse Verti-Drain 7521
DW Tomlin 2.44mHD.HA.CW
Graham Edwards Trailer
Greentek Greens Groomer
Honda Lawnflite Pro 553HWS-Pro
Kilworth Dragone VL220 HSR
New Holland T4.75 tractor
Nugent Twin Axle trailer
SISIS Quadraplay 8ft FS0758
Toro Groundsmaster 4700 rotary mower
Toro Reelmaster 5410
Toro Reelmaster 3100-D
Toro Workman MDX
Toro Commercial 21 pedestrian rotaries x 2
Toro Proline 21" pedestrian rotary mower
Toro Proline C cordless mower
Vale Stargreen TR1.5 topdresser
Vale MS350 gritter
Vale AS600 sprayer
Vale Stargreen SP1800 topdresser
Vale TD1700T topdresser
Vredo 212 Disc seeder
Stihl KM130R loop-handle brushcutter
Stihl HT-KM Komble pole pruner
Stih FS360C brushcutter
Stihl FS90R brushcutter x 2
Stihl FS130R brushcutter x 2
Stihl SG86C leaf blower
Stihl AR 3000 backpack battery sets x 5
Stihl HSA 94 R cordless hedge trimmers x 3
Stihl BGA100 cordless blowers x 4
Stihl FSA90R cordless brushcutters x 4
Stihl FSA 130 cordless brushcutter
Stihl HLA 85 hedge trimmer
Stihl HL100 hedge trimmers x 2
Stihl HS81R hedge trimmer
Stihl HSA86 hedge trimmer
Stihl BR600 blowers x 3
Stihl MS261 chainsaw x 2
Stihl MS261 chainsaw
Stihl MS361C-M chainsaw
Stihl HSA 26 cordless shrub shears
Stihl HSA 86 18" cordless hedge trimmer
Weibang Virtue 53 Pro rotary mower
Weibang 56 Pro rotary mower
Dennis G34 cylinder mower
Wessex RC-150 rotary cultivator
TS Industrie Puma 35D shredder
Clark Strongman shredder
Fleming FSW500 shredder