To receive a further update on the management of the Council’s Open Green Spaces. (15 minutes)
The Committee received a verbal update from Josie Wragg, Head of Community Services and Councillor Angus Ross, Executive Member for Environment on the review of the Council’s arrangements for the maintenance of the Borough’s open green spaces.
Josie Wragg reminded the Committee of how the combination of warm and wet weather in the spring and early summer of 2014 had led to the extremely fast growth of vegetation. This had presented a challenge to the Council in managing the Borough’s green open spaces and a significant number of complaints had been received from residents regarding grass cutting.
The particular challenges of that period had revealed some issues with the current specification of the Council’s contract with its grass cutting contractor and some areas where improvements could be made in the way the Council communicated with residents around grass cutting and grass cutting schedules.
As a result a review including a public consultation had been undertaken. The results of the consultation had been supplied to the Committee at its meeting in January 2015. Points of particular note were that there was support for the prioritisation of the maintenance of some areas of open space like play areas over grass verges and the introduction of measures that would increase flexibility in future contract provision. The Committee was informed that the Council had been involved in useful and detailed negotiations with the current contractor to explore the maximum possible flexibility within the current contract. As a result it had been possible to look at measures that would allow for the greater prioritisation of areas of highest need and to develop different grass cutting regimes that had more focus and represented different ways of working. The Committee was informed that taking the Bio-Diversity Action Plan into consideration the intention was to establish around three to four pilot areas where wildlife meadows would be trialled.
Looking ahead to the renewal of the grass cutting contract in April 2016, work had already started to develop an updated specification that reflected the need to building in flexibility and outcomes, not output based methodology. A customer service focus would be central. The Council was also looking to implement a similar approach to that successfully used within the Waste Service to improve the information available to residents in a timely manner.
Councillor Angus Ross commented that the green open spaces team was now fully staffed and improvement had already been made in respect of customer service as the majority of enquiries about grass cutting and green open spaces were handled at the first point of contact by the Council’s customer contact centre which freed up specialist staff for other duties in support of the service. He also updated the Committee on appointments to the senior management team of the service which was shared with the Waste Service.
It was emphasised to the Committee that in areas of open space included within the pilot areas there would still be appropriate paths for people to walk even if some parts of the pilot area were cut less frequently than had been the case in the past. He acknowledged that good communication with residents in the pilot areas about what was happening and why would be very important to the success of the pilots. The Committee was informed that a communications plan would be formulated.
In discussion with the Committee the following points were raised:
· It is a good idea to vary the frequency of cuts for different areas as part of the pilots, but consideration should be given to seeking to balance areas of high and low frequency cutting regimes within a particular ward;
· There would be areas of long grass within the pilot areas but proper access would be maintained whereas sports pitches would continue to be kept short;
· Hedge cutting had not been covered as part of the review of the management of open green spaces or negotiations with contractors, but the Council tried to operate in a pragmatic way in dealing with overgrown hedges particularly where highways safety was a possible issue. The situation around verges was complicated by issues around third party ownership of land and there was a formal process for serving notice to land owners. The introduction of an updated computerised mapping system would help make establishing ownership of particular pieces of land easier;
· It was intended that the successor grass cutting contract would be cost neutral taking account of inflationary pressures in light of the constrained financial circumstances of the Council and it was recognised that this would present significant challenges. An aim in looking to update the contract specification was to refocus and not expand the level of activity or scope of the contract;
· Members of the Committee were pleased to note that Officers had shared and discussed ideas with colleagues in town and parish councils;
· Some concerns were expressed that grass verges were particularly visible to the majority of local residents who would then be concerned if they became overgrown. The Committee was informed that the response from the public consultation indicated that as important as residents felt the cutting of verges was, the majority of respondents had given other areas a higher priority;
· Members of the Committee welcomed an offer from Josie Wragg to have sight of the grass cutting contract specification;
· It was confirmed to the Committee that communication with local residents and town/parish councils would be a key part of the implementation of any new contract regime. It was felt that the communication that had taken place around changes to the Waste Service offered valuable experience of how to do this successfully;
· Some pieces of work had been undertaken around producing more information for residents to give them confidence in carrying out grass cutting themselves where they wished to do so, but this work had not been completed yet. It was acknowledged that it was important area. The Adopt a Street Scheme provided an example of a similar resident led activity to maintain local areas although it had to be recognised there were some differences for instance, in the level of risk between urban and rural areas;
· Concern was expressed by various members of the Committee that where grass was cut on a relatively infrequent basis this could lead to the grass accumulating in large unsightly piles and could pose a drainage problem as a result of blocked drains. It was felt that the grass should be collected as part of the cutting process or immediately afterwards and coordination between grass cutting and street cleaning contractors increased. The Committee was informed that this was an issue that could be looked into for the future, but that the likely costs of collection would be prohibitive given the machinery involved. Every effort was made to co-ordinate the work of contracts and the colocation of the Officers involved would help facilitate this. The possible combination of contracts remained an option that could be considered;
· Members of the Committee felt that the consideration of the future contract specification provided an opportunity to consider what requirements it wished to stipulate with regards to machinery. Machinery that could collect grass cutting could potentially be part of this consideration.
Josie Wragg and Councillor Ross were thanked by the Chairman for their attendance and the discussion with the Committee which was felt to have been very helpful. The Chairman commented that local ward councillors would continue to monitor the situation in the current growing season and if there were concerns the matter could be re-examined. The opportunity to consider the future contract specification was welcome although it was recognised that because of the potential consideration of information that might be commercially sensitive the details might need to be exempt from publication or public discussion.
1) That the verbal update be noted;
2) That the Committee make a request to the Executive Member for Environment and Head of Community Services that it be consulted on the draft grass cutting contract specification when available.