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Friday, 25 July 2014

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Tynedale: Would local contractors do a better job of cutting grass?

GRASS cutting in public areas may seem like an innocuous task – but it is an issue which repeatedly gets taxpayers up in arms.

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Thick grass cuttings left on a public area in Wark last year.

For years, residents in Tynedale have made complaints about what has been called an “inadequate service” from Northumberland County Council and other relevant bodies.

Not-for-profit housing association Isos Housing has come in for particular criticism of late, with some residents lambasting the organisation for its poor grass cutting service.

The anger arises over the state of the green spaces following visits from the contractors, when large chunks of grass are strewn all over the place making the areas look untidy.

What’s worse, the collected grass gives off a rancid smell when wet, leading to fears that rats could be attracted.

Grass cutting has become such a hot topic in Allendale and Slaley that the respective parish councils have stepped in.

The parish councils have contacted Isos offering to take on the responsibility of finding contractors for the areas of grass it currently cuts.

Councillors say they are often contacted by residents angered about the work done by the existing contractors, insisting they know of local people who would do a much better job.

The parish councils originally held contracts with Isos to cut grass, but this was stopped two years ago when the housing association awarded the work to Ground Control, which is based in Wales.

Now parish councillors are hoping they can strike a deal to enable them to keep on top of the problem.

Allendale Parish Council’s vice chairman Coun. Robert Philipson said: “The problem is that Isos seems to have one set of contractors, who have to get around the whole area, and they don’t have a big window of opportunity to get everywhere when the weather is not right.

“When we used to cut it on its behalf, it always looked neat and tidy and there was no grass left behind.

“When they do come around to cut it, the grass is too long and there is a lot of mess left over, so we need more regular cuts, where the remains just bed back into the grass.

“We have two local people who would come out and do it when it is necessary, and they would keep the village’s appearance looking smart. These people take pride in the place they live and would do a great job.”

While the problem is county wide, children in Prudhoe are being prevented from using the play area at Eastwood Park due to the mess left by county council contractors.

Parents and grandparents have stopped young ones from entering the play park amid concerns that children throwing the grass cuttings at each other poses a health and safety risk.

Residents have contacted officers at County Hall, asking for play areas to be given special treatment to allow young people to continue to enjoy outdoor activities.

However, the council’s policy states that, while contractors cut almost one million square metres of grass across Northumberland on a fortnightly basis, it doesn’t have a responsibility to remove the grass cuttings.

Exceptions are made on plots within elderly people’s residential developments where it is not easy for the residents to get out and clear it themselves.

The areas the council is responsible for cutting are housing estates, parks, schools, highways verges and open spaces.

On average, the county cuts grass 10 to 13 times during what it calls ‘a core period’ from April to September, but this varies due to weather conditions – especially as it is not always possible to cut grass when wet.

But with the emphasis on getting the grass cut, the county said it was not within its remit to tidy it away too.

A county council spokesman said: “To collect and transport cuttings for composting would be very costly, uneconomical and environmentally unfriendly, partly because of the additional travel involved.”

Isos Housing, meanwhile, acknowledges that grounds maintenance is a subject which really matters to its residents and to the wider communities. Therefore, Isos said, it spends a lot of time discussing the issue to make sure the best possible service is delivered.

The company said it works hard to manage its contractors, Ground Control, effectively, ensuring the delivery of an efficient service. And to ensure standards aren’t dropping, the group employs an experienced consultant to check on the quality of Ground Control’s work.

Isos housing manager Kath Glen said: “Whenever our grounds maintenance service is reported to be falling below what is expected, we address that promptly and – if required – take steps to improve the condition of the affected areas.

“As an example, residents in Allendale contacted us recently to complain about the length of the grass in their village, and subsequently the amount of grass cuttings left behind after our contractors visited.

“We looked at what had happened, recognised that the contractors had fallen behind the agreed cutting schedule, and arranged for a single ‘cut and collect’ visit to the village, to bring the grassed areas back to a reasonable standard – including the removal of substantial cuttings.

“We also met parish councillors on site to listen to their concerns.”

Isos was keen to point out however that, although it would respond to particular circumstances, it could not collect cuttings on a regular basis, due to prohibitive costs.

This initiative is not a new one, as leaving grass on site has been standard practice for many years as is the procedure with county councils.

In fact, it operates a similar cutting pattern to the council with contractors out on average twice a month.

Mrs Glen added: “Apart from exceptional periods of grass growth, or extreme weather, we are confident this policy will not generate unreasonable quantities of cuttings.

“If there was demand for grass cuttings to be collected, that would have to be paid for by our residents since our services are not paid for by general taxation, as is sometimes believed to be the case.

“As a not-for-profit social landlord, providing affordable housing, we are acutely aware that many of our residents have limited incomes, and any increase in rent has to be very carefully considered.”

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