Generally, the way to maximise efficiency is to invest in new technology and equipment. In the case of the wide range of services provided by local authorities, this often translates into regular renewal of vehicle fleets. But Government cutbacks are resulting in changes to traditional working practices, writes Tony Richards.

It is a difficult balancing act: continuing to provide the best possible service at the same time as demonstrably saving money. One solution is to take a long, hard look at vehicle fleets and ask: “Are they working efficiently or are they costing more than they should?'

Vehicle fleets are an easy and highly visible target for the chopping block. They do not, on the face of it, immediately affect employees, where redundancies and reducing services do, and in many areas, numbers can be reduced by getting more out of existing fleets.

Achieving all those targets may be too much for councils. Inhouse maintenance departments, wholly owned and operated, like its vehicle fleet, by the local authority are under pressure from elected representatives, who have to make decisions that will affect their position as a councillor every few years. It is the engineers and technicians, employed by the council, who have to turn those decisions into reality within often quite restrictive working practices.

Contracted-out services, where private contractors purchase the vehicles and lease them to the council for a pre-determined number of years, face a wide variety of different pressures. Both services share the need for qualified technicians and continuous training: these engineers are the often-forgotten heroes of the local government service.

Bob Scarfe, Fleet Director at SFS, a major contract hire and workshop management specialist based in Northamptonshire and with satellite offices and workshops in Dorset, Surrey, Leicestershire and Staffordshire, says that there is a trend towards extending lease periods and out-sourcing of LA workshop and maintenance facilities to maintenance providers such as SFS.

“Local authorities are looking at ways in which they can reduce their costs and vehicle fleets is a clear target. But we are finding that the emphasis is on getting as much as possible out of the vehicles, so the trend is multi-tasking, particularly among the lighter vehicles, and this means they are working harder and require more servicing and maintenance. If the customer ' in most cases a local authority ' believes that lengthening the lease period by a year or two is the right way forward, then we need to reaffirm the partnership working relationship.

We, as the specialists appointed to ensure that the vehicles do their job and spend the maximum time working 'not in the workshop, have to take stock of the fleet. There are going to be cost implications in extending the lease period, so our trained and experienced staff have to assess each vehicle and evaluate its condition and ability to keep working for another year; the efficiency and productivity of a potentially ageing machine or vehicle; and whether it is financially prudent to keep it working.

“There may be alternatives that are more economically effective. Perhaps buying new vehicles, but fewer of them, or changing the established routes of, for example, refuse collection vehicles and sweepers.

“One trend that we are noticing is that, instead of vehicles having a set role, there is a move towards multi-tasking. And this can change the contract period if it is based on mileage or working hours, for example. We are constantly building relationships with our customers so that together we can provide a service that gets the most productivity out of the vehicles.”

Evaluation of the workload and condition of the fleet needs to be openly discussed between council and contractor, local authority officers and managers have to translate the money-saving wish-list of the elected representatives into practical and demonstrable economics, and the service provider will then have a rounded view of what is the target and how it can be achieved.

The pressures on councillors can be quite high profile. They have two ''bosses” to appease: the electorate who put them in power, and want to see the highest quality of visible service; and the financial heads, who are currently faced with demands to slash millions off local authority budgets.

The result may be that, as long as the measures taken are legal and safe, they are given the go-ahead. This can be problematic, and needs to be faced head-on with all involved meeting and openly discussing requirements and the range of alternative solutions ' as well as the downsides that are a consequence of any reduction in funding.

The starting place for maintenance workshops is that the work of the vehicle cannot be stopped for long periods. Social services need to have buses for transport, waste needs to be collected at regular intervals, and streets and pavements need sweeping. Housing maintenance technicians must be able to get about with tools and equipment, and roads and potholes do not repair themselves.

Modern vehicles and equipment incorporate much more technology today. Years ago, a technician with a set of hand tools and a lift could completely re-fit an engine and get the vehicle back on the road in the minimum of time. The trend towards technology now means that specialist help and expertise is needed to repair a fault.

This sometimes means that the vehicle lies idle while a part is shipped to the manufacturer in continental Europe or even further afield, or a technician flies in to carry out the work. Either of those situations means extra costs. Even if the manufacturer accepts the fault and expense, those costs will eventually find their way onto the overall price of new vehicles or parts: nobody works for free and losses cannot always be absorbed into existing margins.

The other result of this has been the need for advanced training of engineers and technicians. Where a new vehicle has been purchased this usually involves training by manufacturers' specialists, and it places new pressures on workshop employees, whether private contractors or local authorities, to learn more and extend their skills base in new, high technology areas.

SFS is a growing business and Bob Scarfe has noticed that most growth is in the light commercial van sector. “One of the trends seems to be buying new vehicles, but fewer of them when the replacement process kicks in at the end of lease periods. The result is that multi-tasking is becoming more common and vehicles are working all year round on a wide range of jobs.

“With the heavier vehicles such as refuse collectors the more structured approach is to report and discuss the findings of each periodic inspection carried out on the vehicle within the last 12 months of their contract. Wear limits would be monitored closely within the body, bin lift and packing mechanisms and, in doing, so would enable good and effective management of repairs and downtime. The findings can then being discussed with the end user when extending the lease of the vehicle is being reviewed.

“This gives an early indications of cost and downtime that is likely to be incurred, and, in turn, enables both the maintenance provider and end user to understand both the cost and impact of service implications.'

The key is being proactive with maintenance and communications, if the maintenance provider knows what the end user requirements are and is kept in the loop at the time strategic decisions are made, then the repairs required to extend vehicles can be managed so that the downtime and impact on the end user and the service they provide can be kept to a minimum,” Bob adds.

Russell Markstein, Development Director of Riverside Truck Rental, believes that whilst local authorities are under increasing pressure, they are also benefitting from the peace of mind that a contract hire service provides. Set monthly fees covering servicing, maintenance, repairs, MOT preparation and tyre management, allows the fleet manager to control the operations of the vehicles without the worry of ensuring they are fit for the road.

“It is several years since we were last asked to quote for a seven year lease, the industry has changed as far as refuse collection vehicles are concerned. What the customer has to realise is that, whilst they can dictate that lease periods are for a certain length, long leases can compromise the reliability of the vehicle. The perceived financial benefits of extending leases at a lower rate are compromised by the increased costs of maintenance and downtime ' the savings are negligible.

“Extending the life of the vehicle demands much more maintenance, and customers must be aware that as soon as a vehicle stops working to its maximum efficiency, costs will be incurred,” he says.

Away from the contract scene, Derby City Council is going through some particularly difficult times, financially. Workshop Manager Mark Bishell maintains a fleet of Dennis and Heil RCVs on a 9-year life cycle, and that relies heavily on the training of the technicians and the support of the manufacturers in this.

“Nine years is long enough for any refuse collection vehicle and we are not going to get more out of them,” he says. “It is important to buy the right product in the first place and get all the maintenance staff working together as a team.

“From June 2011 our Refuse Department has been operating a four-day week Tuesday to Friday, instead of a traditional Monday to Friday collection service. We recognised that we were unable to extend the life of our vehicles, so our contribution to the savings was to change our old three split shift system covering 06:00 to 18:00 to a two shift system covering 06:00 to 20:00 five days a week; work a nine hour shift on the Monday to maximise the ability to service vehicles that are standing in the depot; then working seven hour shifts, Tuesday to Friday.

“This has only been achieved through the excellent co-operation from the technicians, and it has worked remarkably well because of their hard work. We can meet some very tough targets working a 37- hour week that suit the demand from our customers.

“Vehicle replacement has been a problem too. Not knowing what the budgets were going to be, or where people were going to be placed as a result of the council cost-cutting and restructuring process, has made this process very difficult, but close cooperation at all levels is helping us through.”

Faced with mounting financial strictures, private contractors and in-house local authority workshops seem to have a “can do” attitude. It is not a case of pleading for more money and a smaller share of the cuts, it is more phlegmatic and practical ' there are going to be cuts so we have to make the most out of what is left.

Working practices, for many years set in stone, are being adjusted ' massaged ' as Derby's Workshop Manager says, and the result is a way of maintaining a public service by way of innovative hard work. Workshops, both private and public, embody the feverish activity of the swans feet as it glides majestically along picking up refuse!