The management of street cleansing operations requires a fit-for-purpose solution. Tony Gordon spoke to a council that maintains its operations in-house and to a leading national environmental contractor.

Local authorities are constantly asking their taxpayers what services rate the highest priority, and street cleansing almost invariably ends up within the top three. It is a high profile service, very visible and affects the lives and livelihoods of residents, businesses and visitors. Even Business Investment Districts (BIDs) have chosen to invest in new vehicles and machinery as a way of increasing profitability and turnover.

One of the big questions is whether to invest Council capital, which means more direct ownership, flexibility and freedom; use outside finance; or to employ an outside contractor, which usually means expert guidance, excellent service and maintenance, and fixed costs that protect pre-determined budgets. There are arguments for and against both systems, so we spoke to a local authority that takes pride in operating its own in-house street cleansing operation, and one of the leading national contractors.

For Graham Powell, Transport Manager at Lancaster City Council, the in-house operation works well and offers taxpayers the best return on its investment. Out of a fleet of some 200 vehicles, about 20 are dedicated to street cleansing in an area that includes the flat seaside of Morecambe, as well as the steep hills, narrow streets and alleys, and heritage sites of Lancaster. The fleet consists of compact and mid-sized sweepers, a truck-mounted sweeper, and several support LGVs and light vans.

“We try to keep most services in-house because it means we have more control and it gives us more flexibility. At the moment we have the street cleansing vehicles on a three or five year replacement programme: currently that involves leasing through a finance company, but we may move towards capital investment. Whatever purchasing system we operate, the tendering process will remain pretty much the same: price of the vehicles is a major consideration, but much more important are whole life costs.

“The purchase price is one cost, but what is more important over the operating period is the cost of running the vehicles, including service, maintenance, extended warranties and, most importantly, spares and parts. We also have to consider whether the vehicles comply with our environmental policy. Fuel consumption is a factor, but generally we find that most modern vehicles are roughly about the same, and it is also a matter of how the vehicles are driven and used, and on what types of road.

“It is also important that we can have a close business relationship with the manufacturer. We need to be able to speak to people who can provide a fast and effective service when we need it, not when they can provide it!”

Costs are always going to rise. At the most basic level, sheet metal prices have shot up and that has affected manufacturing costs, not just of street cleaners, but throughout the van industry and with every manufacturer. As a result local authorities are looking to improve efficiencies in all areas, including the way drivers treat their vehicles. In Lancaster there are designated trainers in the Environmental Services Section who assess drivers, on top of the induction training carried out by manufacturers whenever new vehicles are delivered.

“I will continue to show an interest in electric-powered vehicles,” Graham adds. “There is a future for them, but perhaps not right here, right now. They require a special infrastructure for power sockets and spares and parts, as well as specialist service and maintenance, and we do not have any facilities in-house or within the commercial dealerships and workshops in this area yet. But electric-powered vans and street sweepers will remain on my horizon for the future.”

Graham's “patch” for Lancaster City Council covers a large area of Lancashire, including the resort areas around Morecambe, the town of Carnforth and several villages as well as a large rural area. The daily street cleansing operation begins at 6am, with compact sweepers targeting the centres of Lancaster and Morecambe, and later in the day covering outlying areas, shopping centres and villages.

Scott Edgell, Senior Contract Manager, Veolia Environmental Services, knows all sides of the street cleansing business ' he was formerly a manager with Westminster City Council before “TUPE-ing” across when the contract was awarded to Veolia.

He is, not surprisingly, a big fan of contracting out, but only to companies that have a proven record and can add something where directly-employed council departments would struggle.

“From a vehicle and equipment point of view we can offer some very big advantages to local authorities. Where a council may buy up to a dozen sweepers each year, we are buying hundreds, and that means we can offer major economies of scale.

“We also operate a vehicle monitoring and recording system that tracks every vehicle, whether it is a compact sweeper or a truck-mount. It is our own software, our own system, and tracks all our street cleansing services in real time: we can provide very detailed, accurate reports on each piece of equipment to our local authority customers. It also means that if there is a problem of any kind while the vehicle is working we can react very quickly and that has a positive impact on the productivity of the vehicle,” he says.

Veolia Environmental Services is a multinational with a turnover of over £1.4 billion in the UK alone. This size and scope means that best practice methodology is enhanced not just by comparing the operations of the hundred+ local authorities in the UK who are customers, but operations in Europe and even as far away as Australia. Scott cites relationships with the workforce and health and safety as paramount.

“Street cleansing is a tough front-line job and we need to ensure that every person not only gets to work safely, but returns home safe and secure. The size of Veolia means we can put in place the most stringent health and safety measures across the board and make them work efficiently.

“We also encourage and develop relationships with the trades unions both locally and nationally. We are passed experts at handling TUPE and we fully recognise that the workforce is a vitally important part of the service we offer.”

However finance seems to be the “clincher”. The economic power of Veolia, Scott believes, means it can offer full flexibility, so that the street cleansing budget can be maximised by understanding the variety of options that are available including redeploying vehicles if necessary.

Each local authority has different requirements. These may be based on size, terrain, surfaces or a combination of all of them. The Veolia system is to divide the area to be covered and ask managers to come up with the best solutions for each area.

Where Scott and Graham Powell are in complete agreement is in the use of electric-powered vehicles. “We have looked at them, we will continue to look at them, but at the moment, in this country, we do not have the facilities in the depots to make them work to maximum efficiency. I am sure that will change in the future, but not just yet,” says Scott.

In conclusion it seems that local authorities have a range of choices. Private contractors are able to offer a fully comprehensive service, from purchase of vehicles to disposal, the most advanced technology, and finance options. Directly employed street cleansing operations ' often part of the environmental or waste and recycling departments ' maintain a personal touch and the flexibility of dealing direct. In practice, it's just down to choices.