Groundscare Vision

The Institute of Groundsmanship (IOG) strives to promote quality surfaces and services for grounds management. Here, IOG’s Chief Executive Officer, Geoff Webb, details how ongoing research into this increasingly challenged industry helps to provide a new vision for the sector and those working within it 

In 2008/09, the Institute of Groundsmanship (IOG) commissioned research to provide an overview of the grounds management market in terms of its annual value, numbers employed and volunteers, as well as the attitudes towards and trends within the industry. This resulted in the first definitive report titled Grounds Management – The Hidden Profession that also highlighted the industry’s economic value. 

The findings suggested that in England alone there were 20,000 employed professionals and at least 20,000 dedicated volunteers addressing grounds maintenance in several different sectors and that the industry had an annual operating value in excess of £0.5billion per annum plus capital expenditure. 

Last year the IOG commissioned further research and this will enable comparisons to be made. The aims of the 2018/19 research are:

  • To identify overall trends within the grounds management industry in England 
  • To provide an estimate of the overall economic impact annually of the grounds management industry in England 
  • To provide an estimate of the number of people working in the industry both professionally and as volunteers, and in which sectors
  • To provide empirical evidence of attitudes towards grounds management in England; this should include attitudes of employers towards grounds managers and grounds staff; attitudes of grounds managers and grounds staff towards employers; and attitudes of volunteers
  • To identify trends, attitudes and pressures within individual sectors of the grounds management industry.

This research is ongoing and the results will be presented at Saltex, the annual turf care exhibiton, this October 2019. 

What we do know from previous research is that the groundscare industry attracts dedicated hard-working employed professionals and volunteers, who often work long unsociable hours. The industry has an enviable worldwide reputation, including many individuals as well as companies which are known for their quality and innovation. 

Professional sports turf management does have its pressures! First and foremost is the wildly varying and rapid fixture and event schedules (increasingly dictated by television rights holders) that result in grounds management teams working almost 24/7. Teams at major venues often have to adjust to daily, midweek and weekend sporting events alongside music and other revenue-raising activities. 

Groundcare teams need to work around varying sport and event fixtures at many racecourse venues 

Club and ground owners are increasingly trying to ‘sweat their assets’ to the point where grounds managers are under the most severe continual pressure – which includes their work being in the media spotlight.

During the period 2008/09 – 2019 there have been some significant changes within the industry:

Local Government and Public Sector

UK Local Government, in particular, entered a more pronounced period of austerity and discretionary services such as sport, leisure, parks and culture have suffered significant budget reductions – with more to follow in the current 2016-2020 cycle. This has led to the retirement and redundancy of skilled grounds management personnel, a down-skilling of retained personnel, a lack of new entrants/apprentices to the industry, and a new type of employee who is simply regarded as an operative with duties including street sweeping.

Many local authorities are doing the minimum possible in their provision of natural turf pitches, perhaps providing grass cutting services and minimal annual maintenance and improvement, with line marking being undertaken either by volunteers or external contractors.

Local government is also trying to move responsibility for grounds management and particularly fine turf provision out of the public sector to voluntary organisations through ‘Asset Transfer’. Volunteer committees and volunteer grounds staff will be key to future fine turf and higher quality pitch provision at community level.

Grounds maintenance in the public sector is also increasingly being contracted to external companies or social enterprise. 

Austerity measures have also had a similar knock on effect to state education facilities, and will undoubtedly have impacted other public sector sports turf provision through, for example, the Ministry of Defence, Police Service and other public organisations.

The situation is particularly poor in the state education sector, with lack of investment in sports surfaces, particularly natural turf, being compounded by lack of expertise and skills for grounds management and maintenance.

Notwithstanding the presence of Playing Pitch Strategies, in many local authority areas the public sector is lacking in applied longer-term management strategies for sports surfaces (natural and artificial).

The prolonged Brexit debate and the current political landscape make predicting the direction of investment in sport rather clouded. Sport has over the past decade had to convince Government of how it can contribute to the health of the nation in order to bring in investment. It is no longer a case of sport for sports sake. 

The IOG is working hard to elevate the thinking and culture around investment into the profession, from volunteer to professional levels across a range of sectors including the public sector, independent schools and universities, the voluntary sector and those working in the many stadia and racecourses across the country. 

Grounds management does need a re-boot and the IOG is in the process of developing initiatives to achieve exactly that. It will require a fundamental shift in attitudes and outlook from within our sector and beyond it.

National Governing Bodies of Sport [NGBs]

Some NGBs – notably the Football Association in England where 80% plus of community-based football takes place on natural turf pitches mainly provided by local Government – have until recently placed emphasis on synthetic turf pitches as an answer to future community football needs. And in recent times the pros and cons of artificial surfaces have come under close scrutiny as public awareness of issues around the infill used have raised concerns and been well documented in the media. 

It would seem at the professional football level the happy medium is the use of reinforced (hybrid pitches) rather than a full 3G surface. Currently both the Football League and the Premier League have rejected calls for the introduction of 3G surfaces and, indeed, a recent poll of Professional Footballers Association members showed that 95% of members were against the introduction of the surface into League competition. Rugby, however, has allowed 3G into competition, but here again player perception varies with some citing injury concerns. 

More recently, trials undertaken by Sport England into hybrid surfaces are into a second season of data gathering and could provide a new alternative to a straight choice between natural or artificial pitches at community level. The benefits are that usage is significantly increased when compared to a natural turf pitch. 

Natural turf is, of course, not without its challenges as Europe-wide legislation on the safe use of pesticides impacts the grounds teams’ day-to-day armoury. So, as much as new technology has impacted and improved surfaces, a well-rounded approach to responsible grounds management is required to take account of more organic approaches and to deal with issues such as those around the environment, energy efficiency and the use/application of man-made products. 

Future turf managers will need to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of a range of skill sets and keep records and evidence of any working practices, so there is a duty of care to provide appropriate education and training to equip them for the future. 

Greater emphasis needed on refreshing natural grass pitches 

For natural turf at community level, thanks to the evidence gathered by the IOG-led Grounds & Natural Turf Improvement Programme (which is backed by Sport England and directly funded by the Football Association and the England & Wales Cricket Board) has placed a much greater emphasis on refurbishing and refreshing natural grass pitches with the aim of significantly improving 20,000 pitches over a 10-year period (2017-2027). Operated by the IOG, a National Director and nine Regional Managers have in the first three years assessed over 2,000 natural turf sites and made recommendations for improvement that are already having a significant impact on the improvement of pitches there. The team is also collecting valuable data and identifying industry trends at a local level (where pitch compaction and a lack of awareness of available training are key issues).

The IOG also has ambitious plans to introduce a nationally recognised pitch grading programme linked to the levels of education and learning required at each level. This will combine both technical standards and educational standards recommended to improve the playing experience for players from community grassroots level to elite venues. 

The IOG Pitch Grading Framework will not only highlight the level of an individual playing surface quality but also the appropriate training and education, and the recommended levels of qualifications needed by those who maintain it.

In addition, while the England and Wales Cricket Board has since 2005 placed a high priority on quality natural fine turf wickets and outfields, natural (and artificial) turf surfaces remain a priority for Rugby Union, Rugby League, golf, lawn tennis, horseracing/equestrian Eventing and bowls, to name but a few. 

The IOG has responded positively to the changing perspective and provided a voice for the industry. It has also taken positive action to resolve personal issues for individuals, and promoted improved pay and conditions, while also attracting more young people to the industry through the ‘Young IOG’ and introducing a significantly revised training structure that provides an improved career progression structure. The IOG will continue to strive to serve and represent our membership through the seasons. 

SALTEX 2019 is at the NEC Birmingham from 30-31 October, 2019.
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