Against a backdrop of austerity, South Tyneside Council operates a diverse fleet of 350 vehicles and 19 items of plant machinery.
Budgets have been squeezed and staff numbers cut, while the demands of providing vehicles to some of the council’s most visible front-facing services have remained.
However, thanks to a range of measures, including the use of technology, new systems and procedures, and an innovative approach, it is delivering an efficient and effective fleet.
After an extensive restructure, which saw staff numbers cut by 35%, the fleet team has been free to shape individual areas of responsibility.
Staff have been encouraged to use their skills and knowledge to solve problems and devise innovative ideas to improve performance. It has meant the fleet is on target to achieve budget savings of 28% over three years and has halved its vehicle downtime.
The council’s vehicles are used across a range of departments and are essential to the services they provide. It is critical that downtime is kept to a minimum and the authority has introduced a number of initiatives to ensure its fleet remains fully operational.
Monthly maintenance schedules have been created so work can be planned in advance, while an end-of-day defect reporting system, coupled with additional morning maintenance cover, has helped ensure that vehicles are able to start on time the next day.
Investment in vehicle diagnostics equipment to cover all vehicle types has also allowed essential maintenance to be carried out in-house.
It has helped the council increase its outside income through offering a maintenance service to neighbouring authorities, hire companies, local businesses and employees.
Meanwhile, an improved vehicle renewal programme and customer consultations have reduced the fleet by 9% and external vehicle hire by 83%.
But the local authority has no intention of resting on its laurels. Under the stewardship of interim fleet manager Alan Wilson, who now leads the fleet team after Colin Barnes left the organisation, the council is planning to build on its recent successes.
Fleet News: How have you managed to cut vehicle downtime by 50%?
Alan Wilson: There are about 40 different departments that we have got to provide vehicles for and they are classed as our customers.
They range from social services to city services, all providing vital frontline services, and downtime can be a real issue for us and them.
As a result, we now have a member of the fleet team on-site from 6am. It means if vehicles come into the workshop the night before with any defects, we can get it sorted before they are due back on the road at 7.30am.
In the past, a driver and his two crew members, for example, would have to wait until the vehicle was ready, which would impact on the services they have to deliver and create additional cost to that department.
I’ve also bought a couple of second-hand vehicles so if we can’t get a problem sorted, we can provide a replacement vehicle.
It helps us avoid having to hire any additional vehicles, which would be at a greater cost to the council.
In addition, we have now got a service schedule so we know exactly what vehicles are coming in and when. It means we can plan ahead and ensure we have any parts ready and waiting so we can turn vehicles around a lot quicker than we could in the past.
This whole process was also helped by investing in vehicle diagnostics, which we have recently updated.
Staff are undergoing training in the new system and, because we don’t have to outsource vehicle repairs any more, it’s going to save us a fortune.
My job at the end of the day is to ensure I’m achieving value for money for our taxpayers.
FN: You have also increased your income by providing maintenance services to neighbouring authorities and local businesses. How do you see that developing?
AW: We are currently in negotiations with authorities like North Tyneside and Sunderland about sharing depots and bringing more work into ours.
However, the long-term plan may involve building a ‘super’ workshop and amalgamating the fleet services of the three local authorities.
That would bring down overall costs because it would allow you to reduce staff and building overheads by offering a joint service.
We’ve done really well, but we can do a lot more, so we are also looking at the possibility of working with the police and the fire service.
We need to utilise the skills and the facilities we have to try to generate additional income for the council.
FN: Where else do you think you can help the council’s bottom line?
AW: I’m looking at increasing the number of electric vehicles we have on the fleet.
We operate two Nissan Leafs and five Peugeot Ions, but we need to see if we can tap into any additional Government funding to grow that further.
The vehicles we already operate have helped enormously. We have not only reduced the amount of CO2 we produce, we are also saving money on fuel and repairs.
Our electric vehicles are used across the council. For example, one is used as a pool car, bereavement services operate another, two vehicles are being used at the town hall and another is used by engineering works.
Electric vehicles can be ideal for low-mileage operations. For example, we use two Dispatch vans as dog warden vehicles but they are getting on and I’m looking at replacing those with two electric vans.
FN: You’ve also embraced technology by employing telematics. How effective has that been?
AW: It has helped us achieve savings across a range of areas and improved productivity. In fuel alone, it has enabled us to cut costs by 8-10% and it has also enabled us to counter any claims against our drivers or our vehicles. It’s saved our council thousands of pounds.