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Council / Robot mower trial explored because of staff shortages

THE COUNCIL has offered more context behind a planned trial of robotic lawnmowers in some burial grounds – saying it would allow in-demand staff to attend to other jobs.

It comes amid a shortfall in staffing numbers, a maintenance backlog and an increased number of statutory surveys needing to be carried out on memorials.

At a recent council meeting environment and estate operations manager Carl Symons sought to dispel some “misconceptions” around the proposed trial of robotic lawnmowers in some burial grounds.

He said the trial would in effect be spread over three years.

There could also be modest cost savings, as well as a reduction in the service’s carbon footprint.

Speaking about the burial service’s staffing challenges, Symons said the team had undertaken ten recruitment exercises since December 2022 but had only managed to employ two operatives.

He said in 2010 there were 14 burial ground operatives, supported by seasonal and summer students, but today there are only seven operatives.

The SIC also failed to recruit seasonal/student workers last year.

On top of this are increased maintenance demands, particularly regarding memorials as a result of national guidance, and a backlog of a work.

It is proposed that the management of making safe burial ground structures and boundary walls be transferred to the SIC’s building services maintenance team – “but it must be recognised that doing so will lead to maintenance shortfalls in other areas across the council”, a report to elected members said.

The cost of lease for three stores would be nearly £13,600 a year, which includes docking stations, six mowers and all-terrain wheels. There would be additional costs for the one-off installation of power supplies to sites.

Symons clarified that the decision to go to a trial was made by the burial operatives themselves.

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The burial grounds which would take part in the trial could include Sandwick, Tingwall and Mid Yell. Quarff had previously been mentioned but a new metered electricity connection would have to be installed there.

“The policy is about trying to keep the high standards we have with a reduced workforce, and look at increased automation as part of that delivery process,” Symons said.

The key factor in the trial is freeing up staff to do other jobs elsewhere.

“If I had robots that would go out and build walls as well, I’d be employing them too,” Symons added.

He also said it “dramatically” reduces the carbon footprint as workers would have had to drive to graveyards, which are often in rural areas.

But the message is that a trial is just that – if it does not work out, then the idea is unlikely to be pursued on a permanent basis.

Symons quipped that the idea “isn’t mad” and that the council is not reporting to “robot overloads”.

A report to councillors said the mowers could be used during the night, and that they would not be in operation during funerals. It also said that the mower detects obstructions in front of it.

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