essentialARB presents the first part of a series of articles providing a detailed overview of the updated standard for UK arb companies.

I am sure that most contracting companies will be aware of the Arboricultural Association’s ‘Approved Contractor Scheme’ (ArbAC) and the fact that it is a means to demonstrate arboricultural contracting professional competence in the UK.

Regular readers will recall I ran a series of articles that described a step-by-step approach to getting ready for assessment a couple of years ago. The series was very well received and several companies that have gone on to achieve certification have thanked me for the guidance.

By popular request I am going to re-run the series with each article updated to reflect the current assessment standard, and to include more detail.

I am going to break down the requirements of the scheme and explain just what is required to come up to standard and to get through it to become an AA approved contractor. The idea is that if you check your performance in the bite-sized chunks I give you, you should be able to navigate yourself through the process and stand a reasonable chance of success at the end.

I am a lead assessor for the Approved Contractor Scheme, but I don’t work for the association as an employee. My main job is as a consultant helping companies to get ready for the assessment. I consider the approved contractor accreditation to be a fundamental requirement for any contracting company wishing to increase sales.

On my travels and on popular arb social media I hear and read many opinions of the scheme ranging from ‘it is rubbish’ (or words to that effect) based upon observation of some local approved contractor who has been seen to undertake poor quality work, through to ‘it is the best thing we have ever done’.


Everyone is entitled to an opinion and there are bad eggs in every basket. I am confident though, that the process nowadays is rigorous enough to weed out the bad eggs in the reassessment cycle and only the organisations that are up to scratch will get through it on first assessment.

My very strong advice is not to listen to the naysayers, those people telling you it won’t add any value to your business. Believe me, it will definitely add value, firstly in giving you confidence and confirming you have everything taken care of to the correct level. Secondly, it will bring in enquiries from people who would not previously have called you – typically, high-end, high-expectations customers who don’t mind paying the right price for the right job.

In addition, the AA is continually developing relationships with local authorities and helping them to see the scheme as an excellent ‘pre-qualification’ when looking for contractors. Many of our arb officer colleagues are professional or fellow members of the AA and are very proud to have achieved that level of recognition in their careers. These grades are difficult to achieve and take years of dedication and loyalty. People of this quality tend to seek out like-minded contractors that can complete prestigious work without any problems.

To me it comes down to attitude. If you approach the job with a positive attitude you will find sales easy and you will stand out from the crowd.

Contractors who criticise the scheme even though they don’t know anything about it or begrudge the cost and effort of being part of such a great thing are missing out.

There is plenty of room at the top for those of us that are not scared of a challenge.

The process that a successful contractor must go through to achieve any certification is:


Forestry Journal:

This is getting everything into place so that the assessment runs smoothly.

Hopefully these articles will guide you through this phase.

A very common misconception is that the assessment is all about the requirements of the Arboricultural Association. This is not so and perhaps it would be useful to explain what I mean.

Broadly the assessment looks at two areas:

1. Office administration – the process from enquiry to receiving payment, job sheets, equipment maintenance, qualifications, customer service, basically all of the stuff that you need to do and have in place to make sure that everything is okay.
2. Tree work – checking ongoing site(s) and examples of your previous work.

The tree work is a requirement of the assessment only. Everything else is what you need to be doing by law anyway.

When you think about it like this, the implementation phase before the association is even involved is the most important part of the project. Getting everything right that you need to be doing to be compliant with the law and everyone’s expectations of you will mean that far less is likely to go wrong and you will sell more service.

I don’t have any official statistics to share, but from my experience I rarely receive a call from one of our customers to tell me they have had a terrible accident (touch wood). The rotten phone calls we receive asking for help following an accident come from people we have never met. Somehow they have found us and hope we will be able to help with the aftermath. Sometimes they have been meaning to call for several years but they never got around to it.

It is clear to me, based upon 20 years of helping arborists to get things right, that organisations with good systems in place are far less likely to have things go wrong.
‘Go wrong’ is an all-inclusive term which politely trips off the tongue, but I think it would be useful to give it the gravity it deserves. It can mean:

1. Someone is killed or suffers terrible life-changing injuries while under your control.
2. The lives of their partner and perhaps children are ruined. Mum or Dad isn’t coming home or when they do, they can do no more than lie on the bed connected to machines for the rest of their lives. The previously bright future is now no more than a living hell.
3. You know in your heart of hearts there was something that you should have done that would have meant that this new reality would never have happened.
4. You are prosecuted, you could go to prison. If you are lucky, it might just be a fine.
5. The company is finished.
6. You suffer from such crippling depression and anxiety that you can’t work and then your bright future and that of your family is also gone.

Regarding point 6, I have completed several investigations for company owners following an accident because they just have to know if it was actually their fault. Sometimes this was months or years later. They may or may not have been prosecuted or have had to pay compensation following a civil claim via a no-win, no-fee lawyer. The investigation was simply so they could sleep at night and hopefully get out of the depression and anxiety cycle.

Forestry Journal:

I wish I could bottle some of that dreadful feeling in the belly that people have following an accident and give the industry a good whiff of it. There would be a million approved contractors rather than about 300.



Depending upon the size of your organisation, the initial assessment will be undertaken by one or two assessors over one or two days. A contractor employing up to five people, for example, will have one assessor for one day. The AA has a scheme handbook which explains all of the various permutations and costs very clearly, so readers should either download one from the website or give them a call and they will send out a glossy copy.

The initial assessment starts with the scheme managers sending you a questionnaire which will guide the organisation in putting together a portfolio of documentation which when submitted by email is assessed remotely at AA HQ.

Once this has been assessed and you have had your feedback discussion with the scheme manager you will agree a date when the assessor(s) will visit your office, yard, worksites and see examples of previous pruning and planting work.

The assessment will result in one of three outcomes:

• Full approval
• Pending approval
• Non-approval

Full approval does occasionally happen, but it is quite rare because the assessor will aim to add value to the organisation by spotting gaps that could result in a liability or that might impact upon the ability to win a contract. If a gap is identified, the assessor will work with the organisation to design a solution.

It is important to understand that the assessment is a member benefit of the approved contractor scheme with the aim of helping a contractor to gear up to win work and to ensure their exposure to risk is kept to a minimum.

Pending approval is the most common outcome for the initial full assessment and this conclusion would be accompanied by a ‘to-do’ list ranging from the need to send evidence of dealing with the observations by email, to a re-visit to check areas where sending documentation would not be adequate.

Generally, observation of dangerous techniques during the live worksite visit or poor pruning would be the main reasons for a re-visit. I have undertaken several re-visits and whilst at first the contractor was a bit disappointed with the outcome, the time spent together on the re-visit has given more opportunities to improve things and we have parted positively as friends.

While we aim for full approval, my realistic aim with our customers working towards ArbAC is to achieve an initial pending outcome with a short to-do list that can be cleared up in a few minutes by sending off the required evidence. 

Once the initial full assessment is completed successfully, you will receive your scheme certificate which lasts for one year.


Year 2 does not involve an assessor visiting the contractor. As with year 1, the scheme managers send a questionnaire which will guide the organisation in putting together a portfolio of documentation which when submitted by email is assessed remotely at AA HQ.

This desktop assessment is also a great chance to highlight opportunities for improvement and to ensure that the contractor’s policies, procedures, risk assessments etc are in line with current expectations.

When the review is completed the contractor will receive a scheme certificate for the next 12 months.


Same as year 1.

The contractor is assessed again in line with the assessment requirements for whatever size of organisation that they now are.


Remote desktop assessment of a portfolio of documents as with year 2.

The cycle of full assessment with a visit, portfolio and full re-assessment with a visit continues for as long as the contractor sticks with the scheme.

Interestingly, over the last couple of years many more companies have come onto the scheme and very few have dropped off. I receive feedback from our clients that the whole thing has a good feel about it and gone are the days where the scheme was perceived as an ‘old boys’ club’.

I have been involved in assessments where the contractor has found themselves on the receiving end of a hefty ‘to-do’ list of points to be addressed if they want to remain an approved contractor. It is a rigorous process and it is tough but rightly so; if it was easy it wouldn’t be worth having. ‘Faint heart never won fair lady’ so they say and so again, my very strong advice in today’s highly competitive marketplace would be to stop procrastinating and join a great support network of highly experienced assessors and contractors who are only too pleased to help.

Don’t be put off or condemn the scheme based upon observation of the arboricultural detritus that got through it by foul means and who continue to undertake poor tree work. Leave them to the association – they can run but they can’t hide and they will be dealt with!

Think about it like this …

As the key person in a contracting business you are required to do a few things and I have listed them below.

• Comply with the law.
• Identify and reduce the hazards arising from your operations.
• Make sure that you and your people are competent.
• Make sure that your people are subject to robust employment terms and procedures.
• Do good tree work in line with the British Standard, the ICoP for Tree Work at Height, Technical Guides 1-5, AFAG Guides, FISA Guides and some other bits and pieces of guidance.
• Look after your customers.
• Make some money from the whole show.

How confident are you that you do these things? Wouldn’t it be good to have someone, who knows what is required, have at look at your operation and give you a heads-up on gaps – of course it would.

Regardless of whether or not you like the idea of the scheme, the bottom line is that you need to have those bullet-pointed aspects in place anyway, so why not get on board and get some help?

Forestry Journal:

Obviously, all of this is only my take on it, but anyone who knows me will confirm what I am interested in is increasing sales, winning contracts and making sure that businesses are profitable and, to me, being an approved contractor is absolutely key to the sales process.


Once you come on board here is what you will get:

• An initial rigorous check on how your organisation is doing.
• A health check every year.
• Access to a significant network of industry experts for help and guidance.
• Opportunities that are shared across the network.
• The ability to demonstrate your professional standing to potential clients.

The assessment, once you feel that you are ready, isn’t a day of interrogation and inspection with the industry police. It is a day spent with one or two extremely experienced industry leaders who will look at your performance, share ideas, teach you additional skills and possibly provide some administrative tools and templates to help you to improve or to fill gaps.

The assessment is structured into four modules:

Module 1 – Worksite Safety Inspection
Module 2 – Work Quality Inspections and Arboricultural Knowledge 
Module 3 – Customer Care and Office Procedures 
Module 4 – Health & Safety Management and Workplace Inspection

Now that I have introduced the scheme, I want to give you something so that you can make a start. Most importantly of all, of course, is the standard of your tree work and what is required is excellent and safe.

At the initial full assessment, the assessor(s) will want to see work to British Standard (BS 3998: 2010) and will spend a large part of the day looking at your examples of the following work as part of modules 1 and 2:

• Sectional felling – an actual ongoing medium/large-sized sectional felling operation involving modern rigging techniques undertaken by qualified arborists in a well-planned way.
• Tree planting – observation of planting that has been done within the last few months.
• Crown reduction – observation of reduction work that has been done within the last few months. Pruning cuts still need to be visible and before and after photographs would be great.
• Crown lifting – as per thinning. I describe the requirement to our customers as achieving a ‘deer browsed’ appearance by the careful selection and removal of minor branches. I was shown a great example by a contractor where they had lifted the trees on either side of the pathway up to a church.

Plus, any two of the following options:
• Crown thinning
• Deadwooding
• Formative pruning
• Pollarding to previous knuckles

If you start to look for good examples of your work about four months from your tentative assessment target date and take loads of before and after photographs it will really make that part of the day go smoother. I can’t believe there are still organisations that, when the assessors ask what are we going to look at, the owner shouts over their shoulder: “Hey Doris, where are the lads at today?” This part of the day has to be carefully planned or you may need to have the assessor back again to see more/better examples.

Something to be clear about is the strict requirement for British Standard specification work during the initial full assessment and the full re-assessment.

You may be very proud of the work that you have done for your local authority, but be careful. If it is not exactly to BS, you will be criticised. Our colleagues in local authority are subject to ever-worsening budgetary constraints and so often may not have the luxury of being able to request the most sympathetic works. A couple of my customers have had to undertake a light, sympathetic crown reduction to satisfy the inspection and then go back the next week to complete the specification required by their client – such is life; there are many factors influencing the running of a contracting business.

I have put together a day planning template to help companies prepare for this element of the process with more detailed requirements on it. If you want a copy just drop me an email and I shall send you one.

Paul Elcoat runs Elcoat Ltd, a consulting company specialising in the business of arboriculture. He can be contacted at or on 07800 615 900.