Drainage Contractor

Features Guest Column U.K. Update
U.K. Update: Take care of your business, but mind your mental health

July 25, 2022  By Rob Burtonshaw

Inflation was an absent ghost that haunted my youth.

When my father talked about it, he did so not necessarily out of fear, but certainly with a respectful reverence. Inflation was powerful and domineering able to cause great change. I hear the tales from the 1970s: oil shocks, devaluation, double digit inflation, a hobbled British economy but my experience is very different. I was a small child in the 1980s and not really politically aware when the pound’s exit from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism caused the last wave of inflation in the U.K.

It is probably strange for people of my father’s generation to hear, but for my entire adult life inflation has been a non-factor. The Bank of England has set a target of keeping inflation under 2.5 percent and, apart from a few brief and relatively insignificant blips, it has succeeded. Prices have, of course, increased. But those increases have been slow and predictable. 

Yet as I sit here now, the newspaper headlines are full of stories of crippling prices increases, and a cost-of-living crisis. What this all means I do not quite know, but prices of fuel, pipe and aggregates are increasing with a new frequency.


For British contractors increases are twofold as we have to contend not only with pipe and fuel prices but also with aggregate prices. The vast majority of our schemes are in clay soils, which often do not crack until the height of summer, therefore a gravel or stone backfill is standard practice. To be honest, this does not make my life any easier. Stone lorries (trucks) are always getting lost or turning up late. But the biggest problem, by far, is the price of the material.

Often around 40 percent of the cost of the job is buying and placing the gravel over the drains. A double-digit increase in aggregates pushes up our costs, and therefore our prices, considerably. It is a significant problem and a worry: if our clients moan at us, it is nearly always to complain about the cost of drainage.

Ask most British farmers why they are not draining more often and price is always the answer. I have been trying to drive down my cost of production for the last few years and really listen to what my clients tell me. The prospect of being forced to increase prices just when the market seems to be growing and appreciating the value that well-drained fields offer is the last thing I need.

I also fear that my efforts to both maintain the sales figures by minimizing price increases and continuing to be efficient will be difficult to achieve. I worry that the result will be both increased turnover but low profits. It’s the problem which keeps me awake at night.  

There is always a problem to solve. That is the joy and the pain of running any business. One day the headaches might be caused by a lack of a suitable outlet or a breakdown. The next day it’s inflation or an oil crisis. Sometimes the problem can be solved by the backup plan you put in place for this eventuality and sooner or later that sense of frustration transforms into satisfaction – dare I even say, smugness?

Other times you know the solution is a sticking plaster and the problem will re-emerge soon. Sometimes the problem is so awkward that it cannot be solved quickly and it becomes a persistent thorn in your side for months. This can be difficult to manage time-wise – one week everything can go smoothly, the next every day can bring another issue.

However, the biggest issue that comes from having to solve problems so frequently is that it becomes hard to maintain a positive outlook. When you have “one of those weeks,” it is hard to not feel like the world is against you. When things go wrong, keeping going is the most important but hardest thing to do.

In British agriculture, a great deal of effort is being focused on mental health. Across the broader ag industry, we have some really appalling suicide rates and many farmers can suffer mental health issues in silence.

Our culture is very much based on self-reliance, getting the job done and being stoic in the face of hardship. Asking for help is difficult, but is part of the answer.

Many British farming charities and industry bodies are trying to encourage people to share their worries, to pick up the phone and chat to a colleague or neighbor. Perspective helps, I find. The problems have been overcome in the past and many, if not all of the issues I have talked about here have been faced before. They are the price of trying to progress and push forward. If you stay in the comfort zone, you have fewer day-to-day problems, but you will soon find yourself slipping back. Only when moving forward do unexpected problems appear. Odd as it may seem, having issues to solve is a good thing. It is also important to remember that nothing stays the same – which is bad news when times are good, but wonderful and comforting words when the problems start to stack up. DC

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