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Arboricultural Association response to Consultation on Protecting and Enhancing England’s Trees and Woodlands

Author:  Arboricultural Association
  21/02/2019
Last Updated:  25/02/2019

The Arboricultural Association
The Malthouse, Stroud Green
Standish, Stonehouse
Gloucestershire GL10 3DL

Date: 21 February 2019

Q1. Should a duty for local authorities to consult on the felling of street trees be introduced? Please give reasons for your response.

NO

1.1    As the leading voice on arboriculture in the UK, the Arboricultural Association (the Association) provides a home and membership for all those employed within the sector; championing the sustainable management of trees for the benefit of society.

1.2    The Association agrees that trees are a critical component of the country’s green infrastructure network, and a precious natural asset which we must protect for future generations. It is widely accepted that in urban areas, trees play a pivotal role in creating healthy and economically successful communities, helping to clean and cool the air, reduce flooding, and improve people’s physical and mental health, and wellbeing.

1.3    Our members, many of whom are tree officers working on behalf of local authorities, are acutely aware of the fact that local communities often feel passionate about the trees in their local area. They report that whilst some people appear to favour the retention of a particular tree, regardless of the compelling evidence that it should be removed, there are others who dislike the trees growing near to them, either because of an unfounded fear that they may fall, or because they cause minor nuisances by shedding leaves or seed, or because they block light etc.

1.4    There are competing agendas when it comes to the management of public infrastructure, but the Association believes that the protection and management of the UK’s publicly owned trees is safest within the remit of local authority Tree Officers, who are accountable to democratically elected Council Members, and serve as the custodians of the urban forest, protecting trees and balancing individual interests with wider public benefit. Tree felling can generate local concern, but so can refusing to fell trees following a request to do so. Although, it is acknowledged that there are challenging situations and occasions when local politics have a part to play in the decision-making process; or where it is considered appropriate for a healthy tree growing on a street, in a park or in an open space to be removed. Examples include mitigating subsidence damage, to make way for a highway improvement, or to facilitate otherwise sustainable development. Where tree officers are still employed directly and where there is a simple but robust tree policy in place, these instances are very much in the minority.

1.5    Problems with the management and retention of trees in the urban realm frequently arises when the benefits of trees as natural capital assets are given insufficient weight, when balanced against the costs of maintaining grey infrastructure. This is a problem that should be addressed on a national political level and disseminated to local government. Support for the work of tree officers should be provided, and guidance given to local authorities – confirming that every reasonable attempt must be made to retain trees where conflict arises. This would be a far more effective way to preserve trees, rather than introducing additional resource requirements to already overstretched officers and their budgets - which could be better spent on planting, establishing and managing the country’s trees.

1.6    In recent years there has been a move for local authorities to enter into partnerships with external providers of services, which may include arboricultural advice, or to contract out these client functions, often as part of a wider contract with other services such as highway maintenance or with the contract that directly undertakes the pruning or felling of trees. In our experience this is usually done to mitigate a shift in resourcing for local authorities who are facing reduced funding for services including, but not limited to tree management. Whilst these changes might work perfectly well, there are obvious instances where it hasn’t. This may be due to poorly written specifications which introduce a financial incentive to remove healthy trees, for example to prevent the risk of damage to other infrastructure in the future. In other instances, it might be simpler to remove the tree or heavily reduce it either to prevent lengthy (costly) protracted discussions with the complainant as to why the works are not necessary, or to remove a healthy and safe tree to remove future risk even if the risk is not obvious. The Association does not believe that the introduction of a consultation process as described will prevent this from happening or provide any benefits to the management of the urban forest, when technical decisions made on the management of trees are best left to those with the appropriate level of arboricultural experience and qualifications.

Q2. Do you agree with the proposed scope of the duty to consult? Please give reasons for your response.

2.1    The definition of ‘street tree’ needs to be more clearly defined. Why wouldn’t the duty extend to other urban trees? Is a wooded area within a central reservation a street tree? Or a row of trees in a verge parallel to a highway - but set back, perhaps separated by a wide footpath? There are many different scenarios. Possibly a distance from the carriageway curb edge might be more appropriate, but certainly this needs further clarification.

Q3. Do you agree with the government’s preferred approach of a closed consultation with trigger point? Please give reasons for your response.

3.1    100m x 100m isn’t 100m2, it is 10,000m2 - at the stakeholders meeting held in Birmingham it was acknowledged that there was a mistake, but the ‘100m x 100m box’ clarification doesn’t correct the error. Consulting everyone within more or less a 50m distance from the tree could mean nobody would be consulted, or that the consultation would go to hundreds of people in several blocks of flats. Furthermore, if a consultation was to be employed then perhaps a radius from the tree would be more appropriate. Using a square means that those properties on the edge of the square will be different distances from the tree from those at the corners of the square.

3.2    The removal of a tree should be a technical decision, and as described at 1.7, the decision is best left to those qualified to do so. The Association can see how the consultation period could lead to increased risk to the public. A tree which has been identified for removal on safety grounds, but which perhaps doesn’t qualify for an exemption as ‘immediately dangerous’ will be subject to consultation, slowing the process of addressing the risk. An unsafe or dying tree which ordinarily might be removed within seven days may remain in situ for a month, or possibly longer.

3.3    The Association does not agree with the Government’s preferred approach, or any of the given alternatives. A preferable solution would be to require local authorities to give notice of their intention to remove a tree, giving their reasons and an explanation as to how that decision has been reached. This could then be posted on the tree, and on the Council’s website and any social media accounts that the Council subscribes to.

Q4. In what circumstances do you think a tree should be exempt from the duty to consult? Please gives reasons for your response.

Dangerous

The Association agrees with the given definition of ‘dangerous’, for those trees that are an immediate hazard in terms of existing defects within the tree itself, and where the only proportionate remedy is removal of the tree itself. However, the Association does not agree that the dangerous exemption should apply to trees as a consequence of their effect on the operational use of a footpath. Furthermore, there is no consideration or allowance given for the use of engineered or other arboricultural solutions to alleviate the damage or the address the obstruction whilst still retaining the tree.

Responding to a pest or disease instance

The Association agrees that the removal of a tree should be exempt only where it is part of a planned management or control program, following notification by a regulatory authority in a response to a pest or disease incident.

Dead

The Association agrees with the exemption.

Damaging

The Association is of the view that in certain circumstances the removal of trees causing damage should be exempt. This should only apply, however, when critical services, such as gas, electricity or water are being affected, to such an extent that the only proportionate and timely method of affecting a repair is to remove the tree. Removal of trees in order to repair damaged footpaths or carriageways must not be exempt, and should always undergo close scrutiny and alternative management solutions explored with the priority being to retain the tree if reasonably practicable.

Young trees

Young trees which are damaged or have failed - The definition of a young tree as one which has been planted within the last 15 years appears to have little practical purpose; a more appropriate measure would be stem girth (e.g. 30cm girth), measured at 1 metre from ground level, using the same scales as accepted nursery standards.

Q5. Do you think it is appropriate that trees of special historic or cultural significance are subject to a more rigorous consultation process? Do you agree with the criteria for designating a tree of special historic or cultural significance? Are there any other categories which should be included?

The Association acknowledges that those trees with special veteran, ecological, historic or cultural significance hold a unique place in the public consciousness, and that the removal of such trees can be an emotive subject. As such, special consideration should always be given to the management of these trees. However, the management objectives of a veteran tree, or one with particular ecological significance may be very different from those trees with special historic, or cultural significance. Certainly, where the former is concerned any management is better left to those arboriculturists or ecologists qualified to do so. Where trees have particular historic, or cultural value it may well be appropriate to consult with local interest groups, such as historical clubs and societies.

The Association agrees with the criteria, but wonders whether the bullet points should simply be constructed as a sentence.

Q6. Do you think that the duty to consult will have any negative impacts on development?

YES

6.1    Tree officers and planning officers already spend time scrutinising planning applications, including public consultation responses. Therefore, repeating a consultation can only result in delays to applications being considered in a timely fashion. There is also every likelihood that the two consultations would result in opposing consensus of public opinion. Furthermore, residents wishing to oppose otherwise sustainable development would have an additional method through which to attempt to do so; by objecting to the associated street tree removal as well as the development itself.

Q7. Should consultations be done on an individual basis or in groups of trees where, for example, trees are planted in the same location?

7.1    Where the trees identified for removal form a group or grow in a line they should be treated under a single consultation. Otherwise they should form separate consultations.

Q8. Should a duty on local authorities to report on tree felling and planting be introduced? Please explain the reasons for your answer.

In part – YES

8.1    The Association is of the view that is it reasonable to expect a local authority to report on its own felling and planting, using a centralised online database. However, the reporting of trees to be removed or planted on development sites should be the responsibility of the developers themselves, using the same database. Those developers, or local authorities with the best green credentials could then be championed, and those that need to work harder would be able to benchmark themselves against others.

Q9. Which trees would it be useful to report on? Please explain the reason for your answer.

9.1    Street trees, amenity trees in parks and open spaces, and trees on development sites should be reported – subject to the Association’s answer to Q8. Woodland creation and management works including planting and felling should not be included, unless this could be undertaken by hectarage as opposed to a tree by tree basis, which would be particularly onerous.

Q10. What information do you think local authorities could gather and hold? Please explain the reasons for your answer.

10.1    Local authorities are already highly likely to hold information regarding its own felling and planting activities. However, where resources do not currently allow for such information to be held, or for strategies to be produced, the Association believes that it should be possible for Government grants to be made available.

Q11. How could local authorities present this information? Should national government play a role in collating and managing information?

11.1    Please see response to Q8.

Q12. Do you agree that Tree and Woodland Strategies help local authorities and the public to manage their trees and woodlands? Would best practice guidance be sufficient for local authorities and the public? Please give reasons for your response.

12.1    The Association believes that tree strategies play a vital role in helping local authorities manage their own tree stock in a responsible manner. Best practice guidance for the development of a tree strategy would be welcome, but a statutory requirement for local authorities to produce such a document would be a far more effective means of making it actually happen.

12.2    Planning policies that reflect the importance of trees are at least as important as tree strategies. The Association was disappointed that an opportunity was missed to include specific provision for urban trees when the NPPF was revised in 2018, and this glaring omission has clearly been acknowledged within the third paragraph (p4) within the Background section of the DEFRA consultation document.

12.3    The Association believes that by strengthening the NPPF to cover urban trees, it could also help deliver the Government’s own “ambitious 25 Year Environment Plan”.

Q13. Do you agree with the suggested content for best practice guidance for Tree and Woodland Strategies? Please give reasons for your response.

YES

The Association believes that the content is appropriate, although it is possible that not all headings will be relevant or applicable to all local authorities, and similarly there may be content that could be added because of additional local priorities. The Association also strongly believes that local authority tree officers should be included within this process along with other stakeholders. Whilst a strategy is undoubtedly important, however, it is also vital for local authorities to have management policies in place for dealing with day to day tree management.

Q14. Do you support these measures?

YES

The Association agrees that the Forestry Act is in need of revision and welcomes the strengthening of the Forestry Commission’s regulatory powers.

Q15. Do you think any other measures are necessary to combat illegal tree felling?

NO

However, the Association is aware that the Forestry Commission has not been immune from austerity measures. This has resulted in single local conservancy officers covering large areas, with the knock-on effect that they are not always able to respond in a timely fashion to unauthorised tree felling activities. A review of the resources available would therefore be prudent, particularly if the measures proposed are likely to place an extra burden on resources.

RESPONSE ENDS