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Trees and People: More than one interaction

There is considerable focus, within arboriculture and beyond, on the importance of trees within our urban settings, and trying to ensure that they have sufficient space within developments to be successfully retained.  Having been involved in the planning process for the past decade and a half, I have encountered my fair share of planning applications.  Those with more informed and enlightened professionals usually stand out as the needs of trees have been carefully considered.

However, it is also important to consider the relationship between trees and those who will live and work within their surroundings, not just now but for years, potentially decades to come.  I first encountered the practicalities of this when working as a tree officer in Dudley.  An application to redevelop a site had been received, and because the mature oak tree present had been carefully incorporated in to the design (in a rear garden), the thoughtful planners didn’t consult their very busy tree officer.  I first encountered the application when it came to the planning committee, at which point it was difficult to raise constructive observations. 

It was only when the site was being redeveloped that the commercial consequences became apparent.  Few people were prepared to buy a house costing several hundred thousand pounds where the rear garden is dominated by a large oak tree.  The property was the last to sell, and had to be discounted to achieve a sale.  I was being approached by interested parties enquiring if permission to fell the tree would be considered!  Personally, I would have designed the site with the tree as a focal point of open space or a front garden.

I was reminded of this when surveying a large site in Wiltshire recently.  Worringly only invited to survey the trees at the ‘Reserved Matters’ stage, I found that generally, sufficient space had been allocated to the wooded perimeter.  However, as I looked at woodland with trees already taller than the proposed new housing, with north facing rear gardens, I couldn’t help but wonder what quality of amenity space the new residents would have.  Elsewhere within the site, Beech trees towered over the setting, reaching heights where they would dominate a property of several floors.

I am sure that the proposals for this particular site had been carefully considered by the various planning professionals typically engaged with such developments.  However, I couldn’t help feeling for whoever was going to be living within a few metres of these giants, albeit they were good specimens, well worth retaining.  A digger driver was on site clearing some debris.  Intrigued by my presence, he enquired, and commented that he wouldn’t like to live near to one of these trees. I understood his observations, and pondered how it had taken such a person, used to working on the land, not an office, to recognise the reality of living with established trees.

I don’t know how that particular site will progress.  However, I am reminded of comments that Neville Fay made when he spoke at Experts’ Question Time 3, earlier this year.  We see but a brief moment in time, and try to make management decisions based on this.  For a tree which may be more than a century old, and perhaps only half way through its life, it is so easy to make an ill-informed decision, which can deprive future generations of an asset, or leave someone with a reduced quality of life as the tree overshadowing them dominates their life.  Melodramatic, perhaps, but as we seek to encourage tree planting and the establishment of the next generation of the urban forest, is it not important to consider both sides of the relationship and ensure positive encounters wherever possible?

When the How Becomes Greater than the Why!

I was recently in a seminar by a business leader.  The theme was on how organisations function, and how to keep them focused.  There are four elements to how an organisation runs:

How (how we work?)

Why (the purpose of the organisation)

What (the nature of our work)

Culture (the way we work).

The main theme was the importance of the ‘why’ to the organisation, which ensures it remains connected to its original aims.  An organisation with a ‘how’ and no ‘why’, or a ‘how’ that is stronger than the ‘why’ will continue to function, but simply as a self-existing operation.  Take, for example, a group of business people who meet once a week to network and enjoy a meal.  Once everyone knows what the rest do, and what they have to offer, it can easily become a social occasion rather than a business networking event. 

Or a member organisation where process becomes more important than reaching out to members and ensuring quality of service.

I was reminded of this recently in my dealings with a large national organisation which links buyers and sellers across a range of specialist operations within the construction world.  It is a bit like the CAS model which ensures professional members are competent in the skills for which they are promoted by CAS, except that it also looks at finances, turnover, Health and Safety, recent commission, references etc.  Considerable effort is needed to become a member, and annual updates are required.

There is the advantage that, in order to become a member of this large organisation, one’s own operation needs to have the numerous policy statements and documentation that are a requirement of the modern corporate world, all in place.  It has enabled me to successfully bid for a series of commissions, especially working with Housing Associations.    However, if a single box remains un-ticked when it comes to the annual renewal, membership is soon suspended.

The problem is that you don’t always know what the issue for suspension is.  A request is made for the annual financial report.  The request doesn’t stipulate that this needs to be the full report which includes turnover.  It took concerted efforts to identify this (including talking to a person).  I then found that efforts to upload documents on-line didn’t work.  The documents were sent by e-mail.  The system then sent out repeated e-mail requests for the information to be uploaded.  Two weeks later, I was informed that all information had now been received and my profile could once again be accessed.  Is this not a case of process and the ‘how’ getting in the way of the ‘why’?

Woodlands – Can’t see the wood for the trees?

Two headlines that I read this week stood out for me.  Apparently, woodland cover is at a record high (although I am not too sure how far back the record goes).  Surely something to celebrate?  Meanwhile, Butterfly Conservation reports that the population of species of butterflies, even the more common ones, is at the lowest level since records began.  Is there a connection, and should we be concerned?

Firstly, why does the population of butterflies affect us?  They are particularly sensitive to changes in the local environment.  They detect changes that we are oblivious to.  They act as canaries for us (canaries were taken down mining shafts.  They detected if the air became foul.  If the canary died and fell off its perch, it was time to get out of the shaft).

Woodlands are more than just a collection of trees.  This may surprise some.  They should be a dynamic range of habitats, with open spaces and sources of water, such as ponds, being as important as the actual trees.  The trees should also be a range of ages, with a good amount of dead wood present.  Conditions below ground are as important (if not more so) than those above ground.  This is the problem with the pure statistic that there is more woodland cover than ever before.  Trees alone are not sufficient.  In fact, too many trees can be worse and more damaging than no trees at all.

The problem is that this delicate balance is often not appreciated.  Trees are good, therefore planting trees is good, is it not?  Those of us who work with trees and woodlands appreciate the dynamics.  I have, however, encountered notable resistance to the felling of trees, even where this would be beneficial for the local landscape, with opposition from by lay observers and fellow professionals.  I was once trying to negotiate some minor works within a woodland subject to a Tree Preservation Order, and the local ecology officer used protection of dormice to limit the scope of works.  (There was no evidence of dormice having been present for several years, and they are protected by other legislation).

Trees have only limited protection, whether as individuals or within larger wooded collections.  There is almost no protection without a Tree Preservation Order, and even with one, the application of best practice in the management of a site can still be frustrated.  The landowner is not obligated to manage the trees.  So many of our woodlands are suffering from poor management.  Even though many woodlands provide important wildlife habitation, which needs to be carefully managed, it seems to me that the wildlife has greater protection and appreciation than the habitat the woodlands provide.

I was recently asked to survey trees on a site being considered for development, where woodland bordered a meadow.  The site was home to some slow worms, which enjoy statutory protection.  They needed to be re-housed if the site was to be developed, and there was a tight timescale to complete this before they hibernated.  This involved clearing the top soil to a depth of about 300mm as this is how deep the slow worm nests for the winter.  It requires mechanical excavators to undertake work on a scale such as this.  This all happened before I was able to survey the trees and provide any assessment or Root Protection calculations.  The soil compaction caused by excavators, especially when close to trees, can be detrimental to them.

It was when I saw a tree within a copse, which had worked around, had been damaged by the site works that I appreciated the conflict of priorities.  Slow worms get protection, trees, without the benefit of a TPO, don’t.  Perhaps when there is greater appreciation of the wider contribution from trees, they will enjoy more of the protection that they, and the environment, need.

Trees and People: More than one interaction

There is considerable focus, within arboriculture and beyond, on the importance of trees within our urban settings, and trying to ensure that they have sufficient space within developments to be successfully retained.  Having been involved in the planning process for the past decade and a half, I have encountered my fair share of planning applications.  Those prepared by more informed and enlightened professionals usually stand out as the needs of trees have been carefully considered.

However, it is also important to consider the relationship between trees and those who will live and work within their surroundings, not just now but for years, potentially decades to come.  I first encountered the practicalities of this when working as a tree officer in Dudley.  An application to redevelop a site had been received, and because the mature oak tree present had been carefully incorporated in to the design (in a rear garden), the thoughtful planners didn’t consult their very busy tree officer.  I first encountered the application when it came to the planning committee, at which point it was difficult to raise constructive observations. 

It was only when the site was being redeveloped that the commercial consequences became apparent.  Few people were prepared to buy a house costing several hundred thousand pounds where the rear garden is dominated by a large oak tree.  The property was the last to sell, and had to be discounted to achieve a sale.  I was being approached by interested parties enquiring if permission to fell the tree would be considered!  Personally, I would have designed the site with the tree as a focal point of open space or a front garden.

I was reminded of this when surveying a large site in Wiltshire recently.  Worryingly only invited to survey the trees at the ‘Reserved Matters’ stage, I found that generally, sufficient space had been allocated to the wooded perimeter.  However, as I looked at woodland with trees already taller than the proposed new housing, with north facing rear gardens, I couldn’t help but wonder what quality of amenity space the new residents would have.  Elsewhere within the site, Beech trees towered over the setting, reaching heights where they would dominate a property of several floors.

I am sure that the proposals for this particular site had been carefully considered by the various planning professionals typically engaged with such developments.  However, I couldn’t help feeling for whoever was going to be living within a few metres of these giants, albeit they were good specimens, well worth retaining.  A digger driver was on site clearing some debris.  Intrigued by my presence, he enquired, and commented that he wouldn’t like to live near to one of these trees. I understood his observations, and pondered how it had taken such a person, used to working on the land, not an office, to recognise the reality of living with established trees.

I don’t know how that particular site will progress.  However, I am reminded of comments that Neville Fay made when he spoke at Experts’ Question Time 3, earlier this year.  We see but a brief moment in time, and try to make management decisions based on this.  For a tree which may be more than a century old, and perhaps only half way through its life, it is so easy to make an ill-informed decision, which can deprive future generations of an asset, or leave someone with a reduced quality of life as the tree overshadowing them dominates their life.  Melodramatic, perhaps, but as we seek to encourage tree planting and the establishment of the next generation of the urban forest, is it not important to consider both sides of the relationship and ensure positive encounters wherever possible?

Let’s keep to the facts!

Like many tree care professionals, I am passionate about the wider environment and ecology.  I appreciate the battles to be faced retaining the treasures that we have.  There are those who see trees as an obstacle to development and an undeveloped meadow as an unfulfilled opportunity.  I disagree.  I don’t agree that ‘progress’ is automatically a good thing, to be embraced.  Where we have treasures, their often irreplaceable qualities need to be emphasised.  If something is not a treasure, we should recognise this.

Earlier this year, I was involved with a planning application for a site with a number of substantial oak trees, all of which have been retained.  The site is Victorian, and yet a landscape officer raised objections to the proposals on the grounds that, with the oaks being ancient trees (at least 600 years old), they were being given insufficient space (BS5837:2012 does afford veteran trees more space than younger trees).  In another case, a motorway service station has been proposed for the M42 in Warwickshire.  Part of the proposed site contains ancient woodland.  This has been present for at least 500 years.  The developers helpfully have reassured that for every tree they need to fell, they will plant at least one replacement.  This suggests that they haven’t appreciated what a treasure they have.  Let’s shout this from the hill tops!

I was somewhat bemused to read a tweet last week about the fantastic Sweet Chestnuts at Croft Castle, in Herefordshire.  This site, for me, is similar to a child going in to a sweet shop.  Bliss!  There is an avenue of Sweet Chestnuts within the grounds, and for decades, the speculation was that these were from the remains of the famously wrecked Spanish Armada in 1592 – so could be over 400 years old.  More recently, there has been recognition that they are at least a century younger.  Sweet Chestnuts were widely planted as landscape features in the 17th and 18th Centuries, which fits better with the position of this avenue within the grounds of Croft Castle.

There are many situations where we don’t know the facts.  However, when it comes to the unknown, for me, it is better to be clear if we are speculating, even if a delightful story is lost in the process.  The Sweet Chestnuts of Croft Castle are a national treasure.  It is just more likely that they are part of a 17th century trend rather than being associated with the victory over the Spanish.

Westonbirt Arboretum, A Pioneering centre

On Saturday, I enjoyed a great day out at Westonbirt. I don’t get to go very often due to the distance from CAS towers. The weather was great, with that rare sight this autumn of clear blue skies ands warming sun. We perhaps expect places such as this to be a template of best practice, with perfect trees and everything in order. Given how our appreciation of best practice has changed in recent times, and the challenges of limited resources, there are some trees which would benefit from more work. I saw several specimens with crowded crowns in need of some restoring pruning. I am sure that Professor Ed Gilman would be in his element exploring the collection.

Westonbirt_Arboretum_1_(1)Admiring the fantastic colour (is it me, or are the Beech having a great autumn?), and keeping secateurs firmly in pocket, I then saw a young conifer, planted within the past 18 months, showing how to do it! Properly staked, with net surrounding and a good spread of mulch at the base, equipped for the immediate future. It just needed a spotlight and a plaque to promote. Surely this is but common sense? I just reflected on the countless field trees I have seen over the years, no doubt planted at some cost, surrounded by a substantial stock-proof fence and being overwhelmed by weeds taller than they.

I have usually visited the easterly part of the arboretum, which houses the main collection and is alive with colour at this time of year. This time, family hound in tow, and having spotted reference to some climate change trials on the west, the entourage was soon following me. This side seems to be more natural, still with pockets of colour.

The trials began last year, and so part of a Europe-wide programme exploring how different trees respond to current and expected conditions. They are rather hidden and took some determination to find. Well worth it and as I read the site information banner, my own passion for research and study was re-ignighted. After this, I may return to my student days.

Having completed the ‘circular’ walk, we visited the coffee shop. Seeing the prices. I was pleased I wasn’t paying!

There will be more on this work in the CAS magazine in the near future.

Tender documents: Why don’t the authors seek more guidance?

Although I am regularly invited to tender for work, I don’t normally respond to the larger contracts typically offered by local authorities and housing associations.  They are often for tree works contracts, or larger operations than suit me, and are not always easy to find.  I recently had to search through a national list of more than 100 to find the one relating to trees which I had been informed of!  However, it has struck me over the past few years how often information is requested, or data required to be collected, which does not relate to the project being considered.

A nurseryman shared with me several years ago the frustration of having to read through a tender document covering more than 100 pages for which only 2 pages related to the supply of trees.  At this point, the specification became technical, and outside the experience of the authors, whose requirement was so limited that it could be met by supplying dead trees! (Apparently, only the size of tree and production method were specified).

I was recently invited to tender for one contract, assessing tree condition, where information needed to be to BS3998 2010 and BS5837:2012.  I was half expecting reference to BS8545:2014 and BS4045 (for good measure).  Earlier this year, I considered a contract for a housing association, again assessing tree condition.  I used to work for a local authority where the pricing range for tree works was based, in part, on the size of the tree as measured by the girth.  There were five categories, and so size can matter.  However, I was being required to measure girth and crown spread with a 10% accuracy requirement.  I am not sure, when it comes to safety, how important it is to know that a tree has a crown spread to the north of 6.2m, rather than 6m!  Tree species also needed to be by botanical name to cultivar.  When I found out that the sites were in east London, it was one contract I was happy to pass on.

I am familiar with clients who value some guidance on what data or type of report they need.  Much of my work is tree reports to BS5837:2012.  There are occasions when a local authority requests the report to BS5837:2005!  However, I am more than happy to guide through the maze and present the client with the appropriate document. 

Sometimes, the client will recognise the limits of their knowledge.  Back in 2012, I tendered for a contract to survey trees across some 80 sites throughout the Midlands for a housing association.  I was invited to explain what information was needed to manage the trees and how I would collect this data.  I was happy to provide my Method Statement, and even happier to be awarded the contract.  I wish more organisations would take this approach.  We may even raise the standard of work being done!

ISA’S TRAQ: The Start of a Journey

This last week, for the first time, the Consulting Arborist Society ran two arborist training courses together, with the ISA’s TRAQ course being hosted by Kew Gardens whilst at Milton Keynes Council, my good friend Bob Widd was hosting CAS’s Tree Preservation Orders course.  The latter had been in the diary for some time, whilst the dates for TRAQ were chosen more recently in order to fit in with our hosts.  It has been an interesting few weeks bringing all of this together.

This is the first time that I have worked so closely with another organisation.  The course is widely respected, and the administration is comparable.  Normally, I draw up a list of delegates and focus on housekeeping arrangements and ensuring that both the trainer and Lantra (if it is a CAS-run course) are happy with matters.  I try to be flexible, and if there are places, will try to accommodate requests in the run-up to a course.

With the ISA, all details need to be received one month before the course is run.  This is more than simply the list of delegates.  Official ISA delegate forms need to be completed, and details of suitable qualifications provided.  This may sound straight forward, especially as the requirement is only for a level 2 Certified Arborist qualification, or higher.  I became a Certified Arborist back in 1999, and have maintained it since.

However, whilst Certification is recognised in the US as a key achievement, here in the UK, we tend to think of it as a useful measuring post, with the level 4 and level 6 Diplomas, Foundation Degrees and higher being more widespread.  There is also a recognition that degrees outside of the specialist field of arboriculture can still be relevant.  This is an element that the ISA has yet to appreciate.  They have a strict list of qualifying qualifications, and whilst one can appeal if one’s qualification is not on the list, this process, I am advised, can take months.  I faced the situation where one delegate with just the Certified Arborist qualification was able to take the course, whilst someone else with a First Class Honours Degree in Forestry was denied.  That person, seeking to expand their skills, has declined to pursue the matter.

We also have the situation of only one registered trainer for the whole of Europe, and only three mentors, who are required to guide trainee trainers, all of whom are based in the US.  However, the one registered trainer happens to be Ian ‘Mac’ McDermott.  Mac really knows his stuff for this course.  He first shared about it last spring (2014) when he spoke at the CASTech seminar at Capel Manor College, and I attended TRAQ when it was run in July of last year.  I was immediately impressed by his grasp of the subject and the syllabus for this course, and his ability to guide the classroom through what is quite an intensive two and a half days.  Mac was actually part of the working party which produced the course, so he is very familiar with it.

The deadline for details is very real, and I had to inform several people that they would not be able to take the course on this occasion.  The answer papers are sent out to named candidates, so there is no opportunity for substitutes.  I have shared before that I don’t consider the course to be the finished article, and I look forward to seeing candidate feedback from last week.  However, I am delighted, with the level of interest already expressed, that Kew have agreed to host the course again, and the dates 9-11th November 2015 have been confirmed.  Anyone wishing to be considered can drop me an e-mail to mark@consultingarboristsociety.com.

And make sure you have your paperwork ready!

Trees and Planning: The real reason for Britain not building?

The consensus is that we are not building enough homes in this country.  The planning system is often cited as the reason, with trees an occasional hurdle.  Those of us involved in the planning process can probably cite a range of cases where an applicant has faced what may be regarded as unreasonable challenges.  For me, in my adopted county of Herefordshire, the requirement to provide a Tree Protection Plan as a condition for an approved development and, down in Swansea, where a derelict site was being regenerated, the insistence on a Landscape Statement with the nearest trees being on neighbouring land are two applications I have commented on within the last year.

Sometimes, it is planning policy being implemented too rigidly by thorough officials that inhibits the process.  One scheme I have worked on, with a site formerly owned by a Government body and long-since deemed surplus to requirements, albeit within the sensitive Brecon Beacons, remains derelict due to the requirement that any development includes allowance for employment rather than focusing on housing, regardless of the local need, as this reflects previous use.

However, I have begun to appreciate in the past few years that there is a more challenging obstacle.  Here in Herefordshire, some 2000 plots approved for development remain untouched.  I worked on one, in a village in the north of the county, with some two dozen units, guiding through the retention and management of veteran trees and even providing a landscaping scheme.  The development, locally welcomed, has been approved, yet the site remains untouched, as does the one in the Brecon Beacons.  Meanwhile, another site within the city limits, on which I conducted a tree survey last year, and for which there seems to be local concern, this time for possibly thousands of homes, may also be approved and proceed.

I recently read an article in The Metro which, for me, explained the whole situation.  There has been a decline in the numbers of houses being built, since the financial crash of 2008.  Smaller scale building companies, which tend to focus on smaller developments, especially those which fit in with local communities and villages, were responsible for building quite a significant number of homes each year.  Since the financial crash, it has been far harder for the smaller developers to get the funding needed to develop sites.  For the larger operators, funding is not an issue.  However, they have an incentive to not build too many homes, for as long as demand exceeds supply, the price for properties, and indeed of land, is maintained.  With a responsibility to shareholders, and not the national interest for homes, they are not going to increase production unless it suits them. 

Interestingly, local authorities often prefer larger scale developments, which can offer infrastructure benefits and are more efficient to administer.

There is the challenge of insufficient skilled workers to build the new homes, but, working with several developers seeking to pursue developments, the difficulties of securing funding are holding them back, and partnerships with national companies are being seen as the only way forward.

Are Tree Preservation Orders working properly?

I owe quite a bit to TPOs. After all, it was the role of administering them for Dudley Council that gave me my first opening as a tree officer. Looking back, I had the luxury of knowing about trees and some guidance in to the process, and this role, together with planning consultations, was my sole job. I have also benefitted from updated training via the Consulting Arborist Society.

However, to work properly, the administration needs to be effective. I am sure that many arboricultural consultants will have their own accounts of poor practice. However, my recent experience is increasingly leading me to wonder if the system needs to change. It may simply be that there is a lack of tree officers in planning departments across The Provence of Wales, where I have been working recently. I am encountering so many errors or lack of clarity. Should this be a worry? I personally think that if a tree is worth protecting, it should be done properly, and a TPO which cannot be enforced because it wasn’t made properly is a waste of time and resources.

On one site where a new TPO was served, the local authority omitted to include the First Schedule in the document sent to the landowner, and relied on physical tags in the field to identify the trees. The TPO wasn’t confirmed within 6 months, yet when the planning application went to appeal, months later, the authority believed that it was still enforceable and the trees were protected. In that case, the trees were being retained.

There seems to be a trend for planning officers and administrative staff to be doing the work previously undertaken by tree officers. Whilst one doesn’t need to be an arborist to make a TPO, I am encountering officers who have never made these documents before attempting to serve them with minimal guidance. Not only do we have poor documents being made, I am also experiencing members of the public being left in limbo through the experience. One client I recently helped was informed that works proposed (to fell a tree within a Conservation Area, only suggested after taking advise) were unacceptable and a TPO would be served. The poor client has never seen a TPO, and contacted me in desperation. It was only when I spoke to the planning officer concerned that it became apparent no TPO had been served, as it was evident the tree owner wanted to keep the tree!

The opinion has been expressed elsewhere that maybe pruning should exempt from local authority administration. Having spoken to officers at several authorities recently, this is already happening, as planning officers, lacking technical knowledge of the trees concerned are depending on the proposals of applicants. Utter chaos is threatened! Another client, concerned about potential liability if trees by a busy road fell over, proposed pollarding of oaks, as it had worked for a friend (who didn’t have oaks).