Is Tree Protection Still Working?

My early professional career in arboriculture included time as a tree officer in planning, a time I look back and consider halcyon.  I worked in planning, and made and administered TPOs.  There are trees in the Dudley borough which remain because of my intervention, something I remain proud of.  I worked hard and covered a great deal of work, and considered the service to be under resourced. 

However, the more I experience working with local authorities, the more I am wondering whether the current situation is working properly.  I was stretched, but my focus was solely trees and planning.  I made and administered TPOs.  So many trees within our urban environment lack any protection, not because they are not worthy of it, but because they have remained under the radar. 

I recently attended the Arboricultural Association’s two day course exploring the skills of a tree consultant.  We were given a scenario whereby one is invited to survey a site for potential development.  This site includes trees which some would argue merit retention.  None are protected.  Would it be ethical to tip off the local authority, and give the tree officer opportunity to make a TPO?  A range of views were expressed, and the comment was made that it was up to the local authority to make a TPO.

This may sound fine in principle.  However, whilst local authorities have the power to make TPOs, the reality, in my experience, is that they operate from a very restricted base, which, I suggest, is doing a disservice to our trees.  Consultants can cite examples of poor practice, and yes, I have been involved with cases involving basic errors, such as the wrong use of Area designations, the absence of a First Schedule and incorrect labelling of designations.  These leave me feeling resigned.  If a tree is worth protecting, the process needs to be done properly.

I encountered a particularly poor newly served TPO earlier this year on a potential development site where I had surveyed the trees.  On investigation, I found that the person who had issued the order was a planning officer who had never done this before.  The only involvement from a professional arborist was a site visit from an officer who manages the council’s highways trees and suggested which trees would be appropriate for retention.  I have only sympathy for the officials involved, and concern that trees of local importance subsequently lack protection and may be lost. 

Whilst some more enlightened developers are keen to retain the significant trees within a potential development setting, the response I encounter more frequently is ‘is it protected’?  If not, ‘then I can fell it, can’t I?’  Tree officers are often the last to know about a possible development, and unless they work for a more enlightened authority which is pro-active in managing the TPO function, it is the trees which are lost.

The limitation of protection was emphasised to me several years ago, when I was working with a client to obtain consent to manage some trees within a woodland setting.  The presence of dormice was cited as a reason to refuse permission to fell trees.  The application was appealed, and the inspector highlighted that TPO legislation exists to protect trees, not dormice, which are covered by other legislation.  The reality is that the dormice enjoy greater protection than our trees, even when the trees are of local importance.

I recently read about a 200 year old Horse Chestnut, subject to a TPO, which had been felled to facilitate the construction of a tram line.  The local authority defended the action, explaining that due process had been followed.  Hmm!

Our veteran trees lack any protection, and increasingly those which benefit from the protection of TPOs and Conservation Area designation are subject to the lottery of administrative priorities.  Those without this are dependent on the good will of more informed developers and proactive local authorities.  This, for me, is not a sign of progress.