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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 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?