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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).

Assessing Competence

The Consulting Arborist Society was founded on the principle of arboricultural consultants demonstrating their competency within specific specialist areas.  This is different to merely attending a course for CPD purposes, and is a factor which drew me to CAS as I worked to develop my skills.  With the CAS model, the person delivering the training is responsible to determining how competency is to be assessed.  A number of external industry courses are recognised by CAS, with assessment of competency being determined by those who award the individual qualification.

This week, CAS has just run the Professional Amenity Tree Valuation course, which recently gained Lantra-endorsement.  This is the final of the CAS-run courses to complete the Lantra process.  For each of these courses, I have worked with the trainer to identify how we assess the skills of the delegates.  This is a challenge: how does one assess competency within the constraints of the short course, when one has limited opportunity to observe and assess?

My first experience of competency assessment with CAS didn’t actually take place, as at the end of the course, the trainer concluded the presentation with no test of our ability.  Later on, as I worked to develop an assessment of competency with Tree Preservation Orders, I had the advantage that the trainer already provided a written text to assess how much of the day’s course had been understood by the delegates.  Exploring the wider skills which one, as a consultant, would typically be expected to demonstrate, I added the ability to make an on-line application, which several delegates struggled to successfully complete.  Whilst I do not like to be the bearer of disappointing news, for me, a sign of rigour in assessment is when some delegates are unsuccessful.  Assessment for which all delegates successfully complete is, for me, of insufficient rigour.

Of course, one’s skills and competency are likely to develop with experience and the opportunity to work on more complex cases.  Should allowance be made for this when assessing the skills of the delegate on completion of a short course?  And the point is also true that we are generally judged by our most recent work.  Depending on the situation, one poor commission can undo much good work.  Being regarded as an expert in one’s field, as an expert witness is generally recognised as a pinnacle in the professional journey.  One aspect of this which got my attention was the emphasis on the role of the expert witness.  I have organised Experts’ Question Time on three occasions, with the excellent and most informed expert Dr. David Lonsdale being a speaker for all of these seminars.  He has shared on this principle, that the expert is there to inform the court, and not to be an advocate for one party or the other.  Surely experts do not need to be reminded of this?  However, as David shared during the most recent event, at Myerscough College in June, there is a problem of experts not fulfilling their duties.  I have heard experienced experts speak of trying to do their best for a client, seemingly unaware that they had crossed in to the realm of the legal specialist.  The skill of the expert is to inform the court and to remain focused during cross examination.

My work as an expert is in the earlier stage at present, yet as I reflect on David’s observations, I reflect that the comments from the QC in one case where I was required to attend court and face cross examination were a greater compliment than I perceived at the time.  I had remained calm under a period of extended cross examination.  I need to ensure that, like David, I remain focused on the role of the expert and do not fray in to the world of the advocate.


Two CAS Milestones in a week.

Last month, at the end of a busy period which saw me exhibiting at the ARB Show at Westonbirt Arboretum then hosting Experts’ Question Time: 3 and attending Barcham’s Big Barn, concluded with Wyre Forest District Council hosting the Lantra endorsed ‘Professional Amenity Tree Valuation’ course led by Dr. Jon Heuch.

This means that all existing CAS-run courses are Lantra endorsed. My thanks to the team at Lantra for guiding me through the process, which was no mean feat.  I think that this subject is perhaps the most complex of the competency courses that CAS runs.  It covers four different valuation systems and an unhealthy dose of economics, which is key to providing the context for valuing an asset.  Jon is skilled at presenting a dry topic in an engaging way, even as temperatures outside the classroom rose above 35 degrees for the hottest July day on record.

Returning to CAS Towers, the postman brought a fresh membership application for another arborist on the journey to becoming established.  There are now 150 members of the society (there were about 45 when I became Chairman back in 2009).  My original target was to reach 100 members by 2014.  This target was met a year early and some 30 people have joined this year.  Each new member strengthens the society and equips it to develop greater resources.

However, despite reaching these two milestones, I am not resting.  One resource I am looking to members for is case studies which can then be shared with the wider membership.

Championing the Champions?

I have been interested in veteran and other ancient trees for many years now.  I am always looking for articles on these special trees.  There is something about a gnarled old tree, whose life has spanned the centuries and may live for centuries ahead.  To me, respect is due.

I read about the Borrowdale Yews earlier this year in the British Wildlife Magazine.  There was a report about some updates in assessing their age and possible relationship.  I featured this in the Consulting Arborist Society magazine.

I recently found myself in the Borrowdale area, and took the opportunity to pay a visit to these historic trees.  In the year we celebrate 200 years since Waterloo and 800 years since Magna Carta, the Borrowdale Yews put this time line in to context.  They may have been growing at the time of Christ, and were likely to be more than 1000 years old when Magna Carta was signed.

Are they not champions?  The Tree Council designated these threes are one of the Great British trees in June 2002 to celebrate Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll’s Golden Jubilee.

They are situated at the end of a narrow track, over a stone bridge and on a hill side.  I had to show some determination to get this far, with no indication of the champions ahead.  There is a reference to the trees on the OS map, just like to many other local features.  I passed a rambler, and wanted to check my bearings.  The rambler, walking just a few metres form the Yews, was utterly unaware of their presence or historic connections.

Getting there, I found these special trees enclosed in a fenced compound, topped with barbed wire.  A fading information board indicated some of the history.  William Wordsworth made a special journey to see these trees, and wrote about them.  He spent half a day on the journey.  When I read that, I thought this would make for a great little family outing.  I was glad to be on my own in the end as I too spend half a day trying to find them.

The trees are surrounded by the fence, which is uninviting, with a stile providing access within.  Care is needed when leaving as the style is wobbly and has seen better days.  The trees themselves are showing the signs of their vintage, and storms have caused some damage.  I appreciate that public access to veteran trees needs to be carefully managed, as compaction can cause considerable damage to the roots.  It was ironic, to me, therefore, to see the sign from the Tree Council within the compound, and not on the outside.

I am involved with a project where we are using NFC tags and beacons to ‘talk’ to smart phones and tablets, and enable access to information.  A beacon can link up with a phone up to 100 metres away.  As I took my leave of this site, I pondered on how these champions are being ignored, and wondered whether a beacon would raise their profile.  Maybe by the time of my next visit?

Barcham’s, Take a Bow

On Wednesday 17th June, I was one of more than 500 guests invited to attend Barcham’s Big Barn conference, themed ‘A Day In The Urban Forest’.  This is the fourth time that Barcham’s have hosted an event on this scale, although previously for 400 guests.  Inspired by last year’s ICF conference, with more than 400 delegates, one of the largest gatherings of tree care professionals in the UK, the Barcham’s team pondered whether they could go one better, and put on an event for a record-breaking 500 guests.

Keith Sacre, the inspiration behind this, assembled a line-up of seven leading international speakers.  I soon realised that this was not only a gathering of tree care delegates, but also a top agenda.  One gets a sense of the calibre of the speakers, when two of the original line-up were unable to attend, and the substitutes list was Dr. Kathleen Woolf and Kenton Rodgers.  Kathleen spoke at the ICF event last year, and opened my eyes to the social value of trees, a value we arborists know deep down.  She was able to apply science to what we have known without having access to the hard facts.

Speaker followed speaker, sharing about pioneering work and reminding us of the common sense principles of how trees enhance lives.  The challenges of exotic pests and managing these challenges, then exploring drought and the different strategies of various species, then some material on I-Trees and establishing the next generation of trees.  There were few moments when my pen wasn’t busy making notes.  I could see some of the research which has influence Keith and found its’ way to BS8545.

A sensitive array of exhibitors provided a valuable back drop for networking.  Despite being only days after the AA’s ARB show, I was still able to make some valuable connections.

At the end of the day, with the clock heading for 5.30, and even the delegates feeling the pace, Keith gave gifts to each of the speakers, inviting the audience to show our appreciation.  I was thankful that, at the end, one of the speakers grabbed the microphone and invited the audience to show our deep appreciation to Keith, without whom none of this would have happened.  The standing ovation and extended applause represented the heart felt gratitude so many of us feel for his efforts.

Thank you for Barcham’s for organising this event and backing Keith.

Thank you Keith for assembling such an excellent line-up.

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.

Don’t judge a book…

I have been pondering presentation in recent weeks, and perception.  Perception can be so very different from reality.  When this is the case, who is responsible, and what do we do about it?  I was going to title this thought ‘perception: what do we do when it is wrong?’  However, I wondered how many people would skip the text anticipating a dull article.

Horticulture is perceived to be a low skill profession for those who are not especially academic.  As for arboriculture, most people assume when I say that I work with trees, that I am a tree surgeon.  The idea that someone may write about trees hasn’t entered their thoughts.  In terms of a career in the land-based sector, careers advice can be enhanced and the work of R2 in providing a career structure is to be applauded.  Presentation is important as well as understanding our target audience.  I heard an account recently of a mobile phone company which produced a phone aimed at the senior citizen.  Large buttons were a key feature and the marketing emphasised how the phone provided a life line in the event of an accident such as a fall.  Sales were poor.  However, when the phone was re-launched with the emphasis on social media and keeping in touch with friends, it became popular.  The audience likes to engage socially but does not wish to reminded of their frailty.

We can blame others for misunderstanding, or demonstrating ignorance.  However, I am appreciating that this doesn’t help the situation.  Sometimes, we need the opportunity to demonstrate reality and how this differs from perception.   Recently, I did a tree survey in the Brecon Beacons to BS5837:2012 for a client who, not appreciating what was involved, had invited a local contactor to quote.  My report was submitted, and I was asked to attend a meeting with the planning team.  The sight of me sharing some basic principles of tree selection to highly paid planning consultants, who were taking detailed notes, led to the client recognising the skills within this specialist area.

Keith Sacre has done much to highlight the importance of good nursery practice, including chairing the drafting committee for BS8545.  He has written a through, three-day course exploring the principles to be considered when establishing young trees within the landscape.  Some have queried why CAS needs to run a three day course in ‘planting trees’!  Let’s just say that all who have completed the course to date speak highly of it.  However, Keith recognised that there is also a need for practical training in the various disciplines involved in tree production, and a new course providing this will be launched in the autumn.

Sometimes, the most experienced of people can be caught out.  Back in the 1980s, Virgin Atlantic successfully pursued legal action against the corporate giant British Airways.  Looking back, Lord King, the BA Chairman admitted underestimating his opponent, a youthful Richard Branson, who attended a meeting in sweater and slacks, rather than the expected corporate suit.

There are times when we think we are doing a good job, but need a reality check.  It is not that long ago when, in the fragmented world of arboriculture, we thought we were working together by sharing a drink at the bar and having stands at each other’s trade events.  Now, I am on the Arboricultural Association’s  Consultants Working Group and work with the association’s training team to co-ordinate courses.

The reality is that perception is reality for the individual.  Sometimes, to change this, we need to change the way we do things.  How am I presenting myself, and is this what my audience is expecting?  I work with trees, and so clients are sometimes surprised when I visit a site without a chainsaw, but with my smart white shirt.  For formal meetings, I sometimes arrive with my jacket, which is soon dispensed but conveys that I am a professional; it is not part of my normal attire.  It is possible to go over the top, and I am as likely to wear walking boots as trainers, which equip me for the outdoor life.  Brogues wouldn’t be the same.

When I became Chairman of the Consulting Arborist Society, and began to organise training events, some queried the calibre of the courses.  However, by commissioning leading trainers and working under the umbrella of Lantra, the programme has gained credibility.  The courses have also benefitted from the process.

It is frustrating when perception is different to reality.  Our role is to work to change this.  In terms of horticulture and arboriculture being seen as low skill, we now have apprenticeships and the R2 scheme to help individuals in their professional development.  It does take time to change perceptions.  Dr. Gary Watson, an international authority on pruning, who spoke at the Barcham Big Barn in 2013, shared how it took a decade for standards of nursery tree production to be improved following the introduction of an agreed best practice specification in the state of California.  With BS8545:2014 having been published in the past year, hopefully UK production standards will have been improved by 2024!

Is specialist knowledge becoming like insurance cover?

In my days as a tree officer, I realised that the more senior the position I sought for career development, the less important my skills as an arborist would be.  There would be more time in the office managing situations and less time working with trees.  Indeed, there are tree managers who rarely get to leave the office as they deal with budgets, strategies, staffing and other such issues.  Preferring to spend my time with trees, the freelance approach soon took me away from this environment.

It now seems, as cuts to local authority budgets hit hard, that there is an increasingly limited role for the specialist.  The landscape officer is required to comment on arboriculture as well as designing planting schemes or trying to ensure that an approved scheme has some greenery.  I get the occasional request from a client to provide a landscaping scheme with some trees in it to meet the requirements of planning, this literally being an after thought for them and a low priority.

I have been in planning meetings with officers whose brief had been extended so far that I was better informed than they were.  Scary when we are dealing with the legal consequences of breaching a TPO which they have served!