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Peer Reviews

Peer reviews are applied to many professional documents these days, from scientific papers and academic courses to technical reports.  To successfully complete a peer review is generally recognised as an indication of quality.  I have successfully completed peer reviews for both my BS5837:2012 report template and the template that I use for expert reports.  Both were thorough processes, the latter being co-ordinated by Cardiff University.  For both, I appreciated that my work was being assessed by reviewers who are expert in their own fields.

However, one thing that I am appreciating is that there can be such an emphasis on the ‘review’ element that the quality of the ‘peer’ element may be overlooked.  The effectiveness of the process actually depends on how qualified the peers are for their role.  Those reviewing an expert report can comment on structure but unless they specialise in the field of expertise of the author, it is difficult to pass judgement on the content.

When it comes to reviewing a BS5837:2012 tree report, whilst I have successfully completed this process and have enough experience to recognise when a report template is not ready for reviewing, I leave the work of reviewing to more experienced peers.

In my role as editor of the Consulting Arborist Society’s on-line magazine, I am used to the need to edit submitted material, sometimes merely for grammar, but also on occasions restructuring a paragraph so that it flows better.  However, it is more of a concern when considering a technical paper which, one would expect, has been subject to peer review by others.  The matter came in to focus for me last year when I read a paper in a technical journal published for the arboricultural and urban forestry sector.  As I read the summary, it seemed to have some flaws (this was before I had even begun to read the papers of detailed text which followed).  I invited several professional friends whose specialist areas are outside the subject field, to comment.  There was consensus.  This left me wondering about the calibre of peer review being applied to technical work when published material can contain obvious flaws.

I wonder whether a shortage of suitably qualified peer reviewers is a cause for the situation, or if it is a matter of those commenting not wishing to be too critical.  What I do know is that the process for peer reviewing BS5837:2012 tree reports is undertaken by reviewers recognised as leaders in the profession, and it is endorsed by Lantra.  That, for me, is a strong endorsement.

What Value the Landscape?

Regular readers may be familiar with my interest in the value of amenity trees.  Whilst we can apply a financial value to a tree, in truth, some are priceless.  I feel the same applies to some of our landscapes, including woodlands.  The challenge is highlighting this value, especially in the face of pressure to develop from those who, in my mind, don’t ‘get it’.

Only last week, the Communities Secretary approved the extension of a quarry on to land presently covered by Ancient Woodland, citing that the economic benefits outweighed the environmental benefits.  I don’t know the details of this case, but faced with a priceless feature of ecological importance, I can only ponder the thought process.  I suspect that those involved may not appreciate what they are dealing with.

Elsewhere, a motorway services is proposed on land near Shenley in Arden, Warwickshire, some of which is home to Ancient woodland.  Part of the statement supporting the proposal is the reassurance that extensive tree planting will be undertaken with more trees being planted than removed.  Do those behind this scheme understand what they have?  It is suggested that a single 500 year old oak is more valuable as an ecological feature than one hundred 400 year old oaks.  It isn’t a numbers game, but one where quality is so much more important and valuable that quantity.

There are times when I walk sites surveying trees in connection with proposed developments and recognise the merits of the proposal.  On other occasions, I feel concern about the impact of developing land, especially when walking rich meadows.  I fear that too often, those involved in taking developments forward only see the added value of bricks and mortar, and not what may be lost. 

There are pressures to build new homes, but if we build on all of the available space, how desirable will the new environments be?  And once open space has been built on, it is lost.  I also anticipate that landowners, who may only seek to obtain consent to develop and then wish to sell the land to developers, are unrealistic about what is achievable.  With more guidance, they can avoid costly delays and have a more realistic appreciation of what land can accommodate.

Meanwhile, the work of highlighting the importance of our veteran trees and woodland continues, thanks in part to the undimming efforts of the Woodland Trust, among others.

Trees: Valuing the Asset

A valuation of Britain’s woodlands has been announced this week.  One can only hope that it affords them greater appreciation and protection.  I have found the science, or perhaps art, of valuing amenity trees to be fascinating.  I was raised, professionally speaking, on Rodney Helliwell’s method of allocating points in order to calculate a possible visual amenity value.

Then in 2007, I was introduced to the CTLA range of valuation methods.  This took what I understood and added another dimension.    I began to appreciate how we can tend to under value amenity trees, and how easy it can be to overlook some of the associated costs such as removal of damaged materials and actually managing a tree to independence within the landscape.

I recall my first valuation commission, which involved a damaged Yew tree.  The contractors apparently offered the owners the choice of any trees at the local nursery to compensate.  This was interesting when one considers that the largest Yew tree available (from a specialist nursery) costs nearly £10,000!

Dr. Jon Heuch developed training in the principles of valuing amenity trees for the Consulting Arborist Society in 2013.  He is both engaging and highly knowledgeable on the subject, and able to critique the main systems.  One comment that he made stands out as I reflect on the course.  Some, when seeking reparation for losses, seek to extract as much as they can.  This is not a defendable position from a legal perspective, and one should pursue a reasonable and proportionate settlement.

I am delighted that not only is the course to undergo Lantra’s quality control ‘endorsement’ process, but the Arboricultural Association is to share the platform in promoting the two day course when it next runs, at Wyre Forest District Council on 30th June and 1st July.

I believe that this subject has been sidelined for too long and look forward to the course becoming a tool for informing more arborists.

Trees and Planning: Keeping the box ticking relevant.

Providing tree reports in connection with planning applications is a key part of the workload for many tree consultants, so I suppose we shouldn’t complain about some of the seemingly spurious requests.  However, I do wonder at times who is setting the parameters, and whether the planners would be thus minded if they were the applicants rather than the decision-makers.

Knowing the trees present and the impact of the proposed development is a valuable element of the process.  However, I have been instructed to prepare reports for sites where the only tree cover evident is a self-set scrub tree such as Goat Willow or Sycamore in an obscure corner.  I do wonder how valuable my information is.

I also wonder sometimes how much impact my contribution can have, when I am instructed later in the planning process.  I have written previously about one site in Herefordshire where having granted detailed planning permission, the local authority included the requirement that a Tree Protection Plan be provided as a condition of commencement.  It happened that in that case, the design was sympathetic to the surroundings and no trees were affected.  But what is one to do when this is not the case?  I have been asked to provide such a plan for a site post-demolition, by which time any damage from compaction has already happened.

However, the feeling that some applicants must have of a seemingly endless request for information was evident to me with one recent commission.  The site is in a particularly sensitive location within a National Park, and the applicant has already spent many thousands of pounds on professional reports before an application can even be registered, with no guarantee of success.  Having surveyed the trees present in one corner of the site, I asked whether a landscape scheme had been commissioned?  No, the applicant replied.  That is one thing which the planners haven’t asked for yet.  Why? Do I need it?  No, was my reply, but it depends on the landscape you wish to have on this site.  If you are happy with no trees or greenery, and looking at a wall, then this is something you can choose not to commission.  The concept of personal choice had been lost within the planning process encountered to that stage.  I am happy to conclude that a scheme was commissioned, and a more attractive setting will result.

Meanwhile, I am off to my next development site, one which has a good number of trees on it, from the topographical survey.  It also seems that most are planned for retention.  Should make for an enjoyable afternoon out of the office!

The Mindset of the Consultant

What does it take to be a tree consultant?  In one sense, it depends on the role and the interaction that the individual has with the public.  I am recognising that there are many arborists in roles where they are proving a consultancy and advisory role perhaps unware of this.  Inspecting trees and providing recommendations for action, or none, is the fundamental basis of consultancy.  We can then develop our technical knowledge and understanding through training and academia to enhance our skills.

However, I am beginning to appreciate another skill which is integral to being an effective and engaging consultant.  It is a skill which cannot necessarily be obtained in the classroom, but can unlock much.  This is the skill of mind set.  If I wish to develop my skills and understanding, I will inevitably encounter new situations and scenarios where the solution takes me out of my comfort zone to explore fresh territory.  Knowing how and when to apply technical knowledge and having the confidence to do this is key.

Dave Dowson, an arborist who has guided many in developing technical skills over the past two decades, challenges students to regard themselves as ‘the expert’, whether working as a freelance consultant, in local authority or formally commissioned as an expert witness.  He encourages his students to attend examinations in formal work attire and to regard questions posed in an assessment as though they were from a client and not part of academia.  This challenged me to have greater confidence in my ability.  When I studied with him some years ago, he would remind me that I have the technical knowledge, it is how I apply it which is key.

I am one of the generation which was encouraged to pursue higher education back in the 1990s.  I duly signed up for a new degree validated by Coventry University.  I was trained in academia and the skills of passing examinations through the absorption of knowledge.  Its’ practical application was another matter.  It is all well and good to pursue such qualifications but one can leave the conveyor belt with first class qualifications yet have limited appreciation of their application.  It is the development of practical skills and the ability to solve challenges which one may face which I am recognising equip the consultant.  It is how one reacts to the unexpected that can define one’s skills.

In the absence of qualifications, it can be difficult for an arborist to demonstrate their technical knowledge.  However, there is also the confidence to present oneself as the authority.  I recognise this when I spend time with arborists who have the technical knowledge yet look to me for the consultant’s perspective not appreciating that they have the tools at their disposal.  It is difficult to teach this skill.  However, technical knowledge in and of itself is not sufficient.  Some of those with the greatest technical knowledge are ill-equipped to pursue consultancy work beyond providing advise in response to questions.

There are those who are more comfortable working under the supervision and support of a senior colleague, even when they have the same, or greater, credentials.  The ability to make considered recommendations and stand by them (unless the situation changes) and to be willing to explore new territory seem to me to be fundamental skills for a consultant.  Also to be able to convey sometimes complex matters in an easier to understand manner, and to guide the client through the journey, and to be both comfortable in this role and recognised as such by one’s colleagues.  Picture the scene: an officer receives a phone call from someone wanting to know why their tree is not being ‘topped’.  The conversation included reference to bifurcation, the degradation of timber strength through fungal activity and the four CODIT walls.  The person at the other end of the phone only called to ask why their tree wasn’t being pruned!

Feedback from clients is one of the truest ways to guide one on the quality of service, especially when the client concerned does not give compliments lightly.  If they are not happy, changes may be needed.  However, an endorsement from a client not given to compliments suggests we are doing a good job.

I was engaged as an expert witness in a case several years ago.  My time in the witness box was one I’ll never forget and I felt stretched as I responded to a broad range of questions.  How did I do? I wondered, reflecting later.  It was only after the case had concluded and I received feedback that I appreciated the success with which I had negotiated the minefield of challenges I had faced.

To be an effective consultant operating at the more senior level of say the AA Registered Consultant, one needs to not only have knowledge but to be able to apply it with confidence and to enjoy such a scenario.  This is not for everyone, but I, for one, enjoy guiding my clients on the journey and looking back with satisfaction of a job well done.

Have I ‘arrived’?  I see plenty of road ahead.  I continue to relish the technical challenges that I face, and I welcome the opportunity to sit at the feet of those who have walked this path before.  To this end, I shall be attending the two day ‘Management’ course that the Arboricultural Association runs each year for those seeking to develop the skills of consultancy.  It sounds a very full two days, and apparently, we are unlikely to see a single tree for the duration.  I look forward to reviewing it and assessing how I have developed.

The value of Professional Membership

I have considered professional membership to be an important element of my career progression.  I joined the Arboricultural Association as a student in the 1990s, with membership of the ISA (UKI Chapter) following.  Professional representation within arboriculture is too fragmented.  At times, it must seem like the professional arborist is a nesting bird in the spring, faced with a nest of hungry young, each presenting their request for the food parcel about to be allocated.

I have been a member of the AA for nearly two decades now, maintaining this through recessions and better times.  I am also a member of several other professional associations, and prioritise this within my budget.

Since taking over the running of the Consulting Arborist Society in 2009, I have gained first hand experience of the work which needs to be done to develop membership, ensuring that those who join gain sufficient benefits to maintain their association when it comes to renewal.

I have noticed something stirring in recent months.  The AA, transformed under the leadership of Karen Martin, now has a record number of members, exceeding 2400 at the last count.  The Institute of Chartered Foresters also have a record number of members, and applications for Chartership are at their highest level.

Here at the Consulting Arborist Society, membership is at record levels and new member applications have been received at an unprecedented rate this year.  Our updated Mortgage course run in February was fully booked and a real momentum is building.  I am seeing greater co-operation than ever before between associations and a desire among increasing numbers of arborists to develop their skills.  The value of being part of a professional body seems to be more important, and the bodies are more active in representing their members.  This situation makes me increasingly confident about the future.

Space to think

I have been very fortunate for most of my professional career to be able to attend numerous seminars, workshops and conferences which have enabled me to explore and keep updated with best practice.  This has been alongside vocational training to degree level.  As one who had only limited mentoring, and has needed to do much of my learning under my own steam, the opportunity to develop my technical knowledge has been especially important.

One thing I have been pondering is the difference between CPD and developing competency skills, and measuring learning.  I have valued the structure on which the Consulting Arborist Society is based, whereby the individual demonstrates their competency within a specific skills area.  It is something that came home to me several years ago when I attended a conference at which a group of excellent speakers had been assembled.  I remember one of them sharing of research which was exploring plant physiology based on a re-think of some work by one of the founding fathers of modern arboriculture.

The speaker assumed that everyone in the audience was offait with the subject, and launched on a whistle-stop tour of their work.  I wasn’t familiar with the original research, and it was hard work following the highly technical journey of the speaker.  The next speaker tried to fit a morning of material in to their slot, flicking through a wealth of slides like a food taster sampling a mouthful from each of a rich array of dishes.  There have been times when I have come away from a day overloaded with information and wondering whether it would have been better to have fewer speakers and allow them space.

Most of the seminars I have organised for CAS have focused on a single subject, usually with just one speaker.  Indeed, Barcham Trees have followed this approach with a number of their seminars.  This approach allows time to discuss issues both with the speaker and fellow delegates.  I find this provides time for thinking, and to explore and question.  I value the opportunity, either within the classroom or in a one-on-one to ask, ‘why’, or ‘how’?  To be able to discuss an issue further with the speaker, and perhaps clarify a point or two.

Two years ago, when my friend Russell Ball persuaded Dr. David Lonsdale and Jeremy Barrell to share the platform at Kew Gardens on the theme of Tree Risk Management, a key principle was that both speakers would have time to explore their particular brief, and that there would also be opportunity to expand on the themes with questions and discussion.  I found it made for a particularly engaging and informative day.

Now I am organising the third Experts’ Question Time, at Myerscough College in June, the programme, which has been updated, still retains space to contemplate and cojutate.  Meanwhile, I am working with assessors in the development of several competency courses where the assessment of competency needs to be established.  This started with the Tree Preservation Orders course that Richard Nicholson ran last year, with the Mortgage course and Amenity Tree course to be done.  Now that is a different challenge.

TPOs: Getting the Basic Principles Right.

Tree Preservation Orders have been part of my professional life since the early days as a tree officer in the planning department at Dudley Council.  I did benefit in those days from being guided by an experienced colleague through the core requirements of the documentation.  I am increasingly encountering situations that indicate a worrying limit to this knowledge, both among administering officials and consultants.

So often, when making a new TPO, the reason cited is that it is ‘in the interests of the amenity of the local area’.  In plain English, this is the equivalent of the statement, ‘because you’re worth it’.  My own wry observation to this statement is, ‘I jolly well hope so’.  I would find it bizarre for trees to gain the protection afforded by a TPO and not be worth it.  However, this statement alone is not sufficient to support the making of a new TPO, as Richard Nicholson, who leads on this subject for the Consulting Arborist Society, explains on the course.  The next TPO course, endorsed by Lantra, is being hosted by York City Council on 13th April.

In recent times, I have been invited to comment on TPOs where the plan is too vague to identify the location of individual trees, and sometimes, even the site.  A helpful officer may send the original documentation to me, but the problem is that I am not the landowner!  The plan needs to be sufficiently detailed and of adequate quality to be used on its’ own.

Confirmation is equally important.  I have had to deliver the reality to some planners who thought that having made a TPO in the first place was ensuring the protection of trees on a development site, oblivious to the need for confirmation.

There are different views regarding the level of detail regarding TPOs which should be contained within a BS5837:2012 tree report.  There are those who consider a report incomplete if it omits the name and contact number of the tree officer in planning.  This can be a challenge when the planning department does not have a resident tree officer.  Others make only passing reference to whether a TPO affects the site covered, or not.  In the absence of details regarding how a TPO affects trees present, what are the consequences, I wonder, if one as the arboricultural consultant, makes recommendations including to prune or fell trees covered by a TPO, as part of the process of implementing planning permission, yet omits to mention the need to get permission for this work?

I feel for those who are getting the basic details wrong through lack of knowledge and training.  I just hope that by running the TPO course again, this time aiming to reach out to officers and others in the North East, more people will be informed regarding due process, and we can raise the standard of work a bit more.

Spare a thought for our tree officers

It is very easy to criticise.  When standards fall, how often do we seek someone to blame.  How often do we blame those who administer the management of trees, especially in the context of planning?  I have faced a wait of weeks as a local authority registers an on-line tree works application made via the Planning App.  It is frustrating, especially when the officer refuses to give any indication of the recommendation or outcome.

I also find it frustrating when a Tree Preservation Order is served on a site, and it contains errors, some so fundamental that they make the document potentially unenforceable.

However, I have come to appreciate how those charged with administering TPOs are increasingly stretched, and expected to cover areas outside their knowledge and experience, due to cut backs and the loss of skills colleagues.  Many tree officers are passionate about their work.  They care about the trees they manage.  Indeed, one tree officer I know spent a weekend of their own time writing the tree strategy for their own authority, appreciating the importance of the document and that this was the only way to get the document completed.

In my days as a tree officer in planning, in the Dudley Borough, I was able to focus on the role, stretched though I was.  I dealt with tree works applications as well as being a planning consultee.  I also made new TPOs.  When I started, colleagues were on hand to show me the ropes, and I have a template for a model order.

I am increasingly encountering officers who are unaware of the core principles of working with TPOs, such as the need to confirm the document within six months for it to remain valid (this is in the principality, where the 2012 Regulations have yet to arrive).  It is maybe not so surprising when an ecologist is covering their own area as well as commenting on Historic Environment and trees!

I was recently asked to comment on a TPO for another site in the principality.  The document did not follow the layout of the Model Order.  My enquiries revealed that the planning department concerned does not have a resident tree officer, but ‘borrows’ one from the Parks Department when the planning officer considers this to be pertinent (I think that my own local planning authority, here in Hereford, lacks an in-house tree office). The individual planning officer then prepares the paperwork for the legal team to enact.  The document before me was the first made by this officer, who was doing the best they could.

Not only did I have a mentor to guide me, but I went on relevant training.  I have also benefitted from a recent refresher when I attended the TPO course run by Richard Nicholson for CAS last year.  I am keen to share best practice with others, both in private practice and in local government.  The TPO course will next be run in York in April, when hopefully more people will get an insight in to how to make and administer these documents properly.  Afterall, if the trees are worth protecting, they should surely be properly protected.  For much of my time in planning, the service was seen as the Cinderella of local government.  I fear that this situation is returning.

Planting Trees – Not the full story

Yesterday, I attended a reception at the House of Lords organised by the Tree Council to mark the National Tree Week.  I was invited on behalf of the Consulting Arborist Society.  It was good to catch up with friends and associates, and enjoy the rarefied setting.

The occasion of the National Tree Week is truly an event to celebrate.  During 2014-15, some one million trees are to be planted under this umbrella.  Our host for the event was the Viscount Colwall, recently appointed as President of the Tree Council, spoke warmly of the work of the organisation, now in its’ 40th year.  He had spent last weekend planting some 100 Beech whips at his home, which was his contribution.

The issue of trees and woodlands has probably never been higher on the agenda, and tree planting initiatives abound.  We have the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, supporting the planting of some 10,000 new trees within the capital.  In addition to the familiar benefits of trees, their contribution to regeneration and urban renewal was emphasised.  The annual tree planting initiative focuses on the poorest communities and the areas with lowest tree cover.

This is to be commended.  However, I can’t help but feel, good though the headlines are, this is not the full story.  Planting one million new trees is great, but how many of them will survive.  I am too young to remember the planting scheme from 1973, ‘Plant a tree in ‘73’.  This was followed by ‘Plant some more in ‘74’.  However, the unofficial ‘watch them die in ‘75’, suggests success was not as complete as would have been desired.

Back in 2008, the Government-commission ‘Trees in Towns’ 2 was published.  Using data collected in 2005, the report highlighted that as many as 25% of highway trees fail to become established.  This is not a statistic to happy with.  What concerns me is that tree planting schemes tend to occur within a fanfare of publicity, but the camera doesn’t tend to be around to record maintenance work, or the consequences of failure.  How often do we simply fell the dead remains and turf or tarmac over the space?

I have been exploring the issues associated with establishing young trees this year.  The new BS8545:2014 ‘Young Trees: from Nursery to Independence Within the Landscape’ was published in February and last month, the course that Keith Sacre wrote for CAS, ‘Young Trees: Achieving Longevity In the Landscape’ received Lantra endorsement.  Being especially involved with the latter, I have come to appreciate some of the requirements for establishing young trees.  One thing that shocked me was the comment from Keith that some trees leaving the nursery are already dead, or in such poor health that they have little chance of surviving in their new home.

It sometimes strikes me that what is lacking (alongside some dissemination of knowledge and best practice) is some common sense.  I recently inspected some young trees on a site in Herefordshire and found Birch trees (planted this year) with the wire basket used to contain the root ball still intact around the roots.

Local authorities are responsible for planting many thousands of trees each year.  The challenges tree managers face in trying to support these trees to reach maturity can be considerable.  Vandalism and theft, in addition to drought and seasonally flooding are just some of the hurdles to be overcome.  Ensuring maintenance tasks such as weeding, watering and the vigour of the trees are co-ordinated is an additional challenge.  Watering a tree when the ground around it is so compacted that little penetrates, but not doing anything to improve the situation sadly seems to be a typical example of how the best efforts to establish the next generation can be thwarted at the end.  But for someone getting a fork and digging over the surface.

However, the tools to improve the situation are emerging.  We now have the new British Standard.  We have tools to assess vigour prior to planting trees to ensure they are equipped (checking for chlorophyll fluorescence with reference to the Plant Health Index which Keith Sacre has helped to develop).  I am presently working with PINE Technology in developing a system that will enable post-planting maintenance of young trees to be managed.  It is my hope that as the principles of the new British Standard become more integrated within planning and the landscape, our young trees will be better supported on their road to maturity.