Alexandra Gardens Trees Threatened Yet Again


Wednesday, February 18th, 2015. 5:18pm

How Alexandra Gardens Trees May Look After Proposed Works

The trees in Alexandra Gardens in Arbury, Cambridge are yet again under threat from Cambridge City Council chainsaws.

The council has published two documents as part of a consultation:

The tree works order proposes a reduction of 70% by volume of five substantial London plane trees on the boundary with properties on Alpha Road.

The work on the five trees may not be all that’s considered though; as the report states that the impressive London Plane trees along Carlyle Road are also “implicated” in tree root damage claims.

Pressure to take action against the trees is coming from the owners of near-by properties; three of whom are demanding the council fell a number of trees and another merely says they’d prefer removal. There are also calls for trees to be better maintained or reduced in size.

The key problem here appears to me to be that the council and its insurers have been paying out money to home owners who have claimed their properties are being damaged by the trees; and this has prompted others to come forward seeking cash. The money isn’t going into residents pockets directly; its being used to improve properties, and residents are doing quite disruptive works, underpinning can involve people moving out of their homes for months.

I suggested back in 2011 that the council should robustly defend what was then the first claim to prevent it becoming the first of many. Instead of doing this though, as noted in the linked, current, report, councillors set a budget of £570,000 for payouts.

My view is that we, the residents of Cambridge, through the city council, do have a duty to manage the trees responsibly – that’s simply being good neighbours to those who own properties in the vicinity. I think we generally do look after the trees responsibly – there are safety and aesthetic considerations as well as structural though we need to elect good councillors who take an interest and ensure officers are doing what they should.

If people’s properties in the area have poor foundations though there is a limit to what the public ought be liable for. We shouldn’t be paying for strengthening people’s homes if they’re not built well enough to survive their environment. The trees are part of the local environment and they have been there, in their current mature form, for many decades.

Little evidence is being provided publicly that current state of the trees is causing any damage and that any problems are not just due to insufficient foundations for the type of ground (as I understand it clay which changes seasonally as it goes from being wet to dry). The ground gets wet, and dries out, seasonally with or without trees, though I expect trees have an impact. There are properties of a similar age and structure well away from trees in the area which have required work to strengthen them. There are no details of the cases people are making to the council; but there’s no mention of any direct mechanical impact of tree roots on properties (of the sort you see when tree roots disrupt the city’s footpaths).

I think we have too great a compensation culture. I this is an example of where we’ve gone too far. I think people need to take personal responsibility. For example I oppose the pay-outs to people whose cars get damaged when they drive them on the roads. If my car gets damage from potholes and road humps (as it has) I take the view my car isn’t suited to the environment or I should have driven it more slowly and carefully. I wouldn’t seek compensation from the public via the councils. As another example many houses including my own suffer from vibration from traffic on a nearby road I’m not going to sue anyone over that – it’s part of living where I do.

I am surprised that the council are again apparently engaging a “P Biddle” of Wantage, Oxfordshire, to advise them when his previous report for the council was based on outdated Google maps street view images.

The council state that property owners are unlikely to co-operate to enable the installation of a root barrier; suggesting they really want their properties strengthened irrespective of the impact of the trees. If these cases ever reached court I can’t imagine that stance would put them in a strong position. The council report also makes reference to home owners refusing to share evidence of the extent of problems with the council.

Transparency

The council’s report references “Third party expert opinion” which it describes as “Dr Giles Biddle advice note on Alpha Road boundary” but this document has not been published. This doesn’t appear to reference the advice given by Biddle in 2011 as that related to the Carlyle Road area.

Another report from November 2014 by Julian Forbes Laird is referred to, this is discussed in detail, but isn’t released in full either.

Suggestions

I think we need research to be carried out on the impact of nearby trees on foundations in clay soils; and on the impact of various degrees of pollarding / pruning so decisions like those which need to be taken in cases like this can be made from an informed position. I would like to see more data openly published by the council when it obtains it to aid those doing such research.

The council could also let universities and research councils know what research it would like to see done and perhaps even sponsor an element of the work; maybe in-kind by allowing someone to work with the council’s extensive legion of tree administration officers.

As it is, as is often the case, our councillors will have to take a judgement in the absence of the information they would ideally have before them.

I would like to live in a country where the courts system was accessible, affordable, and speedy. If there is a residual dispute here once councillors have taken a judgement on how it is reasonable to manage the trees we should be able to put the city’s and the home owners’ cases to the courts without fear of that being an unduly expensive, risky and time consuming process.

My Consultation Response

I have submitted a consultation response which covers the points made here. It also stresses representations should not have to be made multiple times and suggests all representations the council has received on this subject over recent years are put to councillors taking decisions in relation to the current proposals. I have noted that as the planning committee is to consider something which is not a planning application its public speaking rules ought be relaxed accordingly – there is no need to restrict input to those who have made formal representations.

I have also suggested the council’s tree database ought be placed online and kept up to date with planned maintenance and what has actually taken place. I think this would reassure those with properties in the vicinity of public trees and empower them to chase up programmed work which has not taken place with elected representatives.

As someone who has commented previously on similar proposals I said I am disappointed the council didn’t pro-actively contact me to let me know about the latest proposals and consultation.

I also noted there are also routine planned tree works in the currently published schedule of routine tree works which wrongly state Alexandra Gardens is in West Chesterton. This kind of error in the past has led to the wrong councillors being alerted to proposals for tree works, which in turn can mean the public don’t find out about proposals as quickly as they otherwise should.

I’ve made a City Council ward map available on my website which the council might find helpful.

My View

If I was a councillor at this time I’d be calling for more information with a view to being in a better position to take a decision. I can’t envisage ever supporting felling, or 70% reductions, of the substantial London plane trees. I think we need a regular, public, regime of responsibly maintaining the trees.

See Also

I have written a number of previous articles on this subject:

A number of those articles are followed by extensive comments and updates.

What Happens Next

7 comments/updates on “Alexandra Gardens Trees Threatened Yet Again

  1. Richard Taylor Article author

    The Cambridge News has an article on the proposals.

    The article reports councillor Carina O’Reilly thinks she will “have to” order in the chainsaws:

    Carina O’Reilly, the Labour councillor in charge of the city’s public spaces, said she can see the trees from her kitchen window and having to do the works makes her “desperately sad”.

    She added: “I know many of my neighbours are absolutely heartbroken at the thought of seeing them pruned so harshly. But the potential liability from not doing this work is frighteningly large.

    “The council has a duty to all our residents to make sure that we are looking after our money properly as well as our trees – especially when we’re dealing with government budget cuts of 40 per cent. We just can’t afford to keep paying out this kind of money, no matter how much I hate having to take this sort of decision.

    “The reality is that significant sums of money would have to be taken from council services to pay for further claims if the work to these five trees doesn’t happen.”

    The article also reports Cambridge MP Julian Huppert is opposing the plans:

    Julian Huppert, Cambridge’s MP, said the proposals came “just shy of cutting them down entirely but still seriously threatening their viability” and called for the council to back down.

  2. Richard Taylor Article author

    I’ve received an update from the council:

    Please excuse the collective reply, but thank you for responding to the recent consultation on Alexandra Gardens and the proposed trees works.

    We have received 84 responses from 89 respondents, and we now have had the opportunity to consider all the points that everyone has raised with us.

    Attached is a frequently asked questions and answers sheet, which I hope you find helpful in responding to your issues and concerns raised.

    Your feedback has been invaluable in helping me write the report for the Planning Committee, who will consider my recommendations on the 4th March. I understand that the recommendations may not be, as some of you would wish, but please be reassured I have read and considered every point raised throughout the consultation.

    The Planning Committee report is available online by following this link

    http://democracy.cambridge.gov.uk/documents/s28389/Report%20to%20Planning%20Committee%20on%20Alexandra%20Gardens%20Final%202.pdf

    As a respondent to the consultation you are entitled to speak at Planning Committee. To find out more about speaking at Committee please follow this link

    https://www.cambridge.gov.uk/speaking-at-committee-meetings

    Your faithfully

    Alistair Wilson

    Streets and Open Space – Asset Manager

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      I’m not impressed with the presentation of the objectors comments in the report. What is presented is officers’ responses to questions raised by the public – whic his not the same thing.

      The full consultation responses are not published alongside the report (as they would be routinely for planning applications via the online “public access” system).

      The council say the details of “individual cases” can’t be discussed in a public meeting – I disagree with this stance given it means the case being made to have destructive work done on the trees isn’t being made public.

      The full consultant’s reports area also not available.

      It’s good that there public speaking at the planning committee is to be permitted even though this isn’t technically a planning item; although it’s to be slightly more restricted than I suggested.

      The report states there have been 84 written objections. It doesn’t state who those are from. I would like to see a breakdown – if lots of councillors and our MP is opposing the work (on the basis of representations made to them) then that ought be given more weight than submissions from individuals like me. I expect groups and bodies would have made submissions too – they should be named and their responses published.

  3. Richard Taylor Article author

    We don’t yet know if Cllr O’Reilly will make, and explain, her executive decision in public straight after the planning committee’s decision; or if they will suspend their meeting to allow her to do so.

  4. Wendy Blythe, Cambridge

    Richard, can I draw your attention to Tom Armour, Head of Urban Landscape at Arup and his excellent piece on mature trees, cities, and the myth of structural damage and subsidence http://thoughts.arup.com/post/details/180/cities-need-large-trees

    I wholeheartedly support your efforts and that of others to save these trees . I believe putting landscape design at the centre of policy making not only has the benefit of involving interested organisations joining together to provide the best possible solutions to development issues, it is very cost-effective and creates a powerful sense of neighbourhood and community.

    :

  5. Richard Taylor Article author

    I observed the planning committee’s deliberation on the 4th of March and filmed the session:

    I thought the committee failed, or refused, to do what the council had asked of it and consider the proposed works on the same basis as they would if the applicant had been someone other than the city council.

    Cllr John Hipkin was the only councillor to really explain his position prior to voting and he said he wasn’t willing to support felling which would open up Cambridge City Council to the potential of unlimited liability. That’s not a reason which would have been applied to another applicant. Cllr Blencowe suggested his reason for supporting the 70% reduction of the trees were similar but most councillors did not explain their votes.

    Astonishingly, and scandalously, Executive Councillor Carina O’Reilly was not present to hear the planning committee’s recommendation to her.

    Given the planning committee did not do as they were asked to I think Cllr O’Reilly should give no weight to their recommendation; they made a recommendation on the basis of the financial risk to the council – something they were not in a position to assess.

    The committee voted in favour of the 70% reduction in volume of the trees as officers recommended. 4 Labour councillors and Cllr Hipkin voted for the work, and three Liberal Democrats voted against.

    There was plenty of farce as a pack of further papers was tabled by city council officers at the last minute and the meeting was suspended for 5-10 minutes for councillors to read them. The late tabled papers were correspondence with a local solicitor who expressed a view the council’s liability wasn’t as big as they thought, citing a supreme court case.

    City Council officer Sarah Dyer directed the late tabled papers be given to the press. This prompted me to ask how “the press” was being defined by the council. The council’s legal officer’s advice was sought. Eventually following my query the material was offered to all present. I was able to raise this point as the meeting was suspended for councillors to read the late submitted papers.

    The late submitted papers have not been published on the meeting’s webpage as of the time of writing.

    If Cllr O’Reilly agrees with the planning committee she can decide to allow her officers to technically make a delegated decision to order in the chainsaws.

    If there is no clear public decision by a councillor or committee of councillors (ideally backed up with reasons, and with the full information presented to the councillor/committee published) then I don’t think the aims of the “tree work protocol” to ensure decisions are made transparently and democratically will have been fulfilled.

    As it is the chainsaws could be ordered in tomorrow with no further public announcements, explanations or deliberations.

    I am wondering if this lack of democratic accountability and transparency is sufficient to warrant direct action to protect the trees until we get a clear public democratic decision.

    There was a lot of talk in the public gallery of seeking an injunction to protect the trees until the council follow a reasonable process to take a decision. Ward Councillor Mike Todd-Jones said he expected an injunction if the council decided to carry out the works.

    Unfortunately the council’s adopted “tree work protocol” does appear flawed in that it allows important, contested, decisions to be technically delegated to officers albeit in cases where the Executive Councillor has made their views known and agrees. This is a crazy and convoluted state of affairs.

    It appears the council are relying on their own legal officer and a loss adjuster rather than seeking a legal opinion from a leading QC (ie from the kind of person who could end up sitting as a judge on such a case).

  6. Richard Taylor Article author

    The council have announced a decision has been made to carry out the works:

    https://www.cambridge.gov.uk/news/2015/03/06/council-to-proceed-with-tree-works-at-alexandra-gardens

    They say the decision has been made by an officer in private so there is no democratic accountability and no transparency.

    The supporting report linked to is that which was provided to the planning committee. I would have expected a different report, considering different matters, to be produced to inform the overall decision on if to carry out the works or not.

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