Trees are set to be a major item of discussion at Cambridge City Council’s Full Council meeting later today (Thursday 23rd April 2009). Liberal Democrat ruled Cambridge City Council has recently felled hundreds of trees in the city. Many have been felled for spurious reasons ranging from increasing biodiversity by allowing more light into watercourses, through obtaining more consistent planting, to attempts to increase the proportion of native tree species by felling what the council considers non-native trees. A few trees have also been ordered to be felled because council officers judge them to be dangerous.
A motion, put forward by Liberal Democrat Cllrs Reid and Baker, introduces a new protocol for making decisions about trees. The protocol has not yet been published on the council’s website, though I have received a copy of a draft and am making it available here. I would have expected such a key background paper for a debate to be made formally available prior to the meeting.
Speaking at the community services scrutiny committee on the 22nd of April Cllr Smith explained the need for the new protocol by describing the current situation and previous approach taken by the council:
The council is not expected to apply to itself to fell trees. If we felt we needed to fell trees on green space then we’d just do it, officers would do it under delegated powers”
The new protocol introduces requirements to publicise the council’s tree-felling plans, and allows elected councillors, rather than officers, to make the decisions on some tree works. It is a great improvement on unaccountable officers, who cannot be voted out, making decisions to fell trees; however there are areas where it needs to be improved.
The draft protocol includes the statement:
“Objections may be submitted by post or e-mail, any electronic submission must include the full name and postal address of the objector and be supported by a paper copy. The correspondent must provide his/her name and address, and sign the letter clearly and legibly. “
This proposal not to accept email objections clearly needs to be reversed; the council can’t be allowed to require a paper signed copy of objections, that’s totally against the idea of e-government and will make the process less accessible. According to a commenter on this website the council are already applying this policy, which appears to be aimed at deterring objectors.
The draft protocol also involves the decisions to fell trees being taken to both the Planning Committee and the relevant scrutiny committee. Taking decisions to two committees is not ideal as then objectors, or supporters, wishing to make their point in person to councillors have to turn up to two meetings; the council’s tree officers also have to make presentations to two sets of councillors neither of which is efficient.
On the 22nd of April proposals to fell trees on Empty Common, and on Midsummer Common were taken to the Community Services Scrutiny Committee. The proposals had previously been taken to planning meetings where extensive presentations had been given by council officers and members of the public had spoken both for and against the fellings. Councillors at the Community Services Scrutiny Committee though were expected to make a decision without the benefit of in-depth presentations by the council’s tree officers, without the detailed reports which had been presented to the planning committee, without any proper summary of the discussions, without hearing in-person from the objectors who spoke at the planning meeting, and without having either the objections themselves, or officers’ reports on them available.
Councillors at the planning meeting, particularly Cllr Dixon, wanted to debate the new protocol. Cllr Dixon wanted to know why the planning committee wasn’t making the decision rather than just advising the Executive Councillor. The meeting’s chair Cllr Baker would not allow any discussion of the point by Cllr Dixon (and when I spoke he asked me not to comment on the process either). Similarly at the Community Services Scrutiny Committee councillors questioned why they were being asked to advise the Executive Councillor when the Planning Committee had already done so (there too the chair, this time Cllr Blair, refused to allow debate on the process).
Another problem with the tree-protocol as currently drafted is that it doesn’t address how the council will consider petitions. During the consideration of the felling of the Empty Common trees councillors appeared to me to essentially disregard petitioners. Cllr Blencowe asked at the how many objectors there had been to the felling of the trees from those living in the near-by flats, the officer replied that there had only been one, and did not mention the petition.
I would like to decisions on major tree works be made by councillors, rather than officers, even if there are no objections at an early stage. This new protocol relies on members of the public spotting proposed tree works and objecting in-order to prompt a councillor, rather than an officer, decision.
The new protocol also makes provision for better publicity online of proposals for tree works. I think a lot of the success of these proposals will depend on the quality, and ease of access, of the information placed on the city council website. It will be no-good if proposals are buried in obtuse links from within other PDF documents which is the council’s current preferred way of publishing documents.
Other points on the protocol:
- Deadlines for objections ought not be on public holidays; officers ought not be able to sneak tree-fellings though by holding consultations over Christmas or Easter.
- Will current proposed fellings at Vicar’s Brook, and Romsey recreation ground be referred to elected councillors? Is there an effort to get the trees at these sites chopped down before the new protocol comes into effect?
- I can’t see the logic in only referring decisions officers think might be going against the recommendation of the planning committee to an executive councillor.
- Are trees on the Local Nature Reserves managed by the City Council included – eg. trees at Byron’s pool?
- There is no council policy on what an acceptable level of risk for a tree is. As Cllr Howell put it when speaking at the Community Services Scrutiny Committee on the 22nd of April: “What exactly is the criteria we are applying? What constitutes a tree which is so risky we’ve got to take it down?
The motion to the full council meeting on the 23rd of April states:
a new protocol for tree works … It includes full public consultation procedures and has been trialled in relation to recommendations to fell trees at Midsummer Common.
I believe this is misleading, as according to reports by officers to both the planning committee and community services scrutiny the only reason the recent decision to fell trees at Midsummer Common was referred to the Executive Councillor was because I objected.