My Response to Cambridge City Council Tree Policy Consultation

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015. 12:42am

Bent over small sapling on the verge of Fraser Road in Cambridge.

One of the many poor examples of public trees in Cambridge. (Fraser Road)

I have responded to Cambridge City Council’s consultation on its policies relating to trees in the city.

Tree management in Cambridge is currently in disarray. The city is littered with tree stumps, empty tree pits, sites where trees have been removed and not replaced and saplings which have failed to become established and are broken, leaning over, or otherwise in a very sorry state.

A major problem is that the arrangements under which the City Council manage the city’s highways trees have broken down leading to confusion between councillors as to which representatives and which councils are responsible for particular decisions and works. Astonishingly tens of thousands of pounds every year continues to move from the County to the City Council despite no written contract being in place.

Cambridge City Council’s ludicrously convoluted “tree protocol” is also dysfunctional as illustrated by the Alexandra Gardens trees debacle during which the planning committee refused to do what the full council asked of it, and to consider the council’s proposals as if the council was any other tree owner/applicant. The complexity of the protocol has confused many residents and councillors and resulted in it failing in its basic aim which was to ensure controversial decisions are made via a clear, transparent, and democratic process.

My Views

  • I don’t want to have to think about tree management. I want the council to replace trees that fail and to do other works on trees without me, and other residents, having to lobby them to take action.
  • When there are contentious decisions about trees to be made I want elected, democratically accountable councillors to take those decisions in public after those with an interest have had the opportunity to make informed representations on the proposals.
  • The City Council has a tree database. (See the record of the decision to create it.) This should be made public online and it ought include all the council’s proposals, and reasoning, in relation to each tree and comments from the public and interested organisations.
  • Proposals which the council are certain will never be enacted should not be consulted on. Consulting on unrealistic plans is disrespectful to residents who will spend time commenting on them. A committee or relevant executive councillor should take the decision to put proposals generated from within the council out to consultation.
  • If wood from felled trees is to be given to contractors as part payment for work that ought be made explicit. Consideration ought also be given to making wood from those trees which have to be felled available to residents for use as fuel, mulch, as a material for art and construction, etc.
  • I want the council to develop very long term plans for the management of trees on the city’s major green spaces – Jesus Green, the Commons, Parker’s Piece etc. These plans should include succession planning for the avenues, and features such as riverside planting. The plans should be looking forward essentially indefinitely, and consider cycles of planting and replacement over tens of decades and centuries. I am not suggesting the plans ought be immutable, but they ought be put in-place and made public.
  • We need a co-ordinated approach from the City and County Councils. The city managing county owned trees in the city was one way of achieving this.
  • Many trees in the city have been lost, or destructively pruned, due to concerns about liability for damage. The council should seek changes in the law to ensure that publicly owned trees in parks, and alongside highways. can be retained so long as they are reasonably managed. Reasonably and responsibly managed trees should not put the council at risk of having to pay out huge sums in compensation to property owners. The council should support efforts to change the law so that trees are not unnecessarily felled due to a perceived risk of costly court cases and courts ordering the payment of compensation. Greater transparency from the council as to the threats it receives and its responses to them could inform campaigners and MPs.
  • Tree roots can disrupt the surfaces of paths. The most appropriate, affordable, technology ought be used to minimise the need to fell trees due to such disruption. Flexible surfaces are not beyond the wit of man. New trees ought be planted in suitably designed tree pits to reduce such impacts.
  • In appropriate places the council should be open to the possibility of planting exciting trees, including trees genetically modified to incorporate desirable traits, and varieties of tree which are new to the city. I’d like to see some public redwoods and monkey puzzles.
  • I would like to see more fruit trees in appropriate places; but more care needs to be taken by councillors to ensure fruiting trees, including those producing “ornamental” fruit are not planted where the fruit will cause a danger or a nuisance.
  • I would like to see trees used in road schemes to segregate motor traffic from pedestrians and cyclists. I think trees provide a very substantial and visually clear segregation.
  • Applications to the council for permission to carry out tree works prompt the placing notices which state ~”a member of the public has applied…” even when it a public or corporate body has made the application. I think when a public or corporate body makes an application the notice ought identify them. I also don’t see any harm in a statement like “an application has been made by or on behalf of the owner / occupier” of a particular address. An area I see this a lot is along the river, where the Conservators of the River Cam make applications for works – clearly the notices would be more useful if they said they were the applicant rather than calling the Conservators a member of the public.
  • I would like to see the council tackle the problem of excessive regulation of fruit tree management and hedge trimming in conservation areas. The council should not be requiring, or accepting, applications for permission for such works. They waste the time and money of the applicant, the public and the council.
  • The city council must make good on its promises to replace trees which have been lost. There are many cases where the council has consulted on felling a tree, giving an assurance during that consultation that the tree would be replaced, but the council has then not planted a replacement. There are examples on Milton Road and Warren Road.

Fitting my Views to the Consultation Questions

I responded to the council’s consultation via their online questionnaire which began by presenting an idea for a “vision statement”:

To manage our city’s trees so as to maximise the benefits they offer us, whilst ensuring that the trees we leave for future generations, and the character they bring to our city, are at least as good as those we have inherited.

I agree with the proposed statement, but would like to add to it. Unfortunately that wasn’t one of the options given. I selected the nearest of the options presented and proposed adding references to decisions being made in a democratically accountable manner and the council conducting its tree related activities in as open and transparent a manner as possible.

The consultation asked about the council’s various roles in relation to trees and described its statutory functions relating to planning and enforcement as being the provision of a service. I stated I don’t see the council’s role in relation trees and the planning system, dealing with tree protection orders, applications for tree works in a conservation area etc, as one of providing a service. The council’s role there is one of a democratic regulator and a decision maker.

This consultation repeatedly states there is a contract with the County Council – if there is one it’s unwritten as a Freedom of Information Request asking for a copy recently failed to prompt its release.

The questions asked by the council prompted me to expand on my views on avenues of trees.

I suggested that rows of trees, and trees around squares or on roundabouts should be considered in a similar way to avenues. I want to see the features be retained somewhere in the area of the space in question into the future. Just as an avenue could be maintained via various techniques; trees on the boundary of a park could be maintained by having them on one boundary for a a few tens of decades, then when they begin to fail, replacing them on another boundary.

I suggested the approach taken needs to be specific to a particular location and seeking a city wide polity is not proportionate. I noted replacement trees on the Jesus Green plane tree avenue have rapidly become established and now successfully form an integral part of the feature.

Avenues of quicker growing trees could reasonably be replaced – say every other tree removed an replaced one year, then every other replaced in ten years later; repeating on say a thirty year cycle (which could be varied depending on the health of the trees). This approach might suit for example some varieties of ornamental cherries.

I would like to see some formal planting, of rows / avenues remain in the city’s major central green spaces. I don’t want to see the council give up on formal planting. The plane tree avenue on Jesus Green, the Victoria Avenue Horse Chestnuts, the Elms on Parker’s Piece are all iconic parts of the city of Cambridge. We should be ensuring that the city still has such awesome features in the future.

The council asked about planting larger more mature trees. I said I would like to see the council replace trees with more mature specimens in certain locations. I think too often the council puts in very weak small saplings which quickly fail and are not replaced.

Where possible I would like to see trees allowed to grow naturally. The city is full of heavily pruned and pollarded trees. I am aware this is often for safety reasons and this is reasonable in the case of trees on busy public spaces and growing over roads and paths. Those in more remote, and quieter, locations though could be left to grow more naturally and if a hazard is identified this could be marked with fencing or a signage.

The council proposed working with residents. I suggest the council carefully looks into how Friends Groups or Residents Associations are constituted and how they operate before entering into arrangements with them. Some are no more than one person entities invented to attempt to give more credibility to planning objections; others operate in an exclusive and secretive manner.

The consultation questions noted the council could “provide explanatory information when we do tree work” and “provide explanatory information when we do tree work” and “provide a tree area on our website, to allow people to exchange ideas and ask each other (and us) questions about trees”. I suggested putting the council’s tree database online could provide the core of a system to achieve those things.

What the Manifestos Said

The majority of councillors on the city council are Labour, their 2015 manifesto stated they would:

Produce a new tree strategy for public areas and policies for the successful management of the city’s tree stock

The consultation I just responded to was apparently a consequence of that manifesto promise being worked on.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto stated:

Continue to invest in the maintenance of trees, securing the future by planting more to provide for succession to those that fail;

When deciding how to vote those were the only positions on trees I was aware of and I couldn’t see a significant difference between them. Both appeared pro-tree.

See also

I have written extensively about Cambridge’s trees. See my articles tagged trees or search for mentions of “trees” on my site or via a Google web search or a Google image search.

I also often write about trees on Twitter and have published many videos on YouTube of council meetings discussing Cambridge’s trees.

16 comments/updates on “My Response to Cambridge City Council Tree Policy Consultation

  1. Jim Chisholm

    A good response. I fear that many people think trees have an infinite life, hence objections when ‘near end of life’ trees are felled, similarly when trees are diseased or become an obstruction. Planting more mature trees has drawbacks. They can be very expensive, and a sampling may ‘catch up’ in ten to twenty years, and they need TLC, especially water in early years, or they will die! Inserting a metre of vertical 100mm plastic land drainage pipe adjacent ensures that watering in any early dry spell is easier and more effective. Planting a long avenue or street of identical trees stores up trouble for the future. Dare I mention Climate Change!

  2. Hester

    “I don’t want to have to think about tree management. I want the council to replace trees that fail and to do other works on trees without me, and other residents, having to lobby them to take action. ”

    I’d say there’s one rider to this: the city has changed and grown since some tress were planted, and what was once a suitable position for a tree might now restrict other uses of public space. Trees should be replaced, but not always in the same place or the same species.

    “I would like to see trees used in road schemes to segregate motor traffic from pedestrians and cyclists. I think trees provide a very substantial and visually clear segregation.”

    Absolutely agree with this – I made a similar suggestion on the Ridgeons site consultation which closes on Friday. Provided they are planted so the roots tearing up the surface won’t be a problem in the future, this is a great way to segregate. Unfortunately I’ve seen too many new sites that have put the trees on the inside of cycles, rather than the outside! The West Cambridge site has avenues in the wrong place, as did Northstowe plans. New roads near Addenbrooke’s have done the same. However this is not directly the council’s fault: it is private developers who are failing to think of cycling in design.

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      When I said “I want the council to replace trees that fail” I didn’t mean I wanted like-for-like replacements in exactly the same spots. I want trees to be replaced at about the rate they are lost in approximately the same areas.

      Sometimes a tree failing and needing to be removed is an opportunity to redesign an area and make it work better for those who use it.

  3. Richard Taylor Article author

    A proposed new tree strategy (policy) for the council was approved by Executive Cllr Carina O’Reilly at the Community Services Scrutiny Committee on the 8th of October 2015.

    It has been published in two parts: [Part 1, Part 2]

    The arrangements for consulting on, debating, and taking decisions on proposed tree works have been substantially altered.

    Objectors to tree works are no-longer assured that an elected, accountable, councillor, or committee will take contentious decisions about the city’s trees.

    There is ambiguity in the new procedures so I am considering asking Cllr O’Reilly to clearly outline the consultation and decision making process which would apply now to tree works i/ instigated by Cambridge City Council, ii/ instigated by the county council or city deal board and iii/ prompted by claims for damages/compensation, or threats of such claims. I want to know if contentious decisions will be taken in public by one or more councillors and if there will be debate in public, after hearing from the public, at formal council meetings.

    It appears tree decisions are to be treated just like other decisions meaning more of them could be delegated to officers and more could be decided on by the Executive Councillor behind closed doors.

  4. Wendy

    Anyone know why Jesus College recently felled a fabulous horse chestnut at the Park Street end of the Jesus Green ditch ?? (Possibly to make room for vehicles related to some new road building going on within the college grounds ?) I never saw any public site notices in the area prior to the works. I emailed the city council tree team (with some photos of the destruction) to ask about it all, but have had no reply. That area now looks a real mess…

    1. Richard Taylor Article author

      Tree work by Jesus College next to the brook separating the college from Jesus Green was described in an application, from 2013, at:

      115 – Horse Chestnut (on plan number 2) – large lower limb growing over brook is badly cankered and requires a reduction of approx 50% to alleviate pressure on this weak branch. A balance reduction of other lower branches should also be carried out, if required, to maintain good form to the lower crown.

      A – Elder tree on bank of brook, between tree numbers 285 and 286 (on plan number 3) – this tree has a severe lean and should be removed before it falls over and undermines the brook bank.

      The Elder is near the back of the Jesus College cricket pavilion, slightly towards Victoria Avenue.

      The application for the Horse Chestnut is as described above, not for felling, but for a significant reduction.

      The work proposed there involved a three year plan so may be still in progress.

  5. Wendy

    Hi – thanks for that – I found out from the council only today that since then there has been this application, prior to the felling: 15/041/TTCA | 115 – Horse Chestnut – remove to ground level – fungus has worked its way up into the trees trunk and crown making the tree unsafe. 114 – Lime – re-pollard – tree has a very poor junction at previous pollard point.

    Couldn’t see much evidence myself of fungus on the huge stump that remains.. There are major works going on in the college grounds, I had wondered if the trees had been removed partly to facilitate those. The lime would appear to have been more than pollarded as well ..? I hope that there will be some sort of new planting after all the works are completed – the area looks quite a mess at the moment.

    1. Wendy

      P.S. Just seen a photo taken during the felling operation, showing sections of the horse chestnut T115 in fact looking rather grotty with fungus – so I guess it would have needed felling on safety grounds anyway..

    2. Wendy

      The photo of what appears to be fungus in sections of the Horse chestnut tree is on this page:

      Maybe I’ve misinterpreted something, but I can’t see the Lime tree (T114) in the area.

      Planning application 15/0852/FUL doesn’t look good for the trees and wildlife in that area – it is a major development that went through the system quite quickly..

  6. Richard Taylor Article author

    On the council’s webpage for the consultation on the tree policy

    It still states: “We will publish the results of the consultation on our website soon after the closing date.”

    The new tree policy has been introduced before the results of the consultation have been published.

    There does not appear to have been a report on the consultation responses setting out which, if any, suggestions were taken up and explaining why other suggestions were dismissed. The new tree policy document makes only minimal reference to the consultation.

    A key element of the new consultation process for major tree works which concerns me is:

    Ward councillors will be asked to comment first and given 10 days to respond; Public scrutiny will happen thereafter

    This concerns me as the ten days when councillors, but not the public, have access to the plans will probably be the time when debate starts, when the plans are reported in the newspapers, online and on the radio and if the details of the proposals are not available to the public at large then debate will not be well informed.

    The policy states:

    Where objections cannot be resolved by the Arboricultural Officer they will be taken to the relevant Executive Councillor for a final decision

    This is good, because it means the councillor responsible for the chainsaws will be clearly identified; they can be held to account at committees, the full council and at the ballot box.

    We no longer have any special system for decisions about trees so it will be up to councillors to use their powers which apply to all decisions to call them in for pre-scrutiny at a committee if they wish to see deliberation in public (followed customarily, but not necessarily, by a decision taken in public by the Executive Councillor).

    The same decision making process is to be used for tree management plans and new tree planting plans.

    Tree works consulted on as part of another process are exempt from the consultation process, but not as far as I can see the decision making process.

    It appears the delegation of tree powers to the City Deal Board, mentioned by the Executive Councillor at a committee meeting has not made it into the policy. At the September 2015 North Area Committee Executive Cllr Carina O’Reilly said: “The trees on Milton Road and Histon Road, those are now being dealt with through the city deal” … “Milton Road is effectively out of our hands as they are highways trees and it will be going through the city deal”.

    The current policy appears to me to suggest only that the city council will not duplicate any consultation by the city deal board, the decision

    Another area of the policy which isn’t crystal clear is if proposals for tree work arising from a claim a council owned or managed tree will be subject to the same notification, public scrutiny and decision making process as other tree works.

  7. Richard Taylor Article author

    I have submitted the following question to ask to Cllr O’Reilly at the full council meeting on Thursday the 22nd of October 2015:

    I’m Richard Taylor, a resident of Milton Road in Cambridge. I’m speaking for no-one but myself.

    A new tree policy for Cambridge was approved by the Executive Councillor for City Centre and Public Places on the 8th of October 2015. It sets out how decisions will be made on trees the city council owns or manages will be made from now on.

    Highways trees in the city are managed, albeit informally, by the city council.

    I’d like to know how notification of any proposed tree works to the highways trees on Milton Road, in connection with city deal plans to remodel Milton Road, will occur and if the relevant executive councillor from the city council will make the decisions on which, if any, trees will be felled?

    I don’t think the new policy itself clearly answers my question.

    Possible answers I have considered:

    “These are highways trees, they are the responsibility of the County Council, decisions on if to fell them will be taken by the County Council”

    “Responsibility for trees on Histon and Milton Road has been passed to the Greater Cambridge City Deal Board who will take decisions relating to them”.

    Under the new policy as published the answer I ought expect to expect but would be surprised to receive is:

    “The city council notification procedures will be applied; city council notices will be placed on the trees if the City Deal board decides to go-ahead with consultation on plans which involve tree felling. The consultation will be handled by the City Deal Board but the decision on the fate of the trees will ultimately be for the relevant executive councillor at the city council. This may change if the County Council decide to terminate, or amend, the informal arrangement under which the City Council manages highways trees in the city. ”

    Possible supplementary questions / comments:

    I note there is no published decision about changing the arrangements for notification and decision making in relation to these trees. That appears to me to be a very significant decision, why is there no published decision notice relating to it?

    I would like to suggest the councils and the city deal board publicise the notification, consultation and decision making process to be used in relation to the trees on the relevant web-pages and consultation materials. People responding to the consultation on remodelling the road should know how decisions relating to the trees are to be handled.

  8. Richard Taylor Article author

    I asked my question in person at the meeting.

    Cllr O’Reilly said that the final decision “will continue to be made by the county councillor”. That suggests the individual county councillors for the area will individually take the felling decisions for the trees in their wards. That’s Cllr Fiona Onasanya for King’s Hedges – from the Science Park end down to Downham’s lane and Cllr Jocelynne Scutt from there towards the city centre. (We have previously seen confusion reign as an individual county councillor claimed, then denied, powers over a tree in North Cambridge).

    I would be surprised if such a important decision as felling potentially many tens of trees on Milton Road was made by individual councillors in this way and expect in practice it to go to either the City Deal Board, or a committee, or the full council at Cambridgeshire County Council.

    Video and Transcript

    Mayor Robert Dryden: Mr Taylor’s next.

    Richard Taylor: Thank you Mr Mayor.

    I’d like to direct my comments to the Executive Councillor for the City Centre and Public Spaces.

    I’m Richard Taylor, I’m a resident of Milton Road in Cambridge. I’m speaking for no-one but myself.

    A new tree policy for Cambridge was approved by the Executive Councillor for City Centre and Public Places on the 8th of October 2015. That policy sets out how decisions will now be made in relation to trees which are owned and managed, owned or managed by the city council.

    The highways trees in the city are, albeit informally, managed by the city council.

    I’d like to know how decisions will be taken in relation to the potential felling of trees on Milton Road in relation to the City Deal plans to remodel Milton Road.

    I don’t think the new policy, or what I’ve heard at the North Area Committee or at the central scrutiny committee clearly answers my question of how will the decisions be taken on whether or not those trees on Milton Road are felled.

    I think that activists like me who might wish to comment on proposals to fell the trees should be able to easily find out which councillors, or which committee of councillors, will be responsible for calling in the chainsaws, or not.

    Thank you.

    Mayor Robert Dryden: A reply to that?

    Cllr Carina O’Reilly: Thank you Mr Mayor.

    They are highways trees as Mr Taylor is aware so they do belong to the County. It’s always been the case, nothing’s changed in terms of ownership of the trees and therefore ultimate decision making join them since the approval of the new tree strategy, it still remains with the county.

    We don’t decide the ultimate fate of county council owned trees, we only manage them and that excludes decisions about felling which I think is the thrust of the question isn’t it.

    The specific question in regard of the Milton Road trees, and I do understand there is an element confusion there, we are expecting that any consultation undertaken by the City Deal on road widening will include consultation on tree works but that is not a decision for us to make. That’s a decision for the county which owns the trees and the City Deal board. As far as I am aware no decision on the scope of consultation has been made or to undertake that consultation but regardless no final decision can be made by me on the fate of those trees because they are not our trees.

    I apologise for not being able to give Mr Taylor the answer that he wants on this because these are not our trees to make decisions about.

    [I was not seeking any specific answer to my question - I was merely asking who would take the decision]

    It’s not a delegation to the city deal on our behalf we own these trees and never had any powers over them except to manage them which doesn’t include decisions about felling. The services we currently supply to the county for street trees, which at the moment is just under a financial arrangement, include tree inspection, scheduling works, ordering works, and tree advice for which we get paid a fee.

    Now we will seek to clarify notification procedures with the county council for county trees and for these particular trees partly through the negotiation of the agency agreement which is referenced in policy governing the formal tree policy document but also by talking to the city deal about what they plan to do. We will do that because we think that clear notification procedures are a good idea for everybody with responsibility for trees and because we want to know our residents want to know what’s happening with trees. Not just because they live on Milton Road but because everybody is concerned about [??] trees.

    They are never going to understand that multiple agencies are responsible or a fairly complex management system for managing those trees. Now we’ve actually developed our own fairly comprehensive strategy we may be able to help and advise the county on developing their own strategy which they are not able to do at the moment because they are having an [overall|board|] review of highways which I understand will not be complete until 2016.

    But with regard to Milton Road trees I think Mr Taylor is addressing the wrong council these are not our trees, we can’t make decisions on them, final decisions on them on felling, the county does that.

    Mayor Robert Dryden: A supplementary?

    Richard Taylor: Thank you. The executive councillor has told us that the city council’s management of highways trees does not extend to felling them or not.

    When highways trees in the city are subject to potential felling the notices which go on those trees are from Cambridge City Council, members of the public are encouraged to contact Cambridge City Council to comment on the proposals for felling. So the city council is currently involved in the notification and the consultation process.

    I had to come to the council here today to get a clear answer on who will take the decision on the felling of these trees or not. That’s after going to the scrutiny committee, the North Area Committee a number of times to hear this discussed, and reading the new policy. I’d like to suggest that it’s made really clear on all the relevant webpages and when the City Deal start its consultation – who will be responsible for taking the decision in relation to the Milton Road Trees.

    Mayor Robert Dryden: Have you got a reply to that?

    Cllr Carina O’Reilly: Yeah. To be fair to Mr Taylor I can see why the confusion has arisen. If we are asked by the county council to undertake minor or major tree works and if the county asks us to undertake a notification process on their behalf then those tree works will broadly come under the notification process outlined in the tree strategy.

    The notification process, as he says, allows for the executive councillor, to make final decisions on city trees and it doesn’t state in the policy that where the trees are owned by the county the county makes those final decisions.

    So for the avoidance of any doubt whatsoever the final decision will continue to be made by the county councillor and not anybody in the City Council it will never, ever, be me making these decisions because they are not our trees. We will amend the policy to state that explicitly.

    The process is not currently as clear as anyone would like it because the county is not in a position to outline its own tree strategy. I think the confusion here stems from the lack of any strategy on behalf of the council to manage its own trees apart from to ask us to do things for it. We are hoping that it will be able to outline a broader and clear strategy on trees next year when they conclude their own review.

    See also

    Me drawing attention to a key flaw in the current system; those responding to Cambridge City Council consultations on trees are told they’re contacting the wrong council:

  9. David

    Didn’t a similar thing happen on East Road many years ago, and the City Council created TPOs to stop the County Council cutting down their own trees for road widening?

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