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