Public Meeting On Proposals to Defoliate Alexandra Gardens Trees

The currently tree-lined Carlyle Road would be changed dramatically if the foliage were to be lost.

The currently tree-lined Carlyle Road would be changed dramatically if the foliage were to be lost.

On the evening of the 28th of February 2011 I attended a public meeting held by Cambridge City Council to discuss the council’s proposals to remove all the foliage from three trees on Alexandra Gardens bordering Caryle Road. The actions are being proposed following claims 1mm cracks in 13 Holland Street have been caused by the trees.

Key Points

  • Cllr Cantrill announced he was ditching the current process underway for deciding the fate of the trees. A consultation as part of council’s tree protocol was due to close at the end of the 28th of February in advance of a planning committee meeting on the 9th of March. Cllr Cantrill said he had “paused” the process to allow the council to commission a further expert report from another arboriculturalist. He said that, if necessary, (if a resolution cannot be reached beforehand), the matter would re-start going through the decision making process under the tree protocol in a couple of months time. Council officer Liz Bisset stated this would be for the June/July committee cycle. Nothing was said about what, if anything, would happen to the responses to the consultation which had been submitted.
  • The terms of reference for the new expert will be published before the appointment is made and anyone will be able to comment on them. During the meeting Cllr Cantrill confirmed the expert will:
    • be instructed to give weight to the views of residents and the report produced by the residents’ group.
    • be asked to review all the existing evidence; it was noted he would be unlikely to be able to collect new evidence due to the owners controlling access to their property.
    • consider if the trees are responsible for the damage to 13 Holland Street, as well as, to advise on any tree works recommended.
    • assess the amenity value of the trees.
    • review reports on 17 and 38 Carlyle Road (offered by the owners of those properties) which show trees not to be causing problems experienced.
  • Cllr Cantrill made clear that even if this this new expert report concluded the trees were responsible, that didn’t mean he would decide that the best course of action involved work to the trees.
  • While obviously not as good as a decision not to do anything to the trees, the residents’ group welcomed the delay; their aim is to prevent the trees from being harmed, and this at least gives them more time.

My View

Ultimately councillors have to take a decision as to what to do. I am still baffled as to why Cllr Cantrill is prevaricating and not simply taking the decision. He has got all the information available in-front of him, he is not seeking new evidence but a simply a further opinion on the information already available to him now.

I am very concerned by the way he talks about the various tree experts as being “esteemed” or having “status”. Cllr Cantrill summarised the view of the council’s expert Dr Biddle as being that where tree roots are present they and there is movement up and down of foundations the trees are responsible and that where there is such movement in the absence of tree roots it is due to other factors. Despite the clear logical facially here Cllr Cantrill appears to be treating Dr Biddle’s opinion seriously on the grounds he is considered an expert.

Cllr Cantrill and his fellow Liberal Democrats were elected on a manifesto which promised taking evidence based decisions, I would like to see them sticking with that pledge, however Cantrill appears to be interested not in the argument or opinion being presented but on the status of the individual presenting the position.

Cllr Cantrill heard about how minor the problems were; with the property currently experiencing cracks of only 1mm, and the movement being just 1cm over the course of a year. However Cllr Cantrill said that he and the council wanted to: “respect the residents with the 1mm crack who wanted work done to their property”. Cllr Cantrill claimed the council had told some seeking claims to the council in relation to Alexandra Gardens trees to “go away”; he gave no explanation as to why he was not taking that stance in this case as would appear logical, consistent and rational. I can only imagine the council is being influenced by the vigour with which the home owner, through their representative insurance broker Steve Allen is pursuing the case.

I agree with one of Mr Allen’s suggestions, that it would be useful if Cllr Cantrill had structural engineers’ reports available to him as well as arboriculturalists’ reports. Mr Allen said he had three such reports, I think he ought be asked to provide them.

If I was in Cllr Cantrill’s position I would have dismissed this claim / request to conduct work on the trees as unfounded and disproportionate a long time ago. As I wrote in my objection to the proposed works I think the council has strong grounds to contest this claim, thereby setting a new precedent which may save many trees, not just on Alexandra Gardens, but throughout Cambridge and the Country.

Further notes largely based on my live tweets from the meeting

  • Cllrs Ward, Todd-Jones, Cantrill, Levy, Blair, Pogonowski, Moss-Eccardt, Nimmo-Smith, Brown and Walker were present along with around 80 members of the public. The council’s principal tree officer Diana Oviatt-Ham was notably absent.
  • Cllr Levy chaired the meeting. He has done very little, if anything, else since being elected years ago so the Liberal Democrats are presumably trying to raise his profile as he will be up for election in May 2011.
  • Cllr Levey started by reading a short statement from owner of 13 Holland Street. This stated that some of the rear of the property was original; and a new first floor had been built on top of a single story rear protrusion. The new foundations were under the conservatory (and perhaps under the section of the house nearest the garage?).
  • A statement from insurance broker Steve Allen was also held by the chair, Cllr Levy. Cllr Levy said he wouldn’t read all the statement out but told the meeting it said Mr Allen wanted underpinning not tree felling.
  • Cllr Cantrill announced an “important development”: that he was putting process on “pause” pending another expert review.
  • Andy Davy of the Alexandra Gardens trees group addressing the meeting. putting “case for the trees”. He presented the residents’ group’s arguments in a similar manner as he had at a meeting of the group the week before.
  • The residents reported that ~40% of those surveyed in the area, even not near trees, have experienced cracks in their house.
  • “Kew root study” was cited by Mr Davy. He said that this substantial piece of work found no plane trees affecting buildings more than 15m away from them. The Alexandra Gardens trees are 14.5-16m from house; at so are at the limit of the expected range of influence.
  • Even with new information from owners on where old and new foundations are, the point remains that there are various different foundations in the property which have the potential to result in stresses at joins.
  • Mr Davy pointed to the council’s expert: “Dr Biddle” apparently irrational viewpoint that if tree root present it’s responsible and if not it’s “individual circumstances”.
  • Mummers of: “Mutilation” could be heard members of the public on seeing photos showing what the effect of the proposals might be expected to look like.
  • In summary – insurers say : cut trees or underpin; campaigners say just fix the cosmetic damage.
  • Only winner here will be the insurance companies said the campaigners’ report.
  • Mr Davy ended his presentation saying the council is custodian of trees for us. And the council needs imagination and courage to rebut what amounts to a bullying claim.
  • Liz Bissett, for the council, spoke to explain what the council has done so far. She made the astonishing statement, that echoed what Cllr Levy had said to the campaign group the week before. : “ordinarily we’d go with our own advice.” ie. what the council have commissioned themselves. The frustration at the illogical and irrational nature of such a stance was clear among the public and opposition councillors present. To the council officers and Liberal Democrats this position appeared to make perfect sense.
  • When taking public questions Cllr Levy took them one at a time as he had been extensively lobbied to do. Previously he had taken questions in groups enabling council officers, and Cllr Cantrill to dodge those they didn’t like.
  • Cllr Todd-Jones was the first to ask a question from the floor. He went straight onto terms of reference to be given to the new expert to be appointed. I thought this was excellent. Cllr Todd-Jones asked for robust terms of reference; he gained an assurance from Cllr Cantrill that they will be available to the public for comment prior to the appointment being made.
  • Green Cllr Adam Pogonowski asked if new the expert will be independent from the insurance industry. That assurance was also given.
  • Cllr Pogonowski also asked why further data wasn’t to be gathered. Some suggestions included an inspection of the damage within the property. Cllr Cantrill replied to say the only access to data is via property’s insurer.
  • Cllr Cantrill said: “we are, and will go on being, robust defending cases brought to us with respect to trees”. Cllr Cantrill went on to claim his decision to pause the process was: “Robust”, given the advice he was being given.
  • A Member of public followed on from Cllr Pogonowski saying that we need new data, eg. on monitoring of cracks. they questioned what inference ought be drawn about the validity of a claim if claimant won’t supply data on cracks.
  • The Council were being advised, in person, in real time, by the “landscape partnership”. They appear to be a consultancy.
  • A further member of the public stated that a lack of data from house was very suspicious.
  • Cllr Levy, prompted by Lis Bisset made a statement correcting what Cllr Cantrill had said and reported that GAB Robins, the Council’s Loss adjustor, has had access to the house. Public heckles questioned the value of that given that the council’s insurer had their own interests to protect.
  • Steve Allen – the insurance broker acting for the owners of 13 Holland Street – asked council to use structural engineer as well as a tree expert to review data.
  • The Council insisted the 2004 claim is separate from what is currently being discussed. Mr Allen, the insurance broker disagrees.
  • Lis Bisset saying all data @CamCitCo holds has been published online re: the Alexandra Gardens trees.
  • Mr Norfolk, Manager of the Arundell House Hotel, questioned why he had not been informed of consultations or this meeting which he had learnt about by chance. He said this was surprising given the location of the Hotel. He also noted that he had not been informed as the owner of 17 Carlyle Road either.
  • Mr Norfolk reported he had been trying to give data to the council about his experience at 17 Carlyle Road – the closest house to a plane tree, just 3m away. He reported he had reports saying that despite 40-60mm tree roots under 17 Carlyle Road, but concluded tree wasn’t responsible. Poor foundations and the clay soil were the problem, as well as the fact a neighbour had their house underpinned so the connected properties were moving unevenly.
  • Mr Norfolk said that he had experience where removal of a tree had caused structural damage – over period of 3+ years.
  • A member of public asks for commitment from Cllrs to saving the trees, not just focus on process. Cllr Cantrill responded to say he is passionate about saving the trees; BUT his job is to assess risks.
  • Mutterings from public suggested a widespread suspicion that the delay to tree decision due to the election coming up.
  • A respondent to previous consultation spoke to say they had not been alerted to the consultation that had just closed. This prompted very many more people to join in saying the consultation had been terrible.
  • Mr Allen – the insurance broker- spoke again to say three structural engineers say underpinning only permanent solution.
  • Cllr Cantrill: if council expert agreed with residents we would be in different position.
  • Cllr even if next expert report disagrees with residents, may be other options than tree work.
  • Labour’s Cllr Walker: “We’re only talking about a 1mm crack. I’m not sure why we’re all here.”
  • Cllr Walker: “A 1mm crack, monitored for 6 years. I can’t understand why we’re thinking about cutting trees.”
  • Cllr Cantrill responding to Cllr Walker: “We have to respect the residents with the 1mm crack who want work done to their property.”
  • Members of the public expressed surprise that the council expert assessed site via Google streetview.
  • Insurance broker Mr Allen said that the matter could have been sorted out between insurance companies who were prepared to pay for underpinning a number of years ago but the City Council’s tree officer intervened at that point and suggested an alternative option involving tree management could be pursued. (Principle tree officer Diana Oviat-Ham has been absent from, or has not spoken at, a number of recent meetings relating to controversial tree works in the city).
  • John Lawton questioned why the property’s insurers had not gone ahead with the underpinning anyway, and then if they thought the council was responsible, made a claim. He suggested this approach of not doing the work unless the council admitted liability showed the insurance company to be behaving poorly.
  • Mr Allen agreed with Mr Lawton and said he had lodged a complaint against the insurer with the financial ombudsman
  • The owner of the property, Mr Goodman, spoke briefly. He spoke about the problems which caused £13,000 of works done in 2004 to be needed. He described cracks, mostly in the floor (in the concrete of the conservatory? Are the other floors not wooden?). He also said that a fire grate had cracked. He said he wanted underpinning. Mr Goodman gave no further details of the cracks currently in the property.
  • Anne Garvey said that she couldn’t see the home owner’s insurance company winning a case against the council
  • A local resident, who’s a lawyer, said that in summary this was a dispute between two insurance companies over who ought pay.
  • The owner of 38 Carlyle Road, which is opposite 13 Holland Street, offered the council the results of surveys of that property which had found problems there were not being caused by trees
  • Mr Sparks urged Cllr Cantrill to take account of the impact of the proposed works on the park, an its trees, as a whole. Pointing out that the value comes from having all the trees in that environment so to lose three canopies would be detrimental to the entire park. Cllr Cantrill agreed to do this.
  • The meeting finished with a member of the public who pointed out that ultimately it is councillors (or perhaps just Cllr Cantrill) who will have to balance the value of the trees to residents and the city with any other factors such as financial risks, or potential damage to property.

The meeting was not subject to the city council’s filming protocol (the new protocol recently approved by full council explicitly lists those meetings which are), a photographer was taking photographs, which I wouldn’t be surprised to see in Cambridge First later this week

I have written a number of previous articles on the proposals to work on these trees:

3 responses to “Public Meeting On Proposals to Defoliate Alexandra Gardens Trees”

  1. The council has promised to publish all material relating to these trees online so I expect the statements from Mr Allen and Mr Goodman to be proactively posted on the council’s website without the need for a Freedom of Information request.

  2. I’ve had an email complaining that I’ve been unfair to Arbury Liberal Democrat Cllr Levy.

    I’ve replied:

    Thanks for your message.

    My comments are clearly based on my own perspective of what Cllr Levy does. I’ve watched him sit through countless North Area Committee and Full Council meetings and say nothing. The only thing I can recall him commenting on is the brickwork on the Stretten Avenue / Akeman Street junction; which is still in a terrible state. I think Cllr Levy was put in charge of getting that sorted, with the backing of his fellow councillors.

    He’s also been completely absent from the council for over the six-month period which would usually trigger a new election.

    There are various rumours about why he was absent, and why councillors from all parties agreed to pass a full council motion not to hold a new election, but no public explanation has been given.

    I think it is reasonable to question why he appears to have come out of the woodwork a few weeks/months before he’s up for re-election.

    In the period since 03/05/2007 the city council website shows Cllr Levy to have been expected to attend just 20 meetings of which he turned up to 17.
    In the same period Cllr Ward has attended 48 out of 51 formal meetings.

    Even where Cllr Levy has voted against the majority in the North Area committee (on banning pre-9am deliveries to the Chesterton Road Co-Op – a move which if passed would have had the effect of denying residents their morning papers and fresh baked goods) he hasn’t explained his vote.

    I assume all of councillors do lots in private, but I can only comment on what they do in public. I would have thought if he was doing lots of housing casework that ought lead to suggestions for improvements which would come out in public. I’ve observed lots of council debates on housing matters, eg. gritting, cutting housing staff and centralising contacts to the customer service centre and have never seen Cllr Levy offer any input; I’ve also not heard anything from him on the wider point of availability of housing in the City and the Lib Dem policy of building high density housing sprawl on the city’s fringes.

    I was also unimpressed by Cllr Levy’s election campaign – which I thought was a bit misleading given the Histon Road crossing proposals were well advanced by the time he sought to get elected on the basis of promising largely to focus on getting a crossing there.

  3. I checked out Dr. Giles Biddle (OBE) on Google, and he seems to spend a lot of his working life as an ‘expert witness’, representing Insurance Companies in court….. Make of that what you will…..

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