Public Meeting on Alexandra Gardens Trees

Unofficial notices warn of the council's proposed chainsaw massacre on Alexandra Gardens. No further official notices or consultation are planned despite not all information yet being available, and a final decision not being made till December or January.

Unofficial notices warn of the council’s proposed chainsaw massacre on Alexandra Gardens. No further official notices or consultation are planned despite not all information yet being available, and a final decision not being made till December or January.

On Friday the 15th of October 2010 a public meeting was held by Cambridge City Council to discuss the council’s proposals to fell or destructively prune up to five of the London plane trees in Alexandra Gardens along Carlyle Road. Over a hundred people attended.

A LibDem press release following the meeting called it a LibDem meeting, called by LibDem ward councillors. The presence of the senior council officers however suggested to me it was a council run meeting, and I got the impression it was the public meeting referred to by the council’s tree protocol as one of the steps to be taken when proposed tree works are controversial. The LibDem press release blog does not allow comments, presumably as these kind of pesky facts would be appearing below almost every story.

Cllr Cantrill personifies the split within the LibDems over this matter. As a whole the LibDem run council is pursuing the option of felling the trees, which is why the meeting was being held in the first place; however local LibDem councillors are giving the impression they oppose the felling though they are avoiding making categoric statements on the matter. Cllr Cantrill could put a stop to the suggestion of felling straight away but has chosen not to do so; yet he is trying to position himself as the good guy by saying he is “exploring all the options”; I have no-doubt that he is, but if I was in his position I would have ruled out felling months ago.

Very little new information was revealed at the meeting; my overall impression was that the quality of the public questions vastly exceeded the quality of answers from councillors and council officers.

While the council, and Arbury councillor Mike Todd-Jones had encouraged the submission of questions in advance there was no sign that the vast majority of them had been addressed at all; the officer presentations did not appear to be guided by the public demands.

Principal Tree Officer Diana Oviatt-Ham Silent

Cambridge City Council’s Principal Arboricultural Officer Diana Oviatt-Ham was present at the meeting, but did not speak at all. She is the officer who claimed in her report to the the report to the September planning committee, that there is a “proven link between the trees and the structural damage” (s.3.8) and that: “The London plane trees have been identified as causing structural damage to a neighbouring property” (s7.2). Cllr Cantrill made clear he did not accept his officer’s assessment, saying: “it is not clear that the trees are the problem” and stated he had sought two further second opinions. The meeting was told the letter from Peter Dann Ltd expressing their views on the insurance company’s investigations was one of the secondary opinions which had been sought and a further report from another expert is awaited.

Diana Oviatt-Ham was not called upon to comment on questions relating to disease in London plane trees; or on specific questions asking about he quality of her report to the September planning committee it appears she has at least to some extent been sidelined from the decision making process on these trees. It appears that Cllr Cantrill is, at last, starting to stand up to this officer and is ensuring her views are not the only ones being listened to. I think this is good news for these trees and others in the city.

It is possible that Oviatt-Ham was the council’s note-taker at the meeting; while that may explain the lack of a contribution it does still in my view amount to a side-lining.

Key points:

  • Cllr Cantrill said he did not accept the position taken by the City Council’s senior tree officer Diana Oviatt-Ham that there is a proven link between the trees and the structural damage. Mrs Oviatt-Ham was present but notably did not make any contribution to the meeting.
  • Cllr Levy told the meeting that the residents / owners of 13 Holland Street had been “subject to some abuse” as a result of the proposals to destroy the trees and asked those present to condemn this. A number of those present said they had great sympathy with the position the householders found themselves in; and it was the actions of council and insurance companies which were primarily criticised.
  • The city council’s insurers have appointed their own loss adjuster to investigate the case.
  • There was a lack of clarity on how, or if, further comments from the public, arising from the publication of further information, would be taken into account.
  • Who paid for repairs to the property in 2006 is not clear. Council officers stated that claim was resolved. If the council didn’t pay up then, why not.

Meeting Notes

Cllr Rodrick Cantrill, who as Executive Councillor for Arts and Recreation will take the final decision on the trees’ fate, was present. He was repeatedly asked by a number of members of the public why he had allowed the process of considering felling these trees to go so far. Three or four times during the evening he repeated what appeared to be a carefully considered stock answer, in which he made two points:

1. In terms of the council’s procedures for making decisions on tree works he was the applicant (the person asking for permission for works to go-ahead) in this case.

Quite what message he was trying to get across by saying this was not clear to me. The apparent oddity that he was both the “applicant” and the final arbitrator was not addressed, and neither was the question of why he had decided to make the “application” in the first place. Despite probing Cllr Cantrill failed to clearly confirm or deny that he had personally made the decision to contemplate the felling of these trees and kick off the consultation process. I think the lack of clarity may have been intentional and an effort to distance himself from the decision to contemplate taking action on the basis of the request from the insurers to destroy the trees.

2. He had made the decision to defer the consideration of the tree works and remove them from a planning committee’s agenda so that objections could be properly considered and more information obtained before a decision is made.

It was not made clear if the deferral Cllr Cantrill was referring to was the removal of the item from the September, or October planning meetings. Despite being the executive councillor responsible Cllr Cantrill tried to give an impression that he was simply reacting to an chain of events kicked off by council officers’ actions.

Cllr Cantrill is new to the role of Executive Councillor for Arts and Recreation; his predecessor Cllr Julie Smith faced the same problems with council officers and eventually after many alarming proposals to fell trees had been published by council officers decided to insist that proposals could only be published with her explicit permission. It appears possible to me that a poor hand-over from Cllr Smith to Cllr Cantrill may have allowed officers to go back to their old ways; and we’re going to have to prompt and push Cllr Cantrill through the same learning curve as Cllr Smith, who also failed to get a grip on the reigns of power initially.

Arbury ward councillors, Tim Ward, Mike Todd-Jones and Alan Levy all complained strongly about the way the council had run the consultation process to-date. Cllr Levy said the first he had known of the proposals was when he saw the notices on the trees, other councillors said they had been alerted to the council’s proposals by members of the public writing to them.

In 2006 work to the “superstructure” (ie. not works on the foundations such as underpinning) costing £13,000 was carried out on 13 Holland Street. The insurance intermediate present stated he had not been involved until after that stage but considered the whole claim as one. The council however took a different view saying that a claim made in 2006 had been resolved, and a new claim had been made in 2008. It was not made clear if the council had made any payment towards the cost of the work in 2006, or if a claim for that work is outstanding.

The meeting started with Cllr Cantrill making a pronouncement that: “We as a council are committed to preserve and enhance the green heritage of the city and to explore ways to avoid removing trees”. He stated that he felt it was important the council was “very transparent with you”.

Cllr Cantrill suggested he had an influence over the approach taken by the city council’s insurers loss adjusters, he said they would be asked to look at alternative options to the proposals to fell the trees. He also suggested their reports would be made available to the public.

Cllr Cantrill gave a new insight into the way he would be making his decision, when he told the meeting that he would be considering the council’s responsibilities as a land owner at the Community Services Scrutiny Committee; the council’s tree protocol has no provision for such distinction and I would have thought members of the scrutiny committee would not be happy if Cllr Cantrill attempts to limit the aspects of the decision on which they can advise him in this way.

The timetable for a decision depends on the time taken for reports from the council’s insurers and newly appointed expert to be completed. The aim is the November planning meeting, though it may take until the December meeting.

Green Spaces Manager – Alistair Wilson

The council’s Green Spaces manager, Alistair Wilson, gave a brief presentation to the meeting. He said trees add value to houses, improve health and reduce pollution. He told the meeting that various bodies had produced guidance on managing trees in an urban environment including the Institute of Structural Engineers, the Foundation for the Built Environment and the Building Research Establishment. He also said the London Tree Association had produced guidance based on a great deal of experience in London.

Mr Wilson stated that prior to the 1970s subsidence as a result of trees was not considered a problem, but increasingly since then it had become something councils and insurers had started to have to take account of.

Mr Wilson said the trees were very high value assets and there was a need to understand the detail of the claim agains the council.

I was not impressed by Mr Wilson’s contribution as while he had mentioned the sources of guidance the council could be using he gave no assurance the council was in-fact making use of it, and certainly didn’t pick out any points relevant to the trees under discussion.

Public Questions

The meeting’s chair Cllr Levy adopted a procedure where four members of the public where each permitted to ask one question each, then councillors and council officers then responded to the points raised.

I felt this disconnected the questions from their answers, and resulted in questions being left unanswered or having their main points dodged.

Andy Davey

Campaigner Andy Davey asked the first question. He referred to notes of a meeting between Cambridge City Council’s Principal Arboricultural Officer Diana Oviatt-Ham and agents of the insurance company which suggested all the engineers and arboricultural consultants agreed that a regular maintenance/pruning regime was acceptable and that only loss adjuster Steve Allen dissented from that view. He asked if that was a true reflection of the situation.

Mr Davey referred to the anger clearly felt by many local residents about the council’s proposal to fell these trees, which benefit so many, on the basis of views held by so few. He also reported that 19/38 houses in the area, not near trees, had reported subsidence when asked in an informal survey.

Apart from Cllr Cantrill acknowledging, and claiming to understand, the anger felt by many residents, Mr Davey’s question was otherwise ignored by Cllr Cantrill and council officers when they came to answer the first batch of questions.

Steve Allen was present at the meeting, and later Mr Davey was able to put his question to him. Mr Allen denied what was Mr Davey said was suggested by Diana Oviatt-Ham’s notes was true. Other members of the public asked if the minutes of the meeting could be made public; Mr Allen said it had been a private meeting so they could not be. The council’s Head of Streets and Open Spaces Toni Ainley said that Mrs Oviatt-Hamm’s notes had been released in response to a Freedom of Information request and so were in the public domain. The document is not though currently published either with the background information on the Alexandra Gardens trees or on the city council’s freedom of information request log.

Other questioners complained about the lack of documents to support the claims made in the council officer’s report to the September planning meeting and about the way the consultation process had been run to-date. Someone also asked if there was a potential for the council to launch a “counter claim” against the householder’s insurers.

Cllr Cantrill responded to say he could see there was anger, and he “understood that anger”, he said he and the council officers shared residents’ “shear passion for those trees”, he told the meeting that while he understood some, perhaps all of those present, would consider the trees priceless, it was possible to assess their amenity value, and he suggested a figure of £115-140K per tree. He claimed he did have a balance to assess.

Steve Allen

Mr Allen introduced himself as an independent insurance broker, he said he was not the “insurance company’s agent” as he had been described by Mr Davey. He said he was representing the insured. He complained about the council not responding in a timely manner to the insurance company’s claim which in turn had left his client, the householder, waiting for an unreasonable length of time for work to be done on their house. He said that if the council would pay for underpinning that could be carried out straight away and would settle the claim and the trees would not need to be felled, or worked on. He said the claim had been first been made to the council on the 2nd of June 2004 and repeated on the 27th of May 2008 but there had been no response from the council.

Cambridge City Council’s, Director of Customer and Community Services, Liz Bisset was standing in for the director of Environment and Planning who has a personal interest in this matter. She stated that two claims had been made, the earlier of which had been resolved. Mr Allen denied this stating that it was all one claim, and “only one excess will be charged”, though later after the meeting he said directly to me that he had only been brought in after the 2006 works and had no detailed knowledge of the pre-2008 claim.

Liz Bisset’s statement that the 2006 claim had been “resolved” raises the question of if the council made any payment in respect of that. I asked Mr Allan if the ~£13,000 spent on repairs in 2006 formed part of the current claim against the council but he said he did not know.

Liz Bisset said the council had responded to the new 2008 notice of a continuing problem reasonably by assessing the trees and reducing their crowns during 2009.

Further Public Q&A

A Carlyle Road resident asked about the precedent being set with respect to the other properties on the road, and the other trees. A representative of Cambridge Past Present and Future went a step further and asked about how the council’s approach to trees in the rest of the city might be affected by the decision.

Cllr Cantrill made an intervention in which he described councillors as agents of the public; he made an assurance in response to prompting from people at the meeting that if a case was brought against the council then the council would fight that very hard.

Mr Norfolk, the manager of the Arundel House Hotel and owner of 17 Carlyle Road made a useful contribution to the meeting. He started by saying he has a photo of Alexandra Gardens in his office from 100 years ago in which the trees were just a few metres high.

He told the meeting how the the tree near his property had been felled by the council. He hadn’t asked for it and was actually surprised when the council took the tree down, he’d only asked for the branches touching his roof to be trimmed. When it was taken down he saw the substantial roots which went under his foundations. He noted he had not contemplated making a claim against the council for the effect of either the tree when it was in-situ or the effect of removing it.

A member of the public asked what the value of the claim against the council was, and how much the various options would cost. He was told the figures were unknown quantities at that time, officer Liz Bisset said underpinning would cost in the tens of thousands. Mr Allen, the insurance intermediary, told the meeting quotes were being obtained. Mr Norfolk reported the work he had done on his property cost 30-40K.

One advance question which an answer had been obtained for was on the County Council’s refusal of permission to install a root barrier. Arbury’s County Councillor Rupert Moss-Eccardt reported that the council’s refusal was based on the fact they weren’t convinced that it would work; they also doubted the structure of the highway would survive. They also commented that the utilities in the area were not mapped. They were however open to be convinced, and need convincing before considering giving permission. My view of this is that as all that is being sought is permission; as long as the home owners repair the highway to the required standard, and as long as due care is taken not to damage utilities, should the home owners want to try a root barrier, at their own expense, I can’t see why the county ought refuse; especially if it may save both the trees and public money.

Cllr Cantrill explained how he had recently taken the decision to fell six trees officers had told him were unsafe on Coe-Fen / Sheeps Green. He claimed he was acting responsibly and had obtained a second expert opinion in that case before deciding to fell.

In response to a question about co-ordinating with other cities experiencing similar challenges officers said Diana Oviatt-Ham the principal tree officer was in contact with those doing her job in other authorities.

County Council Trees

Cllr Levey reported, as an aside, that the City Council no longer manages trees on the highway; as the County Council has appointed its own tree officer and was now doing itsself what it had previously delegated to the City Council tree team.

Next Steps

The meeting closed with a summary of what was to happen next which omitted any further opportunity for the public to comment in response to further information released. In response to public clamour Cllr Cantrill offered to run a “small workshop” for selected individuals to comment on the technical reports; but made no commitment to open the future stages to the public again. Officers did give an assurance that all comments received so-far and given in person at the meeting would be carried forward and summarised in the reports to the planning, and scrutiny committees.

Answers to questions from Mike-Todd Jones it appeared there is no plan to place official notices back on the trees at any point in the future, or to re-open the public consultation prior to eventual consideration of the trees at a planning meeting.

See also

7 responses to “Public Meeting on Alexandra Gardens Trees”

  1. A faithful and insightful account as ever but where are the legal issues? The basis of the argument needs to be laid out honestly by the Council. They must be unwilling to take on the insurance company for fear of losing in Court, a very expensive business.
    Apparently the United Kingdom is the only place in Europe where insurance companies actually offer policies to cover subsidence. It is a very lucrative market for them but we can see where it all leads – litigation and cost. Elsewhere people just either put up with mild subsidence or fix it themselves.

  2. At the North Area Committee a couple of months ago I asked for an update on the position. Cllr Ward committed to give this, at last week’s North Area Committee this came up as an action point so he promised to seek an update. He emailed me to say:

    Having asked for a status report as promised I can tell you:

    “Discussions are taking place involving the council’s loss adjuster, local residents, and a tree expert hired by the council. Further meetings will take place over the next couple of weeks, and reports will be published in due course.”

  3. Cambridge City Council has issued an update.

    House being underpinned; council still investigating who’s liable.

    The insurance agent threatened underpinning as an expensive option he’d go-ahead with if the council didn’t resolve the situation and then go after the council (ie. us the taxpayers of Cambridge) for its costs.

    Hopefully Cllr Cantrill will robustly defend the city’s position.

    This decision will also be very bad news for the neighbouring house to no.13; as once no.13 is underpinned it may move at a different rate to it’s conjoined neighbour (maybe the engineers are smart enough to mitigate this risk?)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.