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The Arboricultural Association (AA) organised a special event on July 18th 2017 for the All-party Parliamentary Gardening and Horticulture Group in Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster. The purpose of the event was to tell members of the House of Commons and House of Lords about two key risks to the urban forest of the UK. One was biosecurity; the other was the increasing pressures on tree officers and the public sector. The AA kindly gave LTOA Chair John Parker the opportunity to deliver the keynote address at the event, which he used to promote the work of tree officers all over the UK and outline some of the challenges they face. John’s speech is reproduced in full below.
Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster | July 18th 2017
John Parker: Chair, London Tree Officers Association
My Lords, Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. Thank you for attending today, and many thanks to the Arboricultural Association, not only for organising this event but for giving me the opportunity to speak to such a distinguished audience. My name is John Parker, and I am one of the Arboriculture and Landscape Managers at Transport for London and Chair of the London Tree Officers Association, the LTOA. I am here today to represent the LTOA in particular but also, I hope, tree officers in general, and it is a privilege to be able to do so. Like many organisations the LTOA seeks to promote the benefits of trees and the urban forest. However, we specifically believe that it is local authority, public sector tree officers who are best-placed to manage public trees for the public benefit. I hope today to tell you about tree officers, what they do, why they are so important, the challenges they face and how you can help.
Keith Sacre has already mentioned i-Tree and summarised some of the key ecosystem services that the urban forest delivers; the environmental, economic and social benefits provided by trees. The arboricultural industry has done some great work in promoting these services but there is an awful lot more to do. Which seems strange, really, as it should be an easy sell. Imagine someone were to invent an item of street furniture which improved air quality, reduced the costs associated with stormwater management, reduced crime, slowed traffic speeds and improved mental and physical health, to name but a few. From the day of installation this equipment would deliver more and more benefits, increasing rather than decreasing in value for a lifespan of decades or centuries. And then imagine that this street furniture could be purchased and installed for just a few hundred pounds per unit, required relatively little maintenance and looked beautiful. The person who patented such a thing would be a wealthy one indeed. And what of the experts responsible for selecting, maintaining and ultimately replacing this amazing equipment? The specialists using their knowledge and experience to maximise delivery of these ecosystem services to the general public? They would surely be regarded as engineers of the highest calibre; respected and appreciated by all.
Unfortunately when it comes to the management of the trees that we all know deliver these benefits, this isn’t always the case. Which is a shame, because tree officers are quite incredible and are deserving of a huge amount of respect. First and foremost they have to be experts in trees, of course. Identification, species selection, pests and diseases, biomechanics, biology, pruning techniques and so much more. Many of these areas change and develop rapidly over time, meaning they must continuously keep their knowledge up to date. Pest and disease problems are a good example – there is always a new threat just around the corner which we need to learn more about. But on top of their technical responsibilities they have other roles. Tree officers are so often the first, and in some cases the only, point of contact between members of the public and the arboricultural industry. They are ambassadors for arboriculture. They must be proficient diplomats, dealing far more frequently with those who want to offer complaints than those bearing congratulations. They are urban forestry social workers. “I love trees, but..” is the battle-cry of these tireless correspondents. “I love trees, but that one is just too big”. “I love trees, but that one smells funny.” Everyone loves trees, but not the one outside their own house.
Tree officers must be familiar with the law, whether enforcing the Town and Country Planning Act or the Wildlife and Countryside Act, grappling with the Miscellaneous Provisions Act or becoming intimate with any of the other few dozen pieces of legislation and regulations that apply to their work. Tree officers have to deal with issues of highway and structural engineering. They must understand the soil. They will be involved with material selection, with subsidence, with claims, sometimes even with fatalities and disasters. Some will have to act as expert witnesses in court, cross-examined by barristers. They are risk managers. Many are experts in planning; some are responsible for writing and enforcing their own tree contracts. A lot of tree officers have to manage budgets and staff, although that is arguably becoming easier as all of their money is taken away. More on that later.
A good tree officer needs a broad skill set, and we are lucky to have people of such quality in the industry. So many tree officers I meet could have been hugely successful in any number of different fields, and would likely be earning a lot more money with a lot less stress there than they are here. Yet they come to work, day in, day out, engaging in what can feel like a thankless task, usually unappreciated, often accused of having some nefarious hidden motive for doing what they do. They take flak from all sides; from residents, from the private sector, from government – from your colleagues, here in Parliament, who demand they do more for less. Why do they do it? I suspect that you know the answer to that, because – and bear with me here – I see a few similarities between good tree officers and good politicians. Could probably be earning more in the private sector.. thankless tasks.. usually unappreciated.. accused of having nefarious motives.. taking flak from all sides.. some of that may sound familiar to you. So why do we do it? Good tree officers and good politicians? Because our work is a vocation. Because we care. And because we have a sense of public service.
I’m afraid it is impossible to discuss the current situation facing tree officers without mentioning a word which I understand is no longer meant to be used in these parts – austerity. As demonstrated by the extremely welcome and timely tree officer survey undertaken by the Arboricultural Association, cuts to local authorities have had a monumental impact on tree officers and on their ability to do their job. Unfortunately when the urban forest declines in quantity and quality it is the residents and voters of this country who will ultimately be the ones to suffer. And as is always the case, it is likely that this suffering will be disproportionately felt by those least well-equipped to deal with it. Any car owner will know that you can certainly save money in the short term by avoiding servicing and maintenance and doing the bare minimum to get by. However, eventually you’ll be landed with a garage bill bigger than anything you would have had to deal with if only you had looked after it properly in the first place.
The same principle applies to trees. When investment stops, the quality of the urban forest inevitably deteriorates. This will, over time, manifest itself in different ways. The risk of tree failure and associated damage, injury or even death increases considerably. Resident complaints rise as they start to forget the benefits of trees and concentrate on the fact that the one outside their house is now touching their window. Unscrupulous developers take advantage of the fact that overworked tree officers are unable to protect public and private trees as they would like to. I know a tree officer in London who for the last twelve months has been trying to do the jobs of three people while their local authority prevaricates about recruitment to fill the vacancies. I know a tree officer in the Midlands who has had their duties extended to counting instances of dog fouling on the pavement. This is unacceptable, and is not how we should be treating these highly qualified, committed and experienced professionals.
And at the end of austerity, what will we find? Despite the best efforts of tree officers we may see a deteriorating urban forest characterised by many trees in a poor, and sometimes dangerous, condition. We may see that many public and private trees have been removed, often unnecessarily or even illegally, and either not replaced at all or replaced by the wrong tree in the wrong place. That pest and disease problems which could have been prevented from arriving and establishing may be running rampant. We may find that public perception of the urban forest will be at rock bottom, and that trees are perceived as a liability and a problem rather than an asset and a solution. The fragile cord that binds people to nature will have stretched that little bit further. We will find that many tree officers will have retired, or moved to the private sector, or left the industry altogether to pursue other careers. A brain drain from public sector arboriculture. And ultimately, like the irresponsible car owner, we will discover that as a country we will need to spend far more money to sort the mess out than we would have done had we only been wise enough to not chase short-term savings.
But it isn’t all bad news, not by any means. I would suggest that most tree officers enjoy their work and consider it an honour and a pleasure to do what they do, despite the challenges. To be a custodian of the urban forest is a wonderful thing. When I was responsible for the management of the avenue of planes along Victoria Embankment I was acutely aware that I was merely one link in a chain which stretched back to 1870 and forwards to some unknown point in the future. I was doing what I could to look after these trees for a short while; these living things which were planted more than one hundred years before I was born and which could still be there one hundred years after I die. There is an ancient Greek proverb that says “A society grows great when old men plant trees under whose shade they know they will not sit.” Tree officers operate on a long timeline, far beyond the electoral cycle, sometimes having to set their sights many years into the future if they are to seek a glimpse of the fruits of their labours.
There are benefits in the shorter term as well. Working with trees is a vocation, and every tree officer I know is passionate about what they do. There is a sense of real satisfaction and pleasure to be taken from doing things on a day to day basis which actually make a difference; a positive, often tangible and visible, difference. The complexity involved in tree officer work means that no two days are ever the same, and there is always a new problem to be solved or opportunity to be enjoyed. Dealing with residents can often be a wonderful experience, whether discussing their passion and enthusiasm about trees or doing something to help an individual or a community. I would suggest that more often than not the job is varied, exciting, interesting, worthwhile and very satisfying. This is a message that we hope to get out to schools and colleges as we seek to resolve a problem that seems to be afflicting local authorities all over the country; recruitment. Bringing new people into tree officer work is proving rather difficult – perhaps due to the current state of the public sector. This is another area where we could benefit from political support.
On top of their day-to-day workload, many tree officers actually volunteer additional time for the good of trees, the public, the industry and for their colleagues. All over the country there are active tree officer groups and forums; communities of tree officers who share knowledge and experience and act as a support network for each other. And in these professional communities some amazing work goes on, mostly unheralded. The London Tree Officers Association convened a meeting of some of these groups in Southampton earlier this month, several sending representatives in person and others participating via conference call technology. It was exciting to be part of such a congress and to be able to meet so many dedicated public servants; to hear about the work they are doing and the struggles they are facing. Another fantastic example of tree officers meeting up and collaborating is the National Tree Officers Conference. This event is hosted by the LTOA, the Municipal Tree Officers Association and the Institute of Chartered Foresters. The inaugural conference was held last year and was a great success; the 2017 event will be in Telford in November and will showcase some of the work being done by tree officers from all over the UK. Tickets are still available – order yours now to avoid disappointment.
The London Tree Officers Association is a key element of the tree officer community in London, the UK and increasingly beyond, supporting and representing tree officers, developing and disseminating best practice and coordinating a wide range of activities. We run several working parties, all made up of tree officers and associate members and covering a diverse range of issues including trees and human health, biosecurity, contract management and the threat of canker stain of plane to name but a few. Some of these working parties produce guidance documents which when published are free for anyone to download on our website. The LTOA arranges quarterly seminars to share best practice and bring people together, attended by large numbers of members and guests each time. We also collaborate with our friends and colleagues in Europe such as the European Arboricultural Council and the European Forum on Urban Forestry, building bridges with our international partners, representing and promoting the UK and demonstrating the value of working together. Issues such as pests and diseases or climate change do not stop to consider borders or claims of national sovereignty, so neither must we. The freedom of movement of ideas and experiences is essential. Internationally the UK tree officer system is highly-regarded; the challenge is to achieve the same level of respect in our own country.
Tree officers have had some notable support in recent years from our colleagues in organisations such as the Arboricultural Association and the Institute of Chartered Foresters. Politically, in London the previous and current Mayors have done a lot to actively promote tree planting, coordinated by the Greater London Authority and delivered predominantly by local authority tree officers. Tree planting was mentioned in the 2017 election manifestoes of the major parties. This is, of course, positive. However, targets to increase the tree canopy cover of London and other towns and cities are unlikely to be achieved through planting alone – good standards of management and maintenance and the retention of our existing tree stock are just as important.
The impact of austerity I have already mentioned, but another sign of the times is the continued trend towards outsourcing services to the private sector. A senior manager at a large organisation which manages trees once said to me “well as long as the person doing the job is qualified and experienced, then it doesn’t matter who they are actually working for.” I’m afraid I don’t agree. A tree officer employed by a local authority is accountable to their council and to the general public and will have the interests of the trees and their residents at heart. If that individual were to cease working for the local authority and start being employed by a privately-owned outsourcing company to manage the same population of trees, then however qualified or experienced they might be, their priorities will inevitably shift. They will unavoidably become accountable to new authorities; to shareholders and to profit.
As I said at the start, I came here today to talk to you about tree officers and why they are important. But I also want to ask for your help. Tree officers are doing what they can, doing it well, and are increasingly coming together to tackle some of their problems collectively. But the fact remains that in my ten years or so in the industry there has been near zero political interest in our work. To my mind this is likely to be down to one of two reasons: either you don’t know about us, or you don’t care about us. The fact you are here today suggests that you certainly care; the fact that you have listened so patiently to me makes me hopeful that you now know about us. With any luck this means that some of the barriers have been removed, but as always it isn’t the people who attend these events voluntarily who need winning over. You have expressed an interest and commitment just by being here. The people we need to win over are your colleagues, the ones who haven’t come here today. We have to convince them of the importance of trees and tree officers to their constituents. So tell your colleagues! Tell your colleagues in health that trees make people healthier and keep them out of hospital. Tell your colleagues in education that trees improve results and behaviour in schools. Tell your colleagues in transport that avenues of trees reduce traffic speeds and accidents associated with speed. Tell your colleagues about tree officers, and the key role they play in delivering these benefits.
We have to convince them that if you want a healthy population of urban trees then you need a healthy population of urban tree officers. We have to make the case that money spent on trees and tree officers is an investment, not a cost. So please, support us. Join us. Send us an email, give us a call. Keep an eye out for the trees in your constituencies and please, please, look for the good things as well as the bad. Make friends with your local tree officer. If you see something you like, tell them about it. An email of support from you would carry a lot of weight with them and with their management. If just one of you were to contact one of us over the next week then that would be progress indeed. Tweet us, or follow us on twitter, or come to one of our events – you would be more than welcome. Take the time to meet tree officers and understand their work, and then support them to do what they do better than anyone else – managing trees for the public benefit.
On the 11th July 2017, London City Hall hosted the awards to celebrate the work of individuals, communities and professionals to protect, improve and expand the capital’s tree and woodland cover.
Journalist Adam Shaw conducted the awards ceremony and marvelled at the fantastic range of winners. Shirley Rodrigues, Deputy Mayor for Environment & Energy, welcomed everyone to City Hall and confirmed there will be a £5M Mayors Tree programme to support people and projects like those who have won tonight; further details will be announced this summer.
Sir Harry Studholme (Chair of the Forestry Commission) congratulated everyone in London for their hard work and highlighted the connection between people and trees. 17 year old Timo Bracht gave a talk on Plant for the Planet, which has planted 14 billion trees in 130 countries and aims to plant a trillion trees across the world.
The aims of the awards are to:
Craig Harrison, Forestry Commission London Manager said: “The Awards help raise awareness of the fantastic work taking place in London. I hope they inspire others to plant and manage trees that help ensure the capital remains one of the most attractive cities in the world to live and invest in”
For full details of the awards, click here to download
I write to inform you that Sweet chestnut blight, which is caused by the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica, has been confirmed in East London and there will be a press notice about this.
It is not believed that this finding is linked to the previous outbreak in the South West. Action is being taken to identify and control the disease in line with our contingency plan and in compliance with our obligations under the UK’s Protected Zone status for this disease. We are working closely with the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) to carry out extensive surveillance of sweet chestnut trees in the area, working closely with local stakeholders. Further action will be taken on the basis of surveillance information and the best available scientific evidence.
I would appeal to you/your members to help us by inspecting your/their sweet chestnut trees frequently during the coming months, and to immediately report any suspicious symptoms to us using our Tree Alert tool. A symptoms factsheet and Pest Alert is available on our website to help you/your members to know what to look for when inspecting your trees. www.forestry.gov.uk/chestnutblight
Maintaining good biosecurity can be vital in reducing the spread of the disease so anyone visiting or working on woodland sites can play a role by includes cleaning clothes, footwear, tools and machinery before moving to other locations to avoid accidentally spreading the pest further afield.
Please also reassure family, neighbours, staff and visitors that the disease poses no risk to people, pets or livestock, and it does not affect horse chestnut (conker) trees (Aesculus hipppocastanum).
In 2013, the UK introduced special requirements that importers must notify the plant health services of pending imports of sweet chestnut plants before their arrival to enable inspection. The UK is also a Protected Zone for C. parasitica, meaning that movements of sweet chestnut plants into the UK must comply with additional requirements, and are accompanied by specific plant passports eligible for the zone and confirming that they are disease free.
If you have any queries please contact me.
Craig Harrison FICFor
Forestry Commission London Manager
Area 1C Nobel House, 17 Smith Square, London SW1P 3JR
This was written by John Parker, Transport for London for the Arb Magazine and is published in Issue 177, Summer 2017
All of us in the arboricultural industry are aware of the ecosystem services delivered by the urban forest. The environmental, economic and social benefits enjoyed by all of those who live, work and play near trees. Yet we must also acknowledge the disadvantages, real and perceived, which can be brought about as a result of trees. As the typical first point of contact between the general public and the arboricultural industry, tree officers know better than most some of the traditional complaints. Blocked light, interrupted television reception, falling leaves and fruit, funny smells, disagreements with pigeons; the list goes on.
One problem associated with street trees has received a lot of recent coverage; the conflict between tree roots and the footway, and the different ways of managing this conflict. This is an extremely common issue and one which we all know too well. It goes without saying that it is absolutely essential that pedestrians and other road users are able to travel safely. Particular consideration should be given to those with mobility difficulties or the partially sighted. As with anything in life the advantages and disadvantages have to be weighed up carefully before taking action, and there is usually more than one solution to a problem.
Conflicts between tree roots and pavements usually have their origin right at the beginning, at the time of planting. As far as is reasonably practicable the pit – including the pit surface – should be designed to maximise the chances of establishment and minimise the risk of future problems. It should be obvious that planting specifications for street trees should be determined by an appropriately qualified and experienced tree specialist, usually the relevant tree officer. Right place, right tree, right expert.
When planting new trees we are in the fortunate position of being able to try to avoid the mistakes of the past. However, this is obviously not an option when dealing with existing trees, some of which were planted decades or centuries before. How do we deal with those semi-mature and mature trees which are causing problems to our footways? What is the solution to the conflict? The most straightforward answer would be to cut all of the trees down. No tree, no issue. But that would, of course, be short-sighted in the extreme, and nothing more than environmental and cultural vandalism.
Removing a mature tree and replacing it with a single sapling is not really replacing it at all. We know that some of the key ecosystem services delivered by trees – such as air quality and urban cooling, to name but two – are positively correlated to canopy size. This is why there has been such an emphasis on increasing canopy cover in recent years. To fully ‘replace’ the canopy volume of a mature tree in the short term would likely require the planting of hundreds of trees in the vicinity of the original – an impossibility in an urban environment with all of the challenges and restrictions on space that we have to contend with. Canopy targets will not be met by tree planting alone; retention of existing trees is just as important.
In addition to the environmental, social and economic considerations we also have to factor in the political costs of tree removal. It can be a blessing and a curse to tree officers that certain sections of their communities are so passionate about trees! The urban forest comes with a cost, but so does its absence. Any perceived saving on avoiding footway maintenance or pruning is surely wiped out by the additional costs associated with stormwater management, air conditioning, healthcare, crime, traffic accidents and so on.
It is worth remembering that there are several systems of calculating a monetary value for trees, such as the CAVAT method developed by the LTOA (www.ltoa.org.uk/resources/cavat). When repeated over a number of years this can show the depreciating value of a tree which has been over-pruned or damaged in some way. Conversely, CAVAT can demonstrate the fact that as the tree grows, so does its value. Replacing a mature tree with a sapling does not just negatively impact ecosystem services, it reduces asset value. Assigning a monetary value to a tree can also be used in cost comparison; the engineering solution or new surface material required to retain the tree might cost £25k and be deemed too expensive, but if the tree at risk of removal is regarded as an asset worth £100k then the engineering work starts to look like a bargain.
One of the many roles of the tree officer is that of problem solver. Sometimes it may indeed be the case that a tree has to be removed because of damage it has caused to the footway, but those instances are extremely rare and removal should be regarded as an absolute last resort. A wide range of options is available which will allow both the footway and tree to continue to deliver their benefits to the urban environment. Space does not permit a detailed exploration of these options, but a brief summary can be given.
Sometimes simply widening the tree pit is enough; sometimes root manipulation or pruning will resolve the situation. Carefully raising the footway or removing the displaced kerb might be an option in some cases. One of the most common solutions is to replace the damaged footway material with something less likely to cause a problem; perhaps the most obvious choice being to remove lifting slabs and their associated trip hazard and replace them with asphalt. Yes, it will eventually lift and crack and need to be replaced, but this is a small price to pay in exchange for being able to retain a healthy mature street tree.
When it comes to materials immediately around the base of the tree there are also a lot of alternatives available. Some of these are explored in the forthcoming LTOA publication Surface materials around trees in hard landscapes. This document analyses some of the advantages and disadvantages of the most commonly-used materials, including topsoil, organic mulch, inorganic mulch, self-binding gravel, resin-bound gravel and bound rubber crumb. The conclusion – spoiler alert – is that there is no tree pit panacea. No one material is suitable for all situations.
So – what is the solution to the root versus footway conflict? The answer is that depending on the specific problem there will likely be several potential solutions. Removing a healthy tree is rarely one of them. The challenge, as always, is for us as an industry to continue to promote the importance of trees as a key component – the key component – of green infrastructure. To make the argument that trees are an asset as important to the urban environment as lamp columns, drains and flat footways. And to ensure that our urban forest is managed by the right people, equipped with the right resources.
John Parker, April 2017