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.
Address to the All-party Parliamentary Gardening and Horticulture Group
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.