The wood from the trees

If a tree falls somewhere other than a leafy lane, does anybody hear it? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a day or so, since the Sunday Times uncovered their “investigation” into municipal tree felling. I use the word investigation because they did, although I’m not convinced an FOI followed by a few interviews and statements actually counts.

Much like my earlier post on empty homes, I am easily frustrated by this kind of thing. You see, I’m really not sure what the numbers they have provided and the comparisons they have made really mean in context. At least the Sunday Times tried to give a bit of proportion by also asking for an estimate of the number of trees each council is responsible for. But after that it falls down quite a bit, leaving me scratching my head in trying to work out what they want to prove. Whatever it was, I’m not sure they have achieved it.

Councils are responsible for lots of trees. Trees at the side of the road, trees on school playing pitches, in parks, on unused land, on farms, in woods, between homes, on housing estates and some common land. Trees where it isn’t clear who owns them, but someone has definitely got to do something about them. So when we talk about big numbers (such as the number of trees felled) we also have to give the bigger number (how many tree there actually are). The report gives this for individual councils, but not the country as a whole, or even for those councils who replied to the FOI.

Councils are not an equal size and they don’t look the same. One might have lots of street trees but no woodland, another might have lots of woodland but no street trees. One might have sold off bits of their woodland to build houses years ago and so may not be felling many trees- keeping them out of this survey. Another might be using a patch of ill-kept land to build their own council housing, which will add to their number of trees felled but have a greater social benefit. Without greater context we don’t know.

Diseases can ravage areas and don’t (as you’d expect) respect local authority areas. But that doesn’t means they spread nationwide. So one area might be fighting a disease that others don’t currently have to worry about. The article even mentions Edinburgh are having just this issue with dutch elm disease.

So what are we really meant to understand by the outcome of the investigation? Councils -who have a responsibility for a huge number of trees- fell a large number but small proportion of those trees, with some felling more than others, as you would expect given the heterogeneity of landscapes, local authority boundaries, exposure to disease and previous policies. That’s a sentence with a lot of commas that doesn’t add up to much, let alone a scoop.

The accusation of the piece, which isn’t proved by the numbers (and I doubt can be proved by numbers) is that some councils are felling trees that others would not in order to save money. Well, there is quite a lot to unpack there as well. But let’s take a step back and think how we would actually try and look at that, given a numbers-first approach isn’t going to work.  This is where we actually get to looking at policies, not through a proxy like numbers, but by actually looking at the policy.

You see, guidelines for tree management are not usually hard to find. Keeping away from the controversial ones, here’s the one for Leeds, another for Worcester and here is Rutland’s. Of course there is plenty of wriggle room in there and that’s where implementation comes in. The person with the policy making the decision, whether they work for the council or a contractor. But if the Sunday Times wants to do some proper investigative work it would need to try and speak to people making the decisions or getting to the bottom of differences between areas, not just stating numerical differences as if they must mean something.

Hanging over all of this is Sheffield and whatever else it is quite clear that Amey and Sheffield City Council have not covered themselves in glory in the way they have approached dealing with local communities and the media over their tree felling antics. But the crude way of trying to assess if this is a national problem doesn’t help either. Indeed, it can tar other areas with someone else’s brush either by having an active tree management policy or a large number of trees under their care to begin with.

Of course the cheapest thing would be to do nothing and hope dangerous or dying trees don’t fall on individuals or property. I’m sure that’s not something anybody is agitating for, but that would have course kept a council out of the Sunday Times list.

What’s more, the issue of finances is danced over in the report, as if councils are choosing to save money for the kicks. In reality, councils have seen such significant reductions in finances that all decisions are hard. Try to nurse a potentially mortally wounded tree back to life for £3,000 or fell it and plant 3 replacement trees for £1,000 (these numbers are made up)- but know that for every 10 trees you “save” the local library has to close for an hour a week. How do you make those decisions?

That doesn’t matter for your one-issue-at-a-time journalist or single-issue pressure group. Everything can be seen in the context of this one matter. Next week, when you’ve sent around an FOI on how many children’s centres have been closed, you can mourn that there isn’t money from somewhere else. But balancing the books week in week out is exactly what councils have to do. Some do it better than others. Clearly, Sheffield is learning that outsourcing may not be the silver bullet they hoped it would be.

For all the words and bluster, it looks pretty clear to me that the central issue of the report is actually street trees- or at least trees in “more ‘leafy’ residential areas” as the representative from the Arboricultural Association calls them. So it is affluent people in affluent areas worrying that their are not seeing a full return on their council tax.

I suspect one popular answer (in those areas) is to throw more of the limited council resources at street trees. Another, perhaps more reasonable response is to try and do something about council funding- not only slowing the pace of cuts but reversing them and sorting council tax out in the process. Saving vital services like the childrens centre and library should come first, but if prime quality tree works can afforded after all the truly urgent spending then why not? To be blunt, given the regressive nature of the current council tax system any change should mean people in affluent areas paying more.

Another possibility would be for areas to volunteer to adopt their street trees, taking financial responsibility and collective risk. This will allow consenting areas to manage their own affairs will mean they can have checks as often as they like and decide what interventions to make with their own money. I’m sure councils will look to win the contract any work that they decide needs doing and if they want to give a tree palliative care instead of a quick coup de grace, then that can be their choice (and their risk). Of course councils will have to act (and charge for it) if there is damage to their property or a risk to pedestrians or road users. Perhaps as part of the process they could detail the historical costs of maintenance and repairs so that the areas know what they might have to pay in an average year.

This could end up being expensive for the individuals involved (it could be more than making council taxation much more sensible and progressive), but it would at least give them an option between what they think is a second rate service and what they would do themselves. I do wonder if it would turn out to be that different when it is their own money and their own opportunity cost to consider instead of council’s. Could they end up spending more of their own money to give themselves the same level of service?

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