Community involvement hailed at tree conference

Community involvement of councils' green estates is essential but where done badly can lead to confrontation, as seen recently in Sheffield, this month's Tree Officers Conference in Telford heard.

Former tree officer, lecturer and consultant, Ian McDermott - image: HW
Former tree officer, lecturer and consultant, Ian McDermott - image: HW

Ian McDermott, former tree officer, lecturer and consultant, now freelance instructor, called such involvement "a main tenet of urban forestry", but said: "It's the time aspect that kills it for most tree officers," partly due to a "nine-to-five-mentality", adding: "You don't pay the public but they aren't cheap."

Local authorities should have a "community action programme", such as has enabled Birmingham City Council to train volunteers to carry out an iTree survey, he said. "But if volunteers don't achieve something they will lose interest."

He added: "We have seen from Sheffield the passionate attachment people have to trees." While tree officers "can't tie themselves to trees or show their own true colours", they can help focus local sentiment, he said.

Sheffield "has employed a different model of community engagement", Epping Forest District Council arboriculturist Chris Neilan told the conference. "It's very difficult to have a model whereby you tell people what's best for them. There can be appeals but it's on the basis that the authority knows best.

"The problems Sheffield identified can all be dealt with. You need a framework where you can convince people that what you propose is justified, and that's obviously not happening there. Expecting people to wait most of a lifetime for a replacement isn't good enough."

Sheffield is by no means unique, he added. "Most local authorities don't have a tree strategy. Of those that do, over half didn't seek community views before agreeing on one - and of those that did, most didn't think it helped."

But he said of his own authority's tree warden scheme: "It was the start of something for us and I'm glad we did it. Trees for Cities can tap into businesses who pay for employees to work on community projects. That's potentially a good way of supplementing the work tree officers do."

Bristol City Council's involvement in the global "One Tree Per Child" movement has enabled extensive tree planting in the city that would not have happened otherwise, said parks development manager Richard Ennion.

Launched last year and boosted by Bristol's then European Green Capital status, it led to 36,000 schoolchildren from the city's 131 schools each planting a tree, around 40 per cent at home. "Ownership is really significant," said Ennion. "We had strong leadership from the city including its elected mayor, which opened doors to schools. It resonated with both children and adults."

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