Effective communication with public key for amenity tree management

High-profile tree-felling cases demonstrate need for public to believe they are being listened to.

Tooting Bec Common: arboricultural experts brought in by both sides in row over avenue of horse chestnut trees - image: Candida Jones
Tooting Bec Common: arboricultural experts brought in by both sides in row over avenue of horse chestnut trees - image: Candida Jones

With an escalating debate over the fate of trees in a Tooting Bec Common in south London (see below) only the latest of several recent high-profile cases, tree care professionals have an increasingly demanding role in advising decision makers and in attempting to avert disputes.

London Tree Officers Association chairman John Parker says: "Setting up a campaign or a petition used to be difficult but now with social media it's really easy, which is good and bad. It's easy to be outraged now. I have dealt with a case where a petition against some trees being felled raised 7,000 signatures, but one or two thousand of those were from Canada. It's great that people have the opportunity to have their say but it can make life harder."

Being in the middle of such disputes can put tree managers under additional strain. "They already have to be the first line between the public and the council. Effectively they have to speak to people before they start their petitions. But this is adding to an already increasing workload and tighter budgets."

Drawing the distinction between communication and consultation, he says: "There is more consultation now, which is good. It can iron out differences early. If you explain your reasoning, and let people have their say, they are more amenable. You don't want the problem to arise when the tree surgeons turn up outside their house. But there's a danger of experts losing authority. People say: 'There's nothing wrong with that tree, I've Google'd it.' There's also a limit to how many people you can consult. Residents, yes, but what about the people who work there or pass through every day?"

Ultimately, some questions over the fate of trees will remain subjective, with no consensus among professionals, adds Parker. "Ten tree experts might give you 12 different opinions. There may not be a clear right and wrong answer."

According to the Arboricultural Association: "Any advice given by tree experts must be well-thought-out, balanced and impartial if it is to have any credibility. The presentation of a balanced argument by decision makers, taking due consideration of any conflicting opinions, will then go a long way towards attaining credibility with the public and professionals alike for any judgement made on important tree management considerations."

The rise of social media "means concerns that may once have remained local now have the potential to reach national or even international audiences", it notes. "As a consequence local authority decisions are under increasing scrutiny and this emphasises the need for effective consultation with the local population. The single most important thing is that stakeholders, including the public, believe that they are being listened to and that all arguments are properly considered before irreversible decisions are made."

Wandsworth Horse chestnuts

In the latest felling row, intervention by local MP Dr Rosena Allin-Khan has intensified a stand-off in south London between Wandsworth Borough Council and residents over the local authority's plan to fell more than 70 mature horse chestnut trees forming an avenue in Tooting Bec Common.

The plan has drawn more than 5,000 signatures in an online petition. Allin-Khan claims that many nearby residents were not consulted and has called for "a review into the way the council conducts its consultations" to ensure they "give an honest representation of community feeling".

Both sides have brought in arboricultural experts to support their case. A report published in March last year by Kim Gifford of Gifford Tree Services concluded on the basis of a PiCUS Sonic Tomograph study of the trees that "the general condition of the avenue is in a dilapidated state", with "compaction around most root systems and evidence of waterlogging along the whole avenue" and "nearly all" of the trees suffering from bleeding canker.

The report concluded: "It may be appropriate to consider complete avenue replacement within the near future to restore the long term amenity value to the area." But in a pro bono report commissioned by the Friends of Tooting Common group and published in March this year, independent tree consultant and Horticulture Week columnist Jeremy Barrell described the avenue trees as "at the top end of the benefit delivery spectrum because they are big, experienced by many people daily and have the potential to be retained into the long term".

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