Can local authority tree managers utilise influence of urban tree advocates?

An intervention by a group of urban tree advocates to avert a drastic cut in Bristol's highway tree maintenance budget, shows the influence such groups can have - and suggests tree managers would do well to foster such community engagement.

Bristol: city council poised to cut street tree maintenance before announcing review along with wider consultation
Bristol: city council poised to cut street tree maintenance before announcing review along with wider consultation

Named European Green Capital in 2015, Bristol had been poised to cut street tree maintenance, including pollarding and epicormic growth removal, by 78% from £240,000 to £53,000 while also ceasing to fund new street tree planting or provide round-the-clock emergency cover.

But intervention by Bristol Tree Forum (BTF) including councillors at a cabinet meeting on 16 May prompted the local authority to halt the decision, saying it will be reviewed after next month's general election and a wider consultation.

Next Field parks consultancy director Peter Wilkinson helped set up BTF nine years ago when he was Bristol's head of parks. "It came out of some challenging conversations with the public on tree removal and reduction, which made us think we needed to handle this kind of casework better," he says. "With the right ingredients it can be a progressive alliance, especially if as with BTF it has local authority involvement, rather than people just 'shouting in'. You can work towards consensus and even when you don't agree it still keeps you all round the table. But they weren't consulted over these latest cuts."

At the meeting, chair of the council's neighbourhoods scrutiny commission and BTF member councillor Anthony Negus said the street trees budget "was barely coping with the wonderful problem that we have in Bristol of having very many magnificent trees". He added that as a result of the cuts: "Footpaths will become more rucked, bringing the risk of tripping, while branches falling on car or person is serious. Any one of these could cost £100,000 - not an uncommon figure for a successful claim. Probably in six months you will have already lost the money you hoped to save."

Green Party councillor Clive Stevens, also a BTF member, called for "better consultation not just with the public but with the rest of the council itself", adding: "The street tree contractor has already laid off people and reduced the contract."

Deputy mayor with responsibility for communities councillor Asher Craig said street tree planting under the city's existing scheme for residents or community groups to sponsor replacement or new street trees could continue, but at £765 per tree, up from £295, to cover planting and 15 years' post-planting care. BTF member Mark Ashdown says: "This is good news, though I fear that many residents are going to find the new cost prohibitive."

Craig added that in the last financial year the cost of tree pollarding was just under £125,000 while epicormic growth removal cost the city £28,500. Mayor Marvin Rees told the meeting: "As part of our ongoing review we will look at engaging the public and groups such as BTF in how communities can support management of trees and green spaces in Bristol."

Balancing the books

BTF vice-chair Vassili Papastavrou says: "Bristol has a very big problem in balancing its books. Highways announced this cut without consulting other departments or ourselves. Nor are they looking at other funding sources for tree planting."

As one of the BTF founders "we felt there was a need to harness public interest in urban trees and to get the council to consider our views", he adds. "It has proved to be an effective way of finding out what's going on. But as far as I know it's the only forum of its kind." The public "tend to take street trees for granted until there is a crisis".

The forum has meanwhile documented online more than 66,000 of the city's trees including in excess of 16,000 street trees, at bristoltrees.space. "We waited for the council to do it but ended up doing it ourselves," Papastavrou reveals.

Advocates Street Trees project

Last month the Woodland Trust's Street Trees project called on residents and groups in three other UK cities to become advocates for their trees, with the People's Postcode Lottery providing £500,000.

Project leader Joseph Coles says: "With funding cuts as harsh as they are, the maintenance of highway trees, along with parks and green space management, does not have the high priority of other front-line services such as health."

But he adds: "The Woodland Trust's Street Trees project is intended to show that far from being unnecessary spend, good tree management supports these services and can significantly reduce costs and pressures in the future - the value of which would far outweigh any maintenance costs."


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