Sheffield trees case demonstrates it's good to talk

Tree officers and arborists advised to prioritise communication to avoid disputes.

Sheffield: dispute over street tree management triggers calls for greater communication with the general public
Sheffield: dispute over street tree management triggers calls for greater communication with the general public

Better communication with the public could help tree officers and arborists avoid getting caught up in local disputes, horticulture professionals have suggested. Communicating both the reasons why contentious tree work is being carried out and the high level of skill required to carry out this type of job can prevent problems further down the line, they say.

Their advice follows revelations that arborists in Sheffield have been adversely affected by recent controversy surrounding the city council's street tree management. The contract has been protested against largely because trees that are healthy but have been deemed "damaging" (to pavements or walls) or "discriminatory" (causing alleged obstruction to people with physical or visual impairments) have been removed, often without adequate notice.

In a statement, the Arboriculture Association points out that some activists and protesters seem to find it difficult to distinguish between the private finance initiative main contractor Amey and a local tree contractor. It appeals for respect for arborists at work, stating: "Arborists have been verbally abused in the street for felling trees and are often accused of being 'tree butchers'. A local, reputable and highly qualified arboriculturist was recently subjected to abuse and his company's reputation called into question. We feel there is a serious need for perspective within the debate and the atmosphere towards local arborists needs to become less toxic. Sheffield's street trees require a proper management plan, which may by necessity include felling trees."

The association also emphasises the importance of communication. "As arboriculturists, we should be highlighting the folly of felling trees for engineering reasons alone, whilst explaining the complexities of managing an urban forest."

Sheffield Tree Care owner Nick Boden also wants to see increased respect for arborists. He carries out work for the council but does not work on the city's street tree replacement contract. "STAG (Sheffield Tree Action Group) have genuine concerns and have been protesting very calmly and sensibly," he observes. "They show a lot of respect for arborists doing the work." But he notes that other members of the public are less considerate. "It is not just one or two Arboriculture Association members who have been getting abuse, it's a lot of people across the industry. There does need to be a little bit more education to help the public understand that most people who get into tree work do so because they have a love of trees - and it's an incredibly skilled vocation. People would be surprised at just how well qualified we are."

Boden also notes the importance of consultation, which he describes as "one of the most important aspects of tree work", adding: "It's been one of the elements that's been seemingly lacking in this (Sheffield) project. If there had been more (public) consultation at the start, there never would have been this mess."

Imperative consideration

The Tree Council director-general Pauline Buchanan Black says communicating with the public - and dedicating the necessary time and resources to do so - is imperative. "Without a huge communication campaign, it's hard to highlight what the issues are."

She offers the example of the negative press Network Rail received when it took down trees beside railway lines because they were posing a safety risk. "The local line was that it was (resulting in the) removal of biodiversity and habitat. It's incumbent on Network Rail to communicate the 'what, when and why' of what they are doing."

Buchanan Black also asserts that, because "there is no excuse for bad behaviour", the need for adequate communication could be incorporated into tree surgeons' risk assessments. This could include ensuring that notices are put up far enough in advance, she suggests.

Comment - Rapid response

Sid Sullivan, an independent parks consultant who has previously worked for a council, notes that a lack of communication is "pretty common across our (horticulture) sector." He adds: "We are not keeping up with the 21st century need to provide public relations responses rapidly and authoritatively. What's to stop all of the horticulture associations pooling their resources and getting one voice?"

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