Figures revealed this week will give UK tree officers and urban planting scheme organisers cause to celebrate. After years of being undervalued, mismanaged and misunderstood, their urban tree stock could finally have an ally that will help in the battle to protect, if not bolster, planting and maintenance budgets in cities across the country.
The results of the first full i-Tree Eco survey to be carried out in the UK were officially published this week. They revealed that the urban tree stock in the Torbay area, where the analysis was carried out, has a combined structural value of a staggering £280m.
Add to that an annual carbon storage and sequestration value of £5m and £0.2m respectively as well as air pollution removal valued at around £1.3m, and it is hardly surprising that the bigwigs have sat up and taken notice.
Indeed the results of the analysis, a US-developed system that applies a cost benefit to urban forests, convinced council bosses to invest an extra £25,000 in Torbay's tree maintenance budget. It is a start.
Kenton Rogers, co-founder of Treeconomics, the organisation that spearheaded the project in the UK, says very few local authorities know what makes up their urban forest in terms of species, age, size, location or condition.
"This gives baseline information on an urban forest so they know in the future whether the situation is improving or declining. It could be used by tree officers, urban planners or community groups and voluntary initiatives," he adds.
In the face of ongoing local authority cuts, many tree officers, among other green-space and environment-related managers, have watched their budgets dwindle in recent months and years.
Rogers says: "In these economic times, results from an i-Tree survey can help justify the important work that trees do and therefore secure money to manage them properly."
Myerscough College arboriculture leader Mark Johnston says he is hopeful that programmes such as i-Tree will highlight the value of urban plantings. "They are a hugely beneficial part of urban infrastructure and we need to provide the money to support them just like we do for roads and hospitals. But we have never really put trees in that bracket before."
He continues: "Unfortunately, local authority tree services are under enormous pressure at the moment and if we don't start investing more to maintain these assets we will get a massive crash in the value of our urban forest."
It is a view supported by Arboriculture Association director Nick Eden. He says there needs to be better professional care in place for existing trees. "It's not a given that trees will survive even if they are biologically able to stand alone. They will face issues like poorly informed utilities contractors, highways maintenance work, pressure for development, requests for better views or light and also residents' calls for safety."
Eden also believes that more planting needs to be carried out. "We have to continue to plant trees in urban areas. We need to up our game significantly because we are so dependent on trees to create a liveable environment," he says.
He is not the only one. Numerous voluntary and community-led planting initiatives have sprung up in response to increasing calls for a more visually appealing and environmentally-supportive urban landscape.
One initiative whose focus is firmly planted in increasing the nation's urban tree count is Defra-backed partnership scheme the Big Tree Plant. The four-year campaign, which has just celebrated its first anniversary, aims to boost tree populations primarily in England's most deprived urban areas through a £4m grant fund available for community-led planting schemes.
Projects vary from community orchards in schools to street tree schemes and housing association initiatives. With an average contribution of £4 per tree and a maximum grant of 75 per cent of total costs, applicants are encouraged to attract match funding, sponsors and partnerships to maximise the effectiveness of their awards.
Funding is only available to non-Governmental and not-for-profit organisations. But although local authorities cannot apply, they can become full partners in a project.
Big Tree Plant chair Pauline Buchanan Black says securing council involvement can bring long-term benefits: "This is not about supplementing local authority maintenance cutbacks, but by doing the planting in collaboration with a council, applicants can set out proposals for ongoing care."
Buchanan Black, who is also director-general of the Tree Council, says human neglect and environmental factors result in fairly high mortality rates in tree plantings so applicants must show in their proposals how they will continue to maintain them. The programme will also be monitoring implementation on a sample of sites.
"I'm not interested in anything that doesn't have a legacy," she insists. "We want to see the tree planting embedded in the community's awareness and for them to take responsibility for it."
There are, of course, other schemes to have emerged, many of which place emphasis on numbers. The London mayor's RE:LEAF campaign aims to increase the capital's canopy from 20 to 25 per cent by 2025. Its Street Trees scheme, launched in 2008, is on target to plant its goal of 10,000 trees in priority urban areas by March this year.
Meanwhile, independent charity Trees for Cities has just launched a high-profile campaign, fronted by broadcast journalist Jon Snow, to plant 20,000 trees in cities throughout the UK and across the world during 2012.
Barcham Trees sales director Keith Sacre says planting initiatives such as the Big Tree Plant and RE:LEAF are a force for good because they put the value of trees on the national and local agenda.
But he says to ensure ongoing maintenance support for urban tree stock, more must be done to make the case for trees as assets that appreciate as opposed to ones that depreciate. To achieve this, he believes, both voluntary urban planting initiatives and local authorities could use the i-Tree analysis system as proof to potential backers.
"The longer the trees live and the healthier they are, the more benefits they can deliver environmentally and economically," he explains. "Getting that knowledge onto the national agenda would be a significant step because greater profile and investment levels would improve survival rates through greater availability of resources."
South Oxfordshire Council design and environment team leader Martin Gammie says that as well as adequate financial backing, more expertise must be applied in the planning stages of a planting scheme to boost the trees' chances of survival.
"One of the problems we have is numbers-driven political agendas. Some schemes are just based around the amount of trees planted rather than any real long-term management proposals," he points out. With local authority budgets being increasingly squeezed it has never been more important to implement specialist advice into the delivery of urban planting schemes, he adds.
"The more we move to the idea of localism the more we will find we are expected to rely on voluntary organisations to deliver some of these initiatives. It's a useful resource but it can be lacking in guidance," Gammie states.
"My suggestion is that any voluntary organisation initiative needs not only the funding to make sure that it is delivered properly, but professional input to manage it and guide those very useful and willing volunteers."
Gammie says more needs to be done to raise the profile of arboriculture as a profession to influence national and local policy and enable better supported and sustainable urban planting.
"If you want trees to survive, it needs to be an integrated approach from all those who provide infrastructure to the built environment - the designers, planners, politicians, voluntary organisations and local authorities," he points out. "It's not something you can do and walk away from as a one-off initiative - it has to be part of a bigger picture to be successful."
North West taps into the Big Tree Plant
Independent charity Community Forests North West (CFNW) was created in 2004 and works to increase tree cover across the Mersey Belt.
It helps to deliver three community forestry initiatives - Red Rose Forest, the Mersey Forest and Pennine Edge Forest - that aim to improve the urban environment by creating networks of green spaces, woodlands and street trees.
In 2011, CFNW launched a four-year £1.22m project to support community-led planting schemes in parks and public spaces, schools and streets across the region.
Backed by the Big Tree Plant (BTP), the schemes aim to plant 77,147 trees across urban areas of Greater Manchester, Merseyside and North Cheshire that are among the UK's 10 per cent most deprived.
Following CFNW's funding application, BTP committed £134,551 to the project for its first year, followed by a total of £305,903 for the following three years based on the success of year one. A progress report is due in April.
The figures are based on the cost the of projects identified by communities working with CFNW. Projects are assessed yearly and, if approved, they are included in an annual delivery plan.
Individual projects will be subject to ongoing evaluation and applicants must commit to caring for the young trees for the first five years.
In total the project aims to involve 20,000 volunteers, including residents, local community groups, students, school children and teachers, working in partnership with local authorities on whose land the planting schemes are mostly planned.
Local delivery partners also include registered social landlords, councils, BTCV, Faiths for Change, Viridor Groundwork and Trees for Cities.