How Birmingham's new tree policy aims to help protect the city's urban forest

Britain's largest local authority - the only UK member of the international network of "biophillic cities" - is "in a prime position to trial new tools and models reflecting global advancements in our understanding", according to its new tree policy document, published last month.

Birmingham's New Street - image: Birmingham Retail Quarter (CC BY 2.0)
Birmingham's New Street - image: Birmingham Retail Quarter (CC BY 2.0)

It has been prepared by the city’s Tree Policy Task & Finish Group, set up to harness such knowledge of best practice from the UK and elsewhere "with a particular focus on building resilience within the tree stock and retention, removal and replacement policies".

According to its chair, councillor Fiona Williams: "Currently, mature trees are not infrequently being lost to development and are often replaced with smaller canopied tree species of limited diversity. In particular, replacement levels within the city centre can often be limited or non-existent."

She describes the new document, the first since 2009, as "a more proactive policy, which will ensure a sufficiently long-term view is taken to protect the Birmingham urban forest".

The city already has a relatively high urban canopy cover of around 18-19% and while "a long-term vision would be to reach 25-30%" the plan calls for smaller increments, initially of two percentage points, to be monitored and reported on every five years.

In October 2017 the council declared that an official Birmingham design guide should shape all future development across the city and by the end of the current year this should include specifications covering a wide range of tree-related issues, including water-sensitive urban design, the policy states.

New developments should maximise opportunities for greening, it says, with a mechanism to ensure "replacement trees can be planted in those areas where an increase in tree cover would be most beneficial" to be in place by next February.

To this end, a proposed Birmingham tree bank should hold costs of forgone planting opportunities in new developments where no suitable sites are available. These should instead be used to plant trees elsewhere in the city, where their potential benefits would be greatest. This "could potentially provide both an alternative means of securing additional funding and a means of facilitating a more strategic city-wide approach to tree planting and green infrastructure", the policy states.

To value the loss of trees to development, it calls for "a grading system which places a monetary value on the visual amenity of trees as well as their replacement cost, such as CAVAT", to replace the city’s current two-for-one replacement planting policy, which it says "does not properly mitigate for loss where there is not enough room to properly accommodate tree replacement".

Amey contract

Like Sheffield, where street tree replacement is an ongoing point of contention with the public, Birmingham has a 25-year street tree management contract with Amey. The new policy calls for "a process to be developed to ensure that appropriate consultation takes place prior to any highways improvement or design development where trees are likely to be affected".

It also says that, as street tree removal "should result in a revenue saving", this "could be used to cover the revenue and maintenance costs of new trees added to the network" via the proposed Birmingham tree bank. "Instead of looking at tree mitigation on a site-by-site basis this would provide flexibility and funding to consider taking a more strategic city-wide green infrastructure approach," the policy notes.

It also calls for "a representative, region-wide, independent-led Birmingham forest group" made up of relevant experts and interest groups "to inform the development of an urban tree management strategy across the subregion", which it says "should become the single point of reference for all directorates when considering how they manage or influence the Birmingham urban forest". With a timescale of 25 years, this should be "owned widely across the city, not just by the municipal institution", it adds.

The proposed group should also oversee presentation of information about the city’s trees to the public, via "a one-stop shop for tree-related information" including an interactive online map.

Community involvement

Local freelance urban forestry consultant and Municipal Tree Officers Association representative Ian McDermott says such community involvement "is the most important bit". He explains: "Sheffield has changed everything as far as community engagement is concerned, but Birmingham is the other end of that stick. It’s a coincidence that they have the same contractor."

McDermott has long been involved in Birmingham’s tree warden scheme, which "is already one of the most influential", while the community group Birmingham Trees for Life "has already raised funds locally to plant hundreds of thousands of trees", he says.

But he cautions: "Handing over management responsibility doesn’t sit well with most tree officers." However, these "are disappearing and the remaining ones are inundated". As a consequence: "The power to say ‘no’ to the loss of trees has gone, as that requires political backup as well as the resources to make the case. Now in Birmingham though they can say ‘that goes against the city’s policy’ and only the forest group will be able to override it."

The proposed timescales in the policy amount to "very tight turnarounds but show they won’t let this drift", he adds.

Trees & Design Action Group (TDAG) national co-ordinator Sue James notes: "The policy says plenty of things that chime with what TDAG has been saying. The concept of developing a 25-year tree management strategy is very welcome because it is longer-term thinking that will be important if we are to have resilient urban forests."

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