What effect will the newly appointed 'tree champion' have on tree management?

The Government has appointed Sir William Worsley as tree champion to help meet its targets on urban and rural tree planting, but industry representatives are sceptical he will achieve progress on the ground.

Sir William Worsley - image: The National Forest
Sir William Worsley - image: The National Forest

Urban forestry consultant, lecturer, trainer and Municipal Tree Officers Association representative Ian McDermott tells Horticulture Week: "It’s a good thing potentially, though it’s a huge challenge for a one-year appointment."

The three main priorities of Worsley’s role will be to support the Government’s target of planting 11 million new trees and, separately, one million new urban trees, as well as to institute a requirement for local authorities to consult with residents on tree felling.

"There is no extra funding for the first two, so they will probably just bodge together figures of trees already being planted," says McDermott. His concern is over the third aim.

"It’s very difficult to consult successfully on removing trees from the urban environment and it isn’t in the skill set of most tree officers," he says. But the national controversy around tree felling generated by the "rogue" local authority of Sheffield "now means that everyone will have to foot the bill for this".

He adds that, in tandem, a Defra-backed "manual" for tree managers is "close to the final draft and also mentions the need for tree managers to consult".

Birmingham City Council’s establishment in 2016 of "Birmingham Tree People" as part of the Tree Council's tree warden scheme "put it ahead of the game" on this, because it "allows residents and businesses to decide what gets done on trees", he explains.

But even here, "tree wardens are co-ordinated by tree officers, who don’t have time to do it — it’s just more calls on less resources". He notes: "There are now so few tree wardens. Sheffield used to have a strong tree warden network."

Devastating for councils

He says this new obligation, combined with the consequences of the recent Cavanagh v Witley Parish Council & D Kevin Shepherd case, could be "devastating" for some councils.

The case hinged on whether the parish council and its tree inspector were at fault when a mature roadside lime tree with a fungal infection at its base fell on a bus, seriously injuring the driver. The judge ruled that the tree’s three-year inspection cycle was inadequate and that a reasonable inspection frequency should have been every two years.

"This may lead to shortened tree-inspection cycles and if you halve the inspection period you double the resource requirement," says McDermott. "But this will actually save trees, since a tree has to last till the next inspection. If that’s sooner, the inspector is more likely to say ‘fine, leave it’, so actually saving costs on felling."

All this means "there’s a lot coming towards local authorities and it will be difficult to deal with it all", while the "appalling level of people coming into tree management" will further add to the strain, he suggests.

Newly appointed chair of the London Tree Officers Association Barbara Milne expresses similar concerns. "We look forward to meeting Sir William soon to discuss his aspirations in this new role," she says. "However, there are real concerns amongst tree officers that a national requirement to consult on felling individual trees would create an impossible burden for already overstretched local authorities, and we are keen to explore other solutions to the financial constraints and outsourcing which seem to have triggered some of the recent high-profile cases of tree removal."

Critical protection

Jeremy Barrell, managing director of Barrell Tree Consultancy and member of the Trees & Design Action Group (TDAG) board of trustees, says: "The tree champion’s remit has a focus on the rural environment and planting new trees, but most people live in the towns and cities where the greatest benefit from trees can be achieved. The protection of existing trees is of critical short-term importance because they are already in place and delivering benefits."

Describing the appointment as "the best chance I have ever known to formally recognise and introduce the importance of urban trees into mainstream built-environment management", he says: "TDAG has been developing a proposed national tree and woodland strategy to address these issues, and I hope that this will be high up the list of priorities for Sir William. But I think the barriers within Government are just too entrenched to breach, so I will be quite surprised if we manage to deliver much change."

The Institute of Chartered Foresters (ICF) has welcomed the tree champion’s role in promoting more woodland creation and planting across England. Development director Andy Lederer says: "One of Sir William’s challenges will be to promote the value, and need for investment, in local authority tree management across urban and peri-urban areas to ensure we maintain and increase canopy cover to the benefit of future generations."

ICF executive director Shireen Chambers adds that for forestry the biggest challenge is "a disconnect between a growing awareness of the importance of trees and the fiscal and political support for meaningful land-use change in England".

For the Woodland Trust, its director of woodland outreach John Tucker says: "Recent tree planting figures have been very disappointing and we hope Sir William will bring fresh impetus to the Government’s manifesto commitment, and will enhance the focus on developing landscape resilience to pest and disease threats."

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