Interview: Oliver Stutter, chairman, London Tree Officers Association

A misconception about tree officers that really makes Oliver Stutter's blood boil is when people assume they spend all their time climbing.

Oliver Stutter, chairman, London Tree Officers Association. Image: HW
Oliver Stutter, chairman, London Tree Officers Association. Image: HW

It is this simplification of the role of trees — and those who manage them — in urban and rural areas that provides a major challenge for the sector.

In reality, the issues are myriad. Whether discussing climate change, safety standards or gang culture, there is weighty matter to be ploughed.

As the current chairman of the London Tree Officers Association (LTOA) — having taken over from Andy Tipping earlier this year — Stutter believes now is the ideal time for action.

"Andy Tipping did a huge amount so I'm really stepping into big shoes," he explains. "It has been quite a rollercoaster since I became chairman. The whole industry has gone right up the political scale over the past year or two.

"It is a case of me really building on what he has done."

The role of trees in climate change adaptation was the major focus of the Arboricultural Association's annual conference last month and it is a subject Stutter is keen to promote.

"We are going to have a handbrake on investment but trees are a prime example of investing to save, particularly in terms of climate change," he says.

"The limiting factor on tree canopy cover is funding, but it is also about liaising with other people who manage the public realm, such as engineers, architects and town planners."

Despite becoming aware of the LTOA when he was about 18, Stutter did not immediately follow a path into becoming a tree officer, preferring instead to follow the more "glamorous" route of forestry.

That decision took him across the world — to Bolivia, Cameroon and the Soloman Islands — where he carried out a series of studies and volunteer placements in forest reserves.

"But then I realised it was all very well to be telling people what to do with their trees overseas, but that the most useful thing I could do was to try to change minds back at home."

Having grown up in south London, inner-city areas have always had a special pull for Stutter.

Leaving the worldwide forestry aside, he says there are very particular urban threats to trees in the UK.

One issue that has gained increasing recognition in the media is the damage that fighting dogs are causing.

"It is about crime and gangs," he reveals. "People don't want to carry knives or guns, but a dog is a replacement for that.

"When I started at Southwark Council in 1999 it was very rare indeed, but it has become much worse. We are trying to benchmark the reactions of different local authorities to that."

Trees can engender deep emotional responses in people and Stutter tells HW that his job sometimes seems, in part, like that of a social worker.

But the public's interest in community trees can be a hindrance — Stutter explains that it is now critical for tree officers to recognise the need to inform the community of work such as pruning or even the importance of keeping a particular tree in place.

"In the past we didn't really need to tell people about tree works because they weren't really bothered," says Stutter. "But it has become more of a big issue now and we have to consult. People have strong opinions — it is like George Bush or Princess Diana — there's no middle ground."

Proper management is a major issue and one that has been brought to the fore by the National Tree Safety Group and its responses to British Standard 8516 on tree-safety inspections.

Concerns that onerous inspection regimes or litigation could lead to trees being felled have prompted the development of a strong industry response. "We need to make sure we don't make people feel defensive so they fell trees or invest in over-inspection," Stutter says.

Critically, the benefits of trees need to be promoted, so that public and government perceptions sway towards the valuable role of urban specimens.

"The sector is at its prime now to influence how things go in the future," he concludes. "People think climate change is about recycling and light bulbs but in reality a lot of it is about managing the large green air conditioners that we already have outside. That is a difficult thing to get across to senior decision makers — the fact that we have the solution in our hands."

1989-1990 Horticulturist, Wimbledon Park, Merton Council
1990-1992 Forest research and training in Bolivia
1992-1994 BSc Environmental Science, University of Aberdeen
1993-1995 Studies in Cameroon and the Soloman Islands
1995-1996 MSc Forestry, Oxford Forestry Institute
1997-1999 Community forester in Bolivia
1999-2003 Arboricultural officer at London Borough of Southwark
2003 International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist
2003 to date Arboricultural manager, London Borough of Southwark
2009 Chairman, London Tree Officers Association

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