Who will benefit from year one of the Urban Tree Challenge Fund?

London Plane trees - image: Flickr/Simon Cocks (CC by 2.0)
London Plane trees - image: Flickr/Simon Cocks (CC by 2.0)

Launched last week, the Government’s £10m Urban Tree Challenge Fund will enable planting and establishment of 20,000 large trees and 110,000 small trees in English towns and cities over the next two years, making it among the largest ever pots of funding specifically for urban trees.

Available over two year-long periods, the funding provides up to half the cost of planting and establishment over the first three years, with the remaining funding to be matched by the applicant in the form of either money or labour. Selection is competitive, with the Forestry Commission judging applications against criteria intended to maximise the new trees’ social and environmental impact.

Applicants, which can be local authorities, charities or even individuals, must demonstrate "clear and unambiguous benefit" from projects, ranging from encouraging engagement with nature, particularly among children, and increasing canopy cover in deprived urban areas, as well as greening towns and cities. Equal priority will be given to schemes in areas ranking high in the Index of Multiple Deprivation and in areas of low canopy cover.

But perhaps most controversially, in its first year the fund is only open for applications for "block bids" of over £500,000 – though individual applications may also submit an ‘Expression of Interest’ now for the second year.

Midlands Tree Officers Association representative Ian McDermott, who was among those consulted on the scheme, admits he has "mixed feelings" about it, given this last point.

"If you reckon on £900 each to plant and establish a street tree, that equates to at least 1,100 trees," McDermott says. "How many local authorities plant that many street trees in a year? It might work for London authorities, because they have the network and the geography to work together. I don’t see us in the West Midlands putting together a joint bid though, and I don’t know who else can meet the criteria."

The application procedure "is more complicated than in the past because they have raised the bar on urban tree planting standards", based on priorities identified in the consultation, he says. "Defra have listened – though how many local authorities will know what their urban canopy cover is? It means you can’t just go for the easy planting on the more affluent side of town with wide verges."

In all though, he says: "These are problems we would have prayed for 10 years ago. It’s taken so long to get support for big urban trees, even though that’s where 85% of people live."

The Arboricultural Association likewise welcomes the launch of the fund and its focus on amenity trees. "Although the fund is restricted to block bids during its first year, we hope that using the funding this way, initially, will enable the Forestry Commission to green light the proposals with the greatest impact," a representative says.

Its concern is more with the wider context into which the new urban trees will fit. "There remains a need for government to recognise the importance of involving arboricultural expertise and best practice in planning, implementation and aftercare," its representative says.

"Arboricultural expertise is still too frequently an afterthought or even ignored in large developments involving tree planting. As a result, too often wide-scale planting schemes fail because insufficient time is given to planning, and insufficient funding allocated to their maintenance."

He adds: "The professionals responsible for local authority trees need to be allocated sufficient resources to oversee the management of the nation’s urban tree stock. Instead their resources have been stripped back and in many cases their roles wrongly diminished. This only becomes more pertinent with initiatives like the Urban Tree Challenge Fund."

The first tranche is open for applications from 23 May to 28 July 2019. A Forestry Commission representative told Horticulture Week: "We have already received early interest from a range of organisations including several local authorities."

Making mass planting work

The new fund promotes urban woodland creation as well as street planting, but Ian McDermott warns it needs to avoid the mistakes of the past. Previous government largesse led to widespread open-space planting in the 1980s and 90s which was not subsequently maintained, he says. "The Forestry Commission should know where those areas are. Will we be able to get funding to plant them again?"

The recently widely reported case of newly planted woodland trees along the route of the HS2 rail link dying from lack of aftercare highlights the frequent perversity of planting incentives, he notes. "There’s no point in bringing in bowsers to water them – it really is cheaper to replace them. There’s rarely funding for a ‘beating up’ survey either [to ensure stated aims have been achieved]. It’s always a problem with mass planting."

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