Tree protection within The Canterbury City Council district
With ongoing publicity in relation to climate change, trees have become an important and emotive subject across the country. We are blessed in this district with huge tracts of woodland and forest compared with other areas such as Thanet, which boasts large areas of housing coupled with mere cauliflower forests, as any quick glance at an Ordnance Survey map demonstrates.
Opinions vary, but we must remain careful in relation to the demands of the environmental armchair keyboard warriors, who urge the planting of more trees but have never planted anything themselves, and others who go out on a spree of guerrilla planting with little thought as to the long-term suitability of what they are planting. To plant a tree is only the first step. Planted trees have to be nurtured, thinned out and managed as they develop in order to get the best outcomes. In Turkey, they found this out to their cost after November 11 2019, when volunteers planted 11 million trees in a single day. Within three months, 90 per cent had died due to a lack of water, and I have seen new street trees in this district die because householders have not taken the trouble to get a new tree through a dry spell with the regular addition of a bucket of water from the water butt.
On the Gorrell Valley Reserve (Duncan Down) in Whitstable, we only plant in winter the number of trees that we know we can maintain and water over the next year. By doing that, we have increased the diversity of species from 20 to 50 over the last 17 years.
Diversity is important because of disease such as ash dieback. We must not put all our eggs in one basket. Our greatest ally is the jay. In autumn a single bird will gather hundreds of acorns and secrete them away. Not all are consumed and many turn into splendid oaks, and these often do the best of all by sending down a deep tap root to get the water, and little management is required. We have never felt the need to plant a single native oak because they abound, and it is a great shame that the jay remains on the list of birds that can be lawfully shot under the Defra general licence when, in view of their huge contribution to the English oak, they should be our national bird. Thus areas close to ancient woodland are often best left. Nature will do what it is best at, given time. Other species such as birch, goat willow, hazel and field maple will help colonise any area in time, though hawthorn, blackthorn and dog rose have wildlife value but need to be kept in check to maintain a balance of habitats.
It remains vital that we protect the valuable trees that we already have, and many will be aware of instances locally where unscrupulous developers have ripped out woodland as a precursor to a planning application. In this area we need to be both vigilant and proactive. Our council needs to act with alacrity, and that has not always been the case.
We are in a race against the chainsaw, and what has taken a hundred years or more to develop can be destroyed in minutes. Vigilance coupled with knowledge of tree preservation orders and conservation areas is a way in which councillors and residents should be working together to ensure that orders are put into effect where there is a genuine need to do so. We need to anticipate and act, because it is no use crying after the event.
In a conservation area, work to or the felling of trees with a diameter greater than 7.5cm at 1.5 metres has to be notified to the local authority, and work can only take place after a six-week period. This gives time for the council’s planning department to make a preservation order on the tree. Thus trees in conservation areas do have a measure of protection, but where a tree makes a special contribution to the amenity of any location, it is prudent to seek a tree preservation order as an extra safeguarding measure.
Tree preservation orders (TPOs) can be made where it is “expedient in the interest of amenity to make provision for the preservation of trees or woodlands in their area”. Amenity is not defined in law but is generally taken that removal would have a significant negative impact on the local environment and its enjoyment by the public. It would mean consideration of things such as size, form, rarity and the character of the area. Nature conservation and climate change can add weight to this, but on their own would not warrant the making of an order. Some trees do not come up to that standard, and credibility would be undermined if spurious cases are pursued. Orders can apply to individual trees, groups, an area or a whole woodland. The term “expedient” takes into account areas that are vulnerable or at risk such as against a background of development pressure and changes in Iand ownership. This is where vigilance and close contact with local councillors is critical.
TPOs would not normally be required in existing areas of good tree management. I recently got an order in respect of some 250 metres of hedgerow with emerging trees, although hedgerows per se are usually covered by separate legislation. Planners will usually make a site visit and have powers of entry to do this. If an order is to be made, a notice is served by the council detailing the trees or area in question, and 28 days are allowed for representation or objection, after consideration of which the order will be confirmed, modified or withdrawn. Access to existing orders and conservation areas can be done simply on the council website.
Individuals can ask the planning department to initiate a TPO, but my advice would be to act via your local councillor. They should visit and may assist with a short report and photos to get the ball rolling. In addition they will be in a position to ensure matters get properly prioritised and, on occasions, chased. This recently took place in Tankerton ward, where Cllr Neil Baker was able to secure a TPO on some key trees in a matter of days.
Expectations have to be managed, and while a TPO may not be able to protect in every case, it does ensure that valuable trees cannot be ripped out on a whim. Applications to fell or cut back a tree subject to an order must be fully scrutinised, and if a ward councillor asks, that means scrutiny by the full planning committee. Sound judgement is essential.
Trees in town centres are difficult and there are often conflicts with traffic, buildings, disturbance to underground services, bird faeces and leaf slip hazards. Occasionally inappropriate trees are planted. Soil pollution from traffic grime, cigarette ends and low light levels can mean that such trees do not always thrive as one would wish, and sometimes more suitable replacements have to be considered.
Trees remain an important part of this district. Rigorous enforcement is the cornerstone to public confidence. Planning enforcement that covers this vital area is shortly to be considered by a cross-party councillor working group to ensure that those who abuse are called to account.
Ashley Clark is Canterbury City Council’s lead councillor for open spaces & enforcement and since 2005 has led the voluntary group that manages the award-winning Gorrell Valley Nature Reserve.
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