The case for a Tree Commission

The case for a Tree Commission

Posted by John Flannigan on May 07 2007

Trees have a positive effect on quality of life for the entire UK population.

This is quite simply because tree attributes address people’s needs on several layers including improving the landscape, ameliorating the effects of pollution, providing a habitat for wildlife, reducing some negative effects of the weather, countering global warming and providing mental and spiritual relief.

However, this happy coincidence, where tree attributes match our needs, is not sustainable for amenity trees, without adequate strategic management, which is only possible through the intervention of Government.

Who else should be interested in the well-being of the whole population if not the Government?

Government intervention is necessary because of the non-commercial nature of the central issues relating to amenity tree management. In other words who else would be motivated to resource research and provide guidance that has no obvious financial payback and who else should be interested in the well-being of the whole population? There is nothing else other than Government.

Academia can help address policy issues and provide practical help by sharing its research but there are too few such establishments and academics in the UK to make this viable.

Arborists must therefore rely on the work of individuals or industry bodies for information even though both of which, naturally, tend to favour commercially relevant material.

Road through the trees

The other option is to rely on research from elsewhere. This has merits in relation to biological issues where tree cells are much the same the world over but is not reliable when considering tree benefits to humans. For example, most of the information relating to trees and pollution absorption, trees and property values and tree preference comes from the USA. Whilst the research is generally of good quality cultural, climatic and geographical factors may render it inappropriate to the UK.

Despite these issues Government continues to undertake a largely non-interventionist role in respect of amenity trees in direct contrast to its approach to woodland trees. The extent of this separation can be illustrated by the relative allocation of resources revealed in the table below.

Event DCLG* Forestry Commission
Annual budget £250,000 £82,344,000
Number of full time equivalent staff employed 6 592
Number of staff (FTE’s) employed specifically to deal with forest policy/strategy. 0 7 (although these are now employed by DEFRA)
Staff employed in research 0 278
Annual research budget £60,000 £13, 600, 000

*The Department for Communities and Local Government has responsibility for amenity trees.
No figures are available and this amount relates mainly to estimated staffing costs

These figures are remarkable for several reasons:

  1. They show that amenity trees are an extraordinarily low priority for Government in relation to Forestry.
  2. Urban living is eased by the presence of trees and yet the Government only spent £60,000 on amenity tree research. The Forestry Commission spent over £13.5 million more.
  3. The Forestry Commission has a budget of over £82 million and yet the 90% of UK residents living in urban areas are assisted by a Government department dwarfed in resources by a massive 328 times. This is inequity writ large.

This disparity is even more remarkable when you think about the output of tree attributes. Herb Schroeder of the USA Forest Service shows that trees, whether growing as individual ‘amenity trees’ (urban trees), or in woodlands, provide many identical services for humans and the environment and relate to:

  1. Materials
    Example:
    Timber or woodchips
  2. Biophysical processes
    Example: Reduced impacts of global warming due to carbon sequestration in a rural forest or from the urban forest
  3. Person-environment interaction
    1. Example: Enjoyment of mountain biking on a forest trail or walking in a park
    2. Example: Aesthetic appreciation of a scenic rural or urban landscape
    3. Example: Improved cardiovascular health as a result of time spent bicycling.
    4. Example: Improved job performance as a result of recovery from mental fatigue.
  4. Meanings
    1. Example: Sense of place & community identity
    2. Example: Symbolic value of trees and woodlands

Notwithstanding these similarities, the imbalance in Governmental priorities means that we know more about woodlands than we do about amenity trees. If things continue this gap in knowledge will continue to widen impoverishing our urban lives. An obvious example of this growing divide is the recent “Trees, forests and woodland strategy”. Don’t be fooled by its title it was written to maintain the status quo and amenity trees were clearly not part of its ultimate brief.

Dewy leaves

Government might argue that DCLG meets amenity tree needs primarily through its policy that tree strategies are best if they are prepared locally. I think this really means that the Government favours woodlands and this policy keeps Arboriculture at arms length and avoids the need to foot any related costs.

The significant difficulty in expecting Local Authorities to lead on amenity tree management through the preparation of local strategies is that core information is not available. There is simply not enough UK orientated data to support these strategies and it is unrealistic, and unfair, to expect Local Authority Tree Officers to collect the necessary information.

The following example illustrates my point.

Effective tree management can be judged through a benefit-cost analysis. One key part of this relates to the tree attribute which enables trees to remove pollution from the atmosphere providing clear health benefits. This can only be calculated if pollution levels are known and this data is simply not available. Sadly, under the current system Government clearly expects Arborists to somehow fix this when in fact Government should be providing the tools to help Arborists. Furthermore, this scenario of lack of supporting data plays out across each of the positive and negative columns of a benefit-cost approach.

Moreover, Government has excluded trees from the Key Performance Indicator process thereby relegating them to the not very important list. I don’t know why this is when you consider their benefits to the population but I suspect that they have fallen foul of the same problems faced by Local Authority Tree Officers – lack of data to make informed decisions. 

Local Authority Tree Officers are therefore expected to write their strategies in a vacuum. This is in marked contrast with Foresters who have the benefit of seven full time members of staff (more than the total of amenity tree staff in the whole of DCLG) to focus on strategy. Hence, access and biodiversity are now important objectives for Forestry owners because these issues benefit the population. There appears to be no irony that Forestry is becoming more interested in amenity.

The country needs the Government to combine its resources – what the country needs is a Tree Commission.

It is my view that amenity tree benefits relate primarily to canopy cover and one strategic aim of the Government should be to see an increase in canopy cover combined with adequate age range management. This simple but effective step would bring trees into the wider narrative of local and national government and bring very real benefits to the population.

There is a straightforward resolution to these problems which requires the Government to unify tree management. To do so will involve the creation of a body capable of overseeing tree management into the 21st Century.

The country needs the Government to combine its resources – what the country needs is a Tree Commission.

A Tree Commission would provide strategic management ensuring the sustainability of this valuable resource.

A Tree Commission is vital to help maintain a high quality of life for our increasing urbanisation.

A Tree Commission would have the resources to provide tree managers throughout the UK with the knowledge and tools to manage their trees effectively ensuring that the population can reap the rewards that trees and woodlands provide.

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