Tell Defra: help protect street trees

Trees on street and in urban areas add colour and character to our neighbourhoods, join us on our daily commute and provide a host of benefits for people, wildlife and the built environment. We believe you should have a say in their future. So we're pleased to see the Government is asking for your views, in a new consultation based on a commitment made in 2017 to "place new duties on councils to consult when they wish to cut down street trees".

This is your chance to stand up for the trees where you live, work and play. 

Excellent news! But the plans won't work without resources. 

The consultation also:

  • sets out proposals to make local authorities report on tree felling and planting activities
  • outlines plans to establish best practice government guidance on local Tree and Woodland Strategies
  • suggests new powers for the Forestry Commission to address illegal felling and protect wooded landscapes.

Local councils and the Forestry Commission will have valid concerns about how they can deliver on this, especially given ongoing cuts and restrictions in public funding. It’s crucial the Government’s vision is backed up with adequate resources. You could help them get what they need by showing your support in the consultation. 

Stand up for urban woods and trees

Use our form to share your views before the consultation closes on 28 February. We've started some of the message for you, but please add in your own comments - you can use our Q&A below to help. When you are ready, click 'submit'. 

In recent years the Trust has seen a huge increase in public concern over tree management, and we’ve seen reductions in council budgets too. Now the Government is asking for views on proposals to introduce four new measures that could increase transparency and accountability in the process of felling street trees, and strengthen the Forestry Commission’s power to tackle illegal tree felling. Two of the measures introduce new duties on local authorities: a duty to consult on the felling of street trees; a duty to report on tree felling and replanting; while the third suggests the production of best practice guidance to support local authorities in drawing up, consulting on and publishing a Tree and Woodland Strategy.

  • The duty to consult is intended to ensure that members of the public are appropriately consulted on the felling of street trees.
  • The duty to report would require local authorities to collate and report information on the felling and replanting of trees in a uniform way. This would increase transparency and allow the government to monitor tree felling at a national level
  • Tree and Woodland strategies would help local authorities set out the principles that support tree management activities, increasing transparency and accountability and improving stakeholder and public engagement. 
  • The fourth measure is intended to give the Forestry Commission more powers to tackle illegal tree felling and strengthen protection for wooded landscapes.  

The consultation is called 'Protecting and Enhancing England’s Trees and Woodlands'. There are 25 questions. We’ve prepared a message with the key points included for you to send to Defra's team, which is managing the process. Please include your own views too, especially if you have had experience of trees in your area being felled or replaced or if your area has suffered from illegal felling. Type in the ‘add your views’ box to add your comments. 

I don’t live in England, can I still take part?
Yes please!  The proposals relate to England, but we always want the Government to hear from the public how much trees matter near where they live and work.

What's the Trust's view? 

Overall, these proposals offer an opportunity to see local authorities given the tools they need and to enable professionals like Tree Officers, who have dedicated their careers to caring for trees, to do so much more. We also welcome more support to help the Forestry Commission tackle illegal felling. However money and capacity including staff expertise can be limited. We believe standardised, structured and properly funded support could make a huge difference. If they are to make any impact the government’s proposals must be properly planned and resourced.  

This consultation is an excellent opportunity for you to have your say about how the trees and the natural green spaces near you are protected and cared for. It’s also an opportunity to fundamentally change the way England’s urban forests are managed in the future. Investment increases the value of the assets – just like a bank balance. 

Why trees near where people live and work matter

Trees in urban landscapes are of immense value. With 83% of the UK population living in urban areas, they are the main green spaces that many people interact with on a day to day basis. The ecosystem services they provide offer major, long-term benefits to both people and places, including homes and food for wildlife, cooling and shading in built-up areas, air quality improvement and helping flood water retention. Trees in residential areas and along pavements and roadsides don’t just make an area more attractive with colours and wildlife; they've been proven to raise house prices too. 

What to consider in your response 

One of the things we want this consultation to lead to is a clear definition of ‘street trees’ - and an acknowledgement that trees which grow near where people live, work and play are every bit as valuable as trees specifically on streets.   

Trees in the public realm are cherished assets for communities; the perception that management decisions are made on the basis of costs and not wider benefits is a huge concern. Councils should be empowered to make and communicate decisions appropriately to an increasingly aware and informed audience and supported to develop tree strategies and associated reporting frameworks that in themselves go a long way to realising ambitions around good management and transparency.

The ‘duty to consult’ locals about removing trees

The consultation states that this duty to consult “is intended to ensure that members of the public are appropriately consulted on the felling of street trees, which can contribute positively to the quality of life for people in urban areas”.  We cannot emphasise enough that undertaking consultation is not an end in itself. A duty to consult will only work if local authorities have adequate resources to deliver it. It would certainly help bring citizens closer to the management of their street trees, but it must be properly planned and resourced or risks undermining the objective. It needs to avoid overstretching the limited resources that councils already work with. 

We also want:

  • the government to define how the results will be enacted if the public are to have confidence that their own time and effort is valued and influential; and 
  • any duty to be set within a wider engagement strategy (which could form part of a Tree Strategy), to help the public understand the role and value of trees in the wider context so they can respond in an informed manner when consultations arise.  
It’s not clear in these proposals exactly how a duty like this will be levied. It’s important that the Government understands the challenges these proposed duties will place on councils - appropriate staff and resources are critical if these plans are to make a positive impact. We understand that councils may be concerned about additional demands the proposed new duties might place on them, which is why it’s so important this consultation records a clear show of support for associated resources from the government. Please make your concerns clear in your own response. 
 
We don't agree with the proposed scope of the duty to consult - it's too narrow. It should include edge of town locations as these are often where conflict occurs. The parameters need to be clarified – exactly what ‘urban’ means, what is and isn’t classed as a 'street tree', how these consultations would work, and who will be asked to respond. The public must easily understand the scope and know what they can expect to influence. In addition, the level of consultation should fit the significance or impact on the tree, especially trees of national significance. 
 
We don't agree with the 'trigger point' - there should be more flexibility here around who is consulted on the trees in question. The suggestion of 100m2 is an error (this means a 10m x10m square) but even 100m x 100m is overly restrictive. A single significant tree in a large housing estate might be important to all of its residents not just those in immediately adjacent houses. We would welcome the trigger point of 50% of respondents, as this ensures a fairer representation of those with an interest to reply. 
 
Exemptions should only apply if a tree is assessed according to an appropriate risk assessment framework. For example ‘dangerous’ is used to define trees which pose an immediate danger and require urgent removal. With appropriate tree management processes in place this circumstance should rarely arise, and indeed responsible management means that in normal circumastances trees should be removed before they become immediately dangerous, not after. 
 
We agree that it is appropriate that trees of special historic or cultural significance are subject to a more rigorous consultation process. The level of consultation should be related to a qualified assessment of significance and asset value of the tree in the local landscape - something that is, and should be, taken into account where good practice is followed. Trees of special interest, especially ones that are of national special interest, should be consulted on fully and include recognised stakeholders (such as the Ancient Tree Forum). Trees in this category have significance beyond the immediate location. They may be locally, regionally or nationally important and as such should be considered according to their merit. In some cases, such as avenues, the trees do not stop at the urban boundary and any consultation should include the entire landscape feature – which might in practice require cross-boundary collaboration. Local Authorities should be supported in defining significance through published guidance.
 
We do not agree with the criteria for designating a tree of special historic or cultural significance. The scope of the consultation process only applies to significant trees that are within the definition of street trees but trees of historic, cultural or ecological significance may not fall under that definition, but may remain under the jurisdiction of a Local Planning Authority. They can be on publicly or privately-owned land. The criteria should be established at a national level but should be flexible enough to allow for regional and local variation (e.g. the characteristic Scots pines that line many roads in East Anglia).  Skilled and knowledgeable government staff and local expertise would be needed to identify and assess these trees and their management. 
 
We would suggest these other categories: 
  • ‘Trees of National Special Interest’ - so that they have the status and protection they deserve. Criteria should be established through a stakeholder group and disseminated across the country.
  • ‘Valuable’ trees -  trees identified as providing particular benefits, for example providing shade in otherwise exposed locations, or hosting a rare species of wildlife. Valuation and assessment tools such as Capital Asset Value of Amenity Trees, iTree, or Natural Capital Accounting should be used to inform decisions and a consultation shaped accordingly. Local Planning Authorities should weight these categories and valuations accordingly in planning and enforcement decisions.
  • ’Related’ trees - may have progeny or nearby trees that will eventually succeed the former, and special consideration should be given to those trees through the wider consultation process to ensure a succession of trees of historical or cultural significance in that location in the future.
We do not agree that consultations be done on an individual basis or in groups of trees (where, for example, trees are planted in the same location). This question offers a Yes/No option, we suggest 'No' as we believe consultations should be carried out for individual trees  and  groups of trees according to circumstances. 
 
The 'duty to report' on tree planting and tree felling
 
We fully support this, but it is important that Government helps to guide this process by providing the framework and resources for delivery.
  • We also want government agencies to have a reporting duty, as local authority owned trees are only a small proportion of trees in the landscape. 
  • All publicly owned or managed trees should be reported on in a uniform way regardless of location.
  • Information should be presented through an accessible database and mapping on a standardised government model compatible with existing inventories or council tree or asset management software, so that the data can be easily transferred. Where local authorities don’t have such management software, provision should be made to enable their introduction, accompanied by an appropriate delivery timetable.
  • Data should be held by central government and presented electronically with mapping of felled/ planted trees. It should be open access to aid public awareness.
Tree and woodland strategies
 
We believe most councils do a great job of managing trees for the benefit of their citizens and the environment. We agree that Tree and Woodland Strategies help local authorities and the public to manage their trees and woodlands, but we do not agree that best practice guidance would be sufficient for local authorities and the public. Some best practice guidance is already available but is only followed by those councils who choose to adopt it.  
  • There should be a national strategy and a template available for local authority adoption as well as central support (for example a Defra helpline), and training.
  • When it comes to content, specific issues such as flooding, air pollution and other ecosystem services should also be covered.
  • Strategies need to also consider the landscape, not just council-owned trees or council-owned land but should incorporate trees in private ownership. A lot of public space in urban locations is under control of bodies such as housing associations, academies and health bodies and is a vital part of urban green infrastructure.
  • Strategies should also set out a timeline for a review process. In addition to biodiversity, other values should be assessed such as heritage, culture and landscape.
Illegal felling

Illegal (also known as ‘unlicensed’) felling happens more often than you might expect. Before any trees are cut down, a felling license may be required from the Foresty Commission. If trees are felled without a license or the wrong trees are felled the Forestry Commission can prosecute and levy a fine or a restocking notice. The consultation states an intention “to give the Forestry Commission more powers to tackle illegal tree felling and strengthen protection of wooded landscapes”. We welcome support to help the Forestry Commission to do more. 

However, the measures proposed require further consideration and amendments.

  • There are currently lots of felling licence exemptions, so this is an opportunity for the government to review all of these and ensure they still meet requirements in an age where trees are increasingly recognised far beyond their timber value.
  • There need to be better linkages between the felling licence system and the planning system: the two operate in isolation and can allow unscrupulous developers to slip between the two.
  • Land that is subject to a restocking notice must be clearly mapped and disseminated to local planning authorities so that it forms part of the planning process, without authorities having to search for this data. 
  • The unlawful felling of trees prior to the submission of a planning application should be viewed as a material planning consideration.
  • No sale of land where illegal felling has taken place should be allowed unless a signed agreement is obtained committing the new owner to restocking. 
  • Fines for illegal felling should be revised and increased to a level where they negatively impact the viability of any future scheme on the land. 

We also suggest:

  • an anonymous reporting hotline and online resource so people can report concerns confidentially and feel protected and empowered when speaking out
  • more interaction between Tree Preservation Order process and felling license procedures, particularly for trees of special interest
  • more consideration should be given to linking land value to the level of fine imposed – if developers benefit from unlicensed removal of trees, then this should be reflected in the fine

If the Forestry Commission is to deliver on these proposals there needs to be a realistic number of enforcement officers to deliver and monitor illegal felling. The public should expect reported concerns to be investigated in a timely manner and while evidence is fresh. 

 


When you are ready, click 'submit' and send your response straight to the Defra team. You can read the proposals and find out more about the consultation on Defra's website: https://consult.defra.gov.uk/forestry/protecting-trees-and-woodlands/

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Ms
Rebecca
Lavery
Defra