Wednesday, 6 November saw over 300 delegates flock to Reading Town Hall for the 2019 National Tree Officers Conference, with talk of trees and planning across the UK and around the world providing excellent food for thought.

ORGANISED by the London Tree Officers Association (LTOA) and the Municipal Tree Officers Association (MTOA) and facilitated by the Institute of Chartered Foresters (ICF), the fourth National Tree Officers Conference built on all the success of the previous three events to deliver a packed programme of detailed, informative presentations.


Forestry Journal: Over 300 people, mostly tree officers, made the trip to Reading for the conference.Over 300 people, mostly tree officers, made the trip to Reading for the conference.

The first session of the day was chaired by Sarah Hanson, Reading Borough Council, and the first speaker was Philip Simpkin MICFor, natural environment officer for Wycombe District Council, who was also the first speaker at the inaugural conference in 2016. He explained his work to increase canopy cover in new developments through supplementary planning documents.

He said: “I’ve been a tree officer with the council since 2005 and it was apparent to me that many of the new developments we were getting were not as green and leafy as we might hope. It felt like we didn’t have the power to get what we wanted and developers had little incentive to help.”

Determined to improve the situation, Philip and his team produced a new policy requiring 25 per cent canopy cover on new development sites (excluding town centres), which was incorporated into the local plan in August.

He said they used the Bluesky national tree map and worked with Forest Research and Treeconomics to devise their target.

“We looked at areas of High Wycombe with 25 per cent and under and found that well-treed areas had low crime and good health, while the poorly treed areas were at the opposite end of the spectrum, so there’s a clear correlation there, which came out across the district.”

He said the supplementary planning document could be incorporated into the normal process a developer goes through, taking account of existing trees and available soil to assess the design of the site. This will all go to inform the final planning decision.

Next up, ‘The Regulatory Role of a Tree Officer’ was the subject of a presentation from Chris Ryder, principal tree officer at LB Bromley.

He detailed his work to ensure regulations are properly followed by organisations like BT, Network Rail and others (aka ‘statutory undertakers’) carrying out works around trees.

“Who is regulating these activities?” he asked. “No-one, from a planning point of view, and that’s why we, as tree officers, find ourselves being called on to regulate. If it’s not done, it just leads to complaints.”

He highlighted a case from May, when his department issued a tree preservation order to prevent Network Rail from felling a group of mature trackside trees – and made national headlines.

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Shortly after, Jo Johnstone, then transport minister, called in Network Rail’s strategy for ministerial review, which brought about a new way of working in which Bromley Council will be advised and invited to consult on similar projects. This was a process Chris advised pushing for with all statutory undertakers.

He said: “Communication is key. Insist on consultation, keep a contact list of who’s involved in your region, establish contact with those responsible so you can get ahead of the game and agree a procedure for moving forward.”

He concluded by urging tree officers across the country to share information with each other.

The final speaker of the session was Richard Nicholson, formerly team leader at Dorset County Council but now a consultant, who spoke about trees and the planning system and how local authorities can best use the tools at their disposal.

He said: “My theory is that arboriculture and planning are not working. What is termed best practice is generated by the consulting arm of the industry – of which I’m now a member – and seems to be one type of report with a very standard set of specifications. I don’t think this works. I looked at thousands of reports in my time at the council and that’s my conclusion.”

He described some of the tools available to tree officers to demand better, more site-specific, realistic proposals to ensure the long-term retention of trees.

His three main messages were:

- Do not accept circular RPAs

- Read your local plan/strategy to understand its meaning to trees and landscapes

- If any report says “this report complies with BS 5837”, challenge that.

He said: “Any system is about inputs and outputs. We, as arborists, have a duty to care for the preservation and conservation of trees. The only way to protect trees on a development site is through the planning system. If we have poor inputs into the planning process, then we’ll have poor outputs, which will have significant impacts on the trees.

“Currently we are punching below our weight and we need to up our game.”

Questions were then taken from the floor before a short refreshment break.


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Derby City Council’s Anna Murphy chaired the second session, in which Steve Milne MICFor, arboricultural officer for the City of Edinburgh Council, offered an insight into tree legislation in Scotland.

The country has its own set of rules and regulations and, while there is much overlap with England and Wales, there are some key differences.

James Murdoch, regulations manager at the Forestry Commission, followed up with a talk on the Forestry Act 1967, its felling licences and exemptions, specifically in relation to Sheffield City Council’s Streets Ahead project.

This massive improvement programme, begun in 2012, committed contractors to felling 200 trees a year, seemingly without reason.

James said: “There was no specification as to which 200 trees or why they should be felled and, over a six-year period, just under 5,500 trees were felled.

“Sheffield City Council initially claimed it was felling under exemption, but an FOI request revealed the contract and its dubious commitment to fell 200 trees per annum, with seemingly no regard for whether they were exempt or not.”

This triggered the involvement of the Forestry Commission, which conducted an investigation and in July published a report finding insufficient evidence of an offence being committed, but strongly criticising Sheffield City Council in a number of areas.

James said: “Records of felling were not kept. There was a systemic failure to engage with local residents and engagement with the FC was poor. That pushed us down the route of a formal investigation.

“Tree felling essentially became the default for Sheffield in relation to management options. Trees were treated as any other piece of street furniture.”

He urged delegates to read the FC’s full report, which made a number of recommendations for all local authorities.

It was then time to hear from the conference’s international speaker, Gian Michele Cirulli, urban tree manager in the green public service for the City of Turin, Italy.

The title of Gian’s presentation was ‘The Role of Trees in Climate Change Era: Current Management and Future Strategies’.

Delegates heard how Turin, with a population of 900,000, is one of the most polluted cities in Europe and climate change is escalating the problem.

Due to all the mistakes of the past, he said the city’s tree population now has a reduced life expectancy and climate change, bringing about increased extreme weather events, emphasised these weaknesses.

“We could say that tree failures are partly a natural phenomenon, but we are talking about an urban context. We have to manage our fragile and aged tree population and ensure citizen safety.”

He said all tree failures across the city were now recorded and stored in a web application for analysis and to inform future management.

“We are in a new era,” he said. “Everything is changing. We have to demonstrate that it’s possible to protect and maintain our historical tree heritage, but at the same time we have to demonstrate how urban trees can mitigate climate change effects.”


Forestry Journal: Jessica Stokes, arboricultural officer for LB Wandsworth, spoke on the subject of diversity.Jessica Stokes, arboricultural officer for LB Wandsworth, spoke on the subject of diversity.

After a break for lunch, chair Louise Simpson, Institute of Chartered Foresters, got the third session underway.

The first speaker was Jessica Stokes, arboricultural officer for LB Wandsworth, who wanted to make the point that diversity matters (and, in the world of arboriculture, is desperately needed).

Speaking about the LTOA Diversity and Inclusion Working Party and its survey of members, she said: “We expected our research to highlight challenges associated with accessing the arboricultural industry and the party would then find practical solutions to these barriers, hopefully opening up access to groups of society that are currently represented or not represented at all.”

She said the data showed the sector, in London, was particularly lacking in ethnic diversity and far from being representative of the city it provides service to.

Describing her own experience as a young, gay woman in the industry, she added: “My first job was with a commercial arboricultural contractor based in London. I worked alongside a variety of people, all men, bar one person who started before me. She shared how relieved she was that another woman had started and, as we got to know each other, I realised her relief came from hoping I would support her in calling out some of the unacceptable behaviour in the organisation.

“This behaviour included constant sexual comments, individuals taking drugs and drinking while working, objectification of women, racism directed towards colleagues and members of the public, and high levels of aggression. Does this sound typical of the sector? Even if not, that was the reality and my first taste of arboriculture.”

Next, Alan McHaffie, senior woodland and recreation officer at Belfast City Council, provided an illuminating talk on the value of collaboration, focussing on the combined efforts of different organisations and departments to plant and maintain trees along the city’s infamous ‘peace walls’, separating nationalist and unionist communities.

He said: “For me, my team and the group as a whole, we hope that when these walls come down, the trees will always be there. They’re the legacy. They will enhance the area and be what people remember.”

He said his next collaborative project is to plant one million trees over the next five years.

Forestry Journal: Alan McHaffie, Belfast City Council, described efforts to plant and maintain trees along the city’s peace walls.Alan McHaffie, Belfast City Council, described efforts to plant and maintain trees along the city’s peace walls.


The final session of the day, chaired by Jim Smith MICFor, Forestry Commission, concerned threats to the UK’s trees and what tree officers can do to help tackle them.

The first speaker was Philip Handley, GIS specialist at Forest Research, who detailed efforts to create a common standard for urban tree data collection.

He was followed by David Blair, arboricultural officer at LB Hackney, who spoke on the risks posed to London Plane by Fomitiporia Mediterranea.

He said: “I don’t believe this is a current existential threat to our London Plane population, though it does have significance to individual trees. We have had to remove a number of trees because of it and we think that’s likely to increase with climate change. If you see it, please report it.”

The final session of the day fell to Peter Crow, landscape and environment scientist with Observatree, the tree health early warning system, who encouraged tree officers to report invasive pests and diseases.

Barbara Milne, of Westminster Council, gave the closing remarks for what proved to be a very successful conference. Many of the presentations are now available on the ICF website.

The fifth NTOC is already planned to be held in Sheffield. All interested are advised to save the date of 4 November, 2020.