Trees: How to be Safe, Not Sorry
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Tree safety is seen as a priority for many people, especially landowners and managers. Some are land-owners themselves that as they know the land they manage, and can tell a dead tree from a living one, they have nothing to worry about. The reality is that tree-related problems can be very subtle. A dead tree can be safe whereas a healthy young tree may be in a dangerous condition depending on the location. Safety is also not the only issue where trees can cause problems.
A tree with branches that have become etiolated, with foliage on the ends, can be vulnerable to those branches breaking. If there is a target beneath, the potential for tragedy can increase. I have been surprised by the number of sites with professional management, albeit not arboricultural, where unsafe trees remain alongside people, and those responsible for them seem to be unaware. This has included trees by a development site damaged by construction works and leaning over the development! I have advised both tree owners and concerned observers so that they can make informed decisions.
If I am investigating a tree failure, I will explore if the failure was foreseeable, and how the responsible party has responded to the situation. I prefer to advise beforehand! When I am surveying trees, I am aware of the other problems they can cause. Branches close to roof tiles can cause damp by blocking guttering and dislodging tiles. Targeted pruning resolves this before costly damage is caused! I have been involved in mediating when damage has occurred and one party considers their response is proportionate, and the other considers otherwise. In these scenarios, being able to impartially assess the situation is key to resolving the issues. My aim is to be able to provide the same recommendations regardless of whom I am addressing.
Tree roots can also cause damage, to driveways and drains. Sometimes, this is often hidden from view and may only be evident when the consequences show. However, where it is foreseeable, I can highlight the potential problem and propose solutions to ensure that the owner avoids costly bills to rectify later.
Tree Preservation Orders are an integral part of the planning process here in the UK. They are often associated with emotion, on the part of owners, local residents and those charged with administrating the process. When an alleged breach occurs, and the threat of enforcement action emerges, it is important to remain unaffected by the emotion and to establish the facts of the case. All too often, those involved may be unaware of the technical merits of enforcement, including the officers employed to pursue matters. As more experienced tree officers leave local authorities, the potential for errors among those remaining are increasing.
In one case where I advised, the basis for prosecution for felling of trees was that the stumps showed evidence that the trees had been alive when they were felled, and the defendant acknowledged he had felled them. Those bringing the case had overlooked that a tree can be alive but in decline, and until the Welsh Assembly updates the legislation protecting trees in the Principality, such trees may be exempt from works. Had they approached mediation with an open mind, rather than pursuing prosecution, there could have been a more productive outcome.
There may be understandable anguish from a tree owner when a tree they planned to remove is suddenly subject to a TPO, or from locals who think that a tree was protected prior to it being felled. For the former, I can provide an impartial feasibility assessment to inform their defence. There can be options other than a formal prosecution which ends in court attendance, and it can be useful to explore these with the officials at an early stage.
When trees are involved with boundary disputes or the subject of litigation following damage, emotions can run high, with a desire for retribution. Indeed, one group of tree officers has a stated policy of making those who damage council trees pay a heavy penalty. Such an approach, whilst understandable, is not defendable, especially when one comes to the courts. However, the question of how one values a tree, an amenity feature, is surely a challenge to many of us, especially when what has been lost may be irreplaceable.
There are ways to value trees, depending on the circumstances. Sometimes, we are looking to physically replace a damaged tree. We could be exploring an appropriate settlement to mitigate damage which has already occurred. Alternatively, the mitigation can be in response to planned tree losses. I used to work as a tree officer and remember attending a seminar exploring the challenges of dealing with vegetation related subsidence.
The cost of rectifying subsidence damage can reach tens of thousands of pounds, and if trees are retained, additional measures may be needed. One consultant shared that considerable landscaping can be undertaken for £10,000 and there are scenarios where such an offer would be readily received by the insurers to resolve the problems, and enhance the local setting. For most situations, there is a solution.
As an arborist and an accredited expert witness, it is important that I remain detached from the emotions that can arise. It is also important to be prepared to think outside the box, sometimes to define the brief based on my own experience. This enables me to best represent the client, whoever they are. I sometimes think that part of my role is to find the problems before others do. This may not make me popular, but it is better to be informed and prepared than to face foreseeable problems later on. And often, my conclusions are more positive than was expected.