Wales and West Utilities helps to protect Bristol’s precious trees

Wales and West Utilities has been congratulated by the Bristol Tree Forum, and thanked mightily for their understanding and practical approach to a possible future environmental catastrophe at one of their installations in Bristol.

Stoke Lodge Playing Field is a 26-acre site in Stoke Bishop in Bristol. In the north west corner of the field is a gas “kiosk” which houses gas pressure regulation equipment. It was built in 2009, replacing a smaller installation nearby which was not on the same land. It is the responsibility of Wales and West Utilities.

Many locally and nationally notable trees grow on the parkland, a number of them getting quite old now, and in need of some love and our protection.

The access to the compound is over the roots of some of these important trees, most of which are the subject of Tree Preservation Orders. Protected trees surround the compound, and their roots, which are very superficial (as is the way with tree roots) and in places even exposed, are at risk of damage from vehicles driving over them and parking on them.

The W&W gas kiosk

Tree Roots

Tree roots extend radially in every direction to a distance equal to at least the height of the tree (assuming no physical barriers) and grow predominantly near the soil surface.

Typically, 90% of all roots, and virtually all the large structural supporting roots, are in the upper 60cm of the soil.

Soil disturbance within the rooting area should be avoided, whenever and wherever possible as this can significantly adversely affect tree health and tree stability. 

Associated with roots are much finer, thread-like, mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizae are symbiotic fungi which grow on or in roots, an association which is mutually beneficial to both the tree and the fungus. They are extremely efficient at nutrient absorption, especially phosphorus, and many trees cannot survive without them.

Diagram of a typical tree root system:

Cars, lorries and vans are heavy. They leak oil and hydraulic fluids from braking systems and power steering pipework and pumps. They also leak windscreen washer fluids. These chemicals are toxic for trees.  In the root area of a tree soil compaction caused by vehicles and the deposit of toxic or impermeable materials should be avoided. The nearer to the trunk these things take place the greater is the damage done and the greater the loss of roots.

Local residents are very protective of the trees – this whole Parkland is hugely important for them, and they have taken its care to their hearts.

Vans and lorries from Wales and West attend the site, both for routine maintenance visits and for any “emergencies”.

Recently one of the residents noted a Wales and West van parked on the exposed roots of one of the trees, so they contacted the Company to point out the dangers for the tree’s future that could be caused by this.

The response from a manager at the Company was immediate and most gratifying. Within hours a site meeting had been arranged with the W&W Manager, the Resident and the BTF BS9 Tree Champion in attendance – all suitably socially-distanced!

The Manager listened to everything we said. He told us that Wales and West had not previously been aware of the importance of these trees, nor aware of the peculiarities of the siting of the compound in relation to the trees.

He went on to say that he would do everything he could to inform future Wales and West employees visiting the site of the sensitive nature of the ground they would have to drive over, and that they would keep traffic passing over the root areas to a minimum, allowing only one vehicle to park on site at a time, parking any others required nearby on the highway. The one vehicle needed would not park under the canopies of the trees. It is possible for one vehicle to park clear of tree canopy areas.

He arranged for good quality signs to be affixed to their entrance gate and to the fence enclosing the kiosk, so that Wales and West operatives would be aware of the need to avoid damage to tree roots at this particular site.

This is the sign W&W attached.

The Bristol Tree Forum has been working hard in recent years, with local residents and their representatives, to encourage Bristol City Council, as owners of the land and as Landlord, to ensure that Tree Preservation Order regulations are complied with by their tenant using the Playing Field, and if necessary enforced. We have had some limited success. This made the attitude and actions of Wales and West Utilities all the more overwhelming.

So, we would like to thank W&W’s manager again for his actions on behalf of the trees, and to compliment Wales and West Utilities for supporting an ethos which encourages community engagement and action like this.

Postscript

The sign (see above) riveted to the main entrance gate onto the site and to the gas kiosk has been removed. It looks like the rivets have been drilled out, rather than the sign being removed by snapping it off, so it must have taken some effort and maybe even some planning to do this. The sign appears to have been taken away.

Who could possible think that doing this ‘vandalism’ could be for anyone’s benefit? It cannot have been Bristol City Council and it is hard to imagine who else would do such a thing. We are investigating.

Post Postscript

Wales & West have now told us that they removed the sign, saying “We put them in the wrong place. Now moved to the right place as agreed with the leaseholders of the land.” What leaseholders? As far as we know this bit of land is not leased. It belongs to Bristol City Council.

Finally

This is the notice that was on the gate:

This is the sign W&W attached.

It is all about protecting precious trees and safeguarding our environment.

There is no single Leaseholder with control of this gate. It is owned by Bristol City Council and the use of the gate and the access to the Field it grants is shared between Cotham School and Wales and West Utilities (W&W), two Leaseholders who use separate parts of the land beyond the gate. We do not know who asked W&W to remove the notice from the gate, but we are bound to ask what reasonable person, with any regard at all for trees, the environment and climate change, would ask W&W to remove it from a shared gate that they may not control, and why would they? Own up please?!

Bristol City Development – Where did all the Green go?

The Climate and Ecological Emergency

In 2018, with much fanfare, Bristol City Council (BCC) declared a Climate Emergency, the first UK city to do so, preceding the UK government by over a year. This has been followed up by the declaration of an Ecological Emergency, and a raft of sustainability aspirations detailed in the Bristol One City plan including doubling the tree canopy by 2046, doubling wildlife abundance by 2050, and City-wide carbon neutrality by 2030.

So why is it that so much of our informal green spaces are still being lost, and so many of our trees continue to be felled?

Is the BCC Development Office blocking Climate and Environmental Action?

A clue to this came out of a recent planning application to build a 4-storey block of flats in St Paul’s, in a street with one of the highest illegal levels of pollution in Bristol, above recommended noise levels, in a known high flood risk area and on land thought to be contaminated.  It was shown that the planned development would increase pollution and noise levels. Furthermore, in an area with one of the lowest tree density in Bristol, five mature maple trees were to be felled, removing the last mitigation for noise, pollution and flooding in the street. The trees are on the very edge of the development site and could therefore have been retained, readily complying with BCS9 which states “Individual green assets should be retained wherever possible and integrated into new development”.

Bristol’s Planning policies are contained in two main documents:

These are supplemented by the Planning Obligations Supplementary Planning Document. All were variously adopted and implemented by the Council between 2011 and 2014.

Despite contravening core strategy planning policies on green infrastructure (BCS9, DM15), pollution (BCS23, DM33), climate change (BCS13), flood risk (BCS16), noise (BCS23, DM35) and health (DM14), the Development Office did everything in its power to promote and advocate this development.

The reasons for this became clearer when officers were asked during the Planning process specifically why they supported a development which breached so many core policies aimed at protecting the health of citizens, the environment and the City’s crucial green infrastructure.

The Head of Development Management responded, “With regard to this application, the policy aims of the Core Strategy could be seen as the delivery of housing (BCS5), including affordable housing (BCS17)”. Further, “Loss of green infrastructure will only be acceptable where it is…… necessary, on balance, to achieve the policy aims of the Core Strategy”.

The statement effectively says that, whilst the need for new and affordable houses remains, BCS5 and BCS17 can override other policies including those mentioned above. Thus, green infrastructure that could have been retained is ignored, pollution and noise levels above legal limits are permitted, and the worsening health of residents would be tolerated. This position seems to be contrary to that previously held, with development under BCS5 and BCS17 needing to be also in compliance with the other core policies. As there will always be a need for new homes and affordable homes, the concern is that all other policies can be set aside indefinitely.

We would suggest that BCC Development Office interpretation is in contravention of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which states that: “the purpose of the planning system is to contribute to the achievement of sustainable development (remember that phrase), including “an environmental objective” – to contribute to protecting and enhancing our natural environment, including helping to improve biodiversity, mitigating and adapting to climate change and moving to a low carbon economy”.

So how has the BCC Development Office responded to BCC’s Climate and Ecological declarations?

The Development Office was also asked how implementation of planning policies had been influenced by the Climate and Ecological Emergencies. Their response was:

“Whilst Climate and Ecological Emergencies have been declared by the Council, the Bristol Local Plan has not been fully reviewed in the light of these and the policies referred to remain unchanged. Changes to Local Plan policies would have to balance the objectives of the respective declarations with the requirement to deliver sustainable development for the city”.   

By “balance”, it seems they may effectively mean “ignore”. Clearly their definition of sustainable development is somewhat different to that defined in the NPPF, with no intrinsic “environmental objective”, and, as one Councillor on the Committee remarked, the development will “lead to poorer people having shorter lifespans”. Unpacking their response still further, the implication is that there are currently no core policies in place to implement the Climate and Ecological emergencies. As described above, this is not true. Were BCS9, DM15, BCS23, DM33, BCS13, BCS16, DM35 and DM14 to be applied as intended in the NPPF, there would be sufficient policy support at least for the principles of the two emergency declarations.

Is this being led by bureaucratic or political decision making?

It is not clear why the Development Office has taken this position, but there are two possibilities that should be of concern:

  • The Development Office is acting contrary to the aspiration of the City’s political leaders.
  • Senior Council politicians who have made much political capital from the highly praised environmental declarations, have at the same time permitted, or perhaps even encouraged, Council Officers to disregard existing planning policies that would otherwise enable implementation of these declarations.

Thus, selective policy compliance allows development of second-rate housing in a race for quantity over quality.

It seems that Bristol City Council are choosing to emphasise some core strategic policies aimed at hastening house building, whilst demoting other core strategic policies aimed at protecting public health, green infrastructure, air quality and the environment. This is a recipe for slum development, and we deserve to know whether these decisions are being taken at a political or bureaucratic level.

Professor John Tarlton.