Changes agreed to Bristol Tree Replacement Standard

‘Only when the last tree has died, and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught, will we realise that we cannot eat money.’ – A Cree Indian speaking in the 19th Century.

Members of the Bristol Tree Forum (BTF) recently met with senior Planning Officers and the two Arboricultural Officers working in the Department. We wanted to raise a number of planning issues that have been concerning us.

The Bristol Tree Replacement Standard (known as BTRS – you can find it at page 21 of the Council’s Planning Obligations Supplementary Planning Document) is a flagship policy copied by other planning authorities. Bristol should be proud of it. We are because it goes a long way towards making sure that trees and tree canopy lost to development is replaced at the expense of the developers.

This is how the BTRS formula is applied (the diameters shown are in centimetres):

However, in the years since its inception about ten years ago it has become apparent to us that the policy could be improved if some changes to the way it is applied were made to it. Two things that have particularly concerned us are:

Firstly, it had become apparent that developers and householders developing land in Conservation Areas were avoiding their obligation to mitigate tree loss by submitting two separate planning applications – the first for the trees to be felled (usually for some spurious reason), then, months later, a substantive application to develop the now tree-free land.

Outside Conservation Area, where there is no protection for trees (unless they have a TPO) at all, the trees were simply being felled, sometimes in large numbers, some time before an application to develop the land was submitted.

In either situation, if the development was permitted, the trees were lost, never to be replaced, because the loss was not considered to be “in association with” the development of the land.

Secondly, if developers or householders were developing land and the BTRS was being applied, we noticed that in some cases, hedging was being approved as a replacement for the lost tree canopy. Whilst grand hedging might indeed be appropriate as part of the planning proposal – say as screening or as a pollution mitigation measure – we do not believe that it can ever be used as an adequate substitute for lost tree canopy.

In particular, we noticed that this option was being proposed by those developers who had filled nearly all of the site so that there was little, or no room left for replacement tree planting on site. In our view this was being done to avoid having to pay the Council (us really) for replacement trees to be planted nearby.

We are pleased to report that, after several meetings with Officers to discuss our concerns, the following has finally been agreed:

  1. Where there is evidence of prior felling, BTRS will be applied retrospectively to include all trees felled within the year before the planning application. In this way any trees felled before the development will be taken into account when considering the application of BTRS.
  2. Other than in exceptional circumstances, hedges will no longer be acceptable as mitigation for tree canopy loss when applying BTRS.
  3. If council officers think it is necessary, these new protocols will be written into the Council’s Planning Practice Note so that there is no possibility of any future misunderstandings by either developers or planning officers how BTRS is the be applied.

BTF has more ideas which we believe will strengthen the application of BTRS (for instance, why should trees under 15 cm not be replaced?; should BTRS be applied in non-development tree felling applications?) . We will continue to advocate for these and other possible changes.

We accept that there is always going to be development, but we must try to ensure that the city’s tree cover is, at the very least, protected and maintained in keeping with SDG 15 – Life on Land of the One City Plan Sustainable Development Goals which commit to doubling tree canopy cover by 2046.

Redland Hill street trees felled by the Council. Why?

Until a few weeks ago there was a lovely informal stand of trees along Redland Hill, which is a busy road that I walk up twice a day to get to the Downs.

As it used to look – Google Street View – July 2018

Rush hour stationary traffic belches out pollution and the trees provided some respite.  I have watched over the years as several of the old beech trees were removed.  They were probably once part of a beech hedge that predates the existing buildings (and the wall): now only one is left.  Instead, an informal collection of ash and other trees grew in their place.  This was a great place to see Broomrape, a parasitic plant that grew at the base of some trees.

How it now looks…All gone – just one lonely beech and some street furniture left to improve the view.

There was no consultation of any kind with the community. One day the trees were there, the next they were gone. Without any involvement from the Bristol Tree Forum, the local councillor or the local community, we can only guess why the trees were removed. Perhaps it was concerns about the nearby wall.  A careful examination shows that there are no obvious cracks, even close to the one remaining beech tree.  Was a proper engineer’s survey done? In days gone by a Bristol City Council Tree Officer defended a tree, similarly close to a garden wall, that the owners wanted to cut down, even obtaining an engineer’s report. Even if there were substantial damage to the wall, other options were possible, such as thinning out the trees (only some were marked with green paint) or laying them as a hedge as was recently done in Redland Green.

…just sawdust, rubbish and some ivy (now hacked down), nothing else.

Of course the removal may be for a different reason. Maybe what the developers really wanted to do was to create views for their flats and successfully put pressure on the council? Perhaps the pavement will be widened?  Or perhaps the area will be dug up for services. I don’t think the removal of trees was in the planning application.

J

At this time, with the threat of Ash die-back disease we should be looking to keep healthy ash trees in case by chance they turn out to be the ones that are resistant. Cutting down healthy ash trees is misguided.

The money that was spent cutting down these trees should have been used for planting new street trees, something that Bristol City Council says it has no funds to do. I’m guessing more money will now be spent to tarmac over the area where the trees once were. 

Bristol City Council should have thought differently. For example, it should have enforced a root protection area for the last remaining beech tree. This was apparently not done and I guess we will see that last tree fail in the next ten years.

At present, Bristol City Council refuses to consult over tree felling decisions, despite requests from the Bristol Tree Forum for a decade. It is almost as though the council thinks there are no inhabitants in the urban forest and that they always know best. Unilateral decisions such as this show how important the government’s proposal is to require local authorities to properly consult before removing street trees

Bristol has an ambitious plan to double its tree canopy by 2050. Yet all over Bristol, on an almost daily basis, tree canopy is being lost – for multiple reasons. Just in the local area, about half a dozen really large trees have gone and the canopy cover has decreased. We did manage to get one new street tree, in the middle of Redland roundabout but it took a four year battle and the help of our local MP to get it planted. Trees are lost very gradually in our bit of Bristol and are often not replaced.  So the change in canopy is not obvious. Fisheries biologists have coined the term “shifting baselines”, where each generation sees only minor negative changes. But the effect over a long period is substantial.

As Professor Corinne Le Quere has said, “actions to tackle climate change have to penetrate all the decisions that we take in society”. We are hoping that we can get this point across to the decision makers in Bristol City Council.

The Bristol Tree Forum will now be campaigning for these trees to be replaced.

Vassili Papastavrou.

Ancient and Veteran Trees explained

These two terms are in common use, but they have specific meanings when it comes to their conservation. All ancient trees are veterans, but a tree may qualify as a veteran without being ancient.  Most British trees increase in girth over their lifetimes by 2.5 cm a year. They grow faster when young, when in the open as opposed to woodland, and when in good soil rather than bad. They grow slower as they get older. Some species grow faster than average, such as Black Poplar, Plane, and Wellingtonia, and some more slowly, especially Limes and Hawthorns.

Trees are very good at vegetative reproduction, so that they are effectively eternal. Some create their own clumps, each tree being a clone. They do this by branches that arch down to the ground, root, and send up new vertical trees. The Tortworth Chestnut, which was regarded as ancient in King Johns reign, is a good example, but some of the limes on the Downs are doing this. Some trees send up new shoots from the base of the trunk which eventually replace the original tree. Many trees if cut to the ground, by storm or men, will promptly create new shoots, and this is the basis of coppicing which was a standard woodland management tool from at least Roman times. There is a Small-leaved Lime at Westonbirt Arboretum that now consists of a ring of clones about forty metres in diameter.

Ancient trees should be at least two hundred years old, and hence have a girth of more than five metres. I have measured 120 trees in Bristol with this girth, and there are many more in Ashton Court that I have not checked.   They matter because they provide a range of habitats to a range of species. They are always hollow, often squat,  having long since lost their upper branches, their hearts eaten out by fungi and beetles, full of nooks and crannies, and often clothed in lichens and ferns. They are most frequently Oaks, Sweet Chestnuts, Planes and Cedars.

Veteran trees are defined by their individuality. They will be mature, around 140/150 years old, about three metres in girth, mostly still standing tall. Fine, significant specimens of their species both in form and biodiversity. They are candidates to become Ancient, they may be starting to go hollow, and hence be of concern. They may need management to avoid their becoming top heavy, or developing a dangerous lean. They will stand out from other trees in their particular locality and may have planning protection as a consequence. They may also have special features of note, such as being multi-trunked.

Trees and Planning

The National Policy Planning Framework document (issued in July 2018) has the following definitions at Appendix 2: Glossary.

Ancient or veteran tree: A tree which, because of its age, size and condition, is of exceptional biodiversity, cultural or heritage value. All ancient trees are veteran trees. Not all veteran trees are old enough to be ancient, but are old relative to other trees of the same species. Very few trees of any species reach the ancient life-stage.

Ancient Woodland. An area of woodland that has been wooded continuously since at least 1600 AD. It includes ancient semi-natural woodland and plantations on ancient woodland sites.

Irreplaceable habitat: Habitats which would be technically very difficult (or take a very significant time) to restore, recreate or replace once destroyed, taking into account their
age, uniqueness, species diversity or rarity. They include…ancient woodland and ancient and veteran trees….

Paragraph 175 (at page 51) of the framework states:

When determining planning applications, local planning authorities should apply the following principles:

c) development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats (such as ancient woodland and ancient or veteran trees) should be refused, unless there are wholly exceptional reasons and a suitable compensation strategy exists;

Paragraph 2.17.6 of DM17: Development Involving Existing Green Infrastructure – part of the Bristol Local Plan echoes this:

Due to their characteristics and value, Aged and Veteran trees are considered to be of relatively greater importance than other trees and even trees of a similar species. Aged trees, by definition, have developed characteristics associated with great age and often have particular landscape and townscape value. Veteran trees are considered to have particularly important nature conservation value. Both will often have significant visual amenity, and potentially historic and cultural importance. As such their loss or harm will not be permitted, and the design and layout of development will be expected to integrate them into development.

These guidelines apply whether the tree or woodland grows in a public or a private place.

R L Bland

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