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?!

The trees at Stoke Lodge Park and Playing Fields – a letter to the Council

5th February 2020

Dear Bristol City Council Parks Department,

As you are aware, we have been expressing our continuing concerns about the welfare of the trees growing at Stoke Lodge Park and Playing Fields for the best part of a year now.

At the moment, our particular concerns are threefold:

  1. The potential for damage to trees caused by pedestrians being obliged to pass over their root zones and under their canopies since Cotham School erected its boundary fence last year.
  2. The potential for damage being caused to the trees growing within the new fence being caused by the school’s grass mowing regime.
  3. The potential for damage to trees caused by vehicles passing over their root zones and under their canopies.

To a large extend, our concerns about issue three may have been allayed by the school’s adoption of a new access point at the eastern end of the fields, but we will have to see how this develops.

The new vehicle access point at the eastern end.

As for the other two issues, we attach images showing how the very muddy and disturbed path running around the outside of the school’s fence is causing disruption to the root zones of a number of trees – these are not all the trees being affected by this.

The eastern end of the fields.
The path leading to the Pavilion on the northern boundary.
created by dji camera
The path leading to the Pavilion.

These images show how the current mowing regime encroaches within the root zone of one of the Turkey oaks inside the fence.

The Turkey growing at the eastern end of the playing fields seen from above.
The Turkey growing at the eastern end of the playing fields – the mowing line is clearly visible.

Here is a video which shows the mowing issue more clearly.

In our view, something needs to be done about this before any damage being caused becomes irreversible.

Can you advise me what action the Council plans to take to protect these trees, please?

Best Regards,

The Bristol Tree Forum

Council no longer manages trees on educational sites – Part I

There are some 166 educational sites and 63 playing fields across the city. Together they cover over 560 hectares and form a significant proportion and an important part of the city’s open, green spaces.

Despite this, Bristol City Council no longer manages trees growing on many of these sites and their related playing fields. We are not certain, but we imagine that this situation has come about as a result of the decline in local authority control over state educational provision with the rise of independent Academies.

We issued a Freedom of Information request (FoI) to try to find out which sites remain under the control of the Council, but our request has been refused on the grounds that answering it would impose a significant burden on the council. Our more generic request at the end has also been refused on the same grounds.

The trees at Stoke Lodge Playing Fields

Recent events at Stoke Lodge and the playing fields there perhaps best illustrate our concerns and the potential threats to the many trees growing on land set aside for educational purposes.

The site was leased for 125 years to Cotham School in August 2011. Interestingly, the Council agreed to retain its responsibility for all the trees growing on the site. It also agreed to indemnify the school for any damage the school might cause to the trees and to insure against this risk.

Stoke Lodge Playing Fields are located to the west of the city in Stoke Bishop ward and cover some 8.7 hectares of open space. Historically they were part of the grade II listed lodge (now an adult learning centre) of the same name which covers about two more hectares and contains an arboretum of important trees (the survivors of a collection that formerly spread right across the historic lodge grounds).

Unlike most of the land around it, this part of Stoke Bishop is not in a Conservation Area. For some 70 years, the whole estate, which until recently had never been seen as a divided space, has been used by the local community and is designated an important open space. Nearly all the trees on the Stoke Lodge estate are subject to Tree Preservation Orders (TPO) which were placed on the trees in early 2012.

The TPO trees and canopies

In the summer of 2018 Cotham School announced that it intended to erect a fence along the boundary of its leased land. They stated that they did not require prior planning permission to do so because they were exercising their statutory Permitted Development rights. After an initial dispute about whether the school could indeed use Permitted Development rights, in January 2019 work began to erect the fence.

It was at this point that the Bristol Tree Forum became involved after it became clear that the proposed route of the fence would pass through the root zones of a large number of important trees, many of which were the subject of a TPO.

The original plan – the fence passing through the root zones of many protected trees.

There then followed a protracted period of back and forth representations while we and the local community fought to get the fence relocated to avoid damaging the trees. This was partly successful. Where it was not, we were able to insist that the methodology for erecting the fence where it still passed through tree roots was modified to minimise damage. Even so, it took the constant vigilance of the local community and BTF representatives to ensure that Cotham School did not ignore the conditions placed upon it.

Setting aside the issue of the siting of the fence, our primary argument has always been that TPO law requires a prior planning application to be made (and approved) before any work is undertaken that could cause damage to TPO trees. Initially, the Council rejected this argument, effectively stating the Permitted Development rights trump primary TPO legislation. It also argued that, anyway, it could not proactively prevent damage to TPO trees, but had to wait until the damage has been done, which is, frankly, absurd. We continued to challenge these interpretations and, eventually, the Council conceded our points, though only after the fencing had been completed.

Things then appeared to return to normal,except that the community was now largely confined the unfenced areas around the boundaries of the site. As a result, the trees around the boundary are being exposed to heavier traffic through their root zones. We are concerned that this may have a long-term, adverse impact on their health.

Then, in August of this year, and without any warning, contractors arrived to lay cable ducting across the site so that video surveillance equipment could be installed. Using a mini digger they immediately set about driving over and cutting through the root zone of a TPO Common Ash growing on the boundary of the site. Other non-TPO trees (some privately owned) were similarly damaged.

Digger in amongst the TPO Ash roots

It soon became clear that the contractors had neither been advised of the TPO status of the tree nor of the proper methods to use when working within tree root zones as set out in BS 5837 (Trees in relation to design, demolition and construction – Recommendations), or in the NJUG Guidelines for the Planning, Installation and Maintenance of Utility Apparatus in Proximity to Trees. This was despite the Council being aware of, and engaged with the school’s plans.

We lodged a complaint with the Council’s Planning department. As a result, enforcement proceedings were commenced and the school, whilst narrowly avoiding prosecution, was obliged to take remedial action to try to mitigate the damage caused to the tree. The council also felt obliged to remind the school of its obligations to TPO trees:

And this is a site where the trees are still under the ‘guardianship’ of the Council! What about those sites where the care is vested with the school?

Our concerns remain for the future health of those trees whose root areas had been invaded by the fence installation. We have also continued to express fears about other continuing threats to the trees arising as a result of other activities on the site. So far, our concerns have been ignored.

For example, continuing root compaction and branch damage is being caused to the Persian walnut growing by the gate close to the rear car park and to the trees growing beside the Parrys Lane entrance. This is the result of grass mowers and other service vehicles using these entrances to gain access to the site. We are told the access point has been moved to the Parrys Lane entrance, though that too involves vehicles passing over tree roots.

Driving over the walnut’s roots on the way to mow the playing fields

Historically, it looks like vehicles accessed the site from behind the Children’s Play Ground on the southwest of the site, so did not need to drive over any tree roots. The presence of the fence and lack of any gate there has now closed off that option.

The school’s contractors also continue to mow within the root zones of the two large Turkey oaks (BCC-77025 on the eastern end & BCC-77059 on the western end) that grow inside the playing fields fence.

The eastern Turkey oak

However, the Council and the school decline to address these issues saying that they have made adequate arrangements to safeguard the trees.

STOP PRESS – 4th January 2020 – since writing this blog, Cotham School has felled a TPO protected Elder (plus five others) on the Eastern side of the playing fields and poisoned it with Glyphosate. We have informed Bristol Council Parks and Planning Departments and asked them to investigate. They advise:

“The felled Elder trees were not included within or protected by the TPO covering the adjacent Sycamore tree.

It is very unlikely that roots from the Elder trees will have grafted with the roots from the Sycamore tree. Also translocation of herbicide between grafted roots is very unlikely.*

We are not aware of any plans to fell the twin stemmed Oak beside the white shed at the eastern end of Stoke Lodge Playing fields.”

But, when we asked Parks if these works were done with their prior knowledge and agreement, or if the department had approved the application of Glyphosate to the tree roots, or if they had seen the School’s Aboricultural Management Scheme, they answered ‘No’.

It seems that the school had complied with their obligation to get consent from the Council, their Landlord, but that the Council’s Education Asset Management team had failed to consult Park’s specialist tree officers about the plans.

More details can be found here.

Before the Elders were felled
The aftermath

Cotham School has issued these FAQs – 33 to 38 in response to this issue.

The fate of other educational sites

In the meantime, we have no idea if or how other schools are managing the trees on their sites, or if the Council is consulted when they do.

Even though, in most cases, educational sites are still on Council-owned land, the Council only needs to be told if the trees have a TPO or are growing in one of the city’s 33 conservation zones (or, we assume, if the Council’s lease with the school keeps the management of the trees in the control of the Council – as was the case at Stoke Lodge).

Given that Bristol City Council does not normally issue TPOs for trees on its own land, arguing that it is a good landlord and will look after important trees appropriately, it is unlikely that trees that have been handed over on other educational sites will have been protected by a TPO. Perhaps the council should now review its policy where it no longer manages trees growing on educational sites in light of this history.

Certainly it seems that new tree planting need no longer involve the Council. For example we recently observed that several newly planted trees at Cotham School’s main site had died. It was only when we noted that the dead trees were missing from the Council’s tree stock data for the school that we learned that they were no longer responsible for the trees on the site. We have now been told by the school that the trees were planted as part of a recent development and that the failure of these dead trees will be ‘rectified’ soon. Meanwhile, it seems that these new trees are no longer selected, managed or mapped as part of the Council’s wider tree stock strategies and that the existing trees on the site are no longer the Council’s concern.

Presumably, similar arrangements are happening across the city with other educational sites being left to make their own, ad hoc arrangements to plant trees or not. Given that the One City Plan aims to double tree canopy cover over the next 25 years, it seems a great shame that this important land bank of possible new planting sites might have been excluded from helping to achieve Bristol’s plans.

We are also concerned that school governors (quite apart from lacking the necessary skills to manage the trees growing on their sites) may not yet have realised the full implications of the practical and strategic obligations that taking on such an important part of Bristol’s tree stock places upon them. As a result, they are likely to have to buy in (at our expense) ad hoc expertise, thereby possibly overlooking the wider strategic considerations that are needed when it comes to managing trees across the city.

This, coupled with the distinct possibility that well-meaning but unqualified Council officers may be making critical decisions about the welfare of trees on educational sites, makes for a very worrying situation.

*Here is a contrary view about using Glyphosate around and on trees – Tree pits: plants vs glyphosate