The Canal Fields Chainsaw Massacre

How Dacorum Borough Council deals with complaints

Canal Fields is a small public park near the centre of Berkhamsted, located between the Grand Union Canal and the West Coast Main railway line. It contains a bowling green and a children's playground, and is popular with local residents for exercising themselves, their children, and their dogs.

In the Spring of 1995, contractors working for the Borough Council sawed off a row of Weeping Willow and Poplar trees alongside the canal, about twenty feet above the ground. The work was done early on a Bank Holiday Monday, when few people were around to protest. Local councillors and residents were not consulted, or even informed that the work was to take place.

David Smedley, who was then Dacorum's Head of Parks and Open Spaces, later told us that the Willows were decaying and the weight of their branches needed to be reduced. I examined the trees and found nothing wrong with them. No excuse was offered for lopping the Poplars.

Martin Baker, who was then Conservation Officer with the Hertfordshire and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, was not impressed. Neither were members of the public, who complained in significant numbers. James Hannaway, publisher of "The Berkhamsted and Tring Times", wrote a leading article entitled, "The Canal Fields Chainsaw Massacre".

Large chunks of sawn timber were left lying around in Canal Fields for weeks. Local residents, gipsies and people who lived on narrowboats helped themselves. A large chunk was left in Berkhamsted Town Centre with a notice pinned to it expressing widely-held opinions on the Borough Council. This was rapidly removed by council staff. It is a pity they are not so prompt in removing rubbish from the streets.

Thereafter, whenever members of Berkhamsted Town Council encountered a tree which had been severely mutilated, we said that it had been Smedleyed.

The trees could never again look as attractive as they had done before Mr. Smedley's attentions. Nevertheless, they recovered well and by the Summer of 2001 most looked quite respectable again.

In the Spring of 2002, Dacorum Borough Council tree officer Mark Tinning informed Berkhamsted Town Council of Dacorum's intention to fell 19 trees in Canal Fields, and replace them with ten conifers of species Metasequoia glyptostroboides, commonly known as Dawn Redwood. This is a native of China, which used to be one of the rarest trees in the world until mass propagation techniques made specimens available to anyone with plenty of money. Such an exotic species is out of place in a waterside environment in Britain, where it will do nothing for local wildlife. It also produces more shade than weeping willows which, together with its coniferous leaf litter, will kill the grass below, leaving mud.

Once again, local people and their elected representatives had not been consulted, and the information provided by Dacorum proved to be incorrect. Its Landscape and Recreation Services Department felled 27 trees in Canal Fields, most of which did not need to be cut down. The officers claimed that all the trees were rotten, when in fact most of them were not. I found two which were dangerously rotten, and another where rot was extensive, but there was little wrong with the remainder. Photographs of the stumps were taken. These showed little or no evidence of rot. The rot was in Dacorum Borough Council, not in the trees.

Dacorum Borough Council is legally obliged to obtain a felling licence from the Forestry Commission before felling more than five cubic metres of healthy timber; roughly the equivalent of one big weeping willow tree. This does not apply if the trees are rotten or dangerous, so it is probable that Dacorum exaggerated the extent of the trees' decay in order to evade this requirement. I contacted the local Forestry Officer, who admitted that the Borough Council had no felling licence, and that he had accepted the council officers' story that the trees were rotten without checking it.

The felling was done when the ground was far too wet to support the heavy machinery involved, resulting in extensive damage to the grass. The stumps were then ground out using a tractor with a grinding attachment, which caused further damage. The extensive remedial work necessitated by this has still not been completed properly. The muddy mess has grassed over after being re-seeded, but that part of Canal Fields remains full of hidden ruts, holes and trips. It is an ideal surface for practising one's cross country running skills, but not so good for the elderly residents of nearby Broadwater who used to enjoy a walk by the Canal.

Working when the soil is too wet is one of the commonest mistakes made by novice gardeners. Over-planting with large trees is another. Some weeks later, tree officers Mark Tinning and Cameron Lewis were seen walking around Canal Fields spray-painting red circles onto the grass where the new trees were to be put in. The mower arrived on the following day and cut off all the red paint.

Nevertheless, and despite repeated local objection, the ten new trees were soon planted. Not by the canalside, where the weeping willows had been, but in the interior of the field, where there are far too many trees already.

In the early 1980's, Dacorum Borough Council had planted twenty five Field Maples in Canal Fields alongside the railway. This was allegedly an attempt to absorb the noise of passing trains. In reality, all it stopped was the type of gang mower then used, which was too wide to be driven between the trees. Not that this was a problem for very long: within a decade the Maples had grown so much and were generating so much shade that most of the grass beneath them had died. The area now becomes a mud wallow in Winter.

Council officers, of course, do not admit to their mistakes. Nor do they listen to local people. To do so would be to admit fallibility, and such weakness would never do. Instead, they continue with the same course of action, and pretend that it is the right one.

In 1996 and despite the visible evidence, David Smedley ordered the planting of another quantity of non-native Maples in Canal Fields. No-one present at the subsequent meeting of Berkhamsted Town Council's Environment Committee will forget the indignation in Independent Councillor Kenneth Duvall's voice as he complained, "He's planted them all willy-nilly!"

In 2002 here was Dacorum Borough Council repeating the blunder for a third time.

I have a degree in botany and work as a professional gardener. Like many private sector workers, I am paid less than the staff doing equivalent jobs for Dacorum Borough Council, but I am obliged to work to higher standards. A private sector contractor, such as me, who made compound blunders on this scale would probably have to seek alternative employment. In today's labour market he would most likely be unsuccessful unless he had very good contacts. At the very least, he would be required to make good the damage in his own time and at his own expense. Unfortunately this is local government, where the interests of the staff, not the customers - the tax-paying public - come first.

Having failed to get a satisfactory response from the Landscape and Recreation Department, I complained to Dacorum Borough Council's Chief Executive, Paul Walker. He delegated this to a subordinate, Laura Mc.Gillivray, Strategic Director of Community Services. Her response is a typical example of how Dacorum Borough Council deals with complaints from the public.

Ms. Mc.Gillivray could have admitted that mistakes had been made, and offered to work in consultation with local people in an attempt to rectify them. Instead she repeatedly "Diverted", implied that my knowledge of the subject was insufficient, and tried to make the complainant feel isolated by asserting that only one member of the public had complained. This is the kind of tactic I would expect from a dodgy salesman, not a professional local government officer. I had received copies of three letters of complaint from members of the public sent to Dacorum Borough Council, and another two sent to the local newspaper, The Gazette. Another resident had told me that she had complained by telephone.

It appears that Ms. Mc.Gillivray's has tried to generate evidence to support her pre-ordained conclusions - "Sentence first, evidence afterwards", as the Red Queen said in Alice Through the Looking Glass. Her exact words are given in italics below, followed by my comments:

"I would like to point out that the Council has an established relationship with Berkhamsted Town Council and a regular pattern of liaison meetings at which both parties can raise matters of mutual interest and concern. I believe these are working well and that the Landscape and Recreation service has actively supported these meetings."

In fact Berkhamsted Town Councillors have repeatedly complained that the Landscape and Recreation service has failed to consult them before acting in Berkhamsted.

"The service the Council provides is not gardening it is Landscape Management."

Carrying out works to trees in a competent manner without damaging the surrounding area is as much a part of the gardener's trade as the landscape manager's. It would have been more honest of her to deal with the facts instead of implying that the complainant's knowledge of the subject is insufficient. Anyway, any competent amateur could have told her that most of the trees did not need to be cut down, that they were felled when the ground was too wet, that the replacements were of an unsuitable species, that the replacements were planted in the wrong part of the field and that the replacements have been planted too close together. Several competent amateurs did just that.

"The safety of the public in providing the service is paramount."

If it were, two of the weeping willows would have been felled during the previous Autumn before they began shedding branches in Winter storms. I did not report the poor condition of these trees because I believed the Landscape and Recreation department to be more of a hazard than a few falling branches. How right I have been proved. I do not believe that any other trees in that location constituted a safety hazard. It would appear to be the interests of the staff which are "Paramount".

"The trees at Canal Fields were 'topped' in the early 1990's, at the decision of Dacorum Borough Council. This left them vulnerable to decay from the top down."

Ms. Mc.Gillivray has finally admitted that these trees were topped by Dacorum Borough Council in error. This was actually done in 1995, not "in the early 1990's". As predicted at the time, it has permanently spoilt the trees as well as annoying the public Dacorum Borough Council is paid to serve.

"In his email to Ruth Chapman of 17 March 2002, you thank here for removing the over-mature and decaying Weeping Willows."

The language I understand is English.

"Landscape and Recreation received only one complaint from a member of the public".

Oh, really? It is interesting, then, that I have received copies of three letters of complaint addressed by members of the public to Dacorum Borough Council. Another told me that she had complained by telephone. Two more have written letters of complaint to The Gazette. Others have complained to me informally.

It seems to be standard Dacorum Borough Council practice to try to get rid of complainants by trying to make them feel isolated. I am aware of a noise issue in Apsley where the households either side of the problem were both told that they were the only ones complaining. In 2001 the manager of Berkhamsted Sports Centre told me that I was the only one complaining about bad management, even though a fellow user told me that he had also complained.

In June 2002 I was told by Dacorum Borough Council's Chief Environmental Health Officer that I was the only one complaining about a noisy party in my neighbourhood. True or not, it carries no credibility and is completely irrelevant.

The issue in question is shoddy workmanship by Dacorum Borough Council employees, not the number of people who complained about it.

"Mark Tinning also informed the Forestry Commission of the need to fell in a letter dated 4 February."

A forestry officer admitted to me that the Forestry Commission failed to check Mr. Tinning's story that the trees were all rotten and therefore that no felling licence was needed. Photographic evidence suggests that they were not.

"With over 14,500 surveyed trees to manage, the work continues throughout the year. Much of the land in Dacorum is on clay and remains wet."

As a gardener by trade, I also have to look after a number of gardens in the same locality on the same wet soil throughout the year. I can only work when conditions are suitable; wet weather can cause me both inconvenience and loss of income. The difference is that I am accountable to my customers - if I made a muddy mess I would be sacked - whereas Dacorum Borough Council employees appear accountable to nobody. There are always plenty of senior officers and tame councillors willing to give them uncritical support. While the work of a private sector gardener has to be organised primarily to suit the customer, work done by Dacorum Borough Council appears to be arranged principally for the convenience of the staff.

"At the meeting with Berkhamsted Town Council on 18 April, the service was thanked for the work done to repair previous damage at Canal Fields."

A competent council would not have caused the damage.

"The agenda was that of Berkhamsted Town Council, which at the outset identified paths, bio-diversity and waste as the main issues."

Please explain how Berkhamsted Town Council could have included Dacorum Borough Council's plans to fell more trees in Canal Fields on the agenda when Dacorum Borough Council had not informed Berkhamsted Town Council that it has a plan to fell more trees in Canal Fields.

"I understand that you were not present at the meeting."

Unlike some people, I am not paid for attending meetings and have to earn a living during the daytime. I am paid less that Landscape and Recreation Department staff for working to higher standards. My presence at the meeting would have made no difference, as the issue in question was not discussed at the meeting. Please explain how Berkhamsted Town Council could have included Dacorum Borough Council's plans to fell more trees in Canal Fields on the agenda when Dacorum Borough Council had not informed Berkhamsted Town Council that it had a plan to fell more trees in Canal Fields.

"Our Officers strenuously deny that any information was withheld."

Economy with the truth.

"The Town Council has been informed of proposed planting, and no concerns have been raised by the Council."

The Chairman of Berkhamsted Town Council's Environment Committee expressed her complete opposition to the planting plan, as did I. I do not recall any members of the council disagreeing with us.

"We work very closely with Town and Parish Councils across the Borough and try to achieve local consensus where ever possible."

A risible claim.

"However, where views between local Town Councillors apparently conflict, we are obliged to accept the stated views of the Town Council at our liaison meetings or as conveyed by the Town Clerk."

Dacorum Borough Council officers disregard the opinions of town and parish councils whenever they do not coincide with their own.

"It has been stated in writing and at the meeting on 18 April, that the Council will be consulting on both management plans for areas such as Canal Fields and tree management plans, when they are in draft form."

It's a bit late now, isn't it.

"The work to reinstate the damage to the ground at Canal Fields is complete."

The ground at Canal Fields is still not in a satisfactory state.

"However, the next liaison meeting will take place with the Town Council in September. It would be useful to take that opportunity to discuss your concerns about the siting of the recently planted trees, with a view to moving some of the trees over the winter, if that is the wish of the meeting."

I was very surprised to be offered this opportunity, and accepted. The meeting was subsequently postponed. I was given a rearranged date of 11th. December and a time of 4:30 p.m. but no venue. I telephoned Dacorum Borough Council on the morning of 11th. December to find out where it was taking place, only to be told that it had been held the previous day.

I made a further complaint to Paul Walker about Laura Mc.Gillivray's lack of integrity and objectivity in dealing with my complaint.

Mr. Walker's words are shown in italics, followed by my comments:

"The fact that you disagree with the work carried out by the Council's Trees and Woodlands Section is a difference of opinion between two sets of professionals both working with the best interests of the public in mind. However, as my officers are responsible for Canal Fields they have carried out the works which, in their opinion, are appropriate".

If the Landscape and Recreation Services Department is "Professional" it is in the same sense of the word as in the expression, "Professional foul".

"I can not accept your assertion that Ms McGillivray did not consider your complaint with integrity and objectivity. She spent considerable time and effort researching the background to your complaint and in producing a comprehensive response. The fact that you do not agree with that response does not mean that the complaint was not properly considered".

Mr. Walker asserted that the complaint was properly considered even though Ms. Mc.Gillivray did not deal with the facts.

"Given the amount of work that has gone into this complaint I believe it is now proper for it to be drawn to a conclusion. If you continue to disagree with the manner in which we have dealt with your complaint I suggest you request the Local Government Ombudsman to investigate, as he will provide an objective, external assessment. His address is:

21 Queen Anne's Gate

Yours sincerely

Paul Walker."

As Mr. Walker knows, it is most unlikely that The Local Government Ombudsman would "Provide an objective, external assessment". In fact there are three ombudsmen and three deputy ombudsmen covering the entire country. They are hopelessly under-funded and inadequately equipped to deal with all the complaints about corrupt and incompetent councils all over Britain. They are under no obligation to investigate any of the complaints brought to them, so they investigate only a small proportion, rumoured to be about 6%, and dismiss the rest, either by claiming that the complainant has not suffered sufficient injustice or by finding in the council's favour without investigation.

Even when the ombudsman finds against a council, the council is under no obligation to do as he directs. Both local authorities and the Local Government Ombudsmen are effectively above the law.

Staff from Dacorum Borough Council's Landscape Services Department sawed the dying Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) saplings into logs and removed them from Canal Fields on Wednesday, February 25th. 2004. The trees failed to establish, possibly because Borough Council staff planted them into compacted ground and did not water them during the hot, dry weather experienced during the Summer of 2003.

The holes vacated by the trees were loosely and unevenly filled. Today's loosely filled hole is tomorrow's pedestrian hazard. Rabbits are now finding it easy to dig up the loose earth.

Grass seed was scattered on top of the soil. It is customary to wait until Spring before sowing grass seed, to level and firm the ground, to rake the seed in and to water it. However, I am sure the birds appreciated this supplement to their Winter diet.

The staff drove two heavy vans across Canal Fields, leaving extensive tyre tracks, apparently to save themselves the twenty yard walk from the car park. During the seventy minutes when I was in the vicinity, they did approximately ten minutes' work.

Thus Dacorum Borough Council's Landscape and Recreation Department - cowboys led by liars - blunders on.

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