Trees should be Conserved, not Smedleyed

As I have a degree in botany, and work as a professional gardener, I find myself particularly annoyed by Dacorum Borough Council's abuse of trees. Council officers who have responsibility for local trees are both incompetent and indolent, or worse.

In 1995, contractors working for the Borough Council sawed off a row of Weeping Willow and Poplar trees in Canal Fields, Berkhamsted, about twenty feet above the ground. David Smedley, who was then Dacorum's Head of Parks and Open Spaces, 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.

This fuelled local speculation that Dacorum's hidden, long-term agenda is to turn the whole of Canal Fields into a car park to serve the nearby Waitrose supermarket. It also added a new verb to the local vocabulary. When a tree had been severely mutilated, members of Berkhamsted Town Council from 1995 to 1999 said it had been Smedleyed. Unfortunately, the verb has fallen into disuse among members elected to the Town Council since 1999, most of whom are about as humorous as a wet weekend in Hemel Hempstead.

Deadly Smedley has since been retired by the Borough Council, and elected as Conservative Councillor for Nash Mills. I think this is a rather more suitable post for him: Dacorum Borough Council contains a number of councillors and officers who deserve the kind of treatment which the trees do not.

Unfortunately, trees in streets and gardens now fall within the remit of Dacorum's so-called Head of Landscape Services, Ruth Chapman, who is Ruth by name but ruthless by nature.

On a Sunday morning in December 1997, Dacorum's Technical Services Department "Pollarded" a row of six Norway Maples in Berkhamsted High Street; in other words chopped all the branches off. The noise of the chainsaws disrupted a service in St. Peter's Church across the road and also caused a nuisance to nearby residents. Neither local people nor the Town Council were consulted. Ruth Chapman and Labour Councillor Marie Hutchinson defended this act. Two of the trees have since died.

I complained to the Local Government Ombudsman, who refused to investigate on the grounds that I had not suffered sufficient injustice. How could he possibly tell without investigating?

Dacorum carried out more mutilation of High Street trees in January 1998, and then pollarded a row of Limes in Mill Street.

Historically, the purpose of pollarding was to make trees produce a crop of new shoots at a height where they would not be grazed by livestock. The crop would be harvested after anything from one year (if the shoots were to be woven into baskets) to seven years (if they were made into fence posts) when the tree was re-pollarded. Only a few species, such as Willow and Hazel can remain healthy under such harsh treatment.

Unfortunately, pollarding is now widely misused as a cheap and nasty way of reducing amenity trees. It can be done quickly by unskilled labourers with chainsaws. It produces unsightly trees, which are at first ugly stumps and then grow a "bird's nest" of twigs from the ends of the sawn-off branches. They never regain their natural appearance and can suffer from further problems in the future. The re-grown branches of some species, such as Horse Chestnut, develop a tendency to break off at the place where the previous branches were cut, known as the "Pollard point".

If the size of trees needs to be reduced, it should be done by shortening and reducing the number of branches. However, this requires more skill and takes more time, and therefore costs more money. I fear that this is the root of the problem.

The surviving trees opposite St. Peter's Church were re-pollarded in January 2004. Is this further evidence that Dacorum Borough Council's tree officers have insufficient knowledge of the job they are so generously paid to do? Or do they repeat their mistakes in an attempt to show the public who is the bossy boss?

Tree Preservation Orders are intended to protect attractive trees visible from public places in the town from being felled or pruned for inappropriate reasons. Anyone wishing to carry out works to a tree covered by a TPO should first apply to Dacorum Borough Council for permission. Unfortunately, the attitude of Dacorum's tree officers means that TPO's often fail to serve their purpose.

Approximately one preserved tree per week has been felled in the Berkhamsted area over the last eight years with the consent of Dacorum Borough Council. Additional preserved trees have been felled illegally. Many more trees which are not covered by TPO's and can be felled without permission have been cut down. That adds up to an awful lot of trees. Their loss has been seriously detrimental to the appearance of the town. Many have been cut down for entirely spurious reasons. Many more have been Smedleyed.

One applicant applied to fell a preserved tree on the grounds that it had outgrown its location. This was accepted by Dacorum without investigation. If officers had visited the site, as they are supposed to, they would have seen that the tree could have grown to two or three times its present size without causing any problems. I suspect the tree's owner really wanted to cut it down because he hopes to build another house in his back garden.

In the Autumn of 2002, there came an application to fell a Horse Chestnut tree in Graemsdyke Road on the grounds that it was decaying and, "Might have Honey Fungus". I found that the tree was healthy and had no fungal disease. I reported this to Berkhamsted Town Council, which recommended that permission to fell be refused. Dacorum granted permission. In the Spring of 2003, with the tree gone, the owner of the property applied for planning permission to build two houses on the site.

Damage to property is a reason frequently given by applicants who wish to fell preserved trees. It is also frequently given as an excuse. One resident applied to fell the Beech in his front garden because he claimed that it was causing subsidence to affect his house. In fact the tree was much too small to cause this. He admitted at a meeting of Berkhamsted Town Council that the real reason he wanted to cut the tree down was because he did not want to sweep up the leaves every year. This was communicated to the Borough Council, which made no comment and granted him permission to fell the tree.

Dacorum's tree officers do not seem to understand the difference between deciduous and coniferous root systems. Conifer roots do not thicken over a period of years like deciduous roots do, and are therefore much less likely to damage property.

A lady applied for permission to fell two conifers adjacent to her home, on the grounds that the roots were damaging the foundations. This was very unlikely, but Dacorum still granted permission. As soon as the trees were cut down, she applied for planning permission to build a new garage on the site. She got that, too.

Dacorum gave another applicant permission to fell an "Overgrown" conifer without apparently noticing that it was less than half the height that the applicant claimed.

Leyland Cypress, or, to give it its Latin name, Cupressus leylandii, is the fastest growing of all conifers and has attracted some bad press in recent years. A by-product of this is a tendency for any unwanted conifer to be described as a Cupressus leylandii, whether it is or not. Tree officers sometimes fail to notice that a conifer claimed to be a Cupressus leylandii is in fact a slower growing, ornamental Cupressus species which would never even approach leylandii proportions. Dacorum once waved through an application to fell a "Cupressus leylandii" which was actually a Cupressocyparus - not only a different species but a different genus.

It leads me to suspect that Dacorum's tree officers only inspect only a proportion of the trees, and grant permission for works to the rest without seeing them.

Two letters from Dacorum Borough Council Planning Officers have named the tree "Leyland Cyprus". This Mediterranean spelling suggests that tree names are all Greek to the Young Turks in the Town Planning Department.

A fine White Poplar (otherwise known as Aspen) tree stood behing the Crystal Palace Public House in Station Road, Berkhamsted, until recently. Ruth Chapman wrote to the owner and told him that it was a danger to users of the footpath. She is based in an office in Hemel Hempstead, and has probably not walked this footpath very often. I use it regularly, and I do not believe that the tree was a danger to anyone. Berkhamsted Town Council supported this view but its opinion was ignored once again. The tree was duly pollarded and reduced to an ugly stump.

The pub landlord was offered the services of the Borough Council's "Tree surgeons", but accepted a cheaper quote from a private contractor. One of the pub's regulars told me that, once the tree had been pollarded, Borough Council staff approached the landlord and offered to take the logs away free of charge. He decided to keep them for the fire.

Could it be that the Borough Council staff had a market for the logs? Might this have been the real reason for the landlord being asked to prune the tree?

A Hemel Hempstead man telephoned the Borough Council to ask why an attractive Oak opposite his home had been cut down. A junior officer told him that it had been, "In the way of development". Woodlands Officer Cameron Lewis then "Corrected" this advice and told the enquirer that the tree had been felled because, "it had failed to mature properly"! It certainly failed to mature once it had had the chainsaw through it, but I still tend to believe the first version.

I have tried and failed to get Dacorum to place new TPO's on trees. Officers told me that, while the trees were attractive, they were not sufficiently important to be given protected status. I suspect that the officers simply did not want to do the work involved, or did not wish to inconvenience their cronies in the property development business.

Owners who fell or prune preserved trees without permission can be fined up to 2000 per tree. Unfortunately, the authority responsible for enforcing this is Dacorum Borough Council. The former owner of Number 2, Beechcroft, Berkhamsted, applied for permission for works to a number of trees in his back garden. Councillors who visited the site found that he had done the work already. The Borough Council refused him permission.

Berkhamsted Town Council repeatedly tried to get Dacorum to enforce the fines, but was repeatedly stalled. Councillors were told that the work was covered by a planning consent given some years previously. If that were true, the owner would not have had to apply for permission again. In fact the previous planning consent was for lesser works to fewer trees.

The owner subsequently moved to St. Albans, about twelve miles away. This should not have placed him beyond the reach of justice. St. Albans is not exactly Northern Cyprus. Yet the Borough Council refuses to pursue him. Sometimes the arm of the law can be very short indeed.

A resident of Torrington Road is currently seeking permission to build four "Town Houses" in his garden. Neighbours complained to Berkhamsted Town Council that he had felled a number of trees without permission. The town council asked Dacorum Borough Council to take enforcement action.

A few weeks later, Dacorum replied that the owner had been interviewed, "Under Police caution", but Dacorum had decided that, "It would not be expedient to prosecute." Expedient for whom, I wonder.

I will conclude with my favourite case. In 1997 Dacorum received an application to prune a Sycamore tree at Number 2, Gresham Court in Berkhamsted. Berkhamsted Town Council pointed out that there was no Sycamore anywhere on the premises. The officers still recommended that the application be granted, and Dacorum's Development Control Committee rubber-stamped the officers' decision, as it usually does. The tree which was actually pruned following the application was a Horse Chestnut.

I queried this in several letters to the Borough Council's Planning Department. In 1999, a planning officer finally tried to tell me the location of the Sycamore, and the number of the planning consent under which the Horse Chestnut was pruned. The tree the officer located was actually a Norway Maple, not a Sycamore, and located in the garden of Number 5, not Number 2. A little research showed that the supposed "Planning consent" for pruning the Horse Chestnut did not exist. The planning officer had given me a fictitious number. Some time later, the Horse Chestnut was felled without consent. A pity, as I could think of a good use for the conkers.

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