Camden Trees Get the Chop

Tree Maintenance Policy
REPORT OF Director of Place Management
FOR SUBMISSION TO Culture & Environment Scrutiny Committee
DATE 6th November 2019
The London Borough of Camden is responsible for the management of
approximately 28,000 trees and a further 10-15,000 in woodland sites. An itree
inventory report in 2017 estimated that they supply £234,202 worth of benefits per
year in carbon sequestration, pollution removal and avoided water runoff for the
residents of Camden. In total they store 10,800 tonnes of carbon. They are an
important and necessary part of the urban environment and valued by residents
for the benefits they provide. This report outlines the Council’s tree management
and maintenance procedures and policy to ensure that Camden has a sustainable
urban forest for now and future generations.

Camden Council is responsible for public street trees with a Capital Asset value (CAVAT) of £343.2 million (2019).  Studies in the 2020 report, Trees on the Edge by Bartholomew Area Residents’ Association, Canopy Coalition and others, found that Camden has ‘The largest tree maintenance and planting budget.’ but also ‘The weakest benchmarking for tree maintenance standards’. So what is going wrong?

Failure to follow recognised basic standards? 

The Council’s policy from 2015, guiding tree management is three pages long.  Policy 3 — Arboriculture Standards, Maintenance and Biodiversity states that: ‘The Council will ensure all Council tree work is carried out according to BS3998: 2010 British Standard Recommendations for Tree Work.’ 

But those BS3998 standards, which describe essential good working practices concerning established trees are contained in a small book costing £229.  Very few of the contractors hired to ‘manage’ Camden’s tree stock every year, possess a copy of this instructive but expensive book. A Kent tree company –  About Trees-  quotes on their website: ‘search high and low and you will not find BS3998 (2010) in either the office or yard of most tree care companies.’ 

 Procurement and oversight problems?

At a Camden Environment Scrutiny Committee meeting held in December 2021, a senior manager revealed that there are only two tree officers for the whole of the borough.Tree firms work largely unsupervised and some working locally are not registered under the ARB approved contractor programme, the only comprehensive accreditation scheme for tree surgery businesses in the UK. The programme is there to certify that businesses have been thoroughly assessed and found competent to carry out tree work to a high standard.

 Lack of expertise?

All our plane trees are currently being pollarded in late autumn, but the Arboricultural Association recommends the best time for pruning — not pollarding — is between late spring and summer. Cherry trees should only be pruned (not pollarded) in summer as should Acers. Some species such as Whitebeam should never be pruned and, if at all, only in late spring to summer, yet we have witnessed these ornamental trees being pollarded in late autumn…

“In 2018 in the Cantellows Ward 11 trees were felled due to disease or imminent death. Seven of these trees were of the same species, Swedish Whitebeam, a variety of the Service Tree. They had all been pollarded several times even though it is well known they should never be even lightly pruned.”

Trees on The Edge

Fear of Liability

Camden Council’s Trees Department continues to maintain that large parts of the borough have significant subsidence problems, often giving this as the ‘default reason’ for the numerous aggressive interventions taking place in the borough these days.   

Camden’s biennial reduction regime is based on the misguided belief that it somehow protects the council from expensive subsidence claims. In fact, the council’s brutal maintenance programme, pollarding by default, disfigures mainly harmless trees, which are often a significant distance from any private property, historic foundations and cause no obstruction. Indeed, Camden’s latest statistics regarding third party tree root claims show that claims are negligible, the last declared cost being only £2,500 whereas precautionary pollarding costs Camden £134,000 a year.

Before and After

According to the same report, ‘pruning everything at the same time and in the same way can in no way be considered best practice or complying with industry standards.’ 

Tree Topping

Heading, stubbing, tipping, dehorning, rounding over, hat-racking… are all names for one thing: Topping.

Camden’s indiscriminate “pruning”, ie topping, removes the top section of a tree’s crown in order to reduce the height for either fear of the tree becoming too large, too close to another object (like house or power lines), or to clear a view. It ruins the structural integrity of the tree and leads to epicormic growth (shoots or new growth that is weakly attached to main scaffold branches or limbs). This new growth is an attempt to recover from the shock of losing its photosynthetic area and further weakens branches, increasing the potential for failure. 

Why Not to Top a Tree- Eight Good Reasons
     1. Starvation – Topping removes too much of the tree’s leafy crown, an area that is used for making food. Good pruning practices do not typically remove more than 1/4 of the crown.  Without these leaves creating nutrients for the tree, it can become stressed and lead the tree into survival mode.
      2. Shock -The tree’s crown shields the bark from direct rays of sunlight, the reduction of the crown can cause sun scald. 
      3. Insects and Disease – Large areas of newly pruned branches leave the tree vulnerable to insect invasion and the spores of decay.
      4. Weak Limbs – Wood from a new limb generated from a larger cut limb, will attach more weakly compared to limbs that develop naturally. This leads to branches that are more liable to break.
     5. Rapid New Growth- While the goal topping is often to control the height of a tree, it often has the opposite effect. The branches that sprout after topping are fast growing and can reach the original height of the tree in a short time.  Also this crown grows more dense!
     6. Ugliness -The natural form of trees is graceful and characteristic of the species.  Topping creates a disfigured tree that robs a community of a valuable asset.
      7. Tree Death – Some trees are more tolerant of topping than others.  However, beeches, for example, do not sprout rapidly after pruning, and the reduced foliage surely will lead to death of the tree.
      8. Cost – If you have found a tree service to top your trees, chances are they are doing it cheap.  ISA Certified arborists know this is an unacceptable method of pruning.

The Camden Council Tree section needs a critical review, reform of its tree managment criteria and new staffing arrangements to safeguard the valuable green assets we entrust to them. Simply planting new saplings cannot offset the harm done to mature trees by this unsustainable, one-size-fits all approach.

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