By Jonathan Cocking, Arboricultural Association Fellow Member, Registered Consultant and President of the European Arboricultural Council
My account of 20 years of consultancy as an Arboricultural Association Registered Consultant
I sat in defiance of municipal orders astride my swivel chair, on two of its five wheels gazing across an uninspiring view. Hardly a tree to be seen, but from this location on the seventh floor of a grey, 1960’s office block, I managed the District’s trees.
Earlier that day after months of requests, I had finally become the proud owner of a computer. My manager had delivered it personally after removing the mouse (so that I was not tempted to play Solitaire), and I was having a break from trying to navigate the screen with the keyboard’s up, down, left and right arrows.
It was autumn 1995 and I was seriously considering an escape plan. I had done nine years in this job (twelve for that Council) and I needed a change. Considering what I really wanted to be doing I started a work ‘wish list’ which featured advising English Heritage and the National Trust; practising arboriculture at the highest level; overseas work; determining TPO planning appeals; expert witness work and having plenty prestigious clients. It occurred to me that the way to secure such work was by getting Registered Consultant status with the Arboricutural Association – becoming an AARC.
I knew something of the scheme as I had sat on the AA Professional Committee for several years, so I began to assemble my portfolio of reports. Luckily I had been given permission to undertake some commissions outside my district and I managed to gather the required material. I submitted ten items of work: a Subsidence Report, a Development Report, a Planning Committee Report, a Homebuyers Report, a Woodland Management Plan, a Planting Scheme, a Safety Survey, a Legal Letter Style Report, a Litigation Report and a paper entitled ‘Continuous Cover Forestry Techniques in Malaysia’.
I submitted my portfolio at the end of January 1996 and was told it would be three months or so before I received a response. Easter came and as I had heard nothing I called the AA HQ to be told that it was all still being considered. Summer came and went and I felt sure they had simply decided to bin the whole bundle. I called again in August and was told that I should hear back in the next few weeks. September, October and November passed and then at the beginning of December I was invited by letter down to the then HQ in Hampshire for the dreaded Viva Voce as it was formerly called.
My Viva Voce was daunting but only because I had allowed myself to become uptight about it. I remember it being conducted by Jim Keyes and Derek Patch who both showed genuine interest in my work and who expertly questioned me about my thought processes in writing my reports, thoroughly examining me on the points that they felt needed elaboration.
At the end of the two hour interview I drove 230 miles back home feeling that I had traversed a particularly difficult bit of ground, but without too much calamity. This feeling was vindicated a few weeks later when between Christmas and New Year of 1996 I heard that I had successfully been added to the AARC list, 11 months after applying. In those days the list was a small A5 printed booklet which was sent out by the Arboricultural Association upon request and given out at shows.
At the time I had three young children and a sizeable mortgage so leaving a secure job was a significant risk. It was April 1997 and according to a certain Tony Blair and a bunch of people around him, ‘things could only get better’. I viewed the situation from all angles and from my viewpoint I was inclined to believe him. Interesting enquiries had started to come my way via the AARC booklet and I felt as ready as ever to plunge into the mysterious world of Arboricultural Consultancy. I handed in my notice and left the Council with a deliciously empty diary on May 2nd 1997; coincidentally, on the very same day, a certain Mr Blair began his new job.
It just so happened that 1997 had a particularly dry summer and I was quickly adopted by a few Loss Adjusters and Engineers who had been struggling to find qualified arboriculturists willing to do subsidence surveys quickly and over a wide geographical area. Being an AARC was a good selling point to Insurers who saw this as a useful accreditation for court cases and when making TPO applications. Very soon I needed office support in writing reports and preparing digital plans for a rapidly growing subsidence workload.
My UK wide workload increased quickly over that first year and two people applied for an advertised position. In those days I was confident yet inexperienced in business and as I liked them equally I recklessly offered jobs to both of them. Happily, this turned out to be a good decision as by employing these two people, both highly skilled and capable, I was able to concentrate on workload diversification, as I did not think that basing a business on subsidence alone was a sensible long term plan. There must be Developers, Architects and others out there who needed my skills and expertise so I embarked on a marketing campaign, writing to all those companies nearby who I considered may need my assistance, always with a focus on emphasising my AARC status.
Being able to say that I was one of the forty two professionals in the UK with the AARC accreditation was (and still is) a genuine selling point. Marketing, coupled with a steady organic increase in inquiries from clients who had seen my work and some who had seen the AARC booklet, quickly increased my personal workload whilst gently growing the company’s exposure to general survey work for Schools, Developers, Councils and private clients. Within a short while, what I considered to be exciting projects started to come my way.
My first court appearance came in 1999 when I was instructed to act for British Rail in a case brought by a major insurer. It was heard in the High Court in London and was scheduled for a one week hearing. It was a daunting experience, stood giving evidence in the catacombs of this historic building and being sternly told by the Judge at the end of day one to leave the Court and not speak to any of my legal team overnight as I was still under oath and would continue under oath the next morning.
The following day, after two hours of giving evidence, a brief adjournment saw me stood in the box with negotiations being whispered between Barristers and Clerks. During this adjournment, a mouse scurried along the length of the Judge’s bench, over all his papers and disappeared beneath my feet. Everyone saw it and the silence was broken by my Barrister saying that ‘even the court rodents were moving to our side’.
This case closed in favour of British Rail shortly afterwards and my court life as an expert had well and truly begun.
Since those days, of the 66 court appearances, over 100 Public Inquiries and 47 tree related injury or death investigations, I estimate that 90% of these have been directly or indirectly attributable to my being on the AARC register. Today, as I write this article I have had a recommendation from a London Barrister who I worked for five years ago on an accident investigation and who had originally taken my details from the booklet.
Throughout these twenty years as an AARC I have maintained an active life with the AA. For most of this period I sat on the Professional Committee, for the last twelve years I have been a Director of AA Trading Limited, for the last seven years I have been the AARC representative to the AA, I represent the AA on the European Arboricultural Council and most recently I started a period as a Trustee. It is therefore fair to say that I have been a big supporter of the AA over the years and equally fair to say that this support has paid dividends – a true symbiotic relationship.
Whilst I would never say to an aspiring RC that once on the list one’s career is guaranteed, I can say with some confidence that without AARC status a fulfilling and worthwhile career would have been considerably harder to achieve. Whilst (I hope) it is not within my character to boast, I do feel that being able to list English Heritage, The Royal Parks, Cambridge University, The British Museum, Center Parcs, the Health & Safety Executive, the Military Police, The Indonesian Government and Singapore National Parks amongst my 600 recurring clients is at least partly due to my AARC status.
I regularly work in Europe with fifteen Countries visited in the last five years and have developed my skills in recent years in subjects that interest me most such as European tree worker safety, tree disease control and veteran tree management.
Being an AARC has allowed me to be selected for several overseas workshops and talks in the last few years. In recent times these have been in Poland, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. I was speaking in Penang on Modern Arboricultural Practice recently when the lecture room had to be evacuated. A king cobra had joined the audience and I ended up stood on the table with my projector as the boisterous delegate was expelled.
A wide range of extraordinary projects have made my work life interesting from investigating helicopter accidents with the military police, examining accident sites on stormy nights for the Health and Safety Executive, advising on how to get a three storey articulated lorry to the British Museum without damaging trees, checking the safety of trees for a rainforest canopy walk in Borneo through to advising on infrastructure improvements in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup.
Considering that AARC status has enriched my career so much, it surprises me that AARC numbers are roughly the same as they were twenty years ago and that there are only a handful of applicants each year. When asked, people who I know to be capable and deserving of AARC status say they do not need it as they are busy enough, it would not change their life at all, that they will apply soon or that they do not want legal work. My advice is ‘go for it’; it will almost certainly enhance your work life, you will be able to promote yourself more identifiably, you are likely to be able to create a more interesting workload and ‘new blood’ will add credibility to the scheme. In my experience, the best things have happened when I stepped out of my comfort zone.
The fear of rejection is a strong human motivator but the AARC selection process is anonymous, the feedback may be helpful and ‘if at first you don’t succeed…..etc’. Conversely of course, the pride that one gets from success is a strong motivator too, not to mention the possibility of increasing one’s earning capacity – surely powerful reasons to get a portfolio prepared.
The system of application has been improved; there is an organised panel of assessors and a swifter service than ever before. We even have a large number of AARCs who are willing to act as mentor to aspiring AARCs – more than half of AARCs said they were willing to do this.
In summary, being an AARC is not a golden ticket to success, nor does it assure a more interesting work life. Nevertheless, it is in my view an accreditation to be proud of and well worth the effort. It has certainly worked for me.
I would happily discuss the process with anyone who wishes to contact me.
Jonathan Cocking runs JCA Limited, an Arboricultural and Ecological Consultancy based in Yorkshire.