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UK Tree Officer Survey shows need for government action

  26/06/2017
Last Updated:  29/06/2017
Article by: Alastair Durkin, Mike Sankus and Jim Quaife

The Arboricultural Association recently completed a survey of UK tree officers. The aim of the survey was to assess the impact that local authority funding constraints are having on the standard of tree care and the day-to-day ability of tree officers to fulfil their roles.

See the Results

Why did we do this?

There is a critical need for specialist arboricultural expertise within local authorities (LAs). This is essential for the implementation of policies which protect and nurture trees, and covers areas such as planning, highway street trees, housing, parks and open spaces. Indeed, when granting planning permission for new development, the local planning authority has a duty to make adequate provision for the preservation and planting of trees. Unfortunately, recent anecdotal evidence has suggested that the important role of the local authority tree officer is increasingly under threat from cuts to local government budgets. The AA wanted to better understand the extent of the problem so that it can work to support this segment of its membership and protect the tree officers’ contribution to the wider profession.

‘Used to be three members of our tree team. Now, just me – so I do all tree officer work and all admin functions.’

One way or another all of us in arboriculture work with tree officers and yet their role is in danger of erosion. The tree officer role is diverse, but within the planning system, their role is to scrutinise planning application submissions to a local authority in respect of trees and this will regularly include wider landscaping provisions. They also have a statutory duty to consider the making of tree preservation orders and administer the associated applications and Conservation Area notifications.

The role of tree officers is a technical and professional field demanding highly specific knowledge and is not a function that can be readily undertaken by those not qualified to the same degree. The ability to assess and advise where applications affecting trees are made to an LA is of paramount importance to ensuring that the long-term benefit of trees endures – this being a common thread of environmental policies. The recognition of poor practice and the damaging impact it has upon trees is not a function that should be entrusted to non-professionals.

‘There are virtually no resources for CPD, meaning I have to fund my own CPD …’

There are instances where the role of professional tree officers has been discarded, but more frequently other responsibilities are being attached to the post, such that the officer is faced with a challenging conflict of time apportionment. If the role of tree officers continues to be diluted it will take no imagination to realise that the spatial and environmental qualities of urban and rural landscapes will suffer. Many take our national landscape for granted, but it is under increasing pressure. LAs have a pivotal responsibility and this can only be achieved effectively by dedicated and professional tree officers.

What does the government think?

Independent Panel on Forestry: Final Report

In response to the DEFRA 'Independent Panel on Forestry: Final Report' published in July 2012 which recommended “that local authorities should be encouraged to take professional forestry and arboricultural management advice where planning applications affect trees and woodlands”, the Government stated:

“Local councils are aware of their statutory duties in regard to tree preservation orders (TPOs) and conservation area legislation. They make significant investment in securing arboricultural advice. Councils will need to consider how adequate tree services can continue to be provided, for example through greater cooperation and pooling of resources.”

In response to a recommendation within the same report, the Government agreed

“…that trees and woodlands should be valued at the local level. We share the ambition for local councils and communities to plan positively for the protection and enhancement of their local environments, including trees and woodlands; to recognise the wider benefits of their local natural assets; and to support sustainable economic growth.”

The government’s 2008 publication Trees in Towns II recommended ten targets for local authority tree management. The first of those targets was for each local authority ‘To have at least one specialist Tree Officer, preferably qualified in arboriculture at Higher Education level’. This recommendation is now almost ten years old and does not take account of the changing landscape in terms of how local authorities are delivering their services. More recently the government White Paper Fixing our broken housing market highlighted the fact that local authorities are reporting that they are having difficulties in recruiting and retaining planners and others with specialist skills. In response to this the government states within the White Paper that it will ‘take steps to ensure that the planning system has the skilled professionals it needs, and to provide targeted support to address areas of specialist weakness’.

Notwithstanding the general recognition that there is a shortage of expertise in the planning system, we are very concerned that the government is unaware that there is a specific and significant problem with the reduction of tree officer numbers, and the impact upon their functionality which the pressures of additional duties exert.

Inevitably this erosion is resulting in an increasing number of local authorities having a lack of professional and impartial expertise at their disposal.

‘We are now so short staffed that I try and avoid making any new TPOs as we no longer have the capacity to spend time dealing with them …’

In some cases services are being split, or outsourced via Private Finance Initiatives and other partnerships, in an attempt to bridge the gap in funding. These situations could potentially lead to conflicts of interest or situations whereby the proper care of trees in our towns and cities is not at the core of the decision-making process when it comes to their ongoing management.

What were the key findings of our survey?

There are 418 principal councils in the UK. Of the total 163 responses received from the survey, 83% of tree officers considered that the on-going austerity measures had adversely affected their ability to do their job well.

In terms of what was causing this negative impact, 72% felt that a combination of reduced staff capacity, and reduced support functions such as administration and enforcement, had the greatest effect.

Tree officers were also concerned that reduced budgets for training and continued professional development (CPD) were having a detrimental effect on their ability to carry out their work effectively.

Tree Officer Survey findings 2017

As part of the survey we also asked tree officers to provide us with a brief description of how the issue that affected their job the most had impacted on them personally. The AA was concerned by many of the responses received, which go beyond technical and professional compromises and encompass personal stress and well-being. There are far too many to print here but a small representative sample has been highlighted within this article.

‘… I was expected to double up and provide advice to the Planning Department as well as my primary role of managing the council’s own tree stock. The main impact has been on my mental health.’

What is the AA planning to do with these findings?

What is clear is that these issues need to be addressed at the highest levels for any action to be sufficiently wide-reaching and effective. The AA therefore intends to use the full findings of the survey to inform its own strategy and to petition central and local government and associated organisations concerning the actual and potentially major negative consequences to our urban forest and the wider environment if the professional, impartial and essential expertise of tree officers continues to diminish.

On a practical level the AA will also continue its recent direct support of tree officers by ensuring that specialist training and CPD are made available free of charge or at price points that are affordable to local authorities whose training budgets are continuing to shrink.

Next steps

We have already begun to act on these objectives, firstly by setting up an event in July 2017 to lobby MPs in our Parliamentary Group to take notice of the serious consequences of the diminished role of the tree officer. We will also be running a social media campaign and submitting articles to associated industry press. More free events for tree officers have also been scheduled later in the year.

The Arboricultural Association board is also continually reviewing what the organisation can do to support tree officers. Now we have the statistical data to prove what we have all known for some time, we can press on and provide a voice and support for our members working in local authorities across the United Kingdom.