Planning to Protect

The Strategic Plan sets out the general policies for the development and use of land across the Island and plays a pivotal role in the determination of planning applications. On the 21st July Government announced a full review of this policy document.

It is of interest to Manx Roots because this is the document that sets out how the impact to the environment (including trees) should be considered in the preparation of proposals for development.

Information about the Government’s current consultation on this review is available here.

A lot of the consultation questions relate to specific issues which are not directly relevant to trees. The last question, however, is open ended. I thought that our response may be of interest to some people, so here it is:

Manx Roots welcomes this review of the Strategic Plan. Trees are fundamental to our wellbeing and quality of life, whether in an urban or rural context. They secure many environmental, economic and social benefits when planned and managed appropriately.

In providing arboricultural consultancy services we aim to:

  1. Prevent trees being cut down or pruned unnecessarily, so that they can provide social, economic and environmental benefits for the Island.
  2. Keep people and property safe.
  3. Help our community mitigate climate change and adapt to a changing climate.
  4. Facilitate sustainable development.

We believe that the Strategic Plan should also contribute to achieving these outcomes.

The current strategic plan only promotes the protection/planting of trees through General Policy 2 and Environment Policy 3. Given the many, well-documented, benefits trees provide, this review represents an important opportunity to provide more weight to the protection/planting of trees in the planning process.

Trees have a positive impact on the quality and sustainability of development by:

  1. Creating welcoming, attractive and distinctive places.
  2. Creating boundary definitions.
  3. Creating wayfinding and landmark links.
  4. Encouraging walking and cycling.
  5. Making density work and moderating land use transitions.
  6. Creating visual and noise barriers.
  7. Enhancing thermal comfort.
  8. Dealing with stormwater sustainably and cost-effectively.
  9. Enhancing biodiversity.

These benefits have been documented in UK planning policy, and various place making and design quality frameworks:

Better, B., & Building Beautiful Commission. (2020). Living with beauty: Promoting health, wellbeing and sustainable growth. Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Building With Nature Ltd. (2023). Building with nature standards Framework.

Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM)

Homes England. (2020). Streets for a healthy life: A companion guide to building for a healthy life.

International Well Building Institute. (2016). The WELL Building Standard. Delos Living LLC.

Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. (2020). Planning for the future; White paper August 2020.

Police Crime Prevention Initiatives. (2023. Secured by Design: Homes 2023.

Trees can contribute to meeting some of the Island’s challenges and policy goals over the next 50 years. For example, by contributing to the creation of attractive and distinctive places, trees can help to create a ‘sense of place’ and have a positive impact on community cohesion.

Trees will make active travel more likely by making cycling and walking routes feel like attractive places to be. By slowing down traffic, providing a barrier from vehicular traffic, and helping drivers read key changes, such as approaches to intersections and built-up areas, trees can also make the active traveller feel safer. 

Trees can contribute to the Isle of Man Government’s economic strategy/aspirations by creating environments that attract investment, and that are perceived by skilled professionals as an attractive place to live and work.

There is a lot of attention being paid to how planning policies might help the Government meet its commitment to reach net zero by 2050. There is not much discussion, however, on how the island will adapt to a changing climate, which will happen whether net zero is achieved or not. Trees can help to mitigate extreme weather events by intercepting rainwater, facilitating stormwater infiltration and attenuation, removing stormwater pollutants, and by providing shade and shelter.

It is likely that the new strategic plan, like the old one, will be topic based. One concern that may be raised with this format is that trees deliver such a wide variety of benefits (social, environmental and economic) that the need to plant and protect them cannot be adequately reflected by just considering them as part of the ‘the Environment’. 

Another concern is the lack of data relating to trees. Diagram 1 in the main consultation document states that evidence gathering is the first stage of a development plan. The island has no reliable data on its tree population. Even the most basic of metrics, such as urban tree canopy cover are lacking. It will be very difficult to be confident that the correct weight is being given to tree protection and planting when there is so little evidence of the Island’s baseline.

It is acknowledged that this is only the first stage in the consultation process and so, perhaps, not the time/place to discuss the wording of specific policies relevant to trees. However, it may be helpful to discuss the kinds of policies that should be included in the new strategic plan.

We believe the new policy document should:

  1. Make a clear statement that trees are critical to delivering high-quality sustainable development.
  2. Provide a level of aspiration for larger new developments. For example, the UK NPPF states that ‘Planning policies and decisions should ensure that new streets are tree-lined, that opportunities are taken to incorporate trees elsewhere in developments (such as parks and community orchards), that appropriate measures are in place to secure the long-term maintenance of newly-planted trees, and that existing trees are retained wherever possible’.
  3. Clearly state that adequate tree-related information should be submitted with applications. This needn’t be onerous, and the information required should be proportionate to the design and complexity of the development.
  4. State that trees will be subject to the planning system’s mitigation hierarchy, whereby loss is avoided, if possible; losses or negative impacts are minimised; or, as last resort, compensation is provided for unavoidable loss.
  5. Give a lot of weight to the protection of existing good-quality trees (those categorised as A & B under the BS5837:2012 category rating system).
  6. Where compensation is required, provide a clear framework for this to occur. For example, a tree-loss replacement standard should be included.
  7. Encourage trees to be incorporated into the design in a way that creates a harmonious relationship between trees and structures that can be sustained in the long-term.
  8. Secure adequate tree protection for existing retained trees through the construction process of the proposed development.
  9. Seek adequate levels of new tree planting, including aftercare to ensure that newly planted trees reach independence in the landscape.

We look forward to reviewing the policies of the new strategic plan.

An elm sanctuary?

When the ‘elm tunnel’ at St. Mark’s was threatened by a proposed development there was a huge public outcry. At the time, it struck me as odd there was so much public support for the campaign to save those trees, but so little awareness of the disease which threatens the entire elm population on the Island.

The disease which ravaged the English countryside in the 60’s and 70’s reached our shores in the early 90’s. ‘The Forestry Board’, followed by DAFF, and then DEFA, funded a control programme and introduced new plant health legislation to help reduce the rate of spread and prevent new sources of infected material reaching the Island. For the last ten years, however, funding of the control programme has been significantly eroded. Budget reductions and long-term budget freezes meant that the Department’s ability to find and deal with diseased trees was considerably hampered.  In the summers of 2020 and 2021 we observed huge increases in the numbers of diseased elm trees. The distribution of the disease on the island also increased; for the first time ever, diseased trees were identified as far south as Colby.

My understanding is that DEFA’s control programme has now all but ceased completely. As a result, we are seeing an ever-increasing number of diseased elms around the island. This elm tree on the corner of Saddle Road in Douglas is an example of a large urban street tree which has been infected this year.

If the disease spreads down Castletown Road, the junction to Anagh Coar could look very different in a few years’ time. These huge ‘Wheatley’ elms are iconic in the local area.

The impacts of Dutch elm disease have the potential to be far reaching; for amenity, biodiversity, landscape, and heritage, not to mention our finances.

Unfortunately, for most elms in the countryside, it is now too late to act; the disease is so widespread that it would be very difficult and costly to get it back under control. It may still be possible, however, to save our urban elm trees, particularly in the far south of the island where the disease is less prevalent, but we would need to act quickly. Control and monitoring zones, sanitation felling, and new planting in Douglas and Port Erin could create an ‘elm sanctuary’ to rival that which still exists in Brighton today:

Urban Trees: Barriers to Change

I have recently written about the benefits of street trees and how they can be planted without causing conflict. Street trees fit within the broader category of ‘urban trees’ which can also be located in parks, public gardens, urban woodlands, schools, church yards, and many other public spaces, not to mention privately owned trees which present rather different challenges. Collectively, all the trees in and around urban areas can also be known as the ‘urban forest’. The benefits of urban trees are well documented – the Arboricultural Association provide a good summary here – so I will not bang on about it.

In this blog I would like to share my thoughts on what the barriers might be to effectively managing urban trees in the Isle of Man. As the main urban centre, I am mainly thinking of Douglas, but some of these barriers apply to other towns such as Ramsey, Peel and Port Erin.

The biggest issue, as I see it, is the highly fragmented nature of urban tree ownership and management. Let’s consider some of the organisations involved. DEFA’s estate is mostly rural but they do manage a few key urban-fringe woodlands. In Ramsey, one of these is now managed by the Manx Wildlife Trust. Being the owners of many local parks and amenity spaces, local authorities are a major stakeholder. The DoI is another major stakeholder, but the urban trees they are responsible for are split between two separate Divisions. The Highway Services Division is responsible for all the street trees and trees growing in roadside verges. The Public Estates and Housing Division is responsible for managing trees around our public buildings (e.g. schools, health centres, sports facilities).

Each of these bodies on its own is too small to be reasonably expected to have adequate skills and resources at its disposal for managing urban trees effectively.

These silos also mean there is no coordinated, strategic approach among stakeholders to manage urban trees. It’s also the reason there is no baseline data on urban tree canopy cover (see September 2022 blog post for further detail), or the species profile, age-structure and condition of our urban tree population. Without baseline data and a strategic approach, if it does occur, management will only ever be reactive, responding to issues as they emerge, rather than proactively planning and acting towards an improved urban forest. As well as making much better use of existing resources, adopted strategies and collaborative working are a way of securing new funding, as politicians (and their dreaded bean counters) start to realise that investment delivers tangible benefits. Strategic documents can also help to raise the profile of urban trees, generating public support and awareness.

The Isle of Man is not alone when it comes to having a lack of strategic oversight for urbans trees, however.  A recent research paper reported that only 41% of English Local Authorities (LAs) have a tree strategy, and this figure drops to 22% for rural areas. Interestingly, two-tier local authorities (e.g. overlapping county and district councils) were also found to be less likely to have a tree strategy. The author of the research suggests that this may be due to ambiguity over which level of local government is responsible for tree management. Is that what is happening here with our fragmented urban forest?

Perhaps not a ‘barrier’ as such, the planning system in the Isle of Man is also an issue. The Area Plan for the East failed to undertake an assessment of Green Infrastructure in and around our capital. The Strategic Plan also has very little to say about the importance of urban trees and what role development in urban areas plays in contributing to (or hindering!) the urban forest. If the Island is serious about promoting sustainable development, we need to get serious about our urban forests. Urban trees are an important tool for climate change adaptation; they help to lessen the impact of extreme weather events. Urban trees also help the local economy by attracting investment and creating favourable environments for retail and hospitality. In July 2022 I wrote about the poor results we are seeing from soft landscaping and tree planting associated with new developments, which shows, whether it’s a policy, development control or enforcement issue, something isn’t working.

The aforementioned research paper discusses the possibility of making tree strategies mandatory for LAs and setting a template through an (England and Wales) National Tree Strategy. This would be a positive step forward for the adjacent isle and, by setting an example, may make it easier to generate public and political interest in being more proactive about the management of our own urban trees. How degraded will our urban forests become though, if we wait for others to show us the way?

How to Survive on the Street (Street Trees Part II)

In my last blog post I championed a special type of tree: The Street Tree. A couple of people pointed out that if we planted trees in our streets, they are likely to get too big and cause nuisance issues and damage our infrastructure. The planting of any street tree which caused such issues could not be deemed a success. Street trees need to thrive in the urban environment without causing damage to surrounding infrastructure, and without causing conflict with neighbours or users of the highway. How can this be achieved?

To answer this question it is helpful to think about what a tree needs to thrive in the urban environment.

Firstly, all temperate trees need soil. They need sufficient soil volume relative to their size and leaf area. The soil needs to be well structured, to allow water and air to flow through it. Most roots need air to survive. The soil should be able to supply all the nutrients that the tree needs.

Most people have never thought about soil in the urban environment. Why would you?! There is soil underneath our roads and pavements isn’t there? Isn’t there?? Well….yes (perhaps), but the structure of the road (the wearing course, base course and subbase) occupies the space where the biologically active soil should be. If there is soil (‘subgrade’) beneath a road, it is likely to be compacted (lacking air) and poor quality.

Trees also need access to water. Water is essential for photosynthesis and nutrient transport. Fortunately groundwater is not often in short supply on our island, but extreme weather events are predicted to increase, so drought is something we need to think about. However, too much water is also bad because waterlogged soils are devoid of air.

When transplanting nursery trees to any location, it is important to provide the young tree with support until the roots get a chance to grow into the surrounding soil and provide sufficient anchorage. In an urban environment this can be challenging as tree stakes don’t look great, they create trip hazards and need to be maintained/removed at the appropriate time to avoid damaging the tree. Fortunately underground guying systems have been developed to provide ‘invisible’ support to newly planted trees.

It is a common misconception that tree roots grow deep into the ground. Due to the requirement for air (and gas exchange) most trees grow in the top 60cm of soil. For this reason trees naturally send their roots out close to the surface. If soil is available below a hard surface, trees often need a bit of encouragement to send their roots downwards but the roots will be quite happy there once they find it, as long as the soil remains aerated. ‘Root deflectors’ and ventilation pipes can be used for this purpose.

Here is an example of a modern ‘tree pit’, courtesy of GreenBlue Urban.

So far, we have thought about how a tree may be nurtured to prevent it becoming a troublemaker, but there is nature as well nature to consider in this noble endeavour. As well as providing a tree with a suitable rooting environment, we also need to think about the species of tree we plant. Every planting opportunity presents a different set of constraints, and every species available at the tree nursery has different characteristics. We must ensure that the right tree is planted in the right place for the right reasons.

We should think about a tree’s mature height and canopy spread, for example. Reflected heat from hard surfaces, reduced water availability due to run-off from impermeable surfaces, and contamination from de-icing salts are just some of the physiological challenges that street trees may have to deal with, and some species cope better with these challenges. Trees with prominent surface roots (e.g. Cherry) can cause problems. Nuisance issues related to honeydew or rotting fruit are an important consideration. Shade can be beneficial but can also be viewed as a nuisance, so it’s important to think about the type and extent of shade the canopy will produce when in leaf. Getting all these factors right will reduce the likelihood of conflict occurring and reduce future pressure to remove trees.

If we can nail the nature and nurture factors, a street tree should be able to thrive in the urban environment without causing conflict, but we don’t live in a perfect world. There are many existing street trees that were planted without due consideration for the factors described above. This is where management becomes essential. For example, we can prune trees regularly to maintain their height or canopy spread. Where roots begin to disturb hard surfaces, we can repair and adapt the surfaces in a sensitive way. If seasonal fruit drop is causing a nuisance issue, then we can increase the street cleaning regime during that part of the year. There are many other innovative ways that these issues can be managed, if there is a desire to do so.

By thinking about the nature and nurture issues described above we can raise a new generation of street trees which thrive in our urban environment whilst causing minimal conflict issues. By thinking creatively and being mindful of the many benefits streets bring, as well as the damage that can be caused by a lack of management or poor management, we can reduce the nuisance impact of existing trees.