Applications For Tree Work – My Top Tips

I have mentioned in previous blog posts that until recently I was a tree officer at DEFA. That meant that every year I reviewed hundreds of applications to undertake tree work. Since I have been working for Manx Roots I have helped quite a few people with their tree applications, which means I have now seen the process from both sides. Most people don’t like filling in forms. This is usually because they either can’t be bothered with the hassle or aren’t sure of the answers they’re supposed to give. Regarding the former, DEFA have tried to make the process as simple as possible. You can now apply online, which means you can apply from your mobile phone whilst waiting for a bus! When it comes to knowing the answers to give, this is where I thought I may be able to offer some advice. If you can explain clearly and concisely what you want to do, why you want to do it, and provide the right supplementary information, your application is more likely to be processed in good time and is more likely to be approved.

Your first port of call should be DEFA’s guidance notes which contain lots of useful information, but here are some additional tips.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. By understanding what the relevant legislation (Tree Preservation Act 1993) is trying to achieve, and by definition, DEFA and its tree officers, you will be better placed to make your application. So, keep in mind that legislation exists to preserve the amenity value provided by trees. The tree officer’s assessment weighs up the amenity value of tree against all your reasons for wanting to remove it.

Since the reasons for removal are so important, take the time to communicate your concerns clearly. For example, I commonly see and hear people saying, ‘that tree is too big’. If there is a rule about how big trees are allowed to be, I wish someone would tell me what it is! What you need to communicate is the problem the tree’s height (or spread) is causing, and who it’s causing a problem to. What people usually mean is ‘the canopy of the tree is casting an unreasonable amount of shade over my garden’, or ‘the tree is overbearing and is causing me significant apprehension due to its size in relation to my house’. Imagine there is an annoying child sat next to you whilst you’re completing your application who is tapping you on the shoulder asking why? Why? Yeah, but why? Drilling down into the reasons for removal will help the tree officer better understand your complaint.

It is important that tree officers properly understand the reasons for removal, but also that they can, where required, validate the reasons for removal. Statements such as ‘the tree is unsafe’, ‘the tree is damaging the drains’, or ‘the tree is causing structural damage to my property’ need to be verified; tree officers can’t just accept the applicant’s word for it. Consider how you can provide evidence to support your argument. For example, if you believe a tree is unsafe because of an obvious defect, try taking photos of the defect and taking detailed measurements; if the tree is damaging drains or causing structural damage, include details of surveys undertaken by relevant technical specialists.

As well as being an effective means of providing evidence of defects, photos are also useful for showing the tree in its context. Remembering that ‘amenity’ value is the most important factor in the tree officer’s assessment, photos can also be used to show the various public and private viewpoints of the tree. If the tree officer can assess the following attributes of the tree from your photos, it is very likely that your application will be assessed without a site visit, and will therefore be processed much more quickly:

  • The size of the tree
  • The importance of the tree in the local landscape and/or street scene
  • The suitability of the tree to its setting
  • The aesthetic form of the tree

So, as well as taking the obvious ‘photo of the tree’, try taking a little walk down the road and taking a photo of looking back at the tree in the wider landscape. If you walk 50 metres down the road and can’t see the tree, take the photo anyway and explain that’s the case. Remember though, that you will also need to accurately describe where you took the photo from.

If you’re able to, annotating the photos in free ‘paint’ or photo editing software can also be really helpful, especially if there are other trees in the visual field and it’s difficult to tell which one you’re talking about.

The more information you can provide by doing these things, the more likely it is that your application will be processed in good time and be approved.

A Shot in the Dark

On the Isle of Man, 72% of the resident population live in towns and villages (and cities, of course, before Douglas gets upset). It is widely accepted that trees in urban and suburban areas provide a range of social, economic, and environmental benefits. Nobody is saying that planting trees is all we need to do to make us happy, healthy, and prosperous, but when the evidence shows planting trees can contribute to improvements in all these areas, perhaps we should be taking trees more seriously.

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A basic metric used to measure the performance of municipal authorities in providing an ‘urban forest’ is tree canopy cover (TCC): the area of land that is covered by tree canopy, often expressed as a percentage. The logic behind this metric is that the higher the percentage of TCC, the more benefits are delivered. By breaking these figures down by postcode, ward, or any other spatial unit you can think of, it is also possible to see the distribution of these benefits across our towns and villages.

There are several ways that TCC can be measured, but the simplest and cheapest is random point sampling over existing aerial photography and satellite imagery. All you must do is create a set of random points and check through them one-by-one to decide whether they fall on a tree canopy, or not. The rest is down to statistical analysis.

By combining this method with citizen science, the UK Forestry Commission are attempting to create a canopy cover map for the whole of the UK:

Prior to this, in 2017, Forest Research (the research arm of the Forestry Commission) led a study that assessed the canopy cover of 265 English towns. Canopy cover ranged from 3.25% in Fleetwood, Lancashire to 45% in Farnham, Surrey. The mean canopy cover of the towns assessed was 16.4%. The average for coastal towns was somewhat lower, however, at 13.7%. Based on this study the Forestry Commission believe a target of 15% should be achievable for most coastal towns. Here is a link to the full report: Canopy cover of England’s towns and cities

You won’t be surprised to hear that no such data exists for the Isle of Man. Is this a significant issue?

Well, here is why I believe it is important to have baseline data for TCC:

  • Firstly, and probably most importantly, this baseline data would allow us to monitor changes in TCC over time. Is it changing? If so, how is it changing? Where is it changing? And why is it changing?
  • Armed with such evidence, government departments, statutory boards and local authorities would be better placed to set appropriate budgets for tree planting and maintenance.  Targets could be set for the level of TCC we want to see in 5-, 10- or 50-years’ time. And with targets set we could think about strategic planning and the creation of policies which would help us reach our goals. For example, government’s efforts to protect existing trees and plant new ones, could be increased or relaxed in a given area depending on how far below or above the target we were.
  • TCC can also be used to estimate the extent of ecosystem services delivered by trees, and therefore how we can use tree canopy cover to adapt to the adverse effects of a changing climate.
  • Because it’s easy to understand and communicate, TCC has become popular metric for monitoring the urban forest. In the information age, the importance of easily comprehendible metrics which allow us to communicate effectively with the public and politicians should not be overlooked.

With modern technology and citizen science it should be possible to get this data at minimal cost. We need to bring together those with the technical knowhow, those with access to the most up-to-date aerial imagery, and the willing volunteers, to make it happen.

Efforts to protect or expand the urban forest need to be viewed in the context of the bigger picture, otherwise the expenditure of those resources is just a shot in the dark. In a world where there is fierce competition for resources there needs to be data available to support the case for managing the urban forest. Where resources are available, they need to be used in the most effective way, where they can deliver the most benefit.

Soft Landscaping – We need to Try Harder

Our island is precious. Land is a finite resource that must be used wisely for current and future generations to thrive. And if we hold our island in high regard, it stands to reason that when we allow development to occur, we should expect nothing but the best. There are many issues associated with development which often cause heated debate. Building intensity, house design, traffic issues, the ratio of affordable housing, for example. As an arboriculturist I am interested in amenity trees which deliver benefits for our society, environment, and economy. Are new developments delivering the goods?

As I go about my business around the island, I see many examples of developments where, whatever the intention, the end result is poor.  Some people will be quick to blame the perceived bad guy: the ‘developer’. I’m sure they have a part to play but there are lots of other stakeholders who contribute to the delivery and maintenance of quality landscapes.

Let’s start with the Cabinet Office, responsible for planning policy. Policies relating to the design and delivery of quality landscape schemes appear to be lacking, meaning there may be very little leverage to push for greater landscaping efforts through the planning process.  

Although DEFA’s Planning and Building Control Directorate are stuck working with the Government’s existing policies, they don’t have anybody with landscaping expertise assessing planning applications. How can they assess the quality of a planting plan submitted to support a planning application when they can’t tell an alder from an elder? DEFA’s Tree Officers (Agriculture and Lands Directorate) cannot be relied upon to provide advice because they are already vastly overstretched as it is.

The Isle of Man Government launched a ‘Built Environment Reform Programme’ this week. A strategic objective is to ‘improve the planning process’ but the delivery of quality green space and landscaping is unfortunately not the focus. The quality of landscaping currently being delivered with approved developments is not recognised as an issue.

So, it appears that ‘good will’ is all that currently exists to motivate developers to take soft landscaping seriously.  I think proper incentives and regulation would get better results.

Next up are the contractors who put the trees in the ground. Unfortunately, many trees that are planted die within the first 3 years of planting due to poor planting practice. Basic mistakes, such as planting the tree too deep in the ground, are sadly commonplace.

On-going maintenance is also severely lacking. Whether it is the responsibility of the developer or the local authority that has adopted the land would need to be investigated in each case, but there is often no irrigation, mulching or weeding around newly planted trees. Where maintenance does occur, it is often simply grass cutting, undertaken without due care for the trees. Strimmer damage to young stems, for example, is rife.

If there are public amenity areas with failed landscaping which have been adopted by local authorities, why aren’t they doing something about it? I’m confident that a detailed assessment of planting opportunities in Douglas, for example, would identify that there is plenty of scope for increasing our urban tree canopy cover from its baseline value.

So often people demand to know ‘who is responsible?!’ but wouldn’t it be nice if we came together as a community and took responsibility for the areas of public ground which we ultimately reap the benefit from. If I had a newly planted street tree outside my house and I was doubtful it was receiving the care it needed, I would water it and look after it. Perhaps it is naïve, or wishful thinking, to expect ‘normal’ people to do the same. If communities aren’t engaged, however, perhaps we should ask ourselves….why? It seems obvious to me that communities, above all others previously mentioned, are the most important stakeholder.

The photos below are examples of soft landscaping from a variety of recent developments across the Island. I think we deserve better.

Dead twigs in an uninspiring grass verge
With soil cells placed below hard surfaces the islands between parking spaces can accommodate a tree and soften an otherwise harsh appearance – this is a missed opportunity
A beech tree (capable of being 25m tall) planted within 2m of a house. Its healthy but will have to be removed within 10 years. Wrong tree, wrong place.
3 trees have less than 25% of the leaves they should have at this stage, 1 has died back to its basal shoots (thankfully not removed in a process of formative pruning) and 1 tree has been vandalised (and not replaced).
Welcome to death row.  Only a few low-level shrubs survive here.
Inspired by the Taylor Swift song, Blank Space?? This space is currently a close mown grass monoculture. Trees and native flowers would look more inspiring for residents, deliver benefits for biodiversity, and increase property values.
This space is too small to support trees in the long term. This is gesture planting at its best (worst). Luckily, for the residents of these ground floor flats, these trees haven’t been watered and have now died.
Apparently, a few low-level green blobs were enough for this development. There isn’t much ‘park’ in this ‘Business Park’.
And the award for the most mundane, unloved roundabout goes to….

Ashes to Ashes: Hazardous Highways

If you don’t know what ash dieback is, it is worth checking out DEFA’s webpage: This tree disease is going to dramatically change the appearance of our roads and landscapes over the next 10 years.

A question I am often asked is “what are the government doing about ash dieback?!”.

Due to the epidemiology of the disease, it is, unfortunately, nye on impossible to stop it spreading through our ash tree population. Because of this, DEFA have not attempted to start a control programme like they did for Dutch elm disease in the 1990’s. With no real interest in trying to prevent the spread of the disease, DEFA’s main interest relates to its duty of care to keep people safe on its own estate (i.e. in our national glens and forest areas). When ash succumb to this disease they have the potential to become a significant hazard to people and property. The Public Estates and Housing Division of the DoI, who manage a large and varied estate of public buildings and housing stock, also have this burden. Both these Departments of government have a ‘tree management strategy’ in place which sets out how they manage risk from trees, so as long as the policies and procedures set out in these documents are followed, and there is a budget available to undertake the work, risk of harm from diseased ash should be reduced to an acceptable level.

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