On 27th June, I proposed a motion that South Kesteven District Council should adopt the Woodland Trust’s Charter for Trees and develop a tree strategy to protect, improve and enhance the number and quality of trees in the District. Conservatives at South Kesteven tied themselves up in knots in order to prevent an Independent-led proposal from being passed.
The Tree Charter can be signed by individuals and also by organisations. More than 70 organisations and 300 local community groups have signed up to the Charter including at least two Parish Councils in the South Kesteven area have already signed up (Deeping St James and Barkston and Syston). However, meaning no disrespect to the Woodland Trust and their partners, the Charter for Trees is a relatively bland statement of commitment to protecting and promoting trees, forest and hedgerows, in fact one of my Independent colleagues described parts of it as ‘airy-fairy’. It is more a statement of attitude and intent rather than a detailed program of actions.
I argued that signing up to the Charter would demonstrate the Council’s commitment to trees, biodiversity and also to the Woodland Trust which is the leading national charity on this issue and is based in Grantham.
I was gobsmacked when the SKDC Cabinet Member responsible for Environment, Cllr Peter Moseley (Con) decided to oppose the motion. He suggested three reasons why Councillors should vote against it, all of which were spurious.
Firstly, he insulted me personally by suggesting that I was trying to circumvent proper process. He said that the decision should first be discussed by the Environment Overview and Scrutiny Committee (OSC). – In response, I agreed that it should be discussed by the OSC and that I had actually written to the Chair of the OSC, Cllr Rosemary Trollope-Bellew (Con), some weeks before the committee, suggesting that the subject of a ‘tree strategy’ should be added to the committee draft workplan. I asked for a copy of the workplan but none was forthcoming until I asked again a few days before the OSC. The draft workplan sent to the committee had no mention of trees and consequently I felt I had no choice but to raise the issue at Full Council as the scrutiny process did not appear to be working. Three days after submitting my motion, and just one day before the OSC, a revised draft was published which included ‘tree guidelines’. The Conservatives claim that the first draft was published in error but I saw no reason to withdraw my motion because it would actually complement any positive work of the committee on the subject of trees and, in fact, raise the profile of the OSC and of the work the Council is doing with regard to tree preservation. Previous experience of the Environment OSC has shown that it does need some encouragement, e.g. on the subject of street-lighting when it took almost two years for the Council to reach a decision to invest in energy efficient lamps.
The second reason offered by Cllr Moseley was that adopting the Charter might compromise the Council’s ability to make decisions about dangerous trees. He quoted a hypothetical example of the Charter possibly preventing urgent health and safety works to a tree at a council leisure centre in danger of falling over which might injure a member of the public. This argument demonstrated that Cllr Moseley had either not read and understood the Tree Charter prior to the meeting or else he was deliberately misinterpreting the content. No-one, least of all the Woodland Trust, would recommend a local authority abnegate its responsibilities to public safety for the sake of signing up to a generic charter. The leisure centre example was interesting though as quite recently a mature, beautiful and seemingly healthy tree was felled by SKDC in the Deepings leisure centre car park without any prior warning to the leisure centre, the school (which also uses the car park) let alone the ward councillors. We later discovered that the Council’s arboricultural consultant had deemed the tree to be unhealthy and therefore it was for the chop. No second opinion, no pause for reflection, just chop it down at the taxpayers’ expense.
Cllr Moseley’s final excuse was the potential costs of adopting the Tree Charter. There are no specific costs attached to the Charter although there might be potential costs to adopting best practice in the management of trees. Conversely there might also be savings. Cllr Moseley said that in proposing the motion I should have been specific about the likely costs. It was unclear whether he had done any research regarding the potential costs as he didn’t give any firm examples of what costs might be incurred. However, he did state that Officers have already prepared a report regarding tree guidelines although he did not state whether or not the report mentions any potential costs.
Cllr Moseley’s flawed arguments were echoed by the council’s Deputy Leader, Cllr Kelham Cooke (Con) and when it came to the vote not a single Conservative voted in favour of adopting the Tree Charter (although a very small number did abstain). It was clear to me that this was yet another example of the Conservatives blocking a good idea purely because it wasn’t their own idea. Like so many other policy proposals I expect that with a year or so the proposal will come back in a slightly different format and be approved by the Conservatives who will use it as a PR opportunity to show off their environmental credentials.
In fact the PR opportunities have already started with the Grantham Journal this week which features a photo of a smiling Cllr Moseley holding a copy of the Tree Charter that he had just voted against accompanied by quotes from Cllr Moseley and Cllr Cooke saying how closely the council is working with the Woodland Trust and how much they support trees.