Feeble planners allow builders to get away with (tree) murder

The council’s “light-touch” planning enforcement officials appear set to allow another piece of egregious eco-vandalism occur, this time with the wanton destruction of a mature yew tree likely to be more than 100 years old.

Axed: the yew tree on Coulsdon Road had its roots damaged by the building works

The tree, on the junction of Hartley Down and Coulsdon Road, was minding its own business when a developer got permission to build a house on the site.

Let’s just say at this point that having a big, old evergreen close to a building site might not be optimal for every housebuilder. The tree’s roots might get in the way of the foundations. The deep, dark foliage might hamper decent light coming into the house once finished.

And wouldn’t it be a shame if, during the building works, and despite conditions attached to the planning permission, the tree somehow became damaged..?

Guess what? That’s exactly what’s happened on the Coulsdon Road site.

The developer, Coulsdon-based Nathen Harding, has gone out and hired an arborist to draft a report for the council’s planning department to convince them that the poor old tree is now in such a poor state, it needs to be hacked down altogether.

The report from the tame arborist at Usherwood Arboriculture says that as part of the planning permission, Harding was “required… to submit a tree protection plan to the council prior to commencement of works”.

But by April this year, when the arborist turned up to conduct his work and deliver to the council the report they had asked for, “substantial excavation work had already taken place and Croydon’s planning enforcement team had intervened with a recommendation to stop works until condition 13 had been formally discharged”.

This is what condition 13 of the planning permission from Croydon Council states:

Note the use of the words “prior” and “any” in the first sentence, as in “Prior to the commencement of any development on site”, meaning in simple, plain English, before building work begins, and the requirement that “a Tree Protection Plan shall be submitted to and approved in writing with the local planning authority”. Seems straightforward enough.

But as the arborist report states, “substantial excavation work had already taken place” even before he arrived on site. How could this be?

The report continues, “Following a conversation with the Croydon enforcement officer, it was agreed that due to the quantity of excavation around the base of the yew tree, it was no longer feasible to protect and retain the on-site tree as part of the development.”

According to the tree expert, the builder ought not have allowed any digging work within  6.8 metres of the yew. The tree is now condemned because, according to the arborist, “inadvertent excavation damage to the tree’s root plate”.

Some might take issue with the use of the word “inadvertent” in that assessment.

The report concludes, “It is clear that the original tree protection requirement can no longer be met and instead I suggest that this document is considered as an appropriate replacement to discharge condition 13 (Tree Protection), of full planning permission 19/00126/FUL.”

Having managed to kill a mature native tree, this tree expert suggests planting a non-native Austrian pine in its place.

So that’s all right then…

There appears to be no penalties or consequences for the developer for this blatant breach of the planning conditions.

As one concerned resident has said on the local Hartley and District Residents’ Association social media, “What is the point of having requirements which builders are meant to follow if they don’t follow them?”

Planting an Austrian Pine, they said, is “not a compensation for the loss at all”.

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20 Responses to Feeble planners allow builders to get away with (tree) murder

  1. Jonathan Alexander Matthew Patterson says:

    Was there a TPO on the tree?

    • Lawrence Usherwood says:

      Hello all, I am the arboriculturalist responsible for the tree report.
      As set out within my report, I was asked to view the tree once damage had occurred. The tree is not subject to a tree preservation order but was shown as being retained on approved plans.

      As someone has already stated, Common Yew trees are one of the northern hemispheres longest lived trees and capable of living for over a thousand years, with lovely examples at Crowhurst and Tandridge churchyards.

      Unfortunately Yew are very susceptible to root damage on shallow soils over chalk and once a proportion of the root system has been damaged or removed, the tree is no longer able to obtain adequate water and nutrients at the same rate as evapotranspiration occurs, making it extremely difficult to retain the viability of the crown.

      As I’m sure you are all aware, trees don’t work in the same timeline as humans and it can sometimes take a couple of years for a tree to show the decline associated with historical damage such as soil compaction and root severance.

      Sometimes trees have sufficient vitality to regain their root/shoot ratio, however, in my opinion this tree does not have sufficient vigor or stored energy to regain a replacement root system in time, hence my recommendation and support for removal and replacement.

      Regarding enforcement, the council may require a replacement tree but there is no legal apparatus or requirement to levy a fine unless the tree is protected by a TPO. Even before the damage, this tree was not of sufficient amenity value to warrant protection from a TPO

      With regards to the replacement tree, the non-native Austrian or Black Pine was requested by the Croydon Enforcement officer and not this tree consultant!

      Some of you talk about tree establishment, which is quite right, with the biggest killer of young trees being a lack of water maintenance. I plant around 500-600 trees per year in the public and private realm and provide very detailed planting and watering spec for each project. As an example, a newly planted tree of approx 12-14cm stem girth, height approx 3.5m will require around 40-50 litres of water per week between April and September for the first 2-3 years of its life or until its root system has expanded into the surrounding ground, the larger the tree, the more water is required, with semi-mature specimens requiring up to 200 litres per week.

      This was indeed an unfortunate incident that I was asked to help with and as a dedicated tree lover, arboriculturalist and local resident of 55 years, I can assure the author of the article that I am far from a tame arborist!

      • Thanks for that interesting insight to your work and the Yew, Lawrence. There is a flaw (yes, another one) in the planning system under which arboriculturalists such as yourself are commissioned by the developers on whose sites they are expected to issue reports on. In this case, the developer was instructed to carry out a tree survey before beginning any works on the site, an order that they ignored. That, of course, is not any fault of yours.

        However, as a contractor of the developer, the position of the tree specialist is compromised. And as Croydon residents know from bitter experience, not all of them are able to carry out their duties with the kind of objectivity which best serves the neighbourhood or the trees on a building site.

        • Ian Kierans says:

          First I would like to thank Lawrence for his open comment and integrity. and the sequence of events does not surprise me one bit. What really strikes me is that that a decent Yew tree was not deemed to warrant a TPO and an enforcement officer felt it best to ask for a tap root tree that is most uinlikely not to interfere with that development. So was that normal or was that suggested to him by the Developer? Is it not time for that Local Councillor to be asking questions about this? The Yew has a quite complex (and poisonous) root system but methinks Croydon Council can give it a run for it’s money.

      • Lewis White says:

        Big respect to Lawrence for his posting above. It has shed helpful light on the issue. Thank you, Lawrence.

        In an ideal world, after planning permission, there should be a meeting on site with the tree plan of existing trees and proposed tree removals and trees for retention, and proposed trees, attended by developer, builder, and developer’s tree consulttant, plus the Planning case officer and council trees Planning officer.

        At such a meeting, the genuine needs for tree protection should be agreed and confirmed.

        When the builder moves in on site, the first thing that should be done is the tree protective fencing. Either chestnut pale fence, on a scaffold framework, or metal panel temp fencing, bolted together.

        This needs to be insoected and approved before develkopmnent starts.

        There should be a legal requirement for developers to contect the Planning Tree officef about any changes found to be necessary.

        In my view, the developer should be required by law to pay to the Council a £1000 deposit per tree be retained on site, and that if ANY of these are killed or maimed, the whole sum is non-refundable.

        Such a system would require UK government amendment to Planning law.

        I very much doubt if such a provision has been proposed in forthcoming Planning changes, which were subject to public comment last year.

  2. Surely breach of planning approval should render void the whole application.
    Although in Shirley you can do things without planning permission and nothing happens.

  3. Why isn’t Councillor Roche sounding off about this instead of campaigning in favour of cutting down wildflowers and getting steamed up about people loading rubbish into the back of a council bin lorry? Doesn’t he get what “Sustainable Croydon”, his portfolio in the shadow Cabinet, really means? Is it just a favour handed to him by Jason “Grayson” Perry that allows him to be a right berk at our expense?

  4. Ian Kierans says:

    Having experienced the total farce of Croydon Planning and the non ability or interest in enforcement of any condition unless it provides money I am not surprised. Builders and Developers are allowed to not just kill tree’s but cause damage to others property and refuse to pay of fix ignore totally the building code as it is only Voluntary and cause actual harm to disabled or ill residents and shorten their lives along with ignoring covid conditions including shielded households. The excuses range from ”its a legal development it was the Government who changed this – it is a police matter – the Police say it is a Council matter. The list goes on – The most fantastic was Ms Cheesbrough reply Once it is passed to the Independent Building Control officer (hired by the developer) they are no longer involved – but the Independent Building developer has no powers of enforcement.

    Perhaps it is time for the Local Government Minister to stop Croydon Council doing anything at all until they are in the position to do it properly and enforce immediately when conditions are broken along with putting feet on the ground to actually inspect what is happening

  5. Grace Onions says:

    This it sadly typical of the approach of many when it comes to our trees.

    They produce the air that we breathe, so getting rid of them is perhaps not sensible …….

    • Gata says:

      Completely agree with you Grace Onions. All very well planting saplings, but let’s look after the mature trees we have.

  6. mikebweb says:

    Well for once it seems our planners have done the right thing and been completely walked over by the builder! Clearly what has happened was the intention all along, so their should be a substantial fine and a replacement tree of the same species provided.

    • Margaret Robson says:

      Happens all over the borough, all the time. Pollards Hill Area of Norbury has been badly affected by this.

  7. Chris Flynn says:

    “What is the point of having requirements which builders are meant to follow if they don’t follow them?”

    Seems to be the MO of the Govt these days too.

  8. Ian Ross says:

    The simple fact is that the vandals/builders knew full well that there would be no action taken despite what some may see as criminal damage. Until and unless Croydon actually enforce what are clear rules this vandalism will continue unabated. There should have been both prosecution and a requirement to reinstate with an identical species and maturity of tree. That might have focused minds.

    • Having witnessed (and photographed) builders being handed the Building code and putting it in a skip saying I am not doing that and then creating untold disruption without any Council Department or local Met willing to intervene and prevent this many have had their eye’s opened to the farce of Croydon Planning, Building control and the Covid Regulations. The only departments trying to do their statutory enforcement roles have had their staff and resources cut to the bone to the extent they are unable to deliver anything at all including answering phones and email. Even when months later they do manage to issue a notice that also joins the code in the skip with the builder on the ground laughing as the skip is picked up blocking the road for ages. Perhaps this question should be asked of the Council as it appears from their responses to many complaints that what builders are doing is classed as legal.

  9. Lewis White says:

    It is quite possible that the yew tree will recover and live for 2000 years. Why not impose a condition to retain and prune the tree, and monitor its health for 5 years? Reinspect in 5 years. If it is dead, replace it.

    Alternatively, a stonking fine should be levied for not protecting the tree (assuming that was in the planning permission) and a replacement required, but sadly, such replacements are often not watered for their key 1st year after planting, and are cynically allowed to die.

  10. Dan Maertens says:

    There’s a simple solution available here. Replace the tree like for like and make sure the Planning Department bills the contractor for the cost of serving a planning enforcement notice as well as the cost of a follow up visit to monitor that the necessary replacement work has been satisfactorily completed.

    Sorry, but an Austrian Pine won’t cut it. I reckon the cost of a mature Yew will be in the order of £1500 + VAT + transport + crane off loading. If the Planners are cute, they should also include a stipulation that the developer pays for ongoing maintenance of the tree for a minimum of 36 months to ensure that it establishes and survives in good health. If the scheme was good enough to be granted permission with an existing mature tree in-situ, it’s good enough to be granted permission with a replacement.

    If it costs the developer, so what. He cannot say that he didn’t know what he had to do to provide adequate protection to an existing mature tree in accordance with BS 5837(2012) – I’m assuming he can read the documents that were submitted as part of the original Planning Application? If he can’t, I can assist – for a fee.

  11. Lewis White says:

    Glad that Dan highlights the key need for a progarmme of maintenance–which means WATERING for at least the first year in the case of a sapling, or 3 years in the case of a semi-mature tree.

    The existing yew will probably have either grown from a seed that fell to the ground or was dropped by a bird, or planted as a very small tree, maybe no more than half a metre atll, many years ago. Such trees adapt to a very thin , dry soil, on solid chalk, typical of the Hartley area.

    A new tree of any size, over a metre tall, will need to have a planting pit, filled with a mix of soil (chalky) with a small amount of compost, and the surrounding chalk will need to be busted up for a metre around the pit, otherwise the new tree will effectively be planted in a “hole” filled with imported soil, which restricts root growth, and thus, growth of the tree. After a few years of heathy growth, the tree would probaly die or stop growing.

    Does not the Council have its own arborculturalists, who can visit the site and check out the developer’s arboricultural report?.

    This existing tree has been used to growing on a very poor site for years. It might survive and thrive, even if its roots have been damaged– but this would mean clear decision making , re-establishing soil around the whole root zone (not on top of it) and with appropriate care and attention. Roots regrow. Even a yew tree can survive and grow away from a damage inceident. Usually a damaged tree will need sensitive pruning to restore a root/ foliage balance while it recovers, to reduce water requirements of the leaves, to match the amount the reduced root sytem can supply to the tree’s crown. . It might need some rescue watering too in the current summer .

    I would agree with commentors above that Planning Permission and details regarding tree prservation need to be respected by developers and enforced by the council, with severe monetary penalties for infringement. Developers are not stupid, but….. enforcement and penalties help them to be more intelligent.

    Unless the Planning Department police and enforce tree preservation properly, and in a timely manner, the whole point of planning conditions in respect of trees is undermined and such conditions not worth the electronic paper they are written on.

    The tree should have had a perimeter fence to prevent damage to the root zone. Sadly, builders are good at forgetting to erect the fences, and are good at moving them when they want to run acable or pipe in the shortest route from A to B, and the tree is in the middle.

    Penalties –money– fines– are the deterrent.

  12. Ian Kierans says:

    Sadly you might get a young mature tree for a £1,000 but to replace the one that was there will be a lot more expensive if any are actually available.
    Now any ”tree expert” knows that Austrian Pine has tap root which goes quite deep. But a Yew has quite a large wide spreading lateral root system mostly lying in the first two thirds of the underlying soil but spreading over three times its height.

    So any digging in that area would damage the root system as any ”tree expert” would evidence.
    I suspect a remit question given by the Council/developer was what tree does not have lateral root system so this development can proceed.
    Again conditions imposed are not really imposed (nor enforced)

    Here is another leading question – Why bother with planning conditons – in fact why bother with a planning department at all? Cost benefit – salary savings and no errors and no scandals – detriment ? Well no more than is occurring now.
    I am sure this is not true and many in Planning work really hard in difficult circumstances – but until Croydon Council Executive come clean and open about what is going on with Planning and BXB this will be argumentum ad infinitum.

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