Rishi Sunak's tree consultation pledge: Will it save our urban canopy or fall short of real change?

29 November 2023, 15:52

Rishi Sunak's tree consultation pledge: Will it save our urban canopy or fall short of real change?
Rishi Sunak's tree consultation pledge: Will it save our urban canopy or fall short of real change? Picture: STRAWPlymouth

By Ali White

  • Ali is the Founder of STRAW Plymouth a campaign to Save the TRees Of Armada Way

The announcement by Rishi Sunak that the government will be introducing a Duty to Consult on the felling of street trees in England is hopefully the start of a long-awaited admission that local authorities' powers to remove our urban trees without good reason or warning are too great.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

The public mood cannot be misunderstood – we like trees, and we don’t like them being chopped down.

This duty was already enshrined in the Environment Act 2021 and should have been brought in months ago. The cynics among us might assume it has been timed to distract from the reversal of climate change policies recently.

The headline sounds good, but as ever the devil is in the detail.

In Plymouth, after a long campaign by our group, STRAW (Save the Trees of Armada Way), to inform residents of what our council had planned for our urban forest, we were eventually offered a public consultation on the scheme.

This turned out to be a tick-box exercise. At the same moment the results were published online, the heavy machinery and contractors rolled in to get on with the job.

The plans were unchanged; not a single tree of the 129 planned to go was saved as a result of thousands of responses to the consultation.

The top result of the consultation report stated: “the overwhelming majority of respondents opposed the scheme in any way”.

So will the Duty to Consult be any different? Will local authorities be compelled in any way to listen to or act on the results of upcoming consultations?

Or, as we saw in Plymouth, will it be impossible to change the plan once the minds of decision-makers have been made up?

Will sufficient information be given to the public to make informed comments? And will the timescale be sufficient so that a challenge to any decision can be made?

We are yet to see the guidance on the duty to consult. Without robust guidance, which is followed in practice, nothing much will change. Loopholes will be found, and the new rules will be toothless.

Trees are big news at the moment, following the Sheffield scandal, the felling by Plymouth City Council, and other campaigns up and down the country.

People feel and care deeply about trees; we all grew up with them. For some, it’s a fully aware love affair; for others, it’s a subconscious appreciation of the ones around us that we barely acknowledge but always expect to be there.

Either way, we are all becoming increasingly aware of how valuable they are to our health and happiness, the multiple benefits they bring to our public spaces, wildlife and the wider environment.

And of course, their fragility.

So the duty to consult is a positive step, but more is required to protect our urban trees from unnecessary felling by local authorities and developers.

Retaining trees should be the starting point.

Felling must be a last resort.

Crucially, until there is a new mindset by the people making decisions and planning our urban spaces, consultations alone will not protect our trees.