BACKGROUND TO THE NEWS: TREES MAINTENANCE

Lambeth’s tree maintenance service is severely under-resourced and does not have the capacity to cope with the rapid increases in damage caused by pests and diseases or to adequately assess trees for risk, says the council’s own report.

And there is no tree-planting budget to replace the hundreds of trees felled each year due to death, disease or development.

Bringing the service in-house will enable a number of enhancements to the current service and allow us to significantly reduce the risk inherent in the service.

To bring the service back ‘in house’ £300,00 has been awarded from the Community Infrastructure Levy to purchase the required vehicles, plant and specialist equipment, along with necessary adaptations to Kennington Park depot.

The 2018-19 grand total revenue budget for tree maintenance is £834,000. The grand total budget contains the following total budgets: Parks tree maintenance budget of £309,000 and the HRA (housing revenue account) tree maintenance total budget of £525,000. The cost model for the in-house service remains well within this figure.

Housing have requested a reduction of £100,000 on their annual expenditure and this has been factored-in to the modelling. (The report does not give any detailed indication how this works financially, or why housing’s request has been acceded to – Ed.)

1.3 Tree maintenance services provides for the planned and reactive maintenance of all Lambeth-owned trees on the public highway and housing estates, and in parks, schools and cemeteries.

A schedule of planned maintenance is required to ensure that the council fulfils its statutory duty of care through regular inspection and pruning of trees on the highway and on housing estates.

The service should deliver a risk management approach to the borough’s trees, prioritising the safety of people and property by regularly assessing against a number of risk factors, including tree size, condition, health, age and proximity to buildings and the highway.

Provision is also required for tree-planting in order to replace felled trees and implement new planting schemes.

1.5 “….There is not scope to further reduce expenditure and provide the financial capacity needed to reduce risk, deal with pests and diseases and create a tree-planting programme.

Other boroughs with in-house services were spoken to but do not have the capacity to work with Lambeth in terms of joint service provision.

Elsewhere the report says that both Southwark and the Royal Borough of Greenwich operate in-house tree maintenance services. Senior officers from both boroughs have confirmed that a number of benefits were realised after internalising services; and advice and guidance is being obtained from both authorities. (5.4)

2.2 The service does not have sufficient resources to adequately manage risks, following significant reductions in staff and budgets over successive savings rounds. The proposal is to operate within the current budget envelope in order to provide an enhanced level of service.

2.3 An in-house model provides full control of finance, operations and risk. It offers more flexibility in terms of responding to issues and changing priorities. Un-programmed work, such as checking trees for pests and diseases can be undertaken at no additional cost. The operational resource is dedicated to Lambeth and there is no risk that teams will be diverted to work on other contracts.

Over the past 12 months we have experienced numerous incidents of trees or large branches falling, particularly in parks. Some have damaged vehicles and property and it is lucky that no-one has been injured. The in-house model will enable the creation of a Tree Service Manager post to provide specialist leadership and direction for the service, particularly in terms of risk management.

The tree officer post covering non-housing trees will then be freed up to undertake much more extensive assessments on the ground, moving to a slightly more pro-active basis than is currently the case.

The cyclical maintenance regime for non-Housing trees (trees not on council estates) had to be moved from a three-year to a four-year cycle in order to meet the savings imposed in 2016, which has increased risk. (2.5)

A Court of Appeal ruling from October 2018 (Witley Parish Council v. Andrew Cavanagh) determined that a three-year maintenance cycle was not adequate for trees within falling distance of high-use areas (most of Lambeth); and that inspections of high-risk trees should be made every one or two years.

The in-house model is still not sufficiently resourced to allow that, but will enable a return to a standard three-year cycle, with inspections for the highest risk trees every one or two years.

Incidence of pests and diseases is currently increasing significantly within Lambeth. We have neither the budget nor the staff capacity to deal adequately with these issues. Massaria is a disease which infects London Planes, causing limbs to fall from trees and ideally each tree should be checked annually for signs of the disease. (2.6)

For the first time this year we have seen Massaria spread to main supporting limbs, marking a notable intensity in the disease, with increased risk.

Oak Processionary Moth has had a relatively minor presence in the borough to date, but in 2018 it was identified in Brockwell Park, spreading to almost every oak tree and is no doubt prevalent in other parks as well.

The hairs from the caterpillars contain a dangerous irritant and can remain active in the environment for several years. It cost £7,000 to remove all nests from Brockwell Park alone and will be an annual threat.

With an in-house model we can divert operational staff to undertake Massaria inspections and other tasks during quieter periods of the year, without any financial implications.

There are commercial opportunities arising from an in-house service and once the core delivery elements have established, these will be explored. The tree team regularly receives enquiries and requests relating to consultancy and tree surgery.

The current low staffing levels and contractual arrangement make it virtually impossible to derive benefit from these leads. However, under the proposed model a larger staff team will mean greater capacity for consultancy and the operational teams will be able to undertake additional works during quieter periods or on overtime. (2.13)

2.9 The HRA tree maintenance budget currently funds two Tree Officers and contracted works. There is no provision for maintaining records, providing any sort of direction or oversight for the service, or cover when officers are on leave.

Under the in-house model a number of enhancements will be possible within the HRA budget.

These include: a 42 per cent time allocation of the Tree Service Manager; an additional Assistant Tree Officer able to provide continuity when colleagues are on leave; a 50pc time allocation of a Technical Officer to handle enquiries and keep records up to date; an operational team approximately twice as large as the current contracted allocation;

vans for the Housing Tree Officers, meaning they can move around their geographical areas more quickly and provide a more efficient service; and access to specialist equipment such as a stump grinder which will mean a more responsive service. Currently this equipment is shared across several contracts.

A number of sites will be used for tipping woodchip and cordwood, including the storage yards at Brockwell Park, Clapham Common, Ruskin Park and Streatham Common. Locations on housing estates may also be required. (9.2)

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