Lantra: Why are there such variations in the quality of tree reports to BS5837:2012 for planning applications?
Writing tree reports to BS5837:2012, undertaking surveys of the trees present and seeking to guide their role within the planning process is often a key element of the work undertaken by tree consultants. There can be considerable variations in the quality of reports presented to local authorities. This can have an impact on the quality of trees being retained, the calibre of protection measures used and the completed site. A poor report can also lead to avoidable delays in the planning process, costing the client. They can even lead to otherwise sound planning schemes being refused. How can this situation be improved?
The starting place is the British Standard for these reports. This presents a framework of what a report should include, but it provides recommendations so there is no one single report template available. Many consultants develop their own style. This can make it challenging for those developing this skill on their own rather than having the benefits of working alongside others within an established practice. The British Standard itself is a weighty tone and, priced at £175 + VAT, is not particularly accessible. For some arborists, the transition from climbing to writing reports is a natural progression as clients begin to ask for reports of the condition of trees. The differences between this and a tree report for a planning application are not always appreciated.
The process of Arboricultural input should start at the earliest opportunity, before the proposed development has been designed. Indeed, it should inform the nature of the development. This is when trees of merit can be identified and limitations of a design highlighted. Unfortunately, sometimes, developers see the report as a cost which they may be able to avoid, with the potential to cause problems if trees are identified as being worthy of retention when removal is the preference. There can be a concern that the consultant will identify trees of merit which may affect the feasibility of a development.
In my experience, it is very rare for tree retention to thwart proposals. It may require amendments in design, but this usually enables the trees which enhance a site to be retained. There have been occasions when a client has met me on site worried that I might be the bearer of bad news, and been pleasantly surprised by my response that any issues existing can be overcome!
Sadly, all too often, the report is left until much later in the process, and it is not uncommon for a report to be commissioned after the application has been submitted, and even later. Sometimes, the report is actually requested as a condition of planning consent. I have been asked by clients to provide a Tree Protection Plan on this basis!
In such a scenario, it is often tempting for the author to assess trees on the site based on what can still be retained, rather than what is worth retaining. This can then result in trees being identified for retention or removal not on their merits, something that a tree officer will often identify, to the detriment of the application. I am sometimes asked to critique a report written for a development where local residents have concerns about the proposals. If trees are identified for retention even when they are not suited to this, the planning process can be delayed for months as amendments are then needed to the proposals, acknowledging the inevitable loss and proposing measures to mitigate.
Often those who commission these reports, whether planning officers or clients, are not tree specialists and as such have only a limited appreciation of what is required. This should not be an issue when they commission an experienced consultant, but for one less informed or learning their trade, it can be easy to make mistakes. Officers often request an Impact Assessment or a Method Statement. This is an understandable request, but the informed consultant appreciates that these two elements are part of the process. This is not a request for stand-alone documents. It is for outcome, and not for process. In isolation, these documents provide only a limited insight in to how a development can progress. In effect, the officers are asking the applicant to demonstrate that a proposal can be achieved without the loss of trees of merit, and it is for the Arboricultural consultant to provide this information.
The technical content of the report is important, because this forms the basis of the decision-making process. It is there to inform the decision-makers. This is where those who really know and understand trees can provide a quality document. The relationship between the trees and the proposal is at the centre of this. A common failure is either a reluctance to acknowledge trees need to be felled, or not explaining how they can be retained. I once helped a client who was puzzled that their application had been refused and the subsequent appeal dismissed; they had commissioned a professional report. As I read through the extensive report written for the site, with pages of standard text and caveats, the author reassured that the key trees could be retained. I waited to find details of how, but the report ended without this. Those charged with deciding planning applications need evidence from the applicant and their team of how an idea can be implemented, in order to understand the thought process.
In my experience, a good report takes the reader through a journey. It explains what is happening, and how it will proceed. It is also realistic. If trees cannot be retained, this should be explained. It can be so easy to assume that the reader understands the journey, and this is where many reports can fall short. I have read reports where, at the end, I don’t even know how many trees are involved, let alone their condition and suitability to the site! I read one where the text explained in detail how key trees could be retained, but not why there was an issue!
The journey towards excellence in reports can be challenging, especially for the consultant working alone and still developing their format. No one wants to admit to clients that their report template remains a work in progress. There are some core principles which can help the process. From my perspective, I am going to take a journey through the key components and explore how we can assemble a good, professional document.
You may care to join me via a weekly observation….