Councils are facing difficult choices, but slashing tree planting budgets should not be one of them.
At this time of year, councillors and senior officers in local authorities go into “budget mode”. Councils have to agree how much they are going to spend over the next year… both for ongoing revenue expenditure and investment in capital projects. They also have to set the level of council tax for local residents for the year ahead.
A big proportion of council funding comes from Government grant. The funding formula is fiendishly complicated and has changed again this year. There has always been pressure for budget savings but now things have moved into a different league. As part of the Government’s programme to cut the country’s budget deficit, grants to local authorities are being cut by around 28 per cent over a four year period.
A report from the Local Government Association last year estimated that when unavoidable budget pressures in adult social care and waste management are taken into account, other council budgets may have to be cut by up to 66 per cent by the end of the decade.
Against this background what hope have we of persuading councils to put money into tree planting and woodland creation? Surely trees are a liability… a luxury that can be afforded in prosperous times but one which must (literally) face the chop when times get hard?
Actually this conventional wisdom is not supported by the available evidence.
Trees can deliver a range of benefits much more cost effectively than other solutions. For example, in periods of hot weather (yes we do have them sometimes!), trees can significantly reduce urban temperatures. A study by the University of Manchester has shown that increasing tree cover in urban areas by 10% could decrease the expected maximum surface temperature in the 2080s by up to 4°C.
Trees can help alleviate flooding and improve water quality much more cheaply than conventional hard engineering solutions.
Trees can deliver massive economic benefits. The North West Forestry Manifesto estimates that the region employs 69,000 people in timber and forest related industries, worth £435m.
And Councils can save money too. Our recent “Trees or Turf” report shows clearly that creating woodland on urban greenspace can significantly cut management costs, by reducing the need for grass cutting. The Forestry Commission is currently offering quite generous grant aid for woodland creation in England…. up to £4,800 a hectare in priority areas. The Woodland Trust also has various schemes available to support councils and private landowners with smaller areas of planting.
To get maximum benefit, councils should plan carefully and adopt the doctrine of “the right tree in the right place.” Large forest trees may be ok in parks but in streets or housing areas smaller growing species may be more appropriate. When planning new housing areas, councils should look to integrate trees and small wooded areas into a well planned network of greenspace. Where councils are adopting the new Community Infrastructure Levy, they should ensure that funding is made available for green infrastructure, including woodland.
Make your mark.
The best councils consult local people about budget priorities and ask their views on budget proposals. Why not have a look on your council’s website and see if they are running a budget consultation? They need to know that you want more trees and woods in your area. If there’s no consultation, make sure you tell them anyway!
And tell them it needn’t cost the earth …but could make a big difference to your local environment.
Nick Sandford , Regional and Local Government Officer (North East and North West England). Nick is also a city councillor in Peterborough.