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How I almost became a tree-hugger

My eye was drawn yesterday to a feature on the BBC News website: Forest fight: why do we get so upset about trees?.

I was wondering about this myself. Personally, I don't have a problem with the proposed sale of Forestry Commission land. I'm all for "protecting England's ancient woodlands" but I'm not sure that Big Government can do this any better than the private sector.

In fact, I'm pretty sure that the private sector will do a far better job of it so, as far as I'm concerned, sell, sell, sell - unless of course it costs the taxpayer money to do so, as an impact assessment by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is suggesting. (Then again, after many years in the lobbying business, I am extremely dubious about "impact assessments" that are frequently based less on facts than on wild guesstimates and are often politically motivated.)

Anyway, I mention this because trees are a sore point in Castle Park, Cambridge, where Forest has an office. The following report appeared in a local newspaper in October last year:

Investigation into process that allowed tree felling
A probe has been launched into how 12 mature trees at a Cambridge business park were approved for felling.

Cambridge City Council is to examine the processes which allowed its officers to approve the felling of an avenue of false acacia trees at Castle Business Park without consulting councillors. The trees outside Godwin, Camimus and Sheraton House in the park off Castle Hill were protected by a tree preservation order for many years.

But that is no longer in place and Savills, which runs the park, and landowner Phoenix Life, want to remove the trees, claiming they are diseased, and replace them with young saplings.

However, the plans sparked furious opposition from workers at the park, who say the firms have exaggerated the health and safety risks posed by the trees.

They have commissioned their own report by a tree surgeon, who says the trees can be safely managed for many years to come.

The council will now examine whether it needs to revise its rules on tree felling, which saw the Castle Park decision made by officers under delegated powers, rather than through the planning system.

In December a second report was published:

Campaigners’ plea to axe tree felling plan
Workers at Cambridge’s Castle Park Business Park are opposed to plans to fell a dozen mature trees.

Savills, which runs the park, and Phoenix Life, which owns it, want to remove 12 false acacias and replace them with young saplings.

The avenue of trees, which has been outside Godwin, Caminus and Sheraton House for years, was protected by tree preservation orders. But they are no longer in place and both firms want the city council tree team to remove them, claiming they are diseased and a health and safety risk.

Tenants on the park have accused them of over-exaggerating the risks.

Mike Snelling, from Autodesk, is one of dozens of employees to sign a petition – and he ordered an independent tree surgeon from Waterbeach-based Acacia Tree Surgery to assess the trees.

Cliff Freed, who carried out the assessment, said in a report: “The trees in their current state can be maintained safely if they are monitored annually.

“We would suggest these false acacias are retained and maintained.”

In a letter to all tenants on the park, Mr Snelling said: “Our initial advice, from a qualified tree surgeon, is our trees can be safely managed for many years to come.

“However, so we never have to lose them all at once, we propose a gradual replacement of a few trees at a time.

“This sustainable plan safeguards the trees and our environment for the indefinite future.”

Tenants are holding regular meetings to discuss the trees’ future.

But a Savills spokeswoman said the city council has approved plans to fell seven trees.

She said: “Acting on behalf of its client, Savills appointed a qualified tree surgeon to provide professional advice on 12 diseased trees following health and safety fears.

“A replacement plan for the trees was devised that has been approved by the local council.

“Following the appeal from tenants, Savills arranged for the tree surgeon to revisit the site and consent has now been given by the council for seven trees to be felled and replaced in the first instance with the remaining five being reviewed in June 2011.”

Accompanying this report was a photograph of tenants hugging the trees outside our Castle Park offices as if their lives depended on it.

I was away that day but if I had been there I would have happily hugged a tree too because (a) I rather like having mature trees outside my office, and (b) I'm a sucker for a good photo opp.

Anyway, they're gone now, chopped down over Christmas (when everyone was away) and replaced with a handful of tiny saplings.

On the bright side, at least I'm no longer interrupted by the frequent sound of chainsaws hacking away. Seriously, I could bet money - and win - that as soon as I began a live radio interview a chainsaw would roar into life directly outside our first floor window.

Trees - can't live with them, can't live without them.

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