What’s the difference between a tree survey and a tree survey? (note to developers, architects & planning consultants)

Ciaran PowerTrees

This is a subject that we have been highlighting for years and centres around quality……or rather the apparent lack of it within the arboricultural industry.

What useful information can be gleaned from a list of trees?

British Standard BS5837: 2012 Trees in relation to design, demolition & construction – Recommendations) sets out a standard to be followed during the gathering of data, and provides information on what should be assessed to determine whether the ultimate tree / development relationship should be deemed acceptable or not.

To put things in context, trees are a material consideration when determining planning applications. In real world pounds and shillings terms they can add significant value to developments. Statutory controls in the form of Tree Preservation Orders and Conservation Areas afford legal protection in some cases. It is therefore important to know not just what is there but what impacts could exist from trees in relation to a proposed development, and of course vice versa.

However, there still seems to be a huge variation across the sector in the quality of tree survey and report ranging from ‘back of a fag packet’ stuff to reams of paper, complete with colourful charts and graphs that ultimately tell you about as much about the realities of a site as you could reasonably fit on the back of a fag packet.

By way of an example, we received an instruction a few years ago to provide a second opinion on a proposed development project where the first consultant had asked for the proposed building (a five storey office block) to be moved 2m to accommodate an adjacent tree (causing great anxiety amongst the client team). The report that the original consultant produced was 28 pages long, of which 14 pages were a glossary, 13 pages were of photographs and only one page contained any useful details relating to the project. Sadly, the survey and the report failed to identify the condition of the tree and the opportunity that existed to replace it with a much more sustainable specimen, whilst still achieving the desired layout.

Reports should be specific to the site, specific to the concerns of the local planning authority (and specifically its tree officer), specific to the local plan policies and providing at the very least the hint of solutions to problems that are likely to be encountered either during the planning process or the construction stage. If you commission a tree survey simply to tick a box, then there’s a good chance that you’re missing a point.

Surely when a developer, architect or planning consultant requests a tree survey, they are seeking to identify not just what is there, but what could constrain or potentially prevent the development of a site? A factual list of trees is highly unlikely to do that in the absence of even a modicum of interpretation. If the consultant is not at the very least pointing out potential problem areas and proposing solutions, then you have to question what value you are getting from the survey. After all, it is only when you are aware of potential problems that you can work towards potential solutions.

The ‘back of a fag packet’ approach rarely provides value for money, nor does a report at the other end of the spectrum that rambles on with its glossary, graphs and charts whilst really telling you nothing. So, the next time you are told that you need a tree survey, just ask yourself……’do I need a tree survey or a tree survey?

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