Bringing Nature Home – How the UK can grow more trees on residential streets?

7 Jul 2021

Bringing Nature Home - How the UK can grow more trees on residential streets?

Beauty in the built environment is of course a current pre-occupation of the Government who have latched on to the notion that if new developments could only be just that bit more attractive, local objectors may be less vociferous opponents – Nimbys would convert to Yimbys.  Abundant street trees are vital for the quality of life in urban neighbourhoods; cleaning pollutants, supporting biodiversity and contributing as living objects of beauty that enhance places and people’s experience of their environment immeasurably. 

Unfortunately, the planning system does not make the delivery of street trees particularly easy. A court case in late 2014 (Redrow v Bolton council) ruled that a local authority can ask for cash sums up-front, known as commuted sums, for the maintenance cost of any landscaping obligations. This militates against the excellent ‘Manual for Streets’ government guidance, first published in 2007, which aimed to increase quality of life through well designed, people-oriented thoroughfares and is shortly to be updated by DoT to complement the National Model Design Code. 

Hopefully, the forthcoming planning reforms will take the opportunity to resolve the problem that planting a tree comes with a sizeable cost – in many parts of the country up to £3,000 each as a commuted payment (on top of the cost of the actual tree, of course). In one case, a scheme approved by a Local Planning Authority on the basis of its tree lined streets was almost killed altogether as a consequence of an additional £500K commuted payment demanded by the highways authority. 

The Government recently took the overdue step of requiring much greater transparency from developers about the viability of a development and their expected returns. This may begin to rebuild the trust between both sides and create the basis to find a way forward which avoids what has been memorably described as the trend towards housing developments with the ‘landscape equivalent of a plucked chicken’. 

Interestingly, much of the planting in communities is coming from grassroots charities and activist groups who volunteer their time to improving local areas by conserving and introducing trees. With blogs like The Street Tree by acclaimed author Paul Wood providing knowledge on trees and events that encourage people to track species and number of trees in their area there is clear that local groups already see the value in planting. We just need our planning system to catch up with what is already in motion, on the ground.  

by Ben Derbyshire