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Simon Jenkins in the Guardian wades in again with the voice of common sense – this time in an article called “Those who walk under trees are at risk from these terrorising inspectors” he’s commiserating with the poor old National Trust who had a tree fall over on their land at Dunham Massey, and are worried about tree risk.
With typical gusto Jenkins compares the Health and Safety Executive to stormtroopers, fascists, and, for good measure, Guantánamo Bay. But whilst his wrath is magnificent, he has allowed it to carry him to such heights of righteous finger-wagging that he weakens his own argument, thus offering ammunition to those who would further constrain tree-management with regulation. He writes:
The HSE is… continuing its inquiry, to pin a case on the National Trust for criminal negligence under the Health and Safety at Work Act. The crime, presumably, is neglectful ownership of any tree that might fall over in a high wind. If the Trust can be found guilty, lawyers for the bereaved family may sue it in the civil courts for damages. The cost in litigation alone will be enormous. The case has traumatised the National Trust and its park staff nationwide. They are responsible for 6m trees under which millions of human beings wander daily. Should they chop down every old tree, or only some, or close all treed areas to the public? Nobody knows. The case applies to all landowners in the public domain, which under the right to roam could rise to billions of trees. When Trust staff are asked what most concerns them, they no longer cite lack of money or visitor numbers or interfering management. They cite the HSE. This body, with its terrorising inspectors, its box-ticking approach to safety, and its agents enforcing its edicts to the letter, is feared and loathed with equal passion.
The Ranger, as a former NT manager and also currently in the position of being responsible for some of those ‘billions’ of trees, has to take issue with some of these assertions. It may well be that HSE are being heavy-handed here – or maybe they are not. Perhaps it will need a judge to decide that one. But either way Jenkins is ranting outside the realms of reality here. Let’s pick some of this apart.
The crime, presumably, is neglectful ownership of any tree that might fall over in a high wind.
An erroneous presumption. ‘Neglectful ownership’ is not in itself criminal. Any tree might fall over in a high wind. Yes, any tree. Even the best-managed and most recently inspected tree. Owning a tree which falls over is not in itself a crime and could not be. A crime, as Jenkins implies but neatly skirts around explaining, could be neglect of the duty of care that a landowner and employer has to take reasonable steps to ensure that their trees do not harm people. But that doesn’t really trip off the tongue, does it? Let’s proceed.
The case has traumatised the National Trust and its park staff nationwide… Should they chop down every old tree, or only some, or close all treed areas to the public? Nobody knows.
Quite the contrary. They know perfectly well what to do with their trees, in almost all cases. They may not always have done it – but that’s a different argument entirely. Park staff are very unlikely to be traumatised nationwide – although no doubt a few of those involved with the case at Dunham Massey are rightly a bit worried. The National Trust have one of the best and most well-known policies on tree safety that exists in the industry. It has been used since 1997, has been tested in legal cases, is widely copied, and was one of the first such policies to seriously address the issue of combining the public and trees in different conditions. The basic idea is to risk-assess trees and groups of trees, zone them, and inspect accordingly, recording the process. The policy gives an achievable strategy to achieve this that most public tree owners could reasonably easily follow. Not only do the NT have a presumption in favour of public access in areas with many trees, they also are very concerned to keep ancient trees going when many other less-enlightened bodies would fell them. No, the image of all tree-managers wringing their hands in miserable confusion is simply wrong. The question is not likely to be “What shall we do with our trees?”, but “Can we show we actually did what we know we should have done?”
When Trust staff are asked what most concerns them, they no longer cite lack of money or visitor numbers or interfering management. They cite the HSE.
Well, do they? And did they ever cite the former issues? If the Ranger knows the National Trust, one thing you won’t get from their staff is a consensus on anything. This one might, actually be true. But without a source it’s simply incredible.
…all landowners in the public domain, which under the right to roam could rise to billions of trees.
Finally, ‘billions’ of trees. Well, a quick look at the Forestry Commission website suggests that in England, there are some five hundred million publicly owned trees. It seems likely that billions are not really on the cards. Sorry, Sir Simon. NT staff are a canny lot, and their forestry people are some of the most enlightened in the country. If Jenkins had started his tirade with an incident involving, say, any one of many hundreds of local authorities, he might have given his argument a little more credibility. Not every organisation has the policy and practice of the NT, or if they do, they cannot demonstrate it so readily. Indeed, Jenkins may well be right in his fundamental point. But sadly, he has picked the wrong exemplar this time.