Thursday, 30 July 2009

Chainsaw Massacre’ leads to public outcry

“Haringey Council kills more trees than vandals do.” Thus spoke Mary Craine, former chair of the Tree Trust, at Monday night's public meeting, held on the subject of street trees by Haringey Green Party. It was a well-attended event, as it seems that trees provoke all sorts of strong reactions in people.

We called the meeting because residents in Stroud Green have repeatedly told us that they have worries about the street trees in their ward. The phrase “brutal pollarding” was used again and again, with additional concerns raised regarding the council’s replacement policy and the issue of subsidence.

The replacement issue is an interesting one. Only 3 out of the 19 wards in Haringey had less trees planted in the period of 2007-8 than it did in 2004-5. One of those three wards was Stroud Green. In 2004-5, 75 trees were planted in Stroud Green. In 2007-8, only 10 were planted – with only a pitiful 3 trees planted in the ward 2006-7. This may be because less trees were felled in this ward than in others. Or it may be that less trees were planted there, full stop. (Note that I haven’t called these newly planted trees ‘replacement trees’ – as Mary Craine said last night, “’Replacement tree’ should be struck out of the vocabulary”).

Replacing a broadleaf tree such as a lime, a plane or an oak, which may live to be hundreds of years old, with a very ‘snapable’ ornamental, which will never grow to a great height, is clearly not a good deal. The idea is that it will be less likely to cause subsidence (more of which later). However, broadleaf trees do a far better job of mitigating the effects of climate change, they create a natural canopy, thus slowing down the fall of rain and reducing the likelihood of flooding, and they also create a beautiful, calming ‘treescape’, much loved by resident. Indeed, one resident told me he moved to Stroud Green in the 1980s – and has stayed there ever since – precisely because of the beautiful avenues of trees. (Pollarded stumps don’t quite cut it).

The pollarding is done mainly to stem the tree’s growth and make them less likely to cause subsidence. In 2003, London Boroughs had 25 million pounds-worth of subsidence claims brought against them. However, in Ken Livingstone’s ‘London Tree and Woodland Framework’ it is stated that less than 1% of the trees in London are responsible for damage to properties. There are a myriad of causes of subsidence, but the ‘blame the tree’ brigade tend to shout the loudest.

There are lots of tests which should be done before a tree is blamed and slaughtered. The operative word here is ‘should’. Because of a lack of political will, (that’s why we need Green councillors!), a lack of money and a lack of people, shortcuts are inevitably taken.

A plethora of other problems threaten street trees, including the council’s tendency to use strimmers and ‘sit-on’ mowers (thus damaging the bark at the base of the tree), plus not bothering so much with ‘after-care’ when a tree is planted. Add to this the problem with the sub-contractors who carry out the tree works not being regulated, and, as Mary Craine put it “street trees are vulnerable trees, wholly dependent on people.”

So what can we do? Pete McAskie, target ward candidate and parliamentary candidate for Hornsey and Wood Green, suggested that rather than coming and pollarding every tree in a street, every other tree could be pollarded on a visit. This would lessen the visual impact. This suggestion was commended by Peter Corley, the present chair of Haringey’s Tree Trust.

Anne Gray, Green Party parliamentary candidate for Tottenham, said “There is no time like the present for including communities in looking after trees.” Rather than paying private contractors to fell, pollard (and possibly damage) our street trees, Anne suggested that we could train young people to become tree surgeons and possibly promote the formation of a local municipal enterprise or cooperative to provide tree care services. Experience shows that the more a community is involved in the planting and the maintenance of a tree, the more they will protect it from vandalism.

We’ll be taking forward a list of questions we’ve compiled having scrutinised Haringey’s Tree Strategy document. Last night’s meeting was the start of a campaign to bring street trees higher up the council’s agenda. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow…

Saturday, 4 July 2009

After The Euro Elections, What Next ?

Green vote up by 44% in Euros

Greens are definitely on the up. During the six weeks up to the June 4 European Parliament elections, Green Party national membership rose by 12%. The Green Party
increased its vote by 44 per cent across the UK compared with 2004, although we gained no new seats. By contrast, the BNP had less people voting for it than in 2004, but got two MEPs having had none before. How to keep the BNP out was an issue quite a few people raised with us on doorsteps. And the response to canvassing got ten times warmer after the big parties became enmeshed in the parliamentary expenses scandal.

The only party against privatisation

But this 44% rise is not merely a protest vote. The new members we see are recognising the Green Party for its sense of vision, for being the only realistic radical alternative around. As Caroline Lucas said in the Indie on 14th June (, we’re the only party in the running which proposes to re-nationalise the railways, and we’re also very concerned about the creeping marketisation of the health service – Greens oppose PFI and private sub-contracting as they are more expensive and risky for the taxpayer in the long run as well as leading to worse working conditions for employees. We have campaigned locally and London-wide against polyclinics, because they are a stalking horse for privatization of GP services. Sarah Cope, candidate for the next Council elections in Stroud Green ward, has been actively campaigning for better maternity services too.

Creative ideas about jobs and benefits

And Greens have some important proposals for the unemployed – not only the Green New Deal, a jobs plan which other parties have rushed to emulate with much weaker and less ‘green’ imitations, but the ideal of a guaranteed income for all unwaged people which would not depend on means tests or attending interminable job centre interviews. The plan for a Citizens’ Income has been on the back burner for many years, but it takes on a new importance as the recession bites and as government tries to save money by pressurising disabled people into job search when the jobs just aren’t there.

Joined-up thinking – prevent the problems, save costs

The Green Party, as Jenny Jones recently said in the Guardian (see, is a party of joined up thinking. Think global, act local, is a slogan many people know us for. But it goes way beyond slogans. Joined-up health policy – preventive services (one of the main targets for recent cuts), good food, less pollution, less road accidents, could save the NHS a fortune. Joined-up benefits – why have Job Seekers Allowance for the unemployed but a load of bureaucracy to switch to tax credit when you get a job? Joined-up policy on crime means bringing back park-keepers and bus conductors plus more constructive activities for youth, all mentioned in the Green Euro manifesto, and long-term prevention through better support for children who show challenging behaviour at school.

Joined-up thinking is what we, and the electorate, certainly need for 2010, which will see the local elections in May and maybe a General Election the same day if Labour hangs on that long. Local government is going to be strapped for cash like never before. Nationally, public spending is heading for cuts in 2010/11 of up to 10% or more to pay for the banks’ bailout and because tax revenues fall in a recession. Time to switch money from things (like energy bills in public buildings, and landfilling rubbish) to people. Time also to review councillors’ expenses, which in Haringey rose by £320,000 in the last year. Some novel solutions may be required. Even Tory Essex has realised that the county council can save money and provide more to the elderly by scrapping the high cost of agency home help fees and starting its own social care enterprise. (They might have got the idea from Greens in Brighton, who with 12 out of 53 council seats have been advocating a non-profit social care enterprise for some time).

We may need some creative partnerships of local doctors, council and voluntary or community groups to head off privatisation of doctors’ surgeries and the run-down of local health services. We could restore local post offices which have been lost in Crouch End and elsewhere by linking a willing shopkeeper to a mini-office of some council department, saving costs by sharing a single shopfront building.

Social justice and real democracy

When you talk to us on your doorsteps, you often mention the things you think Greens care about – trees, recycling, noise. Actually we care about much more than that – Greens are basically a party for social justice as well as the environment (although without action on climate change social justice will be impossible). You also talk to us about things local government ought to deal with better – like parking, crime, and council housing. Unlike many councillors and candidates for the big parties, we do not limit our response to a ‘casework’ approach. Making an enquiry for Mrs. X, speaking up for street Y to keep its free parking, may get votes but we know the problems are much deeper than that. Local government has lost touch with its public and needs to develop much more effective forms of local accountability and democratic input into policy planning. Crime and the housing shortage have deep-seated social causes which need to be addressed.

But there is a third group of issues people don’t talk about on doorsteps – indeed when these hit them hard, they may not want to talk to strangers at all. Many of the problems facing Haringey’s population only hit them at certain times in their lives: when there’s a serious problem about their children, when trying to arrange help and care for an elderly relative or for themselves, or when they are made redundant. Only then do they realise just how much public services are in trouble – and few are probably aware just how much worse things may get because of budget cuts in the next year or two. The big things in life are going to be difficult for more and more people: competition for fewer jobs, negative equity, and a shrinking ‘welfare state’.

As the issues get more serious, it will take some real vision and a lot of hard campaigning by NGOs, community groups and trade unions to carve out some victories. Greens are proud to play a part in these campaigns, as they have done elsewhere with significant successes - like in Lewisham where, with only 6 Green councillors out of 54 Council members, the Greens overturned cuts in social care, local hospital services and a swimming pool closure. To achieve more like this we need to think ahead – not just react - make people aware, mobilise and act with vision. Let’s hope we can meet that challenge in Haringey in the year ahead.