Councillor column: Save our urban trees!

Garden Suburb councillor Rohit Grover (Conservative) calls on Barnet’s Labour administration to stand up to insurance companies and protect the borough’s trees

Rohit Grover, a Conservative councillor for Garden Suburb ward in London Borough of Barnet
Councillor Rohit Grover –
Conservative, Garden Suburb

It has been my great privilege to represent Garden Suburb ward for the past eight years. My constituents care deeply about the Suburb’s architectural, town planning and environmental heritage, and it’s very important to me that, as their representative on Barnet Council, I do everything I can to protect the unique character and amenities of the area.

This is especially true for the distinctive green architecture that characterises much of the Suburb. Urban trees bring so many health and ecological benefits to our communities: they contribute to wellbeing, help to combat climate change and provide habitat for threatened species.

Yet they are now increasingly at risk, not only in the Suburb but across the whole of our wonderful green borough, because insurance companies blame trees for causing damage to properties through subsidence. This is where the ground underneath buildings shrinks due to tree roots drawing moisture from the soil. As a result, insurers apply to have them cut down rather than explore more expensive alternatives, and this is now happening much more frequently in Barnet.

Earlier this year a Barnet planning committee approved the felling of a magnificent oak tree in the Suburb that had been protected for many years by a Tree Preservation Order. It was situated at the back of a private garden but was visible from the street and had a special amenity value in terms of visual contribution to the area, environmental contribution to air quality and contribution to wildlife as a key habitat.

The Labour administration claims that it wants Barnet to become one of London’s most sustainable boroughs. It declared an ‘immediate climate emergency’ when it took control last year, and then spent taxpayers’ money on a glitzy ‘BAR-NET ZERO’ PR campaign

Yet, when its councillors on the committee were given the opportunity to save this tree the discussion focussed on the potential cost to Barnet if permission to fell it was refused (because tree roots only need to be implicated in subsidence for councils to be liable). Since then, the felling of another protected and iconic oak tree in my ward – this time in a front garden and contributing even more to Barnet’s street scene and environment – has been waved through without any apparent dissent at all.

Putting ‘sustainability at the heart of everything the Council does’ is a great soundbite that may help to win elections, but it’s meaningless if councillors from the Labour administration ignore the many complexities and trade-offs involved in the battle against climate change. 

This really matters because we are likely to see more applications to fell trees across Barnet, where the clay-based soil desiccates in dry weather and expands when saturated – a situation that is exacerbated by climate change which is causing extensive dry periods followed by periods of flooding. 

We all realise the potential financial risks to the council, but if Labour are as serious as they claim to be about sustainability, then they should spend less money on expensive publicity campaigns, give greater weight to environmental arguments when insurance companies apply to fell trees, and argue with greater conviction for alternative solutions such as tree root barriers and underpinning. 

Planning isn’t meant to be political, but these matters come before committees because as politicians we are elected to take the tough decisions. I’ve always believed that when faced with difficult choices the only place we can turn to are our most deeply held values and beliefs. 

Do Labour councillors really put sustainability at the heart of everything they do? Does the cold hard reality of taking tough decisions match the hype of the ‘BAR-NET ZERO’ slogan? The fate of our urban trees suggests otherwise.

Rohit Grover is one of two councillors representing Garden Suburb, along with Michael Mire (also Conservative).

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