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Catherine West MP: The Protection of Urban Trees

urban trees
Catherine West MP

Catherine West

Labour MP for Hornsey and Wood Green

Catherine West MP discusses the need for the protection of urban trees in London.

I was pleased to secure a Parliamentary debate last week on the protection of our urban trees. I called for this debate as so many trees in my own constituency of Hornsey & Wood Green and across the UK are at risk of being felled and I don’t believe the Government is doing enough to protect them.

Across London, hundreds of thousands of trees line our streets, breathing life into busy and polluted neighbourhoods. Street trees are vital to our cities, providing beauty as well as major health benefits.  Research suggests that improving access to green spaces could save the NHS over £2 billion per year by reducing health conditions such as heart disease and depression. During lockdown, it was a joy to hear birdsong which would usually be drowned out by the sound of car engines. Trees are also vital for our environment. In clay-based London the soil is drying out in our hotter and hotter summers. The wide shade that mature trees provide cools the ground and helps to retain moisture.   

Yet increasingly they’re coming under threat from insurance companies forcing healthy trees to be felled when a nearby property has subsidence. Tree roots only need to be implicated in property damage or subsidence for the tree owner to be liable, it doesn’t have to be definitive.  For cash strapped local authorities this places them in an impossible situation. Haringey Council has faced 245 tree-related subsidence claims in the last five years and paid more than £600,000 to insurance companies. At one property, the estimate is over £1 million for subsidence blamed on a single tree. 

Rather than looking into more sustainable solutions such as underpinning the house, too often insurance companies go for the cheapest option and push the cost of the works onto the council if they refuse to remove the tree. This is a particular problem in my hilly constituency of Hornsey and Wood Green, where the clay soil most houses are built on has been affected by the severe droughts we have experienced for the past few summers. Heatwaves will become more frequent as the climate crisis worsens, putting thousands more trees at risk if the Government doesn’t act.

The Government’s inaction is hardly surprising when they are failing to meet their own inadequate tree planting targets. In 2019-20, they delivered less than half their target of new trees in England. Friends of the Earth report that 45% of neighbourhoods in England have less than 10% tree canopy cover, and areas with higher social deprivation are likely to have fewer trees than wealthy areas.

In Parliament, as an active member of the All-Party Group for Woods and Trees, I’ve been working closely with the Woodland Trust to push for further mature tree protections, and I’ve raised countless Parliamentary Questions.  

Current legislation doesn’t go far enough to redress the imbalance of power, yet when I wrote to the Minister for Natural Environment & Land Use to urge specific guidance for the insurance industry and local councils on managing subsidence claims, frustratingly she refused to act. Councils are also still waiting for much needed guidance from DEFRA on the new duty to consult and the resources that will be made available to ensure that the community’s wishes are acted upon.

That’s why I’m pleased to have been able to raise these issues with the Minister last week. The Government must act now to protect our beloved street trees.

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