The Daily Telegraph

Faceless council bureaucrat­s are the real threat to our urban trees

- Clive aslet follow Clive Aslet on Twitter @Cliveaslet; read more at telegraph.co.uk/opinion

When we went on holiday at the beginning of September, the British landscape had turned brown. A fortnight later the rains had come and even drought-stricken lawns had magically reverted to their usual green. Anyone who stood in St James’s Park, as I did, for Her Majesty’s funeral will know that it has never looked better. The magnificen­t trees formed a beautiful and reassuring backdrop to the procession.

But London’s trees are suffering, according to a recent report. They reflect the state of trees across Britain which are under attack from a seemingly ever-increasing number of pests and diseases. The culprit, almost inevitably, is said to be climate change, which has been promoted by the usual lobby as another reason to put on the environmen­tal hair shirt. As with much else in the natural world, trees have become weaponised in the battle for net zero.

But is climate change the only villain here? Greater levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ought to promote tree growth rather than curtail it, since CO2 is a necessary ingredient of photosynth­esis. Blaming the climate obscures the contributi­on made by local politician­s and bureaucrat­s, particular­ly in highly urbanised areas, who object to the propensity of tree roots to burst through pavements and invade foundation­s. Trees that have become too big are not pollarded, as might happen in France, but cut down. Too much salting of streets in winter is another killer.

Then there is simple under-investment. Research by my own London council for its neighbourh­ood plan confirmed the obvious: that people in our area like to see trees in the street. They love the parks and garden squares, often shaded by the mighty plane trees, which make London what it is – a city that, however strange it may seem, meets the official definition of a forest.

Yet hundreds of millions have been cut from the budgets of park services across England since the 1990s. Time was when council parks department­s were regarded as a proud civic service. Boroughs employed their own gardeners and park keepers, as well as mowers of grass. They had nurseries that raised bedding plants for floral displays and took creative responsibi­lity for planting trees.

This tradition of expertise was destroyed when such services were outsourced, and it came at the worst possible time for trees. Today, Britain’s tree blights include acute oak decline and oak procession­ary moth; canker stain and Massaria disease in plane trees; ash dieback; and horse chestnut leaf miner. Commercial larch plantation­s struck by Phytophtho­ra ramorum have to be cut down.

It’s true that these pathogens strike trees that may already be struggling to combat the effects of exceptiona­lly hot summers, winter floods and other vagaries of the climate. But they are not directly spread by climate change so much as, for example, air travel (spores on passengers’ shoes) and imports of pot plants from overseas.

As an island nation, proud of its trees, we should be ideally placed to keep foreign pests and diseases at bay. As a member of the EU, our bio security was necessaril­y lax – restrictiv­e measures went against the spirit of the single market. Now we should stop blaming climate change for all our ills and take back control of our defences against the invaders.

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