Stumped by Surrey's Street Tree Planting Strategy

22 November 2021

Members of the Epsom and Ewell Tree Advisory Board (EETAB) have recently written to borough and county councillors highlighting their concerns about the lack of street tree planting in Epsom and Ewell borough. Simon Alford of EETAB explains the issue in more detail here.

For some years the Tree Advisory Board has been highlighting the fact that, since responsibility for street trees was handed back to Surrey four years ago,​ replacement planting has all but ceased.

During that time we appreciate that sincere efforts have been made by Epsom & Ewell Borough Council to first facilitate an agreement under which we both initially hoped that at least some level of TAB-funded planting could continue – and then to try to persuade County to loosen the impossibly onerous criteria it has set governing verge width and distance from services which go well beyond the criteria being applied by numerous other authorities both locally and nationally.

Sadly, however, despite encouraging sounding policy statements from County following an officer-led ‘review’, the fundamentals have not changed at all. As such, even like-for-like replacement planting is being routinely ruled out on verges that have successfully sustained street trees for as long as anyone can remember.

This unavoidable ‘truth’ has been proven once again by the Tree Advisory Board’s near universally unsuccessful planting bids this year – with just two of well over 20 applications being accepted. (All were fully funded, with the Tree Advisory Board happy to pay the £250 per tree planting cost, in addition to the £25 per tree application fee, which is non-refundable)

Conscious of the refusal of every single one of the applications we made in the previous year pertaining to normal sized grass verges in our extensive 1930s estates, this year we took even greater pains to measure the verges in question and check for visible services at the 16 potential planting sites that we proposed across Stoneleigh.

However,​ apart from just one planting permission (for the verge outside the Church in Stoneleigh Crescent) all the other sites were once again rejected.

These included six in Stoneleigh Crescent, four in Chadacre Road, two in Kingston Road and single planting applications in Stoneleigh Park Road and on the Ewell Bypass.

Taken in conjunction with some especially frank feedback we received from our local Highways Engineer last year - in which it was categorically stated there was no point in us even lodging future planting requests for Rutherwyke Close (currently one of the most tree-lined streets on the Estate) – we’ve reluctantly drawn the conclusion that, under Surrey’s current criteria, it simply isn’t viable for us to continue ‘wasting’ many hundreds of pounds of donated money every year on planting suggestions that appear to being rejected by default.

Surrey CC clearly believes that the standard 3ft grass verges that have always sustained trees in our 1930s estates can never be viable for replacement planting because the old standard imperial verge and pavement dimensions are nearly always several centimetres shy of metric stipulations that appear to be quite arbitrary, given that other local authorities are demonstrably not constrained by them. The net result, given the current rate of tree loss in these areas (most 1930s estate street trees are comparatively short-lived ornamentals with many already mature or over-mature), means there will scarcely be a street tree standing in Stoneleigh or Ewell Court in 15 to 20 years' time. (Indeed, at present it seems that all residents have to look forward to is rows of metre-high stumps, given Highways’ parallel money-saving ‘operational instruction’ – they deny it is a ‘policy’ as such - of not stump-grinding felled trees in even urban grass verges).

Despite previous assurances from Surrey that it was working in conjunction with Wisley to identify different types of shrub planting that could be instituted where trees are not suitable, no such alternatives have been suggested in any of our suggested planting locations either this year nor last. Neither have promises from the Cabinet Member for the Environment that, where proposed planting sites are deemed unsuitable, officers will proactively look for sites nearby that do fit the criteria.

There’s nothing ‘inevitable’ about the steady street tree loss that Surrey is presiding over. Across the country, many other authorities – notably including all our neighbouring London Boroughs - are demonstrably using quite different planting criteria which don’t just allow existing street trees in grass verges to be replenished and replaced, but for new street tree planting pits to be instituted in previously ‘unbroken’ pavements.

At a time when it is generally accepted we are staring climate catastrophe in the face unless unprecedented efforts are made to mitigate global warming, Surrey’s current position is simply unsustainable. As such, the Tree Advisory Board would like to work in close collaboration with all our local County Councillors with a view to securing the change in approach that is so desperately needed if we are ever to maintain, let alone enhance, tree cover in our urban areas.

About the author:

Simon Alford has been a member of the Epsom and Ewell Tree Advisory Board for just over 15 years and has a special interest in the contribution trees can make to the quality of the urban environment. He particularly champions the importance of street trees, prompted by the unprecedented threats posed to the far-sighted and transformative planting schemes of yesteryear at a time of widespread local government cost-cutting and retrenchment.

The Epsom & Ewell Tree Advisory Board is a well-established volunteer group helping to safeguard the borough's trees. EETAB carry out practical work including planting projects in parks and schools, seeks to protect existing trees in the borough and promotes tree planting projects, particularly the replacement of street trees. Residents can volunteer to become a Tree Champion, to help to care for trees in their road or local park. More details can be found on their website and Facebook page.