Saturday, 14 February 2015

Saltaire Trees - My Perspective

Those of you who follow developments closely in Saltaire will have noticed a number of tweets and facebook posts in recent days expressing concerns about the 'lost trees' - the 32 mature forest trees that are being removed by Bradford Council as the first part of its 'Public Realm Improvement Scheme' for Victoria Road. Here is my perspective about what is happening.

The trees on Victoria Road were planted in the late 1940s or early 1950s. For reasons beyond the realm of human understanding, the bright sparks at the town hall decided to introduce forest varieties rather than more appropriate and smaller 'street trees'. As was presumably standard practice at that time, the Council simply dug up the flagstones and stuck the trees into the ground rather than altering the road, kerb and paving in order to properly accommodate them. In the decades that followed, the saplings gradually matured into the very large and impressive trees that graced Victoria Road for many years.

Many residents, myself included, have appreciated these trees enormously for their beauty, their amenity and, of course, for their shading and other urban environmental benefits. I have supported the work of Forest of Bradford in planting 500,000+ trees across our district in recent years precisely because of the huge ecological value they provide. I fully understand why many local people became attached to the trees in Saltaire, myself included. When Council officers have previously sought to remove any of the trees, I have insisted on explanations and, in some cases, challenged the proposals. When four trees near the junction with Saltaire Road were earmarked for removal several years ago following a serious road accident, for example, I supported the resident campaign to save them as I did not think the trees were the primary reason for the crash.

At the same time, whenever we have conducted our Saltaire street surgeries, we have fielded complaints from residents about the impact of these huge trees on the close-knit residential setting of the village. Local people have pointed out the way in which the trees have restricted access along the pavements and have forced up the paving and tilted nearby walls as the roots have grown and shifted. Not a problem for able-bodied people like me, but an issue for many elderly folk, not to mention our disabled neighbours and visitors or parents pushing buggies. Some of the trees are so big and so close to windows that they have also reduced the light available for residents' homes, leaving some people reliant on indoor lighting in their front rooms throughout the day.

It was for these reasons, as well as a desire to invest in improving the amenity of the main thoroughfare of this increasingly popular world heritage site and tourist destination, that the Council considered investing in regenerating Victoria Road. This process was managed by the Council's Executive Committee, since the funding was coming from the central budget, but the Shipley ward councillors were consulted as the discussions unfolded. Our aim from the outset as ward councillors was to influence the decision-making process in order to ensure that the outcomes were properly thought through and informed by the preferences of local people.

My initial assumption was that the project would involve creating high quality public realm in a way that would retain most or all of the existing trees. To my non-expert eye, the trees seemed fine. However, in December 2013, an independent arboricultural report commissioned by the Council concluded that the tree population was "struggling", with only a third of them in good condition; a quarter of them had a life expectancy of less than ten years; half of them would need to be removed within twenty years; three-quarters within thirty years, and ninety per cent within forty years.

This was a shock, but it was the key reason why the ward councillors eventually agreed with the proposal to remove the trees as part of the public realm proposals drawn up by the Council's team. We could have taken the easy way out, and campaigned for the trees to be kept for the time being and then cut down one by one every year or two for the next few decades. We could even have washed our hands of the whole deal and blamed the 'Labour Executive' for 'destroying our much-loved tree population'. We could have kept our heads down. But we accepted the case that, by removing the trees in 'one go' at this stage, the Council would be able to create the opportunity to plough £700,000+ into restoring the pavements, the street lighting and make other valuable civic improvements in a project that will result in a regenerated urban space in line with the heritage aspects of the village. These are some of the most beautiful and iconic buildings in the country and the village is of course celebrated worldwide for its architectural and historic value. To gradually remove the trees and do ad hoc 'patch and mend' works for years to come would have precluded a proper long-term solution and - crucially - would not have saved the trees in the longer term anyway.

Having said that, of course, we immediately pressed for as many of the trees as possible to be replaced. The officers advised us, not unreasonably, that planting new trees would disrupt the architectural integrity of the scheme that was being proposed; that new trees would not be in keeping with the 'restoration' of a world heritage setting that for its first century had not had any trees at all; and that providing them would cost money that could be spent on other public realm improvements. Nonetheless, we pressed the case for replacement trees because this is what most residents wanted.

Exploratory tree pits were therefore dug - at our insistence - up and down Victoria Road to see where new trees could be introduced. The results were conclusive and - unfortunately from our point of view - negative. Due to the presence of extensive underground cabling and pipes, the only location where new trees can be planted is along one side of the upper part of Victoria Road. Trees require sizeable tree pits in order to enable them to flourish. Moving the cables and pipes, even assuming that alternative routes could be found given the nearby presence of other services beneath the highway, would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds and is well beyond the scope of this budget. We were told that moving ONE of the cables alone would cost £113,000 plus VAT. So, again, we reviewed the evidence and settled on a limited number of new replacement street trees as the only possible option.

So, to recap, it seems to me that the Council is responding to several fundamental and unavoidable challenges: the existing 'forest' tree population on Victoria Road was unsustainable in this tight urban setting; 90% of the trees would not have survived in the longer term; we are unable to replant new trees along most of Victoria Road due to the cabling and pipes that run beneath the pavements; it would be too expensive to move the cabling and pipes, even if we could find the space to make it possible to do so; and leaving the trees in situ and removing one of them on average each year for the next 30-40 years would not allow us to create a regenerated public realm in one go, but would instead leave in place the dilapidated street scene, ugly street lighting and cracked and uneven paving that has understandably bothered residents for years.

The bottom line is this. No one at all, neither councillor, officer nor member of the public has been able to offer us a workable solution at any stage over the past two years that would have allowed the Council to keep these huge forest trees on Victoria Road; no alternative viable policy option in any of the meetings, or emails, or phone conversations, or public meetings, or neighbourhood forums, or via the Council website, or tweets, or facebook posts, or on the doorsteps when the local Green councillors have carried out our Saltaire street surgeries, or in the pub, or in response to the Council's consultation (see below). We have never seen a plan that might enable us to rejuvenate and sustain the tree population into the distant future, provide world-class paving and other high quality street furniture and open up the fabulous architectural heritage of this urban setting.

It is also the case that 70% of the people who participated in the Council's consultation held in March and April 2014 wanted all of the existing trees removed. About half of these residents also wanted as many replacement trees as possible to be introduced, which is what we are doing. Less than a quarter of the respondents wanted the existing trees retained. The results, though mixed, were clear enough. Most people, even though they wanted trees, recognised that the existing trees were unsustainable in this particular urban setting.

The consultation process has been criticised in recent days for not being sufficiently extensive or open-ended, so let's be clear about what happened. Council officers carried out a door-to-door survey of all 79 addresses on Victoria Road; the Council also wrote to every resident living in Saltaire advising how they could take part in the consultation; two public drop-in exhibition sessions were held in early April in Saltaire so that residents could study the proposals, ask officers any questions and submit their comments; all of the information was published online and residents were also able to comment electronically if they wished to do so.

My settled view is that the consultation gathered sufficient feedback to enable the officers and the Executive Committee to broadly gauge public opinion and determine what to do next. In particular, the fact that the residents who took part were able to see the plans and ask detailed questions and offer additional suggestions meant that it was a qualitative process as well as a quantitative exercise.

In closing, let me stress that we supported this Executive Committee decision because it was the best one to take in these difficult circumstances. We pushed officers at every stage to justify their recommendations. We pressed for the tree pit surveys and we insisted on new trees being planted in all the locations where this is possible. We also, incidentally, asked for new trees in raised planter beds to be considered, partly as a means of improving traffic and parking management on Victoria Road. This was ruled out, to our disappointment, but it is an idea that we hope to revisit in future.

One final thought. It is my genuine impression that everyone involved in this process from the outset - councillors, officers, consultants - has done their best to ensure that the solution arrived at by Bradford Council is the best we can achieve and has worked hard to listen to the views of local people as well. No one has been more conscientious and considerate in this regard than our World Heritage Site officer. I think it is a good scheme and I look forward to seeing it completed in the months ahead. I'll miss the trees as well, but I honestly think that the Council made the right decision and I hope very much that this will be taken on board by everyone who reads this post.


If you would like to contact the Council for detailed information about any aspect of this project, you can email our World Heritage Site Officer, Helen Thornton, at

You can also contact the portfolio holder on the Executive Committee with overall responsibility for the project, Cllr Val Slater, at

I would strongly encourage residents to attend the Saltaire World Heritage Site Information Session at Saltaire Methodist Church, Wednesday 25 February, 7-9pm. All details here:


Kevin Warnes (Shipley, 14 February 2015)



All of the Council information relating to this project can be found here:

The Scheme Drawing can be found here:

The independent tree survey can be found here:

The summary report of the public consultation held in March 2014 can be found here:

The Consultation Document can be found here:

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