Malcolm Barker: The tale of the tree ... and how it reaches down into the roots of council waste and red tape

A Beech tree on Main Street, Irton, that will be cut down at a cost of 1/4 of a million pounds. Picture by Gerard Binks.
A Beech tree on Main Street, Irton, that will be cut down at a cost of 1/4 of a million pounds. Picture by Gerard Binks.
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THOSE with an interest in the vagaries of local government now have a place of pilgrimage, a beech tree in the village of Irton near Scarborough, but they had better hurry.

A ruling in a county court case, from a judge presumably of axing rather than hanging disposition, means that the tree – despite its rude health – is to be felled.

Its story, told by the Yorkshire Post last Saturday in a report based on the result of Hazelwood versus the North Yorkshire County Council, is extraordinary. The county council opted for felling the tree following a complaint by a resident of Main Street, Irton.

Scarborough Borough Council, supported by many Irton residents, set out to save the beech, and granted it the protection of a Tree Preservation Order.

This strange affair, whicht has rumbled along since 2006, has racked up a bill of £250,000 (yes, a quarter of a million pounds) for council taxpayers. Why?

This extraordinary sum represents North Yorkshire’s legal fees; presumably the dispute has also cost Scarborough Borough money, a sum so far undisclosed.

That places Scarborough Borough ratepayers in an unfortunate position. As both authorities levy council tax on them, they will have to pay for both sides of the argument.

This is unlikely to go down well in, say, Whitby where the borough council has allowed the bridge linking the West Pier with its extension to rot away so badly that it has been closed, to great local chagrin.

The Irton affair began when the owners of 23 Main Street threw the book at the tree on the verge outside their house. Its roots got into their sewer, and its trunk was threatening their boundary wall. Moreover, nuisance was caused by something called “tree sap debris”, and droppings from birds that perched in its branches.

Soon the beech was entangled root and branch in the bureaucracy of local government. It was the responsibility of North Yorkshire, who as the Highways Authority, were owners of the verge.

A tree expert, Mr Ian Barnes of York, was consulted, and he considered that the complaints against the tree were justified. The County decided that the 100-year-old beech, 50ft in height, would have to come down although it was mature, and in rude (perhaps too rude) health.

First, though, Scarborough Borough Council would have to be consulted because Irton has been declared a Conservation Area.

There ensued great wrangling. Locals raised a 100-signature petition calling for the retention of the tree. Irton Parish Council agreed in April, 2007, that the tree must be felled. A month later, in May, following the empanelling of a new council, it changed its mind about the beech: “We must save this tree.” Then came Scarborough’s preservation order. A further dimension was added when a planning application was submitted for the demolition of 23 Main Street, and the erection of four new houses on the site. The householders said that a by-product of this work would be that the developers would pay for works “necessary to retain the tree”.

Perhaps with a sigh of relief, the North Yorkshire County Council Yorkshire Coast and Moors Area Committee then decided that if planning permission for the work was granted the tree could stay. If, on the other hand, there was a refusal, it would be felled.

No solution was forthcoming, and in March last year Scarborough Borough’s Planning and Development Committee refused an application to fell the tree for Mr and Mrs Hazelwood. By then Scarborough had its own expert, Elliot Arboriculture Consultancy. Its report concluded that No 23’s drains had not been broken as a result of tree root movement, but were “historically defective”. A comment was added: “Routine home maintenance using modern drain replacements would overcome this problem.”

Elliot Consultancy also reckoned the Capital Asset Value of the tree (a figure obtained by arcane means) at £75,615, a staggering sum, especially compared with Mr Barnes’ calculation of the beech’s amenity value for the county council at approximately £3,300 “by the Helliwell tree assessment system”.

The planners reported vehement opposition to the tree-felling in Irton, from its borough and county councillors, its parish council, and individual villagers, including the inevitable: “If the tree offended the new occupants, why did they buy the house?”

There are no villains in this saga. The people at 23 Main Street were seeking to safeguard themselves from a burgeoning and intrusive neighbour. The people of Irton wanted to keep their old tree, and they had the support of their Borough Council and, eventually, their Parish Council.

Even so, the suspicion exists that an early injection of common-sense could have cut the business short. Also, it would be fascinating to know how it cost North Yorkshire £250,000. It can ill afford the money, being required by budget cuts to make £69m savings over the next four years. Support for the arts has been slimmed by 80 per cent, 10 of its 11 mobile libraries are to go, and there will be an estimated 500 job losses.

North Yorkshire has stood its corner against the Government. In a letter to Communities Secretary Eric Pickles obtained by Sky News under the Freedom of Information Act, its leader, John Weighall, described the implications of public spending cuts on the authority as “devastating” and claimed they were a “low spending, low taxing, high performing council”.

Spending £250,000 to fell a tree hardly fits with those virtues. If Scarborough Borough and the people of Irton are so keen on the tree, why did not North Yorkshire simply make over the strip of verge outside 23 Main Street and its occupant beech to them? Instead, North Yorkshire has spent £250,000 to be instructed by a judge to do what it wanted anyway.

Soon the Irton beech tree will have gone, if it is not down already. Some way should be found to mark the spot – maybe a nice clump of Fools’ Parsley.