In defence of trees – an opinion

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Recent events have thrown into sharp relief the enormous pressure of new building in St Andrews which seems intent on filling every green space with more development. In particular if trees stand in the way of a planning proposal, it is certain that their loss will be regarded as justified by the planners in order to facilitate economic development. Sometimes even that justification is not needed – and there will always be some “expert” who will testify that a perfectly healthy tree has a limited life and should be felled, to improve someone’s view, or more usually for “heath and safety” reasons.

Those charged with making decisions about the retention or removal of trees have been accused of having a very limited view of the value of our sylvan resources and it has been more common for officials with no relevant qualifications and little knowledge to be entrusted with these decisions.

With the planning function now combined with the Economic Development Department in Fife Council, the objectivity of decisions on particular schemes must be placed in doubt, and the only limits to this hegemony is provided by our elected members. Few tree removal requests, however, are referred to a committee.

It was thought that a tree protection order placed on individual trees would save them from irresponsible felling, but this is not the case, judging by recent recommendations by planning officers. The removal of protected trees was supported by planning officers recommending development proposals at 92 Hepburn Gardens and Abbey Park. Fortunately the Hepburn Gardens application has been refused by councillors against the advice of officials. But the Abbey Park Trees are still under threat.

Why should we be worried?  The major tenet of planning law and policy is that all development must be economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. It appears however, that only the economic benefits of schemes have pole position in the planners minds, and even when social need is considered, in, for instance, the building of the new Madras college, building the distributor road which will service it seems to have resulted in the removal of far more trees than are necessary.

It is now well established that trees have a positive impact on health and well-being and they are particularly valuable in urban areas. They soak up carbon dioxide and some are good at absorbing vehicle particulate emissions, thus improving air quality. Vehicle emissions have been found to profoundly affect brain development in children, and lead to behavioural and respiratory problems when their homes or classroom are near to major roads. Shutting windows to keep polluted air out is not the answer, as this can raise carbon dioxide levels as much as 5000 parts per million in one hour.

Scientific studies have shown that green vistas and trees reduce the recovery time for patients and Ninewells Hospital has developed an Arboretum specifically for this purpose.

St Andrews is assessed as having a deficit of green space, and every inbuilt area filled in by development further adds to this deficit. Vehicle traffic is constantly increasing (at almost 2% per year, compound) and this adds further to particulate pollution and poor air quality.

A NASA study in 1980 showed that house-plants also improve air quality. For instance the ubiquitous mother in laws tongue (sansevieria) is attributed with the ability to remove benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethane and ozone from the air.. Trees convert carbon dioxide to the building blocks of wood and foliage through photosynthesis and also emit oxygen. When wood is used for furniture-making and, especially as in Scandinavia, house building the carbon dioxide remains locked up. We get concerned about the loss of trees in the Amazonian rain forest, but our planners seem indifferent to the loss of our local trees and the cumulative effects on global warming.

The carbon locked up in a mature tree can be as much as twenty tons, and is not lost to the atmosphere until it decays or is burnt.

A cherry tree in the Argyle Street Car Park, removed for “heath and safety” reasons, but really to facilitate development . The site notice (below) shows the tree in place following the completion of the development, but this did not protect it (see header).  Apart from the carbon cost of felling the tree, the manufacture of concrete contributes 5% worldwide of the total emissions of greenhouse gases.



It is proposed that the Argyle Street car park cherry tree will be replaced, but it will be many years before the sapling makes up for the carbon lost, as this tree seems destined for a trendy wood burning stove.

Two more mature Salix (Willow) trees on Viaduct Walk (see photo below) were felled for “heath and safety” reasons and alleged undermining of foundations of a house some distance away. No proof of undermining was provided, and the trees, in ownership of the Council, are not to be replaced. The decision to remove them was agreed by a transportation official, at the request of another transportation official.

A Proposal to remove the mature trees in South Street and replacement by smaller varieties which would not disturb the pavements, was rejected by townspeople some years ago. We need to renew our defence of trees as providing positive benefits for health and well-being, rather than support developer aspirations to “Cover Scotland in Concrete”.

St Andrews QV (Qui Vive) is an independent not-for-profit, non-political platform for news and debates about issues that are important to the Town. It exists to hold decision makers and public services to account while its editorial policy is to accommodate all shades of opinion from all parts of the community, prioritising evidence-based arguments. St Andrews QV is a member of the Independent Community News Network and is committed to the Community Journalism Charter

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