Auckland’s tree protection problem

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Tree protection has been a significant issue ever since 2009. That year National passed changes to the Resource Management Act that prevented trees on urban properties with dwellings or factories from being protected unless they were specifically identified in the area’s District Plan. Previously Councils had rules that protected classes of trees, for instance coastal pohutukawa or Kauri over the height of 2 metres. After the change trees were in the remarkable situation that they were the only things that could not be protected by general rules. Signs could be regulated. Tree protection could not.

There was some litigation about the changes. Council managed to get a ruling that protection provided by significant ecological areas, part of the regional policy statement for Auckland remained.

National replied by having a second go at making changes and in particular said that the tree or group of trees had to be inserted in a schedule to the district plan for them to be protected.

When the bill was being considered I went to the select committee hearing. I posted earlier about the experience and said this:

On behalf of the Waitakere Ranges Local Board I went to the select committee and made submissions.  I pointed out that trees were wonderful things, they were integral to the amenity of Titirangi and they were vital for maintaining stability in an area that is stability sensitive.  I suggested that the existing subdivision pattern in the area was predicated on current tree and bush coverage remaining.  We fell trees in Titirangi at our or our neighbour’s peril.

I also pointed out that the proposed protection mechanism, the scheduling of trees, would be cumbersome and excessively bureaucratic. A recent scheduling exercise, plan change 41, had protected 188 trees but only after 4 days of hearing, and the hearing and reading of 94 submissions as well as the arboreal examination of each of the trees. My very rough estimate is that there are approximately 1,500 affected sections in Titirangi and Laingholm, and that the average number of trees per section is 100. To protect each tree would require 150,000 arboreal examinations and on a pro rata basis 3,000 hearing days. I described the scheduling system for protection as “hopelessly unfit for purpose”. There has to be a better way to protect Titirangi’s trees.

Labour MPs on the committee said this about the changes:

Labour contends that the bill will atomise the protection of trees in the urban environment, and ignores the collective and community significance of trees and groups of trees in that environment. We support the general tree protection rules which existed previously. There is a legitimate and important case for protecting trees for wider community benefit and not simply defending the right of an individual property owner to fell any tree on their property.”

Unfortunately the law has not changed even though there has been a change of Government. I am aware that the current Government has been looking into the issue but reached an impasse last term. This term with its super majority hope for change has increased dramatically.

And scheduling is not working, at least in the Auckland situation. Since the Unitary Plan passed in 2016 scheduling has ground to a halt.

Auckland Council’s planning committee recently reviewed scheduling and decided effectively to do nothing. At a time where significant potentially priceless trees are being felled they demurred on the basis that the cost was too much.

The estimated cost of scheduling a tree is about $1500 and the cost of scheduling the 587 current candidates was less than a million dollars. But this was considered to be too expensive. One resolution put to the committee which was later withdrawn stated that “it is not financially viable to review or make changes to the notable tree schedules … at this point in time”. The resolution itself records that the review will happen when resources permit.

With the greatest respect to the Councillors I am aware that Council is under extreme financial stress. But this is the only legal protective measure available for many of our urban trees . To refuse to do anything because of cost means that the Unitary Plan is not being resourced to function the way it was intended.

Perhaps they could consider charging full price for notification applications. I know a number of people and organisations who would crowd fund for this purpose.

So what needs to be done?

Three things:

  1. The Resource Management Act needs to have a couple of snips. Take out section 76(4)-(4D) and sections 4 and 5 of schedule 12. This means that we can then go back to the situation where the democratically elected members of a local authority can determine what is the best way to protect their trees in their area.
  2. Then local authorities need to sit down with their communities and work out how proper tree protection can and should work. Existing Auckland tree protection rules, apart from the significant ecological area rules, have long disappeared and plan changes will be required to bring them back in whatever form.
  3. And in the meantime fund the scheduling of trees as an interim measure. Not all the applications need to be funded at once. A more limited budget and a screening system could be put in place so that only the most notable of applications are processed.

The status quo should not be an option. The city is losing too many of its magnificent trees.

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