Tree protection for urban trees to be restored

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Tree protection is an issue that I have followed rather intently for the past few decades. Living nestled in Te Wao Nui a Tiriwa in Titirangi’s magnificent but slip prone hills has made me appreciate the importance of trees.

And it is not only to stability that trees contribute. They provide artistic inspiration, a home for flora and fauna and a sense of tranquility that cannot be matched by artificial means. And in these times of global warming they are sequesters of carbon. Their contribution to a stable climate cannot be underestimated.

The previous National Government did not see things this way and had a couple of attempts to rewrite the law so that protection for trees was lessened. The changes provided that District Plans could no longer have tree protection rules applying to urban properties unless the tree or group of trees were specifically identified in the plan. The result was that an increasing number of significant urban trees have been felled over the past decade.

Previously Waitakere Council 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 district plan rules.

The justification was that the rules provided too much red tape for homeowners and they should be allowed to do what they want.

There was some litigation about the changes. Auckland 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 attempt at making changes.

When the second bill was being considered I went to the select committee hearing. I posted earlier about the experience when I 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.”

With the change of Government there has been a change of thinking. David Parker’s rewriting of Resource Management law has given the Government an opportunity to reconsider the existing law.

The Natural and Built Environment Bill, part of the legislation replacing the RMA, contained an initial proposal to modify the existing restrictions rather than remove them.

The Government proposed a complicated arrangement whereby a level of tree protection could be returned by way of a National Policy Framework declaration. This would however make the level of protection of trees subject to Ministerial whim. A change of Government and an unsympathetic Minister could see the problem return.

There was a second issue. The proposed general limitation in the original bill could conceivably affect all trees including those in significant ecological areas which are currently protected.

The local board made submissions on the latest bill.

We suggested allowing Councils general power to set their own tree protection rules provides the best solution. This could be augmented by minimum standards set out in the National Policy Framework but Councils should be allowed to set local minimum standards of protection.

Our proposal was to go back to the previous system and delete the restrictions on Councils being able to include blanket tree protection rules.

After events earlier this year the benefit of trees has never been clearer. They assist with stability and water retention, two features that are really important as this year’s events have shown. Without the area’s tree cover things would have been dramatically worse.

I am pleased to advise that in the latest version of the bill, which is going through committee stages right now, the restrictions on tree protection rules have been removed. As noted by the select committee:

Clause 125 would restrict the ability for plans to contain rules relating to tree protection. It would require that trees can only be protected in a plan if the tree, or group of trees, is described and located by site.

We recommend deleting clause 125. We think that trees should be managed through plans, with the [National Policy Framework] providing direction as required. We have recommended amending clause 58 to require the NPF to provide direction on protecting urban trees.

The Government is clearly intent on passing the bill within the next couple of weeks and this would be good news.

But there are a couple of problems. A change of Government would I suspect see National and Act try to reverse this aspect of the bill very quickly. They are indifferent to the immense value of trees and supportive of some extreme view of individual rights that would see us all suffer.

And Unitary Plan changes in Auckland will be required and this could take time. And there could be a stampede of urban trees being felled as any protection approaches.

But the good news is that the laws of New Zealand are in the process of being amended to provide better protection of urban trees. So they can continue to perform their important roles of stabilising slopes, providing shelter for native fauna, and providing amenity.

And sequestering carbon.


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