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Last Updated: Sunday, 20 May 2007, 11:54 GMT 12:54 UK
The politics of trees
Becky Milligan
The Politics Show

Tree lined street
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder...

In the late 19th Century, planting trees and cutting them down was one of the biggest dividing lines in politics. Two of the favourite pastimes of Britain's greatest political foes - Gladstone and Disraeli - were, respectively, cutting them down, and planting them.

These days, the politics of trees is big news again. And it's not just about deforestation of the rainforests.

In 2004 Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for recognising the social and economic benefits of planting thousands of trees in Africa, and the Conservatives recently chose a tree for their new logo.

But it isn't just at the level of high politics that trees are important. Debates about the future of trees are raging as fiercely at a local level as anywhere else.
Trees in your neck of the woods - and streets...

Growing problem

You get the best stories standing around in the playground waiting to pick up you children from school.

That happened to me the other week when a parent collared me and suggested that I look into how many of trees are being lost in our towns and cities.

"It's a disgrace," he added, "the politicians should stop it."

I was intrigued.

Could it be true that our lovely tree lined streets were being stripped bare by over zealous councils worried about tree roots lifting up pavements and causing structural damage?

I started to ring around tree surgeons and a story began to emerge.

Oliver Stutter is a tree manager with Southwark Council and he sounded down right depressed.

He invited the Politics Show to come and film a huge 100-year-old London plane tree being cut down because it was causing minor structural damage to one of the houses on the street.

"It's happening all over London," he told me, "and it has to stop."

Tree stumps
Trees are rapidly reduced to stumps

He blamed the insurance companies who demand that the trees be felled to protect property.

He shrugged his shoulders when I asked how many trees were being cut down.

"We don't know," he told me, "it's all anecdotal evidence."


In their defence, the insurance industry told me that they have to act when a tree is threatening a house.

And they were keen to stress they do not actually go and chop down the trees themselves.

At the tree felling site we watched as the tree surgeons swung nimbly in the branches of the London plane, brandishing their large chain saws, sawing through the branches as easily as slicing through butter.

I asked one of the residents, Louise Carby, who was watching from her front doorway, what she made of it all: "The tree is the problem because, at night, because the tree root is under the road almost as well, we cant sleep at night the cars go over the hump and the whole house shake."

So she was pleased. But also watching was tree lover Stella Benhill.

She looked close to tears and as the branches fell to the ground, she said she felt terrible.

"I feel horrified," she exclaimed "it's happening all over the country and the trees are being sacrificed for the buildings and the trees- their value doesn't come into the equation at all."

Both sides of the argument

All that is left on this Tottenham pavement is a patch where the tree was

So it's clear trees are a pretty polarising issue. There were two opinions here and both justified.

Those who want to keep the beautiful green giants on our streets and in our cities and think not enough is being done to save them - and those who feel trees can be very damaging and should be controlled.

And you the viewers also revealed how close trees are to your hearts.

After trailing the story, we received a large number of emails and photos, both pro and anti trees.

But still, that was not enough to give me the facts and figures I was after.

I turned to urban tree expert, Mark Johnston to see whether he could fill me in on a few more facts.

Tree report

He is a lead researcher on a government paper called "Tree in Towns II" which is due to be published in the summer.

He could not give me the figures on how many trees were being lost in towns and cities.

But he did confirm that his report would spell out that urban trees are under pressure.

"What we urgently need to do," he said, "is move urban trees up the political agenda get the money spent on them that they need."

Everywhere the producer, Rebecca Towers, and I turned we only had to mention the tree word and people started to tell us their own personal tree story.

It is a hot topic - and tree lovers are worried that unless the government starts looking into it.

It will be too late and many of urban trees will be lost for ever.

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