The insurance industry has been made a scapegoat for the indiscriminate uprooting of London trees for subsidence issues, writes Jakki May. In actual fact, the majority of trees removed are due to health and safety issues and insurers have developed strict protocols before making a final decision
The 20th anniversary of the great storm, which tore a path of destruction through the UK on the night of 15 October 1987, has highlighted the resulting devastation with many photographs from the time illustrating how swathes of woodland were simply blown away.
Much of the South-east was battered and streets once lined with trees found themselves with only a mass of uprooted trunks the following morning. But since then, it has been the base of trees rather than their leafy boughs that have caused most consternation - particularly among tree officers at London borough councils.
Long dry summers have taken their toll on trees growing in London's clay soil and tree root systems have been blamed for causing subsidence. For example, a report, published in May, put together by the London Assembly's environment committee called Chainsaw Massacre accused insurers of blaming London's street trees unnecessarily, and of removing them on the "flimsiest of evidence" before tree officers have a chance to establish the real cause of the problem.
Despite its accusations, the report failed to mention the insurance industry's Tree Root Mitigation Protocol, which has been set up to provide a universal standard that must be met before any tree can be removed.
The industry has also come under fire from the London Tree and Woodland Framework, which suggested that the perception of subsidence is greater than the reality, estimating that less than 1% of the total tree population has actually caused damage to properties when 5% in the last five years have been removed on this basis.
The blame game
Needless to say, insurers and their partners are not settling for such criticism without a fight - primarily led by the industry's Subsidence Forum, which comprises insurers, loss adjusters, lawyers and other specialists. The forum's former chairman John Parvin, subsidence claims manager at Zurich, says the protocol should go a long way towards quietening the critics. It has already been trialled with three London boroughs and, he reports, is ready to be rolled out to a wider community after a few amendments.
The protocol works by specifying the type of evidence needed for tree removal and uses a formula to calculate a tree's value. Depending on that valuation, insurers and home owners will have to produce increasing levels of evidence before any action can be taken.
More valuable trees should, therefore, be protected except in cases where there are no other options. Mr Parvin explains that the forum is waiting on comments from some of London's tree officers before the protocol is extended but he is hopeful that it will be in everyday use before long.
"The much improved communication between tree officers, insurers and owners is helping," says Mr Parvin who stresses: "We don't want to be doing unnecessary work and by moving towards this protocol we will know whether it is the tree causing the problem."
He also points to the work being undertaken by the Clay Research Group, which is studying the water demands of trees and what is happening to them. "A great deal of research is being done to determine how trees interact with buildings and that should help us identify trees that don't need to come out."
Although the protocol to date has been limited to London, Mr Parvin sees no reason why it should not be extended to other areas in the UK affected by subsidence - Bristol and York, for example, are also built on clay.
But it is in London where the efforts are concentrated for the moment. And the recent reports from the London bodies have angered some in the insurance industry who fear that they are being made into scapegoats. Mr Parvin says these reports seem to imply that subsidence is blamed in most cases while, in reality, health and safety issues result in around 90% of trees being felled.
And he is backed up by Paul Stanley, managing director of Infront Innovation, who says: "We support the London tree officers but this campaign appears to have more to do with political spin than fact. Published figures show on average only 5% of all trees felled in London relate to subsidence claims. The remainder are felled for reasons of convenience, such as leaf drop nuisance; pavement works; rot; or compliance with health and safety.
"Although Hackney Council reports that the number of trees felled because of subsidence is 40%, this amounts to only 26 trees a year - out of a population of 7000 trees in its borough. It hardly seems to equate to a 'chainsaw massacre'. Indeed, taking into account new planting, we understand there has been a 14% increase in the number of trees over the five-year term of the survey."
He also points to figures from Southwark, which reports that 47.81% of the trees felled in its borough are linked with subsidence. "This translates to 20 trees per annum out of a population of 15 436. Again, Southwark has seen an 8% rise in its number of trees."
Mr Stanley suggests that frequency would be a far more meaningful way of looking at tree loss. "The London tree officers carry out important work protecting an amenity that benefits us all. Infront Innovation, via its funding of the Clay Research Group, is looking at new techniques to help trees 'self-medicate' - that is, reduce their rate of transpiration. And we would welcome working alongside the tree officers."
The same view is echoed by loss adjuster Kevin Terry, an associate director at Questgates, who says: "I would fully support the argument that correct investigation and diagnosis is required before the request to fell any tree is put forward. This underlines the fact that the correct professionals should deal with subsidence claims and they do have a high technical content.
"The London Assembly's report, however, is more a publicity tool than fact. It has portrayed insurers and their advisers as the substantive cause in the felling of London street trees, when in reality the reasons for 95% of tree removals are health and safety or development pressures, with less than 5% due to subsidence claims."
He adds that when dealing with a subsidence claim in London, where a street tree is potentially involved, it is essential that the correct investigations are undertaken by appropriate professionals, "as we are obviously facing an upward battle. With the correct information, however, facts cannot be ignored".
Anne Ahmet, UK and Ireland property claims technical supervisor at Chubb, stresses that the insurer will always obtain a full set of specialist reports before axing any tree - or even carrying out maintenance work. But she says that dealing with the local authorities is not always straightforward. "They can be a little bit slow responding. We have had difficulties in getting them to respond and that can make the damage worse."
Ms Ahmet also argues for sensible planning for the future, making sure that planting is sustainable. However, she adds: "It could be argued that tree management has not been a priority." Many of the problems with existing trees are exaggerated by changing uses - for example, when the trees were planted, there may well not have been any tarmac and sometimes the housing density was lower.
"If problems start and a maintenance programme has not been carried out consistently over the years, then things can get bad. We always try to encourage the local authorities to keep up their maintenance programmes."
Chubb sees a number of cases in Camden and Westminster - both areas with large and established trees - and works with an insured's neighbours as well as the insured to try to minimise the impact of any removal.
The key, says Ms Ahmet, lies in working together instead of playing the blame game. And Richard Rollit, technical services manager at loss adjuster Crawford and Company, agrees. "We are very keen to get into a dialogue with tree officers and to try to make the process much smoother."
But that can be easier said than done. Again, the main complaint is that the local authorities often ignore the first few letters on the subject and will only contact the insurer or adjuster after a lot of badgering.
"We have a policyholder keen to sort out the claim but we need to get a dialogue going to move away from the idea we are chopping down all the trees in London," he says.
Iain MacLean, head of subsidence at loss adjuster Davies, believes the issue "has been badly handled by both parties in the past and has become very confrontational".
He says the protocol is a sensible step forward because it should remove much of the argument from the issue. "We will have to provide the relevant level of evidence. If we can do that, then the authority should not have a problem with us taking out the tree," he says.
Both Mr Rollit and Mr MacLean point to the fact that environmental concerns are becoming more of an issue. The general public does not want to see trees chopped down unnecessarily and reports such as Chainsaw Massacre do not help the public's opinion of insurers. Mr Rollit says there is a tricky balancing act to strike between not losing public goodwill, and still sorting out the problem for the householder concerned. Mr MacLean adds: "The environment has become much more of an issue and, as loss adjusters, we have to be pragmatic.
"I dealt with a property on the edge of New Forest where there were 23 trees taller than the distance from the house. As an engineer, I knew I could stabilise the building by removing all 23 trees - but let's be realistic that was not going to happen."
Frazer Fletcher, director of construction and engineering at loss adjuster AMG, agrees that green issues have come to the fore and this, combined with a lack of maintenance by local authorities, has made life that much harder for those trying to sort out subsidence problems.
Like the others, he is critical of the Chainsaw Massacre report for painting the wrong picture. "You have to keep it in perspective. More trees have been planted than are being removed."
He also points to the 'wrong sort' of planting taking place - for example, large forest trees are not suited to urban street environments and would be better off planted in a parkland where there is the proper space for them to grow.
Mr Fletcher knows it also comes down to cost. "It's a matter of what priority members of the general public place on trees. Would they be prepared to pay 1p more in tax for more trees to be planted in parkland and for maintenance of older trees? People will campaign to save one particular tree but will not look at the overall picture."
And homeowners also have to take some responsibility, he adds. "If a surveyor sees a crack when people are buying a house, it will be highlighted. We have become averse to any damage and sometimes may overreact.
"People want to realise the maximum value for their property and will go all out to remove the source of the problem - the tree. Small cracks are perceived as a large problem and insurers then have to do something about it."
Housebuilding materials could also be examined, he says, explaining that today's products can result in much more rigid properties making them more susceptible to damage.
Overall, Mr Fletcher says: "This is a complex and very emotive issue. As an industry we need to stress that nobody wants to remove trees - and that is not what is happening. We need to work together with the London boroughs to ensure it is only the trees causing the problems that are removed."
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