A case of poor tree management
POSTED ON February 24, 2022
Some reflections on Edinburgh’s precious and fragile greenspaces following a recent Freedom of Information request
Recent stories in the media regarding the state of Princes Street Gardens following Underbelly’s Christmas Market come as no surprise to us at the Cockburn. Following the debacle of the 2019-20 Christmas market with the huge space deck erected in East Princes Street Gardens, the gardens were in a terrible mess. In effect, they were out of bounds to the public for six months given the time to erect the structure, which did not have planning consent, and the time the Gardens reopened after the grounds were reinstated.
Our “Keep of the Grass” campaign articulated one simple fact – that soft surfaced public parks are not suitable for heavy infrastructure events. The current issues simply underline this.
As preparation for the most recent Christmas Market were underway in November 2021, we and other observers highlighted significant concerns about tree protection as the market was being set up. Underbelly promised that they were following best guidance and, of course, they had learned from previous problems.
Not entirely convinced by these statements, we made a Freedom of Information request to ascertain exactly what was being said between CEC and Underbelly in connection with tree safety management. The response arrived on 30 December 2021, just before 5pm, when our offices were shut.
The information was both eye-opening and eye-watering. One document, which was an internal communication between a Council official to Underbelly on the 5thOctober outlined the damage that the market would do to Princes Street Gardens.
It is noted that several requests made by Underbelly “would not get approval from P&G [Parks & Gardens Department]” due to various “infringements” of British Standards guidelines relating to tree root protection. In the officer’s words:
“…the event organiser’s protection measures do not meet required British Standards.”
This begs the question of why – despite all the assurances to the contrary and the knowledge of previous events, the event organiser still couldn’t conform to the basic standard in place to protect our public greenspaces.
The FOI documents describe multiple incidences of these infringements are in both East and West PSG. The officer notes an independent expert’s report that severe compaction from previous installations of the big wheel had damaged parts of the gardens and would require at least £15,000 of remedial work to put right.
The officer goes on to explain that:
“Further use of these areas will severely affect the health of these trees and increase the risk for failure – short and long term. It is worth noting any major failure of these trees would more than likely be across Princes Street itself.”
“Previous damage to these trees caused by allowing Big Wheel access has already had a major impact on the health of trees in this area” [adding that the] “use of large generator’s [sic] within tree canopies is not acceptable.”
Much of the correspondence is about recommendations for conditions and mitigation measures that must be put in place before agreeing to this year’s event including advice of “no vehicle access on to the grass/soft landscaped areas within the Gardens” indicating that “this may sound extreme but as soon we allow the Events company to drive on the grass there is a high risk of soil compaction within tree root zones as it is unlikely that every tree will have ground protection.”
As we know from the frenzy of activity prior to opening caused by the Cockburn’s and others tweets these requested measures were not adhered to. The discourse between Underbelly and the Council’s tree protection officer makes it perfectly clear that, despite years of experience, the commercial operator of the Christmas Market could not or would not ensure the basic protection of one of the City’s premier greenspaces.
It is not just the Christmas Market that falls foul of this. Our own observations of installations in placed like George Square during the Festivals show similar problems.
It is now time to stop this unnecessary damage to the city’s important treescape and our greenspaces. No heavy infrastructure event should be permitted in soft surfaced areas. It’s that simple.