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Greening the District - Trees and hedges for environmental and human health

The Council revises its Council Strategy every five years and, amongst other things, in 2019 we were successful in getting the inclusion of “Protect and enhance the natural and built environment, and ensure our areas of natural beauty and wildlife are well looked-after”. Previous to that, the importance of the natural environment and wildlife had not featured. We also secured the first-ever permanent appointment of a dedicated Tree and Countryside Officer within Mole Valley District Council.

Later, the Council declared a Climate Change Emergency, but it was only in June 2020 that the new Administration issued its Climate Change Strategy. They mentioned Surrey Council’s (SCC) aim to plant 1.2 million trees by 2030 but, apart from that, only described a potential project of “Facilitating tree planting schemes in the District, through direct MVDC activities and supporting community initiatives”. Aiming to get action, at the Council Meeting in February 2021, we motioned that there should be plans to plant trees wherever possible on MCDC-owned land. Our Motion was not accepted, but March saw the announcement that “work started this month” to seek opportunities to plant on Council-owned land.

Global warming led to announcements of a Climate Change Emergency at global, national, and local levels. As far back as 1988, the United Nation formed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to make global assessments; the next assessment is due in 2022. Along with other greenhouse gases, high carbon dioxide levels correlated with global warming. Nearly all plants are important because they take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and release oxygen.

Surrey has more trees than any other county in England (24% land cover) but it also has precious open habitats such as chalk grassland, heathland, wetland, and old field edges – with species that are important nationally and internationally. This means that great care must be taken in choosing sites for tree planting; we should consider parts of parks, recreation areas, around playing fields, and along roads. MVDC owns many sites where, as well as taking carbon from the air, trees and hedges could obscure unattractive buildings, prevent unauthorised encroachment, and mitigate noise and air pollution.

We have been urging the planting of native species for several years, and now this is an almost routine condition placed on developers where trees and hedges are removed. Native species must have high priority because they support our native species of small mammal, fungi (including lichens), and invertebrates; many can only thrive in association with specific native plants. Hedges also trap carbon but are also marvellous reservoirs for diverse wildlife, even in the absence of trees. The older the hedge the more species-rich it will be. Some on the Downs to the south of Ashtead date from the Bronze Age, and others in Ashtead Village are remnants of ancient field boundaries going back to the Middle Ages. The importance of hedges is recognized in separate legislation from that relating to tree protection and at last, we are now seeing their importance also recognized when planning decisions are being made.

Ashtead is lucky to have kept many Victorian and Edwardian properties with large gardens, often with mature trees and old hedges. They are so precious for keeping high species richness; they provide corridors for the movement of increasingly endangered animals such as frogs, hedgehogs, and badgers, from garden to garden. We will continue to argue for their protection in the planning process, and for Tree Protection Orders (TPOs) to be issued more proactively in the years ahead. This should prevent trees being felled by developers before planning applications are even submitted.

There is still much to be done, but we are pleased that, after our years of agitating, at last some progress is being made towards appropriate tree planting in the District and, hopefully, MVDC will set a good example by planting on Council-owned land. This needs to be an ongoing process which will provide a legacy for future generations of which we can be proud.

Cllr David L Hawksworth CBE

Cllr Patricia Wiltshire (Vice Chairman)

[Originally printed in The Resident223: [7], Spring 2021}


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