The fate of trees in urban areas will be before select committee this week when hearings start on National’s Resource Management Act Reform Bill 2012. (The Bill is the second stage of Government’s efforts to weaken the RMA. The third phase changes are set out in the RMA discussion document out for public comment at present).
The Bill seeks to remove blanket tree protection rules from Auckland and other city and district plans. This has attracted many submissions. The Government thought it had done this with the 2009 changes to the RMA but fortunately the Environment Court decided otherwise.
Auckland Council sought a declaration from the Environment Court to test what the law change meant. In a comprehensive decision released in May 2011, the Environment Court ruled that trees in managed natural areas within the city’s urban limits such as Titirangi in the Waitakere Ranges were “a group of trees” and were therefore protected under the plan rules.
So National, egged on by ACT, is trying again with the 2012 RMA Bill which appears intended to override the Environment Court decision. If the Bill becomes law it would mean that there would be no planning controls on people felling urban trees unless each individual tree was specifically identified in a schedule in the relevant council plan.
Under the Bill it would no longer be enough for councils to identify trees of a particular species in a defined area; or trees with defined characteristics such as being over 5 metres high or for a resource consent to be needed to fell or damage then.
This permissive approach is incredibly short sighted. Urban trees are the lungs of our cities and towns. Trees provide oxygen, and filter and absorb pollution. They increase our wellbeing in so many ways – where better to escape the sun on a hot day than in the shade of a large, leafy tree; or as a child to stretch, move and test oneself?
Urban trees help regulate temperature and reduce the heat island effect created by large buildings and expanses of concrete and asphalt. They add movement and green to the streetscape and make walking more pleasant. Urban trees provide a sense of place and permanence in a neighbourhood, they were here before us and may outlive us. Their presence is a tribute to the foresight and care of previous inhabitants. They help create a liveable city for us and for tui, blackbirds and a host of plants and wildlife.
Trees protect the land, hold together banks and cliffs and reduce soil erosion. Think of the strong, twisted roots of pohutakawa which seem to defy gravity while their branches frame sea views. They soak up rain and reduce stormwater runoff.
In forward thinking cities such as Melbourne, the Council is developing an Urban Forest Strategy to increase tree cover in the city. That’s light years ahead of National and ACT’s narrow world view which puts individual property rights ahead of community wellbeing. I look forward to hearing submissions challenging that view from those who value our urban trees.