Surrendering to litigation: the battle over the Laman Street Hills figs

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By Paul Hodge

People power and intelligence won out in the end but the battle over the 14 Laman Street figs reveal some unnerving realities about Newcastle City Council process and the Lord Mayor, Cr John Tate. While the 8 to 5 vote to rescind the original motion ensured, for the time being anyway, that the fig’s amenity and heritage value will be respected, Council process and Tate’s proclamations show little indication of community consultation and capacity to see beyond litigation.  

Several points need to be made here.

First, community consultation did not precede the initial councillor member vote which passed the motion for whole-of-street removal of the figs. Given the commitments outlined in the Newcastle City Council’s urban forestry policy, which state the need for community partnerships and participation in formulating and implementing urban measures, the lack of consultation seems completely inapt. At a time when community involvement in political process and urban renewal is deepening, such disregard for consultation is anachronistic or at the very least, politically naïve. The rate paying public increasingly wants to be part of the democratic process.

Second, at the Public Voice Committee Meeting held on 8th December Ian McKenzie, independent arborist and former Newcastle City Councillor, presented concerns over the sole arborist report prepared for the Newcastle City Council which recommended a whole-of-street removal of the figs.

McKenzie’s presentation highlighted the immense value of the iconic figs. He stressed the 50 tonnes of carbon storage provided both above and below ground; the 4000 square metres of combined canopy which protects the asphalt road surface (extending its useful life by between 30 and 50 per cent), and the five to eight degrees cooler conditions provided by the canopy. McKenzie explained how the figs intercept rain, allowing it to evaporate or slow its journey to the ground, reducing storm water load. He also asserted the enormous heritage value of the figs and their aesthetic contribution to Civic Park and its surrounds.  

Following McKenzie’s thought provoking speech, and in an act of shear obstinacy, Cr Tate reduced the entire discussion in the Chamber to one of litigation. The core of McKenzie’s message was completely lost on the Lord Mayor.   

Third, in the Ordinary Council Meeting the following week (15th December), the vote to rescind the original motion was passed but not without further decrees from the Lord Mayor. On one occasion, Cr Tate distanced himself from previous councils that had back peddled on decisions. This was viewed by Cr Tate as a weakness. The reason for his statement was to convey that as the decision on the fig’s whole-of-street removal had been made the deal was done—work should proceed on the recommendations of the arborist report.   

Also during the 15th December meeting, again with an eye to the inevitability of whole-of-street tree removal, Cr Tate announced that in years to come ‘no one will remember this meeting’ and community opposition.

These public statements reinforce Cr Tate’s unilateral resolve. The Lord Mayor would seemingly prefer to railroad decisions and thus be seen to be a ‘strong’ leader rather than commit to open-mindedness and consultation. His comment on future generations recalling the debate was equally telling as it down played the community spirit in the Chamber and portrayed a sense of scorn for the participatory efforts of those community members present. 

While litigation should not be dismissed totally, to make decisions solely on the grounds of possible risk without any consideration for the immense communal value of the Laman Street figs is narrow-minded in the extreme.  

Fortunately, in this case, people power and intelligence won out. We can only hope that for future council decisions the worth of community consultation will be viewed as a ‘given’ and not as a collective nuisance.

*This article written for the Newcastle Leader; reproduced with kind permission of the author.

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