Working Party meeting & Gloves off part 1 23.6.2011


Well, I’m almost speechless. Last night (22.6.11) was an emergency meeting of the Laman Street Working Party. Since it’s all about the vibe, I’ll just say that the vibe was mostly pretty irritating.

In as close as I can get to 25 words or less, it seemed that the reason the LSWP met earlier than intended was to shut down the Working Party, using the excuse that the insurer has given Council a deadline to resolve the issue.

There is to be a workshop this Sunday (10am to 2pm – yay – open to the public if they want to observe) to come up with ideas to mitigate risk and manage the trees in order to preserve them. My theory is that Council wanted to can this workshop. Cr Cook asked what sounded like rhetorical question about whether there was any point in going on with the workshop. Fortunately it’s still on. (Insert small cheer.)

Fortunately what also came out of the meeting is that the community’s information on the health and risk of the figs is to be sent to the insurer to sit beside Council’s information and the workshop is going ahead. I do think we need to send the community’s risk assessments ourselves rather than just accept that council staff will send it.

The working party that has been convened to carry out this resolution (Go to *** to avoid reading the list)

1. Council retain the 14 fig trees in Laman St Cooks Hill

2. Council implements alternative risk mitigation, monitoring and tree management strategies including:

a) Transform Laman St permanently to a one way street

b) Keep warning signs

c) Prevent parking near the base of trees and on exposed roots.

d) Mulch around the base of trees

e) Encourage aerial root growth

f) Adopt a monitoring regime of:

i) Two weeks initial monitoring

ii) Followed by a further two week periods until significant winds

iii) Monitoring on a six month basis for 18 months**

iv) And then once a year

v) Or after an extreme weather event

vi) Action taken from an OH&S perspective

3 Council notes that the ongoing management and assessment of the Laman St trees needs to be conducted from both a tree preservation and a health and safety perspective by a qualified organisation with a proven tree preservation standpoint

4. Council replaces the four Hills Fig trees that are missing from Laman St as a matter of priority.

5. Council establishes a working party to establish points above

6. Council attains advice from ENSPEC executive and pay up to $500 for travel. ***

The emergency of course is that the insurer has said the deadline to change the status quo is the end of August. This is in spite of no new formal risk assessments in almost  a year and in spite of supposedly adequate risk management measures. And in spite of Council sending the most boring documents (in my opinion) they have for Statewide’s files. (Including things like the working party operating procedures.)

Cr Cook says they must have read the Land and Environment documents (which he waved around just in case the people present didn’t know what he was on about) on the Council website. Cr Cook seems to be good at imagining how things happen: when I had issues with an assertion last year that an environmental assessment had been done when it hadn’t, Cr Cook helpfully told me what he imagined the council manager in question must have meant. (This was at a meeting between Save Our Figs and the Lord Mayor.)

And remember, the Land and Environment Court case did not conclude that the risk was real or imagined, just that Council has the legal right under Section 88 of the Roads Act to remove the trees if they form the view that the trees are a traffic hazard.

Memorable moments from last night’s meeting:

The arborist community rep reviewed some previous QTRA advice to council and pointed out some significant misgivings with some of the calculations. A council manager asked him if he were qualified in QTRA. In fact, he asked him this four times. It reminded me of the charrette when council’s arborist did the same to anyone who questioned tree risk assessments.

Beautifully, the arborist is indeed QTRA-qualified but I remain amazed that NCC seem to think only QTRA subscribers can comment on this work. This is spite of encouraging an external arborist to comment on tree risk assessments at the charrette last year – an arborist who is not QTRA qualified. I’d love to know what Mike Ellison of QTRA fame thinks about this. We should ask Mr Ellison to come and do an assessment of the street!

Ravenshaw Street

Cr Cook said a number of times that when Council resolved to keep the trees, they made the wrong decision; he said ‘this is a charade’. Cr Claydon asked him if wanted to leave and he replied that he would be there to the death. Cr Claydon said she found that very helpful.

Later in the meeting Cr Cook said he could see why council staff could not implement the resolution and it was pointed out that he should not be speaking for the staff; the General Manager said at this point that it was fine for Cr Cook to express his opinion. Cr Osborne pointed out that the staff are legally obliged to implement the resolution.

A community member tried to ask for a briefing from Council to put other risks into perspective eg how Laman Street compares to skate parks or the lumps of sandstone falling off the town Hall. Yes. Sandstone. Falling. Off. The. Town. Hall. However, in spite of Council having highly trained staff who do hundreds of thousands of risk assessment each year they couldn’t do this because of the workload involved and because they alleged it was outside the terms of reference ; a vote was taken and the GM used his casting vote to stop this from happening.

ENSPEC’s proposal in relation to monitoring the trees was then discussed. The community members asked for  a copy of the ENSPEC proposal. My understanding as an observer was that it was alleged this had been provided, however, neither of the community members seemed to me to have seen the memo before.

It had been surprising that the quote was so much more than we were expecting and there was some not very clear discussion around why this figure was higher and more than industry standard amounts. My understanding as  an observer was that the council management memo proposed 6 episodes of monitoring as  the worst case scenario. I had been seriously looking forward to ENSPEC coming up here and I note the council resolution was for less than 6 visits. The six visits must have changed the price significantly.

The WP talked about Ausgrid (Energy Australia that was) and replacing/repairing/removing the high voltage cables in the street. My favourite comments in this were, ‘It would be fortuitous if we went ahead with [removing the tree/doing up the street]’ ie because then Ausgrid could upgrade the cables.

Cr Claydon pointed out to staff that on a daily basis residents say to her that since the Laman St fig trees did not fall down in the Pasha Bulker storm of 2007 or in any of the wind events since, they’re not going anywhere and ask her what Council is going on about. She said that while Council staff believe there is a risk in the street they have completely failed to convince the community of this risk.

Then there was the long conversation about QTRA and an interesting (31 page) article comparing tree risk assessment methods –  Martin_Norris_Tree_Risk_Assessment – which highlights how much subjectivity there is in this area.  Council had summarised this in a memo. Reading the memo suggested to me that they either didn’t understand the paper or weren’t trying to help others understand it. I’m. Sure. It. Was. Inadvertent. Anyway, long discussions about previous risk assessments, whether further risk assessment are in the Working Party terms of reference, and so on. Councillor Claydon expressed frustration, as did Cr Osborne and the community members with what feel like endless obstacles in the path of implementing the resolution. Cr Claydon pointed out that it seemed impossible for the Working party to do anything when the only tool left to them is alleged to be to chop the trees down.

I’m sure that one day tree risk assessment will be scientific and reproducible. Can’t wait. One day tree benefits may balance tree risk. I do not know how Councillors ever manage to do their job. And I wonder Who Is Running This Place.  Home


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One Response to “Working Party meeting & Gloves off part 1 23.6.2011”

  1. ArchitectGJA (Ed) Says:

    My letter to the Council, sent by email:

    Lord Mayor and Councillors,

    Your excellent resolution of December 14, 2010 to retain the Laman Street figs has come under attack in the guise of insurance risk.

    Arborist reports and risk management associated with street trees are subjective, as a Dennis Marsden may report findings differently from a Mark Hartley and an ENSPEC may then need to charge in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to monitor.

    But you have a free alternative: The empirical evidence proves that the Laman Street figs have withstood high winds over many years going back beyond the Pasha Bulker storm. Your resolution is designed to preserve and reinforce the stability of the trees, but I understand that the Working Party has not yet had the opportunity to complete its charge from your resolution, being diverted from tasks which would only reduce possible risks.

    I have read various claims that the trees stand because they support each other, possibly true. But that is also how most buildings remain standing, the removal of a portion of wall at a corner can lead to a collapse. Yet we do not hear a cry from the insurance companies to pull down buildings for what might happen, or to prohibit cars on roads for what might happen, so why in particular the Laman Street figs?

    Newcastle, or any jurisdiction for that matter, cannot allow an insurance risk adjuster to dictate the fate of the iconic elements of a city. The age of most icons automatically makes them mostly sub-standard in some form or other as measured by current standards, therefore being an insurance risk. Yet they are still insured and preserved. It takes a resolute commitment.

    Please stand firm and allow your December resolution to be implemented fully, not derailed in haste by fear of what may never happen.


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