An Open letter to The Premier and Newcastle’s Local Member by Stephen Costigan 14.1.2012

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Dear Mr Owen, and Premier O’Farrell,

 First of all, I would like to wish you and yours a happy and successful 2012.

Secondly, I’d like to thank both you and the Premier for your positive support for the community in its ongoing struggle with the Newcastle City Council (NCC) over its determination to cut down the Laman St fig trees at all costs.

Thirdly, I want to point out to you that the Newcastle Council, in refusing to accept your Government’s offer of access to an arborist working for a government department, has chosen a course of action which it knows, instead of reasonable negotiation and compromise, will result in confrontation and further alienation of the community. This breaches the Council’s own Code of Conduct 6.1 (You must not conduct yourself in carrying out your functions in a manner that is likely to bring the council or holders of civic office into disrepute), and 6.3 (You must treat others with respect at all times)[1]. It also proves false the General Manager’s claim of not wishing to involve the State Government. The General Manager, and the elected Council, in refusing to accept the Government’s wise offer (and personally and publically urged by local MP Mr Owen), have chosen rather to involve the State Government via the Police; to help enforce what many of us in the community strongly believe is the wrongful use of the State’s Roads Act 1993 No33 Section 88.[2]

This course of action inevitably challenges the admirable policy position of your Government of not interfering with local government unless asked. This position is of course the ideal policy if the local government in question is truly acting fairly, openly and in the best interest of the community. In the case of Laman St however, this is clearly not the case. Confrontation, rather than negotiation and transparency, is not in the best interests of anyone, except those who are trying to protect their reputations or are operating without input by the Community on matters of great importance.  The Councillors involved and NCC administration are now determined to press ahead with removing the Laman St trees, despite your Governments efforts and those of the community, in order to justify the incredible wilful and escalating waste of rate-payers’ money.[3]

Aside from the numerous and ongoing breaches by this Council of its own Code of Conduct, there are enough doubts about using Marsden’s report and its recommendations as a basis for using Section 88 of the Roads Act, as to warrant an official independent review, of the type both of you and many members of the community have been advocating. Aside from the fundamental error influencing both the assessment of risk and life expectancy for the trees,[4] Marsden states that (in August 2009): ‘All of the subject trees presented as being in acceptable health at the time of inspection. There were no signs or symptoms of major pests or diseases[5]. When referring to problems originating with the tree’s roots he states that: ‘This is not to say the trees are at imminent risk of failure. . . . . The question of when the trees would be likely to fail or “how long have the trees got” cannot be answered with accuracy and can only be addressed in general terms. . . . . .This does not mean the trees need to be removed now. . . . . . not that the trees are at imminent risk of failure,’ and so on.[6] In fact the two least favourable trees, so far as life expectancy goes (SULE), are only of real concern when considered in relation to the other trees. One ‘should be removed to prevent interference with more suitable individuals’ adjacent to it, and the other ‘will become dangerous after removal of other trees’ near it.[7]

There is absolutely no sense of urgency anywhere in Marsden’s report, of the sort that would necessitate and therefore justify the use of the Road Act Section 88, to: ‘remove or lop any tree or other vegetation that is on or overhanging a public road if, in its opinion, it is necessary to do so for the purpose of carrying out road work or removing a traffic hazard’. If there are road works other than those involved in the removal of the trees (and the Council has repeatedly denied there are) then the plan must be acknowledged and scrutinised in the normal manner. Council administration and the seven Councillors who have championed their claims, have based the use of Section 88 solely on the basis of Marsden’s findings and an exaggerated and highly disputed (by experts) risk assessment.

United Kingdom-based arborist Mike Ellison, who invented the risk assessment method used by the council and other groups worldwide (QTRA), and who has been used as an expert reference in reports accepted by Council, has most recently been denied access to the trees (other than visually), for various dubious and contradictory reasons.[8] Mr Ellison will hand down his report at an open public meeting at Newcastle city hall on Monday night. Mr Ellison having visited Laman Street barely a week ago and earlier last year and having ‘reviewed available documentation, said he had formed the view that the trees were generally stable. ‘‘It seems unlikely that the trees present a particularly high risk, but I would like to take a look at some of the issues that have been raised by others before producing my risk assessment,’’ he said.[9] Another eminent Arborist, Dr David Lonsdale, whose work also informs Marsden’s report (as to the   evaluation of root structure), has also recently conducted a review of all the officially recognized documentation. His report handed free of charge to Save Our Figs this week, ‘raises several concerns and says certain aspects deserve reconsideration, including the probability of the trees’ failure.’[10]

Beside Ellison and Lonsdale there are many other highly qualified and experienced arborists and many community members who dispute the validity of the risk assessment Council is using to justify its drastic, permanent, and by most accounts (even Marsden) unnecessary removal of these beautiful life enhancing trees which Council itself agrees are part of our city’s heritage.

I urge you both, and for your Government, to demand the Council cease hiding its actions, and the trees, which have been under 24 hour lock and key now for months, and to immediately let an aborist or aborists currently working for one or more of your Government’s departments to assess the trees and review the available documentation. This irresponsible farce, initiated and perpetuated by the NCC, has gone on long enough. The people of Newcastle deserve better. The people of Newcastle demand better. This Council has repeatedly disregarded and failed its people, ignoring over 13,000 petitioners, hundreds of Novocastrians attending council meetings, and the input of highly qualified experts in arboriculture who find fault with Council’s course of action. If you refuse to act now while you still can, you too will fail us. Only action from your Government can force this Council to be responsible and let the community and world see the truth. What are they hiding?

Thank you both for your consideration and attention to this most important matter.

Yours sincerely,

Stephen Costigan


[1] Newcastle City Council Code of Conduct – December 2009, p. 9. Part 2: Standards of Conduct

6 General Conduct Obligations: ‘Sets out the conduct obligations required of council

officials. These are the enforceable standards of conduct’. p. 4.

[2] Please note that the NCC is operating under a motion to remove trees with the stated reason of the risk of harm they present.  The level of risk and the need for immediate tree removal has been seriously disputed by now over two times the number of experts on whom the council relied for its decision.  It has also been revealed that tree removal is due to an as yet unfunded redevelopment project.  The use of the Roads Act by councils in this manner to avoid public input and scrutiny is now slated to be debated in Parliament.

[3] Already in 2011/2012 the cost ($650,940) has almost doubled the cost for the entire2010/2011 period ($323,446). (Costing acquired from the General Manager on request, 8 Dec 2011)

[4] The error referred to here is that two trees were wind-thrown in the 2007 storm. In Marsden’s report he has photos of two trees in Bruce St, which were wind-thrown in that storm, but none from Laman St. Dennis Marsden’s Final Report 7 August 2009. pp. 16 & 17

http://www.newcastle.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0014/100067/090807Assmtfigslamandmarsden_final.pdf

The NCC’s website has a photo of a wind-thrown tree in Tyrell St in 2003, but none from Laman St. http://www.newcastle.nsw.gov.au/about_newcastle/news_and_events/image_galleries/fig_tree_root_failures

Photos of the Laman St figs obtained under FOI clearly show the Laman St figs not to be wind-thrown. Council’s reports are all built on this error and the risk is thus exaggerated.

http://s901.photobucket.com/albums/ac213/craschke/Underwhelming%20storm%20damage%202007%20in%20Laman%20Street/

[5] Marsden, p. 19.

[6] Ibid, pp. 19-24.

[7] Ibid, p. 24.

[8] Newcastle Herald, 26 -29 Dec 2011.

[9] Newcastle Herald, Matthew Kelly Arborist to give figs the once over 28 Dec, 2011.

[10] Ibid.

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One Response to “An Open letter to The Premier and Newcastle’s Local Member by Stephen Costigan 14.1.2012”

  1. Terry McCauley Says:

    This is an excellent posting, Well researched, documented and presented Stephen. I too have written to the Premier asking for immediate intervention to prevent a traversty with the fig trees in Laman Street.

    Our collective fingers are crossed!

    Let’s hope many other community members have also written to the Premier, there really is strngth in numbers!

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