Answering Vivien 16.2.2012

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This was taken by Ben Smee at the time of the apparently 'practical' implementation of the resolution to remove the trees.

Vivien has asked, for a school assignment, why the Laman Street protesters were so angry.

I started to reply in a comment but there were so many reasons to be angry that I thought I’d try to sum it up here in a post.

Wow Vivien – where do I start? I suppose the short version is that

  • Council claimed the trees were dangerous when they patently were not
  • the community proved without a doubt the trees weren’t a hazard
  • both management and a majority of elected councillors managed to shut their eyes, cover their ears and turn their heads away from the evidence
  • the trees were in my opinion chopped down because council management made it their mission not to be beaten
  • and to protect the reputations of council staff and consultants
  • and because many councillors would do anything to oppose the Lord Mayor.
  • I think many of the elected councillors were ‘over’ the issue a long time ago so stopped trying and some of them think Making A Decision stands them in good stead with the voters, even if they make the wrong decision.
  • When a majority of councillors voted in December 2010 to maintain the trees, staff managed to work against that lawful resolution in a number of ways. These included delaying forming the working party – this took four months – they stacked the working party by giving council managers voting rights which the then General Manager said was ‘poor governance’ – at the last meeting, mind you – thanks Mr Noble – and they then somehow managed to convince the insurer that it should pull out.
  • and to top it all off the current General Manager used the riot police to implement a resolution that said the trees should be removed as soon as practical – if it takes 60 or 70 riot police to implement something, how can it be called practical?

Many people believe that removing the trees in Laman Street should have been treated by Council as a development proposal, asking the community for feedback on what to me was an appalling idea. The trees are – were – a community asset that Newcastle City Council should have been looking after on behalf of you and me. Instead council, I believe, didn’t think they were tidy enough to go with the jazzed-up gallery and these trees had the  misfortune to be big in a town where big trees were out of favour with municipal arborists.

I believe that Council used the obviously incorrect claim that the Laman Street trees were a traffic hazard to avoid treating the removal of the trees as a development. They used Section 88 of the Roads Act as the legal basis for their removal. I can imagine clever lawyers thinking this up for them.

All the Roads Act requires for this is that council had to ‘form the view’ that the trees were a hazard and they were then legally allowed to remove them in spite of many/most of the community not wanting this to happen.

The only proof they had to produce to prove that they had ‘formed the view’ etc was that they wrote a letter saying that. The Land and Environment Court cases did not examine the merits of the Council’s view so the evidence was never tested. We had two arborists in the court ready to give their opinion but they were sent away because the courts won’t second-guess a council decision.

Council had several arborists who wrote reports saying the trees were either incredibly hazardous or had dodgy roots. One of Council’s reports said that walking down Laman Street was more dangerous than working on an oil rig or flying in a helicopter or downhill skiing or driving in a car or smoking or falling out of bed. If their figures had been right, two people should have died and six trees should have fallen over since 2007.

The dodgy root assertion was based on minimal testing; ‘our’ experts say that ‘eccentric’ roots (ie not in a radial pattern all the way around the tree) don’t mean the tree is going to fall over and in fact that this pattern is very common in towns and cities all over the world  but we don’t have an epidemic of tree failures.

Council’s consultants were told by council staff that trees failed in the Pasha Bulker storm when they did nothing of the sort. They were told that tree roots were ’tilted out of the ground’ by the 1 in 100 year storm. They simply didn’t. I FOIed the photos of how council judged the trees after the Pasha Bulker storm. Those trees never looked like falling over.

Council thus misled their own ‘experts’ at the same time they were hiding information from the community. A radar report done for Council was hidden for 18 months and an ‘amended’ version released after a Freedom of Information request could not be refused (although they tried). I’m assured by council that the report wasn’t doctored, but the differences between the original report and the one that was reluctantly released are stark.

NCC formed the view of trees as traffic hazards in spite of opinions to the contrary from a dozen well-respected arborists and engineers, risk assessment experts and arboricultural teachers and authors from here and abroad. Save Our Figs Inc had a report written by the winner of the highest international award you can receive in arboriculture; we had a report written by the author of a textbook extensively quoted by NCC experts and we had a report written by the developer of the risk assessment method council used – all supportive of the safety of the trees.

By using the Roads Act Council could ignore environmental concerns such as the use of these trees by vulnerable species like grey-headed flying foxes and Eastcoast freetail bats; they could ignore the presence of a thousand birds; they could ignore the desires of local residents.

Council staff worked against the two positive resolutions that could have saved the trees: a community consultation process in 2010 and a working party in 2011 to look at ways to preserve them.

There is an objective test that Council could have used to test the sturdiness of the trees: this is called ‘dynamic testing‘. It would have cost between $14000 and $21000. Council staff inflated the cost of the test to $100 000 by saying it had to be done 6+ times even though the expert who was going to do the test said a maximum of two tests was required and staff released this information [edit: the $100 000 figure] to the media via an anti-tree councillor before they released it to members of the working party or to elected councillors. This killed funding for dynamic testing.

When a community member offered to pay for the test he was ignored. When the INSURER offered to pay for the test, staff talked the insurer’s representative out of it.

A respected retired judge mediated between Council and the community and it was suggested that a process of independent assessment of the evidence be carried out – council’s evidence versus the community’s evidence. Elected councillors voted against this – I’m still unsure why. My personal opinion is that one of the councillors was in a bad mood that night, another thought $6000 was too much to pay for this process, and others had been convinced by staff that it would damage the reputations of council officers and experts of they were proved wrong. The elected council was always evenly split on whether removing the trees was a good idea – bizarre now that you look at the moonscape the street has become.

And along the way the tools used by staff to alienate the community from the street in order to get rid of these trees included making the street ugly by using awful fencing, not keeping the street tidy, neglecting Civic Park, making access to the street difficult for the public, spending alleged buckets of ratepayers’ money, taking many months to ‘make a decision’ and pandering to the part of the community that values ‘decisiveness’ rather than getting it right.

At its peak, with two or three layers of fencing, a kilometre or so of shade cloth, lots of security guards and police, the cost to the community was $20 000 a day – money the managers could spend without the agreement of elected councillors.

In fact, one of the councillors proposed that any money spent on Laman Street should be scrutinised by the elected councillors but was defeated. Bizarrre. Out of the alleged $1.5 million+ this has cost less than $80 000 was approved by the elected council.

I could go on, but your eyes probably glazed over long ago.

A sad chapter in Newcastle’s history. Home

Laman Street from Civic Park

Laman Street's 'iconic view corridor' by David Ross

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5 Responses to “Answering Vivien 16.2.2012”

  1. architectgja Says:

    …and Vivien, it’s not only the protestors in Newcastle who are angry. This debacle caused by Newcastle City Council now has a national and worldwide audience – people in the United States, United Kingdom, South America, Asia and more are watching in disbelief at how badly this was handled and how badly Council reacted when given information which shed light on their error in the decision to remove the trees. The trees have exposed a great flaw in the operation of city government, the anger you observe is for the needless loss of the trees, the ridiculous cost, the animosity created in the Community, the forcing forward of and act requiring riot police to enforce and the consequential loss of faith and confidence in government.

  2. AVRIL Says:

    In a nutshell……………. that was extremely well put ‘architectgja’
    I think you’ve just about covered everything

  3. Shani Sandner Says:

    Dear Vivienne,
    I can not answer for other people only really myself. You have an assignment asking “Why are the Fig Protestor’s angry?.
    Well Vivienne…… Some people are not just angry they are also sad. Often underneath anger is the emotion of sadness.
    I am sad because I like many of the protestor’s because I such wonderful memories of the trees in Laman Street. When I was a young girl I studied at the Cultural Centre for my H.S.C. Now I did not study real hard. Therefore my HSC mark was not what it could have been. However, by some strange quirk of fate those trees have been part of my memories of Newcastle ever since.
    I am sad not just for myself but also for my children who do not understand how important these trees are. I am sad for my grandchildren yet to be born. I had hoped to take them for a walk under the trees and sit in front of the fountain one day. I had hoped to tell them some of my memories of Newcastle.
    I do not live in Newcastle, I grew up at Caves Beach. When I was a little girl we did not have trees, as the whole area had been rutile mined before we came to live at Caves Beach in 1969.
    However, I saw the trees in Laman Street and I loved them for their shelter from the sun, and the dappled sunlight, and the birds. They were near to the park where I saw bands as a young teenager, at the Mattara festival.
    Years later I became a nurse and met a handsome young Doctor. I moved to Toronto which has beautiful trees. However, when my first baby grew up I came again to Laman Street and the trees were there outside the art Gallery. Like old friends.
    Years later I became a counsellor, and used to visit my supervisor in Laman Street. He told me a story about an owl who used to visit his house. The owl came from the trees in Laman street. I think that owl must have been very wise to live in those trees.
    That is why I am very sad because the people who voted to remove the trees could not be wise like that beautiful owl.
    You see Vivienne, people will tell you you can not think with your heart you can only think with your mind. But if you dont have a heart then you can not really have something more important. Wisdom.

  4. architectgja Says:

    Shani, your words are beautiful. Thanks for posting such a heartfelt comment.

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