Corrections to Cr Cook’s YouTube video


Critique of Bob Cook’s YouTube video “Laman St: the Facts”

This is a response to a YouTube video by Newcastle Councillor Bob Cook, titled “Laman St: the Facts”. The plain text in the transcript and commentary below contains Cr Cook’s narration (with occasional time point references and notes of associated vision), and the italicised text between braces ({…}) is Save Our Figs’ commentary on his narration. [Thanks to Save Our Figs’ colleague John Sutton for this critique – CR.]

As you will note, Cr Cook’s narration is full of factual errors and highly misleading and partial statements. His video is not at all a rendition of “the facts” about Laman St as it claims, but a highly biased and selective account of this issue. Cr Cook does not even mention (or address) the many criticisms that have been made of the work he cites by external independent experts, in some cases by leading internationally recognised arborists and risk assessment experts.

This reflects the general problem that Save Our Figs has experienced in the course of this issue: an inability by some council staff and some councillors to adequately consider reasonable alternative points of view, and to acknowledge that they are not infallible, and can be wrong. The sad result of this is that we could lose 14 magnificent, healthy and iconic trees on the spurious grounds that they are so dangerous that they must be cut down immediately on the grounds that they are a traffic hazard. Home


Laman Street Newcastle is well-known for its beautiful cathedral arch of large fig trees but now a line of barricades to keep the public safe is the subject of intense dispute.

A vocal minority group

{This is a standard attempt to make a group or campaign appear to be marginal or non-mainstream. A “minority group” is usually taken to mean a group that comprises or represents a minority population or position within a larger population that has a different proportional composition. Of course, any group may be said to be a “minority group” to the extent that it is a subset of a larger population, and usually comprises fewer than 50% of that larger population. However, Save Our Figs (the primary group representing the supporters of the Laman St figs) has a diverse membership and support base that represents a broad cross section of mainstream Newcastle, and every credible indicator has shown that most people want the Laman St trees to be saved if possible. Newcastle Council‟s own Newcastle Voice survey indicated that only 4% of survey respondents favoured immediate removal of the Laman St trees, and Save Our Figs has now collected more than 11,000 signatures on the city‟s largest ever petition.} has fought Newcastle City Council for the past two years demanding that the existing trees in Laman Street are left standing. {Wrong. Whilst Save Our Figs does believe that the trees should be left standing, this is not what we have been “demanding”. We believe that the council‟s risk assessments significantly overstate the level of risk posed by the trees, and that the trees should not be removed on the basis of flawed risk assessments. Instead, we are asking that the level of risk posed by the trees be subjected to a credible, mutually acceptable form of independent third party assessment or determination. We have even agreed to be bound by the findings of any such process, but council officers – supported by Clr Cook – have continually opposed having the matter reviewed or examined by a qualified independent third party}.

The Save Our Figs group continue to claim that these fourteen trees pose no public risk

{Wrong. SOF has never claimed that the trees “pose no public risk”. In fact, we‟ve consistently said that – like all trees – the Laman St trees do pose a level of risk, and that this risk must be balanced against the benefits they provide and the viability of possible risk management measures when determining how the risks should be managed. We believe that the level of risk posed by the trees has been significantly overstated, and can be easily managed without removing the trees.} and they have continually rejected qualified expert reports that demonstrate that risk {Wrong. Save Our Figs has never rejected qualified expert reports that demonstrate that the trees pose a risk. We accept that, like all trees, these trees pose a level of risk. What we have rejected is the assessed level of risk in the council’s reports, because those assessments are flawed. In this, we are supported by a number of highly qualified and experienced (and internationally recognised) experts in both arboriculture and engineering. It is the council who has continually rejected these qualified expert perspectives, and the council that has continually rejected subjecting its case to independent external assessment or determination}.

The facts are these: during the last two years Council has spent over a half a million dollars doing twenty reports and studies , maintaining safety and defending legal action on these trees

{Agreed. Council has wasted a lot of ratepayer money unnecessarily on trying to remove these trees, and we want this to stop. However, councillors who are supporting the removal of the trees are supporting spending much more money to do this, and to redevelop Laman St (at an estimated cost of more $1million), even though the council has not even budgeted for this expenditure.

As far as the “twenty reports and studies” are concerned, Clr Cook doesn‟t list or specify these (and he cites fewer than twenty in his video), but many of the studies that the council has prepared on Laman St have nothing to do with risk: they include studies dealing with matters such as social impact, fauna impact and heritage (in fact, the council has been very selective about which recommendations of these studies it follows- ignored the key recommendation in the heritage study, to list the trees as an item of local significance in its Local Environmental Plan). Only the reports by Simonsen (one report in 2009), and by Swain (two reports in 2010) attempt to quantify the risk posed by the trees, and recommend risk management measures to deal wih these risks. Unfortunately, as a number of independent experts have pointed out, these risk assessments are flawed, and significantly overstate the level of risk posed by the trees,. However, even these studies do not recommend immediate removal of the trees, or the extreme total exclusion zone currently in place.

In relation to the legal action, this was stimulated when the council refused to discuss the proposal to remove the trees any further with the community, and invoked a loophole in the NSW Roads Act to try to remove the trees on the grounds that they pose a “traffic hazard”. The community (through the Parks and Playgrounds Movement) had no choice but to take the matter to court to stop the immediate removal of the trees. The court case did not deal with the merits of the council decision – it dealt only with the legal question of whether the council could use the Roads Act for this purpose, and decided that it did have that authority. This has now become known as the “Laman Street loophole”, and moves are underway to amend that part of the Roads Act to stop roads authorities from using it to circumvent normal planning requirements for removing trees when there is clearly no immediate need to do so}


Since 2000, almost thirty figs and other large trees have failed or fallen in Newcastle. This eleven year case study details all the trees involved.

{Highly misleading. In arboriculture, the term “failed” covers a wide range of quite different occurrences, many of which have negligible risk implications. To the extent that the use of the term conveys the impression of a high level of risk associated with any “failure”, the term can be very misleading. Throughout his video, Clr Cook follows council in using this same term for any type of tree failures, whether risk related or not. This creates a misleading impression of heightened risk, whereas the level of risk is actually very low. It‟s important to note that the kind of “failure” that the council has argued as the key risk factor with the Laman St trees involves the trees falling over completely, and killing or seriously injuring someone. No one has been injured in this way in the Newcastle local government area. There are over 70,000 trees on Newcastle‟s public streets and hundreds of thousands more within Newcastle‟s local government area, and the number of trees in Newcastle that have completely fallen over is a tiny proportion of the total number of the city’s trees. The council‟s campaign against the Laman Street trees was described as “a scare campaign” by one of the keynote speakers at this year‟s recent International Society of Arboriculture‟s annual conference in Sydney.

The tables in the case study document to which Cr Cook refers here identify 12 figs that were “removed after testing” between 2000 and 2003, and 15 “large tree failures” between 2000 and 2004. They do not indicate whether the trees that were “removed after testing” between 2000 and 2003 had failed, or – if they did – what kind of failure it was, and whether such failure was minor or major, or involved any significant risk. Nor does it state whether the 15 “large tree failures” between 2000 and 2004 were minor or major failures, or involved the trees completely falling over (which is the relevant failure risk argued for the Laman St trees), or whether they were the kind of failures that posed any significant risk at all. The term “failure” is used by the council (and by Clr Cook) to describe situations where the trees concerned did no damage at all, and/or where they posed very little risk of doing so. The relevance of these case book examples to the Laman St trees is not explained, and most – if not all of the examples in the tables are likely to be completely irrelevant to the circumstances of the Laman St trees.}

You can download it from Council’s website.

So – what is it that’s different about these fourteen trees in Laman Street?

Three things.

First, figs develop an extensive, mainly surface root system that works well in open spaces but in the controlled environment of a road or footpath, the roots become restricted and do not develop

{Wrong – the roots do develop, just not (or at least not as strongly) in the areas where their development is restricted}, producing a linear or sideway root pattern {and this linear or sideway pattern does provide structural support, and – in cases where root growth is restricted in other areas – this root growth is often greater, to compensate for any loss of structural support. Mark Hartley has pointed this out, and has provided relevant examples (see below).}

In 2003, three figs in adjacent Tyrrell Street similar to the Laman Street trees with limited roots failed, amplifying the problem.

{These trees are simply listed as having suffered “root system failure” in the casebook table. No detail is provided on the specific nature of any such root system failure, or how this was evident. We are aware that one of these trees fell over (which is the specific risk identified for the Laman St trees) after Energy Australia had severed one of the tree’s major structural roots. Given the way in which the term “failure” has been used by the council in other instances, and the way in which alleged tree failures in Laman Street have been described in successive (and still uncorrected) council reports as instances of trees being “windthrown” when they clearly were not, caution should be exercised when dealing with information from the casebook. In any case, the community was shocked when they saw all the figs removed from this part of Tyrrell Street, and angered when the council did not fulfill its promise to replace the trees with the same or a similar species, to reproduce the canopy arch effect of the trees that were removed.}

More recently, others in Cooks Hill have failed. {Misleading: There was a major branch failure in two fig trees in Cooks Hill: one in Swan Street and one in Steel Street. The branch on the Steel Street tree was much longer than the other branches on the tree and was near a new shopping centre driveway so had probably been subjected to root damage from roadworks, and the tree had significant chlorosis on the side affected by branch failure developing for many months before the falure: tree maintenance or audits may have prevented this failure; the Swan Street tree failure was related to rot in the trunk and is not relevant to Laman Street, where the trees are acknowledged to be healthy. According to local residents, another tree that failed (in Bruce Street) had been hit by a large truck, which broke a significant structural branch and destabilised the tree, prior to the Pasha Bulka storm. In any case, the number of mature trees that have fallen over in Newcastle is a tiny proportion of the total number of mature trees in the city, and the same is true for Hills figs as a sub-set of this population. In citing only examples of tree failures, and extrapolating from these rare instances to other trees whilst neglecting the vast majority of trees that have not failed over the same period, the council‟s casebook history fails to meet one of the key principles of sound research. It is simply not valid to draw broad conclusions from a limited sample that has been selected on the grounds of a single characteristic (i.e., failure) that is clearly not typical of the wider population. There have been 4 risk related failures of Hills figs in the last decade in Newcastle, in a total population of around 360. This means that the rate of risk related tree failures in Newcastle among Hills figs is approximately 1 in 900.}

Secondly, in Laman Street underground power has been installed in both sides of the street cutting any roots that may have existed.

{There has been some root severance, however, it is an assumption that this equates to tree instability and a consequent unacceptable risk. The implication that root severance has been total is unfounded. Mark Hartley points out that trees are adaptable and opportunistic and that they will respond to root severance to maintain stabiliity.}

Since 2005, the underground power cables have failed on three occasions requiring excavation adjacent to the trees.

2:13 No new trees can be planted over these 11kva power lines.

Thirdly, Laman Street has not always looked the same as it does today.

Throughout most of the life of these trees they were heavily pruned causing the current long branch structure. The trees are now 22 metres tall with up to 18 metre diameter canopies. They are exceptionally top-heavy, with a very limited root system.

{Highly contestable. Figs have vigorous root systems, and are very adaptable and responsive to their environment. There is no proof that the Laman Street trees have a limited root system, or that their root system is not capable of bearing the structural loads placed on the trees. Cr Cook‟s statement confuses hypothesis with fact. Trees are living things, and tend to grow structures capable of supporting themselves. Trees with poor root support tend to grow limited canopies. The strong healthy canopy growth of the figs is more likely to be an indicator of strong healthy root development, than a sign of structural weakness. As the internationally recognised arborist Mark Hartley (who prepared an independent report on the Laman St trees) observes “a lateral root morphology is not the only root morphology and trees with more vertical roots can be very stable even with significant root loss”}.

In the last 5 years, twenty studies and reports have been prepared on the Laman Street trees

{Unsubstantiated and misleading. Cr Cook does not list or otherwise identify these “twenty studies and reports”, and his video does not cite this many specific reports. In any case, to the extent that this statement might imply that all the studies and reports on the Laman St trees deal with, or identify, an unacceptable risk from them, the statement is highly misleading. Studies and reports on the Laman Street trees have included studies that have had nothing to do with risk, such as social impact, heritage, and fauna studies. These are interesting and important studies in their own right and for their own purpose, but they are essentially irrelevant to any consideration of the issue of risk. Of the reports actually cited by Cr Cook, only 4 are risk assessments (the Treelogic report by Dean Simonsen, the two Arboreport reports by Adrian Swain, and the Matheny & Clark hazard report by Lindsay Field).}

In 2006 there were plans to remove the Art Gallery and build a larger new gallery [picture of wind loading report].

As the gallery protects the trees from southerly winds, a wind study was done of the trees that would be exposed if the gallery were removed.

This indicated that there was a significant risk if the Art Gallery was removed.

{Wrong – and mostly irrelevant anyway. This study actually shows that the trees in the wind shadow of the art gallery are safer than they otherwise would be. The wind load study (Wind Loading on Trees in Laman St, Lyazid Djenidi, undated, but probably 2007) investigated the possible wind impact on the Laman St trees in the event that the art gallery was removed. The study does not conclude or indicate that there would be any significant risk if the Art Gallery was removed, as Cr Cook claims. The study does conclude that the art gallery does shelter some of the trees from south and south-easterly winds, and that the trees would experience an increased wind load from such winds if the art gallery was removed. However, the study does not identify any risk associated with the trees, and even specifically cautions against drawing any conclusions regarding wind load because, as it notes, the model it uses assumes that the trees are spherical and non-porous, whereas “the trees are not exactly spherical but they are porous”, and (it stresses) because the model does not take the surrounding buildings into consideration, and these would also clearly provide some wind shelter. The study says that any impact of extra wind load on the trees could be reduced by cutting and trimming to reduce the wind-exposed frontal area, or by constructing a temporary wind shield during construction of the new art gallery. In any case, the study is now largely irrelevant, because the art gallery is not going to be removed. The only remaining  relevance of the study to the current situation is that it establishes that the art gallery does make the trees safer than they would otherwise be by sheltering them from some winds.}

3:14 In December 2006, a Dennis Marsden investigation into [the] root plate of the trees outside the Art Gallery showed eccentric growth indicating defective root plates. 8 trenches five metres long. 600mm wide, and 1 metre deep [photo of trench], 3 metres out from the tree base were dug.

Only three roots over 30mm diameter were found in all of these trenches.

This demonstrated that there was no structural support for the trees

{Wrong. The Marsden report does not state (or even”demonstrate”) that “there was no structural support for the trees”. It does indicate that only one structural root was found in the exploratory trenches. However, it is clearly not possible for the trees to have “no structural support”, as Cr Cook mistakenly claims that this report “demonstrates”, otherwise the trees would have already fallen over a long time ago. The mistake here is Cr Cook‟s, not Marsden‟s. However, Marsden‟s opinion regarding the relationship between the root plate morphology of the trees and their alleged instablity is highly contested. } It also showed that further investigation was required.

3:50 In 2007 the Pasha [sic] storm [photo of lopped tree outside gallery] caused two of the Laman Street trees to rock with roots damaging the footpath. These trees were declared windthrown and removed

{These trees may have been “declared windthrown” as stated, but they were not actually windthrown, as that term is used and understood in standard arboricultural practice. “Windthrown” means that the root plate of a tree has been lifted out of the ground. The root plates of these trees did not lift out of the ground. At most, they could be described as wind-rocked.}

This proved that there is a risk

{Wrong. It did not prove any such thing. It would be just as valid to state that it proved there was no risk, since no one was harmed, or even remotely exposed to any reasonable possibility of harm, by any of these alleged failures. Every tree poses some level of risk: this is a general truth that is not dependent on anything to do with anything that happened, or might have happened, with these particular trees. The relevant issue here is not whether “there is a risk” (which is an uncontested truism), but what the level of risk is, and how any such risk can be managed.}

After the 2007 storm [holding up 3 Hill’s figs in Laman St study] Marsden again investigated the three trees, two that had been removed. Their root bases were studied. This included one further along Laman Street and two opposite the trees that were windthrown.

{Wrong. See above. Here, Cr Cook moves from previously stating that these trees were “declared windthrown” (see above) to claiming that they actually were windthrown. In this, he is simply uncritically repeating the fundamental error made by Marsden in his 2009 report, and repeated in subsequent reports. No trees on Laman St have been windthrown.} An additional tree was removed and more exploratory investigation on other trees was needed. {This investigation involved monitoring one tree once a week for eight weeks for signs of splitting or fracturing, and for heave or lifting during the monitoring period. No such signs were noted, and that tree remains standing today.}

In August 2009 Marsden investigated the fourteen trees in Laman Street and recommended their replacement as a group

{In making this recommendation, the author of the report did not undertake a quantified tree risk assessment of the trees, and the report itself contains fundamentally flawed information. Crucially, it claims that other trees in Laman Street had been “wind-thrown, that is, the root-plate was tilted out of the ground” during the 2007 Pasha Bulker storm [p.21]. This is not correct. No tree in Laman St has been wind-thrown. On this false assumption, the report then draws false similarities with trees in Bruce St and Tyrrell St that were windthrown, and then – on the basis of these false similarities – draws a conclusion about root plate instability with the Laman St trees. Notwithstanding these flaws, however, the report states that “this is not to say that the trees are at imminent risk of failure” [p.22], and states that “when the incidence of failure increases, this should be taken as a warning that time is running out”. Obviously, any measure of tree failure over time necessarily involves an increase in the number of failure incidents, but there is no evidence that the rate of failure of mature Hills figs in Newcastle (much less in Laman St) is significantly increasing, as a proportion of the total population of mature Hills figs in the city. In fact, the rate of such tree failure has declined significantly since the 2007 Pasha Bulker storm, both generally and for mature Hills figs. This aligns with Swain‟s view that the trees that failed in the Pasha Bulker storm were probably weaker than those that didn‟t, reducing the future probability of failure of the remaining stronger trees. See below for more information on the rate of risk related failures among Newcastle‟s mature Hills figs.}

4:40 In September 2009 Treelogic from Victoria undertook a QTRA to quantitative tree risk assessment analysis of the trees. This was a calculation of risk on the trees.

{The author of this report did not undertake a visual inspection of the trees for the purpose of this risk assessment, and had not visited the site for at least 15months before preparing it. In fact, when he assessed the trees in 2008 he gave them a useful life expectancy (ULE) of 25-50 years and 50 years plus. The report accepts that all the relevant information in the Marsden report is correct (which it is not). This report calculates the Risk of Harm (ROH) from the trees as 1:19.8. This has been criticised by a number of experts as significantly overstating the level of risk posed by the trees. Professor Mark Stewart, an internationally recognised expert in risk assessment, has told the council that such a level of risk is clearly not correct, and that the risk calculations in this report”lack scientific rigour” and “should not be used as the basis for decision-making”. Mark Hartley has also pointed to flaws in this report. However, the council and Cr Cook have continued to stand by this report, and continue to refer to it as part of their “body of evidence”, without any public concession that it may be fundamentally flawed.}

It agrees with Marsden and agrees that the removal of individual trees would increase the risk on adjacent trees due to interlocking canopies. It also recommended the removal of all trees.

{This report argues that removing some trees would increase the wind loading on others, “increasing the probability of failure” because “the remaining trees have not developed growth patterns to tolerate those variations”, but does not even consider that the trees may have developed adaptive growth patterns in response to conditions to which they have been exposed for their entire lives, such as restrictions in the area available for normal lateral root plate development.}

In December 2009 another arborist, Arboreport, did a peer review on the Marsden reports. This discusses three methodologies: VTA or visual tree assessment, SULE or safe useful life expectancy, and minimum root radius  5:26 It also agrees with Marsden that the trees should be removed as a group.

{On the basis of the information provided in the Marsden report, this report repeats the fundamental error that “In June 2007, two Hill‟s Figs located outside the Art Gallery on the southern side of Laman Street failed due to windthrow. (p.3), and proceeds, on that basis, to talk about “the potentially catastrophic nature of these failures” (p.3). However, no trees on Laman St have “failed due to windthrow” and only a tiny portion of the city‟s mature Hills figs have been windthrown.}

In December 2009 another arborist, IVM from Sydney, peer reviewed the Marsden reports. He did a VTA or visual tree assessment. It found that cabling was not appropriate; it found that pruning or selective removal was not recommended, and it agreed that the whole of street [sic] is the most effective method.

{Again, this report repeats the fundamental error about trees in Laman Street being windthrown (which did not occur), and draws conclusions based on this false information, and also on the assumption that a lineal root pattern equates to tree instability.}

In December 2009 a risk mitigation strategy was put in place. This involved restricting public access to the precinct. A traffic control plan involved permanent closure of the street east-bound, total closure of the precinct in winds of over 50km an hour, and closing the street west bound and other measures.

In March 2010 GBG Australia undertook ground-penetrating radar investigation. This found that many of the roots are discontinuous

{Highly misleading. The ground penetrating radar was done in December 2009 and the original report (suppressed until recently) stated that it had mapped “a moderately extensive root system for the target trees” and that “the majority of identified roots appear to be of a large diameter”. It said that “some of the identified roots had been mapped back to a target tree” and that “others have not been traced to a tree and appear discontinuous”. After this report was given to council staff, the original text was significantly altered in the final version of the report (released in March 2010) to state that the investigations had “mapped possible root systems from most of the target trees” and “with the exception of [3 trees] which appear to have little or no large roots” and “[3 other trees] which have a less certain root system”. It is important to note that council has not publicly released the original report to date, and has refused requests to do so. It was only recently obtained under a freedom of information request.}.

In March 2010 Heritas from Newcastle did a heritage assessment and made the recommendation that the precinct be recognised, identified and recorded.

{More specifically, this report recommended that the trees be recognised as a heritage item under the Newcastle City Centre Local Environmental Plan 2008. Save Our Figs strongly supports this recommendation, but the council has done nothing to implement it.}

In 2010 Arboreport reviewed all of the risk strategies. It did another QTRA assessment, reviewed the previous reports, studies and risk mitigation strategies and reassessed the risk. Strategies were considered appropriate and should continue until the trees were removed

{This report perpetuates the fundamental errors regarding recent and similar tree failures in Laman Street. It also refers to the trees posing a risk during a wind/weather event, yet neglects to apply a weather factor in the risk assessment, as recommended in the QTRA Manual. The risk calculation also includes a very high “Probability of Failure” score (1:10) that is not consistent with proper use of the case history of risk related tree failures in Newcastle. However, notwithstanding these problems, the report produces a Risk of Harm rating of 1:14,400 that is well below the acceptable level or risk (1:10,000) and recommends retaining the trees until a replacement strategy has been approved and implemented. No replacement strategy has yet been approved, and there is no budget allocation for it.}

In March 2010 Earthscape horticultural services did a peer review of all the documentation and the issues around these trees

{Wrong. This was not a “peer review”, as that term would be commonly understood, though the council has tried to misrepresent it in that way. The only report presented by Andrew Morton, the arborist who did this, was a single PowerPoint presentation prepared for one community workshop, which provided a general overview of the work that council had done to that point. Most of the council reports were not even referred to specifically in that PowerPoint overview. Mr Morton was not QTRA qualified, so he could not have conducted a “peer review” of the council‟s QTRA reports}. This report agrees with all of the previous reports {Wrong. The presentation (the only “report” produced) does not state its agreement or disagreement with “all the previous reports”. It does not even mention most of the previous reports.}

In July 2010 Total Height Safety Pty Ltd were commissioned to assess a design for a cable system to support the trees. Due to the height and size of the canopy and the space to locate supports, visual amenity of large tree posts, a tree restraint system was considered not feasible.

{There has been little opportunity for the community to further investigate or discuss options such as this, because the trees have constantly faced the threat of imminent removal.}

Again in 2010 Arboreport again reviewed the previous studies. Due to non-compliance with the risk mitigation strategies a risk review was done and it recommended improvement to the strategies including total exclusion from the area. {Wrong. This report recommended an amendment to the risk management plan “to ensure targets are excluded from the target area at times of high risk ie. predicted mean wind speeds greater than 50km p/h.” This recommendation was itself based on risk calculations that significantly overstated the chance of total tree failure, but notwithstanding this it still stops well short of the radically extreme measures that are currently in place, which are not based on any recommendations arising from any professional assessment at all.}

In August 2010 Marsden from Sydney did additional trench investigations of tree roots damaged by water main repairs. It confirmed eccentric root plates and requested that risk mitigation strategies continue.

{Again, this seems to assume that eccentric root plates equals tree instability.}

Immediately after the August 2010 Council decision to remove all fourteen trees a claim was made in the Land and Environment court challenging Council’s right to remove the trees

{This legal action was taken by the Parks and Playgrounds Movement as a last recourse for the community when the council refused to discuss concerns that had been raised about their decision to remove the trees. If the community had not taken this action, the trees would already be gone. The court case did not consider the merits of council‟s decision – merely its legal right to use a power given to roads authorities in the NSW Roads Act to over-ride any other legal requirements provided they formed an opinion that the trees were a “traffic hazard”. The court did not consider the merits of the council decision, or even whether the trees actually did pose any significant risk to traffic. The case established that the wording of the provision in the Roads Act does give a roads authority the legal power to remove trees, and that all that is required for them to invoke this power is for them to have “formed the opinion” that the trees concerned are a traffic hazard (they don‟t even need to establish that the trees really are a significant traffic hazard). This has now become known as “the Laman St loophole”, and there are moves to amend it in the NSW parliament. This provision is still the basis on which the council is intending to proceed to remove the trees on the grounds of risk, circumventing the normal planning requirements that would apply to a redevelopment of the area}.

Throughout the hearing the applicant made a series of amended claims requiring Council to research and then defend the new claims.

Council unconditionally won the case but was required to pay its own costs which had risen to $168,000

{This was because the council engaged very expensive senior counsel to defend its use of the Roads Act to remove the trees. Save Our Figs has strongly criticised this waste of public money, but Cr Cook has offered no such criticism of this expenditure}. Details of the four day hearing and all of Council’s defence is available for download from the Land and Environment website.

As part of the court case Forest Fauna Surveys of Newcastle undertook a fauna impact assessment on removal of the trees.

This found no significant fauna impact

{Wrong. It stated that there would be no significant impact on the grey-headed flying fox (a threatened species), but concluded that it was uncertain whether another threatened species – the east-coast freetail bat – used the trees as habitat, and recommended various ameliorative measures for this in the event that the trees were removed (e.g., it specifically recommended that tree removal should not be carried out during breeding or feeding seasons from December through to April annually).}

In September last year Council did a standard tree hazard evaluation, producing a rating of 11. This requires immediate action.

{Highly misleading. This evaluation by Lindsay Field (the council‟s in-house arborist) used the Matheny & Clark method, which is regarded as a preliminary indicative hazard detection method, to indicate whether further action or investigation of a tree may be required. The method is generally used in the early stages of a risk assessment process, and is not recommended as a definitive risk assessment method in and of its own. The method involves adding together assigned scores from 3 factors: a rating of a tree’s failure potential, a rating of the size of the part of a tree with the potential to do harm, and a rating of the number of targets that could potentially be harmed by such a tree. Each factor uses a rating scale of 1 to 4, meaning that a tree will be rated between a minimum total score of 3 and a maximum of 12. The method is inherently biased against large trees in typical urban settings, which cannot score a total rating of less than 9, since such a tree would necessarily score the maximum in the “size of the part” and “number of targets” categories (4 + 4 = 8), even if it is perfectly healthy (i.e., scores the minimum of 1 for “failure potential”): potential impact rating of 4 + number of targets rating of 4 + perfectly healthy tree rating of 1 = 9 out of a maximum score of 12. The rating of three given in this case to the tree‟s “failure potential” was again based on assumed root plate instability (hence 4+4+3 = 11).}

In December last year Total Height Safety was commissioned to undertake feasibility of a tree pull test.

This found the difficulty due to the branch structure of the trees. A consulting structural engineer concurs that this would be a waste of time and money.

In December last year Council decided to retain the trees and to form a working party to develop alternate risk management strategies

{Misleading, because only partially correct. The working party was formed to implement a council decision in December 2010 to (among other things) retain the trees, and to consider the ongoing maintenance and assessment of the trees from a tree preservation perspective. However, council officers on the Working Party combined with Cr Cook to continually vote to obstruct independent assessment of the risk posed by the trees.}

Four leading expert arborists, trenches, ground penetrating radar, restraint systems,. {The ground-penetrating radar report originally asserted that it found roots around all the trees. The version of this report that was released via Freedom of Information was very different: it called the roots “possible‟ and claimed that almost half the trees had deficient root systems.}

This large body of evidence has cost ratepayers heavily [‘Over $500 000’ displayed on screen.]

{The costs indicated here are not only (or even mostly) for this “body of evidence”. They include the costs to council of the legal action initiated by the community after the council preemptively decided to remove the trees, and the cost of a community workshop (charette) that dealt primarily with the entire Civic Precinct, rather than the future of the trees. However, as previously indicated, we do agree that council has wasted too much money on trying to establish its case for removing the trees, in the face of obvious community opposition, and criticism from independent external experts.}

but it is still rejected by Save Our Figs.

{Wrong. Save Our Figs does not reject this “body of evidence”. In fact, some of it we strongly support (e.g., the recommendation for formal heritage recognition of the trees). However, we do reject those parts of the studies that are incorrect or flawed, especially in relation to the assessment of extreme levels of risk. Our position here has been amply supported by independent external experts. In fact, it is the council that appears to have rejected significant parts of this “body of evidence”, since it has ignored the heritage recommendation, and is now currently ignoring the recommendations of its most recent risk assessment report (by Adrian Swain), who said: “I specifically recommend that the subject trees be retained until a suitable replacement strategy is approved and implemented”. No such strategy has yet been approved, and there is not even a budget yet for implementing any such strategy.}

{As far as the current situation is concerned, the salient fact arising from this “body of evidence” is that – despite the significant flaws in a number of the reports and especially in their overstatement of the level of risk – not a single one of them recommends that the trees should be removed as soon as possible on the grounds of risk (i.e., that they are a traffic hazard, and without any other approved strategy for replacing them), which is what the council is proposing to do. The council‟s proposed action is an extreme over-reaction to an already extreme risk assessment, based on incorrect and misused information, and flawed risk calculations.}

Now the mutual self insurer that insure over 100 councils in NSW jointly operate, Statewide Mutual has reviewed the case and advised Council that the risk cannot be indemnified past the end of August

{The insurer has not undertaken its own expert review or risk assessment of the trees. Its decision has been based on the information provided and accepted by the council. Council officers – without reference to the elected council – rejected an offer by the insurer to fund further investigation of the risk posed by the trees. The insurer has indicated that it is willing to extend the insurance coverage to allow third party determination, and to consider the outcomes of that process.}.

The half a million dollars already spent [sic] but Save Our Figs want Council to pay more for more arborist reports [Ms Mozeley’s notice of motion of 22 6 11 displayed] to prove that all of these other reports are wrong

{Wrong – on several counts. Firstly, Save Our Figs doesn‟t want to “prove that all of these other reports are wrong”. In fact, we agree with many of the things contained in these reports. We have, for example, strongly supported the recommendation in the heritage study to recognise the trees as a heritage item in the Local Environmental Plan. However, we have taken issue with some significant aspects of these reports, especially the incorrect information and flawed assessments of the level of risk posed by the trees. Council has repeatedly refused to subject their risk assessments to independent review, or to have the level of risk independently assessed or determined.}

Council manages over 103 000 trees and has one of Australia’s best tree management systems including an urban forest policy and a street tree masterplan.

{Council‟s Urban Forest Policy has won deserved praise. However, its approach to the Laman Street trees does not match the rhetoric of that policy, and casts the genuineness of council‟s commitment to it in serious doubt. The street tree masterplan – which is also a worthy document – does not apply to Laman St.}

Council determines its tree risk not just on arborist reports but with trenching, ground penetrating radar, hazard analysis, and this case history of other tree failures.

So the fact is these ugly risk mitigation barriers must remain in place while ever the trees remain standing

{Wrong. The barriers were erected as an over-reaction to the council’s miscalculated and overstated risk assessments. Once the real level of risk posed by the trees has been established, more reasonable risk management options will be available to the council. Of course, in the unlikely event that some barriers may be needed as part of any future risk management regime for the trees, they do not need to be as ugly or obtrusive as these. Many suspect that the street has been deliberately uglified to boost the case for removing the trees. If barriers are needed at all, they can and should be incorporated into the landscape design of the street. The council has made no significant attempt to investigate more aesthetically acceptable barrier systems.}

No new trees can be planted over the underground power services.

This situation cannot continue indefinitely.

{Agreed. The extreme and unnecessary risk mitigation measures that are now in place (unsupported by any relevant professional advice or any credible risk assessment) are not sustainable. Unfortunately, council staff – supported by Cr Cook – have continually obstructed and frustrated community initiatives for appropriate third party intervention in this matter, to settle the issue of the risk posed by the trees, and this has delayed the proper resolution of this matter.}

And the viability of the art gallery and library are also at risk.

We can’t do nothing. There is a better way. {Yes. Third party intervention could resolve both the conflict between council and the community over the question of risk, and could potentially save the council the cost of removing and replacing the trees. However, Cr Cook appears to be prepared to escalate the conflict (by supporting preemptive removal of the trees on the spurious grounds of risk) and to waste further ratepayers’ money on unnecessary tree removal and replacement of the trees, decades before this is likely to be needed.}

At a cost of over a million dollars and one year to complete a complete redevelopment of the street will provide a world class streetscape with trees in root vaults that will allow them to live for well over a hundred years.

{According to expert arborists, the current trees could live for many more decades, and could be incorporated into a redesigned streetscape (in fact, a local architect has already produced some preliminary drawings for this). Why does Cr Cook want to get rid of the trees on the pretext of risk before a replacement strategy has been adopted as part of the consideration of the future design of Laman Street that is already underway, and even in contravention of recommendations of the reports he praises so much?}

Newcastle deserves better than this current situation and future generations will benefit from a quality result.

{Future generations deserve the opportunity to know whether these trees were removed because they genuinely posed an unacceptable risk, or on the pretext of incorrect and inflated risk assessments that the council refused to subject to independent expert assessment. These are healthy trees that could still be enjoyed by generations to come.}

We must take action now.

{Yes: to stop obstructing putting the whole question of the risk posed by the trees to a credible, mutually agreed independent assessment or determination, to see whether these beautiful assets really do need to be removed on the grounds of risk.}

Save Our Figs, September 2011.

21.9.2011: Jacqueline gets the prize for pointing out that there were large chunks of this page which should have been italicised but weren’t. Many thanks. Now corrected. Home


5 Responses to “Corrections to Cr Cook’s YouTube video”

  1. ArchitectGJA (Ed) Says:


    I suggest emailing a pdf file of this blog to all Councillors and the Lord Mayor and to request that it be made part of the next Council meeting record.

    • Arleeth Says:

      Seattle received 1000 rrechy trees as a gift from Japan many years ago. There are a large quantity of them on the University of Washington campus and I loved spending time there when they were in bloom. Sadly, many of the trees are starting to die as they are reaching the end of their lifespan (something like 60 or 70 years) so they are hoping to replace most of them with grafts from the original trees. I’m not sure how that’s going.

  2. Ali Says:

    great work

  3. Tookie Says:

    Fantastic work. Cr Cook should take down his erroneous video so as not to bring further shame to this community.

  4. Doug Lithgow Says:

    Heartfelt thanks to everyone involved in preparing the analysis of Cr Cook’s YouTube Video: A monumental and painstaking task.
    The Councillor’s widely published misinformation and continued obstruction to a third party professional review of the exaggerated risk assessment has cost the council and the ratepayers dearly and caused widespread inconvenience.
    I believe that a fair minded councillor reading the SOF analysis would not, in good faith, be able form an opinion, that it is necessary to remove 14 Laman Street trees “for the purpose of carrying out road work or removing a traffic hazard” (Sec 88 Roads Act).

    Cr Cook’s YouTube Video also demonstrates a disturbing lack of knowledge of the Community Land Provisions of the Local Government Act.
    His illustration of a widened Laman Street affecting Civic Park Community Land requires amendment of Council’s Plan of Management (PoM) for the precinct.
    His proposal would trigger the obligatory public exhibition, public submissions and public hearing before an independent person..

    Why do you think the Newcastle City Council hasn’t publicly exhibited their proposal for the Civic Park Plan of Management?

    Let’s work to ensure that there is a public inquiry so that all information can be placed under public scrutiny.

    Cheers to all,
    Doug Lithgow

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