Places Committee: ULEZ & Trees
Last night (18th July 2023), I chaired my first Places Overview and Scrutiny Committee (Places). We had three items on the agenda
- A report on the council's tree planting strategy
- A report on the council's fleet and whether it is ULEZ compliant
- A topic group to look at school streets
A topic group is essentially a group of Councillors to get together to look into a policy or situation in more detail. The School Streets topic group is being headed up by Cllr Matt Stanton (Labour). They will be working with Highways, and other departments, with Highways submitting a report by October.
This is the first time I've been Chairman for a committee, having been elected to this role recently. The role comes with a salary of £7500, which is in addition to my salary as a Cllr. I feel that this requires me to put a lot of work in and so, with the agreement of others, I'm looking to ensure we meet monthly.
You can read more about my plans, as Charman on the link below.
I'll also be producing summaries of the meetings, so you are all aware of what took place.
Tree Planting Strategy
The Committee received a presentation on the current strategy, with an outline on how the strategy operates and what is going to be happening in the future. You can view the report on the link below.
A new contractor
The council confirmed that there has been a gap in them having an agreed contractor. This has meant that, since March 2022, Havering has gone out to smaller contractors to get the work done.
This has lead to some work not being done as regularly as wanted. Feathering, for example, was done specifically by one contractor and started later than usual. (Feathering is where contractors trim back that low growing bushiness around the base of a tree).
The good news is that a new contractor has been found and will be starting soon. There will be a drop in the number of 'teams', from 3 to 2. However, the council are confident that service levels can be maintained. They are currently working through a backlog of work.
The levels of complaints, about the work, has remained much the same.
This was somewhat of a 'hot topic' amongst the Councillors, with it being raised as a real problem.
As explained above, work has fallen behind due to issues with securing a contractor. Councillors were concerned that feathering isn't done properly, with the growth just being trimmed instead of being cut right back.
A number of Cllrs also highlighted roads that are now severely overgrown. They are encouraged to report this, it will be dealt with.
Feathering is behind schedule, however, it should return to normal next year.
Cllrs recommended that the grass-cutting team also carry out feathering work when on site.
Future Planting - Right Tree Right Place
The Council's tree planting strategy can be summed up as 'right tree right place'. This is an acknowledgement that one can't simply install anything anywhere.
A good example of this is for trees close to highways. Anything with large roots will cause problems. Whereas, when it comes to large open spaces, large trees are a great addition.
The species of trees planted will also be varied. The focus will be on native trees, as they will be more resilient. However, planting a lot of the same tree can also cause problems. The council Officer highlighted that, back in the 80's the council planted a lot of the same type of tree. These are all coming to maturity at the same time, creating a sudden spike in the number of dying trees that need removing or making safe.
Having a mix of species will also make the borough's trees more resilient. Remember Dutch Elm disease? Having a load of Elms would be problematic, having a mixture of species means more are likely to survive.
The council has also been focusing on a lot of 'whips'. These are small trees, about 1m high. They are cheap to procure and easy to plant. However, they have a failure rate of up to 50%. These trees are great to put in place, en-masse, in parks. This is because a few will survive and then start to create a small forest. They are not suitable for replacing a specific tree, such as by the highway, due to the high chance of failure.
Money is, as always, the issue with what the council can plant. Last year, Havering received around £230k in grants. They are hoping for more this year.
Officers also noted the contribution of community groups, such as the Havering Daily, who have contributed to a huge number of trees being planted.
Havering must also be careful about having a large number of trees mature at the same time, in the future.
Officers were asked why residents can't plant trees themselves, especially as the Council have a policy of working with these groups to 'adopt' a tree or street.
The 'right tree right place' policy is important to note here. Havering has to be very careful to procure trees that they know are free from disease and suitable for their location.
Councillors also raised the topic of working with developers.
Developers are keen to plant but, at a later date the Council then 'adopts' the particular street. With that being the case, Councillors pointed out that Havering must work closer with developers to ensure the right trees are planted from the start.
Councillors did not have sight of the specific policy, about what will be planted and where. This is still being put together.
A resident contribution, emailed in earlier, referenced a particular method known as 'Mayawaki' planting. Officers explained that this was a particular style of how to plant and that, as it is going to become the norm, will not need to be specified in policy.
Officers are still drafting the policy itself and they have committed to giving Places sight of it before it is finalised. We will then be able to make suggestions.
The committee made the following recommendations:
1) That the tree-team work closer with developers around what is planted and where
2) That it is investigated as to whether the grass-cutting team can feather
3) That the policy comes to Places before going to Cabinet for approval
Ready For ULEZ?
With ULEZ due to come in soon, Havering council faces having to pay ULEZ fines for the vehicles in the council's fleet.
This is because the council operates a large number of non-compliant vehicles, such as the cage vans that collect litter. TFL do not offer any exemption for council vehicles, even though they perform vital functions for local taxpayers. Some of the functions are legally required, leaving the council with no choice but to pay.
Havering Council has received a 'grace period' for their passenger transport vehicles (those that take residents to day centres etc). This is an offer that TFL makes to all passenger transport, across London. However, it is only until October 2025. From then on, the council will incur ULEZ fines.
Unfortunately, our Council Leader has not deemed it necessary to approach the Mayor of London and ask for further exemptions. This is despite HRA and Labour councillors backing a softer opposition, in order to establish a good working relationship with the Mayor (as shown HERE).
What kind of 'working relationship' is one where you agree to quieten down but get nothing in return?
Replacing the fleet
Council staff have done amazing work at replacing Havering's fleet, to ensure it is compliant. The cost has reduced down to an estimated £88k a year, from well over £100k. But, to reduce it much further or faster is going to be tough. This is because of the lead time for getting new vehicles.
If you've tried to buy a new car recently, you may be aware that it can take over a year for it to be ready. When it comes to more bespoke vehicles, such as those used by the council, it can take even longer.
Officers gave the example of a gully cleaner, this will take 3 years to be ready if ordered tomorrow. Presuming no other delays.
Staff are working hard to do what is known as 'rationalising' the fleet. This means they will look closely at whether they have the right vehicles, in the right place. This can reduce charges. For example, the ULEZ fine is for the whole day. So, if one vehicle covers a larger distance, then they can reduce the number of on the road and reduce the number of fines.
Officers are also considering issuing Enforcement Officers E-bikes, instead of cars.
It is estimated that the council will need to spend around £2.3m to replace all the non-compliant vehicles.
Clean, but not exempt.
I was stunned to discover this. Havering council is running it's fleet on a synthetic fuel, and has been for the last 4 years. This fuel means that the vehicles are cleaner than are required by ULEZ. But, because ULEZ is a clumsy scheme that only looks at the age of the vehicle, these vehicles will still be fined.
So, in essence, TFL will be fining Havering for 'emissions' on vehicles that are cleaner than they are required to be. This is a perfect example of how ULEZ isn't about tackling emissions!
What about EV's?
When converting the fleet over, Havering has a decision to make. Do they go to electric?
Yes, and no, was the answer.
For some vehicles, it makes sense and can be done. However, there are many where it's just not viable.
Think of those ride on mowers. Some of them have to cover huge parks. They use powerful cutters and hydraulics, electric power just doesn't cut it. Then there is the cost!
A conventional bin lorry will cost around £400-500k. An electric one will cost closer to £1m. Then, when it comes to the winter, the range will be less. So the routes will have to be changed in cold weather. It just doesn't make sense.
Our council are facing a massive struggle to replace non-ULEZ compliant vehicles. It just isn't going to happen in time and we will be incurring tens of thousands in fines. This wasn't budget for in the latest budget (why!?) and the administration is making no effort to lobby the Mayor of London on this.
Why, when we have vehicles that are already clean enough, are our leaders not asking for exemption?
Note: Council committees are non-political and, as such, we must all focus on the reports in front of us and not party politics. I hold very strong views on this administration's efforts, or lack of, to fight ULEZ or to get concesions from the Mayor. However, I cannot and won't express these in the committee.
We're there to work with the Officers, not the politicians, and the officers are not to take the blame for our politician's failures.