A CATALOGUE of errors at Christchurch council has been blamed for the felling of four protected trees in Druitt Gardens.
In a report detailing the blunders ahead of a meeting of the audit and scrutiny committee on Tuesday, officers say ‘a number of errors’ were committed during the controversial saga.
Mistakes over previous planning permissions, flaws in last year’s consent, gaps in members training and time pressures all contributed to the fiasco and have led to calls for urgent improvements.
Four trees with TPOs (tree preservation orders) were cut down in early February, just weeks after a well-supported residents’ campaign to save them.
Renaissance Retirement, who have permission to build a retirement complex on the Cornfactor site, say the roots of the trees along the boundary were damaged in two separate occasions during an archaeological dig.
A full inquiry was ordered by the council following stinging criticism from residents, campaigners and even Dorset County Council’s own tree officer.
The report focuses on a ‘genuine mistaken belief’ in which officers incorrectly thought there was permission from 2007 in place to fell trees in Druitt Gardens, next to the Cornfactor site.
Under the incorrect assumption, officers believed TPOs could not be enforced. However, when the council sought independent legal opinion earlier this year, it was revealed no permission ever existed to fell the trees and the member-approved TPOs were put on the trees.
But due to ongoing talks between Renaissance and the council, independent counsel warned the authority that the developer had the legal right to carry out ‘all necessary works’ to get their building underway.
Two of the conditions of the Cornfactor development’s planning permission required details of the archaeological dig and a construction report about how the building work would be carried out.
The archaeological statement said the top layer of soil would be removed by machine and anything below that level would be removed by hand.
As part of the separate construction statement, Renaissance was asked to consider alternative foundation digging methods to minimise root disruption.
But, the costs were deemed to be ‘prohibitive’ and would have added a ‘considerable sum’ to the developer’s total bill.
The audit and scrutiny report says officers therefore concluded trench digging was necessary despite the likelihood of ‘damage and destabilisation’ to trees.
Both reports were signed off so work could begin on the site, after other options to potentially challenge the permission were deemed too costly.
An action plan devised for the planning department includes:
Recruit more temporary or agency staff
Develop a training programme for members
Review committee procedure
Improve report writing, presentation skills and customer care
More contact with planning committee chairman over controversial applications
Flawed legal assessment
A legal assessment of the planning permission granted to Renaissance was ‘flawed’ in relation to tree issues, the report adds.
The council was forced to consider whether the planning permission should be revoked by applying to the Secretary of State or High Court or by applying for a judicial review.
However, either revoking or modifying the permission would have incurred ‘significant financial costs’, and it was agreed to grant the full permission as this option ‘exposed the council to the least risk to public finances’.
The period to challenge by way of judicial review had expired by the time deliberations took place.
Campaigners are urging residents to attend the meeting on March 18 at the Civic Offices.
Elliot Marx and Peter Fenning, both members of Trees for Dorset and Christchurch Citizens Association, said: “The Christchurch Conservation Trust, Trees for Dorset, Christchurch Citizens Association and Transition Town Christchurch all request that the general public attend this meeting to hear what actions Christchurch Council took which led to the disastrous damage to and subsequent felling of trees in Druitt Gardens which were recently given Tree Preservation Orders.