Did you know a quarter of UK homes and streets are named after trees and flowers? You can probably think of examples where you live. But what if as well as naming streets after hawthorns, oaks and beeches, developers had to plant them in new developments? Planning system changes in England could make a positive difference. Find out more about why trees in developments are so important and how you can make it happen. 

Building beautiful with urban trees 

In August 2020, the Government announced plans for a major shake-up of England’s planning system. Some of these changes could spell trouble for trees and woods, but a positive idea is gathering momentum: tree-lined streets in all new developments. The January 2020 Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission report proposals included:

  • ‘an ambitious, even visionary, programme’ for governments to plant urban trees and re-green our towns and cities, including two million new street trees within five years.
  • local councils should consider trees ‘as essential as the structure of a road or surface water drainage’. 
  • planning should ‘take place up-front with the presence of trees as a given’. 

We can trace these ideas back to Victorian times, when planners saw how trees could beautify and improve quality of life in polluted towns and cities. That vision has largely lain dormant until recently, with the growth of urban forestry and recognition of trees’ benefits for public health. For many of us, any trees on our streets are down to chance and the foresight of people who planted them years ago. Too often trees have been seen instead as barrier to development, with mature, old trees especially undervalued.  

We need consistent canopy cover

Around 84% of the UK population lives in towns and cities. Trees in urban areas, many managed by local councils and tree officers, are a huge public asset. They provide myriad benefits - shade, cleaner air, birdsong, screening, privacy - the list goes on.

But levels of tree canopy cover vary. In Fleetwood, Lancashire, for example, it’s 3%, compared to a whopping 45% in Farnham, Surrey. Canopy cover often varies within each town and city too. Ensuring the fair distribution of trees should underpin any targets for increasing tree cover.

Good and bad development examples across the UK 

I asked Twitter for examples of trees being included or omitted in new developments. It’s great to see where trees have been integrated into housing developments and given the space they need to grow, maybe for hundreds of years. Designs including hedges are promising too, improving connectivity and increasing important wildlife habitat. 

But mature trees are still being felled to make way for development, and new developments are being designed without trees. One example showed where a stretch of mature hedging had been retained, only to be ripped out further down the same road. 

It’s important that trees work for residents and we have to accept that not everyone loves trees. But we urgently need a more systematic way to: 

  • make space for urban trees and hedges
  • give councils the resources they need for this important work.  
What is a design code?

A set of requirements with specific, detailed instructions for development, like how to protect and integrate trees, the provision of bike parks or how buildings look.

The planning system holds the key 

One way to better integrate trees into public spaces is through the planning system with clear rules for developers and planners. Some tools already exist, but now the Government is consulting on a set of new National Model Design Codes. Inspired by the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, the codes would provide guidance for local authorities and developers on shaping new developments. 

This Model Code also sets the framework to encourage local councils to develop their own codes for local areas. 

Once finalised, the code will influence the design of all new developments in England. It will apply to the current planning system as well as the new one.  

Our neighbourhoods should have trees at their heart for people and wildlife to enjoy their enormous benefits. The codes should make sure new developments: 

  • increase canopy cover
  • protect existing trees 
  • help urban trees thrive for years to come.

Have your say

Thanks to everyone that responded to the Government’s public design codes consultation to call for all new developments to include trees. More consultations on changes to England’s planning system will follow, including on local design codes for your area. We’ll keep you posted with news and how you can get involved.

In the meantime, you can stand up for trees in your area and press for new planting with our community resources and advice. From setting up a group or meeting and applying for emergency tree preservation orders to influencing your neighbourhood plan, we've got you covered.

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