Environmental issues and tree management challenges

Experts taking part in ILC’s third Specialist Subsidence Conference have warned of increased instances of subsidence as climate change accelerates, and urged all stakeholders to take a more proactive approach to tree management challenges.

The conference took place at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) Coventry in early March, when more than 200 attendees from across the sector heard insights from industry specialists around the growing impact of subsidence, how the industry is responding and what steps can be taken going forward to both mitigate the threat and manage claims.

Taking part in the panel debate, ‘Environmental issues and tree management challenges’, were Anthony Byars, Liability Risk Consultant, Zurich Resilience Solutions; Richard Rollitt, Technical Director, Innovation Group; Sarah Dodd, Founder, Tree Law; and Freya Chapman, Residential Lead, Mainmark.


Richard revealed that subsidence claims costs have risen twice as quickly as other general peril claims since 2020. He said that general inflation and higher material costs account for about half of that rise, but the other 50% is the result of changes in case law making it more difficult to remove council-owned trees.

He said, “This will become a greater issue as climate change leads to wetter summers, warmer winters, and an increase in subsidence surges, although they will be shorter in duration.”

Anthony agreed. One of his primary roles is to grade risk factors within local authorities and to attribute a score according how well those risks are being managed, with a special focus on tree risk management and subsidence.

He said, “One of the alarming things I’ve found when engaging with local authorities is they don’t have a joined-up strategy when it comes to tree risk management. When these claims come in they tend to expect all the guidance to come from the insurer, and that’s fundamentally wrong. It’s a failing in proactive risk management because the primary responsibility rests with the council.”

While he acknowledged that budget constraints have put pressure on councils, he insisted that more and more storms across the UK are already having a ‘massive’ impact on subsidence, and trees could no longer be regarded as an after-thought.

He said, “Proactive risk management with regular inspections and maintenance is the first step, because if councils don’t have that in place they will be on the back foot when claims come in, and slower to react.”


Meanwhile, more legislation is expected to be introduced shortly which will further impact the market.

A review of the Joint Mitigation Protocol, which sets out what evidence must be provided to councils to consider removing a tree for subsidence, was launched in 2018 and Sarah revealed that amendments will soon be announced.

She said, “The protocol now has political clout with support from DEFRA, the Forestry Commission, the Subsidence Forum, and the ABI. A draft is going out to insurers and then it will be ready for consultation.”

Additionally, the Duty to Consult was introduced late last year, which stipulates that councils need to consult with local residents before a tree is removed. Residents are then given 28 days to respond and although results of the consultation are not binding, the council will be expected to publish not only the decision it has come to around an individual tree, but the reason for that decision.

This could add more time and cost to the process, with a real fear that ‘roving’ campaign groups will monitor cases nationwide and argue against the removal of trees in every instance.

Sarah said, “I often come across claims where the tree was removed when the damage was negligible compared to the overall value of the tree. Taking the tree out because it’s the quickest and cheapest solution is short-termism when they will help us prevent future and varied perils.”

However, she admits there are also cases of the public intruding to keep trees even when it’s not the best solution, and says this will be a greater issue under Duty to Consult.

She said, “It is still unclear how councils will be expected to move forward if residents are not in agreement; the guidance on this isn’t out yet. And we also don’t know how much manpower councils will be able to dedicate to this or if they’ll get additional funding.”


What is clear though, is that councils will need to be more efficient to enable them to respond more quickly.

Anthony said, “They don’t have those efficiencies in place now and are falling further and further behind. They’re just waiting for the claim to come in and then responding to it.”

He said the skills crisis impacting insurance is also a factor within councils, meaning they don’t have the expertise to identify potential problem claims quickly enough, but a greater problem is a lack of trust.

“There is basic mistrust between all parties and their data,” he explained, “that is one of the greatest inefficiencies we’ve got. That’s partly the reason why this process is so long and why we get these arguments.”

That lack of collaboration extends to specialist contractors, and Freya suggested that as these types of claims become ever-more complex adopting a mix-and-match approach might lead to a quicker and more sustainable resolution.

She said, “As contractors we box ourselves off and only offer certain solutions. There needs to be greater collaboration between contractors to look at different methods and not view it as an us versus them situation, because often a combination of methods can be the most effective.”

Richard supported this viewpoint.

He said, “The idea that we can have one solution is naïve. Freya is right, we need to look at combining different techniques because there is no one magic bullet. It doesn’t exist. Some customers will want the tree removed and others will look at its holistic benefits. We need to engage more with the customer to find out what they want, and then make common sense decisions. We can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach.”

ILC’s Specialist Subsidence Conference was headline sponsored by Optera Structural Solutions, supported by Gold Sponsors Geobear, Shire Structures Ltd and Restek UK Ltd; and Silver Sponsors Courtesy Kitchens & Bathrooms, Flawless Soil Testing, Innovation Group, Leviat Ltd, Mainmark, Sedgwick and Vivre Stays Ltd.


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