Blue plaques for trees

The Tree Council is calling for historic trees to be awarded "blue plaques" like historic buildings, concerned that "historic trees are left to wither and die".

Are blue plaques (or something equivalent) supposed to stop trees from withering and dieing? Can the Tree Council hold back the forces of nature?

The joy of protecting buildings is that owners are prevented from carrying out many essential improvements. Now owners of properties on which "historic trees" are located are to be faced with the same constraints.

If you own a tree of genuine historical significance, why wouldn't you protect it and promote it? It would have value, both sentimental and commercial. The risk of the government deciding which trees are important is that they have no incentive to be discriminating. Where in doubt, they will designate trees for preservation, even where they have only marginal historical interest.

The true test of a tree's significance is whether enough people are prepared to pay to see it and preserve it. If no one is interested, why should the owners of the tree be constrained on what they do with their property? It's not like we will learn any more about the historical event by seeing the actual tree from which Newton's apple fell, or around which the Tolpuddle Martyrs congregated. The tree was not the important part of the story. We are not bereft of history from those periods from which trees have not survived.

Burnham Beeches, for instance, is nominated for inclusion. Burnham Beeches is a World Heritage Site. It is well-managed by its owner, the City of London Corporation, with plenty of information provided to visitors. It is hard to see how a "blue plaque" would improve the chances of survival or the enjoyment of the visitors. Despite the excellent care, there is a strong chance that the trees will be dead within 100 years, as the water table falls thanks to global warming and over-extraction, as beeches are very shallow rooting and vulnerable to changes in water levels. What they need is changes in people's behaviour, not a plaque telling people what they already know. And any restriction on the management of the site would be unwarranted - it is unlikely that bureaucrats will know better how to look after the site than the specialists employed by the City.

One justification given for further government intrusion in the management of our ancient trees and woodlands is that other countries are doing it. The Independent reports that "Britain lags shamefully behind our poorer European neighbours [the Czech Republic and Poland]". It is conceivable that our poorer neighbours have not always made the best decisions.

Nor our more communally-minded neighbours. Sweden, it is reported, spends £35 million for a similar programme, and sends 25 tree experts to Britain each year to study our forests. Very kind of them too, but hardly proof that we need to be doing the same. By resisting the impulse to follow them, we have £35 million more to spend on those things that people choose to spend their money on, rather than something that government might judge to be "worthy". If the trees really are worth £35 million, their owners will be able to charge that amount for visitation rights. In a country covered with trees, how do the Swedes differentiate between one tree and another, and are some of them really worth that much money?

Government has no place intruding on private property to try to control the vicissitudes of nature. But that has not stopped the Office of Communities and Local Government from considering whether their already-overweening Tree Protection Order policy is sufficiently micro-managerial. Let us hope we have reached the limit to this Government's instincts to centralise and control. I wouldn't bet on it.