Since 1998, East Devon District Council (EDDC) have been operating a 'free tree' scheme. Taxpayers' money is used to buy young trees that are then given to local landowners. The aim is to enhance the environment.

This is one of the letters published in Devon in December 1998. Full details of my dispute with EDDC and Britain in Bloom can be found in the Gardening and Sustainability section.

Much as I like trees I am unable to share local enthusiasm for EDDC's so-called free tree scheme (letters November 25). On the face of it, encouraging people to plant native trees is a good thing. On closer inspection the scheme is centred upon transfer of wealth from the peasants (you and me) to the landed gentry and with a raff of public bureaucracy thrown in for good measure.

There are two schemes, one run by the NFU to plant millennium avenues. Anything with the word 'millennium' attached is immediately suspect as a waste of money and in this case we can note that the NFU is not contributing a cent. They advise farmers to seek grants from local councils. EDDC are contributing 3000 taken from taxpayers to be given in the main to major landowners. This appears similar to the Common Agricultural Policy.

Next we have the EDDC free tree scheme, funded with another 3000 from taxpayers. Native trees are again available, but most are suitable only for larger gardens if they are ever to be allowed to reach maturity. If planted too close to buildings they will either never flourish or will be felled when they become a nuisance and/or undermine structures. Once again the main beneficiaries may be major landowners. EDDC recognise this by stipulating a maximum of 25 trees per applicant, inclusive of free rabbit guards! The first that parish councils knew of the scheme was in early November. They were offered up to 100 trees per project - but applications had to be submitted (probably in triplicate) to EDDC by 12 December! Six weeks is ample time to acquire acres of land, divert footpaths, organise a subcommittee to oversee the work and devise a scheme for planting what could amount to a new wood with public and wildlife benefits.

I suggested to EDDC that for the majority of taxpayers, offering some wildflower seeds might be a more appropriate use of public money if they wanted to encourage environmental awareness. The Sid Vale Association have recently shown what can be done to encourage long grass, wildflowers and butterflies at Livonia Fields in Sidmouth.

EDDC were so put out by similar plants in my garden that they told me to cut them all down. Several letters later they appear to have changed their minds. They also admit to the popular appeal of wildflower seeds by saying "a wildflower scheme would be prohibitively expensive, and would likely be restricted to gardens with limited community landscape benefits".

The serious point is not the 6000 to be taken from the poor and given to the rich: it is a small fraction of what EDDC squander in a year. What matters is that in an important area such as environmental policy the overwhelming impression of EDDC is of illogical junior staff running around from one scheme to the next desperate to create piles of make-work paper and with photo-opportunities to match. Proper management seems a distant prospect.


More detail will be added later including the benefit in using these trees for hedging, to help replace the habitats destroyed by large landowners when they removed so many hedges on farms. This practice was still endorsed until quite recently by EDDC with planning applications quoting "efficient use of land and machinery". The free tree scheme is of minor importance because it is so small. However, EDDC's refusal to give even postcode information to confirm which sectors of the population received most of the benefit serves to illustrate closed government. The lack of a strategic environmental policy for landscape is also leading to money being spent on types of trees that are least able to withstand (predicted) long hot summers in the Southwest of England. Also lacking is any policy on reforestation of areas that would help prevent flash floods during wetter winters. No monitoring is in place to assess how many of the thousands of trees planted have survived even a few years.

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