Costly Irton tree saga ‘will not be repeated’

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A POST-MORTEM into the saga of the Irton Tree has been held, as councillors vowed that the costly episode should never be repeated.

Approximately £300,000 was spent on a six-year legal battle and a subsequent two-week-long protest, which saw five people climb into the tree’s branches before it was finally felled in October.

Speaking at a meeting of North Yorkshire County Council’s transport, economy and environment overview and scrutiny committee yesterday, Barrie Mason, assistant director for highways, admitted that the episode had been embarrassing and expensive for the local authority and presented an action plan to prevent a similar fiasco in future.

He said: “In some aspects this was a very specific and peculiar case, but it has been possible to identify themes so we can reduce the risk of something like this happening again.”

The meeting heard that elected county council highways portfolio holder Cllr Gareth Dadd and other senior council officers were first made aware of the significance of the Irton Tree case by reading a newspaper report on the day the Evening News revealed that costs had spiralled to £250,000 (picture above right).

In future, Mr Mason said, a new protocol for tree removal, already in place in Scarborough, will be rolled out across the county and senior managers would be made aware of potentially costly cases sooner. He also vowed that the local authority would strengthen its approach to tree preservation orders and that a new internet-based claims management system would be put in place.

Irton tree, day 4 - National newspapers reporters resort to ladders and a cherry picker to get their interviews and photos with Snox, who remains in high spirits.  Pictures by Andrew Higgins  113857d   23/09/11

Irton tree, day 4 - National newspapers reporters resort to ladders and a cherry picker to get their interviews and photos with Snox, who remains in high spirits. Pictures by Andrew Higgins 113857d 23/09/11

He admitted that the county council should have opposed a tree preservation order, which Scarborough Council placed on the tree in December 2007 and confirmed in early 2009.

The order meant the saga rumbled on with homeowners Gerald and Norah Hazelwood taking their case to court, where a judge ordered that the tree be felled as it was causing a nuisance and damage to their property.

Of the estimated £300,000 bill, £120,000 was paid by the county council in public funds with the remainder being covered by the local authority’s insurers.

A total of £20,000 of the county council’s costs were incurred as a direct result of the protesters who lived in the tree to grant it an unorthodox stay of execution. The council obtained a High Court injunction to remove them.

All that remains of the Irton beech tree, is nothing but some chippings...  114302a  24/10/11

All that remains of the Irton beech tree, is nothing but some chippings... 114302a 24/10/11

Cllr Dadd took the opportunity to condemn the actions of the protesters, whom he described as “tree warriors” and accused them of wasting money that could have been spent in important areas. He said: “After the judge brought down his hammer I was extremely disappointed that we did have protests. It cost the taxpayers of North Yorkshire £20,000 for a protest against a judicial decision.”

Members of the public and the Irton community who had supported the protests watched over the proceedings at County Hall in Northallerton.

Mr Hazelwood also attended the meeting in person. Speaking immediately afterwards, he told the Evening News: “I am very happy that the county council have got to this position. Hopefully they can prevent a repeat. What the county council have done is commendable. I’m looking forward to moving on and putting this issue behind me.”

Cllr Mike Cockerill, who also represents the Filey ward on Scarborough Council, condemned the county council’s decision to take Scarborough Council to court in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to recoup some legal fees.

He said: “The public perception was whether the borough or county council won, it’s Joe Bloggs paying. It was a ridiculous situation.”

Mr Mason replied: “It is regrettable that the situation occurred with two public bodies in court. Earlier intervention at a very high level in future could prevent it happening again.”

He added that the county council’s costs in that case had been covered in full by their insurers.