I do feel bad that I have not updated this blog for some time. Not since June 2nd. It has been a busy summer at the water tower, mainly with the remodel of the cottage and the dining facility but also with the arrival of our hens. They were initially given free passage around the entire woodland but I spent so much time tracking them down, I decided it was better to have them in a contained run. Before that, I spent one day trampling all over the woodland only to return and find the hens by the back door looking as if to say "can we come in please?". They are real characters and the fresh eggs are just lovely.
The purpose of today's blog though is to record the outcome of an ombudsman appeal that I raised this summer in respect of past tree works that had been reported wrongly at Midlothian Council during the planning application in 2010. Phew.....those not interested, stop reading now. It's a pretty boring subject.
I previously raised a complaint with the council through their formal process and it reached what is called stage 3 in the system. I had not considered the outcome satisfactory. I had noted the option to take this to the ombudsman but put it off in the concern about getting into some beaurocratic process for no real gain. Perhaps because it was late at night with a wee glass of bubbly in my hand that I felt like just doing it rather than procrastinating any longer. I looked up the ombudsman site on line and found it remarkable easy to register my complaint. It took less than 15 minutes. Within a couple of weeks I had a positive response, the ombudsman was concerned enough to take up the complaint. The complaint has to centre on provision of a service with a view to making public service better. In my case a tree officer had advised a councillor that in her professional opinion unauthorised tree felling had caused a bank to be destabilised. Said councillor abused these concerns about trees at our planning application hearing (meeting) and when challenged after it, used the tree officers’ advice as justification. I wholly disagreed with the tree officer opinion because all my personal consultees agree that what has happened on the steep bank has been caused by the camber of the tennis courts above, that there is clear evidence of past land slip, probably in the early 70s. The area struggles to support growth because of lack of light and the fact that the soil is very close to the rock. The previous owners of the land, the council, had actually built a retaining wall in its day and the tennis courts had installed a drain pipe but sadly it became blocked and didn’t work. It’s simply a difficult area and has long been a scar. My efforts to let in light accorded with the woodland management plan and this area is my target for improvement. In my experience improvements don’t always look good at first in woodlands but after 3 years the results will start to show.
Technicalities aside, the officers communication had been used and abused and had led to some very unpleasant and inaccurate local complaints contained within our planning files and that was the burning issue for me. I wanted to get closure on this matter through an independent process.
The ombudsman was extremely helpful. He helped me to understand the process and limit my expectations. I can never seek re dress for what was said at the planning meeting because that had been dealt with by the appeal process which upheld our appeal last year. In other words that planning matter was closed, he could only investigate and act on failures of “service”.
The ombudsman wrote to the council for all and every communication regarding the water tower wood. That must have been interesting task for the council employees to deal with and I do have some feelings of concern about a waste of time and money. However, and those folks that know me will understand this, I used this particular complaint to get into the system and to understand the process. I may need to use it again.
Some 4 weeks or so later I had a formal response from the ombudsman. The professional opinion that a bank might be de stabilised is not something that the ombudsman would take issue with since it is just that – opinion. But within the 6 page report here is an extract of the most significant section.
“I have not found any reference to any other unauthorised felling in the information I have obtained from the council. For this reason I contacted the Landscape Officer to ask her to confirm the extent of any alleged unauthorised tree felling. She explained that your management of the site was entirely appropriate and in accordance with the councils requirements. She explained that the only instance of unauthorised felling on this site was the instance detailed in her letters in June 2010 and related to a number of trees felled near the tennis court run off area. In her opinion the felling of these trees had added to stability problems with this area of ground. She did not provide an opinion on who had carried out the felling and confirmed that no other unauthorised felling had taken place.
She confirmed that, at the time, she had discussed with you and an agreement had been reached on replanting. She was off the opinion that you seemed satisfied with this at the time.
She acknowledged that the works in this area had become a contentious issue with some other members of the community and that inaccurate information had been circulated in respect of felling and unauthorised works on the site. This may have been exacerbated by works carried out by Scottish Power which may have been misinterpreted by others”
Whilst the wrongful statement re the bank stability has not been commented on because it was only an opinion, the summary above does help to establish the facts of matters at the time. It goes a long way to redress the local gossip and especially that relayed by a Mr Tony Galloway when he was campaigning as the Conservative election agent. He passed on to others that we had illegally felled 30 trees at water tower wood and brought about industrial deforestation. I said my piece to Mr Galloway on his doorstep at the time.
The only felling that has taken place on my watch on the tennis court run off area has been 3 trees, one of which was noted in the woodland management plan for felling to increase light levels. Two others, both sycamore, were storm damaged and they were also felled. The tree fellers employed to tidy up limbs that had broken off from the very large Beech trees above the slope found the area extremely unsafe for tree works because they were unable to get good footholds. That turned out to be because the entire area had been a dump for god knows how many years. The ground was soft and yielding and many tree branches, leaves and rubble were lying on the slope. It has been cleared now and I did report in previous blogs that I had done this. I had found cast iron poles (previously used to hold up the tennis court fence I guess), plastic bread baskets, 2 wooden chairs, an umberella, bricks, rubble, wood of all shapes and sizes..... a right old mess. It took me months to clear it out and carry the man made materials up the hill. The wood and leaves have been used to create one of the largest wildlife wood piles that I have. It makes a great barrier at the top of the precipice leading down to the river and I can even stand on it and feel safe.
The council tree officers visited this area this week since I have another sycamore to remove that is growing to one side and through a rather beautiful yew tree. The discussion that we had agreed on the planting of native under storey, which is my intention for this area and has already started to be done. As for the previously felled sycamores, the advice is to paint the stumps with neat roundup to prevent their re growth......because.......sycamore are weeds and add no value to the area.