Axe poised over great city trees: Urban planting policies favour smaller species. Nicholas Schoon reports

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OAKS, limes, planes and chestnuts - farewell. The great trees which grace prime public spaces in towns and cities are on their way out, to be replaced by pretty pocket trees such as rowans and flowering cherries, which although less uplifting are also less bothersome.

During National Tree Planting Week later this month, every politician worth their salt will appear in local newspaper photographs shovelling soil around sapling roots. But a government report published yesterday exposes a lack of vision in much of this planting and a failure to care for the young trees.

The big, impressive species are being shunned by developers and councils because they are thought to threaten foundations, occupy too much space and demand too much maintenance. Unless policies and attitudes change, their like will disappear from towns and cities as mature specimens die off.

Consultants hired by the Department of the Environment surveyed trees in 66 villages, towns and cities, including Bristol, Nottingham and Stoke-on-Trent. They found an average of 17.4 trees per acre, with the highest density in residential areas, where trees shaded one sixth of the ground area.

Only 20 per cent of Britain's urban trees are on streets and in parks; most are in private gardens and on business premises. Evergreen cypress types are the most common urban species, followed by small native species such as hawthorn, decorative blossom-bearing apples, cherries, plums and sycamore. Almost three quarters of trees were less than 25 years old. One in 25 was dead, dying or severely damaged.

'Large street trees are generally regarded as a drain on resources and create many management problems,' the report says. 'The use of smaller species . . . now dominates much tree planting.'

Some councils are removing large trees from streets and other trees are having their roots damaged by the digging of trenches for cable television networks. There is also pressure from insurance and mortgage companies to fell trees which threaten nearby building foundations.

Away from the town centres, councils, community groups and conservation organisations are busily planting. There are plans for new urban forests surrounding some cities. 'It would be most unfortunate if this were to take place at the expense of the rich heritage of street trees provided by earlier generations,' the report says.

Trees in Towns; HMSO; pounds 12.

(Photograph omitted)