Cable-laying schemes 'damage 10 per cent of street trees': 'Trenching' could pose the biggest threat to urban trees since Dutch elm disease, writes David Nicholson-Lord

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AT LEAST one in 10 of Britain's street trees has been fatally damaged over the last year by cable-laying operations, according to a leading authority on urban conservation.

Chris Baines, president of the Urban Wildlife Partnership, said that by 1998, every street tree may have been 'trenched to death'.

The professor of planning and landscape architecture at the University of Central England in Birmingham, said yesterday that the 'freedom to dig' granted to companies laying cables for the new information super-highways had led to widespread damage to tree roots.

'Because the trees take three or four years to die, the scale of this disaster has so far been overlooked, but by the turn of the century Britain's towns and cities will have been robbed of their Victorian heritage of glorious street trees - and all for lack of adequate control,' he added.

Professor Baines has led a campaign to publicise the harm done by cable-laying gangs, who through ignorance and lack of adequate supervision slice through tree roots when they dig up pavements.

The damage is largely 'invisible': the gang does not appreciate the damage it has caused and the tree may take some time to die.

Despite the availability of so-called 'trenchless technology' - remote-controlled 'moles' that obviate the need for excavation - cable-laying companies claim this is too expensive and are also under commercial pressure to complete operations as quickly as possible. Professor Baines's concerns are shared by leading arboriculturalists, many of whom believe that cable-laying poses the biggest threat to trees since Dutch elm disease or the great storm of 1987. Sixty-thousand miles of pavement are being dug up, to enable cable to reach two-thirds of homes by the end of the century.

In collaboration with the Black Country Urban Forestry Unit, the Countryside Commission and Cable Midlands plc, the professor has produced a 10-minute video demonstrating environmentally-friendly trenching techniques: this is being distributed free to every council, cable company and utility in the country.

Cable Midlands, the biggest cable company, has also agreed a code of practice to safeguard trees. However, national talks have been slow to start - many cable companies are unaware of the problem - and critics say there is an urgent need for statutory controls.

According to Professor Baines, the freedom granted to the public utilities to operate 'beyond the law' - they are not subject to planning controls and have the statutory right to dig wherever they want - has been extended without question both to the privatised cable companies and to the non-emergency work of the utilities.

Less than 5 per cent of the cable licences, issued by the Department of Trade and Industry, even mention trees.

He said the trees being killed 'by the thousand every week cannot be replaced within our lifetime' and called for a revision of the utilities' statutory rights. 'At the present rate of 'progress', by 1998 every street tree in Britain will have been trenched to death and the quality of life in Britain's towns and villages will have been severely blighted, quite unnecessarily.'

(Photograph omitted)