Into a legislative jungle

Here’s hoping the bloody Greens don’t latch on to this – but a long-winded British judge has defined a “tree”.

It took him 12,000 words.

If the Greens similarly get picky and pedantic about the language in the Bill to amend the Resource Management Act, it will take many hundreds of thousands of words in Supplementary Order Papers and what have you, and months of arguing the toss in Parliamentary debates, before the legislation is passed.

As Britain’s Telegraph reports, High Court judge, Mr Justice Cranston, took 12,000 words to answer the question: What is a tree?

The judge thought it necessary to spell out the exact legal definition of a tree because of confusion in the planning process.

While trees could obviously be the object of tree preservation orders, the question remained about the status of saplings.

For clarity the judge ruled that size did not matter, and that the smallest sapling was, legally speaking, a tree.

His conclusion clashes with that of Lord Denning, a former Master of the Rolls, who ruled that a tree was only a tree if its trunk had a diameter of at least seven inches.

The case on which Judge Cranston ruled was brought by a developer who challenged a British Government decision to disallow works in a young patch of woodland in North Halling, by the River Medway in Kent.

The judge noted that section 198 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 provided for tree preservation orders to preserve trees, groups of trees and woodlands, but there was “no statutory definition of a tree”.

He concluded that “with tree preservation orders there are no limitations in terms of size for what is to be treated as a tree. In other words, saplings are trees”.

Alf hopes Parliamentarians don’t get too tangled up in definitions and that common sense prevails during the legislating of the revised RMA.

But tree-huggers will be among the many lobbyists doing their damndest to frustrate the process. The measures announced on 3 February include

Inserting provisions into the RMA that remove the ability for blanket tree protection rules to be imposed in urban areas. These rules generate more than 4000 resource consent applications annually.

New Zealand notoriously has councils to deal with pretty well everything, and sure enough, there’s a Tree Council with activists ready to go out on a limb in defence of trees.

Alf doesn’t know how many branches it has. Perhaps none. According to its website, it doesn’t get too excited about trees beyond the Auckland region.

The Tree Council is a long-standing non-profit organisation established in 1986 to act as a steward for the trees of the Auckland region.

The Tree Council exists to protect, conserve and improve the tree cover in the Auckland region, especially in urban areas.

In other words, it is active only in a region where it is fighting a losing battle against urban spread.

The council swung into action (at least with a blast of rhetoric) after Environment Minister Nick Smith outlined his proposed legislative changes.

Hueline Massey of the Tree Council (Auckland) Incorporated , said proposed changes to tree laws had come out of the blue. The Tree Council would be “horrified” if the change went ahead, as it had fought to get rules preventing trees of a certain size or type from being felled without consent since the 1980s.

Ms Massey said rules were brought in to stop the “destruction of good trees without a good reason”, which could deprive the community and subsequent owners of the land of trees. If the change went ahead it would be “open slather” for people to remove trees just because they annoyed them, she said.

Nick Smith said councils would have the option of listing individual trees or groves of trees for protection, instead of blanket rules. He said there were parts of Auckland where people did not let trees grow over 3 metres for fear of invoking council tree controls. “It is a nonsense that we have approximately 5000 resource consents a year for tree trimming. We think there are far less costly and bureaucratic ways of providing protection for urban trees,”he said.

But Ms Massey said it was a huge exercise to list an individual tree for protection. As a result there were only about 120 such trees in the Rodney District and similarly few in Auckland, she said.

You can bet the Greens will be eager to champion the tree-huggers’ cause, along with the causes of umpteen other environmental outfits that are bridling against the Government’s attempts to tidy the law.

We could be in for a long haul.

Paradoxically, if it takes 12,000 words just to define a tree while the new law is shaped, hundreds of trees will be toppled to provide politicians, lawyers, lobbyists with the obligatory legislative paper work.

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