An interview with Peter Wharton, Wharton Arboriculture

by | Jun 11, 2015 | Features, People

Joe Wilkinson catches up with Peter Wharton, an Institute of Chartered Foresters registered consultant, at his new offices in Alcester. Peter talks about his views on the industry, the perception of consultants and where arboriculture is headed

So Peter, how long has Wharton Arboriculture been in existence?
We have been a limited company since 2008. To begin with it was just me and my wife, with a number of sub consultants. In 2014 we employed our first consultant, Sebastian Onslow, as a part-time student and he was promoted to arboricultural consultant in April.

What’s your history in the industry?
Like a lot of people I started by mistake. I couldn’t get a job in sports science when I left school so I went to work for our local tree surgeon, dragging brash and being a point of contact on the ground. I enjoyed it, so went to university, got a degree in arboriculture and had various jobs, both in the public and private sectors and within practical arboriculture and consultancy, before starting as a consultant in my own business.

Where did you go to university?
I went to Myerscough College between 2000 and 2004. I went directly into consultancy work as a tree surveyor before moving to the local authority to gain experience in the highways department. After that I drifted towards planning at Birmingham City Council, which is where my passion really lies.

Do you feel that colleges offer the correct courses for young people?
I both applaud and have some concerns about the colleges. Colleges are producing people with some technical ability but they don’t fully understand, nor have any realistic view of, the industry and what might or might not be achieved. This is with the exception of Sebastian. Coming out of college and expecting a salary of £28,000 is unrealistic in any industry. It’s not just the college’s fault; it’s partly the sector’s fault for increasing expectations. Unlike the Royal Institute of British Architects, we don’t have set criteria for how to progress from student to registered consultant. I also have a few concerns over student’s transferable skills into day-to-day work. It’s important to recognise the biological, structural and physiological function of trees, but understanding how they are going to work on a development site (which is 70% of people’s work) and knowing CAD, GPS and GIS, are just as valuable but seems to be ignored by the colleges. This is also true in relation to business and client liaison skills.

So what is your role within the company?
I’m the director. My wife is the company secretary and she works on a part-time basis. Initially we wanted it to be a small family business, but my aspirations have changed, so now we are growing and developing the business. We’ve moved into new offices to provide the space required for growth. We’ve now entered into digital mapping and ecology and over the next 12 to 18 months intend to expand the team with another arboricultural consultant and ecologist.

How do you find your work?
Eighty per cent of our work is from word of mouth. That comes from success in the planning arena, where we work with clients to achieve what they want, very often in a different format to their initial thoughts, once our feasibility work is completed. We don’t just roll over to their initial ideas. We aim to bring a different aspect to all projects and work with clients to come up with something good, using our tree officer experience so that they can appreciate where we started and where we end up. As with all consultants we provide an important cog in a much bigger wheel, but we can unlock the route to development.

Do you get work from local authorities?
It’s a mixed bag. We have four live contracts with large local authorities, whether it be surveying street or public open space trees. We work with a couple of the London boroughs on some major school initiatives. As with a lot of consultants, most of our work comes from architects, planning consultants or land owners who want to achieve planning permission. We also work with many large land owners where there are safety issues over trees, to come up with realistic and pragmatic approaches to tree management.

What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
My office day starts at around 8am, if not earlier on social media before I even get to work! I really believe in the use of social media in various contexts. Generally I set an hour aside every morning just to review what we’ve been doing the day before and what we have got coming in front of us. Then it’s straight into fee-earning work, recording every minute of the day so we can be transparent with a client when we are working on an hourly basis. We work with Autocad and Keyscapes preparing plans and writing reports. One of the benefits of having an employee is that we can review each other’s reports. Then it’s just a case of planning site visits and meeting our clients’ work instructions and timescale.

Do you try to do site visits yourself?
I try and get out about once or twice a week and it always seems to be when it’s raining instead of the nice weather!

Is collaboration in the industry effective?
Between consultants, I don’t think we share information all that well. I’ve always been quite happy to chat with other consultants and share ideas, because we don’t have any type of mentoring system and actually it’s really important to have things reviewed, to discuss projects with people. If we work in isolation, we can’t achieve the best for everyone or the industry generally.

Do you get involved with the industry associations?
From a young age I was fairly critical of the industry associations. As a young consultant in the industry, to me there seemed to be a lot of infighting and fragmentation. There was no common strategy or goal. Because it is a small industry, if we are fighting amongst ourselves, it has repercussions for the wider allied sectors. However, in recent years I’ve become involved with the Arboricultural Association, and I’m currently Chair of the Media and Communications Committee. I’ve developed a number of strategies and social media solutions with them. I’m a trustee of the Arboricultural Association and last year I was Vice Chair. I sit on the Consultants Working Group, too. I’m also becoming more involved with the Consulting Arborist Society (CAS), with Mark Chester and Paul Barton, and we are looking to develop several new courses, mainly revolving around CAD and GIS. I help organise Ride for Research and I work with the ICF to assist them in their regional events. I’m relatively active within the industry and I think it’s important that people are because it’s the only way we can develop.

Do you think the representing bodies need to do more to make arb a career choice?
In terms of career choice, I think it’s vital. I’ve not seen it at any career day, or arboriculture promoted as a career. We now have R2 and a staged approach to how you can develop within the industry. I think it’s down to tree surgeons to promote it and it’s down to us all to become more professional in what we do, so people see it as a career, not just for somebody who hasn’t succeeded at what they wanted to do. If you look at it in terms of tree work, it’s fairly dangerous so you have to be switched on, and the people who are doing the work are excellent. Their customer service is good, how they deal with people, the hoops they have to jump through in terms of tree protection orders (TPOs) and conservation orders. And in terms of how well they work with so many different people, in fact their skills are underrated. It’s something we should all be promoting. There is a huge push towards forest schools and green infrastructure so trees are on the agenda both locally and nationally. We should be making that step into secondary schools and colleges and get out there to show people what we do. One person who does this exceptionally well is Russell Ball, the main man behind the Ride for Research.

Is the standard of work in the industry where it should be?
I think it’s fair to say it varies. I know many brilliant tree surgeons who aren’t Arb Approved and I know some Arb Approved surgeons who aren’t great. I think it’s all dependent on who you employ and their appreciation for what you are doing, and that filters into consultancy work too. Half the time, we are brought in too late in the process. We need to be honest with clients and not try to pull the wool over the tree officer’s eyes, because they are virtually consultants working for a local authority, and they know fairly quickly where you have been involved. We have always developed a working relationship with tree officers to try and achieve good solutions.
We all have a common end which is to save and protect trees to enhance the urban environment. We just have slightly different approaches on how we might do it, because we have different pressures. They have political pressure and TPOs; we have pressures from clients and their desires to develop. It’s a balancing act.

What improvements could we make to the industry?
We need to improve how we capture data as an industry, how we prepare plans, it should all be electronic now and not hand drawn. We should be working closely with other organisations to show them that we are professional in what we do and that we aren’t trying to create barriers, we are trying to create solutions.

You mentioned your passion is for the planning aspect of arboriculture. What does that involve?
It’s basically designing around trees and coming up with different solutions. Developers, as everyone knows, have a set formula and a set number of houses to go on a site, and for the bigger developers they have a set build type that has to go in a specific position. We need to get to the right people within those organisations to come up with a different solution, whether it be something simple such as the orientation of a room or trying to devise a solution to go over tree roots for access. It may even be a complete redesign of a site layout. We just push the boundaries slightly and work with what is in front of us rather than what is an idealistic/arbitrary root protection area, for example. If you are professional in your approach, you’re timely and all of those other things, they will keep coming back to you.

So if there is a 50-house build on an area of land that has a couple of 200-year-old oaks and the developers want the trees gone, what’s the solution?
The solution is to survey the trees, establish what condition they are in and their retention suitability and try to come up with a solution, on the assumption that they are good quality specimens. Maybe you can have a garage or a driveway next to the trees without any impact and a no-dig solution, or use a slightly different foundation type to achieve what they want. The basis of where we come from is that those trees are going to be retained if they are good quality trees that will enhance the area. We know that the tree officer’s opinion is that they are staying. Our opinion isn’t any different; we are just under a different type of pressure. It’s vitally important that we don’t just go in and say everything is fine, you can do whatever you want – it’s not the right approach. The process is to assess the constraints, decide on what is and what isn’t important and then come up with a proposal to develop a site, based on the material constraints trees may pose.

Do you offer planting guidelines for a new development or do you only deal with existing trees?
We do. We have just dealt with a city-wide scheme with Coventry University where we have been working with the tree officer. We removed an awful lot of protected trees and mitigation planting was key. The trees were material but they were never going to be considered in comparison to a health and wellbeing building for the university. As part of that there was a huge mitigation solution, following a CAVAT assessment that we did, to look at new tree planting across the site. Within the city it’s quite difficult to actually find new, established ground to get trees into. We’ve come up with a solution to create new avenues of trees and some individual trees. There are around 45-50 8m-tall trees going in so we’ve managed to develop a really good scheme with the tree officer to mitigate the loss of those trees. It’s important for us to be involved with the planting. Landscape architects are great and they are good at what they do, but I wouldn’t go and design a landscape architect’s scheme, and they might not understand the technical detail of putting root barriers underground, or where services go etc.

So you said you are looking at expanding your business into ecology. What does ecology actually involve?
It will be bat surveys, newt surveys, eDNA, phase one surveys plus the green code of practice. It will be all of those elements. We offer them all on our new website, so it’s an extra to our core business. What’s the next step for the company? We are looking to gain another consultant in the next six months. We have just been awarded two very large housing development schemes so things are progressing. We started off working with bespoke companies and now we are working with national companies. There is only so much work you can fit into an eight-hour day, so we are looking to consolidate this year. We are also looking to improve our CAD competency and the services we provide to clients. Working with a team of land surveyors at our office we are developing new 3D visualisation solutions which can be specifically used on more urban and tight sites. Developing our CAD capability is a key
component to our business.

 What are your hobbies outside of work?
I’ve got young children, we spend time in the garden just chilling out and doing what normal families do. I play a lot of rugby and do a lot of road cycling and I’ve done three marathons in the past three years. Stupidly this year, through a lot of negotiation with my wife, I’ve entered the Ironman UK race, which happens next month!