Pro Arb were recently given the opportunity to interview Lee Marshall, who left a career in engineering to work for a decade as a tree officer for Torbay Council- and is still going strong. Lee chats to Pro Arb about how he came to live and breathe the trees of Torbay.
How did you get into arboriculture?
I’ve always had a love of the outdoors (forgive the cliché) but didn’t know what to do for a career after leaving school. I had a series of roles in engineering which I didn’t feel fulfilled me professionally, so my wife Rachel encouraged and supported me as a mature (at 28) student to take the 2 year Nation Diploma in Arboriculture at Riseholme College of Agriculture, Lincoln, with Neil Rowbottom who may have taught some other of your readers. I passed the course with a distinction and as student of the year.
What is your role at Torbay Council?
In my ten years at Torbay Council I think I have experienced and put into practice all possible aspects of a tree officer’s role, starting as arboricultural assistant. I’m currently the tree officer with responsibility for trees in a planning context. This includes providing development consultations, assessing, serving and reviewing historic Tree Preservation Orders (TPO), determining tree work applications, considering high hedge complaints, and also investigating breaches of TPOs and Conservation Area protection.
What are your responsibilities?
Within my role at Torbay Council I ensure the tree work applications; TPO requests and consultation enquiries are dealt with as quickly and efficiently as possible, reporting to the Principal Natural Environment Officer. Currently, one of my main tasks at the moment is to review and update our TPO appraisal system which was last amended in 2005; our aim is to make it more transparent, less subjective and importantly more relevant to modern arboriculture.
Another part of my role is to provide arboricultural support services to Devon County Council on a part time basis, under a partnership agreement we have with them. This role has pushed my abilities professionally given the vast size of the highway network, numbers of facilities they manage and the complexity of moving and working in such a large organisation. I thoroughly enjoy the role as it brings to use all my skills gained over the years. Tasks range from advice on contract management, planning support, individual and group tree risk surveys, general advice on woodland and tree management and many other tasks within the field of arboriculture!
What’s the reason you got into the local authority side of arboriculture?
This was a difficult decision for me and my family. I took the traditional route after leaving college of starting my own business as a sole trader, quickly growing to employee five staff and becoming a limited company providing arboricultural services to local authorities, construction companies and the important domestic market. However, we had three young children who were growing up far too quickly and the long hours were keeping me away from important moments in their lives. So after long discussions with Rachel we decided to sell the business and I secured the job with Torbay Council and the rest is history. My position within Torbay allows me to put my experience and qualifications to good use, from advice on protected trees, pre planning guidance for developers, seeking solutions for residents with concerns on trees outside their house to planting advice for residents. The stability of being employed by the Council allows my ongoing training to continue in a structured way and the support of a wider team is welcome when difficult decisions need to be made.
So what does the council do in terms of tree work?
Torbay is a unitary Authority so we have full responsibility for the management of all council- owned trees on the highway, open spaces, parks, libraries, museum grounds, heritage sites and even around car parks.
The operational, ecological and survey management of council-owned trees is undertaken by the Council’s arboricultural contract, held by Hi Line Contractors South West Ltd With Hi-Line, Torbay Council has instigated a cyclical management schedule for our street trees as well as the Pollarding Policy adopted by the council to manage our large numbers of urban pollards by recommencing the pollard cycle of upto semi lapsed pollards. This initially came as a shock to many residents of the bay given the years of inactivity but it is now an accepted means of securing the future of large canopy type trees in tight residential areas.
What are the challenges that you are facing?
There is increased pressure on budgets which is particularly challenging as we were the trial authority for I Tree Eco in the UK and have clear goals and aspirations to increase our canopy cover from the report that followed and was embedded within our Tree and Woodland Framework document.
On the disease front we have an outbreak of Phythophora ramorum on a Larch/ Sweet Chestnut woodland that is part of a mapped navigation route for the highly endangered Greater Horseshoe Bat. This is proving to be a challenging issue as we seek to protect our trees and the endangered species of wildlife.
What is the annual budget?
The total annual budget for the management of council-owned trees within Torbay is currently £309,000. This budget includes the costs of staffing, training and all associated factors plus tree inspections, normal tree maintenance and emergency tree works.
Do you get a lot of community engagement?
We would always welcome more community engagement; our department has formed a partnership with Groundwork South with a seconded employee permanently based in our offices whose role is to increase community engagement and participation in our parks. This is really positive as we can reach out into the community to promote our work and get people involved. A lot of our parks have a number of very active friends groups who as well as cultivating beds, arrange events and provide general support of the parks are always keen to support any tree planting initiatives. We regard this as an area of increasing importance given these challenging financial times and a way to extend our ability to improve our parks and woodlands for residents and wildlife.
Do you think the public’s knowledge and understanding of trees has grown?
Our residents are becoming increasingly aware about the trees in the area and some of the issues which face our work. Largely this stems from the threats of diseases in our trees, such as Phytopthora in larch, Oak Processionary Moth in and around Kew Gardens and now sadly Ash dieback which is present in neighbouring Authorities to Torbay.
On a personal level I feel, as a tree care professional, that public awareness should be promoted by others in a similar position as me. This way information about tree species becoming endangered can be explained alongside the importance of diversification in ecosystems and the continued and ongoing efforts of the Forestry Commission to search for Ash trees resistant to Chalara.
These are challenging times but we are well placed to advise, adapt and move forward as a professional industry.
What’s the structure of the team?
My role is based in Natural Environment Services within a team of 13 whose responsibilities range from the supervision of the tree and grounds maintenance contracts for Torbay as a whole including grass verges, parks waste, sports pitches, etc;management of public toilets and leases; management of Public Rights of Way and links with South West Coast Path; and management and improvement of playgrounds and facilities for the community to enjoy whilst and ensuring the Bay’s green spaces are kept clean, tidy and providing a positive impact on local wildlife.
When it comes to hiring staff, do you look at taking on apprentices?
Torbay Council has a strong apprenticeship scheme throughout many different departments in the organisation. We have previously advertised for a modern apprentice in arboriculture but due to the specific nature of that apprenticeship, we now have a modern apprentice within our team, who intends to qualify as a landscape architect. He supports the team through delivering development consultations whilst gaining his practical skills at Torre Abbey, a historic house and gardens owned by Torbay.
Many people still join the industry through the traditional route of gaining qualifications from the arboricultural colleges, before taking on more practical roles such as park rangers and tree surgeons. However, scope does exist for apprentices to enter the industry via the apprenticeship route based around an office environment, supported by associated training.
Do you think that the perception of arboriculture is predominantly males who swing chainsaws?
Good question, looking back on my career, the vast majority of professionals I have come into contact with have been males, however I have met and worked with several female arborists who were equally as proficient as their male counterparts of the industry. In addition I have encountered no form of discrimination, which is really encouraging.
I can’t offer an explanation for the low numbers of women in the industry and would have certainly employed a suitably qualified woman as I believe they offer an equal amount of experience and insight as any male within this trade.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
Given the location of my job in South Devon I take full advantage of the moors to the west and the coastline to the east. I take many long distance head clearing walks, and often kayak with my family and friends. A friend and I recently followed the entire course of the River Dart from its source high on Dartmoor to its mouth at Dartmouth by walking and kayaking. Very challenging but extremely rewarding. Coming from the flatlands of Lincolnshire I enjoy the rolling landscapes enormously, less so the hills if I’m honest!
I also enjoy extending my knowledge within the field, reading literature and latest guidance. I have recently supplemented my Diploma by completing the Myerscough online degree last year. This has proved to be hugely helpful in terms of my professional confidence and depth of knowledge.