I’m a single-handed, self-employed Consultant with a sound professional reputation based entirely on my track-record.
When I’m introduced to people and I want to describe what I do succinctly I say “I look after trees on development sites.” This statement communicates a couple of aspects of my work that are very important to me – my love of trees, and the technical protection for them that my profession requires me to provide. It flags up my concern for conservation of the natural environment and ensures the people I’m talking to are clear my presence on construction sites has a specific, green context. The truth is, being successfully in business doing this kind of work is a lot more complicated.
The mechanism for earning money from the work I do is as follows: Local Authorities must, according to statute, make trees a material consideration in the Planning Process. This means that any aspirant developer with trees on or at the periphery of his or her site will have to both evaluate this tree cover as part of any Planning Application and (usually) produce a Tree Protection Plan for approval of the Planning Authority. Both these things form critical aspects of my professional expertise.
Although it has frameworked the applicable policies, the Local Authority doesn’t employ me to undertake this work (of course it can, on projects of its own, but for the purposes of this explanation I want to stay with the example of a private development project.) The work has to be paid for by The Developer. That leaves me operating a very tricky business model.
In general, my quality assessment of the trees on site results in a handful of high quality trees being prioritised for safe retention alongside development. At the opposite end of the spectrum there will be trees in declining condition, trees affected by disease, poor specimens that aren’t contributing a great deal to visual or
other amenity, and then a significant group of passably good specimens in the middle. Every tree earmarked for retention requires to have its root system physically protected from ground disturbance. This has the effect of reducing the developable area of the site.
You know what that means, don’t you? It means that The Developer has to pay me to identify quality trees on his/her site which then have to be successfully retained at the expense of potentially profitable developable area. Oh dear.
Clearly the results of my work can also affect the cost of development and has implications for project funding. Oh Christ.
Whilst wrestling with the mixed news my assessments and design interventions deliver re the future profitability of a site, The Developer must also come to terms with the prospect of paying me for the work I put in to highlight these constraints and come up with a workable, tree-protective methodology. At this point, The Developer is likely to have…shall we say, mixed feelings about the situation.
And me? It simply isn’t possible for me to assess them, side unequivocally with my beloved trees, and go home. The real point of my professional effort is to work creatively with architects, designers and developers to find the sweet spot of good levels of high quality tree retention that satisfy Local Authority regulation and environmental sensibilities, without pulling the rug out completely from under profitability. This is the relatively tight space in which I operate and more significantly, it’s what I actually get paid for. I learned a long time ago that, if I want to be allowed to look after trees on development sites (and that is the only way to ensure they’re safely retained) I had to offer something of value to all parties financially, commercially, statutorily or politically invested in the situation. Despite what I tell people at parties, I don’t actually get paid for looking after trees. I actually get paid for informed and knowledgeable negotiation, goal-orientated mediation and keeping everybody on the right side of every tree-related regulation on the books. It’s a fucking minefield, but it’s my minefield, and I know my way around it.
I want to stress that my knowledge hasn’t come from formal training or college courses. It’s come from being involved in this field, day-after-day, challenging situation after challenging situation, sometimes getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong but mainly landing somewhere in the middle – still in the game, but with some serious lessons learned. If you maintain a very steep learning curve out here, there are projects you’ll make very little profit on because, well because there’s been more learning than outright success. Take heart. Think about what Higher Education costs a person these days. Think about the size of the debts racked up. If, while you’re getting to grips with your on-the-job education you suffer a financial loss now and again, try to frame it in terms of an investment in your future levels of expertise.
Oh. And never make the same bloody mistake twice.