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'Massive failures' of Torquay palm massacre

Wednesday, 6 March 2024 08:27

By Guy Henderson, local democracy reporter

Felled palms trees Torquay seafront (image courtesy: LDRS)

Destruction won't be repeated

A catalogue of failures which led to the shock destruction of 40 palm trees in a Torquay seafront garden is laid bare in a new report.

The report points to a breakdown in communications between Torbay Council and its parks and gardens company SWISCo. Cabinet member Cllr Adam Billings (Con, Churston with Galmpton) said the felling had not been planned or communicated properly.

There was an outcry last December when the palms in the Italian Gardens near Torre Abbey were felled by SWISCo with no warning. They were cut down as part of a project to revamp the gardens in time for their centenary this year.

Some trees had been in place for decades, and the felling made national headlines.

Now Torbay Council’s chief executive Anne Marie Bond has published the report.

It says preliminary discussions of ideas for the Italian Gardens were held in 2019/20,  with some ‘limited’ engagement with external partners.

The council’s director of place, cabinet members at the time and the then-leader of the council were aware of the discussions.

Officers in the council and Tor2 – the predecessor of SWISCo – were involved, but the report says: “What is not clear is the extent to which the proposal to remove the palm trees was known and by whom.”

The only clear reference to the removal of the trees was in an email from a holidaymaker who said they had been visiting Torquay for more than 45 years and were concerned after hearing local people say the trees were being removed.

The report continues: “This email indicates that there was some knowledge of a contemplated removal of the palm trees.”

It goes on: “Crucially there is no evidence of a finalised plan having ever been submitted to, or approved, either by the cabinet portfolio holder or the director of place who were in those roles at this time.

“Furthermore, there is an exchange between officers in early 2020 that indicates there was no clear decision path set out for making a recommendation and agreeing the project.”

No final plan was drawn up and at this point the project was put on hold because of budget pressures, the pandemic and the setup of SWISCo. 

Then, last autumn, SWISCo began work, believing that the project had already been agreed.

SWISCo accepts that no information was shared, and nobody asked SWISCo’s managing director, commissioning officer, shareholder panel or board for direction. The board includes a number of senior council officers, including Ms Bond.

SWISCo says the trees were at varying stages of decline. None was in its prime, having been battered by the elements on the seafront.

The council’s current director of pride in place Alan Denby was also asked to review the findings and come up with measures to stop such incidents happening again.

He highlights ‘a failure of proper project governance and decision-making controls’.

There was no clear project plan or timetable, and SWISCo did not engage with the appropriate cabinet portfolio holder. There was no clear approach to community engagement, and a failure to recognise that it was inappropriate to rely on out-dated consultations.

Additionally, there was no clear communication strategy to tell the community what was going on.

The report concludes: “Very serious and substantial learning has taken place. Actions have already been implemented to prevent any repetition.”

Cllr Billings, the current cabinet member for pride in place, said; “The review is a welcome response to the concerns raised following the removal of the palms.

“Whilst the revised planting scheme offers a long-term solution to this key public space in Torbay, the initial removal of the palms was not planned or communicated to the expected standard.

“The review will allow us to improve our processes for similar schemes in the future.”

The report will be considered by the council’s overview and scrutiny committee next week.

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