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Failures led to Torbay palm "debacle"

Thursday, 11 April 2024 10:16

By Guy Henderson, local democracy reporter

Palm tree debacle stumped councillors (image: Guy Henderson/Radio Exe)

Council board members left in dark

Failures in control and communication led to a "debacle" around the felling of 40 palm trees on Torquay seafront.

A new report confirms that the trees were cut down with little or no consultation, and without council officers being made aware it was going to happen. Even the board of the company that cut down the trees was in the dark.

“It was a disaster,” said Torbay Council’s independent group leader Darren Cowell (Shiphay). “We managed to make what should have been a positive story into a car crash.”

Members of the council’s overview and scrutiny committee have examined a blow-by-blow report into how the trees came to be felled last December without any apparent warning.

The felling sparked a furore which brought national headlines.

After a long debate, councillors voted to introduce a package of measures designed to make sure nothing like it ever happens again.

The trees were felled by the council’s own parks and gardens company SWISCo as part of a project to restore the run-down Italian Gardens in time for their 100th anniversary this year. Some palms had been there for decades.

The project has now been completed and the new gardens have been well-received, but the council and SWISCo are still feeling the effects of the incident.

A report on the controversy was prepared by the council’s director of pride in place Alan Denby, who is also a director of SWISCo. Several senior council officers serve on the company’s board.

None was made aware that the felling was going to happen.

Mr Denby said a “failure of control” by officers had led to the felling of the trees. “It is impossible to conclude that it was anything other than a system failure from an officer perspective.

“It is clear that process was not what it should have been, and it has damaged confidence in officers. We have let ourselves down.”

The committee heard about a 200-page e-mail trail at the heart of Mr Denby’s investigation, but they decided not to bring it to the meeting, which would have meant excluding the press and public to avoid identifying the individuals involved.

“What happened was awful,” said Cllr Martin Brook (Con, Collaton St Mary). “It puts the council in a bad light and undermines confidence for residents. There was a stirring up of anger.”

SWISCo managing director Matt Reeks told the meeting the trees had been in a poor condition and were cut down after careful consideration.

The restored Italian Gardens in Torquay (image courtesy Sunrider Drones/SWISCo)

Cllr Yvonne Twelves (Con, Kings Ash) said the council had to move on from the incident.

“Finger-pointing and blame culture are not helpful,” she said. “We have to park that, learn the lessons and move forward. Our residents want to know that it is not going to happen again.”

Cllr Adam Billings (Con, Churston with Galmpton) is cabinet member for pride in place, a post which covers the Italian Gardens affair. “It wasn’t a case of ‘who dropped the ball’ but that we all dropped the ball,” he said. “This is a systems failure.”

But, he added, at the same time it was important to pay tribute to the groundworks staff at SWISCo who had completed the garden project in time for its centenary.

“They have delivered a fantastic garden,” he said. “It looks lovely. We should thank them for that while we recognise that the process wasn’t brilliant.”

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