Failings of LynnSport Tree Planting Scheme Revealed

For the past 8 months I have been battling with the Borough Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk to try to get access to information which is, or should be, any citizen’s right to access.

After the report last year which suggested that some 90% of the trees the West Norfolk council planted at LynnSport have died due to bad planting and management practices, I tried to dig a little further into one element of the council’s position on this. The Environment portfolio holder, Cllr Paul Kunes, quoted the authority’s arboriculture officer during full council saying that the “the majority of the trees are still alive” and that it’s normal to expect some level of ‘shock’ from the whips.

I submitted a request to the council under the Freedom of Information Act to ask for the tree officer’s full written report and his emails about this specific project. I put in the request on 17th August 2022. Under the law the council has 20 working days to respond. It ultimately took 8 months, dozens of emails, and a formal intervention from the government’s information regulator (ICO) for me to get a resolution on the request.

The emails I eventually managed to get hold of date from January to December 2022, so I’m able to get a fairly good picture of what went on internally. From the outset the project has been riddled with issues. I’ve tried to summarise here the sequence of events that I’ve reconstructed from the near-100 pages of emails and documents. I think it highlights a succession of failings and ultimately vindicates the local people who were raising concerns about the efficacy of the scheme.


The council contracted a local landscaping company to plant and care for the trees on the Lynnsport site, this we knew. What is new information is that the council tried to access grant funding from the Forestry Commission to pay for the scheme.

The grant application seems to have failed because the council rushed in and started planting without doing proper due diligence. In February, before planting started, the Forestry Commission had outstanding questions about suitability for planting due to the site’s landfill history, council’s claims that “previous wildflower planting had failed” (note: Dr Gardner’s report suggested the wildflower planting had been successful), lack of local stakeholder engagement, lack of investigation into current habitats on the site and related ‘mitigations’ if tree planting went ahead, and more. Despite multiple attempts from the Forestry Commission to get a response, the council never answered these questions.

What happened instead was the council went straight ahead with planting the 6300 whips on the Lynnsport site. The Forestry Commission visited the Lynnsport site on 7th March, seemingly to try to answer some of their questions themselves, and found tree planting had already begun. They wrote to the council to remind them that terms and conditions for their grant application mean funding can’t be allocated to planting which has already taken place. The Commission suggest to the council to pause the works to allow partial funding for the rest of the works.

The council asked the contractor to pause the tree planting works on 23rd March. Staff at the landscaping firm claim they advised against this at the time, writing that they “did express concern that this would lead to a higher failure rate as the whips needed to be planted straight away.” The pause happened nonetheless. Eight days later, the council told the contractor to “restart the Lynnsport planting as soon as you are finished on Fairstead.” As late as July 2022, long after the site had been fully planted, the Forestry Commission were still chasing up their original concerns, which suggests the council had abandoned the grant funding route but hadn’t bothered to tell the Commission that fact.

Planting and Watering

The investigation conducted by Dr Gardner last year found 15% of trees were not planted properly, describing them as “placed in slit trenches and not subsequently tamped down”.

The emails reveal that in August the council commissioned King’s Lynn company Golden Tree Surgeons to prepare a report on the state of the LynnSport tree planting scheme. On planting technique, this report asserts “the young trees appear to have been planted correctly” but goes on to say “however the soil around the notches may not have been adequately heeled down” which corroborates Dr Gardner’s findings. (Notches being the hole in the ground whips are planted into.)

The summer of 2022 was the hottest on record for the UK, no one doubts this would have put a lot of pressure on the thousands of small whips we’re talking about. However, the Golden Tree report also finds that “notch holes in several instances were found to have opened in the dry weather releasing the young tree and exposing the roots to the air” meaning these whips stood no chance of taking root. It says saplings were “unlikely to have received sufficient water to sustain the plants in good health.” Clearly, a mixture of insufficient planting technique and lack of watering in the hot weather are responsible for this.

A chain of emails between the landscape contractors and council staff between 27th May and 9th August discuss watering the whips but council staff give no clear direction to actually water the site. There is mention of a separate quote for this work, indicating that some council staff were unaware that the landscapers were already contracted to water the site as necessary during the summer months. Finally on the 10th August, Stuart Ashworth Assistant Director of Environment, steps in to clarify the contractual obligations and reminds the landscape company of this. By October, council staff were only aware of the site being watered once since planting, in August.

Failure rate

After receiving the Golden Tree report on August 16th, the council faced up to the reality of the high failure rate, despite locals raising concerns for months already. Council executives then met “to ascertain if the lack of watering (and associated high failure rate) was a result of us failing to instruct, or [contractors] not carrying out the works they were supposed to”. None of these events and findings made it into the regular reports produced by Cllr Paul Kunes, Environment portfolio holder.

Before releasing these emails, the council had not admitted that any amount of trees died, though have consistently said it would be normal to expect up to 20% failure rate. Conservative councillors dismissed local people’s concerns about the trees. The Golden Tree report found that a whopping 50% of trees had died by their site visit on 11th August.

The contractors are responsible for replacing trees which die within the first two years of planting. In October the council asks them to plan for replanting in November 2022, and by 8th December they had replanted 1000 trees, less than a third of the trees we now know have died.

There are so many more threads that could be pulled on this. Why was the LynnSport site chosen when it was already established as a wildflower meadow as mitigation for previous development, what effect on biodiversity has this had? Why did the council rush into planting, preventing themselves from accessing grant funding for the scheme? How is it that the council allowed the contractor to water the site only once during a record breaking summer? How was Cllr Kunes not held accountable for these staggering death rates? Why have only a third of the dead trees since been replaced, and are there plans to replace the rest? I encourage others to keep pulling on these threads. The LynnSport tree planting scheme, following the failings at King’s Reach previously, is clearly yet another failing of the Conservative administration at this council when it comes to nature and climate change.

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New Report Indicates Council’s Tree Planting Failure

A report shows that 90% of trees planted by West Norfolk Borough Council in their flagship LynnSport carbon offsetting scheme have died since being planted in April this year.

Dr Charlie Gardner, senior conservation lecturer, and Louise Gardner, RHS qualified Horticulturist, have written a report this week which investigates the status of the trees planted at LynnSport. After declaring a climate emergency in September last year, this scheme to plant 6000 trees in the LynnSport area has been a key part of the council’s approach to offsetting their corporate greenhouse gas emissions. Planted in April this year, the status of these whips has since been a topic of confusingly hot debate.

Cllr Michael de Whalley visited the site a few weeks after their planting and suggested that some 75% of the trees were dead. When a member of the public questioned this in a council meeting, she was assured by environment portfolio holder Cllr Kunes that both he and the council’s tree officer had been to the site and the “majority” were alive.

Unconvinced by the report from the council arboricultural officer, Dr and Mrs Gardner visited the site and assessed the status and condition of the plantation. Their method sampled 15 sections of the site and assessed 10 trees in each section. This representative sampling method provides an accurate picture of the whole 6000 whips without needing to inspect each one*. After looking at 150 trees they found that only a mere 15 of their sample were alive. Of the 15 alive, the report explains they are in a poor state of health which provides “no guarantee of their continued survival.”

Recently we have faced record-breaking heat and dry weather which left many plants struggling, but the authors of this report “believe that most of the dead whips were probably already dead before the record heat of 18-19 July 2022.” This lines up with Cllr de Whalley’s finding made in May, well before the heatwave.

The report highlights the poor planting practices as the main reason for the low survival rate in this scheme. Approximately one in six of the whips were not properly planted, where the soil was not tamped down, trees were not planted deep enough to cover the roots, and some were not placed in the soil at all – simply resting inside the tree guards instead. With such a prevalence of improper planting, the shocking survival rate seems less surprising. The tree officer’s report to the environment cabinet member suggested the trees have “been through a bit of a shock” by being transplanted to LynnSport, but made no mention of the quality of their implantation. 

Cllr de Whalley had suggested that some whips had been vandalised, this wasn’t raised by Cllr Kunes or the tree officer, and this report claims to have “found little evidence of vandalism”. The council have installed CCTV in the area to “deter antisocial behaviour”, how effective this would be is not clear. 

A council spokesperson responded to LDRS coverage of this issue by saying that the sample size used was small and hinted that the recent record-breaking heatwave may have affected the survival rates. The spokesperson also blamed alleged vandalism and how the trees are in a “dormant” phase since planting. As detailed above, many of these factors were addressed in the report itself. The council should face reality and accept that this scheme has failed to deliver.

In 2020, the council came under fire when 500 trees, planted by the local “Churches Together” group, were all found dead after the council had promised to take on the management of the plantation. The council later replanted 400 trees on this Fairstead site and has since replanted another 500 on this site again this year.

You can read the full report here.

I’m no statistician, but I know that you can randomly sample to get a good idea of the full population. I think that the sampling used here gives a 5% margin of error – so we can be confident that between 85% and 95% are dead. I’m happy to be corrected on this.

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Town Council Insurance Bill Skyrockets

In the Downham Market Town Council meeting on 29th July 2022, the clerk mentioned that there are ten (10) active claims against the council’s insurance. Graham Spark, the new town clerk, estimated that the settlement value of these ten claims totals around £30,000.

This information was brought up during a discussion around approving the clerk to move ahead with entering into the next year’s insurance contract. Last year the insurance premium was £8.6k, when the budget for this year was set a sum of £9k was set aside for the renewal. This year the council is liable for an insurance premium of £17.3k, which is double the cost to the Downham Market precept (tax) payer.

The reason for this massive increase in insurance premium was cited to be these 10 active claims. Though no details of these claims were detailed in the meeting, the current town mayor, Cllr Pyatt, indicated that we rate payers are “picking up past bills” – presumably a suggestion that these claims are related to issues since before he became mayor.

A freedom of information request reveals the nature of each of the open claims and their date. Further specific information about each was not forthcoming as this may “prejudice any cases” still ongoing.

Claim TypeDateStatus
Public Liability29/10/2020Open
Public Liability*26/03/2021Open
Public Liability27/08/2021Open
Public Liability21/06/2022Open

Given that half of those cases date back to 2020, it’s not clear why they have only now impacted the insurance premium that the council pays.

I tried to cross-reference dates with news reports from around the time and the only case I could find that may match up is a child harmed by broken glass on Howdale play equipment, but I believe the Borough Council would be liable in this instance so it’s not clear what any of these are about.

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