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LCQ20: Surveillance of trees

Following is a question by the Hon Chan Hak-kan and a written reply by the Secretary for Development, Mr Paul Chan, in the Legislative Council today (December 3):

Question:

The major tasks of the Tree Management Office (TMO) include enhancement of tree risk management, promotion of a quality-oriented approach to tree management, enhancement of the tree complaint handling mechanism and the emergency response arrangement, enhancement of training to raise the professional standard of tree management personnel, and enhancement of public education and community involvement. Regarding the work of TMO, will the Government inform this Council:

(1) given that while the Government encourages members of the public to help monitor the conditions of the trees in the community, the information on trees in the Tree Register on the relevant government web site includes no information on whether the trees have been assessed to be of high risk nor any explanation on the specific circumstances under which the trees are described as suffering from "cavity" and "decay", etc, rendering it difficult for members of the public to take part in the community monitoring of tree conditions, whether TMO will make public the information on all those trees that have been assessed to be of high risk; if TMO will not, of the reasons for that;

(2) of the number of reports on suspected problematic trees received by TMO in the past three years, the average and longest time taken to process each of such cases and, among them, the number of cases in which qualified arborists performed tree care;

(3) of the respective numbers of trees planted and removed by the authorities in the urban area in the past three years;

(4) of the current number of qualified arborists in Hong Kong; the increase in the number of local arborists in the past three years; whether TMO has recruited qualified arborists from overseas to work in Hong Kong; if TMO has, of the reasons for that, and the titles and monthly salaries of the relevant posts; and

(5) whether it will consider introducing legislation to regulate tree management work so as to establish a uniform standard on tree care; if it will not, of the reasons for that?

Reply:

President,

Under the Government's integrated approach for tree management, the department responsible for the maintenance of a particular area or facility is also responsible for the maintenance of the trees there.  These departments will properly manage and maintain the trees under their purview in accordance with the policy guidelines and requirements of the technical circulars and best practices. The Tree Management Office (TMO) of the Development Bureau is responsible for formulating and steering tree management policies. It also coordinates the work of various departments to ensure effective implementation of the integrated approach on tree management across departments and facilitates the departments concerned to manage trees under their care in a more effective and professional manner by enhancing public education and community involvement, providing regular training, promulgating best practices, providing arboricultural expertise, conducting relevant researches, handling complex cases and conducting audit checks on tree maintenance.

(1) To further protect public safety and facilitate community-wide surveillance, the TMO has uploaded to the tree website of the Development Bureau relevant information on trees that have undergone detailed inspections but with on-going improvement works by tree management departments as well as trees that require special attention (e.g. Old and Valuable Trees and stonewall trees) since July 2010.  To facilitate continued monitoring, the uploaded information includes location, species, conditions of trees, mitigation measures, the inspection department and relevant photos.

For trees identified with "high-risk" by the tree management departments, appropriate mitigation measures, such as pruning, propping or removal, will be taken at once to remove the threat to public safety.  As regards the information on tree conditions, often associated with special knowledge in arboriculture, the TMO only provides commonly used descriptions for trees in the Tree Register to ensure that they can be readily understood by the public.

(2) Given the large number of trees in Hong Kong, the Administration has sought to expand the scope of tree monitoring and, hence, enhance protection of public safety by encouraging the public to assist in monitoring and reporting problematic trees through the Government service hotline of 1823.  Under the integrated approach, the hotline will make timely referral of the complaints to the responsible departments, and then will monitor and keep the complainants updated about the case progress.

On receipt of public complaints or enquiries about tree management, the TMO will address the enquiries on the policy of tree management and take the lead in resolving complex tree cases that tree management departments may find difficult to handle on their own, for instance, cases that require specialised arboricultural expertise, involve trees of special interest to the community or have cross-departmental implications.

The TMO will also refer complaints or enquires about specific trees, both simple and complex, to the responsible departments for follow-up actions and responses.  Complex cases, such as those involving a number of departments or private lots, may require more time to resolve.

The TMO directly received a total of about 1 500 cases related to tree management policy and tree matters over the past three years (i.e. from January 2012 to October 2014).  Cases that involved tree matters under the purview of departments were referred to the relevant departments for follow-up actions within one to two days.  As for enquiries on tree management policy, they were answered within ten working days on average.

On receipt of relevant cases, the TMO will promptly assign its staff with relevant professional arboricultural qualifications to handle the cases.  The tree management departments concerned will also promptly arrange qualified contractors and staff to undertake tree risk assessment and tree maintenance work as necessary.

(3) The number of trees planted and removed across the territory in the past three years is as follows:

Financial       Number of         Number of
year             trees planted     trees removed
---------           -------------           -------------
2011-12          862 000           21 302
2012-13          814 000           17 060
*2013-14        806 129           12 767

Note: * denotes the period till December 31, 2013

(4) According to the International Society of Arboriculture Hong Kong Chapter, there are 826 Certified Arborists in Hong Kong as at September 14, 2014, as compared with 590 and 738 at the end of 2012 and 2013 respectively.  The TMO has not recruited any overseas certified arborists to work in Hong Kong at present.

(5) The Administration maintains a prudent and open attitude towards enacting the proposed legislation on tree management. One of the prerequisites for the enactment of an ordinance on tree management is the adequate supply of qualified personnel with relevant experience to implement the required tree inspection and maintenance works.  Therefore it has been the TMO's focuses in the past few years to systematically train up tree management personnel at different levels, to standardise professional requirement and to raise professional requirements. New programmes launched recently include advanced diploma and professional diploma by post-secondary education institutes. While there has been an increase in the supply of personnel in recent years, the supply of experienced or adequately trained personnel is still in shortage. In addition, we should be cautious on the enactment of an ordinance on tree management, as there will be significant impact on hundreds of thousands of private property owners. The Administration is seeking to enhance the existing system and arrangements in the following ways :

* Apart from continuing to provide information, make appeals and organise professional workshops and seminars for tree management organisations and personnel, the Administration will consolidate the current internal technical guidelines on tree management and distribute them to private/commercial institutions responsible for tree management with a view to sharing experience and enhancing their standards of practice;

* The Administration will review the existing legislation, lease terms, codes of practice and guidelines to ensure that they are effective, particularly in preventing accidents; and

* The Administration will continue to work closely with local training institutions to provide training and education opportunities for those who aspire to join the tree management industry.

To protect public safety, it is crucial to ensure that the general public understand the importance of tree care and the risks of casualty and property damage posed by dangerous trees, and subsequent liability.  In fact, under the current common law system, a person will be held liable if a tree in his/her possession causes loss to any other person, while the organisations and persons responsible for the management of the tree concerned may also be liable for negligence and default. We, therefore, consider public education and community surveillance to be critically important and even more practicable.

Ends/Wednesday, December 3, 2014
Issued at HKT 15:30

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