Tuesday 28 November 2006

Elves One, Trees Nil

I’d always thought of elves as quite robust little creatures, so it was a rather puzzle to me when Elfin Safety began to dictate so much public policy in this country, and intrude on so many aspects of daily life. Just lately I’ve been doing a bit of research on the subject, and it turns out that the root of the trouble is twin elves called Blame and Compensation – names that would never have appealed to Tolkien, let alone Disney.

We don’t have accidents any more. Acts of God are a thing of the distant past. Now, when anything goes wrong in your life, someone else is to blame and, by golly, they’re going to have to pay for it. The effects of this are far-reaching, and round my way we’re currently seeing their impact on trees. Yes, trees.

A while back, yellow numbered tags started appearing on nearly all the mature roadside trees in the area, and the word went round that they were all going to be felled in the interests of Elfin Safety, in case they blew down and squashed us as we were driving by. Or shed one of their substantial branches onto our unprotected and unsuspecting heads.

Then came a letter from the land agent to the local estate, nailing that ugly rumour once and for all. The tags did not mean that all the trees were going to be felled. Dear me, no. Many would merely be monitored, others pruned, some removed. Only then did we get to the point: a combination of disease-prone species (mainly those English favourites, ash and beech) and ‘a previous long term policy of non intervention’ did in fact mean that a ‘significant number’ were for the chop, in whole or in part.

There’s a phrase there, incidentally, that every man should cherish. Next time the missus is having a go at you for not cutting the hedge or painting the bathroom, remember that you are not merely lying on the sofa scratching yourself, as it might appear. You are pursuing ‘a long term policy of non intervention’. Sounds so much better, doesn’t it?

Now, as it happens, I have considerable sympathy with the landowner whose trees these are. A couple of months back I had lunch with a genial chap who told me his bill for public liability insurance on just over 100 acres of Northumberland was nudging £2,000 a year. And that was for a small farm containing no public roads or footpaths, and no ‘right to roam’ access land. In other words, that’s merely to cover him in the event of accidental injury to someone who had no right to be there in the first place.

Extrapolating from this, the costs of insuring a large country estate, criss-crossed by public rights of way, must be truly horrific. It is not in the least unreasonable for the owner of such a property to try and minimise his risk. But ask any Elfin Safety expert, in any field, whether something might be dangerous, and they will always err on the side of telling you that it might be. Why would they do anything else, when they could be the one to receive a surprise visit from Blame and Compensation if the tree, electrical appliance, factory or whatever they have just declared to be safe falls down or blows up the next day?

So my advice to you is this. If you enjoy traditional English landscapes, with mature trees lining the roads, do so while you can. Maybe take some photographs to remind yourself what they were like, or to show your grandchildren. Because as the cotton wool of Elfin Safety slowly stifles us, I predict that they won’t be with us anywhere for too much longer.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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