Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, has effectively cried “Timber!” to his promise to plant 2million trees along the capital’s roads.

Promises of more street trees are not being met

Such is the pressure on Transport for London’s budgets that it no longer has a dedicated amount of money set aside for planting trees along its extensive road network around the city.

Reports published in the past week from the Office for National Statistics and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, confirmed that street trees make a significant contribution to the removal of pollutants from the air, helping to reduce the damage particulates can cause to people’s health.

In 2015, before he was elected as Mayor, Khan made a pledge to have 2million trees planted across the capital in his first term, “focusing around our schools”, he tweeted.

Yet such an ambitious and worthwhile policy appears to have been quietly dropped, as TfL struggles to make its budget work while fulfilling one of Khan’s other election promises, a four-year fares freeze on Tubes, buses and trams.

Sadiq Khan wanted to use trees to combat air pollution around schools when he made this tweeted pledge in 2015

In answer to questions raised at City Hall recently, the Mayor said: “TfL always seeks to replace any street trees it removes. If it is decided not to replace a tree in the same location, this is generally because underground conditions mean replanting may not be possible. TfL has planted 1,105 street trees since 2016.

“The recently published Mayor’s Transport Strategy commits TfL to increase street tree numbers on the TLRN [London road network] by 1 per cent every year between 2016 and 2025.”

The Mayor’s office is surprisingly coy about the exact number of new trees it has been planting around the capital. “These figures,” the City Hall response added, “do not include new trees added to the road network as part of enhancement and development projects. Tree data for these projects is not readily available.”

So taking the figures that TfL does have available, that leaves only 1,998,895 trees to go by 2020 if Mayor Khan’s pledge is to be fulfilled…

In answer to a question from LibDem Assembly Member Caroline Pidgeon, Khan admitted that funding for planting trees has been pulled: “TfL’s highways capital renewals budget has included an allocation for green estate, which includes street tree planting. £234,000 was allocated to this budget in 2016-2017 and £250,000 was allocated in 2017-2018.

“Given the reduction in its Government funding, TfL has had to prioritise its 2018-2019 capital renewals budget to focus on safety-critical activity. It will, however, continue to fund street tree planting through other budgets, as well as through third-party contributions.”

Pidgeon is presumably concerned to ensure that a lot more trees are being planted, especially in this part of south London, since her LibDem colleagues running Sutton Council, together with their partners in the South London Waste Partnership – including Croydon – are just about to fire-up the Viridor waste incinerator at Beddington.

That incinerator is expected to pump about 11 tons of polluting PM2.5 particulates into the air every year for the next quarter of a century. PM2.5 is the pollutant that causes the most damage to human health.

Caroline Pidgeon: trees are vital

The cut-backs to tree-planting in London follow TfL reducing the regularity with which it has been trimming roadside verges along the A-roads around Croydon, unwittingly creating wildlife havens, while in the past few weeks it has also announced reduced services on bus routes in this borough and elsewhere across London.

“By ending TfL’s dedicated tree-planting programme, the Mayor has clearly scrapped his promise to increase the number of street trees on the Transport for London Road Network,” Pidgeon said.

“Trees are vital for London’s environment in so many ways. They help to tackle air pollution and ensure natural rain drainage occurs. They also provide much-needed shade on hot summer days. Above all else, they ensure London is simply a better place for everyone.”