Stansted’s new Elms Farm estate was due to have a hillside meadow and community woodland. Developer Crest Nicholson promised residents a “Parkland Management Plan, which will revive the surrounding area” with “new walkways [that] will be designed for all to enjoy and outdoor spaces carefully maintained, ensuring the development will remain a attractive place to live for many years to come.” The amenity land, which has yet to be handed over to the parish council, was set to include a meadow of wildflowers and a community woodland.

The developer had to be dragged kicking and screaming to build the bridge over the brook to link the promised path network. After months of arguing that the brook was too wet for a bridge, Crest Nicholson finally installed the bridge this week as it tiptoed its way towards completing its obligations.

Yet, the Elms Farm residents still have to look out on a barren stoney hillside of thistles and sticks of dead trees that have been killed through Crest Nicholson’s neglect.

The hundreds of dead trees are testament to the ignorance and indifference of the developer. Many of the trees were a totally inappropriate choice for poor quality clay soil with no irrigation – for example, goat willow, which only thrives in damper conditions and does not tolerate drought.

All newly planted trees need plenty of water in order for the root ball to get established. A tree needs daily watering for the first two weeks after planting, after which it needs to be watered once a week, if it is in leaf. The trees were not watered, which meant that two-thirds of the small saplings and nearly all of the more mature standards have died or are close to their demise. The only saplings that seem to be coping some small rowan.

It was entirely foreseeable. In my capacity as Stansted’s tree warden, I produced a report on the kind of species that should be planted at the amenity land – it was not acted on.

The current poor state of the amenity land contrasts sharply with the fly-through video for prospective home buyers and the plans submitted to UDC

Crest Nicholson’s failure to bring the amenity land up to the standards promised to those who own and rent homes on the estate will significantly undermine the faith in the brand’s integrity. If Uttlesford District Council signs off the S106 when the land is in this state, we cannot have faith in the planning authority’s willingness to hold developers to their promises. Without faith in the planning system to make promises a reality, planners and developers cannot expect anything but anxiety and opposition around new housing plans.

Residents can tell Uttlesford planners what they think of the state of the amenity land at Elms Farm by writing to: planning@uttlesford.gov.uk

Dying young tree recently planted in Quendon

However, the problems relating to the massive loss of trees at Elms Farm – and landscaped areas of most new developments – is a symptom of a wider problem rooted in a tree-planting drive that chases arbitrary targets for planting, without any management plan.

Another example is a line of trees planted along the B1383 through Quendon. A well-meaning measure to plant new trees to replace the diseased horse chestnuts appears to have failed, possibly due to a lack of a plan to nurture them while they get established. As a result, Quendon is left with a sad row of dead, neglected trees. In its meeting in May, the Quendon and Rickling parish council placed on record its dissatisfaction with the outcome of this process and “the lack of satisfactory communication from the responsible authority.”

Uttlesford District Council and Essex County Council are now planning massive tree planting initiatives to help meet carbon reduction targets. I have yet to see their management plans to identify where to plant the trees, what trees should be planted or who will look after them. Random planting to reach numerical goals is not conservation, it is not green-thinking and it risks waste and neglect.

What we need is to consider is disease management and tree restocking where trees currently exist. We need to promote growth of existing woodlands and plant new woodlands as sites of ecological enhancement, leisure and economic potential. We should avoid focusing on planting short-lived parkland trees that have very little ecological value. We need long-term visions of reforestation, not one-year plans dreamed up in council meetings to impress voters or housing developers half-heartedly throwing a load of saplings in the ground to push a S106 agreement past the planning authority.

The target-chasing culture that pushes quantity over quality is a problem in all British institutions and business and lies at the root of many of this country’s problems – including the flawed and stumbling response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the destruction of learning due to an education system that resembles a battery farm, and vastly unequal health outcomes based on wealth. Elms Farm’s dead trees illustrate a deeper malaise in a country that has been crushed by the narrow-minded profit-driven neoliberal culture promoted by sharp-elbowed City-slickers. Time for change.