GREG RAY: Well and truly stumped

BACK when Newcastle City Council was fighting to prevent an independent analysis of its decision to remove fig trees from Laman Street, one reason given for not wanting a review was the risk of ‘‘reputational damage’’.

It wasn’t clear exactly what this meant, but we were left to assume it meant that, if an external review found  the figs didn’t really have to go, then the people who had said they did might feel publicly embarrassed.

In my eyes, the damage had already been done. I believed the council had a long-standing agenda to get rid of the trees and that the reason repeatedly given – that they posed an unacceptable risk – was twaddle.

But the council stuck to its guns and fought to avoid ‘‘reputational damage’’, even refusing Premier O’Farrell’s offer of a government arborist to examine the decision.

And yet all that effort to protect sensitive reputations may have failed, thanks to an article published last July in the US-based Arboriculture and Urban Forestry Journal.

The tree journal article concentrated on how a certain risk-assessment tool known as QTRA seemed to need fixing since it had been found on occasions to have so much wiggle room in its application that its results could be unreliable.

The article claimed the council’s figures had implied a single Laman Street fig tree was ‘‘10times more dangerous than World War II, 75 times more dangerous than mountain-climbing ... and 500,000 times more dangerous than trees in public places in the UK’’.

It didn’t seem clear that a couple of the authors had previously furnished opinions for the Save Our Figs people, which might seem to some like a bit of an oversight.

Newcastle City Council thought so – and a lot of other things besides – and fired off two cranky letters to the tree journal.

Prompted by an article in this newspaper yesterday, by pro-fig campaigners John Sutton, Fee Mozeley and Caity Raschke, I read the journal report and the council’s replies.

The journal article made sense to me as far as its basic argument about the potential flaws in the risk-assessment tool went.

As for the reliability of some of its points on the Laman Street case, not to mention the council’s detailed attempts at rebuttal, I found it too hard to judge, given the masses of information being referred to on both sides.

The council basically insisted it had been treated unfairly by the journal article and complained that, because of the publication of the article, ‘‘the reputation of the council, its employees and consultants is damaged’’.

One thing the council didn’t seem to argue with was the main thrust of the original article: that the risk assessment tool seemed to have the potential to be very rubbery indeed, depending on who was using it.

And that’s where things got interesting, because at the end of its second letter the council revealed that risk wasn’t the reason the council decided to remove the trees.

WHAT?????

I must have read about a million words about those figs, and I came away with the impression that the council was claiming the trees had to go because they were risky.

The council’s actual public resolution, in July 2011, said: ‘‘Council resolve to remove and replace ... the 14 Fig Trees as soon as practical under section 88 of the Roads Act 1993 (NSW) because Council is of the opinion that the Fig Trees are likely to cause danger to traffic, property and persons in the use of Laman Street and are a traffic hazard in severe weather events.’’

Seems clear enough. 

But in this amazing letter, the council said it wanted the figs gone for lots of ‘‘considerations other than risk’’ including ‘‘environmental, financial, liability, social and heritage studies, facilitated design workshops as well as practical and political considerations’’. 

So what if the risk-assessment tool proves dicey? Risk, after all, was apparently just one little factor in the decision. 

Omigod! Who knew? At least this solves that reputation thing.