Local government asset management – urban forests

To tree or not to tree; the inclusion of trees in long term asset management plans

Local government asset management encompasses a boundless variety of assets, including real estate (such as buildings, parks, roads and rivers), machinery, and movables (vehicles, vessels, aircraft, etc.). And are responsible for maintenance, risk management and disposal of these diverse assets.

Green spaces and urban forests are a very important aspect for large urban settings, for cleaner air and cooler surroundings. Trees are in fact very real assets, just not ones we are used to thinking about. Two of the most challenging assets for councils are trees and cemeteries because they don’t fit the mould of hard engineering assets.

Tree assets are seldom discussed in asset renewal cost valuations and are generally not represented in long term financial plans or Asset Management Plans. However, public tree networks have the potential to be one of the most financially significant asset categories in an asset register.

Key to effective asset management is a high-quality asset management system, supported by Asset Management Plans that focus on value for money and support councils in engaging with communities to find a balance between service levels, risk and cost.

Local government asset management

Why local government should treat trees as assets

Why local government should treat trees as assets

For local government asset management, this is a mystifying topic with many viewpoints. Councils have an enormous number of trees, which places some value on trees. Council budgets (generally) allow for tree maintenance (and some require constant maintenance), preservation and even removal in some cases, indicating the value of trees as an asset in the landscape.

Council trees that mark a significant event or location such as “an avenue of honour”, a tree marked by an explorer or planted by a dignitary to mark an occasion or memorial lone pine, may well be worth considering as an asset. Trees are subject to preservation orders, and require Council approval when they need attention.

Urban Forest local government pathways and tree management

Trees are therefore treated as community wealth and have various Council business functions associated with them. Trees generally last for many years, certainly more than 12 months. They provide shade and shelter in parks, gardens and streets, and remove the need for constructed shelters.

There are many people that value attractive streetscapes and vegetation, especially when they are located in a crowded city. Pathways and trying to get more people walking and cycling instead of just driving a car everywhere, (that costs most councils a huge portion of their budget for maintaining and building roads) the tree assets are important to provide shade and make the streets more attractive places for people to walk and cycle.

Trees also provide food and shelter to birds, animals and insects, and thus form part of various ecosystems, some of which have direct economic benefits, such as support for beehives. But the flipside is trees also tend to uplift pavements and kerbs, drop litter on vehicles and buildings (including pollen and other health hazards), and interfere with buried conduits.

Soft assets in local government asset management registers

Take a look at the expenditure profile in any council’s parks department and you would probably discover that 80% of the operations and maintenance expenditure is spent on soft assets. A soft asset is (in the local government context) a non-infrastructure asset.

Whether tree assets can be registered in a council’s asset register system depends on whether the system can handle these types of assets. A finance-oriented system is probably not ideal. But registering tree assets in an asset management system with geographic information would be an obvious step, together with attributes such as species, risk mitigation and issues management data. Linking to work order management as well as tree preservation orders, requests for removal, reduction and so on. 

In looking at what data you hold on a tree asset, you need to consider what ‘end result’ or output you are trying to achieve, and this will guide you in what information you need to collect and maintain. Before collecting any data on your tree assets, ask yourself what will that data be used for, and is the effort in collecting that specific data and maintaining it worth it.

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Tree maintenance and work orders in local government

Council Arborist clearing branches - tree management

The one which is hard to avoid is generated through the customer service desk, with people ringing in about the tree which is too close to their driveway, or is dropping leaves, seeds, flowers, or has some low branches.

Then there are proactive/preventative programs such as pruning, where whole streets/suburbs/parks are targeted on a schedule. Depending on the size of your council and the resources you have available, this could be over a number of years.  Using some smart priorities, you can save a lot of money in future years which is why we are all involved in asset management. 

The proactive/preventative programs can sometimes be hard to justify because it takes three to five years or longer to show a financial return.  However, in the meantime, you can gain a lot of strength from using the numbers of customer complaints.  If you can show a dramatic reduction in the complaints/requests for an action you’ll gain a lot of traction.

Attributes such as species, height, age, spread, diameter, proximity to powerlines and infrastructure, could all impact the type and frequency of the inspection and maintenance regimes you apply to your assets. The easy part is setting the service target which says that you will respond with an inspection in so many days and come back with the tree crew or contractors in so many days after that. If this still performed on a paper-based system, it should be an early target for an electronic system.

You need to know what level of service you will provide with these trees in terms of what you will do, and how quickly you will do it. If you are recording tree assets in the asset register for the purpose of managing works orders, maintenance regimes and inspections on the trees, then you need to collect and maintain data that will impact/influence the maintenance/inspection regime.

Valuation of tree assets in local government

If you are holding the tree asset in the asset register for valuation purposes, you need to collect data that will determine the replacement value of your tree assets. This could include species, ‘new tree’ requirements, location, site considerations and height/diameter for disposal costs.  

  • Consider the value to be the cost of removal, disposal and planting a new tree or sapling (so the value can be related to measurable items based on size and location of the tree) and for significant trees (defined against state and national trust values). 
  • Consider valuing natural assets, not the land under them, and not the value of the services they provide, but the concept that if they were destroyed, how much would it cost to replace them.
  • Consider the size of street trees for sustainable financial asset management. At the end of the day if a crane is required for maintenance, instead of just a cherry picker, then the service provided by that species of street tree is unsustainable.

Cited: Institute of Public Works Engineering Australasia, accessed 1 January 2020 <https://www.ipwea.org/community-home>

Hardcat Lebosi for tree management

The long-lived nature of many trees and other critical assets, and their ongoing maintenance needs, means that planning must be based on an understanding. An understanding of the ‘full costs’ throughout each of these asset’s life cycle, and address both short and long-term planning needs.

Hardcat Lebosi software provides local government (Councils) with mobile enterprise asset management solutions to simplify operations, and improve the longevity of their assets through better maintenance management.

A comprehensive solution, Hardcat Lebosi not only encompasses tree asset management but any type of asset that brings value to your organisation and community.

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