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Council fined £280k for failing to remove a rotten tree that crushed schoolgirl

Newcastle City Council has accepted responsibility for failing to properly manage the risk of a decayed willow tree that collapsed in strong winds and struck several children while they were playing at Gosforth Park First School in Newcastle upon Tyne during the lunch break.

One of the pupils – six-year-old Ella Henderson – was crushed when the tree collapsed onto the school playground and pinned her down on 25 September 2020. The Year 2 pupil was subsequently freed from under the willow tree by emergency services and taken to Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary. However, she died the next morning of her injuries.

Newcastle City Council was fined £280,000 after pleading guilty to breaching s 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

The Investigation

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that a number of failings contributed to the tragic incident.

Newcastle City Council, which was contracted to undertake tree management services for the school, had failed to identify the extent of the willow tree’s decay and to manage the risk it posed to the pupils for more than two years.

The HSE inspector noted that Gosforth Park First School had a service-level agreement with Newcastle City Council to undertake bi-annual tree inspections and survey reports.

Between February 2018 and June 2020, members of the council’s arboriculture team undertook six inspections of trees at the school. However, no action was taken to deal with the decaying willow tree involved in the incident throughout this period.

The team was responsible for advising the council on whether or not there were any defects to any trees or whether any remedial work was needed.

At the time of the first inspection on 23 February 2018, Newcastle City Council was in the process of transferring its proprietary tree management IT system from Otiss to Ezytreev.

The advantage of the new system was that it enabled operatives to use personal devices to photograph the condition of the trees and upload the images and any relevant information about actions that needed to be taken onto a centralised database.

The first survey inspection, which was undertaken by a council operative with a professional level Lantra qualification, recommended further investigation due to the presence of decay on the tension side of the tree, which already had a significant lean to one side.

The issue was that the information that was being collated wasn’t always provided to the school.

The first survey where there was a recommendation for further investigation to the tree was never provided so Gosforth Park First School could never determine whether they needed to take any action.

Newcastle City Council undertook five further inspections of the tree on 20 December 2018; 14 March 2019; 24 October 2019; 4 March 2020; and 19 June 2020 and each of the reports were uploaded onto the new Ezytreev system by operatives that had a basic Lantra qualification.

The HSE inspection found that when the second inspection took place on 20 December 2018, the results were uploaded onto the Ezytreev system for the first time. At the time, the first inspection recommendation for a further investigation was still retained on the system and would remain so but was critically not communicated to the school.

When the fourth inspection took place on 24 October 2019, the operative photographed the presence of fungal fruiting bodies that were present on the tree’s bark and recorded the details on the system. The fungal fruiting bodies were the source of the decay that resulted in the tree’s collapse.

During this period, one of the council operatives had also ordered some work on the tree’s crown.

In the days running up to the incident, it had rained heavily in Newcastle and the tree had become heavily saturated with rainwater. Although the day of the incident was dry, it was a very windy day.

When the tree stems collapsed onto the busy school playground in strong winds, a large section of the willow hit several pupils. Fortunately, all of the pupils except Ella were pulled to safety with only superficial injuries.

However, Ella was trapped by the tree and school staff could not remove it from the injured six-year-old.

Newcastle City Council pleaded guilty to breaching s 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 at South Tyneside Magistrates Court on 10 January 2023.

District Judge Zoe Passfield said that Ella’s death ‘could have been avoided’ and added that the council had ‘failed to appreciate the seriousness’ of the risks posed by the tree.

After the judge had assessed culpability and harm, taking into account that several persons were put at risk and that there had been a fatality, the starting point for the fine was £750,000.

This was reduced to take into account the council’s mitigation to £600,000. The judge reduced the fine further to £420,000 to take into account that it was a local authority. This was then reduced by a third due to the council’s early guilty plea. In addition to the £280,000 fine, the council has also been ordered to pay £8,020 in costs.

Representing the local authority, Ben Compton KC said that although the council had a comprehensive tree strategy, the willow tree at the school ‘should have been felled’.

Since the tragic incident, all trees on council land have individually been given a safety category, he added.

Since the tragedy, the council had significantly improved its reporting and communication system to prevent an incident like this from happening again.

In a statement, Pam Smith, Chief Executive of Newcastle City Council, said: ‘Ella’s death was a devastating tragedy, and our hearts go out to her family and friends.

‘While we take our health and safety responsibilities very seriously, we fully accept that there were failings in our processes which is why we have taken the opportunity to plead guilty to the offence at the first available opportunity. We note the judge’s comments and fully accept the sentence of the court.

‘We would like to offer our sincere and profound condolences and apologise unreservedly to Ella’s family for their unimaginable loss.’

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Picture of Steve Kilburn
Steve Kilburn
I initially trained as an industrial chemist working in a variety of manufacturing environments eventually moving into quality management which grew to encompass environmental and occupational health and safety management systems. I hold a Masters Degree in Health and Safety law and Environmental Law and a Post Graduate Certificate in Sustainable Waste Management and I am a Graduate Level Member of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH). In my spare time I enjoy reading, my favourite author is Stephen King, and listening to music, generally from the late 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.
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