A $5 million program to improve one of Newcastle's most popular streets commences today in Cooks Hill.
The work includes the removal of 11Hills figs and is primarily in response to advice that Council's insurer would only continue to provide public liability coverage in the area if the trees were removed. This followed a decade of escalating claims resulting from collapsing trees and from tree roots damaging properties.
The project will involve an overhaul of a 330-metre section of Swan Street to deliver new drainage, footpaths, guttering and road surface between Darby Street and Mosbri Crescent, with a section of road between the latter and Kitchener Parade to be widened.
Council has a range of insurance policies in place which provide cover for insurable events including potential public liability arising from death or personal injury and loss or damage to property.
Council's insurance policy notes that it may not be covered in circumstance where losses are foreseeable and could have been avoided. There have been a number of significant structural failures to fig trees in Swan Street in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2015. In the 2009 failure, the tree struck a member of the public. In 2015 a large section of a tree fell onto the roof of a home.
Following this significant damage, the insurer wrote to Council requesting it provide steps to mitigate future damage caused by the fig tree roots. It subsequently expanded this request to include a timetable of the scope of works to be undertaken and an indication as to when these works would commence as well as information on the future inspection and ongoing maintenance programs planned.
Council's Interim CEO Jeremy Bath said while the decision is an unfortunate one, Council must act to both protect the public and itself from future property damages claims.
"It's with a heavy heart that Council has taken the decision to remove these figs. The Local Government Act requires Council to have in place adequate insurance. It was made clear to Council that after years of escalating claims and with reports detailing that the trees were only become more structurally at risk of collapse, we had no choice but to replace the figs.
"Nine figs have been removed in recent years due to collapse. Many of the figs are interconnected and so the consequence of each removal has been to weaken the next tree. This is why we have seen more figs failing in recent storms.
"Council has engaged with residents since late last year. As a result the residents have come together to select replacement trees that will in time see the re-emergence of Swan Street's famed tree canopy.
The replacement trees are a species that will maximise shade and provide a more user friendly streetscape with safer footpaths.
"In addition to addressing the risk to safety caused by the figs, Council will also overhaul Swan Street. Water mains and footpaths that have been damaged by the tree roots will be replaced along with gas pipes and the road surface.
"As part of work that was scheduled for next year to reduce flooding in Cooks Hill, Council will be installing larger stormwater pipes and also cabling for the traffic lights that sit on the corner of Swan and Darby Streets," he said.
Council held an information session for Swan Street residents in late 2016 before the rehabilitation plan was publicly exhibited. Based on this consultation, the plan was revised to extend the project to Darby Street and residents were later invited to another information session.