The Highways Department’s controversial decision to cut down four iconic banyan trees in Sai Ying Pun last September was both justified and reasonable, an report by the Ombudsman has found. But the government watchdog still highlighted “major inadequacies” in the city’s tree management regime and called on officials to make preparations to draw up legislation to better manage and preserve trees, particularly on private land. The investigation was initiated by Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing last September to find out if the department’s tree felling was justified and properly handled. Ombudsman to probe controversial Hong Kong government decision to cut down century-old trees The banyans, along Bonham Road, were cut down a month before it on grounds of public safety, but sparked outrage from conservationists, residents and tree experts. “Our conclusion is that there is no substantive evidence to show that the Highways Department’s decision to remove those four stone wall trees was rash or unreasonable,” the report read. “The department had provided justifications in its consideration of the removal of the trees and its assessment of the potential risk of collapse of the trees.” A separate report however, pointed out several problems within the fragmented regulatory regime, such as the lack of a dedicated grade of government officers to manage trees and lack of performance monitoring by the Development Bureau’s Tree Management Office. Tree management is currently handled by a handful of departments and loosely coordinated by the office. “Within the government body, there are no dedicated staffers tasked solely with managing arboriculture matters,” said Lau. “A leisure and recreational services manager, for example, will manage trees but at the same time, have to look after swimming pools and concerts.” Lau said there was still no proper way to manage trees in private land other than clauses written into land leases. There was also no registration system to accredit professional arborists, which meant there were no avenues for the public to make complaints in case of poor service or misconduct. Highways Department called for fallen banyan tree to be removed a year ago - but local residents objected She urged the office to enhance monitoring of different departments’ tree management performance and to oversee their handling of complaints and reports. Ken So Kwok-yin of the Conservancy Association agreed with the recommendations and called for a clear timetable on when the government would introduce a tree law. In the meantime, So suggested the government conduct a detailed survey of trees over private land and set up a register for arborists. “The Robinson Road case showed us the government really has no power of enforcement when it managing trees on private land,” he said, referring to a 2014 case in which a tree on a private slope collapsed, killing a pregnant woman. The Development Bureau welcomed the reports and said many of the watchdog’s recommendations were already being implemented.