Leeds trees felled
They posed a risk to autistic child with pica
Big Issue North, 1-7 July 2019
Leeds City Council may have become the first local authority to cut down trees after parents of autistic youngsters with Pica, an eating disorder, complained that they presented serious health risks to their children.
The decision was made after lobbying by the Access Committee for Leeds (ACL) charity, which has previously assisted many parents of autistic children to obtain local authority disabled facility grants for housing adaptations. This has helped children to live at home, rather than in an institution.
Pica involves eating items not thought of as food. People with development disabilities like autism are most affected by it. Children will drink muddy water and eat grass and falling leaves.
Paula’s son Tom*, aged 11, has autism, severe learning disabilities and epilepsy, and was diagnosed with severe Pica at the age of two. They live in a heavily adapted home on a Leeds estate.
“The problem starts when leaves fall in the garden as he will eat them and the grass, becoming so unwell he requires hospital treatment,” said Paula. “Stopping this means keeping Tom imprisoned as we can’t allow him in the specially enclosed garden unless we are constantly with him. And even if we are there he is so quick at running around he can eat the leaves and the grass unless we struggle with him and that upsets everyone.”
The parent of another child with Pica said: “The last time I attempted to hang out washing with our son in the garden he ate mushrooms in a damp area under a large oak tree and we had to take him to A&E.”
ACL volunteers successfully petitioned Leeds City Council that cutting down trees would be a safeguarding issue for Tom, and the council replaced the lawn with artificial grass and cut down sycamore, ash and elm trees that were overhanging Paula’s garden.
“Similar actions should take now place elsewhere,” said ACL’s Tim McSharry, adding: “We believe this is the first case of its kind. We are extremely grateful to Leeds City Council and James Rogers, director of communities and environment, for understanding our concerns and for finding an effective resolution.
“The needs highlighted by this case are not limited to Leeds and we believe there is an absolute priority for government to examine such cases and review how adequate resources can be made available to support families in a similar situation caring for a child with Pica.”
But cutting down trees is controversial. One neighbour of Paula’s complained her house would be more vulnerable to antisocial behaviour as a result of losing the trees. Another felling over a week later in another Leeds ward also drew complaints from some residents.
“I don’t like trees being cut down but our son can now use it without needing constant supervision,” said Paula.
Asked about the basis for cutting down trees and how it intended to balance the concerns of Pica parents with those of local residents and environmental obligations, a Leeds City Council spokesman said it was first necessary to check if any trees were in a conservation area, adding: “Whilst the council will protect and preserve healthy trees where we can, we will always work with residents who may have specific concerns on a case by case basis in an effort to balance their needs with those of the local environment.”
* Name has been changed