A local board in one of Auckland's leafiest areas is being criticised for providing thousands of dollars to private landowners for pruning trees.
Auckland Ratepayer's Alliance (Ara) says Ōrākei Local Board's scheme only benefits "a select minority of usually wealthy Aucklanders at the expense of the general ratepayer".
But board member Troy Churton says the grants are designed to encourage landowners to retain trees rather than chop them down, and that they have wide community support.
Ōrākei Local Board offers landowners funding of up to 50 per cent for tree pruning, to a maximum of $2000.
Trees either need to be notable trees scheduled in Auckland Council's Unitary Plan, or meet a range of criteria regarding their amenity values.
The board has dished out nearly $10,000 since 2016 in grants to 15 private landowners.
In the latest round announced in June over $3000 was approved, including $1380 to reshape a pin oak.
While the tree, over 40 years old, was not scheduled, it was argued to be "overgrown" and producing vast amounts of leaf litter clogging street drains.
Ara spokeswoman Jo Holmes said tree pruning should be the responsibility of the property owner, not ratepayers.
"These aren't even necessarily scheduled or native trees. Ōrākei Local Board should stick to its knitting, maintaining footpaths and parks used by everyone, not beautifying private property."
Board deputy chair Carmel Claridge, a former Ara spokeswoman, was the sole board member - of seven - to vote against the grants during their June 20 meeting.
"While the protection of our open green spaces and significant trees is important, these specimens are not scheduled and they are located on private property," she told the Herald.
"Using ratepayer funding to subsidise the gardening bills of a few individuals is not something most Aucklanders would be happy about."
But Churton said the grants were less about supporting individual landowners, and more preserving "our leafy green suburbs and our long-term biodiversity".
"Part of the reason is to incentivise owners to retain mature trees for the wider benefit of the local neighbourhood, not just on their property."
Changes to the Resource Management Act that came into effect in 2012 removing blanket tree protection and Auckland Council's Unitary Plan, which changed zoning rules, were "massive tickets to tree destruction across Auckland".
"There has been a massive increase in tree felling," Churton said.
"You wake up in Remuera and Ōrākei most weekends to the sounds of chainsaws. Sections are being bought and raised from corner to corner."
Just last week he was shown before and after photos of a 100-year-old pohutakawa that had been chopped down on a local street.
"Most people we engage with want to see private owners, especially big residential developers, retain mature trees as much as possible.
"Allocating a small tree grant that is scrutinised against strict criteria is one small way we continue to advocate for our community about the need to improve tree protection amongst a number of broader local environmental projects we support."
Arborist company Treefellas general manager Ryan Kneebone said there had been a considerable increase in trees being felled in Auckland since the RMA changes and Auckland's Unitary Plan.
"It was open season when those changes came in. They removed all of the paperwork and landowners rushed in to chop down their trees in case the legislation changed back."
The number of contractors had doubled from about 100 to well over 200, he said.
"Now it has quietened down a bit, but these contractors are still out there scrounging around for work."
Treefellas was now removing one to two large trees and about a dozen medium size trees a week.
"It is hard to put a number on, but it has definitely increased," Kneebone said.
Kneebone said they still encouraged landowners to seek alternatives to removing trees.
"While it is in our long-term business interest, retaining trees also provides huge amenity values."
Removing the blanket protection meant there was little they could do if a landowner wanted a tree removed.
"There is no legislation we can fall back on now. Some situations are heartbreaking, having to cut down huge old trees that look like they have been around since the dawn of time. But if we don't do the work, someone else will."
Kneebone said the council and local boards should do more than just incentivising pruning, and subsidise replanting if trees had to be removed.
An Auckland Council spokeswoman said Ōrākei was the only local board to provide such tree protection grants.