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Mature trees in urban areas have never been under so much threat before. How do we save them? One campaign group has had a breakthrough
When you hear about ‘protect the tree’ campaigns, or tree occupations, you might think of a stereotyped ‘tree hugger’. When in reality many of the people fighting for protection of their trees are simply community locals who value the benefits and beauty trees bring to our towns and cities.
The trees we have in urban areas are not just lovely to look at through. They’re important for a variety of reasons. For shade, carbon absorption, and wind control. As well as preventing towns and cities from looking grey, sterile, and passionless.
So why are they being chopped down?
The felling of mature trees can be linked to two things. The cost of upkeep, and the implementation of new infrastructure. New homes, new offices, new shops – often this means goodbye mature trees.
Recently, Plymouth Council felled 117 trees under the cover of nightfall from Armada Way, an urban park in the town centre, as part of plans for a £12.7 million regeneration project.
The regeneration of Armada Way is said to address years of under-investment in the city, and create an attractive welcome to the city centre.
The council’s plans include felling a total 129 trees from Armada way. Incorporating just 24 of the existing trees into the new Armada Way project. Campaign group STRAW (Save the Trees of Armada Way) served an injunction at 1am on the night of the felling, saving just 16 trees scheduled for the chop.
The group have been protesting against the council plans since they were announced in August of last year. Arguing that the felling is unnecessary, and the council is greenwashing in their presentation of the plans for Armada Way.
By 22 March, the whole situation had become so fraught it resulted in Conservative council leader, Richard Bingley, resigning after signing off on the felling of the trees. STRAW have insisted that the council drop any plan to lift the injunction, following Bingley’s resignation.
Following the original injunction served on the night of the felling, STRAW’s injunction has been upheld in court. Preventing the council from chopping the remaining 19 trees on Armada Way.
Shoreham Poplar Front
Shoreham Poplar Front is one campaign that will be celebrating. The group has been seeking to protect the last beautiful grey poplar in an area on a main road stretch between Worthing and Brighton. The mature poplar was, until very recently, facing the chop to make way for the development of new homes.
The tree in question is around 45 years old, and following an assessment, PhD specialist James Butler suggested the poplar should remain a town feature until at least 2050 and possibly beyond.
Darcy Harrison, spokesperson for the Shoreham Poplar Front, shared how strongly he felt that the felling of the tree was unjustified, which motivated him to set up the website and Facebook group. A call to arms has been successful and the tree has been occupied since August, preventing it from being chopped down – with someone even sleeping in the tree itself, every night since occupation started. They have someone on site 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the tree is still standing.
The group released a press statement in August last year, announcing that the Shoreham Poplar Front were taking action to protect the tree, and called the council to honour their statements on protecting natural habitats, and air quality in a time of climate emergency.
“[We] pleaded with the council and the developers to start talking to us and start considering a change to the plan. That didn’t happen” Harrison recounts.
Taking photos down at the Poplar Front site some weeks ago, we ran into Solstice, who is one of the lead organisers. She was upbeat but cautious. “I don’t want to give people false hope,” she said, “but it does seem like we might finally be having a more positive dialogue with the council. I don’t know what they [the developers] want to build on this part for anyway – you couldn’t build that close to the pub [the Duke of Wellington, next to the tree] anyway.”
She notices us looking up at the dwelling in the tree, and cackles with delight. “The pod!” she said. “Someone has been sleeping in that EVERY night since we set up. It’s 185 days today and someone has been sleeping in there even in all the wind and the gales.”
Positive news aside, the Shoreham Poplar Front is still open for volunteers – if not to sleep in the slightly terrifying-looking tree pod, then to just sit at the site and keep it occupied at all times.
Darcy Harrison described the tree as having become a “community focal point” since the local community has engaged in events alongside tree sitting, throughout the campaign.
“We’ve had over 100 people involved in tree sitting, so sharing part of the rota. The area around the tree has become like a community focal point, so we’ve had quite a few events around the tree as well, people of all ages, lots of local people in particular have been involved.”
“So we’ve always made sure that we’ve had a presence, and that’s continuing to happen right now. There’s a lot of people still attending the tree on a daily basis, and there are more events planned and we continue to run events, to keep ourselves in the public eye to make sure council knows we aren’t going way. It hasn’t withered, if anything it’s gotten stronger.”
The Shoreham Poplar Front have played a blinder
The dialogue between the group and the council that Solstice was referring to was made possible by a new proposal made by Shoreham Poplar Front.
The group had previously been ignored by the council and developers on incorporating the tree into the housing plans.
…we actually proposed a new plan, using the same site, to deliver slightly more homes on the site, whilst saving the tree
“One of our volunteers who is involved in the building business, architecturally. I asked if he wouldn’t mind putting together a sort of alternative design, so that’s what we did, towards the end of last year, is we actually proposed a new plan, using the same site, to deliver slightly more homes on the site, within the same sort of height profile, whilst saving the tree,” explained Darcy.
“Basically, what the developers had been saying for the last year, is that if we keep the tree, we’ll have to reduce the numbers of houses, which we proved to be incorrect.
“They [the council members] came and gave us a visit just before Christmas and said they were willing to start to work with us, to promote that idea within the council, within the planning team, and with the developer, Hyde Homes.”
Success for the Shoreham Poplar Front!
The alternative plans submitted by the campaign team has been accepted, which means the tree has been saved. “This compromise design saves the Poplar tree from being felled whilst delivering the same number of dwellings on the site,” he said.
“This is a win-win outcome for the housing association, the council and our local community who will continue to benefit from cleaner air, better drainage and biodiversity on the Brighton Road with this mature tree left standing.
“We hope this serves as a good example to other councils and planning authorities of what can be achieved through positive engagement with tree-saving activist groups.”
The success of Shoreham Poplar Front is one to be celebrated and hopefully inspire communities. Unfortunately, not all campaigns have such a positive fate.
Holt Farm Tree, Essex
In Rochford, Essex, Holt Farm Tree was lost in February 2023 after a campaign last over nine months. Locals and members of the Save the Holt Farm Oak Tree community have been left feeling disgusted by the felling of this 150 year old tree.
We are in a climate crisis, and the benefits of our trees are more needed than ever
Developers Bloor Homes won their high court battle to remove the protesters at the tree. The removal of the tree is to allow Bloor Homes to carry out the development of 662 homes.
We are in a climate crisis, and the benefits of our trees are more needed than ever. When asked about the action against trees, Shoreham’s Harrison said “I think the value that developers and planning departments show towards trees does not match the public mood… we need trees. We need those attitudes to change and that’s partly why our campaign managed to gather so much support. The public opinion is with us”
The positive outcome for the Shoreham Poplar Front shows that it is possible to avoid sacrificing our mature trees for the sake of development. This group was able to take the action themselves by re-designing the developers plans to prove their point.
Public support is the backbone of these types of campaigns, but as seen from the Holt Farm Tree campaign, often more than local support is needed to push council and planning companies into valuing and including the environment in the future of our towns and cities.
Why felling trees isn’t the way
The plans for Armada Way, as an example, included planting 150 semi-mature trees in the town centre in a bid to mitigate the loss of the mature trees. However, councils often use this as a way to escape criticism of felling mature trees. But it’s not the fix it might appear.
young, semi-mature trees certainly can’t provide the same environmental impact as one mature tree, until they reach maturity themselves.
Mature trees require an adequate root care system, pruning, and pest management to prolong their life and continue providing environmental benefits. And young, semi-mature trees certainly can’t provide the same environmental impact as one mature tree, until they reach maturity themselves.
A mature tree is able to produce enough oxygen for ten people over a year. Therefore, replacing one mature tree with several smaller species still causes an overall net loss of ecosystem services.
Lana can usually be found spinning her collection of records, or writing odd poems in her phone notes. Her mixer of choice is a ginger beer, and you’ll never find her away from the sea for more than a few weeks.
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