In May 2014, Eleanor was on her way home when she spotted an official notice tied to a mature London plane tree on Grove Lane.
“The Southwark Council notice was attached to the tree seven foot up – way above my head – and facing the road, not the pavement. It said the tree would be felled on Tuesday 20 May – less than two full working days away. The ‘reason for felling’ section was not even filled in.”
Eleanor immediately called the council’s Tree Department. She was told the officer named on the notice would be away until the 21 May – the day after the proposed felling.
Council officers then told her there had been a consultation meeting in September 2013 and all residents of Grove Lane had been invited. The council said that two trees were ‘implicated’ in damage to a boundary wall and that there was a problem with pedestrian access too. Residents had then been given a questionnaire with three choices:
- Cut down both trees
- Cut down tree A
- Cut down tree B.
Eleanor says, “The council asked a few residents to agree to variations on a predetermined conclusion. But hundreds of people walk up and down this street every day, enjoying the lovely view and the health benefits the trees bring. The pavement is too narrow here and access needs to be improved for everyone, especially wheelchair users – but it would be easy to bring the pavement out round the tree. This has already been done at several places further down on Grove Lane.”
The plane tree was probably planted around the time that the house at 201 Grove Lane was built – in 1824 – making it perhaps nearly 200 years old. London planes can live to a great age in good health – none are known to have died of old age. It’s a hybrid and the oldest specimens date from the 1660s.
With the help of an arboriculturalist using a method called CAVAT (Capital Asset Value for Amenity Trees), it was estimated that the tree was worth well in excess of £144,133.
Mature trees absorb pollution, soak up rainwater to reduce the risk of flooding, provide shade and cool the air – increasingly important as our summers get hotter. Grove Lane is a busy bus route and used by lots of pedestrians, especially commuters using Denmark Hill station, and children at the local schools.
Southwark Council’s own Tree Management Strategy points out that “over a year a mature tree removes about 22kg of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Trees are essential for improving air quality. Leaves absorb air pollutants such as ozone, carbon monoxide, and sulphur dioxide. Dust and other particulates are collected by leaves and washed to the ground by rain, rather than remaining in the air.”
But Southwark is losing street trees at a dangerous rate. In 2012-13, the council felled 682 street trees and planted only 268 (page 35, Annual report on delivery of transport plan).
And where new trees are planted, they don’t do half the work that the old trees did. Mature trees absorb up to 70 times more pollutants from the air than saplings or young trees. It will take years before the new trees offer passersby the same levels of shade and other anti-pollution benefits.
Says Eleanor: ‘Talking about “replacement” trees sends a misleading message. It’s like “replacing” an experienced GP with a child who wants to be a doctor when she grows up. Let’s encourage the child, but in the meantime, we still need our doctor! When it comes to trees, we do need to keep planting new ones, but that doesn’t mean we have to cut down healthy old ones!’
Posts on East Dulwich Forum deplored the decision and the shoddy consultation, while residents of Grove Lane contacted Labour councillor and Council Leader, Peter John. In response to growing public anger that the consultation had been so limited in scope, that the notification to fell had been improperly served and that alternatives to felling the tree had not been properly explored, Councillor John at first agreed that the Council would meet the cost of both rebuilding the damaged garden wall behind the tree and of building the pavement out around the tree to allow better pedestrian, buggy and wheelchair access.
Sadly, the tree was felled in September 2015. The cost to the Council of altering the footpath and fixing the wall would have been a tiny fraction of what the tree is worth. Residents of Grove Lane and all who live and work in the vicinity have been deprived of an irreplaceable public asset.
Eleanor says, ‘Street trees belong to us all and benefit us all. With a little imagination, the council could have worked out a solution with the owner of the boundary wall.’