We love our urban trees and thought we’d won the battle to save them. How wrong we were | Sandra Laville

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  • June 14, 2023
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I live near a group of beautiful, mature trees that spread across a corner of two residential roads; they are a community hub, providing a shady place to sit and chat. They are much loved, all covered by tree protection orders, and provided as a gift in perpetuity to the community in the 1980s as a planning condition for the creation of a business park. Forty years on, none of this seems to matter. Where bricks and mortar and making money are concerned, trees have no voice: they die silently, even amid a climate emergency that now brings extreme temperatures to London and the south-east with alarming regularity.

After years reporting on the battles of ordinary people to protect trees from bulldozers and chainsaws, I find myself in the midst of one. It is an emotionally sapping, frustrating fight against developers who want to destroy the trees and build luxury homes. It does not seem to matter that the council in question, Richmond upon Thames, a Liberal Democrat-run borough with a strong collection of Green councillors, declared a climate emergency in 2019. Nor that it launched its biodiversity action plan with much fanfare at a May 2019 event where the star speaker was David Attenborough, a local resident. The mantra at the time was “think globally, act locally, make a home for nature”. Alongside the launch, the council printed thousands of leaflets headlined “Local Wildlife Needs your Help”, advising residents how they could support wildlife habitats in the urban environment.

So we did. Our mature trees are a focal point: they draw passersby who stop to sit near the fairy tree created by schoolchildren, its surrounding soil lovingly planted out as a pocket community garden by a resident. When a developer submitted plans to tear down the 11 trees, and build four luxury houses – which would be worth around £1.3m each – residents mounted a grassroots campaign to stop them. We paid for an arboricultural survey, asked a local charity to monitor the foraging bats and tied yellow ribbons around the branches in an age-old sign of nature in danger.

‘Our mature trees are a focal point.’ Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

And it worked. The plans were rejected, and when the developer submitted an appeal, this too was seen off. The planning inspector’s findings in 2021 that the trees should be saved was so powerful we thought we could relax. In his dismissal, he said: “The collective value of the trees as a group is substantial and they comprise an attractive cluster of trees, making a positive contribution to the appearance of the street. The loss of the trees, notwithstanding the proposals for replacement planting elsewhere, would substantially degrade the quality of the street scene at this location.”

But as other communities facing similar battles know from experience, there is always another fight. Developers will come back, year after year, wearing down even the most tenacious of local activists, who have to turn their minds to their jobs, their children, illness, a family tragedy. Across the country ordinary people, such as the residents of Lewes and Wellingborough, are fighting to save their trees. Like us, they are often kept in the dark as tweaks to proposals are made during private discussions with officials, finding a more palatable way to rip apart a green corridor, a wildlife hub in an urban environment.

This time round the developer wants to build three large homes, and tear down four of our 11 trees, while severely pruning and pollarding others, and enclosing two in the gardens of the new homes. There is no guarantee in the mountains of documents provided that the destruction will remain at only four; many more could be felled if they are damaged as the diggers move in.

There is a crucial sweetener, however. The developer will pay the council £299,000 for affordable housing elsewhere in the borough and £82,850 for the loss of trees. The community has not been involved in any of the discussions about this financial gain for the loss of our trees.

Whatever behind-the-scenes discussions have taken place, enough has changed for the council, whose planning officer is recommending councillors approve the housing on Wednesday. He believes despite the majority of the trees being felled, enclosed in private gardens or heavily pruned back, the “relationship between the buildings and the trees can now be successfully managed”. Ironically, he says the survival of the few remaining trees from our group of 11 can be ensured with the imposition of a planning condition, even as he tears down the 40-year-old condition that gave the community the trees in the first place.

This wilful, shortsighted destruction robs not just us, but future generations, of one of our ultimate weapons to fight the climate crisis: capturing and storing carbon, preventing flooding, cooling cities, not to mention providing a home to many of our threatened wildlife. Without the trees, we will have lost much, much more than a nice, shady place to sit and chat.

  • Sandra Laville is the Guardian’s environment correspondent