“…the chainsaws were not the work of one man. The whole administration stands discredited ahead of May’s local elections. Even the two local Conservative MPs, Johnny Mercer and Sir Gary Streeter, believe that Labour should now take over the council………. The infighting and incompetence of local Tories lie behind this declaration of no confidence.”
The Guardian editorial on Plymouth’s lost trees: an act of vandalism
The decision taken by Plymouth’s Tory council leader, Richard Bingley, to chop down more than 100 mature trees under cover of darkness earlier this month was damaging to the city as well as the horse chestnut, silver birch, pear, apple and other specimens that were removed. Armada Way, the pedestrianised boulevard that runs south through the city centre to the sea, is a rare postwar conservation area and ought to be a national showpiece. Instead, ugly images of debris strewn among the modern architecture have upset and angered local people and conservationists. They may also set back efforts to boost the city by attracting tourists.
The upset and anger are more than justified by events. A consultation regarding the proposed regeneration of the city centre showed that a majority of locals do not support it. A campaign group, Save the Trees of Armada Way (Straw), gathered a petition of more than 16,000 names. Yet the council ploughed on until it was served with a court injunction by campaigners. On Monday, Mr Bingley resigned, ahead of a council meeting.
But the chainsaws were not the work of one man. The whole administration stands discredited ahead of May’s local elections. Even the two local Conservative MPs, Johnny Mercer and Sir Gary Streeter, believe that Labour should now take over the council (so far Labour’s Tudor Evans has resisted this, saying that the decision should be made at the ballot box). The infighting and incompetence of local Tories lie behind this declaration of no confidence. Last year, one former councillor, David Downie, said that he was “very concerned” about the Conservative cabinet’s lack of experience. Mr Bingley is on record as having said that people shouldn’t “worry too much about climate change”.
Such cavalier attitudes are outdated. It is a sign of progress that so many people now recognise the importance of trees, not only as attractive local features but as wildlife habitats with a role in sequestering carbon and keeping streets cool. Developments for new housing or other infrastructure should work around them. Promises to plant new trees are no substitute for looking after those that already exist. Where developers present plans that are harmful to nature, councils must push back and demand alternatives.
In its dismissal of local people’s feedback, this council showed itself to be as high-handed with voters as with the environment. Just as happened in Sheffield, where a Labour council destroyed public trust through its handling of protests over the removal of street trees, Plymouth’s leaders adopted a bunker mentality. Spending £12.7m of levelling up funds within the allotted timeframe was what mattered. They believed their plan to be a good one, and that was that.
Except it wasn’t, and their poor stewardship of precious local assets has been shown up. Clearly there are lessons here for Plymouth, where control of the council has switched between Labour and the Tories, and previous regeneration projects have produced good results. But there are wider lessons too. Cambridgeshire county council, which is run by a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, has just approved plans to cut down an orchard to make way for a road. In too many areas, and in local parties of different stripes, politicians’ actions are failing to live up to their climate pledges. Development that takes us further away from our climate and biodiversity goals should no longer be called by that misleading name.
Although Plymouth Tory-led Council’s decision to chop down more than 100 mature trees, under the cover of darkness, has made national headlines – this is not ‘a one-off situation’ – because many local, environmental campaigners have similarly been identifying significant, mature tree felling, hedgerow removal and environmental harm in their own areas over past years, which continues to date.
Too many ugly images of tree/hedgerow devastation have been forwarded to both decision-making elected councillors and leading planning/environmental officers, highlighting a loss of large areas of valued, natural environment – but the tree loss and damage to important natural habitats continues, as does the over-use of the developers’ chainsaws!
Infighting, incompetence and lack of experience, concerning safeguarding bio- diverse environments (especially mature trees/hedgerows), cannot be solely levelled at this Tory-led Plymouth Council?
Despite innumerable EDDC strategic planning meetings, theoretically documenting policies containing the urgent need for a greener future in the Draft Local Plan – unfortunately, in practice even the EDDC Green Party Planning Committee Members voted in support of Winslade Park economic benefits as opposed to safeguarding mature trees within this valued, natural landscape? Certainly, developments for new housing and infrastructure should work around the trees and natural habitats – not against them! It would appear that many local administrations should hang their heads in shame at what they have sanctioned under the guise of future improvements?
Local conservationists and communities are upset and angered given their sizeable objections to the destruction of natural habitats and tree losses – yet in practice local authorities plough on with outdated, cavalier attitudes, seemingly ignoring their electorate but crucially ignoring the environmental harm and the importance of trees sequestering carbon, when they should have a full knowledge that replacement saplings are no substitute for decades-old mature specimens!
Councils must push back and demand alternatives, listen to local people and rid themselves of their high-handed self-justification because in too many areas local authority officers’ recommendations and politicians’ actions are failing to live up to their climate pledges.