Decision day looms for threatened Brighton elm

Posted On 14 Mar 2013 at 11:01 am

A silent elm tree next to the Seven Dials has asked an awful lot of questions of many people over the past few weeks.

For a few days it was home to two protesters trying to prevent council contractors from cutting it down.

And it has been the focus of some intense scrutiny of politicians and officials as they wrestle with principles, process and pragmatism.

Later this month Brighton and Hove City Council is due to decide the tree’s fate.

The Green administration has been reminded of one of the sayings of St Basil: “A tree is known by its fruit and a man by his deeds.”

But the original decision in question was a cross-party one. Few making the decision – to approve a change to the road layout at the Seven Dials – seemed to appreciate that it would involve felling a mature elm tree.

Seven Dials ElmThe loss of the elm was not in the original proposal. It seems likely that consultation responses might otherwise have been different.

This is a key fact that could help campaigners if they take the council to court. And they have discussed the possibility of a judicial review.

The prospect of felling the tree came about because those drawing up the scheme at the Dials were trying to incorporate responses given during the consultation.

One influential response came from Jon Hastie, the involvement officer for the Fed Centre for Independent Living, which helps disabled people.

Dr Hastie said: “At present the tree in Vernon Terrace significantly narrows the pathway and creates an unnecessary obstacle for wheelchair users.

“While we appreciate the need for greenery and trees in any street design, it is important this is done in a way that meets the needs of all users and does not create narrow or uneven streets.

“We call for this tree to be removed or relocated in the new design of the area.”

Councillor Ian Davey, the Green chairman of the council’s Transport Committee, agreed. He said: “This tree has sadly outgrown its location.

“The roots are badly damaging the road and the pavement making it difficult for people to get around with buggies and wheelchairs.

“It obstructs the view of the pedestrian crossing so it’s a safety hazard as well.”

He added that the council would be planting ten new trees in the area.

But when people living near by were told that a tree would be cut down, they say that they were not told that it would be an elm. And a rare wheatley elm at that.

Many trees are protected by preservation orders. And in an era when thousands of trees have been lost to elm disease, the sensitivity around the healthy specimen at the Dials is hardly surprising.

Some have criticised the Green administration over this issue, even though the Seven Dials scheme was approved by Labour and Conservative councillors too.

Yet many of those campaigning to save the tree are supporters of the Greens.

Councillor Ian Davey

Councillor Ian Davey

One of the two people who camped up the tree, Stephen Hendry, said: “As a consequence of this campaign, I feel motivated to stand as a councillor for the Greens.

“It’s the first time I’ve been up a tree for a protest. I was totally and utterly petrified. I even screamed at one point. I honestly thought I was going to die.”

He spent two days and nights up the tree with Tom Druitt who is best known as the boss of the Big Lemon bus company.

Mr Druitt has previously camped in a tree to protest against a road scheme. And as a result of his six-week protest in Combe Haven against the Hastings and Bexhill link road, he was arrested and charged with aggravated trespass and obstructing a High Court official.

He denies the charges and is expected to stand trial in the autumn.

He said: “This is on my doorstep. Everybody involved lives within about 50 yards of the Seven Dials.

“We went up the tree on Wednesday evening (6 March) and came down late on Friday when the council agreed to a stay of execution.

“Senior officers said that they would look at suggestions and we’re working with them to try to find an alternative.”

His partner, Green councillor Alex Phillips, was part of the council’s Transport Committee which approved the Seven Dials scheme.

On Twitter she said: “Most of the public didn’t know about the elm being taken down. It clearly wasn’t explicit enough in the consultation.

“I agree with the scheme, just not this. I raised the concerns that were raised with me at the time. The tree wasn’t one of those.”

The tree is in the Brighton Pavilion constituency represented by Green MP Caroline Lucas, who was quick to lobby the council about it.

Councillor Alex Phillips

Councillor Alex Phillips

She said: “This tree is hugely loved by many people. They don’t want to see it come down.

“At the very minimum we need to have a round-table discussion with the council, with residents, with tree experts to look at other alternatives that might be possible rather than felling what is clearly a very much-loved tree.”

The elm is also in the council’s Regency ward which is represented by two Green councillors – the council leader Jason Kitcat and his wife Ania.

Jason Kitcat said: “The city council’s cross-party Transport Committee unanimously agreed plans to make the Seven Dials roundabout safer for everyone, including motorists, and to make it more welcoming to pedestrians.

“With the local streetscape as it stands, unfortunately that meant the improvements included plans to fell an old elm tree on the southeast corner of the Seven Dials.

“In return the council pledged to plant ten new mature trees in the neighbourhood. This was supported by all political parties on the council.

“However, there has been an outpouring of concern for the elm tree and we will take a second look at it.

“We are asking local residents to come forward again with ideas for how the tree can be saved while delivering safety improvements to what is the city’s second most dangerous junction.”

When the council recently announced the start of work at the Seven Dials, it said: “As part of the improvement scheme, around eight to ten new trees will be planted in the immediate Seven Dials area.

“This is in response to the consultation exercises where local people said they would like to see more greenery and vegetation in the area.

“Unfortunately, it will be necessary to remove the large elm tree on the corner of Vernon Terrace as it is causing increasing structural problems to the surrounding pavement and carriageway.

Councillor Jason Kitcat

Councillor Jason Kitcat

“The tree is also causing the adjacent pavement to become very narrow and uneven which can cause problems for people in wheelchairs or with buggies and there are concerns that visibility to the new zebra crossings will be obscured if it is left in place.

“The decision to remove any tree in the city is not taken lightly and the council would not take this action unless absolutely necessary.”

Green activist Duncan Roy was one of the first to make people aware of the threat to the elm.

He wrote on his Scrapper Duncan website before a public meeting to discuss what to do: “We will not be revisiting the plan to redevelop the Seven Dials roundabout, which has already been subject to a nine-month public consultation process.

“The problem was that this process omitted to mention that an elm would be felled, which is very odd because the city of Brighton and Hove is the custodian of the so-called National Elms Collection.”

One of the tree-top protesters, Stephen Hendry, said afterwards that the ideas so far included raising the level of the pavement with porous concrete and realigning the road.

He said that the pavement was wider on the opposite side of the road, allowing some give and take.

And referring to pavement around the elm, he added: “There’s a wall that impedes the traffic flow. That wall could be purchased and demolished.”

When he and Mr Druitt ended their protest, one of the council’s most senior officials, executive director Geoff Raw, said: “The community-approved design has been widely consulted on, including in a public meeting in December where the need to remove the tree was announced.

“The decision to proceed was taken by the cross-party Transport Committee in January and includes the planting of ten more trees which would see Seven Dials become even greener.

“At the moment the tree to be felled is obstructing people’s view of the junction and oncoming traffic as they cross the road and its root is damaging the footpath, causing accessibility problems.

“Felling a large elm is not a decision taken lightly. It is an absolute last resort.

Geoff Raw

Geoff Raw

“It’s the council’s dedication to our elms which has ensured that we have the finest collection in the country.

“We are listening to concerns and we’re happy to look at and consider alternative proposals.”

Local resident Nigel Furness said: “How very encouraging it is to read of local residents and Green activists campaigning to prevent the wanton destruction of the Seven Dials elm – one of the finest specimens of an English Elm in the world.

“But how very depressing to think it is a Green council at the root of these plans.

“The council claims the buttress roots of the tree are reducing mobility scooter and buggy access on the Vernon Terrace pavement, which in part is true.

“The remedy, however, is root pruning – something which until recent years was carried out on a regular three-year basis thus preventing such problems arising in the first place.

“If the roots are too large then raise the pavement above them on a level slope.

“As for the point that the elm will restrict drivers’ view of the proposed zebra crossing in Vernon Terrace when turning south off the Dials, simply leave the lights at this point.

“If this city wishes to become a UN Biosphere then destroying a tree whose species has worldwide protection on a par with the blue whale really is barking up the wrong tree.”

One Hove resident said that he had impaired vision but did not feel “that such a wonderful tree should be felled”.

He added: “I completely support the RNIB’s position that all of the safety railings and the traffic light controlled pedestrian crossings should be retained.”

He opposes replacing them with zebra crossings as agreed by the Transport Committee.

Valerie Paynter

Valerie Paynter

“The initial compromise I’d suggest to help save the elm is to at least keep its crossing as a pelican with the ‘green man’ on the opposite side so the vision-impaired have a target to walk towards.

“Then pedestrians don’t have to get a good view of approaching vehicles.”

And Save Hove campaigner Valerie Paynter said: “It is certainly ironic that the Greens want biosphere status but prioritise cars over trees at Seven Dials – a mature and rare English elm filters air pollution now.

“A serious wish for biosphere status should (demand) prioritising retention of endangered elms and other healthy mature trees.”

The stay of execution was originally due to last until Friday 15 March. The Seven Dials scheme will take until the end of the year.

Of course, delays can be costly. But campaigners, politicians and officials are all keen to avoid the even costlier prospect of a High Court battle.

They may be mindful too of the words of the post-war US presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, who said: “A hypocrite is the kind of politician who would cut down a redwood tree, then mount the stump and make a speech for conservation.”

The Greens’ opponents and supporters are watching to see whether they can find a solution that keeps them true to their roots.


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