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Residents set up 24/7 watch over Alexandra Gardens trees in Cambridge to ‘keep chainsaws at bay’

Cambridge City Council is preparing to go ahead with the severe pollarding of two 116-year-old trees near Alexandra Gardens despite protests in the immediate community, where residents have organised a 24/7 tree protection watch.

The residents have pledged to do “everything we can to keep the chainsaws at bay”.

The London plane trees in Alexandra Gardens off Carlyle Road, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell
The London plane trees in Alexandra Gardens off Carlyle Road, Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell

The locals near the park – home to a row of London plane trees valued as a community asset worth £1.65m – are calling for the work to be called off and have appealed for a new approach to environmental stewardship in the city.

The stand-off developed after an insurance company insisted that the council prune two of the trees because of the alleged threat of subsidence to one house in the area. The council agreed to cut 70 per cent of the trees’ canopy after the insurers threatened to bill the council for £130,000 to underpin the houses. The local community responded by holding vigils last week: the contractors were then unable to carry out the work on the trees in the park opposite Holland Street.

The city council’s senior arboricultural officer, Matthew Magrath, said: “Before the decision was made, the insurers of the damaged property notified the council that they would underpin the property and seek to recover costs of above £130,000 from the council, unless tree work to mitigate the problem was undertaken.

“Having completed an assessment of evidence submitted to support the claim, we explored alternative mitigation options and negotiated a less severe tree pruning solution with the insurers. This solution formed the basis of the proposal that was put forward for public scrutiny over 26 days at the end of June and beginning of July - 36 well-reasoned objections to the proposal were received as a result of this process.

“In her decision to approve tree works, the executive councillor [Alex Collis] considered a range of reports from officers and all the representations received when objections to the tree works could not be resolved.

How the proposed pollarding might look from Holland Street
How the proposed pollarding might look from Holland Street

“The council’s decision to carry out tree works remains unchanged. We are now reconsidering timescales and options to ensure any works are carried out safely.

“The decision was not predetermined and we have considered and exhausted a range of alternatives to tree works.”

The residents remained unmoved.

“The unbroken avenue of trees bordering Carlyle Road is a glory to behold and its value to the community cannot be quantified,” said one. “We now have the threatened trees on 24/7 watch and will do everything we can to keep the chainsaws at bay.

“It’s time for the council to accept that it has made the wrong decision and go back to the drawing board. More generally, since it seems very unlikely that the trees are the cause of the alleged subsidence, we need a change in the law to make the burden of proof for insurers and local councils much higher than it is today.”

Peter Sparks, a member of the Alexandra Gardens Tree Group (AGTG), suggested the council should either challenge the insurance company or pay the £130,000 required to underpin the whole row.

He said: “These are trees that have an expected future life of at least 150 years and that could benefit and be enjoyed by six or more future generations quite apart from their significant environmental and climate contribution.

“The article and statements all tacitly accept the insurers’ claim that these trees are to blame for house movement. They are not. There are regulations about how close to a new build you can plant a tree and these trees are well outside that dimension and they are also not stupid – looking for liquid they will predominantly make for the park, with just enough roots into the road to ensure wind stability.

“Planes also have deep tap roots to endure their anchorage. The road is also full of services so difficult to cross and not a good way to find sustenance. Of course some tiny rootlets will make it across and it is these the insurers’ tame experts find and report on and use as ‘evidence’ that the trees are taking up water from beneath the foundations.

Protestors at the park off Carlyle Road. Picture: Keith Heppell
Protestors at the park off Carlyle Road. Picture: Keith Heppell

“There is a consultant industry that works profitably for the insurers so that they can shift the blame to corporate or public trees on neighbouring land. Unfortunately, case law has built up that has established the successful use by insurers, backed by ‘expert’ evidence, of the laws of trespass and nuisance combined.

“The council they should realise that the current claim concerns the last non-underpinned house within root-reach of this line of planes. Thus £130,000 would secure all the trees from all future claims. They say there is no money – and clearly Cllr Collis’s decision is entirely financial – but spending is about values and choices.

“As an example this cash-strapped council can find half a million or so for consultants, reports and sample displays for a possible city market refurbishment – something no one asked or voted for and certainly has no equivalent environmental credential.”

Mr Magrath, responding to this, said: “The conditions for liability around tree-related subsidence are now well established. A challenge would leave the council at high risk of underpinning and legal costs for both sides.”

Additional community concerns include a perceived incompatibility with commitments to tackle climate change.

One of the protest co-ordinators, local resident Jenny Langley, said: “These trees are the crowning glory of Alexandra Gardens and are much loved. They surround the Gardens, making you feel that you’ve entered another world. We believe that the tree will be maimed by the severe pruning that is proposed and it could potentially kill them. The amenity value of this row of trees would be severely impacted.

“This is a political decision and the process undertaken by the city council has not felt like a consultation at all. The executive councillor has not been available to meet with us and we don’t feel heard. I find it very hard to believe that it was not a fait accompli decision – there was a very short time for the formal consultation and we feel as if we’ve been railroaded.

“The council seems to have a lot of money to spend on their unpopular proposals for the market square, why not on trees instead? How is this decision compatible with the council’s declaration of a climate emergency in February 2019, a biodiversity emergency – in May 2019 – the city council’s commitment to increase the tree canopy cover in December 2020, and their commitment to uphold the principles of the 2017 National Tree Charter for Trees, Woods and People in December 2020? Frankly, I just don’t understand this decision at all and we continue the protest.”

Losing 70 per cent of this canopy would be a tragedy for these 115-year-old trees. Picture: Keith Heppell
Losing 70 per cent of this canopy would be a tragedy for these 115-year-old trees. Picture: Keith Heppell

But Mr Magrath noted: “In the decision notice issued by the executive councillor, the final officer report was attached, which included responses to all representations received. The ‘detailed scientific report’ was mentioned, and a response given.”

The mental health impact on young children – now aware that climate change will carry huge penalties on their lifestyle choices for decades to come – was also raised by some residents.

Pat Carney, a clinical psychologist who has lived near park for 20 years, said: “The idea that if the tree is pollarded the roots are going to retract is not valid. There’s a controversy about whether that is going to solve the problem. In previous instances, pollarding seemed like a solution. Now, we have moved on in terms of awareness of what’s going on with the climate, and the image is terribly important. The park is a playground for the children, and they know what is going on.

“There’s not enough focus on the play and the children – how does it look to the children? I heard a six-year-old in the park say: ‘They won’t be able to cut the trees on top.’ ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Well the cherry picker won’t go up that high,’ he said – even at six he knows what a cherry picker is.

“The message around climate change is ‘we’ve all got to do our bit’ but then this happens and that’s not the message they need to hear. We’ve got this responsibility for future generations and this is the wrong message to be sending to the playground. We love the trees, we love life, we’re all trying to do the best we can, this is the wrong message and a destructive message for children, especially if the police get involved. We’re all trying to come from a place of love.”

Cllr Rosy Moore, executive city councillor for environment and climate change, has previously written for the Cambridge Independent to outline what the council is doing to address the climate emergency.

Message on under-threat tree. Picture: Derek Langley
Message on under-threat tree. Picture: Derek Langley

Another resident, familiar with insurance company protocols through her employment, said: “The mantra of the year in the insurance industry has been ‘check the carbon footprint’, ‘take care of the environment’. A huge shift is occurring and companies are now looking at what their environmental strategy is. Until now it’s been a low frequency of claims [for flooding and other environmental disasters] with a high payout – but now the claims are more frequent.

“So it doesn’t make sense to me that this is happening. If the insurer were truly invested in the customer they would opt for underpinning, given that house is within metres of a river. The council should stand up and be protecting their local environment. There are lot of options available that don’t involve cutting back these century-old trees. To tackle global warming and protect the environment we can’t always go for the cheapest decision.

“All the global warming catastrophes are occurring now, and the decisions so far have been to put the financial cost ahead of the environmental cost and that is heartbreaking. The trees are within metres of a river, it’s a very short-sighted short-term solution, about increasing shareholders value for the insurers. The council should be prioritising the community: I hope council will reconnect with the community soon.”

Richard Buxton, of Richard Buxton Solicitors, who acted for the residents during the last attempt by the insurers to have the trees pollarded, said the rationale for pruning the trees “is all nonsense in my opinion”.

Protesters at the threatened tree. Picture: Derek Langley
Protesters at the threatened tree. Picture: Derek Langley

He added: “Insurers have not caught up with the law that the owner of the trees – here, the council – are not liable in nuisance and therefore should resist any claim. In a recent case I pressed the insurers (that is the insurer for the house allegedly affected as well as the insurer for my client that was recommending agreeing to cutting a magnificent oak down) to think again and they have, accepting that a root barrier would suffice.”

Mr Magrath states: “The council has invested in sustainable management of tree canopy cover so that future generations can enjoy the benefits as much or better than we currently receive. It actively promotes this message through the Cambridge Canopy project. This includes good management practices around tree-related damage, and the building subsidence caused by trees Cambridge City Council web page.”

Cllr Jamie Dalzell, LibDem, West Chesterton, said: “I am disappointed that I am yet to see any response from the executive councillor or their Labour party colleagues to my request, more than a week ago, for a public meeting to discuss the concerns of local residents. There are legitimate questions regarding the decision notice, and potential alternatives, that I do think deserve a response. This is clearly and understandably causing a lot of frustration.

“Instead we are left with an impasse between residents and contractors, which is ultimately leading to increased costs for the council, all of which could have been avoided with a more collaborative process.”

Cllr Hannah Copley, the Green Party member for Abbey ward, concluded: “The future of Cambridge city looks bleak in the context of the extreme heat facing us with runaway climate change. We must not forget that in July 2019 the UK’s highest-ever temperature was officially recorded in Cambridge, reaching 38.7C or 101.7F. We need our best available technology to combat extreme heat, which is plentiful mature trees within our streets. They are essential to provide shade and make our streets liveable and thriving places for people and nature.

“These trees in Alexandra Gardens are hugely valued by local residents and their value is immeasurable. In my formal objection I have asked for a feasibility study to be carried out for a root barrier in order to preserve our precious tree canopy.”

Read more

Cambridge residents’ ongoing vigil to protect trees at Alexandra Gardens

Plan proposed to help protect and enhance nature in Cambridge

Increasing Cambridge’s tree canopy and the great ash hunt

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