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Can’t See the Wood for the Trees

Amorel Kennedy, 6th March 2021

I noticed a tweet the other day which concerned me. It referenced the felling of ‘many more trees and clearing of vegetation’ at the former Thomas Tallis School site which is being redeveloped. I spent some considerable time hunting through the dense and complicated planning applications section on the Council’s website to try and find out a bit more about this. Eventually, and not without some frustrations along the way, I found this.

It is one of 104 documents pertaining to Phase 1 of the site’s redevelopment by the Council, which will include council housing.

There is no dispute about the need for more social housing in Greenwich and so this development is to be cautiously welcomed; the Council is not exactly renowned for its high social housing ‘hit’ rate in the massive amount of development it has allowed in the borough in recent years. Equally, sometimes it cannot be avoided to remove some trees.

The trees concerned were graded in the guidance of BS5837:2012 as:-

  • Category A – trees of high quality and value, with an estimated life expectancy of at least 40 years.

  • Category B – trees of moderate quality and value. An estimated life expectancy of at least 20 years.

  • Category C – trees of lower quality and value. An estimated life expectancy of at least 10 years, and with a stem diameter of up to 150mm measured at 1.5m from ground level.

  • Category U – dead, dying or unsuitable for retention. Life expectancy of less than 10 years.

24 individual trees and 4 groups of trees are to be felled. Of those, one is a supposed category A tree (a horse chestnut) and nine are category B trees. They include Norway maple, narrow leafed ash, silver maple, sycamore, hornbeam, Italian alder and mixed species (a group). Of all the trees to be removed, four trees require removal to decontaminate the land and eight individual trees and four groups of trees ‘pose a constraint to the development and such require removal’.

From this, have I gained a better understanding of what is going on in our borough in terms of redevelopment and trees and weighing that up against the Council’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2030…?

Firstly, I was interested to learn how a tree’s value is determined according to BS5837:2012. Category A trees are deemed to be so because of their ‘vigour and landscape value’. Category B trees have an ‘impaired condition’ so cannot be A. Category C trees are ‘unremarkable due to limited life expectancy 10+ years and impaired condition or being young trees to qualify to higher category’. (I have copied that directly from the report. I think it means young trees are too young to qualify for a higher category. It is not clear). A tree that is ‘not suitable for retention’ is graded as U. That could mean ‘dead or dying’ but it could also mean ‘or unsuitable for retention’ - in other words, in the way. This seems like an outdated method by which to categorise trees. There is no consideration of their ecological and environmental importance to local flora and fauna which is under extreme pressure from our activities.

Secondly the Council seems unable to set out information transparently and clearly for the layperson to understand. This is probably a mixture of suiting the Council’s needs and a lack of recognition that, for people to meaningfully engage, they need simple information. The Council says at the beginning of its Carbon Neutral Plan consultation that it is ‘essential that residents, businesses and organisations take shared ownership of the plan with (it) to jointly make the changes that will be required over the next ten years’. Well, yes...

I am not sure what conclusions I can draw from trying to find out about what is happening at the old Thomas Tallis school site from Monday 8th March. The tree felling will begin and cannot be stopped. The arboricultural survey was carried out on 21st April 2020. I have not read any of the other 103 documents to see when design proposals were first put forward, but presumably it was before this date. Of course, redevelopment is an extremely complex set of processes with many considerations, including in this case the contaminated state of the soil. However, it seems to me that these tree surveys are a tick box token gesture exercise to an already foregone conclusion. The sorry story of the Happy Man Tree in Hackney springs to mind. Apparently, this one tree, that locals loved and fought desperately to preserve, would cause ‘design harm and reduction in affordable housing’ whereas its felling would ‘enable the delivery of 584 much needed new homes, including 243 affordable homes...’ Really? One tree? All by itself?

In the case of the redevelopment at Woodberry Down where the Happy Tree stood, as well as here in Greenwich, the developers say that they will be increasing biodiversity in the area alongside the development. I wonder. Will we see more Norway maple, hornbeam and sycamore? Will we see more Italian alder, horse chestnut and silver maple? I doubt it. Will we see any aftercare for the trees that are planted? Judging by the state (dead) of many of the Council planted saplings I see walking around the local area, I doubt it. So, net tree loss and raised carbon emissions!

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