This statement aims to present the viewpoint of the protesters blocking the felling of the Moremead oaks and the Senlac Road plane, and include some supportive evidence for our viewpoint.
This statement addresses the real value of the trees in question and trees in general and highlights how felling of mature trees contradicts other council policies: it challenges the conclusion that felling trees in response to a risk of insurance pressure is the only solution.
Climate Action Lewisham is committed to supporting the community campaigns to save three trees in Lewisham. Two are centennial oaks in Moremead Road Bellingham SE6, and one is the last remaining street plane tree in Senlac Road, Grove Park SE12. These trees have become totems, representing wider issues in the consideration of mature trees and their value, importance and centrality to Lewisham’s communities and the Climate Emergency Declaration.
Lewisham has a good record in planting young trees, and indeed has offered to plant two replacement trees for the Senlac plane. This is an excellent investment in the future but the rate at which mature trees are being felled is unacceptable. It will be decades, sometimes centuries before the saplings can replace the ecological, carbon, social and aesthetic value of the mature trees removed: on average saplings take 25 years to start to absorb carbon. In the meantime, Lewisham becomes barer. A recent Freedom of Information request revealed that Lewisham council have felled around 110 mature trees for insurance purposes alone in the last five years. Every year about 150-200 trees are felled, for a variety of other reasons, and there is little transparency about the process by which it has been decided that these trees are of less value than the financial costs of keeping them.
The Irreplaceable Value of Trees
The more we learn about trees, the more they are clearly more than their trunks, branches and leaves. Firstly, they cool buildings and people in a heatwave. Extreme heat is much more common and is likely to become more frequent in future decades. The London i-tree report estimates that the cooling effect of all trees in inner London boroughs at about 8,560 Megawatt hours, estimated at a cost of about £1.2 million (in terms of costs to the taxpayer avoided by the presence of trees).
There is no doubt that the Moremead oaks extend a cooling value to the surrounding homes, which are not designed for extreme heat and none of the residents have air conditioning units installed. The same is true of the Senlac plane. Furthermore, storm water mitigation is an important ecosystem service of mature trees. In a downpour, the trees of inner London are estimated to hold a total of 705,000m³ of water, at a cost of just over half a million pounds. In a city where over 80,000 properties are at risk from surface flooding (calculated as over 0.5m), this service of trees is one that we need. The leaves store a surprising amount of water in their canopy and prevent it falling to the ground at such a speed to cause flooding or erosion, and also extensive root systems soak up water and stabilise soil.
The contribution to human health made by trees is extensive. Trees absorb air pollutants, reduce urban heat island effects, reduce noise pollution, are associated with increased physical activity levels, benefit mental health, and even enhance birthweights. The economic benefits are huge; for every £1 spent on trees, £7 is saved in health, energy and environmental costs.
London’s Resilience Strategy of February 2020 identified extreme heat as a risk to Londoners as our temperatures are expected to rise over 3 degrees by the middle of the century and meterologists warn that unusual temperature events, such as heatwaves, are now about ten times more frequent than twenty years ago. A key mitigating aim of this strategy is to establish cool spots within reach of all Londoners, through access to green space and, crucially, trees and access to water to allow people with overheated homes to recover and cool down. Why bring down trees which provide exactly this service? In the brief heatwave of June 2021, the residents of Moremead road gathered under the oaks in the evenings as their houses were uncomfortably hot. It was the only place to be.
Trees and inequality
Trees are usually associated with ‘leafy’ areas of higher socio-economic status, and data and statistics largely support this assumption. Trees add 15% to house prices, and a recent speech on ‘Levelling up Britain’, claims that the single best thing the government can do is to ensure more urban areas have trees as the social benefits are so wide-ranging that they trump any other initiative in terms of improving the lives of urban people.
Climate Action Lewisham did some research and compared government data on average earnings of Lewisham’s boroughs with the levels of tree coverage (provided by forestry commission satellite imaging). We found that they corresponded almost exactly.
|Ward||Mean earnings 2012/13||Median earnings 2012/13||Canopy cover %||Income rank||Canopy rank|
|Ranked by canopy cover, from lowest|
|Ranked by income, from lowest|
The information above shows that largely greater tree cover corresponds to higher incomes. Interestingly, Bellingham bucks the trend, being the third lowest income ward, but fifth highest tree cover, ahead of Blackheath, Lee Green, Crofton Park and Sydenham in terms of numbers of trees. A concern is also the close relationship between socio-economic status and health, which in turn is enhanced by the presence of trees, in a spiral that mutually supports for the well-off and spirals down for the less fortunate.
In a borough that emphasises social justice, sees environmental justice as synonymous with social and economic justice, and purports to work towards creating the best living conditions possible for its residents, this level of unjust access to tree cover sits very uneasily. Lewisham’s corporate strategy includes ‘…ensuring everyone receives the health, mental health, social care and support services they need..’ and ‘…everyone enjoys our green spaces, and benefits from a healthy environment as we work to protect and improve our local environment.’
Felling healthy trees is working in exactly the opposite direction to the described values, priorities and strategies of Lewisham council. From this, it’s hard not to conclude that despite its rhetoric, Lewisham Council repeatedly does not appear to value urban trees. It lacks a credible protocol and way of properly accounting for the multiple roles and value of trees in the borough despite there being well established ways to do this such as CAVAT assessments – see below.
Subsidence and council budgets
All three trees are implicated in subsidence of nearby buildings. Lewisham council has issued a statement here, describing in particular their legal liability and vulnerability if they do not fulfil their statutory duty to follow ‘all reasonable steps’ to prevent damage to private property near council-managed trees. They note that at a time when the council’s budget is under pressure, they must minimise financial risk.
As campaigners we understand very well the pressures the council’s budget is under, but we have a few queries with the approach taken. Once mature trees are felled, they will not grow back in a way that benefits the current communities, and replacement of trees with saplings is appreciated, but does not compensate for the loss of a mature tree at all.
Failure to champion alternative solutions
In the discourse of the council there has never been any question of addressing issues in the buildings, such as underpinning. This of course would be an expensive procedure, which would need to be underwritten by insurers, which clearly isn’t the case for either the council or the troubled property owners with subsidence.
Insurance industry pressure
In many cases, subsidence is due to multiple causes and felling a tree will not completely resolve the issue. Lewisham is built on clay, which the changing climate does not favour; it holds moisture badly and moves a lot with changing temperatures.
We would like to suggest that Lewisham put in place an alternative tree policy that prioritises maintaining and protecting mature trees, and in the genuine event of no possible alternative to felling, has in place an adequate and specified policy for replacement. At the moment, the policy of sapling replacement is ad hoc, and a clearer position needs to be held. We would like to see the council negotiate with its insurers to ensure they can support an approach to trees that values them as vital community assets rather than risks.
Ignoring the value of trees
It appears that no effort has been made to quantify the value of the trees to the local ecosystem, and in terms of the ecosystem services described above. The CAVAT system (which stands for Capital Asset Value for Amenity Trees) places great emphasis on the aesthetic and spiritual value for local communities and calibrates calculations based on the density of population surrounding a tree. In this case, large populations live close to all the trees. Furthermore, the costs of repeated failed attempts to remove protestors, culminating in a legal injunction, must be escalating the pressure on the public purse to the extent that negotiating with property owners, insurers, the council’s risk assessors and the local activists might bring a resolution to the situation that works for everyone.
These three trees are gathering wider attention as they are coming to symbolise the concern for the outdated law and individual property rights over the rights and needs of communities and the ecosystem.
Finding a solution and working with the council
Over 62000 people have signed a petition for the Moremead oaks, and nearly 36000 have signed the same for Senlac Road. We have had several news items published and garnered the pro bono support of Lawyers for Nature, Martin Redston surveyors and several independent tree protectors with long experience.
At Climate Action Lewisham, and associated groups, we want to work with the council to help them defend their trees, and find solutions that aim to leave the trees standing, the affected buildings intact and the council financially solvent.
To resolve the felling issue for the trees featured here and to assist the council to develop a more comprehensive strategy for tree canopy cover for the good of all, we want:
- A meeting with the Mayor, our local MPs (Ellie Reeves and Janet Daby), James Lee (director of communities, partnerships and leisure), Vince Buchannan (head of greenscene), local councillors, Lawyers for the Future, the surveyor and representatives of the insurance companies of the threatened properties and the council, to try and agree a way forward that leaves the properties protected, the council still solvent and all three trees standing.
- A full CAVAT valuation of all three trees to be carried out by a competent expert and for this valuation to be compared with the financial and insurance reasons for felling the trees.
- A promise of revised policies in the council which take account of the full ecological and community ecosystem services value of mature trees when making decisions on felling.
- The establishment of an advisory group including members of the community and independent tree experts to oversee matters regarding tree health, in relation to property, soil, flood risk, community needs and maintenance and take equable decisions about Lewisham’s diminishing arboreal gifts for the future. A model to look to could be Shefffield city council’s street tree partnership, in which community groups are genuine stakeholders.
The Dasgupta review:
“Truly sustainable economic growth and development means recognising that our long-term prosperity relies on rebalancing our demand of nature’s goods and services with its capacity to supply them. It also means accounting fully for the impact of our interactions with Nature across all levels of society. COVID-19 has shown us what can happen when we don’t do this.”
“Nature is our home. Good economics demands we manage it better.”