It’s National Tree Week and Lewisham Council is promoting tree planting. But the Council is giving new trees with one hand and taking older trees with the other.

Lewisham’s tree planting hype is only half the story because it glosses over the Council’s casual attitude to existing trees. Here’s why.

The Plane Tree threatened by Lewisham Council.  Senlac Rd SE12.

December 2022: Campaigners trying to save the Plane Tree’s destruction

News Shopper article here


Broken promises

Since the local elections in May 2022, the Council has failed to act on its promises to us when we met to discuss a better and more honest approach:

  • It promised to set up a tree working group – but over 8 months on it has failed to do that
  • It promised to share its current policies on trees – but has also failed to do that
  • It has also failed to share the evidence of why mature trees may need to be felled.

These may seem to be minor points but the Council messing residents about on the small things does not bode well for the really important things – like caring for existing trees and not just planting new ones.


Wasting time and money

To be clear, planting lots of new trees is good because we need more trees. England is one of the least wooded nations in Europe and winter is the best season to plant new trees.

But sloppy planning and a lack of competence in many local councils means there are too many examples of young trees dying because of a lack of aftercare. It’s a sure-fire way for councils to waste money and people’s time planting trees by failing to give new saplings proper aftercare.

The failure to water enough during our increasingly dry spring and summer months is a shockingly common cause of new trees turning to stumps.

It is also two-faced for Lewisham and other councils to fell mature trees while trumpeting their tree planting plans.


Tree removal in areas lacking greenery

 In particular, Lewisham seems set on felling mature trees to avoid adopting better ways to deal with insurance claims where trees are blamed, often wrongly, for subsidence of properties.

For example, in the Grove Park and Lee South council ward (SE12) the Council insists on tree felling on Senlac Road even though the area is in the next to lowest band in Friends of the Earth’s ‘Near You’ rating for local access to greenery.

SE12 is not alone as many other parts of the borough lack enough tree cover and green space meaning that too many people are missing out on the proven health and other benefits of having greenery on their doorstep – as shown below.


Council pledges

Like many other councils Lewisham loves to trumpet its tree planting efforts and targets. Lewisham says it has “Planted 25,000 new trees” since 2018.

And in Lewisham Labour’s 2022 local election manifesto Mayor Damien Egan says, “I will invest in positive measures such as more benches, plants and trees…”.

True enough page 7 of the manifesto pictures him on a community tree-planting day.

The manifesto also pledges to “Plant more street trees and launch the Tree from Every Window programme which aims to make sure every child can see a tree or greenery from their home. We will also plant more tiny forests and community orchards.”

That sounds like a good policy but it’s no comfort to residents when they find the Council wants to hack down their nearest trees because it does not have the backbone to stand up to insurance companies.


Insurance claim scandal

Too often trees are blamed for subsidence of homes and the default lazy view is to fell the tree(s) than to do a proper job and work out whether they are really to blame and / or how the tree(s) can be retained.

The loss of mature trees due to insurance claims is a bit of hidden scandal – you can find out more with our in depth article.

In short, we’ve found that it’s all too easy to blame trees when insurance claims are made for subsidence. Some tree species can undermine properties, but most do not, and the evidence is that blaming trees is overblown, and that blaming trees has become a lucrative money-go round for insurers.

Cash-strapped councils also don’t want to face legal costs if they fail to go along with the insurance claim.

When asked to find a better way forward our experience is that the Council is cowed by the insurance industry’s stranglehold. This results in an obsession with felling much-loved trees and a refusal to explore positive suggestions that would avoid the borough losing mature trees.


Why mature trees matter

We need more trees of all types and ages.

Councils like to say they will plant more trees and that will make up for the loss of any tree. But that ignores that the loss of mature trees cannot be made up simply by planting lots of new trees which will take years to play the same useful role.

That is the lazy approach. Good councils would do both – save existing trees and plant new ones where areas lack enough tree cover.

And because so much of Lewisham borough is deficient in local green space a large proportion of residents do not gain any of the proven health and other benefits which others enjoy every day and may even take for granted as an essential to living where they do.

The lack of green space and tree cover in much of the borough is clear for anyone to see. It is also confirmed by the Council’s own Local Plan – its masterplan for the borough – as shown below.

The Local Plan shows maps of how little green space and green features such as tree many people in the borough have access to locally.

For example, the yellow areas in the first map below show where people in Lewisham borough have too little access to green space and so miss out on the known health and other benefits.

Lewisham’s Local Plan shows widespread lack of public access to open space.



The grey areas of another map from the Local Plan show where people in Lewisham borough also lack access to public open space such as District Parks.


Appendix 4.4 of Lewisham’s Local Plan shows lack of public local access to District Parks.


Lewisham’s current bad attitude to mature trees may not be as dramatic as Sheffield Council’s notorious tree cull, but its failure to adopt better policies shows similar arrogant ‘we know best’ attitudes to communities, and a huge dose of greenwashing.

The Council has a chance to innovate and make change for the better, or it can continue to be two-faced about trees and greening.


To read more on the value of trees in the UK, see this recent Guardian article.