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Plymouth City Council Accused of “Despicable Vandalism” Over Tree-Felling

Plymouth residents were waking up this morning to scenes of devastation as Plymouth Council raced to fell trees ahead of a High Court injunction instructing the Council to cease work.

Dubbed ‘the monsters in the night’ by local residents, contractors cut down trees in Armada Way (Tuesday March 14) in the late hours of the night.

Plymouth City Council faced accusations of duplicity over the scheme following the council’s declaration of a climate emergency in 2019.

£12.7 million regeneration project

Work on the £12.7m regeneration project was due to start this spring after being put on hold in November 2022 due to the ongoing row over tree removal. The Council’s Conservative Leader, Richard Bingley signed a delegated decision to deliver the Armada Way scheme only yesterday.

The Leader said the decision made it clear that “there is a risk that the funding from the Transforming Cities Fund could be lost if the project is not implemented quickly”.

Plymouth City Council has said it carried out a “meaningful community engagement” on the plan in February.

High Court injunction

In an unusual move by the courts, Plymouth City Council received a late-night injunction stopping the works.

A spokesperson for the city council, said: “We can confirm that the Council received an injunction at 12.57am to cease the further removal of the trees on Armada Way. We instructed contractors to stop work immediately. We will be obtaining legal advice once we have received the claimant’s application, as directed by the court.”

Only yesterday, (Tuesday March 14) the city council issued a statement to say that the Armada Way project would restart, emphasising that they would plant more trees and make further changes to the design.

An executive decision has been signed today giving the go-ahead to the scheme with the final design to include 169 semi-mature new trees, a revised tree planting schedule and a commitment to investigate wider tree planting in the city centre.

“I am shocked at the brutal way in which this decision has been made and implemented.”

Councillor Chris Penberthy, Plymouth City Council

This means an additional 19 semi-mature trees, including more evergreen and wider canopy trees as well as keeping another existing tree. The amendments follow from the engagement programme held to ensure people had a chance to make final comments before the scheme got underway.

Assistant Chief Executive, Giles Perritt said: “We need to get on with this scheme. We’ve listened, we have made more environmental improvements and have added more trees but our core priority has to be creating a smart, business friendly, attractive, city centre. We cannot lose sight of why we wanted this scheme to happen in the first place.

“We know some people will not be happy with this, but we hope that the majority of our residents will appreciate that we have done all we can to address people’s concerns.”

An Act of “Despicable vandalism”

Sharing a video on social media of the destruction that residents woke up to, Labour MP for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, Luke Pollard said: “Appalled Plymouth’s Conservative council are chopping down one hundred trees in the city centre right now under the cover of darkness. They have not listened to local people. We are in a climate emergency and their actions are nothing short of environmental vandalism.”

The video drew significant attention across social media including from environmentalist, Chris Packham who described the act as “despicable vandalism”.

Charlotte Holloway, Labour councillor for Drake Ward and Plymouth, said on Facebook: “Feeling incredibly sad and dejected tonight at what is happening to the Armada Way trees. You go into politics to try and make a difference and then things like this are forced through completely at odds with the vast majority of public sentiment I’ve heard.

“I want a modern, vibrant, thriving Plymouth fit for the future. And that 100% can be done without taking away the trees that I and so many others played by growing up as a child here.

“The way the Conservatives have taken this decision – rushed through, no chance for further scrutiny on the committee I sit on, under cover of night – is a damning reminder of their approach to running our city and our country.

“We can do politics differently, we must do politics differently.”

In a statement on Facebook, Labour Councillor Chris Penberthy said he was “shocked at the brutal way this decision has been made and implemented”. He wrote “This will most likely be the final update from me about the Armada Way decision because, just before 6pm this evening, all councillors received an email telling us that the project had been approved and works were to start immediately.

“I heard from a number of people that there is activity on Armada Way so I’ve just been into town. Armada Way is fenced off from the sun dial to Sainsburys and the trees are being chopped down now. I am shocked at the brutal way in which this decision has been made and implemented.

“First and foremost this a Conservative decision over which Plymouth Labour had no control and little influence. We successfully used what levers we had to try to secure proper public engagement including on the natural environment. But ultimately the decision to remove these trees sits with the Conservative administration elected by the people of Plymouth in May 2021. P

“Plymouth Labour would not have approached the Armada Way development in such a cavalier manner and we would have prioritised meaningful community engagement from the outset. We believe a thriving city centre with good public amenities is key to Plymouth’s economic success and businesses and increasing residential use.

“As ward councillors we have been working with local community groups to try to get more trees planted in St Peter and the Waterfront ward because we already have one of the lowest canopy covers in the city. Council officers have now agreed to work with councillors to identify more sites for trees to be planted. If we form a Labour administration in May we will work with local residents and businesses to make that happen to enhance biodiversity and help tackle climate change.

“In a scrutiny meeting I chaired we mandated the city solicitor to review the constitution in terms of the way that community engagement happens as well as the processes for petitions given the current methodology does not reflect the way society works in a digital age. It is important that our constitution allows the public to be able to influence the thinking of the council more easily.

“As ward councillors we are extremely concerned about the mess the conservative administration has made of the city centre with six different projects all happening at the same time which had until recently lacked any engagement for ward councillors.

“I would like to thank all of the local residents and businesses who have given me lots of different views on the Armada Way development and I, along with my fellow ward councillors, have done our best to represent all views on this subject.”

Plymouth City Council contractors cut down the trees last night
Plymouth City Council contractors cut down the trees last night (Image: Michelle Lane)

Final thought – a climate emergency?

This looks like an extremely underhanded act by a council that was trying to get a development through as quickly as possible – no matter the consequences.

Not only are the optics shocking, the communications have been handled appallingly and has rightly caused significant local anger. Healthy trees being chopped down for a redevelopment when the Council declared a climate emergency in 2019 seems absurd.

There are learnings for other councils here. If you declare a climate emergency, then cutting down healthy large trees are at odds with your strategy. Incorporate those trees into the design, don’t make the foolish error of chopping them down!

(Image: Michelle Lane)

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