A Croydon resident who daily walks to work through Wandle Park has been in touch, concerned at the destruction of several mature trees to make way for the council scheme to “recreate” the course of the River Wandle.
The resident’s letter to the Croydon Sadvertiser was ignored, while it took the council more than two weeks to compose its reply. By which time, around 1,000 years of tree growth was being hacked down by our council.
Our correspondent tells us that at the beginning of the month, “notices went up saying they are going to fell nine trees, but not to worry, we will plant some more”.
The shortcomings of such a policy were obvious to our reader: “You can’t just replace trees that have grown for decades with some saplings,” he writes.
“As part of the park improvements to bring the Wandle to the surface they will remove some fine old trees. Surely they could have designed it so that they could keep the trees. I think that people were so pleased to see improvements going ahead that they ignored or did not see that beautiful trees are going to be destroyed.
“The council on their own website state ‘the council will resist the development proposals that result in loss of valued trees’. That is, unless it suits them.
“Their ‘vision’ is ‘to maintain and enhance Croydon’s trees and woodlands so as to maximise their amenity biodiversity and resource value for future generations’.
“Don’t get me wrong. I applauded the improvements, but not at the cost of destroying beautiful trees that cannot be replaced by planting a few saplings. Surely you can have both the improvements, the Wandle on the surface and retain the trees? It just needs careful design. The trees will be missed once they are felled.”
The source of the River Wandle is the ponds beside Mill Lane and at Carshalton Ponds, while other tributaries include Norbury Brook and the River Graveney, which rises near the Lower Addiscombe Road before flowing northwards, through Merton and Colliers Wood, and into the Thames at Wandsworth.
The river was heavily used during the industrial revolution in the 1700s and 1800s, and by the early 20th century it was notorious as one of the country’s most polluted rivers. As south London became more built up, like many Thames tributaries it was hidden underground, part inconvenience, part sewer.
There was a deadly reminder of the Wandle’s history four years ago, when a chemical leak from the sewage works at Beddington killed off thousands of fish in the generally much cleansed river.
Croydon’s scheme for the Wandle is as a means to upgrade the park, an effort to “green” that part of the borough between the Purley Way and Centrale – an interesting contradiction to the scheme for the £1 billion waste incinerator downstream at Beddington.
Interesting from the council’s response to our correspondent’s letters is how, over a three-year period, they deliberately used a “consultation” process to shape “public opinion” to achieve what they wanted to do in the first place, winning funding for its park scheme.
According to Anthony “Tony” Brooks, the council’s Director of Public Safety who also describes himself as “the interim Director of Public Realm. For the time being…”, the plans for Wandle Park were “developed in close partnership with local people”. A wonderful soundbyte, which actually means very little.
In a letter earlier this week to our correspondent, Brooks explained, “At the ‘planning for real’ event in summer 2008 we discussed the options with over 260 attendees.”
“Over 260 attendees”: that’s 261 then? From a borough population of 350,000. Impressive. Not.
Brooks continued: “Five options for river restoration were presented at the exhibition in September that year, each clearly showing the potential extent of tree removals. The event was attended by over 100 people and we selected the option which minimised the loss of trees. We also amended the river restoration proposals to start to the west of the willow tree near the rose garden after a request from the Friends of Wandle Park.”
The Wandle scheme may not be the most important instance, but it is a good illustration of how our council uses the pretext of “consultation” ultimately to achieve its own desired result.
Sadly, such is the nature of local consultations, the council is able to use the ignorance and apathy of the majority of the population to justify its actions. Brooks demonstrates this sort of thinking when he says, “The strength of the community’s support for the proposals was demonstrated by the park gaining 5,371 votes in the Mayor of London’s ‘Help a London Park’ scheme (the second highest total in London).”
Yet as our correspondent rightly points out: “The 5,371 votes in the Mayor’s London park scheme is a red herring, because people were not voting on a proposal. They voted for funding for park improvements. I voted myself.
“I also remember council staff collecting email addresses in central Croydon so that votes could be made on their behalf. I suspect most of the people had not even visited the park. Hats off to the council for securing funds, but no mention of tree removal was made when voting only for ‘parks improvements’.”
So after those meetings attended by just 261 people, how many of the 5,371 fund-winning “votes” were real, genuinely placed by Croydon residents?
In his reply to our source, Brooks (deliberately) becomes a little more vague about the numbers of people actively supporting the council’s river scheme at meetings staged 12 months ago, when – with funding from Boris safely secured, the detailed plans were unveiled.
“During October 2010 a further community consultation event was held at Wandle Park as part of the planning application process. The plans for the park were presented on the evening and were very well received by those in attendance,” he wrote.
“Those in attendance”? How many? That question was put to Brooks, but remains unanswered.
He goes on: “Everyone felt they reflected the ideas and desires highlighted throughout the public consultation.
“The report to the council’s Strategic Planning Committee in April 2011 also stated that a number of trees would need to be removed to accommodate the river, but emphasised that the benefit of this work outweighed the loss.” Well it would say that, wouldn’t it?
“I can assure you that the council does resist the development proposals that result in unnecessary loss of valued trees.” Is there any such thing as a “necessary loss of a valued tree”?
“The Wandle Park project has had the difficult task of balancing this priority with the wider biodiversity, landscape and flood-prevention benefits that the scheme provides. I recognise that you have a different opinion but I am sure you can see how difficult it would be for us to reconsider a decision that has had so much public support and been through so much consultation.”
So much public support? So much lip-service consultation?
In a further email sent to our correspondent on Wednesday, with nine mature trees now well on their way to becoming sawdust, “Tony” Brooks wrote: “I do understand the concern about the loss of trees as do the green spaces team that I am managing. This doesn’t come easy for them but they are convinced that this is the best option in all the circumstances.”
In an extraordinary admission from the department’s interim director (for now, at least), Babbling Brooks says: “I have been to the park but at a time when I wasn’t aware of the implications so was looking at it through different eyes.
“I do hope that when the project is completed it is something that the majority will have some pride in. Croydon needs more of that.”
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