Sit-down protest fails to halt destruction of 100-year-old oaks

Croydon Council’s ambivalent approach to environmental protection has been called into question once again after the destruction of trees in Waddon. Photos: PETER BALL

What began as a spontaneous, one-woman sit-down protest yesterday ultimately failed to save a set of much-admired, beautiful mature trees from destruction by Croydon Council.

Grace Onions on Warrington Road yesterday: ‘I simply sat down’

Most of the trees were oaks, and some estimated to be at least 100 years old.

The incident has raised again serious questions about the council’s policies on protecting trees and its seriousness about dealing with the climate crisis and issues surrounding the destruction of our natural environment which contribute to global warming.

The protest first began soon after 8am outside the Minster School on Warrington Road in Waddon, as council contractors arrived to fell the street trees. It was the first day of the autumn half-term, so the work had obviously been planned by the council for some time, to be outside the summer months and while no children are on the school site. But according to locals, there had been precious little, if any, consultation with residents.

Grace Onions, well-known locally as an environmental activist, was called by her 80-year-old neighbour (“in distress”, according to Onions). The trees were on land inside the perimeter of the church school.

Council contractors got to work on the trees after barely any consultation with residents

Onions told Inside Croydon: “I spoke to several of the people carrying out the work and it seems that it was authorised due to subsidence. Some oaks of considerable age have been destroyed – clearly over 100 years old.

“I did not know what to do. I simply sat down.

“For more than an hour I was undisturbed, until the police arrived.

Environmentalists question whether felling the trees outside Minster School was simply the cheapest option for the council

“All staff were polite and answered almost all of my questions about the tree roots, if there were any other possibilities that could have caused or exacerbated the subsidence.

“There may have been discussions at the school regarding underpinning the school structure. From what little information I can find, destroying the trees was the option that most appealed to them,” Onions said.

By lunchtime, Onions was joined in her protest outside the school

“Some residents along Warrington Road received a letter allegedly written by some of the school children, but I live 100 yards from the school on an adjoining road and heard nothing. Until, that is, the sound of chainsaws this morning.

“‘They’ said that they will replace the trees. Where? When? How many? Will they be mature trees that can support the wildlife that needs them? Who will ensure that they grow and thrive?”

Onions has raised questions about whether the destruction of the trees may have been because of building works carried out at the school in the past decade – adding classrooms to the side and on top of the original building – which may have adversely affected the load-bearing of the school structure.

“Is it not common for a building to ‘settle’ over a period of years when additional floors are added?” Onions asked. “Could this also be affecting the subsidence?

Destroyed: the old oaks will take decades to replace

“The trees may have to take some of the blame but if they are not the sole cause, then the problem will not go away. Almost every year there seems to be work on the school roof during the summer.”

Onions was clearly badly upset by the experience yesterday.

“The trees are gone. Destroyed. And with it, another little piece of our children’s inheritance.

“They cannot be replaced in the lifetime of those who carried out or authorised the devastation.

“Croydon Council has declared a Climate and Ecological Emergency – why are they authorising the destruction of things that have been proven to clean our air? Surely school children need clean air too? Buildings can be built in a few years but trees that benefit our environment and provide habitat for wildlife take decades to grow to help us.

“It’s way past time our council took more of a long view of our environment. Or do they think that they will move somewhere nicer, maybe with trees?”

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4 Responses to Sit-down protest fails to halt destruction of 100-year-old oaks

  1. Lewis White says:

    It would be nice if the Council tree team would issue a proper statement as to why these trees have been felled. As Council Tree Officer team of the year, voted by the Forestry Commision, they should issue an immediate, sufficiently detailed explanation.

    It could be disease and decay affecting the trees — it could be damage to foundations and floor slabs of adjacent buildings caused by roots extracting water from shrinkable clay. It could be other factors.

    Native Oaks are not common in towns, and support more wildlife that any other species, so it is a sad loss to local ecology, and also the landscape of the street. This area of Waddon has few trees, and could do with many more.

    No doubt there are good reasons, but felling as opposed to pruning needs to be justified.

  2. Ian Morris says:

    This is another example of how the Council is yet to demonstrate it is serious about tackling the climate and ecological emergency. It cannot just point to initiatives like recent segregating of cycle lanes one different rows, and installation of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, it has to take a granular look across the whole of its procurement, operations and communications. The Council has to place the climate and ecological emergencies at the very top of its agenda, and act accordingly.

  3. Gilly says:

    The trees removal had nothing to do with their health. On anyone else’s land they may well have been had Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs) but councils do not apply them to trees on their own land because theoretically they are not ‘at risk’ from landowners. It appears in fact that the Council cannot be trusted with trees (& the associated biodiversity) and should impartially assess all the trees on their land for protection. The loss of the trees does not appear to have been costed other than the cost of felling them – this is a flawed approach from the past – This is a Climate Emergency – assessments in future must be different!

  4. Lewis White says:

    If the oaks had to be removed due to damage to the adjacent buildings, on shrinkable clay soil, oaks are a “high water demand” tree , but could be replaced with a “low water demand” species such as silver birch, mulberry, or maybe, olive. It all depends on guidance embodied in a publication Trees in relation to design, demolition and construction. Recommendations. BS 5837:2012 “provides recommendations relating to tree care, with a view to achieving a harmonious and sustainable relationship between new construction/existing structures and their surrounding trees”.

    I have no idea as to the soil locally. On chalk, and pebble-sands, oaks would not necessarily be a problem. It all boils down to shrinkability.

    The Inside Croydon article shows photos of the trees. Some were close to the school building. One was growing at the back of the footway, half in the footway, and half on the site behind, which showed a small building like a school-keepers house, seeming in not great condition, and a likely candidate for demolition.

    It would be ironic if this house– or the school itself– is demolished and replaced with new buildings in a few years time. New buildings should be built with deep or piled foundations that are deep enough to provide a firm foundation on shrinkable clay. There would then be no problem with having oaks nearby.

    In one of the photos, it seems that extensive, early-stage heart-rot might be present in the felled sections of trees depicted. That would certainly be justification for removal.

    What counts now is the location, numbers and types of replacement trees planted.
    Croydon Trees team were successful in obtaining significant funding 2 years ago from the London mayor for new street trees. I recall that they secured more funding than any other London Borough.

    I would hope that, in view of the lack of trees locally, they will plant twice the number of replacement trees, some in the adjacent street, some on the site. Volunteers (adult and children) could carry out replanting in the school site. We are now at the beginning of the tree planting season, so it should be quite feasble to devise a planting scheme and get the trees in the ground before mid March.

    I do hope that the Council tree team, the school and residents can work together and re-green this part of Waddon.

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